Isn’t It Pleasant?

Pleasant House

A few months ago a great friend from Dallas sent a note to me via Facebook about a British public house in Chicago. As I only received a link to the website, I imagined that the restaurant had caught my friend’s attention after being featured in an article or on a show. Turns out that this particular eatery had been featured on a segment of Check Please! Well, well, well. The manager of any restaurant in the Chicago metropolitan area on the verge of a swift death should beg, plead, snivel, make promises, and put on performances to get on Check Please! for a revitalization of its business. But Pleasant House Bakery at 964 W. 31st Street is relatively new and a feature segment on Check Please! would no doubt make it skyrocket. Tucked in the middle of the Bridgeport neighbourhood, which is undergoing a change due to gentrification, this eatery/bakery does a fantastic job of leaving those of us with British grounding and British leanings missing that little old isle.

Steak and Ale PieA staple on the menu is the royal pie. In America, there are customary pot pies that can be large and hearty, with fillings much like stews. Royal pies are smaller and less filling. Therefore, you enjoy the pie without falling prey to food comatose thereafter. I started with a steak and ale pie, which is definitely a must-have on the isle and off the isle. Because my diet is primarily pecatarian, meat is not something I indulge every time the whim strikes a note with me. Steak and ale has steak in it, of course, and Pleasant House Bakery uses all-natural beef instead of meat riddled with additives, growth products, and other non-organic not-so-goods. Also added are slices of carrots in a gravy made of an ale that you can actually taste. No, to all the alcoholics and those who have recently turned twenty-one, you will not get drunk from the ale in the royal pie. I had spuds as an accompanying side order with a red wine gravy. And these spuds, or rather potatoes, were not made from powder. There was no from-the-box aftertaste to give them away.

Chicken Balti Royal PieI should have stopped at the steak and ale pie. No, I just had to have the chicken balti pie. I had to have more meat. I had to give in to the delectable taste and succumb to my addiction. The chicken balti pie was absolutely incredible, in all caps. Again, there is the pie with a flaky and rather flavourful crust, nothing like the Swanson’s frozen treats from the local market. Just like the steak and ale pie, the chicken balti pie’s crust was like that of a pastry. Think a more solid, yet fresh, croissant. All-natural chicken, not the danger chickens that have been enhanced for quick distribution, in fresh-ground curry spices with tomato and Nigella seeds completed the wonderful pie that I polished off with flourish. To add a hint of Indian dining to the mix, there was some coriander chutney that I had for dipping.  Wow. Again, I had spuds with the red wine gravy, and I also had English peas buttered with mint. There was a break in the clouds and a ray of light shined upon my table, illuminating the glass of ginger soda — oh how I love home-made ginger soda — that I drank in between heavy sighs of food bliss.

Trifle

Late last year, I had found out that I needed to be more careful with my sugar and carbohydrate intake. So, I had taken sugar out of my diet, full stop, not quite overzealous enough to eliminate bread in the same manner. Things are better now and I will indulge a sweet every once in a while, in moderation, of course. Because I have been good, I allowed myself a bowl of trifle. You simply do not have to be fancy with custard, apples, sponge cake, and whipped cream. However, a parfait of it goes over so well, so very well, so incredibly well. Fresh? Yes. Delicious? Yes. Would I have some more? Yes, it goes without saying. While some restaurants and even some bakeries could have too much sugar in the recipe, the sweetness of the apples — that were not doused in syrup, thank God — and the lightness of the sponge cake leave you with a dessert that does not have your doctor screaming, Alas! Along with the trifle, I took a cup of coffee with thick cream that resulted in me not needing any sugar. I was completely sated after I was done.

Ginger SodaUsually when restaurants try to include British cuisine on its menu, the attempt wows in the naming convention of certain menu items, but the output splashes. Pleasant House Bakery shines. I shall warn you that because the food is absolutely fantastic, the eatery fills up quickly. Get there early, be prepared for a wait because the establishment is small and quaint, or be okay with ordering something for take-away. Whoever started the restaurant apparently went to the United Kingdom and went to some eateries way out in the country where you indeed get some of the best royal pies there are to be had. It is also obvious in the minimalist atmosphere the restaurant exudes. I got a breeze of Cardiff, a whiff of Ipswich, a hint of New Castle on Tyne, the smiles of Peterborough. My visits to London, Bromley to be more specific, may not be all that frequent. But in the meantime, I will gladly make the dash over to Pleasant House Bakery for a taste of the old country.

