The Winchester — House, Hotel, or Restaurant

The Winchester

As of late, things have been quite scrambling. What is one to do when you’re dealing with work, CrossFit training, trying to squeeze in a few television shows, and catching up on reading? I can’t speak for most, but I get an appetite, after which I experience that sleepy feeling when I’m done gnashing away on too much food. Nevertheless, I have resigned myself to not skip out on breakfast or brunch. For my latest morning hankering, I ventured to the Ukrainian Village to The Winchester at 1001 N. Winchester Avenue.

Orange Juice

Orange Juice

Mimosa

Mimosa

What looks like a giant beige block is a rather nice contemporary restaurant in one of Chicago’s hip neighbourhoods. Upon entering the spacious area, there is the hipster contingent and a mix of hipster parents. Still, there isn’t the distant demeanor that tends to be prevalent at hipster spots where the service is outstanding if you fit the hipster mold. Actually, the staff at The Winchester is quite engaging, which is a nice change from feeling as if you’re an inconvenience.

Waffle of the Day

Waffle of the Day

I started with fresh squeezed orange juice to whet the palate while scanning the menu. It was brunch, so I figured I would have my “when in Rome” moment and partake of an alcoholic beverage — a mimosa. Yep, champagne and orange juice in the morning is not a bad option, especially when you couple it with waffles topped with toasted rice, apples, and a dollop of whipped cream. Given the waffle was not saccharine, the natural sugar from the chopped apples provided enough sweetness such that no syrup was required.

As if the large plate of waffles was not enough, I ordered a plate of fried black rice with Thai green curry and topped with a fried egg. The football player sized guy sitting next to me looked at me with what I could only describe as mild shock. I know I am not quite the size of a linebacker, but CrossFit really keeps my hunger on full tilt. It became clear to him and his two fashion model girlfriends that I was not playing around. This is not fried rice you will find at a Thai restaurant, but it is definitely fried rice that Thai restaurants may want to add to their menus.

Fried Black Rice

Fried Black Rice

Although not on a main road, The Winchester is not far off from West Division Street or West Chicago Avenue. Those who rank restaurants according to ambiance will love the well-lit interior as well as the spaciousness. The diners who entered received a lot of attention from the wait staff, which is a plus. Where The Winchester shines is with the food. I can say with certainty that the breakfast offerings are top. One of these evenings I shall have to return to sample something from their dinner menu. Based on brunch, The Winchester draws a crowd. I can only imagine how the restaurant packs out after 5:00 PM. There may be popular variations of Winchester, but The Winchester in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village is the one that I have fallen in culinary love with.

The Winchester on Urbanspoon

Original Pancake House, Not the Original One, Though

Original Pancake House

Imagine a Saturday morning in April with birds chirping, blue skies, a gentle breeze, and temperatures hovering in the 70’s. It sounds almost like a scene you would project during meditation. For those of us in Chicago, we view it more as a tease because we are almost certain that the temperatures will drop by 11:00 AM and it will start to feel again like the beginning of winter or the last vestiges of winter. Of course, we cannot be bothered with Mother Nature tempting us with pleasant weather this early in the spring, so we continue with things like running errands, jogging, staying in bed late, and even avoiding chores around the house. And then there are those of us who rush to some breakfast spot. It goes without saying that eating is priority in my life and starting off with a divine breakfast is top priority — when I can actually get out of bed on Saturday mornings with any kind of inertia.

Orange Juice

Orange Juice

It was off to Original Pancake House at 7255 W. Madison Street in Forest Park. Having passed the restaurant several times, I knew how quickly it packed with patrons. So, it was necessary to arrive as soon as the doors opened because with the weather being so nice, I knew that people would be there like it was Black Friday. Wouldn’t you believe that I got there before the rush? Menu in hand and appetite alarm driving me insane, I ordered orange juice, a mushroom and cheddar omelette, and a Belgian waffle. Oh happy day!

Mushroom and Cheddar Omelette

Mushroom and Cheddar Omelette

The omelette was not some concoction from the kitchen, much like what I have had at countless breakfast restaurants made from fringe eggs. Granted it was not all cute and rectangular. That didn’t matter. It filled my plate before I started gobbling it and filling my belly. Then there was the Belgian waffle. Once you have a waffle from Original Pancake House, you will boycott Eggo. “Leggo me Eggo.” Please, you can have it because I’m going back to Original Pancake House. Now, one may think that the breakfast here may be much like what you get anywhere. No, no, no. The eggs and omelette are fluffy. The pancakes and waffles aren’t weighty, but are instead light and airy. I was happy when I finished dabbing at the corners of my mouth.

Belgian Waffle

Belgian Waffle

One thing to note about Forest Park is that there is a very strong atmosphere of family. You will find most establishments filled with families and close friends. Also, it appears that customers return to restaurants constantly to the point where the staff knows them well and interacts with the customers accordingly. The same can be said of this Original Pancake House location. The drive out to Forest Park was not all that bad as a result of a really good breakfast, which I knew I was going to enjoy, and pleasant service that was conversational. I have always been a huge fan of European breakfast options, but when I want a proper American breakfast, I will find myself at some Original Pancake House that isn’t bursting at the seams with diners. The location in Forest Park may not be the original one, but that’s okay. It’s good enough for me. (Isn’t that “It’s good enough for me” a part of some commercial jingle?)

