Bettie Lou’s Restaurant, Soul Food Heaven

Happy New Year. Starting 2020 off with realistic resolutions, a new list of international cuisines and restaurants to try, and another list of American restaurants that have a focus on healthy recipes. Now that I am in my 50’s, I have to be mindful of everything since my metabolism doesn’t burn off fat the way that it did when I was in my 20’s and 30’s.

A friend had told me about a post on her high school class page on Facebook. There was mention of a restaurant named Bettie Lou’s Restaurant at 5633 N. Ashland Avenue in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. After a brief review of the menu online, I agreed to meet my friend there so that we could try some of the dishes.

Bang the gavel. Sold!

We started with salmon croquettes, scrambled eggs, and brown rice. Those who are from Down South can speak to having a breakfast consisting of salmon croquettes, rice, and biscuits. You don’t get a Northern brunch. Bettie Lou’s brought a bit of the South to the North Side of Chicago, for sure. The croquettes were not a failed attempt but meaty salmon lightly encrusted with a light batter and fried with onions and bell peppers. The brown rice was the surprise. It occurred to us after we had finished that there was no gravy on the rice. The addition of butter and seasoning actually made me view brown rice in a favorable light.

For a second landing we had turkey chops with cabbage and cheese grits. The turkey chops had been lightly breaded and fried to look like pork chops. It was all turkey and with a well seasoned gravy, it was better than any pork chops I have had. The cabbage reminded me of the same that I have had at countless Jamaican restaurants in Jamaica and off the island. As to the cheese grits, they were a perfect compliment to the course with a proper amount of cheese and creamy consistency.

The third course was of perch served with collard greens and candied yams. The perch was not some thawed fish purchased from the frozen section. We were thankful that it was not encased in a quarter inch of crust. There was a flour batter, which made it very light. As to the greens, this was the first that I have had cooked in a vegan manner that had flavor. Whatever chopped weeds I have had at other vegetarian and vegan restaurants don’t compare to the collard greens at Bettie Lou’s. The yams were not sugary and were just the right balance to the greens. Add to the delight of this landing, the johnny cake that came with the greens made it all feel like New Orleans in Chicago.

My friend had ordered some peach cobbler for takeaway. Before we left, we had a spoonful for a sample. Had it not been for discipline, we would have finished it at the restaurant. The only thing missing was a scoop of ice cream. Once word gets out about how tasty the peach cobbler is, it will be the one thing that will have Bettie Lou’s Restaurant making the news.

For all of the food that we ate, we were sated but not to the point of misery or comatose. That speaks to the ingredients not being so heavy as to leave diners feeling like they’ve eaten past a proper dining threshold. Having gone during the middle of the day on a Saturday, we got the chance to engage the owner in conversation, which made it feel like we had gone to a friend’s or a family member’s house. One thing to note is that dishes are prepared to order. It will take time for food to arrive at the table because nothing is warmed up or microwaved. Although Chicago boasts a long list of soul food, soul food vegetarian, and soul food vegan restaurants, Bettie Lou’s Restaurant has made a flavorful impression on me such that it is now my go-to soul food haunt.

Salmon Croquettes, Brown Rice, Scrambled Eggs
Bettie Lou’s Restaurant (Slideshow)

Marisol at Museum of Contemporary Art

Chicago boasts a number of outstanding museums where one may go for education, enlightenment, and entertainment. One of the many museums in the city is the Museum of Contemporary Art at 205 E. Pearson Street where you can see a collection of paintings, sculptures, and visual art. After a recent visit to MCA, I was pleasantly surprised to find Marisol on the lower level. I sat at the bar and started with a Manhattan that was smooth.

Manhattan
Sidney J

For my first landing, the plate of sweet red shrimp and chopped walnuts was outstanding. As a starter, it was good enough for whetting the palate but not heavy to the point of not leaving room for completing additional dishes. There was a slight kick to the dish, which made the shrimp pop with flavor, but the pepper was not an overpowering ingredient.

Sweet Red Shrimp

The second landing of risotto verde was a dish that I would recommend highly if ever it is still on the menu. The risotto had been prepared in a pesto and served with broccoli in it. Those who are vegetarian and those who lean towards veganism would certainly love this dish.