Pleasant House Bakery on Urbanspoon

Forget Crepes, All About Pannenkoeken

Pannenkoeken

While perusing some photos of food on Foodspotting, I had come across a composition of a pancake that screamed for me to come and get it. I had made a note of the name of the restaurant where the photo was taken and had entered a reminder into my cell phone for a visit. Chicago winters make it impossible to extract yourself from your warm bed on Saturday mornings. And I have fleece sheets on my bed. For every Saturday in February my alarm went off, I hit the off button, and then promptly went back to bed. With a little bit of warming in the temperatures and going to bed early on a Friday evening, I finally got up and went to Pannenkoeken, the restaurant where the photo I saw on Foodspotting was captured. At 4757 N. Western Avenue in Chicago’s Lincoln Square, is one of the quaintest German cafes in the city. When I say quaint, it is very small, in the vein of cafes and eateries in Europe, where you indeed sit close to neighbouring patrons. It was just my style.

Eggs Scrambled Well with Mascarpone

Because I needed to wake up completely, not just merely functionally, I had a cup of coffee to start. The only sweetener I had in the coffee was whatever there was from the sweetness of the cream. I made a mental note that whatever roast they were using was not bad. Perusing the menu, I was quite happy to see that there was a retention of authenticity in the servings. Pannenkoeken evidently does not feel a need to accommodate breakfast cuisine not of the German kind. Yes, there were Belgian waffles on the menu, but Belgium is not far from the borders of Germany and I am sure Germany is not without having been influenced accordingly. There was French toast on the menu, yes. But there were options for pannenkoeken that really stood out most. Not an exhaustive menu, like you find at something as pedestrian as an Original Pancake House, but the flavourful options seemed daunting because after looking at the servings, temptation wants you to try everything. I was content with sampling at most three menu choices on this first visit.

French Toast with Mascarpone and Blueberry Compote

Switching into my vegetarian mode for breakfast, I started with a plate of eggs scrambled well with mascarpone cheese. I have such a great love for cream cheese in my scrambled eggs, but trying mascarpone cheese in my eggs really hit a resounding note with me. Now when I go to restaurants for breakfast or brunch, Italian restaurants for sure, I will request mascarpone cheese to be added to my scramble. Then there was the plate of French toast with mascarpone cheese and home-made blueberry compote. After eating the blueberry compote, the blueberries exploding with flavour that the tongue relished, I do not want any more of that syrupy brew that comes from the can. I could quickly devolve into a brat in a high chair throwing his plate against the wall if I get anything claiming to be home-made compote yet nothing more than fruit drowned in molasses. There was so much flavour in the compote at Pannenkoeken and the French toast not reminding me of cinnamon on an Eggo waffle. And then an apple ginger pannenkoeken arrived at the table. By the time I came up for air, and I mean every word of that, there had been a change of faces at several tables. Again, the apples were not from some can, apparent because they were not dripping with syrup. And the ginger in the pannenkoeken. You could taste the ginger in the pannenkoeken. The thin pancake looked as though it would be a feat to undertake, but I smiled as I worked my fork, knife, and teeth on it. I was satisfied thoroughly — and again, I mean every word of it.

Apple Ginger Pannenkoenen

One thing I should mention is that Pannenkoeken has a cash-only policy. It can become quite easy to find yourself delighting the taste buds without a care in the world and then extract a credit card from the wallet once the bill arrives. You will have to pay cash. That is a small inconvenience — and you cannot even call it that. After all that I had eaten, the bottomless cup of coffee while at the cafe, and the coffee that I bought to go, the tab was considerably lower than what I would have had to pay at any of the brand name big box restaurants. As I mentioned earlier, the cafe is very small and intimate, so I highly recommend that you arrive as soon as the doors open. I am not joking. Trust me. When you get there, you will understand. Hmmm. You may even find yourself saying, “Lecker,” and not even know where your impromptu use of German came from.

Pannenkoeken Cafe on Urbanspoon

Hello, Chicago, Long Time

Eyrie Restaurant

L'amuse Bouche, BruschettaLast year around this time, I was in a fit of frenzy rushing off to Washington, DC, for a work-related project, one that quickly became a defining moment for me to leave the company in advance of a coming exodus. Fast forward to 2012, same month, and I was gallivanting from Calgary, Alberta, to Montreal, Quebec, to Lisbon, Portugal, with my high school sweetheart. What a difference a day makes? What a difference a year makes. It was December of 2011 when I gave my resignation with a sigh of relief and moved to a bigger project and then later in 2012 to an even more lucrative position, but it feels as though I have been gone for at least three years. And much like Europeans, me still retaining my British leaning, my high school sweetheart and I were gone for a stretch of three weeks unlike the American vacation dynamic where you take a Friday here and there only to have co-dependence at the office require you to stop whatever you are doing, even if you are on the other side of the world. So, 717,384 photos, eleven additional pounds and jeans that I have had to retire, and what I shall call a random case of jet lag later, I am back in Chicago pandering to my addiction to food.

Before I had left for the first leg of my rendezvous with my international travelling companion, since she and I have made a pact to travel abroad together for the rest of our lives, I had passed a restaurant at 128 N. Oak Park Avenue in Oak Park, Illinois, named Eyrie. With me working in downtown Chicago, I could never accommodate the lunch hours. And their weekend hours are every first and third Saturdays starting at 7:00 PM. What grabbed my attention most was that the restaurant is a part of the culinary arts program at Robert Morris University in Chicago. Thinking that this is a good way for the students to obtain great training and showcase their kitchen talents, I made a reservation in advance of my holiday trip to sample their autumn menu and, along with my constant appetite, was ready for action after my return to Chicago and trying to readjust to being back on Central Standard Time.

Pumpkin Soup with Pistachio OilOn entry, the young hostess was very accommodating with my request for photography. Noting the lighting on the inside, I was going to have to use a flash on my camera and so that the flash would not scare any other patrons — as it is bright enough to kill a vampire — I used a soft box to soften the bursts. They had set my table so that I was facing into the restaurant and after I had explained that I was going to do photography, the set-up was changed so that I faced away and could light up my section as much as I pleased. No cringing, no wincing, no exaggerated sighing, just customer service and that set the tone for what had morphed into one of the Top 5 dining experiences I have had this year in the Chicago metropolitan area.

Because I had opted to drive to the restaurant, I chose tea instead of wine. You bring your own beverage anyway and not being a wine sommelier or snob, I could not think of a wine to pair with the meal. And having been in warm Lisbon only to return to frosty Chicago, something warm would be good enough. The loose leaf raspberry tea was just that. Now, the Brit in me smiles when served loose leaf tea instead of tea in the bag. I think it has something to do with the feeling of putting care into your drink rather than the instant-just-add-water directive. Happiness and a dark purple tongue, I smiled while partaking of a l’amuse, a bruschetta with spiced apple and bacon. Not a fan of pork, but not an agent of making a scene, I gobbled the l’amuse and was quite pleased at how the combination of apple and bacon played well together. Nothing fancy in presentation, but the palate begged to differ with the pop in the taste. And along the same lines of limited presentation, the bowl of pumpkin soup with pistachio oil looked pedestrian. First scoop, and I had forgotten that there was no creme fraiche or a sprig of some green leaf thrown in for garnish. Thankful that there was not the usual pungent after-taste from pumpkin, there was only a festive celebration of flavour bandied about in my cheeks. Eaten with a warm dinner roll, it was clear that less visual stimulation could result in more taste sensation and me saying, “Wow,” like a scratched record.

