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

Ras Dashen, Ethiopian Flavour

Ras Dashen

For weeks I had been mentioning Ethiopian food to a colleague who wanted to sample some. Having been to a few Ethiopian restaurants in the city that I have reviewed and one that I hadn’t reviewed, I wanted to return to the latter. With my restaurant advisor joining us, Ras Dashen at 5846 N Broadway Street was the destination for some cultural dining after coming down from a Thanksgiving high.

Qezqaza Chai

Qezqaza Chai

Nice and spacious on the inside with seating that accommodates those who like traditional Ethiopian seating or those who prefer tables, Ras Dashen has a comfy feeling. The atmosphere is relaxing such that you can enjoy the complete dining experience while also engaging others in your party without competition from too much acoustics.

We started with qezqaza chai, which is cold red tea accented with spices commonly found in Indian tea, like cinnamon, cloves, and black peppercorns. Along with the tea we indulged cups of mereq, this version cooked with creamed lentils, boasting a flavour akin to puréed mild, sweet potato soup.

Mereq

Mereq

For the main platter, we spared no expense. In keeping with opting for variety, we ordered one chicken, one lamb, one seafood, and a round of vegetarian menu items. The chicken was doro wat, which was dark meat chicken and boiled egg in a spicy berbere sauce. The lamb dish was yebeg de berbere, succulent lamb stew bursting with bold spices. The seafood dish was asa wat, fillet tilapia in a dark berbere sauce that had been prepared from roasted, ground flaxseed. As to the vegetarian offerings, we had telba shimbera misser wat — puréed chickpeas, split peas, and flaxseed in a dark berbere sauce. There was kik alicha, which were puréed yellow split peas cooked with onions, garlic, ginger, and green peppers. We even had tikil gomen alicha — spiced cabbage, potato, and carrot stew. And a final vegetarian item we ordered was ethio salata, which came as romaine lettuce, green onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, and jalapeños. There wasn’t one item that we did not enjoy thoroughly, evident from the empty platter when we were done.

Communal Platter

Communal Platter

The finale was a plate of Ethiopian bread pudding topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. In the same vein of employing cinnamon and cloves in recipes, the bread pudding had both and a nice share of raisins, dates, and nuts. Served warm, it was a fantastic ending to a hearty and delectable cultural meal.

Ethiopian Bread Pudding

Ethiopian Bread Pudding

No Ethiopian meal is complete without tea or Ethiopian coffee. Although there was no Ethiopian coffee service, complete with toasting the beans and going through a ritual, a pot of Ethiopian coffee simply can’t be beaten. Those who have taken Ethiopian coffee will attest that it bests any franchise, chain, or independent coffeehouse trying to play like a franchise or chain. The same is applicable to the coffee at Ras Dashen.

Cup of Ethiopian Coffee

Ethiopian Coffee

When it comes to Ethiopian food, individuals either love it or hate it. It is best enjoyed in a communal setting with a group of friends or family. The injera bread may be a different flavouring on the palate for many because of the slight tangy taste, bordering on what a few may deem as sour. However, mixed with hearty sauces in the vegetables and meats, the whole dining experience is a winner. Chicago’s Edgewater community houses several Ethiopian restaurants, so you can get a good selection of Ethiopian fare from each. I highly recommend Ras Dashen for not only good food, but also for outstanding service and quality all around.

Ras Dashen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Cantón Regio, Pilxico Tasty

Cantón Regio

Recently, I ran the Carrera de los Muertos 15K — the Race of the Dead — which was a 3 mile stretch through Chicago’s Pilsen neighbourhood. While on the race, we passed a restaurant named Nuevo Leon and I had mentioned it to a friend who was also running in the race. She informed me that after Nuevo Leon had experienced a fire, the owners opened Cantón Regio across the street. After hearing many people speak of how good the food was at Nuevo Leon, there was no reason why I couldn’t make my way back to 1510 W 18th Street to get a sample.

Complimentary Soup

Complimentary Soup

My friend who ran in the Race of the Dead, a mutual friend, and I met one late afternoon through dinner for some Mexican food well worth repeat visits. There is a bit of the woodsy look on the inside, spacious, and with enough tables to entertain several parties. And it’s not loud, so you can have conversation and enjoy all the good eating. Acknowledging their cash-only policy and option for bringing our own beverage, we arrive with empty tummies that we filled.

Brochetas de Pollo y Camarones

Brochetas de Pollo y Camarones

There was complimentary broth with chicken and vegetables that was quite nice, no doubt a good option for fighting the common cold during our chilly months. We ordered brochetas pollo y camarones. These skewers of chicken and shrimp with bell peppers and onions were outstanding. Accompanied with tortillas, wrapping the tender chicken, shrimp, and vegetables in the tortillas resulted in pure culinary bliss.

For the next menu item, we ordered a kilo of arrachera. I am the first to say that I like skirt steak, but after not being able to shut up about how good it was at Cantón Regio, I may be the first to be head over heels for how good it tasted here. The meat was cooked well, but had the texture and succulence of medium well preparation. The cebollitas cambray, spring onions, and roasted red peppers that came with it left a lasting impression on my palate. With the rest of the tortillas and cups of pinto beans in a savoury gravy, we worked this large platter to completion.

Arrachera

Arrachera

Along with our fourth bottle of wine, we finished with a flan. Whether prepared on the premises or at a bakery, flans are always a delight. And the same was the case here. The texture was slightly creamier than gelatinous, and that is absolutely perfect. Topped with a cherry and drizzled with caramel, we wrapped up a long meal and then had to deal with fighting sleep.

Flan

Flan

Cantón Regio is clearly a neighbourhood favourite and a magnet for those outside of the Pilsen area. You can probably guess that the food is simply some of the best authentic Mexican food in the city, but the service also makes it have great appeal. There is no rush, so diners clearly take their time to indulge everything in front of them. Again, there is a cash-only policy, but the prices are extremely reasonable for the portions you get. There is also a BYOB policy, so grab some cervasas or a bottle of wine and make a date. It’s a given that I will return in a few weeks for some more arrachera.

Canton Regio 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

The Butcher & Larder

Very recently, I received an email about a chef’s course event at The Butcher & Larder in Chicago’s Noble Square neighbourhood at 1427 W. Willow Street. The event was for Piggy Bank, which is a foundation that was created to gift heritage breed pigs to family farmers in exchange for business plans. Given the ongoing discussions about meats being tainted with growth products and unhealthy additives, support for farmers who want to provide healthier meat products was not a bad idea to support. With a selection of five chefs from different restaurants in Chicago, we had a splendid sampling of dishes to entice the palate.

Coddled Egg

Coddled Egg

The first course was prepared by Chef Sarah Rinkavage of Lula Cafe. This came as a cup of coddled egg highlighted with morel, green garlic, and tessa and topped with a strip of bacon. Although one could scoop out the egg with a spoon, it was better to have use of the accompanying grilled toast as a utensil. A perfect pairing with the coddled egg was a 2013 Kettmeir Pinot Grigio from Alto Adige DOC Winery.

Tongue 'n' Cheek Brewis

Tongue ‘n’ Cheek Brewis

The second course was prepared by Chef Andres Gietzen of Yusho at 2853 N. Kedzie Avenue. Given in name as a Tongue ‘n’ Cheek Brewis, this came as a dish of fried cod tongue, lard poached cod cheek, scrunchion, billy bread, and ramp. This was perhaps the most exotic of all of the dishes on the menu. Tender and with a hint of cod without a heavy taste of muddy cod, it was also still light enough to enjoy to completion and it also paired well with a 2013 Kettmeir Muller Thurgau from Alto Adige D. O. C. Winery.

Braised Lamb Ravioli

Braised Lamb Ravioli

For the fourth course, Chef Christopher Thompson prepared a braised lamb ravioli with house-made ricotta, English peas, mint, lemon, sweetbreads, and belly. The lamb was extremely flavourful, but it had to be enjoyed without indulging any of the sweetbreads and belly simultaneously, lest the flavour of the lamb lose centre stage on the palate. The pairing for this rich dish was a 2010 Lamole di Lamole Gran Selezione Vigneto Campolungo from Chianti Classico DOCG Winery. This worked better with this dish than with fava beans — a nod to “Silence of the Lambs,” and rather fitting also given the filling in the ravioli.

Panzita en Salsa Negra

Panzita en Salsa Negra

The fourth dish was courtesy Chef Andres Padilla of Topolobampo at 445 N. Clark Street. Following the pork theme, this was crispy seared, braised pork belly glazed in sweet and spicy salsa negra — think mole — over Oaxacan black beans with charred cauliflower and garnishes. The gotcha with this dish was the layer of fat atop the pork belly and covered under the tasty salsa negra. The wine that was paired with this dish was a 2011 Lamole di Lamole Chianti Classico Riserva from Chianti Classico DOCG.

Linzer Torte with Bacon Jam

Linzer Torte with Bacon Jam

The finale was a Linzer torte with bacon jam, prepared by Chef Abra Berens of Stock Cafe. For all of the ends of bacon that had been saved from preparations of the courses, they were used for the filling. This was a savoury pie, not a sweet. And there were two strong flavour profiles on the tongue simultaneously, one influenced with sweetness and the other salty. Perhaps a cup of coffee would have cut down some of the bonanza on the palate.

Dry Sparkling Beverage

Dry Sparkling Beverage

One participant in the evening’s event was a representative for Dry Sparkling. Refreshing and bursting with natural flavours, these were reminiscent of sparkling water with flavouring. However, the sparkling aspect of the beverages did not bite at the back of the jaw, which made them a lot more inviting than anticipated. The cucumber flavoured Dry Sparkling beverage is now my favourite and after hearing that they are available at Target and Whole Foods, I shall fill my refrigerator accordingly.

The Butcher & Larder is a local grocery store that offers a lot of organic products, as well as fresh meat products. Being in the meat services makes it understandable that they’d engage involvement in the Piggy Bank, as mentioned earlier. One individual who sat next to me mentioned that they offer lunch, but I’m sure they excel in the products and services that make them a great grocer and butcher shop. Much success to them for their efforts in the clean eating initiative.

The Butcher & Larder 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

The Angry Crab, Happy Customers

Important: If you are visiting family or friends in Chicago, do NOT go for Chicago hotdogs, deep dish pizza, or any famous popcorn. I repeat. Do NOT go for any of the tourist trap what-what. Tell them you want to go to The Angry Crab. Again, I repeat, tell them that The Angry Crab is what’s going to happen.

We now resume our regularly scheduled review … of The Angry Crab.

Cajun Fries with Garlic

Cajun Fries with Garlic

April is my birth month and for my birthday, a great friend had recommended several chic restaurants. Of course, I could offer a suggestion. I wanted something casual, something that would make me be okay with hitting my late 40’s. I told her that The Angry Crab at 5665 N. Lincoln Avenue in West Ridge was where I wanted to go.

We arrived around 7:00 PM on a Tuesday evening to a crammed restaurant. We knew immediately that no restaurant packs out like that if the food isn’t good. After a nice little wait, we got our seat, menus, and bibs. We ordered some Cajun fries heaped with garlic. Ummm, umph! Neither one of us has an aversion to garlic and there was a liberal amount on the fries. You could become addicted those these lovelies quickly.

Lobster Claws, Shrimp, Corn, Andouille Sausage

Lobster Claws, Shrimp, Corn, Andouille Sausage

For the nitty-gritty, my friend ordered two pounds of crab legs in a spicy sauce. These were not cutesy crab legs. They were long and full of meat. I ordered a two-pound bag of lobster claws and shrimp with corn and andouille sausage in a spicier sauce. Seeing other people finishing with lots of sauce in the bottom of their bags, we ordered some bread so that we could sop up ours. There is absolutely no reason for any of that sauce to go to waste.

