For my third landing, I was going for a couscous tagine and was saving a flight of spiedini for my fourth landing. My server recommended that I have both together, which was a splendid suggestion. This third course was a marriage of Morocco, Algeria, and the Mediterranean. The couscous came with eggplant and pine nuts, the latter that I may need to take care to note in the future. It was satisfying the way I remembered in Casablanca, Fes, Marrakech, Rabat, and Algiers. Having it with the flight of lamb kefta, swordfish, and beef filet resulted in a flavor bonanza. If you want to know how tender meat should be prepared, you definitely need to have a dining experience at Testaccio. Continue reading
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.
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.
During planning for restaurant outings to sample wines and cheeses, I received a recommendation for a wine bar along a hidden stretch in Chicago’s Roscoe Village neighborhood. A bit rustic in the look and feel with plenty seating, I had a midweek reservation for an early meal. Volo Restaurant and Wine Bar at 2008 W. Roscoe Street was the landing spot.
My restaurant adviser and I had designs on trying a few cheese flights along with wine flights for pairings. While the flights were not extensive, there were enough for us to have a few samplings. The first wine flight was a bubbly flight. The 2014 Spagnol, extra dry Prosecco from Veneto, Italy, wasn’t dry to the point of inducing puckering and the notes of apple, pear, and bread crust, surprisingly, made for a smooth and balanced bubbly. The NV Jaillance, Cuvée de l’Abbaye Rosé from Cremant de Bordeaux, France, was subtle on the tongue with a faint accent of strawberries and cream. The NV La Vida al Camp, Brut Cava from Cava, Spain, gave a nose of grapefruit and floral notes.
With autumn soon arriving, we indulged the fall flight. The 2015 Maison Yves Chaley et Fille, Haute Côtes du Nuits Blanc from Burgundy, France, played well on the palate with fresh Grannny apple, pear, lemon zest, and floral tones. The 2012 Cantina Bove, ‘Marso,’ Montelpulciano d’Abruzzo, from Abruzzo, Italy, was earthy with a mix of black fruits and herbal tones. The 2014 Arsonist, Red Blend carried us to California with a silky blend of Petit Verdot, Malbec, and Cabernet Sauvignon, bearing notes of blue and black fruits, vanilla, and clove for a spicy finish.
We had a nice selection of cheeses to start off the evening along with our first flights. For sheep’s milk cheese, we could not go wrong with the three month aged Manchego from La Mancha, Spain, a fantastic semi-firm cheese with a creamy finish. For cow’s milk cheese, we had a Camembert from France, soft and creamy with a flowery rind and a umami flavor. Another favorite, which was a brie, was certainly an offering that we could not miss. And with a vintage gouda from Netherlands on the menu, there was no way we were going to pass on enjoying that along with embedded, crunchy caramel. Wanting to try something made from goat’s milk, we had a Montchevre garlic and herb from Wisconsin. The mix of roasted garlic, rosemary, and thyme in the cheese worked with the the goat cheese almost playing background. One other cheese that we requested to come to the table as a surprise was one akin to a crumbly gorgonzola, very mild, and quite inviting as with the accompanying candied walnuts, crushed figs, and honey.
Moving into the small plates, we tried a salmon salad that had a light citrus vinaigrette along with julienne cucumbers and crisps. Slightly reminiscent of a deconstructed ceviche, the salad was a rather nice touch to the finishing sips of our initial wine flights. After enjoying this and an allowance for a few minutes, we then ordered a bowl of mussels in a white wine sauce with shallots, parsley and French butter. Very partial towards mussels that come in a saffron sauce, the white wine sauce was ideal not only for the moment but rather fitting given the theme of the wine bar.