Original Pancake House on Urbanspoon The Original Pancake House on Foodio54

Breaking My Neck for Breakfast

It is time for another confession: I love breakfast. I could make breakfast a constant meal. Of course I say that now, knowing that the Aries in me would kick in and I would tire of having it in an ongoing fashion all day long, everyday. But when weekends arrive, I can play nicely with my knife and fork over a plate of morning goodness. If you have been to any of the breakfast restaurants that I have visited, you would feel the same way, too. Recently, I went breakfast crazy in a fantastic way.

Last year I went to Marmalade at 1969 W. Montrose Avenue for my birthday breakfast. I did a repeat this year. Often you will hear a lot of people go on about certain cafes and restaurants that serve the best French toast ever. Having gone to Marmalade several times, their rants go in one ear and out the other because until you have had the Cuban French toast and couldn’t control your smile thereafter, you’ve only had toast soaked in milk and doused with syrup. I was overwhelmed with breakfast satisfaction while indulging the Cuban French toast again this year.

Cuban French Toast

Cuban French Toast


During the night of my birthday dinner where a great friend and I had our second visit of a French restaurant in Evanston, Illinois, we made plans to meet for breakfast the next morning. Where would we go? What time would we get there? How would we struggle with fighting sleep after four-course meals and flights of martinis and cocktails? Never fear! Food was involved. We opted for a German breakfast, one  well-balanced with pannenkoekens. Yep, we arrived at Pannenkoeken Cafe at 4757 N. Western Avenue in Lincoln Square. Nothing like perking up immediately after having a large apple, brie, and raisin pannenkoken and a chocolate banana pannenkoeken placed in front of you. To my breakfast savvy informants, crepes are no longer “the” pancake of choice for me. Gib mir pannenkoeken.

Apple Raisin Cinnamon Pannenkoeken

Apple, Brie, Raisin Cinnamon

Chocolate and Banana Pannenkoeken

Chocolate and Banana


The thing about living in one of the hottest neighbourhoods in America is the tendency to take everything about it for granted. Logan Square boasts boulevards, swanky boutiques, plenty of culture, hipsters who made single gear bicycles sexy, rising property taxes, and a plethora of restaurants. One restaurant that has been on the Logan Square landscape for several years is JAM, just off the roundabout at 3057 W. Logan Blvd. The time had come for me to see what the restaurant had for its offerings. A l’amuse bouche of a homemade fig newton, green apple juice, chicken and waffles, and coffee afterwards. Let me just say that a waffle prepared with coriander and rice flour in the recipe under pulled chicken drizzled with a fennel gastrique is NOT the same as a large Eggo waffle served with crispy fried chicken wings and “surp” — yes, I misspelled syrup intentionally.

Fruit Cookie

L’amuse: Fruit Cookie

Green Apple Juice

Green Apple Juice

Coffee and Cream

Coffee and Cream

Chicken and Waffles

Chicken and Waffles

At the rate I have been going, it is starting to look like I may wind up with a Top 10 list of breakfast eateries for 2014. Certainly after the visit to Pannenkoeken Cafe, I shall thrust myself into a search for more German restaurants that have pannenkoekens on their menus. And Logan Square has already proven to be a hub of growth. I may not have to go to Lincoln Park, Lincoln Square, Lakeview, Uptown, Bucktown, Wicker Park, and downtown for breakfast options. I will only need to walk a few blocks in any direction from my condo and find my feet under some table, tapping my toes while clinking my knife and fork on my plate of morning loving from the kitchen.

Jam on Urbanspoon

 

Batter & Berries and Breakfast Bliss

Berries & Batter

Weekends are for rest. Well, that has been the lie I had been convincing myself was real for the past few years. After long hours at work and then having to get on the computer to do extra stuff, I would look forward to weekends when I would stay in bed late, get up and grab a quick snack, and then lounge around my condo with a plate of something nearby. Alas, there are errands to run, clothes to wash, cleaning around the condo to be done, and a frenzied email that needs to be addressed. Nevertheless, work doesn’t end. So, I have to fortify myself for the onslaught. For example, today I met a great friend at Batter & Berries in Chicago’s Lincoln Park at 2748 N. Lincoln Avenue. Getting there involved work, as driving down roads riddled with cavernous pothole requires dexterity, quick reflexes, and a large vocabulary to avoid a potty vernacular when slamming into any of the many potholes.

Eggs Scrambled with Gouda Cheese

Eggs Scrambled with Gouda Cheese

My friend had gone to Batter & Berries already, so she had warned me of the crowd that the restaurant experiences. Chicago boasts some fantastic breakfast spots where people will gladly wait in long lines — inside or outside, even in cold temperatures — for a seat so that they can slice away at some pancakes, omelette, waffles, or sausages. Knowing the location of where Batter & Berries is, we agreed that we would get there shortly after the doors opened for business. Wouldn’t you believe that at 8:00 AM, the restaurant was full?

Eggs Benedict Over Crab Cakes With Hashbrowns

Eggs Benedict Over Crab Cakes with Hashbrowns

My friend ordered a plate of eggs Benedict over crab cakes. This came with hashbrowns. Not being a fan of poached eggs, my friend ordered the eggs Benedict scrambled. Yes, it was a slight modification to the original recipe for assurance that the eggs were not runny. The crab cakes were of the Maryland style, that being lump crab with light breading. This was fantastic because not only were they delicious, but you don’t have to go all the way to Maryland to have crab cakes done properly. And also with the dish came a side of vanilla rum French toast with a dollop of maple butter. Per my friend’s facial expression, she would have gone outside and had a cigarette to show approval of how tasty the French toast was.

Flight of French Toast

Flight of French Toast

I ordered a flight of French toast. Yes, I am exhausting all avenues of flights, having started with a flight of mojitos, and recently indulging flights of whiskey cocktails. Far be it from me to ring the bell tower when it comes to food. Wait. I will ring the bell tower to announce how much I loved the slices of the vanilla, strawberry, lemon, caramel, and blueberry French toast. I rolled my eyes, hummed, went into radio silence mode, smiled my stupid smile, and mumbled nonsense. And to make matters worse, I had a plate of scrambled eggs with gouda cheese in it. For my next confession, I shall let it be known that I have fallen in love with eggs scrambled well with gouda cheese in them.

Berries & Berries was well worth me getting out of bed early. While I can’t flag the restaurant as being couched in any specific ethnicity, I have an allowance for American fare on Chicago Alphabet Soup, especially when it involves the most important meal of the day. The service is outstanding and you really get won over when they show you photos of different dishes on iPads while using the same device to place your order. The prices are incredibly reasonable. But what matter most is the loving from the kitchen, whipped up in some batter with berries and a sprig of bliss.

Batter & Berries on Urbanspoon

Top 10 Jaunts for 2013

December has arrived and it is during this time that I always ponder whether there was something I had intended to do between January and the end of November, but somehow never got around to doing. I swear time went slower when I was a kid. The summers dragged on forever — and I didn’t complain. Christmas break felt like a whole month. School was the equivalent of endless punishment. Fast forward to age 45 and each year feels compressed from a full twelve months to about seven. However, I still get to partake of my favourite hobby second to photography: eating. And for the end of 2013, I decided that I would do something different — a list of Top 10 Jaunts for 2013. So, this post will be dedicated to the restaurant discoveries that tempted my palate. Since I have already written extensive blog postings for each, I will only present highlights.

10. Pasteur
I had spent a lot of time in the Edgewater neighbourhood during the summer. My favourite Indian restaurant is there. One day while walking down Broadway, I happened to see a building full of Chicago architecture with a menu in the window. Having passed the building many times, it looked too fancy to register as a restaurant, but I was glad to have been in a casual mood the one Saturday I stopped and took notice of it. The food was outstanding and the service was top. From the interior, one can easily get the sensation of being in Europe, but it’s the Vietnamese influence in the food that pops. With the menu items supposedly having a French and Vietnamese fusion, I didn’t detect a heavier French accent. It was the Vietnamese flavours that stood out more. In the future I shall return for more good food and great service, and hopefully see if there is more balance to the menu.

Pasteur, Collage
9. Freddy’s Pizzeria and Grocery
A great friend had sent a text message to me to prompt me about Freddy’s while I was at an Italian restaurant on the Far North Side. She had already enlightened me to a few cafes and restaurants in Berwyn, so I trusted her recommendation. She gave me the formal introduction to Freddy’s Pizzeria and Grocery. This is a small grocery store with an annex built on to the side of the market for those who wish to sit and eat without having to rush home to devour the food. There is authenticity to every dish that puts a lot of big box Italian restaurants to shame. It’s evident when you enter the door and see the long line that stretches from the door, to the back of the grocery store, all along the counter, and up to the cash register. I think the trip out to Cicero is worth it, but I advise you to be prepared because staring at the selection of delicious food behind the counter may throw you into a food frenzy.

Freddy's Pizza and Grocery

8. Silom 12
Grub Hub is a beautiful thing and a glorious thing during the winter when delivery is a viable option. I had tried Silom 12 numerous times as a take-away choice when I was too lazy to operate my own stove. Not once was I dissatisfied with what I had ordered. Well, while I was having my hallway bathroom remodelled this summer, I needed a moment to escape from the sound of drills, saws, and banging. Where should I find myself but at Silom 12 for a proper sit-down. And oh was I pleased beyond words. Logan Square is one of America’s hottest neighbourhoods and with the addition of restaurants like Silom 12, it’s easy to understand why. One would think that the price per dish may make the cha-ching sound. No, the price, service, and food make a harmonious sigh of satisfaction. Well, let me take that back and make it personal. I made a harmonious sigh of satisfaction with each bite of food I took and believe me when I say that I ate a lot.

Silom 12

7. Masouleh
When I first moved to Chicago, I spent a little over a year in Northbrook. There was only so much that I could take of the sound of crickets. New York City had spoiled me. So I moved into Chicago proper and my first Chicago apartment was in Rogers Park. At that time Rogers Park had a heavy Mexican influence. Fast forward to 2013 and there seems to be more diversity gracing the Rogers Park landscape. One addition to the neighbourhood is Masouleh. I had met up with some friends after work one Friday evening and had fallen in love with the place after only having some herbs, cheese, and radish put on the table. It was authentic and when I say authentic I mean the flavours popped the way I remember Iranian food tasting. I don’t mean plain hummus and pita bread either. I had to return for my very own adventure and by the time I had finished a parfait glass of Persian ice cream, I was typing my initial blog post from the moon.

Masouleh

6. Kabul House
The first restaurant I went to when I started Chicago Alphabet Soup was Kabul House. It was at a different address. Months had passed and then a few years went by. When I had made plans to return, it was closed. Then there was a cloud of sadness because I remembered the food being so delicious. My friend and I were at the restaurant for hours, slowly taking care of the fine dining that came from the kitchen. Well, I was informed that Kabul House had opened at a new location. I had added it to my list and during Memorial Day, I was so glad that I went. Let’s just say that I rolled my eyes and I don’t mean as in disgust or to be cheeky. Oh, off with the person’s head who said that it’s never as good as the first time. It was better the second time around.

Kabul House

5. Pannenkoeken Cafe
If anyone ever starts rattling off the old adage that the best meal of the day is breakfast, tell them to put a footnote on that and immediately rush to Pannenkoeken Cafe. I am not one for eating lunch or dinner delights from Germany because they are heavy on the stomach. Not quite as sleep-inducing as Eastern European food, but you will drag afterwards. A German breakfast, on the other hand, causes the angels to sing. Pannenkoeken Cafe is a small cafe, so getting there early is advisable. Now, although the breakfast isn’t heavy on the belly, it is filling. So, you have to go on several visits. You have to. You must! Don’t even think about The Original Pancake House. Make your own pancakes at home, but go to Pannenkoeken Cafe for a proper breakfast that will give you a perpetual smile.

Pannenkoeken

4. Den Den Eritrean Restaurant
Rogers Park has developed a bit of magnetism to it thanks to the addition of a few ethnic eateries. There are several Ethiopian restaurants in Edgewater. While going to Masouleh one evening, my great friend who had recommended Freddy’s to me pointed Den Den Eritrean Restaurant out to me. I don’t think I had taken a few steps before I retrieved my smart phone and blocked some time for a visit. I had never thought of any Eritrean representation in Chicago’s culinary landscape. Everything about Den Den was top-notch. While I can’t say that Eritrean and Ethiopian are the same, the food preparation, serving, and method of eating the food are the same. However, Den Den takes the top spot among the Ethiopian restaurants I’ve been to in Chicago. And I’ve been to all — except one that I zipped pass while speeding up Ashland Avenue.

Den Den

3. De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine
Skokie has a small section in a business district that isn’t on a busy street. Had I not gone to Kabul House to renew my food vows, I never would have stumbled across a restaurant that has some cultural significance to me. When I saw the word “Jamaican” flash in front of my eyes, the return to the small stretch of Oakton Avenue was mandatory. The saltfish and ackee, callalou, rice and beans, beef patty, and june plum juice reminded me so much of my paternal grandmother’s kitchen that I spent almost every Saturday at De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine. And when I didn’t get back during a Saturday visit, there were occasional trips for take-away throughout the week. Certainly when you find something with a cultural attachment, it’s hard to detach.

De-Jred Fine Jamaican

2. Roka Akor
Earlier in the year, I wanted to try something new in the downtown vicinity. Most restaurants in downtown fall into the tourist trap or “big box” categories. You go and then tell your friends that you had gone to such-and-such restaurant because that’s where all of the Joneses had gone before you. But Roka Akor is where you go when you want to keep up with the Williamses. I was blown away on the first visit with the good fortune of having a server who had hit the mark on every menu choice offered as an option. There wasn’t one dish to be placed in front of me that I wasn’t raving about by the second bite. Getting to sit at the robata grill was a splendid option because I got to chat with the sous chef and the sashimi chef. You can’t do that at just any restaurant, and certainly not at a tourist trap or “big box” eatery.

Roka Akor

1. Basil Leaf Cafe (Tie)
Coming up with the number one spot was hard — and I’m not saying that just to have something to say. I started the year off with Basil Leaf Cafe being the first ethnic restaurant I was sampling. This was also the first time that I had decided to have a degustation without ordering from the menu. I trusted my server to make all recommendations and bring to the table a soup, a salad, two entrées, and a dessert. Basil Leaf Cafe had raised the bar up through the clouds and even on return visits, I was always in awe of how I could simply state that I liked seafood and vegetarian dishes, hand the menu back to the server, and let him or her bring to the table culinary choices that had indicated that they apparently listen to their dining patrons.

Basil Leaf Cafe

1. Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill (Tie)
I don’t know where to begin with Yuzu. This was another hard decision because I wanted there to be ten restaurants on my Top 10 list. It turned out to be eleven because Basil Leaf Cafe and Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill were deserving of the top position. My first visit to Yuzu had moved the expectation bar way up. No one disappears behind a door and comes back with a delectable dish. The sushi station and the robata grill are on full display, so you know exactly what you are getting. I was curious as to how a sushi bar could have a constant flow of patrons early in the day on a summer Saturday. It was after the first bite of some grilled eggplant from the robata grill that I understood why. Based on all of the robata grill items and sushi that my server had brought to the table, I honestly believe I could have won the lottery if I had asked her for the winning numbers. Everything was delicious.

Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill

I am hoping that 2014 will not be as busy and fast as 2013 has been. Yes, there is the saying that you should take time to smell the roses. But when there is the aroma of some inviting food wafting from the kitchen, put those roses in a vase and go see what the source of the aroma is. I know that I shall do just that in the New Year. I have to come up with ten more new restaurants for 2014. That means weight gain. Oh wait, no, that means I had better get started coming up with a list of eateries to sample throughout 2014.

And at this time, I would like to thank all who have been following Chicago Alphabet Soup and who have been giving me encouragement. Enjoy the holiday and may the New Year bring you joy and continued peace. And if none of that, then may some server bring you a dish that makes you sing a happy song.

Sunday Brunch and Missing Lisbon

Sola Restaurant

Years ago New York City introduced the concept of the brunch. These Sunday affairs combined breakfast and lunch with a dash of some alcoholic concoction for an accessory. The brunch inception has grown so much that it is a Sunday staple in all metropolitan cities. In New York City, the upper middle class dandies sit and complain about all sorts of extemporaneous topics. In Los Angeles, those of the pretentious cabal flash plastic smiles in front of everyone in hopes that a producer or agent may catch their eye. In Miami, everyone stands around with their painted-on tan, their clothes disturbingly way too tight and bright. In Washington, DC, all the lawyers and politicians mess up their dining experiences by discussing work, as though not discussing work will result in a social-climbing apocalypse. In Chicago, everyone is natural and free-flowing at their brunch sets, although some may be seated outside in close proximity to a trash dumpster. As much as I love Chicago, I cannot get my thoughts around situating outdoor seating near an alley. At least Sola Restaurant at 3868 N. Lincoln Avenue got it correct.

Red Dawn

Red Dawn

Since I go to early church service, I have most of my day available for doing things other than dreading going to work the next day. The thing is I can’t begin my activities on an empty stomach or only with a cup of coffee to carry me through. It is mandatory that I abide by the mantra that the most important meal of the day is indeed breakfast and proper fuelling before the day gets into full swing is a priority. I had found a restaurant on the Internet that had a Hawaiian theme to its menu. Unlike some people who think that Hawaii is a foreign country, not one of the 50 states — hence, their ongoing disappointment with Obama’s birth certificate — I could not flag it as an ethnicity from abroad for Chicago Alphabet Soup. There is a South Pacific influence to Hawaii, for sure, and one day I shall find a restaurant with authentic Hawaiian flair or return to Sola Restaurant for dinner to sample their Hawaiian menu.

In the meantime, I had what I could consider a traditional brunch. I started with red dawn to whet, or rather wet, my appetite. This was champagne and blood orange. Well, this libation picked me up, not that I was down or anything like that. With the muggy feeling from the Chicago humidity, it was refreshing. Then there were malasadas. These Portuguese style sugar-coated doughnuts came with a drizzle of hot fudge and raspberry coulis. I was in heaven. The last time I had doughnuts like this was when I lived in Washington, DC, feasting on some bofroat at an authentic Ghanaian restaurant. No, I take that back. I had gone to Lisbon with my high school crush last year and had some then, served with coffee sweetened with condensed milk. And I am so missing being there at this moment. Everyone may think that beignets are the best thing since colour television. Pschee! In the “Best Doughnuts in the World” pecking order, you have Ghanaian bofroat, Portuguese malasadas, Old Fashion Doughnuts on Chicago’s South Side, beignets, and then everything else shakes out where it may. For those of you in the Chicago metropolitan area or who will be visiting soon, leaving before having some malasadas would be the equivalent of clapping you mum across the cheek. It would be just that wrong.

Malasadas

Malasadas

Now I must admit defeat. (Collective gasp.) I ordered an upside down banana pancake. Usually, specialty dishes come in small to moderate size portions. I tend to underestimate the power of some restaurants’ capacity to exceed one’s expectations. The upside down banana pancake was not only wide enough to cover most of the plate, but it was also thick. Topped with a dollop of butter, that was all I needed — no syrup required. The consistency reminded me of a warm yellow cake filled with bananas. It was so delicious, so ridiculously delicious, so warm and tasty, melting on my tongue, leaving me speechless. I was floating on a cloud that hovered over a babbling brook. I tried to finish all of it, going slowly, pausing in between bites, and not drinking anything with the pancake, the works. When it got to be too much, I accepted the fact that next time I will not order anything else in conjunction with the pancake. I would have it and eat it to completion. But I had some extra to take home with me and I smiled while I left the restaurant with my take-away.

Upside Down Banana Pancake

Upside Down Banana Pancake

Sola Restaurant has a big-box look to it, yet without the big-box feel. The atmosphere is trendy, the service ranks high — from my first experience there, and the price is comparable to what you will find at a lot of breakfast spots where people wait what seems like forever to feast off of a limited menu. For the Sunday brunch, the doors open at 10:00 AM. By the time I had arrived at 10:15 AM, the restaurant was filling up inside and the patio was already full. I cannot speak to the Hawaiian menu. That will require a return visit for a regular lunch or dinner. I will admit that the brunch was worth it. Let’s face it. New York City may pioneer a lot of concepts and the rest of the States catch on late. Chicago is the first to make the experience worthy of blogging. So, until next time I see you, Sola Restaurant, Aloha!

Sola on Urbanspoon Sola Restaurant on Foodio54

Swedish Foodtography and Cinnamon Rolls

Ann Sather

Years ago when it was my turn at work to bring in doughnuts, bagels, or something sweet for breakfast, I always went by Ann Sather for my purchase. In the suburbs where I was working at the time, there were the various bakeries that sold the usual doughnuts, ala Dunkin Donuts. Unlike when Dunkin Donuts had first opened its doors to business, it has since become a bake shop and the concept of the baking the doughnuts on the premises had come to a disappointing halt. Needless to say, I chose to buy some fresh cinnamon rolls to take to work when it was my turn rather than torture my co-workers with stale Dunkin Donuts purchased at sunrise. People at work would mumble, Oooh and Aahhh. They envied our city fare when it came to tasty food.

Swedish Waffles

Swedish Waffles

My discovery of Ann Sather also meant that I had at least one ethnic restaurant to blog for Chicago Alphabet Soup. My first visit to Ann Sather for the purpose of blogging the restaurant was at the Southport Corridor location. I was stuffed to capacity, happy as a lark, and had a nice write-up for the reading audience. Later, the restaurant closed its doors to business. The Southport Corridor had lost a great establishment and I had a write-up to a location that was no longer open for patronage. Of course, there were other locations of Ann Sather in the city and I made it a point to eventually get around to returning for an update to my original blog entry. That day came and it was the Edgewater location at 1147 Granville Avenue where I had a window seat and an appetite for something from the menu.

Eggs Scrambled with Mascarpone Cheese

Eggs Scrambled with Mascarpone Cheese

Filled with the usual North Side cast of characters, I eyed the bill of fare for the breakfast options and was ready to stop my belly from rumbling. I ordered the Swedish waffles and eggs scrambled well with mascarpone cheese. The waffles were thin, but not crepe thin, and fluffy. They certainly were not of the Eggo quality either, as I could taste the buttery flavour in the recipe. The two of them, that I drizzled rather than drowned with syrup, were just what I needed to silence the monster. The first time I had gone to Ann Sather for breakfast, I was introduced to having cream cheese in my scrambled eggs. This time there was no cream cheese, but there was mascarpone cheese and I indulged it all the same. The two guys sitting next to me when I had ordered the eggs looked at me as though I was an exotic not from America. Well, I am from London, albeit I grew up in America, but that is besides the point. When the eggs had arrived, they watched me with curiosity. I think some people love looking at exotics. And for a nice wrap-up, I had coffee and a cinnamon roll. You have not had a good cinnamon roll until you have had a warm, soft cinnamon roll from Ann Sather. I know there are some individuals debating my observation, someone whose point of reference for a good cinnamon roll is a concoction not too different from a Pillsbury cinnamon roll from the can. I pity said individuals.

Cinnamon Roll and Coffee

Cinnamon Roll and Coffee

It goes without saying that Chicago has countless restaurants that come and go. Ann Sather is a Chicago chain and one that people appreciate greatly. All you have to do is walk by any one of the locations and see the place teeming with patrons. The breakfasts simply cannot be denied as some of the best you will get in Chicago. Walker Brother, Original Pancake House, IHOP, and the various breakfast houses that those of the suburban ilk love more than their weekend trip to Wal-Mart are worthy of their praise. Then there is Ann Sather where not only do you get stupendous breakfast, outstanding service, and food at a price that doesn’t make you sigh, but you can also get a cinnamon roll that will shoot you straight to the moon. Hmm. Houston, we have a problem. We’re out of cinnamon rolls.

Ann Sather Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Annual Narcissism Celebration

Iguana CafeSeveral years ago, I did something that a lot of people who have limited success in relationships refuse to do. I backed off and spent time getting to know and love myself rather than seeking someone to do that for me. Well, those several years were actually fifteen years ago. What was supposed to be a brief self-assessment turned into a case of me practising narcissism. And truth be told, since then I have not gone to bed with grief, tears on my pillow, sleepless nights, or a diminished sense of self because I was abiding by an emotionally damaging mantra of “I am nothing without a woman.” This had marked my fifteenth year celebration. Not being one for shopping and I am going abroad mid September through mid October, I made an appointment with my ego to go to some restaurants and feast in celebration of having discovered that the world will not come to a screeching halt because I am single.

Belgian WaffleMy first stop was Iguana Cafe in the River North section of Chicago at 517 N. Halsted Street. It is one of those boutique restaurants that has a coffee-house feel to it and fills up with those who have an urban chic appeal to themselves. That may be very much due to the ambience that the cafe exudes. Two very close friends had given rave reviews about Iguana Cafe, almost bordering on fanatical. So I had to see what the appeal was. On entry, one thing I found a bit disconcerting was whether to seat myself or wait. Not as though the cafe was bursting with patrons, the staff seemed rather scrambled. But I waited for a few minutes before being acknowledged and taken to a seat — where I waited for a noticeable amount of time before my order was taken.

Iced ChaiWith it being morning, I scanned the extensive menu for something along the lines of breakfast fare. Usually breakfast menus leave me with a gasp, for there is so much that leaps from the pages along the lines of appetizing dishes. At Iguana Cafe, the bill of fare was somewhat pedestrian although exhaustive. Noting that, I ordered a Belgian waffle because I was confident that the kitchen staff would not botch that. I also ordered Greek yogurt with strawberries and bananas and an iced chai to wash it all down. The Belgian waffle certainly was not a defrosted breakfast delight, as it was still crispy on the outside, warm and fluffy on the inside after I had snapped about 75 shots of it from various angles. Filling the whole plate, the taste finally made things feel okay, because the initial impression of the cafe was — shall we say — a bit run of the mill. As an individual who is not a fan of yogurt from the dairy section at the local grocer, the Greek yogurt with strawberries and bananas really etched itself in my mind as a highlight. Greek yogurt alone is a bit of an acquired taste because it is not loaded with sugar, saccharine, Splenda, Equal, or high fructose corn syrup the way you find yogurt in the supermarket. The natural sweetness of the fruit was all that was needed. And the chai, although it may have been the quick mix in the pourable carton, was still good enough on ice to wet the throat. So, I get to say that the dining experience at Iguana Cafe was worthy.

Greek YogurtAfter an enjoyable breakfast, I felt as though I was at a Jamaican cafe when it came time for paying the tab. In Jamaica, you practically beg for the tab and have to push your way to the counter to pay the bill. I waited for the tab to be brought to the table — and I waited, and waited, and waited. By the third time having to request the check, I walked to the till to pay the tab. Crime. Treason. Horror. Murder. The stares I received from the staff, as if though I was supposed to sit and wait for fifteen more minutes while the time on the parking metre ran out. This is not written as a deterrent, but while the food left me with a smile, the whole customer service thing was missing from the equation. To quote the youth of the present urban setting, “It is what it is.” And as I walked out the door with a filled stomach, I checked Iguana Cafe off my list of restaurants to sample.

The Sit Down Cafe & Sushi BarBy lunch, my belly was growling. I had been pondering whether I wanted to go to a restaurant on the North Side but remembered a certain cafe from my days of living in Hyde Park. The first experience was so pleasing that I wanted to return for another episode at the outdoor seating area. So it was off to The Sit Down Cafe at 1312 E. 53rd Street. The weather was perfect: no hot and humid temperatures, blue skies, and a mild breeze. Reaching the restaurant and finding that there were plenty of outdoor seats because everyone was inside — or elsewhere — I requested a table that was in a shaded part of the front patio and had pulled out my camera to start my calibration for my photography. And wouldn’t you know that out of all of the outdoor seating, these two loud-mouth women sat immediately next to me and grimaced at me clicking away with my camera in advance of receiving my food. Apparently none of the other seats were good enough. To borrow an observation from my brother, “We have been cursed such that we have a tendency to attract foolishness.” He actually used another word rather than “foolishness.”

Pineapple, Orange, and Pomegranate JuiceFor a refreshing beverage, I had a pinorgranate juice. This was a blend of pineapple juice, orange juice, and pomegranate juice. Oh was it tasty. I have had pineapple and orange juice but the addition of the pomegranate juice added a hint of tartness that did some tricks on the tongue when matched with the sweetness of the other juices. Americanized Asian dishes have a love of adding sweet and sour meat-of-your-choice to their menus. The sweet and tart marriage in the glass of pinorgranate juice had given me an idea of some juicing to try at home. Not to stuff myself relentlessly, I opted for a maki roll because the rolls I had during my first visit were so outstanding that I do not think I gave the write-up justice when I did my first journal entry for The Sit Down Cafe. On this visit, I ordered a dragon roll. Tempura shrimp, avocado, cucumber, tobiko, and barbecued eel. What more could you ask for in food satisfaction? Of course I could rattle off several more choices, but the dragon roll never fails and I found a bit of a perverse satisfaction watching the two mouths frown and scoff at my photography enjoyment and subsequent exaggerated sighs of bliss. I bet they won’t sit immediately next to someone else in an otherwise empty restaurant or patio again. I don’t remember having the dragon roll when I had gone the first time, so the light feast this time was virginal at The Sit Down Cafe. Although the cafe has some other fare on their menu like a few Italian dishes, they are absolute top in terms of their sushi.

Dragon RollThe waitress who had taken my order remembered me from a year ago during my first visit. Since patrons usually snap photos with their cell phones and point-and-click phones, seeing someone photograph their food from multiple angles and with up to well over 300 clicks of the camera, I guess it would be hard to forget someone who is not only passionate about their photography but who also cleans his plate. Again the loud mouths sized me up because to hear the waitress engage me in long conversation about what I do for a living if photography is not it, what I had been doing since the first visit, some of my favourite cities for specific cuisines, and some  recommended restaurants in the city was not something she did with the other dining patrons. The complete converse of Iguana Cafe, I left The Sit Down Cafe feeling as though I had left a friend’s house. And as the waitress had said, I have a feeling that you’ll be back more now that you’re in Chicago more, I will indeed return for more juice and sushi on a regular basis.

Brownie SundaeTowards the latter part of the day, and after having snacked on something throughout the remainder of the afternoon, I decided that I would treat myself to some ice cream. I had gone to one of my favourite neighbouring suburbs to see “Beasts of the Southern Wild” at the picture show. A little extra time on my hand I walked over to the Oberweis Ice Creamery at 124 N Oak Park Avenue and had a brownie sundae with a large scoop of chocolate ice cream, a scoop of cookies and cream, whipped cream and topped with a cherry. It was a perfect ending to an A+ day. After a full day of having my cell phone off so that I would have no disruption to my annual narcissism celebration, I returned home to voice mails from friends about broken hearts, divorce, and emotional torture. For some twisted reason, I smiled to myself because if I were to introduce them to the joys of narcissism, they would learn to love themselves and know the next time when someone is trying to bring trash into their homes to mess up the merry work. People take trash out for a reason. For me, if I’m not busy staring at myself in a mirror, I’m staring at my reflection in an empty plate. And I smile.