Ready for Action

Ready for Action

I attribute my interest in going to The Angry Crab to following the restaurant on Instagram. The photos always make the food look inviting. Once you get your teeth into the seafood, those photos don’t do justice. There can never be an argument as to why there is a constant crowd at the restaurant. And with a BYOB policy, you can bring your own libations to go with the “bliss in the bags.” I have had a seafood boil at two restaurants in Chicago now and I love both. The problem is trying to decide which one I’m going to go to this weekend. Arrrggghhhhhh!!!! This is what’s going to happen.

The Angry Crab Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Mexcais, Frenchican, Mexique

Mexique

For the past few years, I have been going to a few restaurants in the West Town vicinity of Chicago. During the summer, I got to see much of the area while on foot. One restaurant I passed by several times was Mexique at 1529 W. Chicago Avenue. There was a “white table-cloth” feel to the restaurant and with that in mind, I never went in because I was usually in short pants and walking shoes. So, I decided that I would go one evening after work when I was better attired.

Black Bean Purée, Bread, Chicken Pâté

Black Bean Purée, Bread, Chicken Pâté

Chicken Pâté, Bread, Black Bean Purée

Chicken Pâté, Bread, Black Bean Purée

I considered having the dining experience be more ala carte. And then I decided that I wanted a sampling of several menu items. The 6-course tasting menu was the better option. Having received the explanation that the food at Mexique is Mexican with a French influence, I knew that I couldn’t go wrong with a seafood approach to the tasting. While I waited for the courses to arrive, I had black bean purée and chicken pâté with French bread. The black beans as a purée instead of thick frijoles was great for spreading as was the spicy pâté, both a great complimentary start and marriage between Mexican and French.

Soup and Wine

Soup and Wine

The first course was poblano pepper soup accented with feta cheese, pineapple relish, quince, and celery root. The remarkable thing about this soup is that neither the spiciness of the peppers nor the sweetness of the pineapple relish overpowered the recipe. A white wine accompanied this dish, one with a lovely touch of sweetness. There were notes of peach and apricots in the wine. Smooth on the palate, it was splendid in the pairing in that it brought out the flavours of the soup rather than competing with it on the tongue.

Ceviche

Ceviche

The second course was an interesting and addictive take on ceviche. Cobia fish in citrus juice was the main seafood ingredient. The French influence came in with the inclusion of the stock prepared with green vegetables, green chilies, also paprika oil and micro greens. There were small dollops of poblana mousse that, once stirred in the ceviche, made the base slightly creamy. The wine that paired with this course was a Sauvignon Blanc from a vineyard in California. There was a high mineral aspect to it, a bit tart, that again allowed the ingredients in the ceviche to pop more than they probably would have had there been no wine served with the course.

Mahi-Mahi with Salmon Tartar

Mahi-Mahi with Salmon Tartar

The third course was one that I initially flagged as the highlight of the evening after a taste of the first morsel. There was mahi-mahi in a lovely sorrel sauce and red quinoa with salmon tartar. The entire dish was drizzled with a burned onion aioli. Those who enjoy seafood would love sampling the mahi-mahi and the salmon tartar. Paired with this was a crisp Spanish Rioja wine, consisting of fully ripe fruits, mainly grapes that played well with the flavours of the sorrel.

Whitefish with Potato Puree and Black Bean Sauce

Whitefish with Potato Puree and Black Bean Sauce

Thinking that the third course was spectacular in terms of taste, the fourth course was unforgettable. This was a whitefish with a black bean sauce prepared with a red wine reduction. The white potato purée had a surprising pop on the palate, as it was clearly not seasoned with salt and pepper only. Garnishes were baby carrots, confit style and micro greens. This course came paired with a Chardonnay. The complexity in this wine came in the form of ripe apples, vanilla, and oak. As if the whitefish wasn’t flaky and tender enough, the silky and buttery notes in the wine made the fourth course a culinary dream.

