Chocolate, Ukrainian Style at Shokolad

During early summer of 2016 I had the opportunity to go in for the taping of an episode of Check, Please! Based out of Chicago, the show features three guests who visit three restaurants anonymously and then have a round table review of the restaurants. One of the restaurants we reviewed was Osteria Langhe, which quickly became my favourite Italian restaurant in Chicago when I visited for blogging about it in 2014. The other restaurant was a Pan-Asian restaurant named New Star in Elmwood Park. The third restaurant was Shokolad in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village at 2524 W. Chicago Avenue.

Ricotta Bread

Ricotta Bread

Having passed by Shokolad countless times, my mind turned on phonetics and I automatically thought chocolate and, thus, chocolate as a confection. So, I kept passing by it and never stopped long enough to take a brief peak inside. Thanks to it being one of the restaurants to review for the episode on Check, Please!, I was quite satisfied to enter a cafe filled with a range of friends and families, many speaking the language from the Ukraine, others simply showing appreciation for the food.

Borscht

Borscht

With complimentary ricotta bread and butter accented with garlic, I indulged a bowl of borscht. This soup was the first indication that there would be authenticity in the remainder of the meal. The beets had a garden fresh taste, not the doctored up fruity sweetness from canned or jarred beets. And since the borscht had not been overloaded with croutons, there was only the pure flavouring of the soup to enjoy.

Pierogies: Cheese and Potatoes

Pierogies: Cheese and Potatoes

Because Eastern European countries are good at providing food that is rather hearty, there were two varenikis that I sampled. One was a plate of cheese and potatoes pierogies. The other was a plate of mushroom and tarragon pierogies. One may say that once you’ve had the regular cheese and potatoes pierogies, you’ve had them all. When you come to Shokolad, you soon find out that the bar in delectable flavour has been raised extremely high. You’re not feasting on a frozen variety, be it from the market or prepared days in advance and kept in the freezer for warming. The mushroom and tarragon pierogies are simply heaven, the best pierogies I’ve had since I’ve been exposed to Eastern European cuisine. Again, fresh ingredients, preparations to order, and a delight on the palate.

Ukrainian Style Fried Chicken Over Noodles

Ukrainian Style Fried Chicken Over Noodles

For my first main dish, I had Ukrainian style fried chicken over noodles. Considering many say Ukrainian food “sticks to your belly,” the fried chicken was like moist chicken fried in a cloud. The batter seemed to be egg-based, which made the coating light. But the seasoning had some herbs in it that made each bite outstanding. With the noodles being buttery and far from bland, the chicken still was the star in the dish and all of it was satisfying. There was a side of slaw served and not being a fan of anyone’s slaw, I was surprised that I had finished the side order of it to completion. The slaw isn’t creamy and actually doesn’t have a noticeable mayonnaise base, which is probably why it was more like a nice salad instead.

Hutsulske Pechenya

Hutsulske Pechenya

I waited awhile until my restaurant advisor, who was in the area, arrived. After she had ordered a few dishes, I sampled hutsulske pechenya that came with two ricotta rolls. If I were to make a recommendation as to what dish to indulge during Chicago winters, I would suggest the hutsulske pechenya. Order it for a proper sit-down and order some for take-away. This pot of stew with seasoned beef and plump mushrooms left me wondering if the reason my Ukrainian friends never mentioned this dish is because they know I will beg in an irritating fashion for them to bring some for me.

Check, Please!

Check, Please! Review of Shokolad, New Star, and Osteria Langhe

With so much change in Ukrainian Village over the past few years, it is nice to see that a restaurant like Shokolad has retained authenticity such that they did not compromise the recipes. From great service to reasonable prices to food that begs you to return, it’s understandable how we who reviewed the restaurant came to the agreement that it is indeed a restaurant to add to your list.

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

Little Bucharest Bistro

Little Bucharest Bistro

Several years ago, an individual who had done some photography and web development for some restaurants had given me two recommendations. One was for an Italian restaurant — Pasta D’Arte — and the other was for a Romanian restaurant. I went to Pasta D’Arte during the late summer of 2013 and decided that I should also follow up on the second recommendation. So, not far from Logan Square is Little Bucharest Bistro at 3661 N. Elston Avenue in Chicago’s Irving Park neighbourhood. It was a nice Saturday afternoon and my appetite was absolute wildly, now more than ever because I had been doing a few sessions of CrossFit training.

Little Bucharest Bistro has an airy, spacious interior and thanks to plenty of large windows, the setting isn’t dim. For those who wish to sit outside, there is outside seating, but having arrived early, indoor seating next to a window worked perfectly for me. Although Eastern European food is something that I prefer mostly when the temperatures are chilly, I asked my server for recommendations, while informing her that vegetarian is my first preference and seafood is my second. The offerings that I got had exceeded my expectations.

Little Bucharest Bistro Collage

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album

For a starter, I had borscht. At most Eastern European restaurants, the borscht tasted like it had been prepared with pickled beets from a jar. The taste was alway too sharp. At Little Bucharest Bistro, there was definitely a flavouring of cooked beets from a garden that didn’t leave an overpowering taste. It was also nice that the soup was full of beets and not just beet juice. Second to the table was the village salad, which consisted of red bell peppers, green bell peppers, red onions, cucumber, feta cheese, tomatoes, and olives. Drizzled with a nice balsamic vinaigrette, this was rabbit food I would welcome anytime. With the complementary, homemade bread, my taste for Eastern European food had a bit of a renaissance.

A light appetizer that I got next was a plate of eggplant, prepared much like baba ganoush, that was served with pita bread, a small salad, and a melange of pickles, crepes with cream cheese, and salmon. What an offering and this small platter still packed a flavourful punch that I would gladly indulge on future visits. And in keeping with vegetarian dishes, there was the vegetarian goulash. This was a hearty dish of grilled eggplant, cabbage, peppers, spinach, and garlic couscous in a tomato sauce. I was expecting something along the lines of a spaetzle, but the goulash was a classic example of different being outstanding.

