Nia — Mediterranean, Tapas Style

Nia

Two years ago a friend surprised me by taking me to a restaurant that she had not heard me talk about. She had mentioned that it was in the West Loop. Chicago’s West Loop is one area that had a rapid growth spurt, resulting in high-priced condominiums, expensive townhouses, bars that fill up quickly, and some nice restaurants. We went to Nia at 803 W. Randolph Street for some Mediterranean food. Because the dining experience was very satisfying then, I made a note to myself to visit again after work so that I could sample some more offerings from the menu.

Being a short distance from where I work, I decided to brave the Chicago wind for the few blocks it took me to walk to Nia. With my New York City stride, I was there in no time, coat off, gloves put away, menu in hand, and had an appetite that I needed to deal with without delay. One thing I remembered about Nia was that the menu was mostly of small plates. Nevertheless, I figured I would do well to order a few items to put a smile on my face and not so much that I would find myself fighting sleep thereafter.

Nia, Collage

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With the evening being what I called a “school night,” I had cranberry juice instead of a spirit or a cocktail. For starters, I ordered a plate of hummus with pita. Given this was a “small plate,” they didn’t skimp on the servings. This came with roasted garlic, a red pepper coulis, and a dollop of horseradish cream. I mixed it all up and worked that pita on the plate until there was a smear of hummus left. I don’t think I need to tell you that I liked it “that” much.

My next course consisted of wild mushrooms with truffle oil. Truffles are all the rage, it seems, and anything accented with its oil is a dish sent from heaven — or hell if you are “that” wicked. I married this dish with a plate of jumbo garlic shrimp in a lemon butter sauce. Although the four shrimp looked manageable, by the time I had finished the mushrooms and the shrimp, I forced myself to slow down so not to deprive myself of dessert. I did, however, request some extra pita so that I could get the last remnants of truffle oil and the lemon butter sauce. It would have been a crime to let any of that go to waste.

My dessert course left me humming, evident from the neighbouring stares I received. The bread pudding came drizzled with a caramel sauce and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream that I swear had saffron in it. If that was the case, then it was not ice cream from the frozen section at the local market. I completed my dessert option with a cup of coffee and cream. Now, I am not a coffee snob, but I know when a French press has been used. The coffee is simply perfect and this was the case with the cup of delight I had with the bread pudding.

For the duration that I sat at Nia, there was a constant flow of patrons coming in and I noticed that turnover was low. That was an indication that people come to enjoy themselves. It’s a great spot for a date. There is the mood lighting — or rather dim lighting. Even those who dine solo at the bar find themselves engaged in conversation with others. The volume gets loud as more customers show up, though. With this being my second visit, I was happy as I teetered from the restaurant. The first time was good. This time was better. I wonder if the third time will be a charm. Well, there is only one way to find out.

Nia Mediterranean on Urbanspoon

Out with the Old, In With the Wow

Please return your seats and your trays to their upright positions. We will be landing shortly.

I have been on and off of airplanes so much during 2011 that there was a point when I knew exactly when the announcement was about to come on. During one of my most recent trips, the announcement was a reminder of me returning a city that I only visit for a few days annually. Jackson, MS, was my destination for a quick escape from Windy Chicago and from London fog. During my years of living in Jackson — so very, very, very long ago — I remembered downtown and two buildings that were blots on the downtown’s landscape. There was the Standard Life building, which is the tallest building in downtown. The other building was the King Edward Hotel. Both buildings, vacant and abandoned for decades, had been nothing more than markers indicating a city that had come to a standstill when the doors to both structures closed for business. Fast forward to 2011 and the King Edward Hotel is now the Hilton Garden Inn that boasts apartments, hotel rooms, and a fabulous restaurant.

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My childhood best friend and I have a ritual. We usually, if not always, catch up with each other the afternoon before I return to Chicago — or destination X — because that is generally the only time I would come outside for any length of time when I am in Jackson. This time we made it a point to get together to clown well before my return north. He had recommended that the restaurant at the Hilton Garden Inn should be a fantastic place for lunch. Having spoken highly of a meal the chef had prepared for some doctors at an event and with me being a food addict, there was no way I was going to turn my nose up at sampling something worthy of a bravo. So it was off to downtown Jackson to see what the transition was from King Edward Hotel to Hilton Garden Inn at 235 W. Capitol Street, and what the kitchen had to place a smile on my face.

Goat Cheese with Pomegranate Syrup

While my friend and I waited for one of my high school classmates and her sister and another of my friend’s high school classmates, we feasted on homemade yeast rolls twisted with fresh spinach and topped with toasted black pepper and butter. Clearly, this was an indicator that all was going to be well in the land. These were not frozen rolls that had been defrosted and placed into the oven for warmth and then garnished with butter and spinach, no. These rolls were so delicious that my friend and I indulged ourselves while we waited for the others. When the others did arrive, that was when we began our venture into Food Wonderland.

Fresh Vegetable Salad

First to the table was a fresh vegetable salad with a pancetta vinaigrette in a balsamic reduction. Being a pescatarian — that being a vegetarian who indulges seafood — the ham in the pancetta vinaigrette simply went down without complaint. I have a feeling that the absence of it may have taken away from the salad. Served in concert with the vegetable salad was a dollop of goat cheese over a pomegranate syrup and topped with black pepper. Goat cheese, to me, has a consistency and a mild hint of cream cheese, so I am always pleased whenever it arrives at the table tempting me to feast on it. Having recently delighted my palate to some baked goat cheese in chunky tomatoes, I knew that the cheese would leave me with a smile. Yes, it did, indeed.

Pumpkin Soup with Shrimp and Spinach

Second to the table was puréed pumpkin soup with a shrimp and spinach. I have always been a fan of sweet potato soup and kale, so I initially had thoughts of the bitter after-taste of pumpkin from pumpkin pie when we were told the ingredients. Very much to my surprise, this was not pumpkin with the bite that gets you at the back of the jaw. Could it have been the addition of the plump shrimp? Could it have been the accent from the spinach? Could it have been that the pumpkin was prepared to satisfaction? I prefer to believe that it was a combination of all three, with the latter being the most outstanding part of the recipe. I could see myself having this tasty soup all through the autumn and never tiring of it.

Curry Turkey with Cilantro on Rice

Third to the table was a roasted turkey breast in a coconut and curry sauce with spiced rice, garnished with fried onions and fresh cilantro. Somewhat reminiscent of Thai food, I was in heaven with each bite. Never mind the fact that the flavours were not having competition, but the roasted turkey — there goes my vegetarianism for the year — was so succulent and juicy that it was hard to keep on the fork. Well, once it went on the tongue, yes, it was hard to keep on the fork. Perfection on a plate and me giving full acknowledgement with every whiff of the delicacy is the best way that I could describe the experience.

Not quite completed, the fourth dish to grace the table was a skirt steak encrusted red fish, accompanied by a cilantro simple syrup. One can never have enough cilantro in his or her dish. Well, I should clean that up and make it personal. I can never have enough cilantro in my food. And I will never have a fit about having my share of any tasty fish placed before me. The only time I winced was when I had gotten to the last few bites and did not want the moment to end. I could have left a bit in honour of those who could not join us. But those individuals were, no doubt, too busy anyway. So I heaved a heavy sigh and finished the last morsels sans any remorse. By now, I was operating in slow motion.

Skirt Steak Crusted Redfish

For dessert there were two desserts — one for those whose diets included meat and one for those whose diets did not. There was a bacon and cinnamon roll bread pudding topped with a Chivas Regal gastrique. I let go of the pescatarian wagon for this one and performed a natural act of eating without shame. My mouth burst with fireworks and flavours. I never would have considered bacon to be an engaging recipe ingredient for any dessert and the bacon was prepared so that you only got a pop of the taste on the first bite and then it became faint after eating the bread pudding. Most restaurants would have a sensation akin to duelling pianos going about the tongue, teeth, and jaws. Not so with this dessert, as it was apparently prepared for just a hint of the bacon while the bread pudding stole the show. For those who were not fans of meat, red meat being at the top of their list, Mississippi mud pie was served. By now, all I could do was look at the dessert and ponder its magic. My language was garbled, my mind was roaming, and once the slurring became painfully evident, photographing the mud pie — with shaky hands — was all that I could muster.

Bread Pudding with Caramelized Bacon

Nick Wallace, who is the executive chef for the restaurant at Hilton Garden Inn, came to our table to welcome us to the restaurant, of which we thanked him profusely for hosting us for a chef’s table lunch. A young man in his early thirties, he employs a “waste not” mantra that adds appeal to his recipes as what may be a garnish in one menu item may be a base in another menu item. And use of local ingredients means freshness in what goes into the culinary works. It was clear from the smells and tastes of what came from the kitchen. While the King Edwards Hotel has relinquished its abandoned status to being an establishment with proper pomp and circumstances, the restaurant shines. Attentive and knowledgeable wait staff and a dynamic chef, well before you complete your meal, chances are you will shout Bravo! If I did not have such British polishing, I would have shouted in the restaurant. However, I waited until I was in the car far, far, away from listening ears.

Mississippi Mud Pie