Lowcountry, High Quality Goodness

Lowcountry

Two years ago when I opted to have my birthday dinner at a seafood boil restaurant on the North Side of Chicago, little did I know then that I would develop an immediate hankering for the seafood goodness of days long gone when I was echoing distance from Louisiana. Since that birthday dinner, there have been several other seafood boil restaurants suggested to me that I’ve tried and given in to my addiction for shrimp, crab legs, and crawfish drowning in some spicy sauce in a plastic bag. And I found myself giving in to my craving while passing by Lowcountry at 3343 N. Clark Street.

Soft Shell Crab with Jalapenos

Soft Shell Crab with Jalapenos

Calamari with Jalapenos

Calamari with Jalapenos

Having eaten a lengthy brunch, I had enough room to indulge a few menu items from the Restaurant Week offerings. With a friend in tow, we grabbed a seat at one of the many benches in a dining area that was quite reminiscent of the holes in the wall throughout Louisiana. Given the name, Lowcountry, I imagine this is also the same dining layout one could expect in Lowcountry, South Carolina. But what we got screamed Louisiana, for sure.

Lowcountry Limeade

Lowcountry Limeade

We had something from the cocktail menu to whet the palate, neither remembering what exactly because the Super Bowl Game was playing and after pointing at whatever on the menu, we were cheering the Philadelphia Eagles to play like they wanted to win. While imbibing our drinks that we did later find out were made with gin as a base — how we managed to order something without really paying attention to the menu is a puzzle — we had a small order of soft shell crab and another small order of calamari. Topped with jalapenos, these were divine. The soft shell crab had been cooked thoroughly and was extremely meaty. The calamari was tender enough to cut with a plastic fork. Thankful that much of the seeds had been removed from the peppers, there was enough kick to the starters that there was flavor but no need to chase each bite with several gulps of water.

Seafood Boil in a Bag

Seafood Boil in a Bag

The coup de grace were the bags of shrimp, crab legs, sausage, corn, and potatoes in Lowcounty’s spicy garlic, lemon pepper, Cajun sauce. Lowcountry ranks on my list of seafood boil restaurants that clearly knows how to lure people back for more. I usually never get crab legs because I hadn’t mastered the art of plucking the meat, but I did a superb job this time and I am happy to report that the crab meat was fresh, flavorful, and had me hooked. To make it that more appetizing, the jalapeno cornbread that came with it was exactly what we needed for sopping up the sauce.

Jameson and Ginger Beer

Jameson and Ginger Beer

Rather than gobble the seafood up as if in a rush to leave the restaurant, we paced ourselves and enjoyed watching Philadelphia draining the New England Patriot’s morale. I ordered a Jameson with ginger beer while my friend had coffee. This was in preparation for the beignets that we ordered. They got it right. The beignets had a yeast texture to them, not a cake texture. And they actually tasted way better than some doughnuts at some of the boutique doughnut shops in Chicago.

Beignets

Beignets

This visit was the first time even hearing about Lowcountry. There is another location in Chicago’s South Loop at 1132 S. Wabash Avenue. Same “back home” look and feel with wood layout on the inside and the picnic table setup, these locations probably get a lot of patrons. Granted it was Super Bowl Sunday when my friend and I went, there were still lots of individuals coming in to get gravy on their fingers and across their jaws. I can’t say that seafood boils are a fad, considering it’s a normal thing in coastal South Carolina and along the Gulf of Mexico. But it’s certainly a part of my constant slide show.

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

Norman’s Bistro — N’awlins with Samba

Norman's Bistro

When I moved from Hyde Park to Logan Square, my trips to the South Side diminished. There are so many restaurants, cafes, and boutiques in Logan Square and surrounding neighbourhoods such that there is no need to venture too far away to find anything. One thing I must admit that the South Side has are restaurants that have a southern influence. Wondering where I could find one such restaurant, Google popped up a restaurant named Norman’s Bistro, at 1001 E. 43rd Street.

Norman’s Bistro serves New Orleans cuisine with a Brazilian influence to it. Having lived in Central Mississippi and visited New Orleans quite often, I was already sold on the N’awlins aspect of the food. I was rather intrigued about the Brazilian influence, wondering if it I would detect any of the recipes that I recalled from my days in São Paulo. I imagined that the New Orleans flavouring would stand out more, not a case of trying to have a 50-50 fusion to the recipes.

Norman's Bistro, Collage

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album

There were complimentary yeast rolls. No sooner had I touched the first roll than I realized they were homemade. The texture was not anything like I have had from bakeries or grocery stores, but what I have had consistently from ovens in friends’ and family’s homes. I started with a garden salad with a raspberry vinaigrette. Nothing spectacular, but the salad was fresh, not the bowl of wilted vegetables that I often get at restaurants. For a starter, there was a cup of seafood chili. You can have your chili with chicken, beef, or pork. Although not as spicy as I prefer, the seafood chili quickly became my favourite.

One dish I was curious about was the gumbo. It was a melange of corn, chicken, shrimp, and lobster in a delectable red roux. Served in a large bowl with a scoop of rice, I was either “that” hungry or incredibly bottomless because there was no way I should have completed that whole bowl. Again, not spicy in a peppery sense but packed with a bloom in flavour, I didn’t bother trying to compare the gumbo to the gumbo that I devoured in New Orleans. The gumbo at Norman’s Bistro holds its own. And the mini cornbread muffins that came with it were a big hit. Actually, they were so blooming good that I felt that the two I had were not enough. I saved up enough of one of them so that I could sop up the rest of the gravy from the gumbo.

By the time I had finished the seafood chili and the gumbo, I had to let some time pass before indulging a dessert. And for a sweet, I had a slice of salted caramel cake. I can’t say whether the cake was baked in-house, or not, but I will admit that it was worth it. It reminded me of the dobo torte that I have had at an Austrian restaurant in Chicago called Julius Meinl. There were layers of cake, salted caramel, and vanilla cream. Given the layering wasn’t “mass-produced perfect,” it was clear that even if it was baked at a bakery, it was one of a kind and delicious to boot.

Norman’s Bistro is one restaurant that I consider to be a surprise find. Many restaurants in the Bronzeville neighbourhood are closer to Martin Luther King Drive and S. Cottage Grove Avenue. There are a few other nice sit-down restaurants scattered throughout Bronzeville, but the far east end of 43rd Street had been void of much activity for a long time. Norman’s Bistro has a spacious interior for dining and another room in the restaurant that I imagine doubles as a spillover room for crowded evenings, as well as a party room. Service is laid back and if you eat as much as I did, the last thing you want is a server hovering over you. I can’t say when next I will be visiting New Orleans, but I will be going back to Norman’s Bistro within the next few weeks.

Norman's Bistro on Urbanspoon

New Orleans Comes to Chicago

Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop

Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop

One thing I have discovered about Facebook is that it can be a dangerous tool, especially to those of us who have constant appetites. For example, I was reading some comments on a friend’s wall and I saw a photo of a huge pot of what looked like gumbo. Well, I clicked on the photo and – lo and behold – when it opened to a larger photo, it was indeed a pot of gumbo. Needless to say, my food alarm went off and I was in a bit of a frenzy. Mind you, it was only a few hours past lunch and the photo had thrown me in a fit of hunger. This is what a food addiction has come to for me: anticipating 5:00 PM so that I can address my hankering.

With my thoughts fixated on gumbo and me having a lengthy weak moment, I knew where I could go to satisfy my craving. It was not necessarily ethnic food from the standpoint of ethnically non-American. I could make an exception for some New Orleans Cajun cooking. Hey, if I’m going to indulge some good American ethnic food, it will be worthy of the trip to get to a restaurant or cafe that represents the best Southern style cooking to be found. So, at 5:00 PM, I was off to Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop at 825 Church Street in Evanston, Illinois.

Johnny Cakes

Johnny Cakes

I got a seat outside so that I could enjoy the nice weather and listen to a band that was playing a few blocks away at an outside plaza. Having been to the Chicago Hyde Park location before it had closed, I had an idea of what I wanted. The server had a look of awe as I rattled off what I wanted. I started with complimentary Johnny cakes. Think small pancakes without syrup. There was a dollop of honey butter that came with the cakes and that was all I needed to be transported back South.

Then I had fried green tomatoes that came with shredded lettuce and chives. As a child, my grandmother used to fry green tomatoes. We would dash some hot sauce on those bad boys, sit back, and have a real go of. I did the same with the fried green tomatoes from Dixie Kitchen. I will admit that adding the “salad” to the fried green tomatoes struck me as a bit of a “trying to be exotic” addition because fried green tomatoes can hold their own without extra accessories. I ate it all to completion anyway.

Fried Green Tomatoes

Fried Green Tomatoes

The second course was a plate of crawfish and corn fritters prepared hush-puppy style, and served with a jalapeño jelly. The fritters looked like beignets and I bet that is what they were – filled with crawfish and corn. That was fine, though, as I found them to be well worth the sampling. The fritters are not stuffed to capacity with crawfish and corn, so be forewarned. There is a fair amount of each ingredient in each fritter but you do not get a well-formed ball of crawfish and corn and a coating of crust that holds it all in place. Served with the jelly, it made for a combination that I think comes across as a perfect snack.

Crawfish and Corn Fritters

Crawfish and Corn Fritters

And then came the reason that I had made Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop my after-work destination. I had a cup of their gumbo. May we have a moment of silence? (Pause) I never know what to do with myself when I get a spoonful of Dixie Kitchen gumbo into my tummy. The gumbo at Dixie Kitchen is not prepared with a roux base the way it is in New Orleans, but it is prepared with a gravy base. The gravy may have its origins in a roux base so I shall concede a little. That’s fine because it tastes delicious just the same. The cup of gumbo burst with shrimp, chicken, and andouille sausage over rice. Although I had long since taken pork out of my diet, there are some concessions that I will make all in the name of enjoying good food. I did not request to have the gumbo without the sausage. I wanted the full experience, as I have always enjoyed. I was satisfied.

Cup of Gumbo

Cup of Gumbo

But I still had a little more room for something else. I had resigned myself to the notion that I was not going to indulge any dessert, so I ordered some étouffée. Unlike the appetizer size portions for the previously mentioned items, the étouffée was a full entrée That meant I had decided to eat an appetizer amount and get the rest for take-away. Again, there wasn’t the full New Orleans experience, but I am in Chicago. There are allowances. The étouffée was prepared with a roux base and full of crawfish, shrimp, onions, celery, and peppers. The flavour was there, not the spicy kick, though. It wasn’t until I stirred up the rice and the gravy more that there was a bit more seasoning to the dish than initially. Needless to say, I enjoyed the dining experience on location and had enough to take home for later food bliss.

Crawfish Etouffee

Crawfish Etouffee

Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop has that shack-on-the-bayou look about it. The Evanston location doesn’t present that look and feel as much as the location that used to reside in Chicago’s Hyde Park use to display. There may be some New Orleans traditional jazz or Zydeco music playing in the background. There are always filled bellies and chomping jaws on site. It may be that you’ll get fired if you have a nasty attitude because the service is always great. As far back as 1995, the quality of food, serve, and price has been consistently good. The food may not be exactly what you get when you go to New Orleans, but for a location so far removed from the South, it still keeps those like me who have been to New Orleans coming back. Comparing any other food to New Orleans cuisine is unfair because food in Southern Louisiana really explodes with a bloom that no one outside of New Orleans and the backwater sections of Louisiana can reproduce. In the meantime, I have made a mental note to myself to not click on any more thumbnail photos that look anything like it could be gumbo, étouffée, jambalaya, or any other kind of New Orleans cuisine. Food addictions consume your thoughts so full and complete.

Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop on UrbanspoonDixie Kitchen & Bait Shop on Foodio54

When You Wish Upon a Star

Wishbone RestaurantMakes no difference where you are. Hmm. I think it all depends on where you are.

When I was in undergraduate, a bored applied mathematics major who picked up a second major in computer science — and was even more deadpan with nothing to do but sit through tiresome study sessions and ace every test — I often extended a few weekends with trips to the Big Easy. New Orleans with all of its grit, grime, establishments that stayed open and indulged those of us who were eighteen years old or older, and two or more weird characters stumbling through some door and falling flat on their faces in front of you, it was a nice escape from calculus equations and programming code. Then I graduated and moved to Berkeley for graduate school where hugging trees, being awakened at night by tremors, and eating brownies with special ingredients mixed in ruled.

Mojito MojoLong gone are my days of being so footloose and fancy free. I have a job that pays me enough to keep Uncle Sam smiling, a mortgage that beats letting an apartment, property taxes that make me bark like a dog, an appetite that has me struggling with the zipper in my pants, and a love of photography that keeps me in some place clicking away with any one of my cameras. I lost count after the fourth digital camera. On the photography front, I am taking another photography class: this one in photojournalism. Granted the extortion I used to do years ago would have looked great on some walls instead of in specially packaged envelopes — the statutes of limitation have long passed, it was that long — it is not a bad idea for me to polish my skill.

Cornbread and Roll

But I digress. During my most recent photography class, we all got to go to Wishbone at 3300 N. Lincoln Avenue in Chicago’s Lakeview to photograph a jazz band. What a nice way to hone some photography talents by capturing some freeze frames of a band sending notes into the air while dining patrons work their teeth on some Cajun style loving from the oven. This was a brilliant idea. Going anywhere that serves delicious food is a magnet that draws me near. It begs me, taunts me, and tell me that I am a the most important person in the world. Addictions are something else, I must say, and with it being food I have no problem submitting to the flavours. Even this cup of Ethiopian coffee I am drinking while composing this journal entry is telling me to stop being so modest with my cupfuls.

Hopping Jack

Spacious, nice, and dim on the inside of Wishbone, I secured a seat at the bar while the band was playing something true to traditional jazz — and I do not mean the sexy saxophone kind of jazz that you hear on soap operas just as the pretty-pretty walks from the powder room wearing her frilly baby doll nighty. The bass guitarist played his chords on the upright bass. The pianist tickled the ebony and ivory. And the rat-a-tat-tat-pscheeee of the drums and symbol made the visit worthwhile. Now, one could complain that they were not playing any zydeco, but New Orleans is probably the most jazz-authentic city I have been to the America. You want to ease into good food, not get up and dance to some zydeco — unless it is just that good. And the band played on.

Base Guitarist at WishboneI started with a mojito. A hurricane would have been more fitting, but I did have to go back to class after we finished photographing the band. Lip-smacking good, but a wee bit heavy on the alcohol, this Cuban highball went down smoothly after the first two sips and with the complementary mini cornbread muffins and roll. The server joked that she spiked the mojito, of which I pretended to be an unknowing victim. But it was sweet torture, nevertheless. With Wishbone serving Cajun food, I ordered Hopping Jack. Black beans prepared like red beans and served over rice, garnished with tomatoes, chives, and cheese, it was rather good. Far be it for me to switch into purist mode and compare it to the Hopping Jack that I have had in New Orleans, loaded with Andouille sausage and who knows what else, and well before my jump into vegetarianism, but I am going to say that I was very satisfied and a tad bit slow towards the end. One could blame the alcohol in the mojito but, no, I have a tendency to get a drunken sensation when I eat way too much food. That may explain why I do not drive. Imagine being the poster child for Do no eat to excess and drive.

While getting natural on the Hopping Jack and chasing it with the mojito, the manager stood and chatted with me for a few minutes. I had inquired about the band playing, recalling that there were no bands that entertained the guests in the past. This has become quite a phenomenon in many independent coffee houses, restaurants, and Potbelly sandwich shops, the latter mostly accommodating any disheveled hipster with an acoustic guitar. The manager explained about how there is usually a dedicated band that plays every Wednesday night for a whole month, a band rotating each month. What a novel idea, a brilliant way for local talent to get noticed, and as for jazz bands, a better selection of music to listen to rather than bubblegum music from the satellite radio. The manager and I also talked about ethnic cuisine in Chicago proper, recommended locations for some eateries, and travels domestic and abroad. We also noted how restaurants with close proximity to Chicago’s Loop and downtown tourist haunts tend to pander to the milder palate while those farther away add complete authenticity, that being spices, to the recipes. Regardless, if the jazz bands that they have come to play are as good as the trio that played this night, I shall have to make a few more trips to Wishbone on Wednesday nights before class.

Percussionist at Wishbone

Having gone to Wishbone for brunch primarily, going for dinner was a welcomed change. I will admit that I am still partial towards the breakfast and brunches that they serve. Love the price. Love the food. Could not have asked for better service. Add to all that a talented jazz trio that did not disappoint, this was a moment well spent. Ah, and I shall not forget to add that I ordered a slice of keylime pie, but for take-away. I give in to being a puppet of gluttony enough. I went back to my photography class with a tune in my head, food in my belly, drink putting me in a calm mood, and a note to myself to make a reservation to go to New Orleans soon. That is one city where I am sure to get some photojournalism done before, during, and after I get fed.

Wishbone on Urbanspoon