NaKorn Urban Thai, Aroi Mak Mak

NaKorn Urban Thai

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

NaKorn Negroni

NaKorn Negroni

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

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

Taro Chicken

Taro Chicken

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

Pan Roasted White Fish Fillet

Pan Roasted Whitefish Fillet

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

Sazerac

Sazerac

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

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

Mango Sticky Rice

Mango and Sticky Rice

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

North Shore Punch

North Shore Punch

Shake and Shimmy

Shake and Shimmy

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

Watermelon with Crispy Shallots

Watermelon with Crispy Shallots

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

Vegetarian Scallop

Vegetarian Scallops

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

Coriander Crispy Shredded Beef Brisket

Coriander Crispy Shredded Beef Brisket

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

Steamed Baby Lobster Tail

Steamed Baby Lobster Tail

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

Jumbo Lump Blue Crab

Jumbo Lump Blue Crab

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

Panna Cotta with Fruit

Panna Cotta with Fruit

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

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

JJ Thai Street Food

JJ Thai Street Food

While enjoying some robata grill happiness at Yuzu, my favourite sushi and robata grill in Chicago’s West Town, the owner sat with my restaurant advisor and me so that we could catch up, having not seen each other since the New Year began. Afterwards, she walked us over to the first location where Yuzu first opened its doors for business for an introduction to the owners of the new restaurant that had moved in. My restaurant advisor and I only sampled a small dish called sai-krok e-sam. Two grilled Thai style pork and sour rice sausages were all we needed to return to JJ Thai Street Food at 1715 W. Chicago Avenue.

Sai-Krok E-Sam

Sai-Krok E-Sam

Having perused the menu, we noticed that much of the usual Thai fare was not listed. There was no pad Thai, pad see-ew, red curry, green curry, yellow curry, or Thai fried rice dishes. And during conversation with the owner, who was not present when the owner of Yuzu had walked us over to make the first introduction, it was then known that the food was prepared truly culturally, with made-to-order customizations on request. This was a plus because it was apparent we’d have dishes cooked they way they are cooked in Thailand proper.

Gai Satay

Gai Satay

Gyo Tod

Gyo Tod

Two menu items that we started with were gai satay, which were three skewers of chicken served with a creamy peanut sauce and a cucumber salad. Unlike gai satay at many Thai restaurants, the chicken breasts were substantial. And it took very little work to get the succulent chicken off of the skewers. The dish also came with grilled toast that tasted like cake when dipped in the accompanying peanut sauce. The second item was a small platter of gyo tod, which were fried wonton stuffed with ground chicken. Served with a spicy sweet and sour sauce, I don’t think I will ever want crab rangoon after having these lovelies.

Tom Yum Kung Nam Khon

Tom Yum Kung Nam Khon

Where it was evident that JJ Thai Street Food would make a consistent favorable impression on the palate was with the tom yum hung nam knon. This pot of soup had a spicy kick to it but without the highlighted sweetness one gets at a lot of Thai restaurants. The mushrooms were plump. There were no bell peppers, carrots, and onions. The shrimp was not popcorn shrimp. For the soup to have been minimalist with ingredients, it was aromatic to smell and divine to taste.

Khao Khai Ra Berd Ta Lay

Khao Khai Ra Berd Ta Lay

Because my restaurant advisor and I had budgeted the whole afternoon for a sampling of multiple dishes, one main landing we ordered was khao khai ra berd ta lay. Not a dish one usually skims across on menus at Thai restaurants, this plate of stir-fried shrimp, squids, and mussels with basil over rice and topped with a sunny side up egg was simply heaven. The spices were welcoming enough without making the dish hard to enjoy, but perfect enough to wake senses.

Khao Panang Neua

Khao Panang Neua

Our second main landing reminded me of a lamb panang dish I’ve had at Herb, which is my favourite fine dining Thai restaurant in Chicago. The khao panaeng neua was panang beef served over rice. Another minimalist dish, it came without the addition of a long list of ingredients, just a hearty gravy accented with a perfect amount of herbs and spices. This was proof that very little can be a plus with preparing extremely enticing menu items.

Khao Mun Gai

Khao Mun Gai

The final landing was khao mun gai, which was braised chicken served over ginger rice with a cup of chicken stock. Looking at the plate, one would think it had no flavor to it. The khao panaeng neua had already resulted in very little conversation between my restaurant advisor and me, but the khao mun gai had rendered us completely silent. This must be a surprise dish because for it to look tasteless, the seasoning of the chicken without being too much and the ginger rice made for an outstanding dish. Even with the accompanying spicy side sauce, there was a punch before adding it that made the dish addictive.

Thai Iced Tea

Thai Iced Tea

Chicago boasts a large number of Thai restaurants and while I have been to many that I love and frequent, JJ Thai Street Food is indeed the second Thai restaurant where I have developed an addiction. I recommend it highly. The service is impeccable. Being familiar with authentic Thai food and having a limited grasp of the Thai language, I had a bit of ease with ordering and asking for recommendations. But I am certain that the service would have been just as outstanding had I not switched in my limited Thai. As to the food, I cannot express how much I have become a fan. Everything is cooked once the order is placed, so nothing comes to the table immediately. Be glad because that means you’re getting a meal with fresh ingredients, not pre-packaged, not defrosted and microwaved, but prepared on the spot. I’ll leave you with two phrases to use while at JJ Thai Street Food: aroy (delicious) and kab kun krub (thank you).

JJ Thai Street Food 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

Make it Spicy, Spicier, 527 Cafe

527 CafeLong trips away are fantastic. The return is a bit much to bear, though, especially if it means you come home to an empty refrigerator. As a bachelor with a constant appetite that keeps me at some restaurant, I should know better. But it’s still good to know that in a city of options, I won’t suffer jet lag on an empty stomach.

Green Tea

Green Tea

While having a moment to relax and catch up on a few email notes, since I don’t read email or texts while I’m gone on personal holiday, I saw one note from a friend who had asked me about any Taiwanese restaurants in the metropolitan area. A quick Google search turned up one for 527 Cafe at 527 Davis Street in Evanston, Illinois. I yawned, stretched, grabbed my camera, and dashed to the bus stop.

I arrived to the sound of laughter, forks clinking on plates, spoons scraping bowls, and slurping. And if the vibrant colours didn’t wake me up, the smells coming from the kitchen did. At the counter, I asked for recommendations for a few Taiwanese dishes. Not necessarily looking to stuff myself to capacity, since trans Atlantic flights feed you well, I took recommendations for a snack item and one that would not have my stomach growling during my intended 12-hour slumber.

Popcorn Chicken

Popcorn Shrimp

For a starter, I had popcorn chicken. My initial thought was that I would get a plate of chicken tenders cut into smaller pieces. What I got was what I imagine to be some rather addictive street food. Not only were the bite size chicken tender and juicy, but the batter was rather spicy. I can’t emphasize  how much I love spicy food. I quickly flagged this as a favourite and any time I am in Evanston in the future, this will be my go-to item while having a quick stroll through downtown Evanston to and from whatever destination I have there.

Spicy Fish Stir Fry

Spicy Fish Stir Fry

When I was ordering, the woman at the cash register had asked what kind of meat I liked. Being a lover of seafood, she offered the recommendation of spicy fish. This came as a stir fry with onions and bell peppers. It was spicier than I had expected and I thanked the cashier because clearly she recognized that I would be fine devouring dishes with a kick to them.

Many Asian restaurants in the metropolitan Chicago area have a tendency to entertain a fusion component in their menus. While there are indeed some authentic Taiwanese dishes on their menus, I think there are also some Korean items available. The cashier was outstanding with giving recommendations and even when I had told her about my friend who asked about any Taiwanese restaurants, more specifically any that sell “lunch boxes,” she told me to have my friend come for a visit. I shall, and I will accommodate her on what shall be a return visit for me.

527 Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

When You Crave Lemon Grass, Serai

With the New Year off to a good start and the temperatures not lingering below zero degrees, I have started to explore a bit more of Logan Square. And while looking for some international cuisine that I have not experienced in Chicago yet, I was surprised to see a new restaurant in Logan Square that piqued my interest. Only a month old, Serai at 2169 N. Milwaukee Avenue brings Malaysian cuisine to Chicago proper. I forwarded the online menu to a Malaysian friend for authenticity. He confirmed. I made a date. I went. I ate. I wanted to eat more. I will return and eat more.

Serai

Rather than taking a chance going after work, I went early during the day on a Sunday afternoon. What became quite obvious while scanning the menu was that this restaurant is going to become a neighbourhood favourite quickly. It was during my ordering that I got a hint of why it draws a crowd. The service ranks a 25 on a scale of 1 to 10. The server recommended that I treat my first visit as an introductory visit and come back several more times for a sampling of different dishes.

Teh Tarik

Teh Tarik

The server started me off with roti pratha. Being a fan, lover, addict of curry, the dish was divine on my palate by default. In this dish, there is the influence from Indian immigrants who came to Malaysia. The curry came with potatoes and bits of chicken. And instead of devouring this by using a spoon, I used the roti bread to sop the curry gravy. Thanks to the gravy being hearty, it stuck to the bread nicely and I was surprised that I finished the appetizer without needing use of a spoon.

Roti Pratha

Roti Pratha

For a second appetizer, I had satay chicken over a small salad of cucumbers and onions with peanut sauce. Most Thai restaurants have satay chicken on the menu and the server explained to me that Malaysian cuisine gets a bit of influence from Thailand. When food is so blooming good, I lose my purist notions. I had none while feasting on the chicken that came off of the wooden skewers with little effort.

Satay Chicken

Satay Chicken

My Malaysian friend had mentioned that char koay teow was authentically Malaysian. Surprisingly, the server recommended it as an entrée I should try. This is a popular noodle dish in Malaysian cuisine that reminds me a bit of some Chinese noodle dishes. Again, my server clued me in that there is also a Chinese influence in some dishes. The recipe had blood clams, huge shrimp, fried egg, shrimp paste, Chinese sausage, and bean sprouts prepared in a savoury soy sauce. Absolute heaven on a plate.

Char Koay Teow

Char Koay Teow

For a dessert, I opted for something traditional yet certainly different from what you’d expect. I indulged a cup of pulut hitam. One thing I have learned and love is that many Asian restaurants employ ingredients in dessert recipes that make you forget that you’re not having cake, cookies, or pies. The pulut hitam was prepared as black rice porridge with palm sugar and topped with coconut milk. Primarily an Indonesian dessert, and with a heavy presence in the Peranakan/Baba-Nyonya culture, it still was enough of an influence that I enjoyed it to completion. And with a cup of teh tarik, hot milk tea commonly called “pulled” tea, I was one satisfied customer when I finally extracted myself from my seat to depart.

Pulut Hitam

Pulut Hitam

Serai has a BYOB policy. Given that they do an incredible job of sending the best Malaysian food from the kitchen that you will find in Chicago, drop by a wine shop and inquire as to a good red wine or rose that will go with Malaysian food. I have already made a tickler to remind me to go by a wine shop to get a recommendation for a bottle of wine to go with a rendeng dish. Priorities.

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

Rickshaw Republic, Starting 2016

Rickshaw Republic

So, here we are at 2016. Thanksgiving and Christmas of 2015 saw warm weather. The very end of the year went from moderate temperatures to icy overnight. That’s Chicago for you. With those temperatures hovering  near single digits, that means my appetite requires more satisfaction. My ongoing New Year’s Eve Resolution is to search for more food. Only two days into 2016 and I find myself in some restaurant experiencing food happiness.

Sate Ayam

Sate Ayam

Rickshaw Republic at 2312 N. Lincoln Avenue became my first new restaurant for the Near Year with international flare. Several years ago, I had gone to an Indonesian restaurant in Rogers Park and it has since closed. There is another restaurant in Lincoln Park that marries Indonesian and Dutch influence. However, I wanted 100% Indonesian, not fusion, not influence, not faux.

Sate Udang

Sate Udang

For one starter, I had sate ayam. This was chicken satay served on wooden skewers. Dipped in a peanut sauce and topped with crushed peanuts along with a small cucumber salad, I was off to a satisfying start. The sate udang, which was huge shrimp cut butterfly style and served on skewers with a ginger sauce and small cucumber salad, I was almost to my happy place.

Beef Rendang, Coconut Rice, String Beans, Corn Fritter

Beef Rendang, Coconut Rice, String Beans, Corn Fritter

At the recommendation of the server, I arrived at my happy place thanks to a plate of beef rendang, coconut rice, spicy string beans, potato and corn fritter, boiled egg, and zucchini and carrot salad. The panang and other gravies were addictive. I figured the string beans and fritter would be pedestrian, but they were anything but bland accompaniments. The curry gravy over the green beans was not overpowering, which allowed for tasting garden fresh beans. The corn fritter would make a perfect morning starter. The winners were the tender beef under panang gravy and the lip-smacking coconut rice.

Wedang Cincau dan Selasih

Wedang Cincau dan Selasih

I realized that I was not going to have any room for dessert, so I opted for something that would not be heavy on my stomach. The main cook, who I believe owns the restaurant, brought a glass of wedang cincau dan selasih to me. If anyone had told me that grass jelly and basil seeds in ginger syrup was a good option, let alone good for digestion, I would have smirked and ordered something else. Nary a drop of alcohol in it, I could easily become addicted to it as if it was spiked.

Rickshaw Republic has been in Chicago’s Lincoln Park for over three years. Since Angin Mamari, the Indonesian restaurant I mentioned earlier close, Rickshaw Republic is indeed the only authentic Indonesian restaurant in metropolitan Chicago. The inside is spacious. The service was outstanding, from the recommendations and the owner even coming out to chat briefly. Rickshaw Republic has another fan: me.

Oh, my realistic New Years Resolution: wait until leaving the restaurant to squeal with satisfaction if the food is really, really, OMG, really delicious.

Rickshaw Republic Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Down the Yellow Hutong Road

Hutong Fresh Asian Cafe

One thing I must admit is that you can never get enough of good Asian food when it is prepared properly. Some may inquire as to what other way can Asian food be done. If you have had any authentic Asian food, and by that I mean cooked in someone’s home, not at a buffet kitchen, then you know the difference. The food is spicy — not necessarily in the manner that it burns when you eat it — but it is full of flavour. There is a bloom to what you eat. You almost do not want to refuse offerings of more. For something quick, many of the express Asian cafes and buffet halls provide something akin to frozen shrimp meals: a lot of crust and the rest is essence. Bite into a  shrimp that comes with a frozen dinner and tell me how much actual shrimp you sank your teeth into. That is what you get with a lot of Asian cafes that do not want to offend a common palate. An absence of spices, a hint of flavour, and a lot of questionable output, you may find yourself barking like a dog in protest for having something so anti-delicious.

Fresh Ginger AleOne evening when I had finished work, I went to Oak Park, Illinois, to buy some wine, bread, and cheese from a cheese market that has become a big hit with my culinary sensibilities. It has reached the point where whoever is at the counter addresses me by first name. Yes, I love this particular wine shop so much that I am in there weekly procuring something for my snacking pleasure. But let me not digress. Although the downtown area of Oak Park is relatively small, I had covered most of the eateries in the pedestrian area of boutiques, cafes, and restaurants. But there was one that a friend had mentioned and seeing that there was some outdoor seating that I could take, I opted to follow her recommendation. Hutong Fresh Asian Cafe at 1113 Lake Street had the look and feel of the usual boilerplate Asian restaurant. Well, it actually has the canned ambiance of any American get-it-and-go establishment with a dine-in option. Where this restaurant’s impression exceeds expectations is with the output. While they may follow a formula that is popular now among most walk-in restaurants, the cosmetics of the place pale in comparison to the quality of the food that they serve. It may be that the eatery is relatively new, so the greeting from the cashier has a positive light. Then again, the hello with the smile I received may very well have been authentic. At the end of the day, you know people are ready to vacate the premises and go home or wherever. A smile that does not look pained after 6:00 PM is indeed genuine and that makes the establishment that more inviting.

Crab Rangoon

Being safe, I chose the Thai option and started with crab rangoon. Not really paying a lot of attention to the menu, I figured the crab rangoon would come as four small pastries stuffed with cream cheese and crab. Much to my chagrin, there were three crab rangoon, but they were delightfully substantial. And when you bite into them and the cream cheese does not projectile about, you know you have just had something worthy of recommending to friends and family. Much like crab rangoon served at Thai restaurants, there was a sweet and spicy sauce that came as an accompaniment. Yes, it was smashing. Not enough to drench the appetizer, it was enough to glaze them and I enjoyed every chomp just the same. With a pure ginger ale in hand, I was quite the happy chap devouring the wonder appetizer. Not that the ginger ale was something to fan and faint over, I will say that I love all-natural products. Seeing pure ginger floating about in the drink and the taste that was spicy but not enough to choke you, I will seek this particular brand in the markets. Sticking with the Thai theme, I had also ordered a red curry dish with chicken. As I have mentioned in several other posts, Thai restaurants in Chicago tend to waffle between thin curries and hearty curries. At Hutong Fresh Asian  Cafe, the curry was of a consistency somewhere in between. But that was okay. Loaded with green peas, brocolli, bamboo shoots, and eggplant, I understood how the word Fresh got introduced into the name of the restaurant. I kid you not when I say that I believe they have a garden in the back or somewhere nearby that has not fallen prey to the evils of pesticides and growth products. The chicken was fresh, for one, but the vegetables were certainly organic. The colouring and the flavour were all the cues I needed to know that I was putting something healthy into my body. My appetite appreciated it.

Red Curry Chicken

Looks can be deceiving and American restaurants have now taken on what I dub the Stanley Kubrick formula. Most upscale fast food eateries are applying the look and feel of Chipotle, Roti, Burrito Beach, and the like. While those cookie-cutter establishments have everything sitting in front for review, and you get served in a conveyor belt fashion, Hutong Fresh Asian Cafe does not have everything on display for you to point to while in a queue with other customers. One may argue pessimistically that you have no idea what is coming from the kitchen, but if you can taste the freshness, you can be confident that it is worth the trip to ease on down the yellow hutong road to get something that not only will your appetite thank you for, but also your body.

31 July 2012

Eurythmics Comes to Mind

Sweet dreams are made of this,
Who am I to disagree?
I travelled the world and the seven seas,
Everybody’s looking for something

Ah, I remember that song from the Eurythmics, way back when I was in high school and a huge fan of the 80’s British invasion. That song had been playing quite a bit recently, and I attribute part of it to serendipity in advance of me going to a boutique restaurant in Oak Park, Illinois, named Seven Ocean. While Annie Lennox provided her velvet voice over the words “seven seas,” Seven Ocean fit rather nicely and I was happy all the same, for I was going to have an adventure in fine dining.

Willamet Valley Vineyards RiselingLocated in downtown Oak Park at 122 N. Marion Street on a cobblestone stretch of small shops, restaurants, and independent cafes, is the neighbourhood’s most recent addition — Seven Ocean. Providing fine cuisine with an Asian influence, Seven Ocean is minimalist in its interior decoration. Not that ambience only defines a restaurant, that being the food here takes centre stage, there is a Stanley Kubrick sterile feel that I actually like. Then again, the man in me loves straight lines, simple colours, and lots of space. With nice jazz playing in the background, I was certain that the evening was going to be worth the visit. Given an intrepid and great waiter, he explained to me what I would receive in a seven-course tasting with wine pairing. Lucky for me I had skipped having a hearty lunch because seven courses with wine were certain to induce a state of bliss.

Tuna Tar Tar

For starting, I had tuna tar tar with a 2010 Riesling from Willamette Valley Vineyards. As far as white wines go, and I am not a wine snob, you simply cannot go wrong with a Riesling. On the dish, the only meat that I like raw is that in sushi. Even in Japan, I was okay delighting myself with several dishes of seafood that had not passed over any flame. Tar tar, on the other hand, is something I tend to avoid, mostly because it is some tar tar made from beef or another four-legged animal that I do not even eat cooked. However, the tuna tar tar at Seven Ocean receives exemption. Fresh tuna with Asian pear, avocado, aioli, raw wasabi tobileo, and chilli oil came on a plate with fried lotus root chips. So colourful, so appealing, and so appetizing, I slowly worked the tuna tar tar until there was only a faint smear of the chilli oil left. Not that I will indulge myself relentlessly on any other kind of tar tar after loving the tuna tar tar the way that I did, I will remember that Asian influence in food entertains exotic preparation. It was evident that Seven Ocean got it correct.

Fried Tiger Prawn

The second course was tiger prawn, lightly breaded and fried with a crust reminiscent of tempura. Served with beet root, wasabi sprout, and a tamarind caramel reduction, it had dawned on me that I was then in food heaven. Yes, the portions were small, as this was a taste, but the prawns were so plump that they practically popped shortly after my teeth sank past the tempura crust. Low-key jazz music playing in the background, each bite was hypnotic. Had there been a worry bothering me earlier, I had completely forgotten whatever the trouble was by the time I had finished the second course.

Edamame Cream Soup

Black Rice Noodle Served Cold in Balsamic VinaigretteThen came another glass of a white wine, a 2011 stainless Chardonnay from Chamisal Vineyards. A bit dryer than the Riesling, it was still an excellent accompaniment to the edamame cream soup that came as the third course. Usually, you when you hear the word edamame, you think of the bowl of salted beans served at Japanese restaurants. Served as a soup with soy, fresh cream tobiko and truffle oil and bacon infusing, you have a winning delicacy. After the second course was a peak dish, I initially thought that the soup was going to be a trip down into the valley. Absolutely not. Given some light, tasty bread or some exotic wafers, I could eat that edamame soup endlessly while enjoying wine with it.

Next to the table was black rice noodle served cold in balsamic vinaigrette with crab meat and sweet pepper over an asparagus spear. There was a tremendous Japanese persuasion in this dish. Not really sold on the course when the waiter was first explaining the dish, I was completely wowed after twirling a bit of the noodle and spooning it with the crab meat onto my tongue. Far from elaborate in presentation, the flavour was a work of culinary art and I beheld the visual effect briefly before continuing to polish off the rest. Even the asparagus spear that looked to have been steamed only tasted better than some doctored-up asparagus that I have had at other eateries. The fourth course was another winner.

Fried Red Snapper

Up to the table with the fifth course was a glass of 2011 savignon blanc from Wither Hills Vineyard in Marlborough, New Zealand. Not a bad choice, it was an ideal selection for the fried red snapper. Pan seared with home made sweet and sour sauce, chopped apple, red onion, and dried chilli, I could have stopped, said that the five courses were top, requested the bill, paid, and left it at that. The West Indian in me loves red snapper, but having it at Seven Ocean really introduced a lust factor for the seafood that I had never experienced before. I thought the presentation was eye-catching, but nothing compared to the concert of ingredients making such a delectable recipe for love. And the savignon blanc was a remarkable partnering. Just to savour each bite, I was slow about engaging the dish to completion too fast and then having eater’s remorse. Love is to be cherished and that red snapper was the epitome of love.

Roast Duck Breast

When I thought that nothing could best what I had eaten already, there came as the sixth course a glass of 2009 cabernet savignon from La Linda Vineyards and roast duck breast in mild Thai red curry with saffron rice, crispy fried red onion, and langon. After the first bite, I forced myself to pause. Words could not describe how much I wanted to dance, sing, do something involving running for no apparent reason. Let me just say that the langon, which is an Asian tree fruit like lichee, tasted better than any plum or grape that I have ever had. Naturally sweet, this otherwise bland looking ball is so delicious that I would find it hard to believe that Asian children cringe whenever their parents try to get them to eat langon. As to the duck breast, this was not the oily duck that I have had at numerous restaurants before. Eaten with the companion saffron rice that was topped with the fried red onions, I was a man full of life and sated with great food.

Dinner is Served

Last to the table was dessert. Thankful that this was not heavy since I had been filled proper with six prior courses, I smiled at the presentation of a familiar dish — a plate of fresh sliced mango with sweet sticky rice, coconut cream with strawberry sauce drizzle, and chocolate sauce. Granted the dessert was not as fancy as the other dishes, and it was light so that one could finish all of it without feeling forced, the mango and sticky rice comprised a Thai delicacy that I have loved ever since I began eating Thai cuisine years ago. The chocolate sauce was more for effect, but the rest pandered to my constant appetite nicely.

La Linda Cabernet Savignon, 2009From the reservation to the confirmation of the reservation to the arrival and then to the whole dining experience, Seven Ocean is at the top of my list of restaurants. Not particularly a fan of fusion or Pan-Fill-in-the-Blank restaurants, when an establishment gets the concept correct, I will be the first to admit that I can become their greatest fan. The price is stiff, but nothing like restaurants that vie for or obtain top Michelin star ratings. I must say that I got more than what I paid for and the service was worthy of bottling, which is not something possible to do. Understanding that Seven Ocean just opened their doors, I hope that they receive more business. There are three factors working in their favour: delicious cuisine, fantastic service, and reasonable fare. Sweet dreams are made of these things. Fortunately for me, I travelled to Seven Ocean and found another awesome haunt for my culinary wants.

Seven Ocean on Urbanspoon

Food Pandemic

A beautiful and warm Saturday for the month of February and my appetite had been reminding me that the bagel and tea that I had earlier in the day was not enough to carry me through until dinner. I was on the Northwest Side of Chicago and wondered what I would eat to please the monster — my hunger, that is. I pulled out my trusty cell phone and accessed Yelp to get recommendations for some eateries in the nearby area. One listing that showed up was for a Singaporean restaurant. Hmmm. I did not know that Chicago had a Singaporean community, but I have managed to find a lot of ethnicities all over the great city of Chicago. The restaurant, Jess Cafe at 5819 W. Belmont Avenue, is actually Pan-Asian. I heaved a heavy sigh, as Pan-Asian restaurants tend to be more about quantity than quality per se. They will cover everything from Japanese to Chinese to Vietnamese to Thai to Malaysian to Indonesian to Cambodian to Mexican and Italian. Unless the cuisine is explicitly listed in its own section, you could be mislead into thinking you are eating something authentically representative of any of the Asian ethnicities when it could be a concoction instead of a dish from “the old country.” And I thought again about how I would label Jess Cafe on Chicago Alphabet Soup. This left me wondering if I should consider Pan-Asian as an ethnic listing for some restaurants.

Tempura Shrimp

On initial entry into Jess Cafe, I was certain that the whole experience was going to be a complete racket. While not bustling with patrons, there appeared to be the entire kitchen staff at a table having an afternoon meal and siesta. The wait staff was all over the place. And the individual at the front counter was having a rather casual yet engaging conversation on the phone. Remember the saying “You never get a second chance to make a first impression”? After standing for a couple of minutes — not knowing whether I was to seat myself or not — I took the initiative to secure a nearby booth. I sat for a while before someone brought me water and after sitting some more looking through the colossal menu, I managed to get the eye of someone so that I could place my order. Let me just add that the menu was extensive to the point where I think the restaurant covers every recipe known in Asian cuisine. I eyed shrimp tempura and another dish of salt and pepper soft shell crab.

The shrimp tempura reminded me more of coconut crusted shrimp rather than thinly battered tempura shrimp. One thing I must say is that I was glad the shrimp was plump and succulent in the batter. And the shrimp seemed to have been seasoned well, as it was not just merely shrimp in a crispy batter. There was some pop to the dish. Perhaps their take on tempura was different than what you get in Japanese cuisine. The salt and pepper soft shell crab was outstanding. This came with steamed rice and a vinegar-based dipping sauce that reminded me of a salt and pepper chicken dish that I had eaten at a Vietnamese restaurant in Chicago’s Edgewater neighbourhood several years ago. What I will add is that I have yet to have any soft shell crab that I did no like. One would think that salt and pepper only would not be enough to season anything such that it would be flavourful. That was not the case with the soft shell crab. That was all the seasoning that was needed and my empty plate was testament to that.

Soft Shell Crab

Surprisingly, Jess Cafe was worth the trip. The reviews that I had read were mixed, waffling between devoted love of the restaurant and utter disgust. Minus the sketchy service, the food and the price make Jess Cafe an eatery worthy of a return. In the reviews, there were a lot of plugs for how awesome the bubble tea and the smoothies are. Well, on my next visit, I shall have to see if there is truth to those assertions. And at the end of the day, I returned home to make plans for my next food adventure. Hahaha. Insert sound byte of me saying, “Yum,” with exaggeration.

Arigato. She-she nee. Gam si hapni da. Thank you.

Jess Cafe on Urbanspoon