La France Café & Crepes, Lombard Style

La France Café

Now that I have been on assignment in the West Suburbs, I had been actively looking for some restaurants in that vicinity with an international appeal that I could sample for blogging. The farther away you are from Chicago proper, the more limited the options are in that space. Imagine my surprise when I discovered La France Café & Crepes at 708 S. Main Street in Lombard, Illinois.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir

Iced Mocha

Iced Mocha

I went with my restaurant advisor on a Saturday and we arrived shortly after they had opened for the second part of the day. First thing we noticed was the accommodating service. It was a small touch, but the greeting of “Bon soir,” was enough to set a tone of comfort that we were both okay with. For me, being fluent in Quebecois and conversational in Creole meant not fumbling for words or feeling out of place whenever certain French words were used during our dining excursion. While perusing the menu, my advisor started with a glass of Pinot Noir and I had an iced mocha, after which I decided to have a Beaujolais once I had something to eat.

Boeuf et a L'Abricot

Boeuf et a L’Abricot

On to the good stuff. We ordered three savory crepes and two sweet crepes. The beouf et a l’abricot crepe reminded me of Moroccan tagine but stuffed inside of a crepe. Filled with tender beef, apricot slices, and spinach, and topped with toasted almond slivers, this was just what I needed to put me in mind of being back in Morocco. The beouf bourguignon was the equivalent of beef bourguignon as a stew reduced so that it could go into a crepe without making the crepe soggy. Filled with pearl onions and plump mushrooms, we loved it. The crepe de saumon a l’estragon was my favorite. This was stuffed with salmon that had a mild kick, red onions, tarragon, tomatoes, spinach, and crème fraiche. The seafood lover in me indeed approved.

Boeuf Bourguignon

Boeuf Bourguignon

Crepe de Saumon a L'Estragon

Crepe de Saumon a L’Estragon

One of the sweet crepes was a framboise citronnee, which was filled with lemon custard, drizzled with a raspberry sauce (not from a jar), and sprinkled with confectioners sugar. Each bite was like summer on the palate. The other crepe was a abricot et brie, a true sweet and savory crepe thanks to the apricot purée and brie, while topped with candied apricots and dusted with confectioners sugar. Instead of going with whipped cream on the top, we had a fist size scoop of ice cream on the side. And we finished with Moroccan mint tea, yet another trigger to make me miss my vacation in Morocco.

Framboise Citronnee

Framboise Citronnee

Abricot et Brie

Abricot et Brie

One thing to note is that nothing comes to the table within five minutes, except maybe the complimentary water, a coffee, or a glass of wine. The crepes are made to order, so there is no rush of any of the crepes to the table within five minutes. If you go to a creperie and you get your crepes in a flash, I highly recommend that you run. The crepes at La France Café and Crepes do not have a spongy texture, but rather that of a flat-pressed pancake. This is good because crepes in non-touristy France are prepared accordingly. Well, they reminded me of the ones I had in cafes during my days in Chalon-sur-Saone. For my restaurant advisor and me, there will be repeat visits. Pour de vrai.

Moroccan Mint Tea

Moroccan Mint Tea

La France Café Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Antico, Bucktown Delicious

Antico

We arrived at the very end of March and I realized that I had not posted since the very beginning of the month. This was a rather aggressive month, starting with me jumping out of information technology and plunging into photography seriously, albeit working on a website for a display of my portfolio still has me hooked into IT on a periphery. I added some real estate to my cache, became more engaged in community activism, and started an investment club along with some outstanding friends. My reviews thinned out, but my appetite didn’t.

Focaccia

Focaccia

For months, I had walked by a restaurant in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood that caught my eye after taking a peek at the menu. Antico at 1946 N. Leavitt Street is an Italian restaurant with the exposed brick interior that is rather popular throughout the Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Logan Square landscape. A nice setting without claustrophobia, an appetizing menu, and an impressive wine list, I was glad to have finally indulged this winner. And noting the influx of patrons starting immediately at 7:00 PM, it was clear that this was a delight for many.

Mushrooms and Polenta

Mushrooms and Polenta

After skimming the menu, I launched into my “challenge” method of ordering since the restaurant was not busy when I sat. I ordered an appetizer, a pasta, and an entrée, or rather I let the server handle the ordering. And I also trusted the server with the wine pairing. Starting with the mushrooms over polenta, this was certainly a choice I would entertain on future visits. Void of syrup, the mushrooms were not from a can, definitely given from the freshness in each bite. Drizzled with olive oil, the polenta was loose yet not to a runny consistency. With a glass of Nebbiolo that had a hint of berry on the finish, the first course received a compliment to the chef and to the server for the wine pairing.

Lasagna

Lasagna

Given my intent was to indulge myself in a hearty fashion, there was a spacing in time before the pasta course arrived. This was a manageable-sized bowl of lasagna. Prepared with a Bolognese sauce, bechamel sauce, and parmesan cheese instead of mozzarella to give a rich and creamy texture on the palate, this has quickly become my favorite lasagna I’ve had at any Italian restaurant. First, it wasn’t stacked such that it was heavy. Second, there is a very faint touch of nutmeg in the Bolognese sauce that shows up without making an announcement. It felt — or tasted — like a clue. Paired with a glass of Rossi di Montalcino, pure sangiovese that is like a Chianti on the palate, this was another amazing pairing as it still allowed the lasagna to steal the show.

Pork Milanese

Pork Milanese

The pork Milanese topped with fresh, crispy arugula along with cherry tomatoes, parmigiano vegano cheese, and fresh lemon, came on a regular sized plate with the pork chop almost hanging off the sides. Simply amazing. The pork milanese was a thin slice but fleshy because the breading was light. The salad, drizzled with a citrus vinaigrette, was a perfect accompaniment considering a rice, potatoes, or pasta would have been a bit much with the dish. This was paired with a Langhe Rosso, which was a combination of Nebbiolo dolcetto and barbera. It was mildly drier than a lot of the red wines that I drink, but the wink of cherries and nuts tricked me into not recognizing that. Again, for this to have been a course that I entrusted my server to order, this was a success.

Nebbiolo

Nebbiolo

For dessert, I shied away from anything that I thought would be “usual” on the menu. Having been good about not having a dessert with every meal, I opted for whatever gelato was on the menu. What arrived at the table was a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream with nutmeg topped with raspberries and powdered sugar. A dream this was and I believe the chef has a love for nutmeg, evident in how it was “hinted” in the lasagna and how it was included in the ice cream.

I have been rather unfair with my love of Italian restaurants in Chicago. While I like many of them, there is only one that I loved — Osteria Langhe. Antico now becomes the second Italian restaurant in Metropolitan Chicago that I love. Exceptional food is always a key to having someone return based on a hankering. But service is everything. What I discovered at Osteria Langhe was a staff that clearly enjoyed offering recommendations and listening to the customers. That was the same feeling I experienced at Antico. Good customer service is a dying art and when it rears itself in a restaurant setting, married with superb dishes, you achieve perfection and a spot on any one of my “I love this place for whatever reason” lists.

Antico 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

Volo Restaurant and Wine Bar

During planning for restaurant outings to sample wines and cheeses, I received a recommendation for a wine bar along a hidden stretch in Chicago’s Roscoe Village neighborhood. A bit rustic in the look and feel with plenty seating, I had a midweek reservation for an early meal. Volo Restaurant and Wine Bar at 2008 W. Roscoe Street was the landing spot.

Fall Flight

Fall Flight

My restaurant adviser and I had designs on trying a few cheese flights along with wine flights for pairings. While the flights were not extensive, there were enough for us to have a few samplings. The first wine flight was a bubbly flight. The 2014 Spagnol, extra dry Prosecco from Veneto, Italy, wasn’t dry to the point of inducing puckering and the notes of apple, pear, and bread crust, surprisingly, made for a smooth and balanced bubbly. The NV Jaillance, Cuvée de l’Abbaye Rosé from Cremant de Bordeaux, France, was subtle on the tongue with a faint accent of strawberries and cream. The NV La Vida al Camp, Brut Cava from Cava, Spain, gave a nose of grapefruit and floral notes.