Skate with Vegetables and Grapes Over Plantain

Skate with Vegetables and Grapes Over Plantain

Given each course was progressively better than the previous one, I should have known the fifth course would be a winner. This was another seafood dish, prepared with skate marinated in tequilla over spinach, cauliflower, and picked grapes, and set atop a fully ripe and compressed plantain. There was a nice amount of achiote seeds used for seasoning this dish and all of the ingredients were fantastic for letting each come through individually on the tongue. A French wine came with this dish. Medium bodied wine with notes of raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries, this was a perfect accompaniment for a dish that had so many complex flavours.

Arroz Con Leche with Ice Cream

Arroz Con Leche with Ice Cream

The finale was one that I had to request a pause before having it arrive at the table. The prior dishes, albeit manageable, were slightly more filling than I had expected. I figured there would be a dessert that would be familiar, but perhaps rich. Sure enough, the arroz con leche with vanilla bean ice cream. This traditional Mexican dessert of rice pudding was enhanced with rompope, Mexican eggnog, and sprinkled with candied pumpkin seeds as well as white chocolate crumble. The dessert wine with the course was and Alameda. The figs, dates, prunes, and raisins in this sherry were fantastic, which made this wine a perfect match for the arroz con leche.

Sherry

Sherry

Those who are expecting tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, and traditional Mexican fare may find Mexique a bit weird or lacking in purist techniques. Even those who fancy Tex-Mex may not be okay with the cuisine either. This is not a restaurant that one may consider upscale Chipotle or a chic Mexican restaurant. Those who like variety and those with broad palates will find the ala carte and the tasting menus to be worthy of one or more visits. The sitting area is large, so there is lots of room for stretching out in preparation for dining. Make reservations, as the restaurant tends to fill up quickly. The constant influx of patrons is all you need to know that the food is good. Well, I’ve shown you pictures already. Now get ready for the taste.

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

Le Bouchon, French Recommended by an Italian

Pain et Vin Rouge

Pain et Vin Rouge

During a recent visit to my favourite, local Italian restaurant in Logan Square, the owner recommended a French restaurant in the vicinity. He was already aware that I love European style restaurants and cafes — small, quaint, boutiques where there is always good food, great conversation, and no such thing as a rush. And per the owner’s recommendation, I made a calendar entry to go to Le Bouchon at 1958 N. Damen Avenue in Bucktown.

I arrived early enough to be difficult with my ordering. Having only a glance at the menu, I decided that I would not make the selections for what I wanted to eat, but I would instead let my server surprise me. There was my usual spiel that I primarily enjoy seafood and vegetarian options, and while I have no food allergies, I hate nuts; just bring something to the table and pair it with wine. While enjoying some homemade French bread, I waited.

French Onion Soup

French Onion Soup

First to the table was French onion soup and a Pinot Noir. Now, given all of the French restaurants I have gone to, I never had a taste for French onion soup. This was my first. I have no benchmark for a good French onion soup, so what I had at Le Bouchon is what I will use to set my initial bar. Flavourful broth without being overpowered by onions, topped with a large croton, and then topped with a gooey layer of baked cheese, I have a nod of satisfaction to a very appetizing start.

Rushing Waters Trout

Rushing Waters Trout

The server thought I would enjoy the rushing waters trout. He was spot on. This was paired with a Chardonnay. The trout was de-boned and then reassembled. This came with pine nuts, which I have an allowance for, caper brown butter, mushrooms, and concord grapes. The beauty of the trout was not only in the bloom in the taste from the recipe, but also from the fact that the fish was so meaty. Those who may expect something creamy and rich may be surprised to find that the dish is rich without any cream.

