Bravo and Encore

Basil Leaf Cafe

One early evening during a summer day in 2012, I had the opportunity to go to a restaurant that was hosting a wine and food pairing. Being perhaps one of the individuals, if not the only one, who was not a sommelier, I thought that the event would be a bit out of my league. And then the food came to the table. Yes, the wine was splendid. However, the food was a major highlight for me and one that stayed with me since that participation in the wine and food pairing. With work gobbling up a great deal of my time and then my high school sweetheart and me taking an extended vacation to Calgary, Montreal, and Lisbon, scheduling a return to the restaurant of my culinary dreams had faded. A new year began in 2013 and I had finally entered a note in my cell phone to make a reservation for a dinner at Basil Leaf Cafe at 2465 N. Clark Street. It would be my luck that the cell phone went to sleep permanently on me and January was speeding by fast. There was no way that I was going to find myself well into 2013 before actually returning to the restaurant.

Olive Oil and BreadWith the New Year I had decided that I would focus on degustations more during my dining excursions. Too often I find myself scrambling to eat my appetizer and entrée before they are cold because at many restaurants both come to the table simultaneously. That is very much an epidemic at American style restaurants because there appears to be a need to rush patrons. Since Basil Leaf Cafe was the first restaurant that I was blogging for 2013, there was no better way to start my newfound appreciation of degustations than the present. A most inviting welcome on entry and my pick of seats because I had arrived before the dinner crowd, I handed the menu to my server, told her what I liked, and told her to surprise me. As a complimentary l’amuse, there was warm, homemade bread served with an olive oil that had various Italian herbs and spices in it. I would normally add Parmesan cheese and pepper, but that would have been a bit evil considering how flavourful the bread and olive oil were together. Oh, if I may add, bread is a source of weakness for me. I can’t deny it. I can’t refuse it. And if it is as good as what I had at Basil Leaf Cafe, then I tend to indulge to excess without any additional thought. And a note to myself is to find out the recipe for the olive oil so that I can try my hand at it at home.

Butternut Squash Soup

The first course to the table was a butternut squash soup. Let me start by saying that I have had my share of butternut squash soup and have loved it. This was the first time I had the soup and the first sip gave me pause. It was absolute heaven. I had a few more sips and then declared with certainty that I had just tasted the best butternut squash soup ever. There was no aftertaste. And the hint of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg or whatever spice was added left me with a rather wide smile. I guess my server thought that I was making up a story when I said that it was the best butternut squash soup that I had ever eaten. There was no lie and because I had to maintain decorum, I did not take any of the homemade bread and go around the edges and bottom of the bowl. Only the first course and it was evident that the rest of the meal was going to be progressively better.

Mixed Berry Salad

And then there was a mixed berry salad that came to the table for the second course. I had told the server that I was not a fan of nuts and not because of any allergies. The texture and taste do nothing to assist my appetite. The salad was one that usually comes with walnuts. However, they were omitted. Having been to restaurants where my mentioning of not liking nuts was treated as an omission and I had to pick around the nuts to keep from making my whole dining experience unsavoury, the fact that my server had explained that walnuts are usually an ingredient in the salad and they were left out at my request, that made each bite all the more worthy. The mark of an outstanding wait staff is when they listen to the customers. Raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries sat atop lettuce, drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette, and topped with crumbled gorgonzola cheese. The only other times I have had any kind of fruit in my salad were when I had apricot salads at one of my favourite Algerian restaurants. Berries on salad always looked a bit much, albeit quite appetizing. However, having the mixed berry salad and seeing that I had left only a smear of the vinaigrette afterwards was proof that it was not only visually stunning but it was incredible to the palate.

Linguine and SeafoodI was going to be daring initially and try two entrées — a vegetarian dish and a seafood dish. After being warned that the portions were large, I opted instead for the seafood platter. The third course was a seafood linguine. Plump shrimp, fresh salmon, well-seasoned mussels, tender scallops, and delectable clams rested on a bed of linguine and topped with a red sauce before I began working on the entrée. The pescatarian in me yelled, “Bravo!” and enjoyed the whole dish leisurely without a care in the world. Perhaps if I had a glass of wine to go with it, say a Merlot or a Malbec, I would have had a Food Network composition. But the dish was perfect with the glass of orange juice. One thing that I really liked most about the seafood linguine was that it had a spicy kick to it without me requiring glasses of water. And the seafood was nothing akin to the nibble size morsels that you find in most Italian seafood dishes. Not only was the portion of the entrée large but the seafood was not lacking in quantity and quality of freshness. I kept screaming, “Bravo.” Of course, it was to myself, though.

