Ramen Takeya

Ramen TakeyaAs of late, ramen has been the new fad. Those who may have had more than enough ramen from the little block packages during your college days may give a side eye. But proper ramen is all the rage. One good thing about it is there are some restaurants that do the noodle dishes justice. Ramen Takeya at 819 W. Fulton Market in Chicago’s West Loop gets it right.

Having my usual hankering and a bit of curiosity about Ramen Takeya, I made my way over to the restaurant after work and started with a Moscow mule to take the edge off. Not as strong as one I had in Denver when a classmate hipped me to the cocktail, it was still good going down.

Moscow Mule

Moscow Mule

Since I didn’t want to stuff myself, I noted two small dishes and a ramen dish that I figured would be a good introduction to the restaurant. So, I settled on three menu items, reserving dessert for something else later.

The first landing was a bowl of ebi chili. The shrimp was fresh, tossed in a sweet and sour chili sauce, which was a winner. The dish was a salad with lettuce that had been accented with salt and pepper and what seemed like perhaps some lemon juice. It was not competitive with the spicy shrimp, as it was a better complement to the shrimp than I have had at a few other restaurants that prepared the same salad. For those who like light starters and have a taste for shrimp, I recommend this highly.

Ebi Chili

Ebi Chili

The second landing was barbecue eel. Served in a cup over rice, this was a winner. The sauce was neither overpowering nor excessively too much over the rice. Being a fan of unagi, it was great having eel that was meaty without having a fatty texture on the palate.

Barbecue Eel

Barbecue Eel

The final landing was a bowl of spicy chicken paitan. With mushrooms, bamboo shoots, a sunny side egg, onions, scallions, and chili sauce spice, there was a balance to the ramen but still with an allowance for the seasoned chicken to shine. Instead of a huge bowl full of ingredients, you get a nice sized bowl full of flavour.

Spicy Chicken Paitan

Spicy Chicken Paitan

Like many restaurants in Chicago’s West Loop, Ramen Takeya fills up quickly with the after work crowd. There are a few tables in the immediate area where you enter and tables along a short corridor that faces the open kitchen. There is a lot of energy and a lot of tasty Japanese fare to go along with the vibe. Reasonably priced with fabulous service, you’ll understand why it’s a favourite while you’re hovering over a bowl of ramen slurping.

Ramen Takeya 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.

Indie Cafe, Japanese Style

Indie Cafe

While passing through Chicago’s Edgewater neighbourhood, I walked by a restaurant that I thought was a bar and grill. It turned out to be a Pan-Asian restaurant. I have slowly lost my interest in Pan-Asian cuisine. However, I will make a few exceptions. Indie Cafe at 5951 N. Broadway Street seemed like they were heavier on the Japanese menu. So, that was the option I went with.

Miso Soup

Miso Soup

Figuring that I would have a hearty lunch, I started with a miso soup, wishing that they had kabocha squash soup on the menu instead. After the soup, I had a flight of nigiri. Salmon, tuna, whitefish, octopus, shrimp, hamachi, and unagi, all fresh and all devoured slowly while enjoying jasmine tea.

Omakase

Omakase

Although I had several pieces of nigiri, the flight was still light. After a brief scan of the menu again, I ordered unagi don. This came as a bowl of barbecued eel over rice. This is a dish that I could probably eat daily and never complain about. The eel was not muddy, fishy, or questionable in taste. And unlike at a lot of Americanized Asian restaurants, the sauce was not heavy-handed with syrup.

India Cafe avoids cramming patrons close together. This minimizes the need to compete with others sitting immediately next to you, which means you can have conversation with others in your party without feeling like you are in a sports bar. I didn’t try any of the Thai cuisine since I am slowly working  myself back to indulging Thai at restaurants that prepare Thai food specifically. As to the Japanese fare at Indie Cafe, I must say that I enjoyed it.

Unagi Don

Unagi Don

The Uptown and Edgewater neighbourhoods boast numerous Asian restaurants where you can get a vast selection of Asian delights to fancy your palate. If you are in Edgewater and have a hankering yet you’re going back and forth over what you may find more interesting, give Indie Cafe a try. I recommend going for the Japanese fare on one visit and trying Thai on another one.