The finale was something different. I had beignets stuffed with apple slices, served with svelte ice cream, granola crumble, raisins, and a cider reduction. Straying away from having cake or a heavier, richer dessert was a finer option since the starter and entrée were both filling. Having not inquired of the coffee, I think it was from some local, independent coffeehouse. There was no burnt or bitter taste and the only sweetener required was the cream that accompanied it.

Apple Beignets with Coffee and Cream

Apple Beignets with Coffee and Cream

Le Bouchon is indeed a restaurant with a lot of French flare. It is small and quaint with tables close to each other. One thing I will say is that the service is outstanding. As often as I “challenge” my servers with something to satisfy my palate, there are those like the one I had at Le Bouchon who exceed my expectations. It also helps that the food is capital, evident from the constant flow of dining patrons. When I return to my favourite Italian restaurant, I will have to thank the owner for his recommendation. I wonder if I should thank him in Italian, as always do, or if I should rattle off in French, “J’aimerai te remercier.”

Le Bouchon Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Parthenon — Meeting New Friends and Opa!!!

A few weeks ago, I received a flurry of email notes bearing good news and invitations. I found out that Chicago Alphabet Soup had made the list of top 50 blogs in Chicago, which was an honour given this is a hobby and balance to my otherwise chaotic day job life. I received a few emails inquiring if I would be interested in guest writing for a few online publications. Getty Images picked up a few of my photos. And I got an invite to Greek restaurant Parthenon at 314 S. Halsted Street in Chicago’s Greek Town. I thought this would be nice, so that I could put faces with the names of several foodies and food bloggers in the city.

Spanakopitas

Spanakopitas

Octopus

Octopus

Skordalia

Skordalia

Saganaki

Saganaki

We had a variety of appetizers. There were spanakopitas, which were phyllo pastries stuffed with spinach and feta cheese. The octopus was not rubbery to the palate. It was as though the morsels had been cooked slowly for days. My first favourite appetizer was skordalia. Puréed potatoes accented with garlic, and I appreciated that the garlic was heavy-handed in the recipe. And, no, I have no fear of vampires.  My second favourite appetizer to arrive at the table was saganaki. If you think the ritual of setting the cheese aflame and the shout of “Opa!” is spectacular, let me be the first to say that you’ll want to cut through all that fanfare and have the cheese set in front of you so that you can show your appreciation or devout appetite accordingly. The most pedestrian course, as I jokingly call rabbit food, was actually good. The salad dressing, albeit light, was still good enough to let the flavour of the ingredients come through. Lettuce, pepper, olives, feta cheese, and an addiction I call tomatoes were a great segue to the main course.

Greek Salad

Greek Salad

With so much tasty preamble, a dish that I thought would sate me without leaving me needing assistance walking thereafter was shrimp flambé with rice. The shrimp, doused with brandy and set afire to a declaration of “Opa!” before being set in front of me, I felt slightly ashamed at devoting the remainder of my time to devouring the shrimp and enjoying the rice. The best way to get conversation out of me during dinner is before serving any delicious food or by serving something quite not all appetizing.

Shrimp and Rice

Shrimp and Rice

Having indulged so much food to this point, I cannot believe that I opted to renege on my intention for no desserts until Thanksgiving. Being aggressive with my workouts, I ordered galaktoboureko anyway. I am a fan of custard and this Greek delicacy prepared with custard and phyllo and then coated with honey was actually lighter on the stomach than I anticipated. The texture was fluffier than the creamy variety that I have gone overboard on in the past.

Galaktoboureko

Galaktoboureko

Parthenon is large like many banquet halls. There is plenty of space for large gatherings and if you love to dine with family or large parties of your friends, this is definitely the place. There are two Greek restaurants in Oak Park that I frequent because of the quality in the food and service. I can say without hesitation that the quality of food at Parthenon is top. With this being a planned event — that being a gathering of foodies, foodists, bloggers and food appreciators — the service was superb. I shall have to return as a Regular Joe for a proper “off the street” dining experience. I’ll be sure not to shout “Opa!” and smash my plate against the floor.

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