There is the feel of family-owned and small restaurants that you get as soon as you enter Little Bucharest Bistro. From the owner greeting you at the door — you never get that kind of welcome at downtown eateries — to the wait staff that is attentive and engaging to the food that leaves you wanting more, this is certainly a restaurant that should be on your list of places you must sample in Chicago. Aside from my usual running around, travelling, and getting into other things, it should not have taken me years to follow up on the recommendation to go to Little Bucharest Bistro. This first experience is definitely all the more reason I shall have to return again very, very soon to see what other delights they have on their menus to convert me into a regular customer. And with autumn and winter coming, Eastern European food will do well for my appetite.

After Dinner Drink

After Dinner Drink

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From Russia With Food — Zhivago


ZhivagoDon’t go without taking a Russian with you.
They know Russians when they see them.
You’ll want to order authentic Russian.

This was advice given to me by an old Russian co-worker. Yes, I am sure it would be hard to confuse a West Indian man for a Russian. Were the cooks going to fatten up my friend and me like the woman in the gingerbread house did to Hansel and Gretel? Was someone going to find out that I was once a double agent? It would have been all over but the “uh, oh” if someone had discovered that I was a danger boy in my days of youth, disguised as a nerdy scientist by day, blackmailing people in political and public offices by night. How else could I afford such an extravagant lifestyle and still have enough money in my pocket to get cheese on my whopper?

My friend and I ventured into Russian territory without any Russians in tow. It was not as though we were going to a restaurant with non-Russian staff fronting as hosts, hostesses, cooks, waiters, and waitresses. Guess what. Our waitress was Russian. Zhivago Restaurant at 9925 Gross Point Road in Skokie, IL, was the spot for our fattening experience. This restaurant doubles as a banquet hall and after my friend and I walked the labyrinth of halls and rooms to get to our seats, it was quite apparent that the restaurant and banquet hall do it up big.

AppetizersCustomary in Russian dining experiences, you partake of some good Russian vodka. My friend and I opted to drink something different. He chose a Russian beer and one look at the bottle was enough to have the church woman saying, “Now, that’s a beer,” while licking her lips and beckoning a waiter so that she can order one for herself. I ordered a glass of Lindeman’s Shiraz. We downed our individual drinks while snacking on complementary whole grain and rye bread served up with butter as well as pâté. Knowing that the complementary goodies were not going to be enough, we ordered Caspian smoked sturgeon and schmaltz herring. The sturgeon was cold smoked with an old world blend of hickory, mesquite, and oak, served with crème fraiche, Spanish capers, and scallions. Sliced thinly, it tasted somewhat like cured ham. Insert declarative expletive — it was delicious. The schmaltz herring were chilled slices of marinated herring served with onions and boiled dill potatoes. While eating this, the taste that came to mind was that of sardines, but just meatier.

Entrees

We also had borscht. Borscht is a beet soup and I remember my grandmother cooking beets and putting them on my plate when I was a child. I would fall out of my chair and pound the floor while kicking my feet angrily. Oh, wait. I was not a brat like that. I just asked for rutabaga with some broth and crumbled cornbread instead. At any rate, the borscht came out as bowls of beets, cucumbers, and beet juice. My friend and I did not fall on the floor and act like brats. The first few sips were something new, but it got tastier thereafter. I’m sure my grandmother was saying, “Now, you wait until you get old to eat beets.”

DessertsFor round two, we ordered Siberian pelmeni and a plate of stuffed pepper and cabbage. We thought about ordering chicken Kiev and beef stroganoff, but tried something different. Whenever I think of beef stroganoff, Hungry Jack frozen dinners come to mind and that is enough to kill an appetite. The Siberian pelmeni was a huge plate of pasta dumplings stuffed with seasoned ground meat, nestled in melted butter. It even came with a glass of sour cream for dipping and shredded, fried sweet potatoes. Because the dumplings were bite size, they were rather deceiving. Those things were filling, but my friend and I don’t eat like fashion models. We took care of business. The stuffed pepper and cabbage was a plate of ground chicken meat, carrots, sautéed onions, and rice topped with tomato sauce. The bell pepper was cooked just right, not the least bit of crunch to it. The stuffed cabbage sat on the plate for a good minute — now you see it, now you don’t.


Interior DecorWhile all the food we had eaten up to this point was filling, there still was some room in the bellies for some extra good stuff. Bring on the dessert. We ordered one spartak and one tarfuto. The spartak was unnecessarily good, even though it had walnuts in it. I am not a big fan of walnuts. However, the layers of genuine Genoise with cream filling served with chocolate and a raspberry sauce more than compensated for the “extra” ingredient. The tarfuto was just the ridiculously delicious dessert consisting of good quality chocolate ice cream, orange marmalade, coffee ice cream, Irish Cream liqueur, chocolate cookie crumb, and raspberries. I pity people who feel the need to be dainty when it comes down to good food. Granted my friend and I were not like drunk fraternity boys salivating over the delivery of a keg of beer, we were like kids in a candy store.

The service was outstanding. The food was out of this world. The bill was high. Then again, that may have been because of so much food and beverage. There are other items on the menu that we would like to sample, which means that we will definitely go back for the great service, damn good food, and just pay yet another high price for total satisfaction. I think I may need to find a few politicians and public figures to extort so that I don’t have to bother dipping into my savings to get money for another Russian adventure at Zhivago. I wonder who I should start with first. While I ponder that thought, think about going to Zhivago and falling in love with some good food.

Zhivago Restaurant & Banquets on Urbanspoon