Having enjoyed the cheeses, salmon salad, and mussels with toast, we had an interest in more flights of wine. Having overlooked it earlier, there was the cheese and charcuterie flight. The 2015 PortoVino, Cardedu, Vermentino de Sardegna Nuo from Saardina, Italy, was herbaceous with a slight edge of minerality. The 2016 Domaine Haut de Mourier, Voignier “Cuvee Stephanie Bouix,” from Languedoc, France, came from a mountainous region with a nose of apricots and peaches followed by pear, apple, lavender, and honey. The 2013 Juris, St. Laurent from Burgenland, Austria, had tones of cranberry, raspberry, and florals, slightly tart, yet a wonderful selection for those who love Pinot Noir.
The fourth and final wine flight on the menu was the Pinot Noir flight. The 2012 Ara, “Pathway” Pinot Noir from Marlborough, New Zealand, was sweet without crossing into dessert wine territory and perfectly spicy, which paired extremely well with a spicy Asian fried chicken dish that came over coconut rice. The 2014 Bouchard Père et Fils, Pinot Noir, from Burgundy, France, had a bloom of cherry, raspberry, currant, and early notes, and unlike a lot of wine with tannins, the tannins in this selection did not overpower the sips. Finishing with a 2014 Rascal, Pinot Noir, from Williamette Valley Vineyards in Oregon, the cranberry, black cherry, and strawberries in this wine could easily make one fall in love with Oregon wines.
Finishing with coffee from one of the local roasters, we agreed that the selections were very nice for something light. It was certainly great having a server who was knowledgeable of the wines and could speak to why they paired well with certain cheeses and dishes, as well as speak to personal preference. The wine bar was not teeming with patrons, which may have been due to many in the area crowded into some other bars watching a Cubs game. But if you are looking for a nice date spot without the noise and clamoring, Volo Wine Restaurant and Wine Bar is a sweet spot for libations, small plates, cheeses, and satisfaction.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After years of living in Chicago, I have been recalling a statement that an individual made when we had met in 1989. She had stated that you can spend your entire life in Chicago and never cover all of it. I have discovered that the same applies to some of the edge cities like Evanston, Rosemont, Schaumburg, Skokie, and Oak Park. Case in point was during a casual stroll a block north of downtown Oak Park where I stumbled upon The Little Gem Bar and Restaurant at 189 N Marion Street.
Spacious on the inside with a bistro feel to it and also with some outside seating, there is an atmosphere of ease that doesn’t feed into ambient noises and acoustics all over the place requiring you to shout with your dining companions. Taking advantage of the outdoor seating, I settled on a four-course meal that had a French influence. Since the restaurant had been touted as a French bistro on Yelp and Google, I chose to stick with that theme, although I did see a paprikash dish on the menu, which is Hungarian.
For my first course, I had a duck carpaccio with a salad in a light vinaigrette with mandarin slices. The server paired this dish with a Sauvignon blanc that had some fruity notes that balanced out the tartness of the duck carpaccio, which had strips of raw duck. Those who like tartar and the texture would certainly enjoy this dish.
Because I had opted for a pairing of wines with each course, the server thought that it would be a good idea to have some bread for a palate cleanser, as well as an aid for reducing buzzing. I’m not really sure if the grilled toast was complementary, but I must admit that it was of the variety that I could go off the rails with while enjoying some gouda cheese.
The next course was a plate of deviled eggs. Accented with parsley oil and a balsamic reduction and topped with crispy, fried onions and pickled jalapeños, all four that came were absolutely scrumptuous. Paired nicely with a Chardonnay that had a buttery and oak flavour that was light on the palate while not usurping the centre stage from the deviled eggs, I actually developed a better appreciation for deviled eggs, as I have not had any that weren’t abused by a use of too many herbs and spices.
As of late, I have been introducing pork back into my diet, albeit in moderation. The server had specified the special for the evening, which was a 10-ounce bone-in pork chop in a jalapeño and apple purée with roasted potatoes sautéed in a Spanish chorizo. For the pairing, the server brought at Pinot noir that had a “right” amount of acidity to match well with the dish. For an individual who has not been a fan of pork for many years, this one was one I would rush back to the restaurant to indulge without pause.