CappuccinoAfter the bread and olive oil, soup, salad, and seafood linguine, I required a bit of rest before entertaining a coffee and dolce. In keeping with letting everything be a surprise, I deferred to my server for the sweet. Whenever I go to an Italian restaurant, I always choose espresso or cappuccino. It probably would have been wiser for me to have ordered an espresso so that I could have avoided fighting sleep after such a wonderful meal. Instead, I had a cappuccino and my server brought an apple tartlet with a dollop of vanilla ice cream to the table. One bite and I could have hit a tenor aria to have brought the restaurant to its feet for a standing ovation. It was clear that the dessert was not something you find in the frozen section at the local market. No, there was no syrupy compost drowning chunks of overcooked apples. There was flaky crust enveloping thin, tart apples that had been cooked in their own juices. If it were not for the ice cream accompanying the apple tart, I would have dragged my dessert feast for a full hour. Being cognizant of the ice cream melting, I savoured the dessert and the cappuccino slowly and to completion. And let me just say that I did not need to add any sweetener to the cappuccino. The mark of a splendid cup of coffee is not having to add extra sweeteners to it to make it palatable. When you can enjoy your coffee the way I enjoyed the cappuccino at Basil Leaf Cafe, then you have had your coffee proper.

Apple Tartlet with Ice Cream

One thing I have not considered was coming up with a Top 10 list of restaurants in Chicago. What I can say with certainty is that as of me penning this blog entry, Basil Leaf Cafe holds the number 1 spot. That is a bold statement. Yes, others may scream that I am being unfair and that I need to come to their restaurants. Believe me when I say that as long as I am in Chicago, I will find my way to your dining haven. One thing to note is that when service, high quality of cuisine, and price come together to form an inviting request for a return, how can you possibly deny a bravo and an encore? You simply can’t. Only on a few occasions have I chosen to let my server make my dinner choices for me based on my likes and dislikes. What I experienced at Basil Leaf Cafe was a winning game of cuisine roulette. I was impressed thoroughly during the wine and food pairing at the restaurant that one summer evening in 2012. I was even more impressed during my second visit. I shall indeed return for an encore. I highly recommend that you visit Basil Leaf Cafe and see for yourself.

I’m So Lucky

Club Lucky

Facebook has proven to be a great avenue for advertising. If you like a person, place, or thing — a not just a catch-all noun — you may find a posting on your wall that will raise your antennae. During one of the hot spells Chicago was experiencing, there was an advertisement from a restaurant that I had gone to for brunch a year ago. There was a set of martinis, all looking so refreshing, so inviting, so in need of being imbibed. Me not being a prude quickly blocked my calendar and prompted one of my friends to let her know that I was going to Club Lucky at 1824 W. Wabansia Avenue in Chicago’s Wicker Park for some liquid happiness. Not immediately off the main Milwaukee-North-Damen intersection where there is constant energy all around the clock, but rather down the street in the midst of a residential area, there were outdoor seating to be had, martinis to be turned up, and food to be devoured.

Italian BreadAll aboard the Blue Line, which is one of the busiest train lines in the city due to its run out to O’Hare Airport and through trendy neighbourhoods Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Logan Square. My friend and I squeezed on at the Clark and Lake subway stop with a host of suits, ties, skater boys, gothic chicks, and growling bellies. It was off to Club Lucky to see if those drinks they make on site had the same appeal as the ones in their Facebook advertisement. With a basket of warm homemade bread at our disposal and the setting sun allowing a bit of a cool breeze to blow about, instead of the muggy heat we had been having, we ordered a lemon drop martini apiece.

Insert sound byte of a spring popping.

Those martinis were loaded. Well, actually, they were not. The bartender had prepared them such that the lemony accent took centre stage, which allowed the vodka to creep up on us. When my friend started smiling excessively, I knew that she had started hovering just about an inch or two above ground. We then decided that it was better to savour the martinis and gobble more bread and drink more water, lest we stumble about like the trashy students at Oxford on Thursday nights.

Lemondrop MartiniHaving gone for brunch, I was already aware that Club Lucky has a way in the kitchen that results in something incredibly tasty coming to the table. The thing is you can never really judge dinner fare by breakfast or brunch. Yes, I have gone to a few restaurants where the brunch menus were, as the current hip-hop generation says, off the chain. The dinner servings were worthy for the floor, I must say. But you cannot go wrong with Italian dinners unless the chef is mixing some Chef-Boy-Ardee into the recipes. Seeing that Club Lucky is not rustic, in that they are heavy on red and cream sauces, we chose our orders — my friend based on a recommendation from the waiter and me knowing what I wanted. And we sat and waited while our orders were prepared. More bread to the table and more water poured into our glasses, we waited more, which gave us the feeling that nothing was heated quickly, styled on plates, and rushed to the tables. Happiness abounded.

Chicken and Herb Totellini

My dining companion ordered chicken and herb tortellini. These chicken and herb filled tortellinis with English peas and pine nuts in homemade vodka sauce were like sirens. They sang, begged, and lured us with each bite. Granted there were no rocks for us to smash against, but we literally were crashing against virtual stones, splashing about, and smiling foolish smiles all the same. The creamy vodka sauce, although not potent enough to make us drunk, was a nice complement to the heavy-laden martinis that kept raising us out of our seats a few inches per swallow. But the last time I had tortellinis in a creamy vodka sauce worthy of raving about was at a certain Italian restaurant in Lincoln Square that another friend and I had gone to for celebration when we both had moved away from an apartment complex on the South Side that had been taken over with drugs, prostitution, and gun play. Just like that the Lincoln Square restaurant, the preparation at Club Lucky added a bloom to the taste, as the spices worked together to give a pop to the dish.

Shrimp Arrabiata

Being a lover of spicy food, I ordered a shrimp arrabiata. Thinking that the chicken and herb tortellinis were a great hit, the arrabiata was worth standing on the table and dancing. Perhaps standing on the table, and me not being a stunt man, would not be the best thing to do. Clapping my hand, stomping my feet, singing a song, or even throwing the plate on the ground — after I had finished all of the arrabiata — would be a better option. Plump shrimp that exploded with flavour and al dente pasta under a tangy and spicy red tomato sauce were all that I needed on this particular evening of cicadas making noise in the background, a beautiful sunset, great company, and yet another martini that by now had me flying across the sky in an invisible jet. Oh, and not that it really matters, but cilantro goes with everything. Added as an accent to the arrabiata, I made a mental note again to carve a wooden hand for clapping anyone across the cheeks who boasts that they prepare the best arrabiata in the world. Clearly, they have not been to Club Lucky and had their dishes.

Cappuccino

By the time we had completed our pasta dishes, several more baskets of bread, and our martinis, we opted to sit for a while before indulging coffee and dessert. It was clear that while Club Lucky does not have an Italian nomenclature in it moniker, what comes from the kitchen is very much representative of Italy in a genuine sense. So, we felt comfortable with our dessert orders, albeit pedestrian. Cappuccino is rather standard coffee fare on menus at any restaurant you go to and instead of ordering espresso to completely wreck our martini high, it was cappuccino for us. Nothing fancy, nothing special, it was perfect and we drank ours sans sugar. Yes, you know you have a good cup of cappuccino in front of you when you do not need any sweeteners.

Apple Pie Ala Mode

One dessert we had eaten was apple pie with a dollop of vanilla ice cream. Again, nothing spectacular, but certainly not a dessert from the frozen food section at the local market. There were chunks of apples in their natural sauces, not in a compost, which was another indication that the pie did not come from a bakery. I know that may sound like a purist statement, but when the sauce is a jelly, you have a compost from a can. That was not the case at Club Lucky. Okay, so the ice cream was not gelato and it no doubt was a scoop of Breyer’s, the main dessert was the star. But you could almost hear the pie singing to us, “You don’t have to be a star to be in my show.” And then there was the tiramisu. One bite and there was indecisiveness. There was breathlessness. There was a need to fight the urge to moan. Whoever the little Italian woman was in the kitchen who soaked the ladyfingers in rum and whipped up the mascarpone cheese and concocted such an awesome dessert deserves to have her feet washed. I have seen people get the Holy Spirit in church and I wanted to do my dance while feasting on the tiramisu.