Risotto Verde

I finished with a selection of cheeses, graham crackers, apple slices, and honey. There was no way to go wrong with a gorgonzola, a sharp cheddar, and a mild gouda. Having this with a Sidney J cocktail — of which I can’t recall the spirits used in it — this was a better option for a finale than a sweet.

Cheese Board
Cheese Board

I have a feeling the menu changes seasonally. That’s not a bad thing, as you never have the same thing throughout the year to boredom. This restaurant is a winner. 

Marisol at the MCA Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Enter the French Vault, La Voûte

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.

Homemade Bread

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.

Stuffed Mushrooms

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.

Escargot

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.

Lobster Cigar

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.

Baked Potato Soup

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.

French Onion Soup

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.

Chilean Sea Bass

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.

Lamb Shank

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.

Passion Fruit Sorbet

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.

Lemon Tart

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.

Café au Lait

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

Prairie Grass Cafe, Northbrook Tasty

 

Prairie Grass Cafe

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.

Complementary Bread

Complementary Bread

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.

Mozzarella Salad

Mozzarella Salad

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.

Corn Fritters

Corn Fritters

Egg Rolls

Egg Rolls

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.

Cod with Slaw

Cod with Slaw

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.

Hangar Steak with Mushrooms and Potatoes

Hangar Steak with Mushrooms and Potatoes

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.

Salmon

Salmon

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.

Raspberry Cream Pie

Raspberry Cream Pie

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.

Devils Food Cake

Devils Food Cake

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.

Sticky Toffee Date Cake

Sticky Toffee Date Cake

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.

Prairie Grass Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tsukiji Fish Market Freshness

Being in a constant state of hankering for seafood and mostly anything Japanese, I followed up on a recommendation for a sushi restaurant named Tsukiji Fish Market at 1156 W. Grand Avenue. In a rather unassuming location, is a treasure chest of Japanese dishes and fantastic service. Very much in a mood for sampling several menu items, I went with a friend who is equally in tune with appetizing dishes from other continents.

Tsukiji Fish Market

For our first round, we started with a tamago miso soup. Far from plain miso soup, the addition of egg added a creamy texture to the broth, thickening it only slightly, and adding a nice nip of a very faint custard. No more regular miso soup for me if I can have it with tamago.

Tamago Miso Soup

Tamago Miso Soup

For those on a clean eating regiment, the tuna and avocado salad will leave you with a constant smile. Meaty tuna and avocado over non-bitter lettuce and a few shredded, pickled vegetables rendered a dish that resulted in nothing left on the plate. This salad gets the Clean Plate Society Award.

Tuna and Avocado Salad

Tuna and Avocado Salad

We switched up a bit from the usual. Having never been a fan of udon and rather worn out with ramen, we ordered udon. By the third slurp, the beef udon quickly rose to the top spot of “Best Udon in Chicago.” You heard that from me first. The non-salty broth in the soup makes the recipe that more enjoyable. Add to that tender beef, plump mushrooms, cabbage, and noodles that were neither al dente nor mush, I could quickly assume the role of a cat and knock any other dishes onto the floor if it’s not this beef udon.

Beef Udon

Beef Udon

And as if the beef udon was not already a sure winner to have during every visit, the yakiudon was another addictive dish. This was a plate of pan fried, thick rice noodles with mushrooms, pickled carrots and beets, and shrimp. Again, a dish well worthy of ordering constantly during repeat visits.

Yakiudon with Shrimp

Yakiudon with Shrimp

With my friend avoiding desserts for Lent and me avoiding desserts until my birthday in April, we save enough room for a flight of nigiri. The salmon volcano aburi, being nigiri, was of a sampler size of what I imagine a larger role filled with salmon and topped with a spicy mayonnaise would taste like: heaven. The taboro kani was an absolute favorite, a vice for the two of use who love crab — and this was not imitation crab. Finishing with ebi, the shrimp was divine on the palate.

Salmon Volcano Aburi, Taboro Kani, Ebi

Salmon Volcano Aburi, Taboro Kani, Ebi

As I mentioned earlier, Tsukiji Fish Market is not a flashy restaurant and it is on a block that is speckled with a few new restaurants. I assume that it has not been on the West Town landscape that long since there was no wait for a table, albeit there was a steady flow of diners coming and going. I give it a few months and some major press, and then it will be one of the hottest spots in the city for Japanese happiness.

