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

Chilly, I Mean Chili in Chicago

Flight of ChiliThere is nothing like a long commute to spike the appetite. Such was the case when I was coming into downtown from work. Driving in third gear for most of the ride into the city was not only aggravating, but it was shaving off time that I had figured I would spend in the kitchen getting good use out of one of my many cookbooks. What was I to do? Where was I to go? What would I have? I pulled into the Near North area of downtown, parked, and walked along a familiar block that I had strolled past when I had worked downtown.

Rockit Bar and Grill at 22 W. Hubbard Street was one of the restaurants that I had passed many times but had never stopped to sample. It was at the moment of standing in front of the restaurant that I decided that I would go in and see what they had on the menu. From the relaxed, lounge style, I had begun to think that I had made the correct choice for my dinner destination.

There was a flyer that had listed dates that specific chilies would be prepared for the restaurant’s fourth annual chili festival. Being a little bold, I ordered something completely off the menu and out-of-place. I asked if I could have a flight of chili. Now, yes, I knew that this was not an ordinary request and I was even willing to abide by whatever price was set from the kitchen. With a quizzical smile, the server took my order for orange juice and the menu and she said she would inquire as to whether the chef would entertain such a request.

Pork Chili

After several minutes, out came the chef. I had this feeling in the pit of my stomach like that which you get when you are about to receive news. I had asked for something ridiculous, out in left field, not a part of the equation. She had mentioned that my order was the first request of the nature that had been posed. And then before me she placed three cups, each filled with what looked superbly appetizing and what tasted — I soon found out — delicious. The flight was a specially made preview for the restaurant’s media audience that night. I had a pork chili, a chicken chili, and a bison chili sitting before me, not quite yelling at me to put my napkin on my lap and get started, but just sitting there looking so tempting. Being a man of weak fortitude when it comes to good food, I picked up the first of three spoons and complied.

Allow me to bring you to the table and present to you what had me in such a state of bliss. The pork chili was green chili rubbed pork shoulder, white beans, queso fresco, and tomatillo salsa. The taste had a striking resemblance to eating enchiladas. My diet has not included pork in quite a few years, but the pork chili was incredible. Tender pork shoulder and the whole chili dish loaded with flavour, I knew from the first cup in the flight of chili that the evening was off to an outstanding start. I had a slice of bread to reset my palate and then I engaged the chicken chili. Happiness ensued. Jerk braised chicken, pinto beans, Habanero peppers, jack cheese, cilantro, and lime created a rather tasty bowl of satisfaction. Now, mostly when people hear of jerk chicken, the Jamaican delicacy comes to mind. Not overpowering, but well-balanced to let the chili come through, the chicken chili was a notch up and deserving, says my stomach. Another slice of bread for the palate and I was ready for the third cup of chili. The final cup, or highlight I shall say, was the bison chili. Ground buffalo, chorizo sausage, black beans, chipotle peppers, and cheddar cheese made for the most remarkable smoky flavoured entrée that I have had in a very, very, incredibly long time. For some reason, I kept thinking of Galveston, TX, and barbecue. This chili could be truth serum, although I would probably keep telling lies so that I could have more served to me. What I will say is that if there is ever a chili cook-off and I am competing, I will cheat by ordering a large pot of bison chili and entering it. This is, of course, our very own naughty secret.

Chicken Chili

Needless to say, I was quite happy and well-fed when I finally put the third spoon down. Remembering the flyer about the chili festival at Rockit Bar and Grill, I inquired as to a listing of dates at the Wrigleyville location since the dates for the Hubbard Street location were given on the flyer that I had. I keep a constant hankering for food and I figured that it would be ideal for me to have an idea as to when I may want to venture back for perhaps another flight.

If you find yourself in River North, head over to Rockit Bar and Grill at 22 Hubbard Street on any of the following days for some chili.

Date Chili Recipe
1/23/2012 Pork Chili green chili rubbed pork shoulder, white beans, queso fresco and tomatillo salsa
1/24/2012 Lamb Chili ground lamb, lamb sausage, chickpeas, bell peppers, tomatoes
1/25/2012 Lamb Chili ground buffalo, chorizo sausage, black beans, chipotle peppers, cheddar cheese
1/26/2012 Chicken Chili jerk braised chicken, pinto beans, Habanero peppers, jack cheese, cilantro and lime
1/27/2012 Beef Chili Texas-style no bean, chili rubbed beef brisket, corn tortillas, sour cream

Bison Chili

For a bit of food bliss while lingering around in Wrigleyville, the 3700 N. Clark Street location will be serving up bowls of chili on the following dates.

Date Chili Recipe
1/26/2012 Chicken Chili jerk braised chicken, pinto beans, Habanero peppers, jack cheese, cilantro and lime
1/27/2012 Beef Chili Texas-style no-bean, chili rubbed beef brisket, corn tortillas, sour cream
1/28/2012 Lamb Chili ground lamb, lamb sausage, chickpeas, bell peppers, tomatoes
1/29/2012 Bison Chili ground buffalo, chorizo sausage, black beans, chipotle peppers, cheddar cheese

One thing I have come to realize is that I have established a bit of a daring edge with asking for flights of food and flights of drinks. It has become quite a nice way to try several menu items in smaller portions in one setting. However, I am going to have to start being a little more cognizant of my experimentation. Then again, have to ask myself: Would I have had three outstanding recipes of chili placed before me had I not been so precocious? Chances are I would have missed out on sampling three delectable bowls of perfection. Then I find myself slappping my hand and coming back to reality. And I then search for a free date on my calendar for a return visit to Rockit Bar and Grill before the end of the month, this time to the Wrigleyville location on 29 January 2012. Wonder why?

Rockit Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon