Farm to Table, Donkey and Stick

Table, Donkey & Stick

After some time off, I have returned with my usual appetite. With the combination of the day job, personal travels, and getting control of weight gain that has resulted in me having to spend a good bit of money buying clothes that I can fit into now, yes, I had been absent. And when you live in a city like Chicago where you can’t walk too far without facing some inviting restaurant, you cave in a little, or a lot as I had been doing.

Dirty Chi

Dirty Chi

The term “farm to table” has been used for many restaurants that have had debuts on Chicago’s landscape.  Being mostly enticed by cuisines from North Africa, West Africa, East Africa, Mediterranean, Italy, Asia, South America, and Central America, the farm to table theme seemed more like a phase, like the red velvet cake frenzy and the current doughnut bliss movement. So, while having a casual walk through the eastern end of Logan Square, I passed by Table, Donkey and Stick at 2728 W. Armitage Avenue and decided that it was time to see what made this particular farm to table restaurant so appealing.

Arriving a little after 6:00 PM, I figured there would be the after-work crowd in the main dining area, so I opted to sit out front to enjoy the nice weather and to take advantage of the last remaining natural light of the sunset for photos. With menu in one hand, a Dirty Chi cocktail in the other hand, I found a few items that piqued my appetite and sat back in anticipation for an enjoyable evening.

Gorgonzola Dolce, Candied Walnuts, Jam, and Baguette

Gorgonzola, Candied Walnuts, Honey, Baguette and Butter

Starting with a cheese platter was a fantastic option. As a huge lover of creamy cheese, I was pleased with creamy gorgonzola dolce, honey, candied walnuts, butter, and a baguette. Put a footnote here. I hate nuts. Hate them. Absolutely, totally, completely hate them. And then I had a bit of the candied walnuts. Oh how I have been missing out. I love candied walnuts, or at least the ones at Table, Donkey and Stick. But spreading a bit of the cheese on the homemade baguette and dabbing it with the raw honey really made this small platter a winner.

Potato Latkes with Garlic Aioli

Potato Latkes with Garlic Aioli

The second small plate I ordered was one of potato latkes with garlic aioli. These latkes were not of the large variety that one finds at Polish, Ukrainian, and other Eastern European restaurants. Noting the legend next to the menu item, this dish is vegetarian and free of gluten. Given dietary restrictions and discipline, those who are vegetarian will love the kick in this small plate and those who are sensitive to gluten or who simply want to remove gluten from their diets will also enjoy each bite without worry, except that you may not feel you have had enough when you find yourself contemplating the last piece. And the house cultured butter made each bite that more tasty.

Runner Up

Runner Up

Because I have been a bit restrictive with my diet while trying to get my waist size down to at least a size 34 — you  never notice weight gain by looking at yourself daily, only that you can’t fit pants from the back of your closet with a size 30 waist, period — I have not partaken of my usual dosage of refreshing cocktails. And the Runner Up at Table, Donkey and Stick almost made me yell, “Compliments to the bartender,” from my outdoor seat. I saw that it had mezcal in it and that was all I needed to know that I would love it, but all the other ingredients in it made me all the more happier.

Sticking with small plates, I had new smashed potatoes with farm beans and snails in a pesto. Wow! Wow! Wow! This should be the signature dish, and I’m saying that having been to the restaurant only once. No competing flavors on the palate, no complex flavors overpowering any of the ingredients in the recipe, no rubbery or mushy snails, and not a single crumb or smear of gravy left in the bowl after I had gone over every inch of it with the last bit of baguette. If you go for a proper sit-down, order the “signature dish” and let the server figure out what it is. This dish should never be removed from the menu.

New Smashed Potatoes with Farm Beans and Snails in Pesto

New Smashed Potatoes with Farm Beans and Snails in Pesto

The finale was a case study in sweet and savory and how a check can present both in a dish that works well together. There was a scoop of blood orange sorbet that was my intended “light item” after having eaten so much food prior to dessert. And there were fried chicharronés. Often when restaurants try to marry sweet and savory, they do so in a single item that becomes a bit too busy on the palate. The beauty of the sorbet and chicharronés here is that you could enjoy them solo or together without disappointment. Like all of the prior small courses, this one ended on a good note.

Blood Orange Sorbet with Fried Chicharrones

Blood Orange Sorbet with Fried Chicharrones

Since I moved to Logan Square in 2007, it has become a landing spot for some of the most popular and most recommended restaurants in Chicago. For a neighborhood that had been plagued with a bad reputation, the presence of restaurants that receive high recommendations and notoriety is something that residents of Logan Square can brag about. Table, Donkey and Stick is a very unassuming restaurant from the street, no flash, no flare, no “look at me,” but when you do notice it and put your feet under one of the tables for enjoyment, you really do come to realize that restaurants with no fancy airs are the best. Three things I discovered: I can indulge farm to table, I love candied walnuts, and Logan Square does indeed have the best unpretentious restaurants in the city.

Table, Donkey And Stick Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Little Gem Bar and Restaurant

Little Gem Cafe

After years of living in Chicago, I have been recalling a statement that an individual made when we had met in 1989. She had stated that you can spend your entire life in Chicago and never cover all of it. I have discovered that the same applies to some of the edge cities like Evanston, Rosemont, Schaumburg, Skokie, and Oak Park. Case in point was during a casual stroll a block north of downtown Oak Park where I stumbled upon The Little Gem Bar and Restaurant at 189 N Marion Street.

Duck with Salad

Duck with Salad

Spacious on the inside with a bistro feel to it and also with some outside seating, there is an atmosphere of ease that doesn’t feed into ambient noises and acoustics all over the place requiring you to shout with your dining companions. Taking advantage of the outdoor seating, I settled on a four-course meal that had a French influence. Since the restaurant had been touted as a French bistro on Yelp and Google, I chose to stick with that theme, although I did see a paprikash dish on the menu, which is Hungarian.

For my first course, I had a duck carpaccio with a salad in a light vinaigrette with mandarin slices. The server paired this dish with a Sauvignon blanc that had some fruity notes that balanced out the tartness of the duck carpaccio, which had strips of raw duck. Those who like tartar and the texture would certainly enjoy this dish.

Toast

Toast

Because I had opted for a pairing of wines with each course, the server thought that it would be a good idea to have some bread for a palate cleanser, as well as an aid for reducing buzzing. I’m not really sure if the grilled toast was complementary, but I must admit that it was of the variety that I could go off the rails with while enjoying some gouda cheese.

Deviled Eggs

Deviled Eggs

The next course was a plate of deviled eggs. Accented with parsley oil and a balsamic reduction and topped with crispy, fried onions and pickled jalapeños, all four that came were absolutely scrumptuous. Paired nicely with a Chardonnay that had a buttery and oak flavour that was light on the palate while not usurping the centre stage from the deviled eggs, I actually developed a better appreciation for deviled eggs, as I have not had any that weren’t abused by a use of too many herbs and spices.

As of late, I have been introducing pork back into my diet, albeit in moderation. The server had specified the special for the evening, which was a 10-ounce bone-in pork chop in a jalapeño and apple purée with roasted potatoes sautéed in a Spanish chorizo. For the pairing, the server brought at Pinot noir that had a “right” amount of acidity to match well with the dish. For an individual who has not been a fan of pork for many years, this one was one I would rush back to the restaurant to indulge without pause.

Pork Chop with Fingerlings

Pork Chops with Fingerlings

In keeping with the French effect in dining, I had cheese for dessert rather than a sweet. The cheese board came with an assortment of cheeses, housemade strawberry jam, smoked almonds, candied walnuts, and apples. There were aged Wisconsin cheddar, a brie, a housemade cheese, and a casabola. The housemade cheese was an interesting marriage of provolone, cheddar, and cream cheese. The caso bolo was a mixture of goat, sheep, and cow cheeses. Along with a cup of coffee, this was a delectable and ideal finale to what was a spectacular meal.

Cheese Board with Nuts and Jam

Cheese Board

I was somewhat expecting “regular” fare, but was thoroughly surprised and satisfied with the offerings. The Little Gem Bar and Restaurant is not French-specific. If I could apply a word to the restaurant, it would be Pan-European because of some Eastern European offerings and Mediterranean fare. One thing I have not done on the blog in years is name the servers that went well past outstanding. But Liz and Zach were two of the top servers any diners could have at their table. I understand why most at the restaurant were locals. Oak Park is not a local destination for me, but I have a feeling I will be a regular at The Little Gem Bar and Restaurant.

Little Gem Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Le Bouchon, French Recommended by an Italian

Pain et Vin Rouge

Pain et Vin Rouge

During a recent visit to my favourite, local Italian restaurant in Logan Square, the owner recommended a French restaurant in the vicinity. He was already aware that I love European style restaurants and cafes — small, quaint, boutiques where there is always good food, great conversation, and no such thing as a rush. And per the owner’s recommendation, I made a calendar entry to go to Le Bouchon at 1958 N. Damen Avenue in Bucktown.

I arrived early enough to be difficult with my ordering. Having only a glance at the menu, I decided that I would not make the selections for what I wanted to eat, but I would instead let my server surprise me. There was my usual spiel that I primarily enjoy seafood and vegetarian options, and while I have no food allergies, I hate nuts; just bring something to the table and pair it with wine. While enjoying some homemade French bread, I waited.

French Onion Soup

French Onion Soup

First to the table was French onion soup and a Pinot Noir. Now, given all of the French restaurants I have gone to, I never had a taste for French onion soup. This was my first. I have no benchmark for a good French onion soup, so what I had at Le Bouchon is what I will use to set my initial bar. Flavourful broth without being overpowered by onions, topped with a large croton, and then topped with a gooey layer of baked cheese, I have a nod of satisfaction to a very appetizing start.

Rushing Waters Trout

Rushing Waters Trout

The server thought I would enjoy the rushing waters trout. He was spot on. This was paired with a Chardonnay. The trout was de-boned and then reassembled. This came with pine nuts, which I have an allowance for, caper brown butter, mushrooms, and concord grapes. The beauty of the trout was not only in the bloom in the taste from the recipe, but also from the fact that the fish was so meaty. Those who may expect something creamy and rich may be surprised to find that the dish is rich without any cream.

The finale was something different. I had beignets stuffed with apple slices, served with svelte ice cream, granola crumble, raisins, and a cider reduction. Straying away from having cake or a heavier, richer dessert was a finer option since the starter and entrée were both filling. Having not inquired of the coffee, I think it was from some local, independent coffeehouse. There was no burnt or bitter taste and the only sweetener required was the cream that accompanied it.

Apple Beignets with Coffee and Cream

Apple Beignets with Coffee and Cream

Le Bouchon is indeed a restaurant with a lot of French flare. It is small and quaint with tables close to each other. One thing I will say is that the service is outstanding. As often as I “challenge” my servers with something to satisfy my palate, there are those like the one I had at Le Bouchon who exceed my expectations. It also helps that the food is capital, evident from the constant flow of dining patrons. When I return to my favourite Italian restaurant, I will have to thank the owner for his recommendation. I wonder if I should thank him in Italian, as always do, or if I should rattle off in French, “J’aimerai te remercier.”

Le Bouchon Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bar Pastoral, You Can Wine All You Want

Bar Pastoral

It seems that the older I get, the faster time goes by. At the closing of this week, January will have only one more week left and then February will be upon us. It dawned on me that in a few more short months, I will have inched a little closer to 50. (Pause) Okay, so I have a few more years to go before I hit the half century mark in my life. I must admit that I have a tendency to want Chicago winters to rush, though. Summer can never arrive fast enough, but we have had some warm days and with one of the most recent warm days, I took advantage of the opportunity to go outside and to some restaurant. My constant New Year’s Resolution is to find more restaurants. That is no problem in Chicago.

Apple Brandy Old Fashioned

Apple Brandy Old Fashioned

Having been to the Lakeview area to sample a few small eateries, there was a pastoral shop that I wanted to visit to get some wine and cheeses for some upcoming winter evenings I know we are doomed to experience. Well, honestly, I wanted to get a few bottles of wine so that in the event that I would experience insomnia — a problem I have never had and probably never will — I’d tackle that problem in advance. While at the shop, I noticed there was a bistro extension next door. I chose to go and get fed rather than buy some wine that I would probably end up taking to a BYOB affair. It was at Bar Pastoral at 2947 N. Broadway that I had my first breakfast happiness for 2015.

Seasonal Frittata and Spinach

Seasonal Frittata and Spinach

On this weekend, I was in a rare mood to really treat myself. I started off with an apple brandy old fashioned. Bartenders in Chicago love to put their own spin on old fashioned cocktails. It’s when they create a cocktail that leaves you sitting with a stupid smile on your face that you know you’ve had a sip of heaven. The brandy made the old fashioned a very relaxing winter drink. (Pause) Okay, that bad boy was slightly heavy-handed and that meant I had to order a lot of food to counter the alcohol effect. My first appetizer was a seasonal frittata served with baby spinach. Very light and still flavourful without an unnecessary amount of seasoning, the dish was a splendid preamble if you planned to go overboard the way I did.

Autumnal Gimlet

Autumnal Gimlet

With my belly primed and the alcohol slowly being soaked up, I was curious about the parsnip and potato hash. Served with a boiled egg instead of a poached egg — my request — and piquillo peppers and a pesto over an avocado and lemon cream, I kept asking myself why it took me so long to pay attention to the bistro. The potatoes were seasoned well. Being on a low salt diet by choice, I am aware whenever dishes are heavy with salt. Not with the parsnips and potato hash. Compliments to the chef, sous chef, cook, or fry guy because for a dish that looked too pretty to eat, I devoured it without shame. I had to wait a few moments before preparing for my “finish him” course.

Parsnip and Potato Hash

Parsnip and Potato Hash

Where I went all out was with an autumnal gimlet. Swimming in a tall glass were Letherbee autumnal gin, fresh lime juice, simple syrup, quince, and apple tart cherry grenadine. Swimming in my belly was nectar. Swimming in my thoughts, I imagined myself in Brazil on the beach showing my flattened tummy. And then I came back to reality when the plate of chicken and waffles arrived. Ummmmm, ummmmph! I was all about sinking my teeth into some chicken and the buttermilk fried chicken was what bliss is made of. Don’t ask me how the chef got cheddar cheese and bacon into the waffles without making a mess. Don’t ask me how I worked my knife and fork on the chicken and waffles as silently as I did without also making a mess. (Pause) Okay, so I shook my head a few times and declared, “Umph, umph, umph,” as I sopped up the brown butter glaze. You would have too.

Chicken and Waffles

Chicken and Waffles

Bar Bistro is not a restaurant with big box appeal. One thing I will say is that the acoustics are all over the place, which makes talking quickly become shouting. Well, not that bad, unless you’re sitting next to a large party. The bistro is quaint, in a European kind of way. I would, however, recommend making a reservation for Friday and Saturday evenings. Considered how busy it was, it was also nice that the server was extremely accommodating. I had no demands and although he couldn’t give me a pillow so that I could take a nap after my two hours of decadence, he did offer regular coffee. I accepted. And you know what? I forgot to get the wine and cheese that I went to buy initially. But I had a really, really, very good brunch. Umph, umph, umph.

Bar Pastoral on Urbanspoon

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

Cheese for the Camera

Marion Street Cheese Market

It has been quite some time since I posted a write-up about one of my food excursions. Work had been quite a beast with teeth that gnarled at my time and devoured what free hours I had. Most evenings I returned home from work and performed magic in my own kitchen. Realizing that I own my condo and should take more advantage of it than I had been, I gathered my pots and pans and made very good use of my stove. Recently, a great friend and I had been meeting for dinner every Friday to get in a grand amount of laughter about all sorts of foolishness and a certain colourful expletive we manufactured — that I will not post here, hahaha. With it being evenings when she and I got together, there was never enough light to capture the impressions of the wonderful delights that sat before us before we handled business. Having a moment in my daily schedule to do something other than work and overcompensate with relaxation from being worked to spiritual defeat, I ventured to Oak Park, Illinois, to Marion Street Cheese Market at 100 South Marion Street for outdoor seating to indeed enjoy myself and the culinary supplements of the bistro.

Grapefruit Juice

As I sat perusing the menu, I was reminded of a certain relationship that I praise God for delivering me from. When I first relocated to Chicago from New York, I was dating an incredibly unhappy woman who wanted me to quit my six-figure salary job and move to North Carolina for nickels and work like a Hebrew slave to save enough money to buy her a five bedroom house that we would never fill completely. Give up my career, my church home, my family development, an exciting life in the metropolis of Chicago, and move into the suburbs of Raleigh — not into Raleigh, by the way — so that I could sit on a porch after working two jobs Jamaican style to further cater to her unhappiness. It dawned on me that I would have been dead by stroke or self-inflicted gunshot wound by now, and never would have partaken of all the wonderful culinary delights and flair that the Chicago metropolitan area had to offer. When my pineapple juice came, I smiled and pontificated tipping a bit on the ground in hopes that she had found whatever it was she was seeking. Then I said, “Forget that!” and prepared to handle the matter at hand.

Flight of Cheeses

It goes without saying, that I had an appetite. First thing I ordered was a flight of cheeses. There were three options that I could choose: a fixed list, a choice of three, or a choice of five. Like I said, I had a hunger well before I reached the bistro, so I opted for the choice of five cheeses. There was sarvecchio, which is fruity, nutty Italian style parmesan cheese. It had the mildness and consistency of brie sans the rind. I had the smile of a man who was pleased. The second cheese I had was gruyère surchoix. This smooth and mellow cheese was akin to cheddar and I do not mean Velveeta. Slightly sharp, but not such that it bit the back of the jaw, there was an accent of light floral notes. I kid you not. There was a faint hint of lavender and when you can add a floral touch to a dish without making it seem like you are actually eating a patch of botany, you have a bit of heaven in front of you.

Cranberry and Almond

Not that I was going to gobble the cheeses as though I were a monster, I savoured each one with the basket of bread that came complementary. In between each cheese, I reset my palate with the cranberries, plum jam, and toasted almonds. Add to that the fact that the weather was ideal — not hot, not chilly, and not windy — the non-rushed atmosphere lent a feeling of being at an outdoor bistro in Paris or along the countryside in Britain. The third cheese I had was les frères. Another cheese that had the consistency of sharp cheddar, it came with a fruity accent wrapped in an earthy washed rind. Only a little crumbly, it was fantastic with the glass of spicy red Chono Camendere. Not that I am an agent of wine snobbery, but spicy red wines get me going. The first time I had a glass of Chono Camendere I smiled my usual stupid smile until my date told me to get a grasp on myself. I got enough control to enjoy a fourth cheese of bergblumenkäse — smooth, unpasteurized, aromatic, Alpine style cheese that went well with the jam spread. The tartness of the jam was balanced by the faint sweetness of the cheese, neither competing on the palate for attention.

Flight of Cheeses

If the aforementioned cheeses were not enough to make any unhappy person excessively elated, the l’amuse should make any grinch loveable. Here we are talking about delicious two-year aged Gouda, nutty with hints of burnt caramel. Before the summer ends, I will have to go to Marion Street Cheese Market and buy some l’amuse, olives, a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread and then bike to the park to have my own private picnic. Ever the fan of Gouda, I could feast on this cheese alone without complaint. But adding burnt caramel only heightens my taste senses and I find myself not being able to live without such pleasure. Okay, it is not that serious, but you have to sample l’amuse to know the true meaning of culinary pleasure.

Chocolate and Orange French Toast

Mind you, Marion Street Cheese Market does not rush you at all. So I sat for half of an hour while slowly finishing the cranberries and almonds that had come with the cheese. After having a respite, I ordered chocolate and orange French toast. During the first bite, I acknowledged that Marion Street Cheese Market has no concept of messing up what they have on their menu. I have had some French toast that is worthy of writing home about, but I have not had French toast that had me almost pulling a Sally from “When Harry Met Sally.” Sitting outside going through such motions would have had the police on location putting handcuffs on me and possibly trying to finish off the French toast instead of their jelly doughnuts. We are talking a case of no syrup required and although the toast was under a fair amount of chocolate, it was not drowned. There was, however, me doing all but licking the plate after I had finished. And when I was done, I had a chai latte that did leave me with a muted whimper of delight. The whole experience was indicative of why my friend and I keep returning after work on every other Friday. Outstanding cheeses, top wine selections, small plates, large plates, desserts, and coffee, all alluring and appealing to anyone whose sensibilities will allow them to indulge their appetites without remorse.

Chai Latte

At the end of my food blissatisfaction, I noticed on my receipt that there are $10-off discounts at the winery or cheese market if purchased the day of dining. There was a certain bottle of Puzzle — a smile-inducing spicy red wine — that needed a home. So I went in, bought a bottle of Puzzle, and brought it home so that I can care for it. It will be perfect with an Indian meal, I must say. When I go back to Marion Street Cheese Market, I shall buy some l’amuse cheese for that personal picnic I mentioned earlier. And now that I think of it, I shall get a bottle of Chono Camendere or another bottle of Puzzle to go with the cheese. If I am not overloaded, I shall take my camera with me to the picnic and shoot a photo of my little event. I shall cheese for the camera.

Marion Street Cheese Market on Urbanspoon