Cafe Des Architectes, Un Peu de Français

Recently, I have been in a bit of a French mood. For the longest I had been searching for restaurants that had a basque feel, and without the churn of a crowd. Like in France, one can enjoy a meal alone or in small company in some bistros and cafes without an excess of ambient noise and people crowding your space. My restaurant adviser and I had culled together a list of restaurants that we thought would be good samplers.

Bread Service, Trout Croquette, Lump Crab, Heart of Palm, Summer Squash Soup

Bread Service, Trout Croquette, Lump Crab, Heart of Palm, Summer Squash Soup

First on our list was Cafe Des Architectes in the Gold Coast Sofitel Hotel at 20 E. Chestnut Street. Just west of the Magnificent Mile is this fantastic restaurant that’s surrounded by swanky clothing boutiques and other very appealing restaurants. Located off to the side of the lobby is this very spacious, airy, and well-lit restaurant that also has a large outdoor seating area. With weather being extremely nice for October, we sat outside during our first visit to enjoy the moderate temperatures and to watch people in their comings and goings.

Chardonnay, Champagne, Pinot Noir

Chardonnay, Champagne, Pinot Noir

Opting for small plates, we ordered from the appetizer section with a pescatarian focus. Starting off was a l’amuse of trout croquette atop an aioli and the first of three pairings, a champagne that neither nipped at the back of the jaw nor left a pucker on the front-end of the sip. Seasoned well and void of an excessive amount of breading, the bite size trout was still meaty and the aioli was not the least bit overpowering. The Maryland style crab cakes were a reminder of why those are a favorite. Served with a chipotle aioli, citrus segments, and an avocado purée, there was not a crumb of breading on the crab cakes, which meant we got to enjoy seasoned, fresh crab to the fullest. Following with the hearts of palm, which came with a cauliflower custard, radicchio, and caviar, it was evident that the restaurant was going for full flavor even with small plates. And then we had the chilled summer squash soup with a nice smear of mint yogurt, curry oil, and granola. While most may be accustomed to a hot soup, this is the epitome of a summer soup, best served when it’s very hot outside, enjoyed regardless of when the temperatures are warm enough for patio dining.

Escargot Pappardelle, Butternut Squash Ravioli with Shrimp

Escargot Pappardelle, Butternut Squash Ravioli with Shrimp

Getting more into pasta, we had escargot pappardelle. Accented with a garlic cream, parsley, and parmesan, the plump escargot popped with each bite in this light pasta dish. Unlike when escargot is served in a bubbling pesto, there still was enough of the garlic cream in the dish to remind you of how delicious the delicacy is. Wrapping up the many landings with black truffle and corn ravioli with rock shrimp, pancetta, and parmesan, we acknowledged that we had no room for a cheese board as a dessert. The ravioli was also light, but still it was filling without leaving us overly stuffed. Paired with a pinot noir, this was perfection on the palate.

Espresso, Macaron, Chocolate

Espresso, Macaron, Chocolate

The finale was espresso that was clearly made from a fine bean. While my restaurant adviser was sharing a few chocolates from Veruca Chocolates, we received complimentary sweets of mango macarons and key lime wrapped in chocolate. Enjoying this with the coffee was superb, as the macaron was fresh and the chocolate was nothing like the blocks of chocolate you get from anchor stores at the mall. The key lime was creamy, the white chocolate, which had been decorated to look almost like a precious stone, was outstanding, and it all went well with the espresso. The first visit was noteworthy given the appreciation for the quality of the food and the attentiveness of the service. So, we indeed had a return visit.

Cheese Flight, Sparkling Flight, Espresso, Chardonnay

Cheese Flight, Sparkling Flight, Espresso, Chardonnay

Having enjoyed a nice selection of small plates during the première visite, we settled specifically for wine and cheese, champagne and cheese for my adviser. Yet another day with perfect weather, we had an outdoor seat and settled on a selection of soft mild, semi-firm, and one firm cheese. The creamy and buttery fromages of Edel de Claron, Tallegio, and Brie St. Rocco worked well on sourdough. The Fourme d’Ambert, Morbier, and Tomme were semi-firm enough to enjoy on the olive bread that came with the cheeses. The Cantalet was just right for enjoying with the multigrain bread. And for even more enjoyment, the summer berries and miniature madeleines were exactly what we needed to mentally go back to France. Of course, there was no way of departing without taking an espresso.

Cafe Des Architectes has a very laid back feel. There was no rush, which is a rather appealing touch to a restaurant because good food should be savored. Cafe Des Architectes does a fabulous job making your visit the first of many. The closest I will get to France this year will be via a rendezvous in Paris en route to Morocco. In the meantime, I am enjoying this bit of France in Chicago.

Cafe Des Architectes Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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

The Little Gem Bar and Restaurant

Little Gem Cafe

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.

Duck with Salad

Duck with Salad

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.

Toast

Toast

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.

Deviled Eggs

Deviled Eggs

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.

Pork Chop with Fingerlings

Pork Chops with Fingerlings

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.

Cheese Board with Nuts and Jam

Cheese Board

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.

Little Gem Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

AraOn — Asia Takes Over France in Chicago

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.

Ara On

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.

Miso Soup

Miso Soup

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.

Duck Dumplings

Duck Dumplings

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.

L'amuse

L’amuse

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.

Salmon with Bibimbap

Salmon with Bibimbap

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.

Matcha Ice Cream

Matcha Ice Cream

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.

Ara On Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

La Sardine, Not The Canned Kind

La SardineSeveral 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.

Potato Leek Soup

Potato Leek Soup

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.

Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée

Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée

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.

Escargots à la Bourguignonne

Escargots à la Bourguignonne

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.

Moules au Cidre

Moules au Cidre

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.

Rãble de Lapin

Rãble de Lapin

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.

Magret de Canard

Magret de Canard

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.

Cafe au Lait

Cafe au Lait

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.

Mon Dieu.

La Sardine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato