Feeling French, Craving Crepes, Crepe Bistro

Crepe Bistro

Now that Icosium Kafe in Lincoln Park and its sister location in Andersonville closed their doors to business, the creperies in Chicago that I loved had dwindled down to Crepe Town in Uptown. There are several crepe shops in Chicago, but rude and dismissive service kill the appetite. Having been to Crepe Town recently, I wanted to try another creperie in the city that I hadn’t visited before. And while roaming around in the Loop, I happened upon Crepe Bistro at 186 N. Well Street. Serendipity.

Upon entry, there are a few tables in the front area and a full bar to the immediate left. I looked like around the corner and saw that there were some lounge chairs and a sofa, very much the atmosphere of coffeehouses before they became classrooms for Internet access. I opted to sit outside since the weather was fantastic. After a quick glance at the menu, I was ready for action once the server approached.

Bellini. Coconut shrimp. Tomato basil soup. Kathmandu crepe. Banana nutella crepe. Coffee with cream.

The Bellini was exactly what I needed after a long week of Murphy’s Law at work making me want a hammer to the back of the head. When initially brought the table, it looked like a fanciful liquid parfait. And the bartender, who was also my server, deserves an encore for mixing the Bellini in such a fashion that it was smooth and easy on the way down. The coconut shrimp was delicious, although the accompanying sauce made the appetizer mildly sweeter. I gobbled the rest sans the sauce. The tomato basil soup didn’t taste like anything from a can, or doctored up from a can, so I was pleased with each spoonful.

Crepe Bistro Collage

Kathmandu Crepe. Coconut Shrimp. Tomato Basil Soup. Bellini. Banana Nutella Crepe.

The Kathmandu crepe was a winner. Stuffed with chicken, mushrooms, and mozzarella, and topped with a curry sauce and mango chutney, I was glad to have been hanging out in the Loop and hankering for crepes. Unlike minimalist crepes I have had at other creperies in Chicago and very much like Crepe Town in Uptown, the Kathmandu crepe was loaded. Per the server’s recommendation, I had the banana nutella crepe that ranks up there with my favourite bananas foster crepe. Again, here was another crepe that was stuffed instead of flat and cute for presentation. Along with the banana nutella crepe, I decided to take coffee with cream. If I have said it once, I have said it a million times: the biggest indicator of a quality coffee is being able to drink it without any sweeteners. Yes, I used the milk, but milk is not excessively sweet enough to overpower bitter coffee and the coffee at Crepe Bistro was anything but bitter.

I went during the late morning on a Saturday, so it wasn’t crowded the way I figure it gets later in the day or through the week. It may have been my luck to get the bartender for my server because not only was she good with suggestions, but also quite conversational: a trait in good bartenders. While observing the outdoor menu that was on a placard, I was curious as to whether Crepe Bistro was pandering to Russian, French, or some fusion of the two. During conversation with the bartender, she mentioned that the owner was Russian. Ah, that explained borscht on the placard. However, Crepe Bistro indeed honours French cuisine along the lines of crepes.

So, now Crepe Town and Crepe Bistro are my two favourite creperies in the city. I may have to search for a few other creperies that I may find myself fancying regularly. Well, that is provided the servers aren’t serving attitude with my orders.

Crepe Bistro on Urbanspoon

A Season of Flavours

Trattoria 225

As a food enthusiast, I often find myself retracing my visits to certain restaurants. There is always something during that initial visit that becomes a draw to pull me back. The food was outstanding. The service was top. The price was reasonable. Any one of the three may have applied, but when you get an authentic invitation to return, that somehow trumps it all. When a great friend and I had gone to Trattoria 225 in February, not only did I find every aspect of the visit worthy, but the comfort the staff had engaging us in conversation spoke volumes. At many restaurants, taking customers to their seats, getting their orders, bringing their food and beverage to their tables, an occasional “Is everything all right?” and a plastic smile is “doing the job.” At Trattoria 225, making you feel that you have gone to a short stay with family is their job.

Peach BelliniLocated at 225 Harrison Street in the Arts District of Oak Park, Illinois, Trattoria 225 is one of my favourite Italian restaurants in the metropolitan Chicago area. When my friend and I had gone earlier in the year, I had a chance to talk to the manager about photographing the food — my food — and when a good time would be to come in for my own personal assignment. At that time, I did not have my camera, which was just wrong per the Foodie Mantra. As we sat at the table and worked our knives, forks, and spoons, on some of the most appetizing Italian dining this side of the Atlantic Ocean, I knew I had to return with my camera to capture the impressions that made us smile. But at age 44, time has a way of flying by, as if whole days or weeks are being devoured by a time monster. Fast forward to August and I finally return and upon being greeted, I knew that I would be quite thankful for what I was going to receive in terms of service and quality of taste.

Bread and Olive OilI started with a peach bellini. Now, I usually view peach bellinis as brunch drinks — ala cosmopolitan, mimosa, and the like. Yet again, it seems that bartenders at Italian restaurants have a mantra of showcasing their best talents only. The peach bellini was fruity and spiked nicely, but not to the point where I was hovering above the tree tops. The peach flavouring tasted more like a liqueur on the palate as opposed to a nectar. That was not bad at all. Not to quench my thirst too quickly, I indulged some warm Italian bread and olive oil with Parmesan cheese. Wow! I have had Italian bread that I had to struggle with in terms of tearing or cutting. Even then, I had to gnash at it — thankful that I still have my own teeth, not dentures. The bread at Trattoria 225 was nothing like that. Warm, crusty on the outside, and fresh on the inside, I had all of it with olive oil that did not taste like it had been purchased from a chain grocer. There is something to be said about olive oil that has flavour, not just oil in a bottle with a label saying that it is olive oil. As the wind blew about and I watched the sun set, I wondered what I would have to leave me with my saying: Who says that the first time sets the standard for how good “it” is?

Butternut Squash Ravioli

For an appetizer, I ordered butternut squash ravioli. The combination of brown butter, roasted walnuts, and fresh sage over the ravioli made for a wise decision for an appetizer. Neither heavy-handed nor laissez faire with the spices, I enjoyed each of the mini ravioli without complaint. Butternut squash soup is nothing new to me, but adding it to ravioli that had been baked to a moderate crisp had left me pondering a future menu of homemade butternut squash ravioli and butternut soup served with some meaty fish — tilapia, red fish, or trout. It may have been that the ravioli prepared in a fashion other than stuffed with meat, cheese, or spinach, that the plate was such a highlight. In true Oak Park fashion, a couple sitting at the table next to me engaged me in conversation about restaurants in the Chicago and surrounding areas. To quote the wife, it felt like we were abroad, because people usually if not ever strike up conversation with random strangers. Oh what niceties there are to learn from others. For example — recommended pasta dishes like linguine ai frutti di mare.

Linguine ai Frutti Di MareIt has been over a decade since I have partaken of spaghetti and meatballs. I love Italian dishes that have a tomato sauce base. But having been exposed to more rustic Italian dining, red sauces had seemingly disappeared from my radar — with the exception of eggplant Parmesan and an occasional dish of rigatoni. So when the couple had recommended the linguine ai frutti di mare, I was ridiculously appreciative when the waiter brought a colossal plate of the entrée to the table. Linguine, mussels, shrimp, and calamari in a slightly spicy tomato sauce had left me in a twilight daze before I was three-fourths of the way done. Italian dishes with a tomato base tend to be heavier, but the portions of the linguine ai frutti di mare were rather substantial. As much as I wanted to eat all of it, I also wanted to leave a little for lunch the following day. So I behaved.

Coffee and Cream

For dessert, I settled for something light — coffee hazelnut gelato. Only the size of a dollop, it still was satisfying. Rich and creamy, I would find it hard to believe someone if they had said that it came from the ice cream section at the local market. It was definitely good gelato, not ice cream. As for the coffee, I had spoken too fast and said that I wanted regular coffee. Cappuccino is usually my drink of choice after fine Italian dining. Honestly, I was rather glad that I had ordered the regular coffee along with cream. The mark of good coffee may be noted by one of two possibilities: the coffee machine is in top working order or the brand of coffee is of Top 5 quality. I drank the coffee sans sugar and that was truly an indication that I was not imbibing Folger’s or Maxwell House.

Coffee Hazelnut Gelato

Once again, I got a chance to talk to the manager when he had stepped outside to welcome the customers who had opted to have their meals outside. Although the byline on the restaurant’s awning says “rustic Italian dining,” he explained that the restaurant is more of a community eatery that serves Italian cuisine. If I have not learned anything about Oak Park, one thing I will say that I have latched on to is the notion that community is a major factor in the Oak Park meme. Any time I have gone to a cafe, restaurant, diner, or any establishment in Oak Park, there is a very strong sentiment of family and neighbours. You will always see families communing together. The same applies to neighbours who apparently gather for fellowship. Clearly, Trattoria 225 is one of the community hubs in the southern end of Oak Park. Then again, when you have an establishment with a manager who takes the time to talk to the patrons rather than observing business from a distance, you understand the allure. It was winter when I went to Trattoria 225 the first time. Although I missed spring and finally got to place my feet under a table during summer, I can say with certainty that it has indeed become one of my top eateries for all seasons.

Trattoria 225 on Urbanspoon