In keeping with the French effect in dining, I had cheese for dessert rather than a sweet. The cheese board came with an assortment of cheeses, housemade strawberry jam, smoked almonds, candied walnuts, and apples. There were aged Wisconsin cheddar, a brie, a housemade cheese, and a casabola. The housemade cheese was an interesting marriage of provolone, cheddar, and cream cheese. The caso bolo was a mixture of goat, sheep, and cow cheeses. Along with a cup of coffee, this was a delectable and ideal finale to what was a spectacular meal.
I was somewhat expecting “regular” fare, but was thoroughly surprised and satisfied with the offerings. The Little Gem Bar and Restaurant is not French-specific. If I could apply a word to the restaurant, it would be Pan-European because of some Eastern European offerings and Mediterranean fare. One thing I have not done on the blog in years is name the servers that went well past outstanding. But Liz and Zach were two of the top servers any diners could have at their table. I understand why most at the restaurant were locals. Oak Park is not a local destination for me, but I have a feeling I will be a regular at The Little Gem Bar and Restaurant.
With Chicago’s ongoing renaissance, The Loop is filling in more with restaurants that remain open past happy hour. I was surprised to find AraOn in a rather inconspicuous location at 160 W. Adams Street tucked between W Hotel and US Bank. Noting the moniker of Asian French Cuisine, I figured it would behoove me to see what the menu had that would make me okay with delaying going home for the evening.
There is a big box feel to AraOn and I expected that given it’s location downtown. Some people are rather Better Homes & Gardens with their thoughts about restaurants, so they will love the decor. I like the fact that seats are not on top of each other which means you don’t have to compete with your neighbours to be heard during conversation with members of your own party. What matters to me most is if the main thing I’m paying for was worth it: food and/or drink.
I am leery of fusion, especially when it comes to certain Asian cuisines blending with European or South American flavours where there was no influence per Asian migration. I must admit that AraOn gets it right. For my first course, I started with a miso soup. This was the traditional preparation and there was nothing amiss with it. The second course consisted of duck dumplings that came with braised mustard greens, shrimp, and maitake mushrooms in a consomme of seafood-duck broth. This was the one dish that I noticed had a blend of Asian preparation with the dumplings blended with French preparation of the consomme.
There was a brief l’amuse of sashimi salmon with roe atop a savoury gravy that I had not expected. Immediately after the first bite, I acknowledged that I could have indulged the dish as a regular course. The salmon was meaty without being oily and the “clean” flavour was an indication of having some of what was no doubt fresh catch seafood.
The third course was a clay bowl of sesame crusted salmon with bibimbap. Not only was the salmon bursting with flavour, but it was incredibly flaky while being succulent. I can’t state any French influence in this dish, but the bibimbap is my favourite Korean dish. Kimchee, bean sprouts, pickled shiitake mushroom, spinach, and braised beef short rib nicely sectioned off that I mixed with rice and a spicy pepper sauce made for a hearty dish that again reminded me of why bibimbap is indeed a favourite.
I saved room for a fourth course of dessert. That came as matcha ice cream atop lemon custard with meringue crisps — so reminiscent of lemon meringue pie — and matcha macarons. The matcha was prevalent in the dessert, but not overpowering, which gave me an hint that loose leaf tea was used in the preparation. Small indicators like this wink at an appreciation for culinary arts because a quick dessert would have lacked in flavour sorely.
The service at AraOn is winning. The food is also worthy of repeat visits. And for what tastes like fine dining, the prices are reasonable. I have to remember to switch into my British and Caribbean modes so that there is a stagger of 5-10 minutes between courses. There were overlaps during the courses. Add to that I paired wine with the dishes, there was a bit of a rush that resulted in me being sated too fast and buzzed. Understanding that it is not possible for restaurants in and around downtown to know when individuals prefer to dine with ease or with haste, I shall adjust my ordering technique accordingly in the future. I’ll order a course, hold the menu, finish dish, order next dish, and repeat for remaining courses. I shall return, so I’ll apply my method and again enjoy all the good things on the AraOn menu.