Tsukiji Fish Market Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Lowcountry, High Quality Goodness

Lowcountry

Two years ago when I opted to have my birthday dinner at a seafood boil restaurant on the North Side of Chicago, little did I know then that I would develop an immediate hankering for the seafood goodness of days long gone when I was echoing distance from Louisiana. Since that birthday dinner, there have been several other seafood boil restaurants suggested to me that I’ve tried and given in to my addiction for shrimp, crab legs, and crawfish drowning in some spicy sauce in a plastic bag. And I found myself giving in to my craving while passing by Lowcountry at 3343 N. Clark Street.

Soft Shell Crab with Jalapenos

Soft Shell Crab with Jalapenos

Calamari with Jalapenos

Calamari with Jalapenos

Having eaten a lengthy brunch, I had enough room to indulge a few menu items from the Restaurant Week offerings. With a friend in tow, we grabbed a seat at one of the many benches in a dining area that was quite reminiscent of the holes in the wall throughout Louisiana. Given the name, Lowcountry, I imagine this is also the same dining layout one could expect in Lowcountry, South Carolina. But what we got screamed Louisiana, for sure.

Lowcountry Limeade

Lowcountry Limeade

We had something from the cocktail menu to whet the palate, neither remembering what exactly because the Super Bowl Game was playing and after pointing at whatever on the menu, we were cheering the Philadelphia Eagles to play like they wanted to win. While imbibing our drinks that we did later find out were made with gin as a base — how we managed to order something without really paying attention to the menu is a puzzle — we had a small order of soft shell crab and another small order of calamari. Topped with jalapenos, these were divine. The soft shell crab had been cooked thoroughly and was extremely meaty. The calamari was tender enough to cut with a plastic fork. Thankful that much of the seeds had been removed from the peppers, there was enough kick to the starters that there was flavor but no need to chase each bite with several gulps of water.

Seafood Boil in a Bag

Seafood Boil in a Bag

The coup de grace were the bags of shrimp, crab legs, sausage, corn, and potatoes in Lowcounty’s spicy garlic, lemon pepper, Cajun sauce. Lowcountry ranks on my list of seafood boil restaurants that clearly knows how to lure people back for more. I usually never get crab legs because I hadn’t mastered the art of plucking the meat, but I did a superb job this time and I am happy to report that the crab meat was fresh, flavorful, and had me hooked. To make it that more appetizing, the jalapeno cornbread that came with it was exactly what we needed for sopping up the sauce.

Jameson and Ginger Beer

Jameson and Ginger Beer

Rather than gobble the seafood up as if in a rush to leave the restaurant, we paced ourselves and enjoyed watching Philadelphia draining the New England Patriot’s morale. I ordered a Jameson with ginger beer while my friend had coffee. This was in preparation for the beignets that we ordered. They got it right. The beignets had a yeast texture to them, not a cake texture. And they actually tasted way better than some doughnuts at some of the boutique doughnut shops in Chicago.

Beignets

Beignets

This visit was the first time even hearing about Lowcountry. There is another location in Chicago’s South Loop at 1132 S. Wabash Avenue. Same “back home” look and feel with wood layout on the inside and the picnic table setup, these locations probably get a lot of patrons. Granted it was Super Bowl Sunday when my friend and I went, there were still lots of individuals coming in to get gravy on their fingers and across their jaws. I can’t say that seafood boils are a fad, considering it’s a normal thing in coastal South Carolina and along the Gulf of Mexico. But it’s certainly a part of my constant slide show.

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

Twisted Tapas, Chicago, Spain

If you are celebrating a birthday two months late, is it still considered a birthday celebration? That was a question that I asked my former roommate jokingly because two months had passed since we were able to have schedules line up for food, laughter, celebration, wine, and more laughter. With another mutual friend who also joins us when we meet every other month, we opted for tapas and narrowed down our restaurant selection to Twisted Tapas at 1146 W. Pratt Blvd. in Rogers Park since it was a central spot for all of us.

Bacon Wrapped Dates

Bacon Wrapped Dates

This is clearly a local haunt that many regular customers favor. It was quite evident in how many of them hugged the server, who we found out was the manager. And after the service we got, it was even more apparent why so many regulars return. We arrived before happy hour was over, so we got to enjoy happy hour prices for wine, cocktails, and a few tapas.

Skewered Chicken with Bell Peppers and Red Pepper Dip

Skewered Chicken with Bell Peppers and Red Pepper Dip

One item that you find on many Spanish tapas menus is a plate of bacon wrapped dates. The roasted pepper sauce on them cut down on the sweetness of the dates and also took a bit of the salty kick out of the bacon. What was left was flavor. Another small plate was the grilled chicken skewer. Served with red and yellow bell peppers and a dollop of a cumin paprika aioli, this dish also captured the essence of tapas that I remember in Spain proper.

Cucumber Salad

Cucumber Salad

Just for a healthy addition to our noshing, we had a plate of cucumber salad for our one cold tapas. This came with tomatoes, red onion, and feta cheese drizzled with a red wine vinaigrette. Popping with flavor, it was actually a good accompaniment with the subsequent dishes that we ordered.

Baked Goat Cheese with Marinara and Toast

Baked Goat Cheese with Marinara and Toast

Another popular Spanish tapas dish is baked goat cheese in marinara. Served with garlic herb toast, it was surprising that all of the various flavors did not clash. And even when we had run out of toast, the complimentary bread that we had still worked perfectly for going around the inside of the bowl to enjoy the remaining goat cheese and marinara.

Escargot and Cheese on Crostini

Escargot and Cheese on Crostini

The escargot on crostini with sherry vinegar cream sauce was simply divine. Not served the the same fashion as what you get at French restaurants, the preparation on toast was noteworthy enough to try at home if ever I buy any escargot. Otherwise, this is one of my reasons for returning to Twisted Tapas.

Seared Spicy Shrimp

Seared Spicy Shrimp

A big hit for me was the seared spicy shrimp with red pepper flakes in olive oil. The remaining complimentary bread and the extra bread that we requested were ideal for sopping. Not peppery to the point of the dish not being enjoyable, the plump shrimp on the bread and the oil made for a menu item I would have on repeat visits.

Lobster Ravioli

Lobster Ravioli

The one dish that was indeed a favorite among the three of us at the table was the lobster ravioli. Topped with a white wine seafood sauce and a sun dried tomatoes, this could easily become a seafood lovers vice. This is the second item that I would have every time I return.

Beef Shirt Rib

Beef Short Rib

The beef short rib was what I call the “showing out” dish. Sitting atop a sweet potato gratin and falling apart every time we tried to get a forkful of it, I could see middle American families wanting a giant plate of their own instead of a small plate for sharing. This is the first time I have had beef short rib at a tapas restaurant in America that did not come out raw or crispy. The chef got it correct.

Twisted Tapas falls into the category of a hidden gem. It’s not readily visible from a main street that runs north and south through the eastern edge of Rogers Park. However, what they don’t have in visual fanfare for pedestrian traffic, they certainly make up for it in good food and in outstanding service. I got a recommendation to sample a few years ago. It took a late birthday celebration for me to actually make a date. And now for me to see when I have a break in my schedule to return.

Twisted Tapas Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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

NaKorn Urban Thai, Aroi Mak Mak

NaKorn Urban Thai

Greater Chicago boasts a large number of Thai restaurants. There are two that have been my absolute favorite: JJ Thai Street Food at 1715 W. Chicago Avenue in West Town for authentic Thai street food and Herb at 5424 N. Broadway Street in Edgewater for refined Thai with 100% authenticity. After most recent visits to NaKorn Urban Thai at 1622 Orrington Avenue in downtown Evanston, it has officially become my third go-to Thai restaurant.

NaKorn Negroni

NaKorn Negroni

While passing through Evanston and a quick search to see what offerings were on the menu at NaKorn, there was a draw to the complete absence of a lot of ubiquitous Thai dishes (e.g., pad thai, pad see ew, curries, Bangkok chicken, bamee noodles, and the like). Recognizing that my original list of two favorite restaurants didn’t serve those staples and I had fallen in love with their dishes, I imagined that NaKorn was a winner.

Not a large restaurant, but not small either, it’s airy and spacious for those who like to enjoy their meals with dinner guests or alone without having neighboring diners practically sitting on top of you. For my first visit, I sat outside to enjoy the summer weather and to imbibe a negroni while figuring out what I wanted for dinner. And oh was the negroni a hit without being heavy-handed: just perfect.

