Cafe Des Architectes, Un Peu de Français

Recently, I have been in a bit of a French mood. For the longest I had been searching for restaurants that had a basque feel, and without the churn of a crowd. Like in France, one can enjoy a meal alone or in small company in some bistros and cafes without an excess of ambient noise and people crowding your space. My restaurant adviser and I had culled together a list of restaurants that we thought would be good samplers.

Bread Service, Trout Croquette, Lump Crab, Heart of Palm, Summer Squash Soup

Bread Service, Trout Croquette, Lump Crab, Heart of Palm, Summer Squash Soup

First on our list was Cafe Des Architectes in the Gold Coast Sofitel Hotel at 20 E. Chestnut Street. Just west of the Magnificent Mile is this fantastic restaurant that’s surrounded by swanky clothing boutiques and other very appealing restaurants. Located off to the side of the lobby is this very spacious, airy, and well-lit restaurant that also has a large outdoor seating area. With weather being extremely nice for October, we sat outside during our first visit to enjoy the moderate temperatures and to watch people in their comings and goings.

Chardonnay, Champagne, Pinot Noir

Chardonnay, Champagne, Pinot Noir

Opting for small plates, we ordered from the appetizer section with a pescatarian focus. Starting off was a l’amuse of trout croquette atop an aioli and the first of three pairings, a champagne that neither nipped at the back of the jaw nor left a pucker on the front-end of the sip. Seasoned well and void of an excessive amount of breading, the bite size trout was still meaty and the aioli was not the least bit overpowering. The Maryland style crab cakes were a reminder of why those are a favorite. Served with a chipotle aioli, citrus segments, and an avocado purée, there was not a crumb of breading on the crab cakes, which meant we got to enjoy seasoned, fresh crab to the fullest. Following with the hearts of palm, which came with a cauliflower custard, radicchio, and caviar, it was evident that the restaurant was going for full flavor even with small plates. And then we had the chilled summer squash soup with a nice smear of mint yogurt, curry oil, and granola. While most may be accustomed to a hot soup, this is the epitome of a summer soup, best served when it’s very hot outside, enjoyed regardless of when the temperatures are warm enough for patio dining.

Escargot Pappardelle, Butternut Squash Ravioli with Shrimp

Escargot Pappardelle, Butternut Squash Ravioli with Shrimp

Getting more into pasta, we had escargot pappardelle. Accented with a garlic cream, parsley, and parmesan, the plump escargot popped with each bite in this light pasta dish. Unlike when escargot is served in a bubbling pesto, there still was enough of the garlic cream in the dish to remind you of how delicious the delicacy is. Wrapping up the many landings with black truffle and corn ravioli with rock shrimp, pancetta, and parmesan, we acknowledged that we had no room for a cheese board as a dessert. The ravioli was also light, but still it was filling without leaving us overly stuffed. Paired with a pinot noir, this was perfection on the palate.

Espresso, Macaron, Chocolate

Espresso, Macaron, Chocolate

The finale was espresso that was clearly made from a fine bean. While my restaurant adviser was sharing a few chocolates from Veruca Chocolates, we received complimentary sweets of mango macarons and key lime wrapped in chocolate. Enjoying this with the coffee was superb, as the macaron was fresh and the chocolate was nothing like the blocks of chocolate you get from anchor stores at the mall. The key lime was creamy, the white chocolate, which had been decorated to look almost like a precious stone, was outstanding, and it all went well with the espresso. The first visit was noteworthy given the appreciation for the quality of the food and the attentiveness of the service. So, we indeed had a return visit.

Cheese Flight, Sparkling Flight, Espresso, Chardonnay

Cheese Flight, Sparkling Flight, Espresso, Chardonnay

Having enjoyed a nice selection of small plates during the première visite, we settled specifically for wine and cheese, champagne and cheese for my adviser. Yet another day with perfect weather, we had an outdoor seat and settled on a selection of soft mild, semi-firm, and one firm cheese. The creamy and buttery fromages of Edel de Claron, Tallegio, and Brie St. Rocco worked well on sourdough. The Fourme d’Ambert, Morbier, and Tomme were semi-firm enough to enjoy on the olive bread that came with the cheeses. The Cantalet was just right for enjoying with the multigrain bread. And for even more enjoyment, the summer berries and miniature madeleines were exactly what we needed to mentally go back to France. Of course, there was no way of departing without taking an espresso.

Cafe Des Architectes has a very laid back feel. There was no rush, which is a rather appealing touch to a restaurant because good food should be savored. Cafe Des Architectes does a fabulous job making your visit the first of many. The closest I will get to France this year will be via a rendezvous in Paris en route to Morocco. In the meantime, I am enjoying this bit of France in Chicago.

Cafe Des Architectes Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Little Gem Bar and Restaurant

Little Gem Cafe

After years of living in Chicago, I have been recalling a statement that an individual made when we had met in 1989. She had stated that you can spend your entire life in Chicago and never cover all of it. I have discovered that the same applies to some of the edge cities like Evanston, Rosemont, Schaumburg, Skokie, and Oak Park. Case in point was during a casual stroll a block north of downtown Oak Park where I stumbled upon The Little Gem Bar and Restaurant at 189 N Marion Street.

Duck with Salad

Duck with Salad

Spacious on the inside with a bistro feel to it and also with some outside seating, there is an atmosphere of ease that doesn’t feed into ambient noises and acoustics all over the place requiring you to shout with your dining companions. Taking advantage of the outdoor seating, I settled on a four-course meal that had a French influence. Since the restaurant had been touted as a French bistro on Yelp and Google, I chose to stick with that theme, although I did see a paprikash dish on the menu, which is Hungarian.

For my first course, I had a duck carpaccio with a salad in a light vinaigrette with mandarin slices. The server paired this dish with a Sauvignon blanc that had some fruity notes that balanced out the tartness of the duck carpaccio, which had strips of raw duck. Those who like tartar and the texture would certainly enjoy this dish.

Toast

Toast

Because I had opted for a pairing of wines with each course, the server thought that it would be a good idea to have some bread for a palate cleanser, as well as an aid for reducing buzzing. I’m not really sure if the grilled toast was complementary, but I must admit that it was of the variety that I could go off the rails with while enjoying some gouda cheese.

Deviled Eggs

Deviled Eggs

The next course was a plate of deviled eggs. Accented with parsley oil and a balsamic reduction and topped with crispy, fried onions and pickled jalapeños, all four that came were absolutely scrumptuous. Paired nicely with a Chardonnay that had a buttery and oak flavour that was light on the palate while not usurping the centre stage from the deviled eggs, I actually developed a better appreciation for deviled eggs, as I have not had any that weren’t abused by a use of too many herbs and spices.

As of late, I have been introducing pork back into my diet, albeit in moderation. The server had specified the special for the evening, which was a 10-ounce bone-in pork chop in a jalapeño and apple purée with roasted potatoes sautéed in a Spanish chorizo. For the pairing, the server brought at Pinot noir that had a “right” amount of acidity to match well with the dish. For an individual who has not been a fan of pork for many years, this one was one I would rush back to the restaurant to indulge without pause.

Pork Chop with Fingerlings

Pork Chops with Fingerlings

In keeping with the French effect in dining, I had cheese for dessert rather than a sweet. The cheese board came with an assortment of cheeses, housemade strawberry jam, smoked almonds, candied walnuts, and apples. There were aged Wisconsin cheddar, a brie, a housemade cheese, and a casabola. The housemade cheese was an interesting marriage of provolone, cheddar, and cream cheese. The caso bolo was a mixture of goat, sheep, and cow cheeses. Along with a cup of coffee, this was a delectable and ideal finale to what was a spectacular meal.