Several months ago the owner at my favourite Italian restaurant in the world, Osteria Langhe, recommended a French bistro to me since he knew that I liked the European feel to my dining experience. During my last visit to the Italian restaurant, I thanked the owner for his recommendation. He then offered a recommendation for another French restaurant that he was confident I would enjoy. My sister and I blocked an evening for a sampling and before going into the full review, I’ll just say that I will thank the owner at my favourite Italian restaurant for this most recent suggestion.
Located at 111 N. Carpenter Street in Chicago’s West Loop District is La Sardine. Come to find out that this restaurant is the sister location to Le Bouchon, which was the first French restaurant given to me as a recommendation. La Sardine is larger, less of a bistro, but without any doubt, the food is just as spectacular and the service is also top.
Not being in a rush, my sister and I opted for a round of various dishes for fulfillment of our own little degustation. There was a potato leek soup that puts to shame some of the same soup that I have had at numerous restaurants worldwide. Unlike the thin base that I have had in the past, this was creamy without the potatoes being the thickening agent. Fresh ingredients in the recipe and this was a perfect starter.
During my first visit to Le Bouchon, I had ordered the soupe à l’oignon gratinée. When my sister and I had returned for what was to be my second visit, she had not had the French onion soup, so it was a part of the meal for our La Sardine sampling. After cutting through the baked gruyère cheese and down through the crouton, she understood why I talked incessantly about how much of a fan I was of the soup. Midway through the soup, she declared that it was the best she had ever eaten.
It would be wrong to go to a French restaurant and not partake of any escargot. So, we had a platter of plump escargots à la bourguignonne bubbling in burgundy, garlic, parsley, and butter. After we had finished the savoury morsels, we used the homemade French bread to sop the remaining sauce from the little cups on the platter.
Sin entered the picture when the bowl of moules au cidre arrived at the table. Granted the morsels in the mussels are light, the quantity of mussels was not small. To add to that, the mussels were swimming in a delectable cream sauce accented with cider and shallots. After we finished the mussels, we then used the French bread to sop the rest of the sauce. My sister, being a Catholic, spoke to an invisible priest, “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.” Me being a practising Buddhist, simply acknowledged that I was enjoying the moment of gluttony and decided to be at peace with my higher power after coffee.
For my main dish, I ordered the rãble de lapin. The rabbit was delectable, tender, not oily, and nothing akin to gamey on the palate. Served with a potato risotto in an au jus, I had pretty much decided that I will spend quite a bit of time at La Sardine cleaning plates.
My sister ordered the magret de canard. This dish, one consisting of duck that was neither oily nor gamey, was a winner. This one came with lentils and rapini in an addictive orange sauce. There were exaggerated pauses in conversation during the main course. I have a habit of humming when food is divine and my sister gets reticent for a few minutes. We were silent for at least fifteen minutes.
There was no room for dessert. And although we watched some captivating sweets going to different tables, the most we could indulge was coffee. Coffee is the after-diner drink my sister always has and I opted for a cafe au lait. Quality bean, clean coffee machine, or whatever it may be, I can speak to the cafe au lait not requiring any sweetener and not making me feel like there was something bitter in the cup.
The service at La Sardine is through the roof. The restaurant fills quickly and there is a nonstop flow of patrons coming and going. Still, it is evident that the service plays a part in the experience being splendid for those who come. The food is hands-down the best French food in Chicago that I have had as of late — and I include the sister restaurant Le Bouchon in the number one slot with La Sardine. Seating is close, a rather European effect, so be forewarned if you go. Make a reservation because the energy is high. Go on an empty stomach, don’t be in a rush to stuff yourself, and be prepared to experience sin with all the good flavours of France.