Taro Chicken

Taro Chicken

I opted for a prix fixe flight of three courses. The first was taro chicken. Marinated in lemongrass-infused coconut milk and fried lightly before coated in a chili-peanut gastrique, this appetizer popped with flavor. As much as I joke about hating peanuts, the flavor was faint yet not to a point of being undetectable, but enough to let the coconut and taro take center stage on the palate. Simply outstanding.

Pan Roasted White Fish Fillet

Pan Roasted Whitefish Fillet

The second flight was pan roasted whitefish fillet with a sweet pepper chutney and chili tamarind reduction. The whitefish was not only flaky but it was also tender, clearly prepared to perfection. Rather than having this with an air of pomp and circumstances, this dish is best eaten mixed together. Having the fennel, cucumber, radish, whitefish, chutney, and tamarind reduction is a symphony.

Sazerac

Sazerac

For my second cocktail, I was in a bit of a New Orleans mood, so I ordered a sazerac. My restaurant adviser and I laugh about how at one of Chicago’s most touted restaurants, I left a sazerac at the bar intentionally because it was heavy on the alcohol and tasteless simultaneously. That was not the case with the sazerac at NaKorn. This one was smooth, in the same manner that they mix them in New Orleans.

The finale was a plate of mango and sticky rice. While you can never go wrong with mango and stick rice, this dish fueled an addiction that made me catch myself when I was tempted to order another plate of it. The sticky rice had been prepared to order, evident in it not being gummy. And to make the dessert that more appetizing, there was a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream served with it. Yes, that did add a twist while kicking an old favorite up several notches without compromising any of the love in all of the bites.

Mango Sticky Rice

Mango and Sticky Rice

Giving myself time before a return visit, I included my restaurant adviser for the second jaunt.  We opted for a few dishes without going overboard because she had made a suggestion for another visit so we could sample from the upcoming autumn menu. Really paying attention to the menu and also having brief conversation with one of the managers, it became apparent that the dishes were of the variety enjoyed at home in Thailand proper. That explained why there wasn’t even basil chicken available for ordering.

North Shore Punch

North Shore Punch

Shake and Shimmy

Shake and Shimmy

To keep the summer theme going, my adviser ordered a North Shore Punch. I ordered a Shake and Shimmy. The North Shore Punch looked artsy, a visual parfait of vodka, lemonade, and Thai chili-honey syrup. The Shake and Shimmy was a refreshing cocktail of rose hip, Brut Rosé, cranberry, and soda. And in our Garden of Eden, we had watermelon bites topped with crispy shallots. I never would have thought the combination of watermelon and shallots would be so divine. When the manager described this as a summer dish that her grandmother prepared when she was in Bangkok, I understood why this was a favorite of hers.

Watermelon with Crispy Shallots

Watermelon with Crispy Shallots

The next shared dish was vegetarian scallops. Eryngii king mushroom had been prepared so that it had the consistency of tender scallops and had I not glance at the menu a second time, I never would have known the difference. Served with a house made chili jam and topped with frisée and edible flowers, this was another flight that my adviser and I agreed should be eaten slowly so to experience the kick from the chili jam appearing and disappearing on the tongue. Plus, the whole concept of mushroom passing for scallops, albeit not as a trick, is simply fantastic and creative.

Vegetarian Scallop

Vegetarian Scallops

The third landing was a plate of coriander crispy shredded beef brisket. Described as having been shredded by hand, it was apparent there was a lot of preparation involved in the the dish, but what made it a case study in “Best Beef Brisket Ever” was the right amount of herbs and spices used without overpowering the taste buds. Served atop sticky rice, I will now be very critical of any brisket I have in the future because the culinary bar in preparing succulent brisket has been raised thanks to NaKorn.

Coriander Crispy Shredded Beef Brisket

Coriander Crispy Shredded Beef Brisket

Moving into the main flights, the first entrée was a plate of steamed baby lobster tail with kohlrabi, micro greens, and a Thai chili broth served with coconut rice. With both adviser and me being seafood fanatics, every morsel from the lobster dragged through the chili broth made for a culinary delight. This was the first time I have had lobster at a Thai restaurant and this recipe has become quite possibly the one I will hanker for when lobster is on the menu. Plating was visually stunning. However, there was a point when we resorted to using fingers for extracting the plump meat from the shell and dispensing of using forks except for when eating the rice.

Steamed Baby Lobster Tail

Steamed Baby Lobster Tail

The second entrée was a plate of jumbo lump blue crab served with Thai rice noodles and a spicy turmeric-coconut curry soup poured on the side. Three words come to mind again: Garden of Eden. The crab was fresh and I can always count on my adviser to speak to the quality of crab, of which she vouched could be the equivalent of truth serum. Certainly the aroma was inviting just from the wafting while arriving at the table. The soup had a flavor akin to what one finds in kow soy. The lump crab made it one of NaKorn’s most recommended dishes.

Jumbo Lump Blue Crab

Jumbo Lump Blue Crab

The finale was a take on a favorite that we have had at one of the Thai restaurants I mentioned earlier. There was a mix of jackfruit, mango, and water chestnuts. This is usually served in coconut milk with a little bit of sugar, but instead it was served with a scoop of panna cotta. Thailand meets Italy. Aroi. Delizioso. Outstanding. For an absolute scrumptious dinner, this wrap-up left us with a want for a quicker return than we scheduled.

Panna Cotta with Fruit

Panna Cotta with Fruit

NaKorn retains authenticity in the Thai dishes. The plating may look like something other than Thai, but the palate will say otherwise. No, they don’t prepare pad thai, panang, tom yum, or dishes in sweet gravies loaded with mushrooms, onions, carrots, and bell peppers. They do expose patrons to dining that is customary to Thailand proper while adding creativity to presentation without diminishing the dishes to middle of the road. In a long list of Thai restaurants that have cookie-cutter output from the kitchen, it’s refreshing finding NaKorn moving out ahead with menu items that have those who don’t speak Thai saying, “Aroi mak mak.”

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

Balena, Lincoln Park Italian

Balena

Balena

I have not been on very many restaurant outings this year since I had added a few inches to my size and had to reassess my wardrobe. So, I’ve had to get some control and do some things like walking architectural tours and theatre. And immediately after going to see “Pass Over” at Steppenwolf, what should my wandering eyes see across the street but Balena at 1633 N. Halsted Street. I have no willpower.

Complimentary Wafers

Complimentary Wafers

Large, airy, and light on the inside, this Italian restaurant has a casual feel to it that I think many would enjoy. There is enough space such that you can have an intimate table without being crowded and you can also have a large party without feeling the restaurant cannot accommodate all who are dining. Aside from the cosmetics of the interior, the service and the food were winners for me. As for ordering, I specified that I wanted to indulge my dining experience in a pescatarian fashion. The server hit the mark with what I had told her to surprise me with.

The first course was Calabrian prawn spiedini. These large shrimp came with heads and tails on, all on wooden skewers. Not overpowered by the seasoning, it was quite evident that the shrimp was fresh. Paired with this course, I had a glass of Vermentino, a white wine from the Piedmont region of Italy that was dry enough to balance out the shrimp without biting at the back of the jaw.

Prawn Spiedini

Prawn Spiedini

The second course was a kale Caesar salad. Prepared in the same manner as Caesar salad with romaine lettuce, the kale had a rich yet bitter taste. With the glass of Vermentino, the bitter bite was a bit more pronounced. It was a nice option for a salad, albeit a large portion compared to what was expected. Those who love the go-to green leafy vegetable will love this salad.

Kale Caesar Salad

Kale Caesar Salad

The third course was simply outstanding. This was a plate of striped bass topped with a small salad tossed in a mild vinaigrette. Lightly seared to give the skin a bit of a crisp, the meaty bass retained a lot of the silk texture that made it a dish worthy of ordering again on return visits. This was the server’s personal favourite and understandably so, given its perfection in seasoning, preparation, and taste. Per the server’s recommendation, I had a glass of Sauvignon Blanc that was a perfect accompaniment.

Striped Sea Bass with Salad

Striped Sea Bass with Salad

The finale was a deconstructed sundae that came as a melange of shortbread, brown butter gelato, raspberry gelato, and fresh raspberries. Complex flavours if taken alone, but enjoyed together with an accompanying cappuccino made this a refreshing finish for a satisfying early dinner.

Deconstructed Sundae

Deconstructed Sundae

During the perusal of the menu, I noticed that the offerings were not heavy with tomato sauces. There were several pastas that I noted for future visits since I opted for seafood during my first visit. There are also some hearth-fired pizza options that caught my eye as well. The menu is not extensive and I get the impression that the restaurant makes adjustments seasonally. We shall see. We shall eat.

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

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