Cheese Board with Nuts and Jam

Cheese Board

I was somewhat expecting “regular” fare, but was thoroughly surprised and satisfied with the offerings. The Little Gem Bar and Restaurant is not French-specific. If I could apply a word to the restaurant, it would be Pan-European because of some Eastern European offerings and Mediterranean fare. One thing I have not done on the blog in years is name the servers that went well past outstanding. But Liz and Zach were two of the top servers any diners could have at their table. I understand why most at the restaurant were locals. Oak Park is not a local destination for me, but I have a feeling I will be a regular at The Little Gem Bar and Restaurant.

Little Gem Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Return to Persia — Masouleh

Masouleh Restaurant

Several week ago a former colleague — who I catch up with weekly — had sent a text message to me about a cluster of restaurants in the 6600 block of N. Clark Street in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighbourhood. I was shocked to find out that Rogers Park was blossoming into such a hub of great culinary delights. As I had mentioned in a previous post, it was mostly Mexican restaurants in the eastern part of Rogers Park, which is where I had lived for a few years. As the city is starting to fill in more with other ethnicities, the restaurants are starting to become more reflective of the new faces. And the very good thing about it is that the restaurants are more culturally grounded than what you get the closer you get to downtown. The restaurants put forth authenticity, not tourist trappings, and that means you are getting something very reminiscent of the “old country.”

Having gone to one of the restaurants the evening of the day that I had received the text, I did not have a camera to photograph the food properly. That meant I had to return. So, I had a break in my schedule — from cleaning my condo — and I dashed to Masouleh Persian Restaurant at 6653 N. Clark Street to recapture the taste and to capture the impressions of the good things that came from their Persian kitchen. I will first start by saying that it is apparent — to me — that the service is consistently top. Although the server was rather soft-spoken, and that may be due to conversational comfort with English, there was the welcoming atmosphere my colleague, two other friends, and I received on our first visit. It may have also helped that my conversational Arabic and attempt at Kurdish eased things a little more. But I had my camera, appetite, and a window seat. I was ready.

Herbs, Cheese, Radish

Herbs, Cheese, Radish

Borani Badamjan

Borani Badamjan

I had complimentary herbs, radish, and cheese along with pita bread. I cannot stress it enough, but you can never go wrong with cilantro. As for anyone who thinks otherwise, the sun may rise from the west in their world. I love radish, so that was a plus. And the “stinky” cheese, although it really does not stink, went well for a palate preparatory and cleanser. The pita bread was not reheated and quite evident to the consistent soft touch right down to the very last piece.

For starters, I had borani badamjan, which was a cup of smoked eggplant in yogurt. It has become increasingly clear to me that eggplant prepared at Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurants warrants a shout of bravo. I had gone to an Afghani restaurant several months past and fell in love with the eggplant dish served there. Granted the borani badamjan is chilled, the warmth of the pita balanced out things just nicely. However, the smoked flavouring in the borani badamjan screamed wow. Next was olivieh. This salad of eggs and chicken with a few English peas added was one of the highlights that I was actually hankering for. Hence, part of my reason for returning. I am not one for eating just anyone’s dish prepared in the manner of egg salad. Trust me when I say that Masouleh is the exception to the rule.

Olivieh

Olivieh

Lentil Soup

Lentil Soup

With the main dish that I had ordered, there came lentil soup. Again, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurants shine when putting cups and bowls of lentil soup in front of you. This soup came with a dollop of yogurt and accented further with olive oil and herbs. I honestly believe that the farther away you go from downtown, the more genuine recipes are. Because any lentil soup I have had closer to downtown, the more I am inclined to believe they use some variety of Campbell’s soup because the “common palates” that indulges those eateries don’t know any better. They need to go to Masouleh and quickly.

Just to have two choices of meats, I ordered chenjeh, joujeh, and rice. The chenjeh — spiced beef — looked as though it could have been dry. The looks were deceiving because the beef was so tender and juicy that it burst with each bit. There was the same with the joujeh, which was spiced chicken. Each bite was love and with me sitting at the window, it was a presentation in appreciation. As if the beef and the chicken were the only highlights, the rice reminded me of Indian basmati rice. No sticky mess, and no over-cooked fluff, this rice was an idyllic complement to the chenjeh and joujeh, apparent from me polishing off all of it and taking some of the pita bread and going around the plate to get the last of it all.

Chenjeh, Joujeh, and Rice

Chenjeh, Joujeh, and Rice

Persian Ice Cream

Persian Ice Cream

I sat for a while to let things settle and to fend off food comatose. After a few minutes, I inquired about the dessert fare. There were baklava and Persian ice cream. You can get baklava from anywhere. I wouldn’t be surprise if Dunkin Donuts doesn’t have a baklava doughnut. But you can’t get Persian ice cream from just anywhere. Guess what I had. Yes, I had the Persian ice cream, flavoured with rose-water and saffron, and topped with crushed pistachios. You have not had ice cream until you have had Persian ice cream. Think Haagen Daas is all that? Baskin Robbins gets you doing a skippy-do-da when ice cream comes to mind? Oberweis screams, “Come and get some”? You can’t get enough of Breyers? Is your relationship or marriage about to come undone? Make an appointment to go to Masouleh and have some of that Persian ice cream. It will make everything alright.

After spooning as much of the ice cream out of the glass as I could, I had Persian tea. No, we’re not talking Lipton or Nestea. We’re not even talking tea brewed from a tea bag. This was authentic Persian tea and a mark of really Persian tea prepared well is that you can drink it without any sugar. I simply sat at the window, sipping tea and smiling. Well, that was after I clicked some photos to post on the blog. But, nevertheless, I had enjoyed my Saturday lunch and thought briefly of those who sit at home — in Chicago, of all places — wondering what to do and where to go. (Pause) No, I won’t tell that lie. I was too well fed to think of any other self-martyrs.

Persian  Tea

Persian Tea

Masouleh is not a big box restaurant. While there are more than four tables, the restaurant has an ambience of closeness. It’s the kind of restaurant where you go with family and friends so that you dine communally. I remember the first night going, seeing several tables with Iranians. If there was no other indication of authenticity to the food, seeing other Iranians in the establishment was all that I needed. And at the rate Rogers Park is filling in with a lot of cultural variety, Masouleh will quickly become one of many options that I highly recommend. In the meantime, Masouleh is destined to be on my Top 10 list for 2013.

Masouleh on Urbanspoon Masouleh on Foodio54

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

Italy Comes to Chicago

Castello del Poggio BrachettoLiving in Chicago and being a food blogger for fun has way more excitement to the food adventures than I can say. There are new discoveries that the palate may delight. There are existing eateries that serve as magnets for returning culinary lovers. Many restaurants provide an atmosphere of community for large parties consisting of friends or family members. We shall not discount any of the boutique restaurants that provide intimate settings and swell background jazz music. And with Chicago having one of the world’s largest global communities, ethnic dining awaits you at practically every corner. The reasons for loving dining at Chicago’s restaurants are endless. But what is more fantastic is that even with staple cuisines like Chinese, Mexican, and Italian, there are twists that make such restaurants seem like a first-time find. Such was the case during a recent excursion to Basil Leaf Cafe at 2465 N. Clark Street in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighbourhood.

When I began Chicago Alphabet Soup, I had been adamant about avoiding Chinese, Mexican, and Italian restaurants — Chinese restaurants because I will scream if someone offers beef with brocolli, general chicken, or sweet and sour what-not ever again; Mexican because you can have enchiladas, frijoles, and Tex-Mex tacos only so much; and Italian because spaghetti and meatballs — me being pescatarian — and ravioli are as exhaustive as any can of Chef Boy-Ardee. But I received an invitation to meet with several other food bloggers and sommeliers for a food and wine pairing at Basil Leaf Cafe. Seeing that the restaurant’s menu online was more rustic, an indication that we would not have our fair share of red sauce splashing about our plates, I agreed to the dinner gathering and replied with my appetite as a guest.

