La Sardine, Not The Canned Kind

La SardineSeveral months ago the owner at my favourite Italian restaurant in the world, Osteria Langhe, recommended a French bistro to me since he knew that I liked the European feel to my dining experience. During my last visit to the Italian restaurant, I thanked the owner for his recommendation. He then offered a recommendation for another French restaurant that he was confident I would enjoy. My sister and I blocked an evening for a sampling and before going into the full review, I’ll just say that I will thank the owner at my favourite Italian restaurant for this most recent suggestion.

Located at 111 N. Carpenter Street in Chicago’s West Loop District is La Sardine. Come to find out that this restaurant is the sister location to Le Bouchon, which was the first French restaurant given to me as a recommendation. La Sardine is larger, less of a bistro, but without any doubt, the food is just as spectacular and the service is also top.

Not being in a rush, my sister and I opted for a round of various dishes for fulfillment of our own little degustation. There was a potato leek soup that puts to shame some of the same soup that I have had at numerous restaurants worldwide. Unlike the thin base that I have had in the past, this was creamy without the potatoes being the thickening agent. Fresh ingredients in the recipe and this was a perfect starter.

Potato Leek Soup

Potato Leek Soup

During my first visit to Le Bouchon, I had ordered the soupe à l’oignon gratinée. When my sister and I had returned for what was to be my second visit, she had not had the French onion soup, so it was a part of the meal for our La Sardine sampling. After cutting through the baked gruyère cheese and down through the crouton, she understood why I talked incessantly about how much of a fan I was of the soup. Midway through the soup, she declared that it was the best she had ever eaten.

Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée

Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée

It would be wrong to go to a French restaurant and not partake of any escargot. So, we had a platter of plump escargots à la bourguignonne bubbling in burgundy, garlic, parsley, and butter. After we had finished the savoury morsels, we used the homemade French bread to sop the remaining sauce from the little cups on the platter.

Escargots à la Bourguignonne

Escargots à la Bourguignonne

Sin entered the picture when the bowl of moules au cidre arrived at the table. Granted the morsels in the mussels are light, the quantity of mussels was not small. To add to that, the mussels were swimming in a delectable cream sauce accented with cider and shallots. After we finished the mussels, we then used the French bread to sop the rest of the sauce. My sister, being a Catholic, spoke to an invisible priest, “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.” Me being a practising Buddhist, simply acknowledged that I was enjoying the moment of gluttony and decided to be at peace with my higher power after coffee.

Moules au Cidre

Moules au Cidre

For my main dish, I ordered the rãble de lapin. The rabbit was delectable, tender, not oily, and nothing akin to gamey on the palate. Served with a potato risotto in an au jus, I had pretty much decided that I will spend quite a bit of time at La Sardine cleaning plates.

Rãble de Lapin

Rãble de Lapin

My sister ordered the magret de canard. This dish, one consisting of duck that was neither oily nor gamey, was a winner. This one came with lentils and rapini in an addictive orange sauce. There were exaggerated pauses in conversation during the main course. I have a habit of humming when food is divine and my sister gets reticent for a few minutes. We were silent for at least fifteen minutes.

Magret de Canard

Magret de Canard

There was no room for dessert. And although we watched some captivating sweets going to different tables, the most we could indulge was coffee. Coffee is the after-diner drink my sister always has and I opted for a cafe au lait. Quality bean, clean coffee machine, or whatever it may be, I can speak to the cafe au lait not requiring any sweetener and not making me feel like there was something bitter in the cup.

Cafe au Lait

Cafe au Lait

The service at La Sardine is through the roof. The restaurant fills quickly and there is a nonstop flow of patrons coming and going. Still, it is evident that the service plays a part in the experience being splendid for those who come. The food is hands-down the best French food in Chicago that I have had as of late — and I include the sister restaurant Le Bouchon in the number one slot with La Sardine. Seating is close, a rather European effect, so be forewarned if you go. Make a reservation because the energy is high. Go on an empty stomach, don’t be in a rush to stuff yourself, and be prepared to experience sin with all the good flavours of France.

Mon Dieu.

La Sardine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Best Coffee, the Ethiopian Way

Royal CoffeeI joke about the fact that I would not make a good celebrity. I have no want for doing drugs. Drinking is not something I indulge to embarrassing excess. In the current day and age, sleeping around is a dangerous game of roulette. And I am not one for opening up my mouth and speaking in a stream of consciousness. Ah, but I love to eat. Paparazzi would grow tired of waiting in front of restaurants to snap photos of me partaking of some delectable dish. Tabloids would say that Gino eats constantly but somehow manages to maintain his athletic physique. His life is boring. Doesn’t the man do anything worthy of tabloid fodder?

The answer is NO!!!

Iced Coffee

Iced Coffee

A month ago I had gone to an Ethiopian coffee-house in Chicago’s Rogers Park. Because I was only passing through then, I wanted to return for a proper sit-down. I remembered how outstanding the service was. I also recalled how mouth-watering the food was that I had ordered for take-away. The temperatures in Chicago had been chilly, so I had spent most of my days inside. But with a mild reprieve from the nippy temperatures, I wanted to pander to my vegetarian palate. There is no way that you can go wrong with Ethiopian food.

It was back to Royal Coffee at 6764 N. Sheridan Road for my moment of food reckoning. The manager recognized me when I returned. She was sitting with a friend, engaged in conversation before looking up and greeting me. There are countless restaurants where I have gone on ongoing basis only to be greeted as though it was my first visit or as if I had painted graffiti on the front door. But at Royal Coffee I got a “hello” that made my trip worth more than its weight in gold and I had not even placed my order.

Vegetarian Plate

Vegetarian Plate

With the weather being nice, I ordered an iced coffee with milk and a vegetarian plate. Ethiopian coffee is strong and having milk added only takes the bite out of it a little. Strong and good are the only two descriptions that I can use to describe the coffee as I am sure the spirit of Juan Valdez is not appreciative of my shameless plug for how much I enjoy Ethiopian coffee. After a few minutes of reminiscing about my old neighbourhood, the food came and I snapped back into reality. The spiced spinach, yellow lentils, red lentils, and the potatoes and peas served up with injera bread were outstanding. Each dish came in individual bowls and after I had unrolled the injera bread and spooned each on to the bread, I was ready for action. With each bite I had all I kept thinking was Wow! I have been to almost every Ethiopian restaurant in Chicago and find it hard to say which one I love the most. Now Royal Coffee makes it that much harder. Because I love spicy food, I ordered the vegetarian plate with kick and it was quite evident when I could feel heat rising from my scalp. Yes! Yes! Yes!

Napoleon

Napoleon

I had my usual out-of-control appetite because I finished the entire vegetarian plate. It was practically for two people, yet I polished it off solo. Now that would have been a tabloid feature — celebrity Gino ate a sizeable plate of an Ethiopian dish and then ordered something else. The something else was dessert. Most Ethiopian desserts are full of nuts and while I don’t have a nut allergy, I have no love for the taste of nuts. I do smile when I see chocolate, though. So I had a Napoleon. The flaky crust, cream filling, and chocolate topping were well worth filling the room I saved in my belly. Oh how I enjoyed forking that rectangle of goodness into my mouth.

Cafe au Lait and Butter Cookies

Cafe au Lait and Butter Cookies

My former roommate had mentioned that she was in the area, so I sat and waited for her. While waiting, I had a large cup of cafe au lait with some homemade butter cookies. I have gotten to the point where I take my coffee without sugar. I was almost certain that I would need some sugar because Ethiopian coffee is so strong. Still, I required no sugar. I am convinced that Ethiopian coffee is made from a superior bean or the roasting method at Royal Coffee is remarkable. As to the cookies, bakeries that bake butter cookies that turn out to be compact sugar should have a few of the lovelies from Royal Coffee and correct their recipes accordingly. The cafe au lait and cookies were a perfect match.

Royal Coffee is one of those modest cafes that has no flash and flare, but everything about it makes it a magnet that draws you back for repeat visits. The coffee was superb, the food was spectacular, and the service was outstanding. I love Logan Square — where I live — and the feel of community at all of the eateries and specialty cafes, but I will certainly give in to the pull of Royal Coffee that keeps me catching the train back to my old neighbourhood. And when my friends who live in Washington, DC, come to Chicago and want a restaurant to compare to the fantastic Ethiopian restaurants that DC has, I can now add Royal Coffee to the list. Add it to your list. The only regret you may have is not having added it to your list well in advance of now.

Royal Coffee on Urbanspoon

Triste de Vous Voir Partir

Homemade Bread and Butter

Homemade Bread and Butter

Is it possible for one of your best meals to also turn out to be your most disappointing meal? On a pleasant, late Saturday afternoon, a great friend and I found ourselves pondering that question. Put a footnote there, as we shall return with the explanation of why we were disappointed.

We met at Henri at 18 S. Michigan Avenue. For years we had gone to an Asian restaurant next door to the restaurant and each time we said that we would have to go to Henri. Having been in a French mode as of late, we agreed that it was time that we actually went to Henri rather than simply talked about going.

With perfect weather for outdoor seating, we sat outside and had a brief review of the menu while enjoying complimentary homemade bread that had been glazed with honey. In our usual experimental mood, we chose to indulge our own degustation and wine pairing. We explained to the server what we liked — seafood, no pork, no beef, nothing with nuts in it — and told him to surprise us.

Diver Scallops

Diver Scallops

Escargot Bourgogne

Escargot Bourgogne

For our first course, we had diver scallops and escargot bourgogne. The diver scallops came surrounded by a champagne and grapefruit gelatin, and they sat atop a marmalade of endive that’s caramelized to give a hint of bitterness and sweetness. Also with it came a sliver of grapefruit with a mint purée. The escargot bourgogne was marinated in butter and garlic. The escargot were flat top cooked on toasted brioche with truffle, garlic hollandaise, and a salad with a lemon vinaigrette, preserved lemon, and fig purée. To keep our palates wet, the glass of sancerre was silk on the tongue.

Split Pea Soup

Split Pea Soup

The second course was split pea soup. The surprise in this dish was that there was tartness to the soup that was somehow cancelled out by the sweetness of the English peas. Yes, there was enough of a hint in the tartness, but not to the point of inducing a wince, much like what one experiences when getting the first taste of a lemon. The soup was divinely creamy, which was an indication of having been puréed to an extreme or indeed having cream added. And the oakiness chablis was splendid for cutting through the richness of the English peas.

Sancerr

Sancerre

Chablis

Chablis

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir

Rosé

Rosé

Indulging the third course was when my friend and I had earmarked Henri as the most outstanding French restaurant in Chicago proper. Duck cassoulet and nettle ravioli were the two dishes that were our determining factors — and we probably would have said the same of any other dishes. The duck cassoulet is not a dish that you find to excess in Paris. Those in Southern France mostly partake of this casserole and Henri honoured that recipe very, very satisfactorily, and the glass of Pinot Noir was the perfect companion. This casserole of duck confit and black beans, instead of white beans as used in the recipe in France, was absolutely worthy of having the bowl licked afterwards. The plate on which the nettle ravioli came was also a candidate for losing tact and licking. Nettle pesto, truffle duxelle cream, shiitake, peas, and radish, coupled with insatiable appetites made for a work of art that fell victim to our knives, forks, and gnashing teeth. Vegetarians would overdose on the nettle ravioli, for it is that inviting to the palate. And like my friend, the rosé will be an excellent accompaniment to the ravioli.

Duck Cassoulet

Duck Cassoulet

Nettle Ravioli

Nettle Ravioli

The dessert course was light and exemplary of how marvelous the French are when it comes to desserts. We had a banana souffle, three-tier chocolate mousse, and coffee. The presentation for the souffle was unexpected. The souffle came to the table, the server poked a hole in it, and then poured bananas in a creamy sauce atop it while the souffle was falling. One may say, “Oh, that’s nice,” but it only takes one scoop to have a passive remark turn into, “Oh, my God, I need to have some more of that.” The three-tier chocolate mousse looked more like a small sculpture. Yes, it was culinary art, in all sense of the word. Chocolate cake on the bottom, white chocolate mousse in the middle, and a dollop of more white chocolate, and topped with a drizzled chocolate cap, this dessert was too dainty to devour. We devoured it and wrapped up with coffee and cafe au lait.

Cafe au Lait

Cafe au Lait

Banana Souffle

Banana Souffle

Three Tier Chocolate Mousse

Three Tier Chocolate Mousse

As you can tell, this was a meal to make most chefs jealous. Not only was the meal worthy of high praise, but the service was absolutely top. The server took time to explain the dishes. Then again, my friend and I had let him place the orders, so explanations were proper. Even with the wine pairings, the sommelier came to the table and not only gave the names of the wines, but also provided a brief history and location of the vineyards where the wines were produced. Nothing about the experience can be referenced as not being good.

Where the disappointment came into play was with the discovery that Henri will close its doors for business in June, 2014. We had the opportunity to shake hands with the owner, as he was welcoming customers to the restaurant and engaging them in polite banter. He remarked that he will open an Italian restaurant in Henri’s place. Henri, being in a section of Michigan Avenue that has a lot of foot traffic and tourists, can be “intimidating” when onlookers see everyone dressed in finery. Chicago has a few French restaurants and several others that have a French influence, which is not the same as being authentically French. The output from the kitchen at Henri is authentically French, reminiscent of meals I have had in Paris, Chalon-sur-Saône, Avignon, and Marseille. Chicago boasts a plethora of Italian restaurants. The same cannot be said of French restaurants. Those who had their first enjoyable experience at Henri and those who had become repeat customers will miss the richness of the flavours, the authenticity of the food, and the addiction that ensued thereafter.

Comment pourrait-on le faire?

Henri on Urbanspoon

I Am 45

The Williams Smile

The Williams Smile

On 5 April 2013, at 1:15 PM, I officially turned 45. As a mathematician I tend to be more exact with things than necessary. When I turned 30, I was too busy planning the celebratory birthday party to realize that I had reached a third decade in my life. By the time I turned 40, family had a huge birthday party for me and it was just another day. Now that I am 45, it occurred to me that the next big birthday for me will be 46, not 50 as some would say. Truth be told, I look forward to each year with more excitement than the previous years.

As I get older I am aware of more things that are pertinent in my Disney.

  • There are things I am not supposed to have. And I’m okay with that.
  • There are places I am not supposed to go. And I’m okay with that.
  • There are people I am not supposed to have messing up my happiness. I am ecstatic over that.
  • Time goes by faster now than it did when I was a kid. Summer break used to last forever.
  • I am with the person who makes me happy. Note the strikethrough. That alone shaves 20 years off my face.
  • Smiling removes wrinkles naturally. To think that people pay for Botox injections and nip-tucks.
  • I am aware of the passage of time, as there isn’t enough time to eat all that I’d like to eat.
  • Food is my lover and anyone who thinks otherwise should be fitted for a straight jacket. (Being careful so my high school crush doesn’t read this statement.)

Instead of a huge party with dozens of people milling around and me not getting a chance to sit and talk with any of them at great length, I opted for more personal celebratory gatherings with friends, family, and my high school crush who kept teasing me with the promise of baking me an Italian cream cake. I started the morning meeting some friends for breakfast. With it being my birthday, they wanted me to be “in the moment,” which meant we were not doing anything with an ethnic leaning to have me switch into blogger mode. That didn’t mean I should leave my camera at home. So, into the bag went the camera and out the door I dashed to Marmalade at 1969 W. Montrose Avenue in the Ravenswood neighbourhood of Chicago. I was in blogger mode and that was inevitable. Super service, contrary to some disturbing reviews I’ve come across, and I will chalk that up to us getting to the restaurant at 7:00 in the morning when everything was new and patrons with bitterness, indecisiveness, and wants for vicious reviews had not poured in.

Cafe au lait. Eggs scrambled well with cream cheese. Cubano French toast.

Cafe Au Lait

Cafe Au Lait

The cafe au lait was not bitter, not in the least. I drank it without any sugar and said silently, “Intelligentia, you have competition.” By the second cup, I was saying, “Intelligentia what?” Nothing spectacular about cream cheese in my eggs, as that is a staple for my desired preparation of eggs. Where I wanted to stand up and sing “Gino Marmalade,” was with the Cubano French toast. I would gladly have enjoyed a petite mort after the first bite of the French toast in guava marmalade with a cream anglaise, topped with strawberries, guava, and granola. The lyrics would have been something like:

Gitchi, gitchi, ya ya da da da
Gitchi, gitchi, ya ya here
Mocha chocolata ya ya
Hungry Gino Marmalade

Scrambled Eggs

Scrambled Eggs

The prices for the menu items are reasonable. The service was outstanding. The food was so yum-inspiring that I could have sung an aria. Whatever gripes reviewers on Yelp have with Marmalade, I will return and I will have to make it a point to fight the urge to stand up and launch into the following lyrics:

Voulez-vous manger avec moi ce jour?
Voulez-vous manger avec moi?
Voulez-vouz manger avec moi cest jour?
Voulez-vous manger avec moi?