SaladWhen I had made my reservation, I had specified that I did not want any nuts in my dishes. I think it may be the whole thing with texture that paints my face with a dour expression because I have no food allergies, just an extreme distaste for certain things. Nuts fit the loathe bin. The salad comprised arugula, apple, celery root, and blue cheese with a champagne vinaigrette. Had I been a fan of walnuts, there would have been candied walnuts included. But the salad came sans the nuts, and if I had to spend my life eating rabbit food until I can no longer pry my mouth open, I could be content on the salad from Eyrie. I have gone to some restaurants where the salads were so bland that there was a question of whether the course was added for effect or padding, quite evident when most of the salad is returned after eating a fork’s worth and pushing the rest around on the plate. I had to be prim at Eyrie, so I did not pick up the plate and complete the task of cleaning it with a tongue bath.

Tuscan Chicken

There was a moment of time, perhaps fifteen minutes, before the entrée came to the table. Remembering the meals that we had during our stint in Portugal, starting at 9:00 PM and having multiple courses that did not come to the table dumped all in one walk from the kitchen, it was nice letting the dinner roll, soup, and salad settle before having to wield a knife and fork on a main dish. Then the main course arrived. (Pause) Tuscan roasted chicken breast with cherry tomatoes, baby red bliss potatoes, and root vegetable gratin sat before me, ever so much a masterpiece in food bliss. How did they make the chicken so moist and juicy, yet cooked thoroughly at the same time? I have had juicy chicken that was as red as my eyes are after rubbing them and I have had chicken cooked so well that it was dry as tree bark. Of course, there was enough presentation to overshadow the fact that the outcome of the chicken could leave you shaking your head. Whatever balance the chef and cooks added to the Tuscan chicken at Eyrie should be packaged and presented at food conferences. Along the same lines of flat presentation, the potatoes looked seasoned only, but the flavour seemed to indicate that they had been marinated in herbs. There was too much taste to dispel the bland look they had as they waited for me to deal them their swift blow. The root vegetable, which I think was turnip, looked like it was a pastry puff. But, no, the vegetable with the light au gratin left me nodding in appreciation, my head going up and down like a bobble head. I was amazed at how I carved the chicken off the bone, the tenderness being a huge help as the meat just fell off. Swirling each piece through the pan sauce, I derived complete food satisfaction at my window seat and I am sure the passers-by could see the plastered smile and gravy on my face, before I wiped it away.

Ice Cream and CoffeeAfter a final cleansing of the palate with the tea, the hostess had come over to inquire as to whether I had a nut allergy. The dessert was to be a cinnamon roll profiterole with vanilla ice cream and sea salt caramel sauce. The cinnamon rolls are baked with pecans in them, so she wanted to be certain that I would not fall on the floor and flap about in agony. I explained that I simply had no fascination with nuts and she offered vanilla ice cream with the caramel sauce and coffee as a dessert option. I accepted and was incredibly pleased that something — yet again — so plain could have so much pizazz  The dessert was a perfect ending to an outstanding evening of fine dining and superb table service. The mark of good service is when you receive options given there are certain items that you cannot eat or simply prefer not to eat. There was no, “Oh, well, you are on your own,” “We can only offer you coffee,” or “Hmph,” as an option per the hostess. A genuine concern and an alternative, and I was pleased all the more with a sweet and coffee wrap-up. Eyrie gets it  correct.

Eyrie does not request tips, but asks that patrons make contributions towards the culinary arts department at Robert Morris University. There was something about that request that made the whole experience that more inviting. A culinary arts program is not a fixture at colleges or universities and seeing students get training with a chef who is far from a novice left me walking out of the restaurant with plans for a return and recommendations to friends in the area for an outstanding dining establishment. At a prix fixe of $40, I recall some high-end restaurants in Chicago that receive constant positive editorials because of the name while the food is as good as I would prepare in my kitchen. I am far from having noteworthy kitchen talents. However, I hope that Eyrie or some of the students find themselves in the newspaper or in a magazine editorial receiving proper press for fine dining. The return to Chicago from my holiday to get a seat at Eyrie was worthwhile. My compliments to the chef and to the future chefs.