As it turned out, the dinner and wine pairing was with Francesco Zonin of Casa Vinicola Zonin USA. Imagine an evening of fine wine and delicious food with the president of Zonin USA. Humourous and looking more like a fashion model, after providing a bit of history on the company, he explained that the dinner would feature Casa Vinicola Zonin’s Tenuta Ca’ Bolani Estate wines. Now, Tenuta Ca’ Bolani grows internationally known wines such as Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Also, there are well indigenous varieties, such as Traminer, Muller Thurgau, Tocai Friulano, Pinot Bianco, and Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso. Not that my wine snobbery is polished, I have yet to drink an Italian wine — white or red — that I found not to my liking. And, honestly, not being chic-chic enough to pair the right wines with my food, this evening was certain to be one worthy of documenting.

Amouse Bouche

For our amouse bouche, we started with baked, fresh figs topped with gorgonzola and mascarpone cheese and drizzled with a balsamic redux. Let me just say that I have baked cookies with figs in them and my grandmother had a way of making wine with figs and muscadines. Never have I dined on figs prepared the way they were this evening. My palate is refined, so hearing the appetizer, I figured that it would be an interesting festival on the tongue. Well, interesting is not the right word to describe how addictive the amouse bouche was. The figs were sweet, of course, but the mixture of cheeses and balsamic redux turned this into a rather tasty dessert. With this course, there was a Zonin Prosecco. This white wine was closer in sweetness to a dessert wine without the sweetness that you get in an ice wine. As an entry into the evening’s dining, the combination of the fig appetizer and the Prosecco was superb.

First CourseThe first course was the initial indication that things were going to be quite splendid for the rest of the evening. There were porcini dusted sea scallops, sweet pea puree, and micro green salad. Although I am a pescatarian, scallops are one seafood item I have tended to shy away from because some restaurants embrace cooking scallops al dente. What that translates to is a tough  texture, the equivalent of chewing a rubber ball. The master chef, sous chef, or head cook at Basil Leaf Cafe must have decided that he or she was not going to serve a scafezza — disaster — to a room full of food lovers. This was the first time I have had scallops so tender that the knife glided through the meat instead of me needing to slice through it. The seasoning, while it could have been heavy-handed and overpowering, was there but faint enough to let the flavour of the scallops come through. The sweet pea puree was a nice complement to the dish and it too was seasoned well enough that the tongue did not scream from too much seasoning. And served with the first course was a Tenuta Ca’Bolani Pinot Grigio. As with any Pinot Grigio, the flavour was light and had a distant fruity tone, ideal on the tongue and accommodating enough to let the dish have the spotlight.

Second Course

For the second course, the vegetarian in me stood on the table and danced. Hmmm. No, not exactly. I shall simply say that I nodded — excessively — in appreciation. This dish consisted of poached pear in Castello del Poggio Moscato D’Asti over baby arugula, topped with gorgonzola cheese, glazed pecans and honey balsamic. The pear was not merely sliced and poached. There had to have been some additional seasoning added because had there been crust, I would have foresaken eating apple pie or peach pie ever again. And because the glaze was not thick like molasses, I smiled even more knowing that this tasty treat did not come from a can. The salad was a nice companion to the pear, green, fresh, and lightly touched with the honey balsamic instead of drowned in it. The wine served with the second course was a Tenuta Ca’ Bolani Sauvignon Blanc, only a notch sweeter than the Pinot Grigio, ideal enough to take a backseat to the pear — that would have made an awesome pie — and the delectable salad.

Third Course

As if the amouse bouche and the first two courses were not splendid enough, the third course was where the chef let it be known that he really shines. Wild mushroom risotto cooked in Tenuta Ca’ Bolani Sauvignon with fennel dusted shrimp sat on plates like works of art that should not be touched. The risotto had been cooked maybe a few seconds past al dente, not the point where it was mushy and thankful that it was not gummy. The plump shrimp exploded with each bite. I imagined them popping as I slowly gnashed away at them while having at the wild mushroom risotto. I know several individuals who swear that they make the best risotto and I made mental notes of them all being liars because the risotto at Basil Leaf Cafe is indeed the best that I have had at Chicago Italian restaurants. Then again, it may have been the combination of seafood with the risotto instead of beef or chicken. Switching up the dish in terms of the meat accompaniment may have been what made the dish that more pleasing to the palate. Add to that a glass of Tunuta Ca’ Bolani Refosco. Granted this wine is served mostly with red meat, the strong currants, wild berry, and plum flavours make this a de rigeour request for me with seafood. Unless the seafood is in a rich, creamy sauce, a full bodied wine like a Refosco will redefine love.

Tenuta Ca' Bolani Refosco.One thing I have discovered with multiple food courses at Italian restaurants is that when the chefs start pulling you in with their addictive dishes, they keep going up in notches until you quiver with an addiction. The fourth course consisted of grilled salmon topped in a balsamic and berry reduction with fingerling potatoes and brussel sprouts. I shall start by saying that I never had an aversion to brussel sprouts as a child, surprisingly never getting enough of them. The brussel sprouts at Basil Leaf Cafe were al dente, but I completed them all the same. As to the grilled salmon, I had a brief vision of me on a psychologist’s couch whining about how I could not live without the dish and how I would make all sorts of promises — none that I would keep — so that I could have more. I tend to prefer my fish seasoned well, barring tartar sauce or even ketchup. Anything sweet on fish has a tendency to detract from the flavour. Then I showed up at Basil Leaf Cafe and that changed with the balsamic and berry reduction. It may have been because the sauce was more of a glaze and not a drenching. And with this feast of bliss was a glass of Feudo Principi Di Butera Nero D’Avola. This lush and impressive red is resplendent with a cherry fragrance and a hint of spice. The texture is smooth and velvety. I mean, it is easy to be lured into thinking you are downing a pricey bottle off wine, but for its complexity in taste, the price is reasonable enough for me to restock my wine cache with some of it.

Fourth Course

Of course by now, everyone at the table has a dreamy, hazy feeling from so much good food and even more fabulous wine. But what meal is complete without a dessert? None, I say. The dessert at Basil Leaf Cafe was indeed a new one to me. Crispy gnocchi with vanilla bean ice cream, topped with chocolate and pistachio came out in a substantial bowl. The ice cream with the chocolate shavings and pistachio was fine all by itself. However, the crispy gnocchi was a surprise and one that I welcomed. Now, I may add that the gnocchi was not crispy like a rice crispy bar and it was not deep-fried, but rather toasted. Not seasoned with anything other than perhaps a faint coat of sugar, what initially looked to be a heavy dessert turned out to be light. With this dessert finale was a dessert wine: a Castello del Poggio Brachetto. This reminded me of an ice wine that I had tried in the Finger Lakes region of New York State — a wine that was incredible and costly to match. And now that I think of it, the dessert was not overly sweet, and perhaps for good reason so that the sweetness of the wine would not create a saccharine crisis for all at the table.

Dessert

This was the second food and wine pairing that I have had within the past few weeks, the first at an exotic Asian boutique restaurant and now this addiction-filled dinner experience at Basil Leaf Cafe. Having partaken of food and wine pairings in the past, there were always dishes where clearly the chefs were trying too hard and they stumbled. What was apparent at Basil Leaf Cafe was that the chef knew the right mixture of ingredients for the dishes and how to present the star and supporting dishes so that nothing competed on the tongue. The wine pairings were worthy, each on the mark. With the photography that I do at all of the restaurants where I visit for journaling, it was also quite nice seeing others engage their food from the taste point of view and from the artistic standpoint. And how often do you get to say you dined with the president of an Italian winery that produces and sells some of the top wines in the world? New friends, new beginnings, wonderful service, and a memorable night of food and wine at one of Chicago’s spectacular Italian eateries. What more could I have asked for?

Answer: A cab home.

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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.

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