Gino and the Chocolate Factory, Katherine Anne Confections

Katherine Anne's ConfectionsWhen I moved to Chicago, Logan Square was not viewed as a favourable neighbourhood. With Wicker Park and Bucktown to the southeast becoming congested, Logan Square became the next sought after neighbourhood in Chicago’s Near Northwest area. Restaurants, boutiques, cafes, coffeehouses, and lounges are filling in the landscape. During my six years of living in Logan Square, it is undergoing a slow and seemingly well-planned renaissance. There are plenty options to partake of for those who have made Logan Square their home. Not far from my favourite Italian restaurant is an option that I have enjoyed by the name of Katherine Anne Confections at 2745 W. Armitage Avenue.

Mexican Hot Chocolate Turkey Bleu

For my first sit-down visit, I wanted to try something from the sandwich menu so that I had more than just the hot chocolate I had planned to order. Now, I am not a fan of sandwiches at coffee shops and sandwiches on the menu at chocolate shops are unheard of. The turkey bleu at Katherine Anne Confections changed my mind — at least for this shop. The bread was fresh and the ingredients were not simply heaped on. I was won over. And I was completely wowed with the Mexican hot chocolate. This was not Nestlé’s and by the nth sip, it was clear that it wasn’t Hershey’s either. There was not even a hint of a milk chocolate taste and the spice added to it made it evident that they must use dark chocolate instead.

Hazelnut Hot Chocolate with Chocolate Truffles Flight of Chocolate Truffles

My second visit was more in passing. I’d had a heavy lunch but wanted a little something extra before going home. So, I stopped in for a cup of hot chocolate and relaxation. Because the Mexican hot chocolate was a winner, I chose a cup of hazelnut chocolate with vanilla pepper marshmallows. Accented with chopped hazelnuts, having this option on the menu can result in long lines hanging outside of the shop during the chilly months. It is hard for me to say whether I loved the Mexican hot chocolate or the hazelnut hot chocolate more. And then there were four truffles for take-away. I told the cashier to pick four. I know one was hazelnut, one was raspberry, and one was a fire chocolate. As to the fourth, it was divine, if I can call that a flavour.

Those who work at Katherine Ann Confections are not only charming, but they are also outstanding with their delivery of service. If you are indecisive, they never rush you. If you appear to want recommendations, they offer them without being pushy. I have had coffee for take-away and each cup has been great. The sit-down experiences have been fantastic. For a neighbourhood haunt, this is a splendid chocolatier and you may feel like Charlie at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory once you sink your teeth into some of the delectable chocolate truffles or get a chocolate from any of the swell cups of hot chocolate. Come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination.

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La Notte Cafe & Bar

La Notte Cafe & Bar

It dawned on me that although I have blogged a lot of restaurants in and around the metropolitan Chicago area, there are more that I have visited and not blogged. I don’t always have my camera with me and because I often leave my cellphone at home intentionally, I then don’t have anything to record spoken annotations of certain dining experiences. Fortunately, there are some restaurants that are still in business and their first visits were so memorable that I have since returned. La Notte Cafe & Bar at 6822 Windsor Avenue in Berwyn, Illinois, is an example of one of those restaurants where I went well over a year ago without a camera for capturing the impressions of all the good food.

Nottetini

Nottetini

Sidecar

Sidecar

A great friend and I returned for a second visit. Figuring that there would be a large dining crowd for the fantastic Saturday that it was, we arrive for a 4:00 PM seating. To make things even better, we sat outside on their patio and quenched our thirsts with a nottetini and a sidecar. The nottetini was truly a glass of Italy, a mixture of limoncello and vodka. James Bond would enjoy this one without having to mention wanting it shaken instead of stirred. I requested the sidecar with a slight modification. I wanted it mixed with whiskey for the base as opposed to a sour liqueur. Bravo!

Zuppe del Giorno

Zuppe del Giorno

We were in our usual mode of wanting a degustation. The beauty of going to small and family owned restaurants like La Notte is that you can order accordingly. And the menu may be adjusted to taste or ordering desires. This means nothing is thawed, popped into a microwave or conventional oven, arranged on a plate, and then brought to the table with a declaration of “Voila!” So, in keeping with our degustation, we started with the zuppe del giorno. This cup of love had a New England clam chowder base with smoked gouda cheese, shredded tilapia, fresh shrimp, a purée of shiitake mushroom, and finished with shallots, cognac, and a splash of tabasco sauce. Assolutamente deliziosa.

Soft Shell Crab Over Salad

Soft Shell Crab Over Salad

A lot of my recent restaurant outings have reintroduced chicken and some beef into my diet. The result of that, and I really shouldn’t put the blame on indulging meat, is that I have gained a few inches in my waistline. That is quite fine, except for me having a hard time zipping and buttoning some tailor-made pants that cost a mint. In addition to my new gym membership, I need to get back to a regimented pescatarian diet. The great thing about La Notte is that the seafood selection is splendid. So, we ordered soft shell crab. The soft shell crab came with a balsamic glaze and honey mustard over a mixed greens and cherry tomatoes. Very simple, yet savoury.