Indie Cafe 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

Macku Sushi, More, More, More

Macku Sushi

A year ago, almost to the date, I went to a Thai restaurant in Edgewater for their one-year anniversary. With Chicago and the surrounding neighbourhoods being saturated with Thai restaurants, it was nice finding one that retained authenticity while also applying some jazzy techniques to the recipes. While at the anniversary gathering, one individual recommended several restaurants that she felt would suit my taste and would be a fit for the blog. Macku Sushi at 2239 N. Clybourn Avenue was one of the recommendations. So, one year later, almost to the date, I followed through on the suggestion.

There is the usual minimalist decor and non-cluttered seating that one finds in Japanese restaurants that focus primarily on food. With me having sat by the window, I got a good view into the preparation and cooking station, which was all I needed to know that I was about to get satisfaction with a variety of flavour. Now, having gone to countless Japanese restaurants, I was not interested in yet another bento box, teriyaki platter, or litany of maki rolls. Instead, I handed the menu back to my server and told him that I wanted an omakase and sake pairing. And then the fun began.

Click photos to open in Flickr album
Eighth Course
Second Course Fourth Course
Seventh Course

For those who have indulged one or more omakases, there is the awareness that each dish is the chef’s whim. Some items are on menu, some aren’t. I opted for a bit of experimentation. Over the course of the dining experience, I had ten landings. There were tuna, salmon, pumpkin soup, Japanese snails as a take on escargot, oysters, uni, whitefish, tuna tacos, and a selection of nigiri. In true outstanding dining spirit, each landing was progressively better than the previous landing, and the very first course was already a winner. It was nice having an explanation of each dish, and even a bit of history to some, rather than having plates delivered in obligatory fashion. That added touch shows that the servers are knowledgeable of what’s served, not just gophers running dishes to tables. As to the sake pairings, not being a sake expert, I was extremely happy that each pairing complemented the dishes.

Macku Sushi deviates from the usual maki roll and sushi fare that comprise a mainstay in Japanese dining. The plates are not substantial in size, so there really isn’t the potential for stuffing yourself. And while Macku Sushi is not high-end dining, the prices associated with the sizes of many of the dishes may be high-end for those who expect buffet offerings. The high points are the quality and freshness in the ingredients and the service. One would have to be offended for no other reason than being offended is an option to find anything wrong with Macku Sushi. Authenticity in the kitchen output, top service, and they haven’t fallen into the Pan-Asian trap, I pass along the recommendation that I received a year ago. GO!!!

Macku Sushi 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

Furious Spoon, Angry Chopsticks

Furious Spoon

Having eaten ramen to the point of disgust during my university days, it has taken me 26 years to entertain the thought of indulging a bowl of it. Having had ramen recently at two other restaurants that have slowly changed my mind, I decided to try Furious Spoon. The location nearest me is at 2410 N. Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square.

Chicken Citrus Ramen

Citrus Chicken Shio Ramen

The location is fast casual, so there is no table service. And, with there not being an ordering counter in eyeshot, it is mildly confusing at first as to the process of ordering. There are slates of menus on one wall across from the central bar. Not an extensive menu, but you order at the bar and take a seat, after which servers bring your food to you.

Bunny Sparkling Sake

Bunny Sparkling Sake

From a menu boasting vegetarian, beef, pork, and chicken options, I ordered citrus chicken shio ramen. I requested the addition of sweet corn, poached egg, bean sprouts and mushrooms. Arriving at the table in a large bowl, I worked my furious chopsticks on the ramen and then slurped the rest. I would have to dig a hole to China to find something wrong with the ramen. And to wash it all down, I had a bottle of Bunny Sparkling Sake.  I need to find out what local markets sell it. Wow!!!

Curious as to other offerings, I returned a week later and had a rice bowl. I ordered the furious beef bowl — spicy beef brisket with snow peas, eggplant, and the addition of corn, mushrooms, and a side of fury sauce because there is no such thing as too spicy for me. For all the Korean rice bowls I’ve eaten over the past few years, Furious Spoon takes the win. Again, I employed furious chopsticks on the bowl. Fork, what? And just to pander to my sake addiction, I played it safe and had Bunny Sparkling, although there are other sake and beverage options.

Furious Beef Rice Bowl

Furious Beef Rice Bowl

Furious Spoon has seemingly become a popular congregating spot. There is a constant flow of customers, some taking advantage of indoor seating, many taking advantage of the outdoor seating when the weather is nice. For those who may want a quiet to a moderately lively setting, the music on the inside is loud, so there is a bit of a bar ambience. But once you get a bowl in front of you, it won’t matter. You’ll be too busy satisfying your furious craving.

Furious Spoon 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