Flights of Cheese

Flights of Cheese

With autumn soon arriving, we indulged the fall flight. The 2015 Maison Yves Chaley et Fille, Haute Côtes du Nuits Blanc from Burgundy, France, played well on the palate with fresh Grannny apple, pear, lemon zest, and floral tones. The 2012 Cantina Bove, ‘Marso,’ Montelpulciano d’Abruzzo, from Abruzzo, Italy, was earthy with a mix of black fruits and herbal tones. The 2014 Arsonist, Red Blend carried us to California with a silky blend of Petit Verdot, Malbec, and  Cabernet Sauvignon, bearing notes of blue and black fruits, vanilla, and clove for a spicy finish.

Pinot Noir Flight

Pinot Noir Flight

Sparkling Flight

Sparkling Flight

We had a nice selection of cheeses to start off the evening along with our first flights. For sheep’s milk cheese, we could not go wrong with the three month aged Manchego from La Mancha, Spain, a fantastic semi-firm cheese with a creamy finish. For cow’s milk cheese, we had a Camembert from France, soft and creamy with a flowery rind and a umami flavor. Another favorite, which was a brie, was certainly an offering that we could not miss. And with a vintage gouda from Netherlands on the menu, there was no way we were going to pass on enjoying that along with embedded, crunchy caramel. Wanting to try something made from goat’s milk, we had a Montchevre garlic and herb from Wisconsin. The mix of roasted garlic, rosemary, and thyme in the cheese worked with the the goat cheese almost playing background. One other cheese that we requested to come to the table as a surprise was one akin to a crumbly gorgonzola, very mild, and quite inviting as with the accompanying candied walnuts, crushed figs, and honey.

Salmon Salad

Salmon Salad

Moving into the small plates, we tried a salmon salad that had a light citrus vinaigrette along with julienne cucumbers and crisps. Slightly reminiscent of a deconstructed ceviche, the salad was a rather nice touch to the finishing sips of our initial wine flights. After enjoying this and an allowance for a few minutes, we then ordered a bowl of mussels in a white wine sauce with shallots, parsley and French butter. Very partial towards mussels that come in a saffron sauce, the white wine sauce was ideal not only for the moment but rather fitting given the theme of the wine bar.

Mussels

Mussels

Having enjoyed the cheeses, salmon salad, and mussels with toast, we had an interest in more flights of wine. Having overlooked it earlier, there was the cheese and charcuterie flight. The 2015 PortoVino, Cardedu, Vermentino de Sardegna Nuo from Saardina, Italy, was herbaceous with a slight edge of minerality. The 2016 Domaine Haut de Mourier, Voignier “Cuvee Stephanie Bouix,” from Languedoc, France, came from a mountainous region with a nose of apricots and peaches followed by pear, apple, lavender, and honey. The 2013 Juris, St. Laurent from Burgenland, Austria, had tones of cranberry, raspberry, and florals, slightly tart, yet a wonderful selection for those who love Pinot Noir.

Spicy Chicken Over Coconut Rice

Spicy Chicken Over Coconut Rice

The fourth and final wine flight on the menu was the Pinot Noir flight. The 2012 Ara, “Pathway” Pinot Noir from Marlborough, New Zealand, was sweet without crossing into dessert wine territory and perfectly spicy, which paired extremely well with a spicy Asian fried chicken dish that came over coconut rice. The 2014 Bouchard Père et Fils, Pinot Noir, from Burgundy, France, had a bloom of cherry, raspberry, currant, and early notes, and unlike a lot of wine with tannins, the tannins in this selection did not overpower the sips. Finishing with a 2014 Rascal, Pinot Noir, from Williamette Valley Vineyards in Oregon, the cranberry, black cherry, and strawberries in this wine could easily make one fall in love with Oregon wines.

The Wrap-up

The Wrap-up

Finishing with coffee from one of the local roasters, we agreed that the selections were very nice for something light. It was certainly great having a server who was knowledgeable of the wines and could speak to why they paired well with certain cheeses and dishes, as well as speak to personal preference. The wine bar was not teeming with patrons, which may have been due to many in the area crowded into some other bars watching a Cubs game. But if you are looking for a nice date spot without the noise and clamoring, Volo Wine Restaurant and Wine Bar is a sweet spot for libations, small plates, cheeses, and satisfaction.

Volo Restaurant Wine Bar 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

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