Tiramisu

By the end of the evening, my friend and I waddled a few blocks away and teetered into a boutique grocery store where I purchased a bottle of wine for later dinners. As to our experience at Club Lucky, anyone with an insatiable appetite and an appreciation for exquisite Italian dining would do well to get his or feet under a table and get sated. Had it not been for the Facebook advertisement of the martinis, which were a blast, who knows what restaurant I would have been at? After an evening of super service, fantastic food, and smile-inducing prices, the only thing that comes to mind is oh how lucky I am to be able to enjoy such bliss.

And Now for Our Regularly Scheduled Program

To the tune of “The Little Drummer Boy”

Eat, they told me
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
There’s so much food to eat
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
I made an ugly face
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
I had a foodgasm
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Chomp, cha, chomp, chomp

Baked Goat Cheese and Tomatoes with Toast

When my flight from Washington, DC, landed in Chicago, I was not a good ten paces in the terminal before I dropped to my knees and kissed the ground. If I had my way to describe things, I would say that God shows favour in Chicago because after several months in Washington, DC, the last people to turn their backs on that city are those who choose to live there. It is very humbling having someone scoff at your career in data management and statistics — that being a politician or a lawyer is viewed as worthy of sitting to the left of God, I guess. And of all things to lack, the food was so excessively bland that I wanted to bark. But the one guarantee that I knew with certainty was that I was returning to Chicago, to a world of culture and a variety of damn good food.

Shrimp Chipotle Fettuccini

I spent Saturday unpacking, washing, and packing again because I will be going away for the Christmas holiday. Happiness! On top of those personal chores, I was running all over the city test driving Volkswagen Jetta cars. Merry Christmas to me. By the end of the day and into the night, I was too tired to contemplate cooking and I did not want the smell of take-away in my new car. So I slept that night with a huge smile on my face and an agenda for the next day.

Mexican Hot Chocolate

It was off to Hyde Park in Chicago to a familiar restaurant of days past — Medici on 57th Street. Again, I say that I do believe God shows favour in Chicago. With good parking Karma, I found myself going into Medici and greeted with the most pleasant smile before taken to a seat where I could begin to overcompensate for the last few months in Washington, DC. Because the restaurants in Chicago have some allowance for a tweak to a menu item, I handed the menu back to the waitress and told her to surprise me. Out came a cup of baked goat cheese with chunky tomatoes and pesto, served with toast. Let me just say that you have not had a dip worthy of delighting yourself over until you have had the baked goat cheese at Medici on 57th. The waitress had said that it was her favourite and I played like it was marginally okay all while I did everything except run my finger around the inside of the bowl and lick it. Then came the shrimp chipotle fettuccine and broccoli. I have had fettuccine with shrimp, but spicing it up with chipotle added a twist that I had found surprisingly outstanding. The broccoli was crunchy, but not raw because it must have been steamed. It burst with flavour. And the shrimp were plentiful, considering they were large and plump.

Apple Pie ala Mode

The shrimp chipotle fettuccine was incredibly filling. But the waitress had said to me that I should have a dessert. So, I had the entrée boxed up so that I could take care of business with some dessert. She recommended the apple pie, which came with large slices of apple and caramel. This apple pie had a shortbread crust. Imagine that. Now imagine having that lovely bowl of bliss with vanilla ice cream. My eyes rolled about in my head and I stifled the moans and groans that would have escaped my lips had I been at my home eating the dessert. To wrap up the whole experience, I had Mexican hot chocolate. We are not talking about melted chocolate in hot water with cinnamon sprinkled on top. No, this was a cup of scalded milk and chocolate with cinnamon do correctly. I finally moaned, much to the laughter of those around me.

I will admit that family in DC did take me to some restaurants that were worthy of writing home about. Then again, those restaurants were in Maryland and in Virginia. It may be because of gentrification that Washington, DC, falls short of cultural diversity and that kind of absence hampers cultural norms like food selection. Chicago celebrates cultural diversity and even the gentrification that is filling in the Windy City still does not have enough influence to have the food pander to a single palate. If you are eating Stepford cuisine in Chicago, chances are it is because you are snacking on a frozen dinner.

I’m going to burn in hell
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
I ate too much to tell
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
I need elastic pants
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Another foodgasm
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Chomp, cha, chomp, chomp

Medici on 57th

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