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