Cubano French Toast

Cubano French Toast

For lunch, I met with two friends I had worked with when I was driving off the map to the wonderful West Suburbs. We met at Wok’n Fire at 1576 W. Lake Street in Addison, Illinois. It’s the usual big-box atmosphere like what you get at Pei Wei Asian Diner and at PF Chang. But the aromas made the restaurant smell less of a buffet cafeteria and more like some good food was being prepared in the kitchen. After laughter about how the company had become a revolving door and joking about how some people manage to get promotions although they take vacation time in impromptu, unscheduled fashion, it was time for food. Per recommendation from one of my friends, I ordered Schezuan tilapia. Served with brown rice, spinach, and in a Schezuan sauce with red peppers, onions, broccoli, and mushrooms, lunch had a wow factor that left me weak in the knees. I had to drive back into the city and doing it behind the wheel of a manual shift after such a fantastic lunch, I was glad to get home and take a nap in advance of dinner. But before my siesta, I had a long chat with Ma Williams who boasted about how proud she was of me and how she’s glad I have been taking care of myself and some other mushy stuff that indicates I was never a disappointment. Not many mothers can say that and we Williams offsprings became high-end. And then she asked me if I had made use of the cake pans she sent to me for my birthday gift. Ma Williams always gets me the birthday gifts that make me smile.

Schezuan Tilapia

Schezuan Tilapia

Now, let me just say that I slept so good during the afternoon that I had thought I slept a bit too long. There was no way that I wanted to miss my birthday dinner. Sure, I can go to Marion Street Cheese Market at 100 S. Marion Street in Oak Park, Illinois, at any time. But for a proper celebration, and I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed, it was necessary for me to get up and be ready to head out for a worthwhile meal.

Flight of cheeses — Dante, l’amuse gouda, and sharp cheddar. Sunchoke arancini. Quiche. Salad. Flight of wine. Pot de creme.

Quiche and Salad

Quiche and Salad

Sunchoke Arancini

Sunchoke Arancini

The flight of cheeses came with candied walnuts, toasted almonds, a flavourful jam, wafers, and bread. So perfect and we worked our teeth on the items that begged for us to continue. Yep, we even paused conversation so we could concentrate. The sunchoke arancini was several stops past the last exit to wonderful. Ingredients of hazelnut chimichurri, sunchoke puree, sunflower sprouts, and lemon made for a vegetarian’s plate of happiness. We smiled through each bite. The quiche was of the kind that the meekest person would clobber a corn-fed Indiana football player senselessly if the football player were to mess with the mild person’s quiche. We’re talking about a quiche with Sarvecchio parmesan, caramelized onions, and parsnip puree served with braised spinach. You simply will not stop making comment about how delicious it is after each bite. Oh, and let me not forget to add that we each had flights of wine. Liquid bliss! For me, I told the server to bring a flight, any flight. It didn’t matter. I didn’t care. It was my birthday and he did not disappoint — three reds, two from France and one from Chile. The flight paired well with everything. The dessert was a pot de creme — chocolate hazelnut pudding topped with a baked meringue. There is a special corner in hell for me after working that pot de creme with exaggerated facial expressions, the homemade butter cookies, and a cup of coffee that was made from a fine bean. As we teetered out of the restaurant, it was rather apparent why we all return there so much. And people who don’t like that assessment are sitting back saying, “I know better places.” I can only shake my head and say, “Umpf, umpf, umpf. Tell me anything.”

Pot de Creme and Butter Cookies

Pot de Creme and Butter Cookies

As a kid, I used to think that people in their 40’s were old. I am quite amazed at how my perspective has changed since, rather considerable if I may add. When I look in the mirror and the only things that can possibly give my age away are my balding head and the grey in my beard, I realize that I can shave and those indicators go away as well. When I think about how I had furrows in my brow and pessimism in my eyes during my twenties, none to be seen in my physical appearance now, it feels nice announcing my age. Because then I can watch the show when people start to actively debate me and call me a liar who wants to be older than he really is. And I smile, yet again removing any potential wrinkles.

Hello, my name is Gino Williams and I am 45 years old. Oh, and I am a food addict.

Marmalade on Urbanspoon Wok'n Fire on Urbanspoon