Iguana Cafe on Urbanspoon
The Sit Down Cafe 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

Going Green Zebra

Green Zebra

Chicago. Sunday. It is late morning. My stomach is talking to me — lucky for me no one else can hear the voice. I am thinking of something contemporary. I am experiencing a want for something with kick, which goes without saying. And then a flash comes to mind. I will satisfy my craving with some vegetarian food. There is a saying, “It is never as good as the first time.” I remember a certain restaurant and how my mouth burst with flavour when I went the first time. Well, let me be the first to say that during this second trip to this particular eatery, the old saying no longer applies when it comes to Green Zebra. It is so much better — better by leaps and bounds — the second time. Located at 1460 W. Chicago Avenue on the corner of Chicago Avenue and Greenview Avenue is perhaps one of Chicago’s top vegetarian restaurants. I must admit that with this being my second visit and being thoroughly satisfied with my dining experience, Green Zebra ranks as one of my top restaurants in the city. Now, New York City may be known for bringing the concept of brunches to mainstream midday fellowship. Green Zebra is the first to take it up a notch.

Madelienes with Honey Butter and Raspberry Jam

Madelienes with Honey Butter and Raspberry Jam

Upon entering what looks very art-deco and stylish, a hostess greeted me with a genuine welcome and showed me to a window seat. She must have been reading my mind because I wanted a seat where I could have enough light for photographing the dishes I had planned to order. I was now ready for action. I placed my order and while I waited for the goodness of the kitchen to be delivered to my table, I had complimentary madeleines with honey butter and raspberry jam. Usually you find the French biscuits baked using flour. These were baked with corn meal. I had to be decent because two were simply not enough. I was well aware that they were complementary, but after spreading the honey butter and raspberry jam on the two heavenly treats, my mind was rambling as to why they were not main items on the menu. If you want to diffuse a confrontation, I recommend madeleines with the spreads from Green Zebra.

Flatbread, Brunch Style

Flatbread, Brunch Style

The first time I had gone to Green Zebra I had ordered a German pancake and I had enjoyed it so much that I wanted it again. On my initial visit the pancake was prepared with caramelized squash. Yes, surprise, surprise! This time the pancake was prepared with pears. Who moved my cheese? Whose idea was it to sample with the German pancake by adding pears and make it even more tasty than it was the first time I went? Whose idea was it to change their menu to indulge seasonal culinary wonder, definitely making me want to see what will be on their winter menu since I was pleased with their spring menu and found that the autumn menu today was top? Oh the delight. Oh the rapture. Oh the happiness from it all. Chicago is also becoming home of flatbread dishes. Instead of ordering just one dish to journal, I wanted one more to describe as well. While ordering my brunch meal I asked the waiter for recommendation of another dish that would complement the German pancake without being too overwhelming. Granted I have an incredible appetite, walking bent over like an upside down letter L is not cute. So he offered the breakfast flatbread. The crispy flatbread was served under sautéed onions and mushrooms with shreds of Romaine lettuce, all cooked in a bourbon sauce, and served with an egg sunny side up. I have never been a fan of my eggs being done any way other than scrambled — maybe with cheddar cheese or cream cheese. It takes having your eggs sunny side up done correctly for you to appreciate just how fantastic they are that way. The only regret I have for having eaten this dish is that I enjoyed it so much that I may burn in hell from finding excessive pleasure in each bite.

German Pancake

German Pancake

The cranberry juice that I had with the brunch was not from a can, carton, or bottle. I would debate that notion even if they were to pull the carton from the icebox and show it to me. Well, it may have been, but I have not had cranberry juice as fresh as what I had at Green Zebra. Whatever they did to it or wherever they got it from, I hope that they have it again when I go back. For an after-brunch drink, I settled for green tea with no sugar. One of the things I grew to appreciate as a wrap-up to my meals when I was in Australia was a cup of green tea, which helps digestion. Even better is that the green tea was loose leaf, which panders well to my British sensibilities.  And while sipping my tea and reading Chicago Tribune on my Kindle about the political landscape with the Chicago mayoral race the waiter offered some suggestions as to other vegetarian restaurants and other eateries in the neighbourhood where I live in Chicago proper. I shall visit them, but I shall return to Green Zebra and quite possibly for dinner since I know they have fantastic brunches.

Green Tea

Green Tea

Having a disposable income is an outstanding thing and when you go to awesome restaurants like Green Zebra and get the tab, you automatically flag such restaurants as regular stops for your culinary adventures. Not only is the price one that will keep you returning but the ambience, community, and top service will have you running back without hesitation. Oh, and let me not forget about the food. The first time was a charm for me. This second time was a slice of heaven. It was heaven. It was heaven on earth. Did I say that it was heaven? Yes, then let me burn in hell. And I am confident that the third, forth, fifth, and nth times will get progressively better.

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