Risotto with Shrimp and Scallops

Risotto with Shrimp and Scallops

Italian dining does not always have to include pasta. And anyone who has had risotto worth using as a trump card in discussion about who has had the best dish ever will agree that Italian cuisine has some versatility that will make you forget about penne, spaghetti, fettuccine, and angel hair pasta. The risotto we ordered came with a cheese base blooming with great taste, giant shrimp, tender scallops, and chopped asparagus. Served family style, the dish was substantial. The chef left disappointment out of the recipe completely. Grazie a dio per questo.

Sea Bass and Vegetables

Sea Bass and Vegetables

With the platter of sea bass and mixed, grill vegetables of squash, zucchini, red onions, bell peppers, and cherry tomatoes, we got a tableside presentation in deboning the bass. Watching the owner work his magic with only a fork and spoon, and then applying a garlic drizzle to the dish, you have to appreciate the art involved in filleting the fish. But the burst of gusto in each bite had me almost forgetting about the side pasta that had come with the dish. And given that there is quite a bit of the sea bass and vegetables, the dish is still light.

Limoncello

Limoncello

Tulip

Tulip

There exists an atmosphere very much like that of the “old country.” There is no rush. My friend and I sat to let the soup, appetizer, and entrées settle. After some time, we decided that we would indulge dessert, which is another vice that I need to control. We had some homemade limoncello — my friend because she was not driving and me as a disclaimer to null the discomfort from a pulled muscle. The son at La Notte explained that his grandmother sends lemons from Phoenix, Arizona, and that is what they use to make the limoncello. Good on them because it is worthy of savouring from a sniffer.

Tartufo

Tartufo

There was a chocolate tulip, filled with chocolate sorbet and topped with chocolate. Be forewarned if you order the tulip, it is rich. And if the tulip isn’t enough, the tartufo is another option for catering to the monster. A small ball of vanilla ice cream encased in a bigger ball of chocolate ice cream and then dusted with cocoa powder and hazelnuts. Served with strawberries and whipped cream, all you have to do is add the clinking of a spoon on your plate and a scream afterwards.

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

For our finale, my friend had coffee with cream and I had a cappuccino. My indicator for good coffee is when you can take it without any sweeteners. The cappuccino surpassed the test and reminded me of the cups of cappuccino I had during visits to Milan.

Berwyn is slowly becoming a nearby Chicago suburb whose focus is primarily on authentic dining. What many will find are family owned and small restaurants that boast dishes that you will indeed find during visits abroad. La Notte Cafe & Bar is not simply an establishment borrowing Italian charm. The father and son not only retained the Italian customs in the recipes, but also make sure that the dishes that come to the table reflect the same quality that they enjoy in their own homes. The service during my first visit was well past the high mark of 10. The service during the second visit was even better. For what I would consider fine dining, the prices are extremely reasonable. If you want the feel of going to someone’s home and having a meal without being rushed, I highly recommend La Notte Cafe & Bar. I know it won’t take me a whole year for a return visit.

La Notte Cafe on Urbanspoon

Je suis en amour avec Oceanique

Oceanique

Earlier in February, Chicago hosted what has become the annual Restaurant Week. Many restaurants participated, all pandering to a wide range of tastes: American, comfort, ethnic, barbecue, street, exotic, and more. Thanks to frigid temperatures and work-related travel, I was only to take in about three restaurants. And even then, I opted to have my degustation from their menus rather than partaking of the offering from the Restaurant Week menu. I was not dissatisfied, to say the least. Now, one of the restaurants on the list was Oceanique at 505 Main Street in Evanston, Illinois. Seafood with a French influence, something more to the liking of Southern France along the coast. With an outstanding selection of seafood for the pescatarian in me, I paired the menu choices with a flight of mojitos. Flights are not on their menu, so Oceanique got big ups from me when the bartender complied and came up with a flight that won me over tenfold. Not having my camera then, it was necessary for me to return for a proper blog.

L'amuse Bouche: Icelandic Arctic Char

L’amuse Bouche: Icelandic Arctic Char

Much to my surprise, Chicago was in the throes of Chef’s Week during my return. I was in a mood to be truly experimental, so I had made up my mind that I was going to have another degustation and entrust the server and bartender to create an experience that would make my visit worthier than the first visit. Having secured a seat in the dining area across from the bar, taken the white balance for my photos and video, and happy that I was seated nowhere near anyone, I started with a l’amuse of Icelandic Arctic char ceviche wrapped in leek with a cilantro oil essence. It was served with cucumber, fresh seaweed, and crispy potato. By the time I had finished the l’amuse, a couple arrived and rather than sitting in the main dining area, they chose to sit at the table IMMEDIATELY NEXT TO ME.

Blood Orange Old Fashion

Blood Orange Old Fashion

Wild Maine Lobster Consomme

Wild Maine Lobster Consomme

For my first course, I had wild Maine lobster consomme. At most seafood restaurants, there is almost a guarantee of having a chowder or some bisque served. Oceanique deviates from the norm with ravioli of chantarelles, chunks of lobster, cilantro, and chopped carrots in a clear broth. Outstanding! Because I was being daring for what I wanted in my beverage selection, I had requested a flight of whiskey cocktails for my refined palate. The first, which was served with the consomme, was a slight twist on the old-fashioned — a blood orange old-fashioned. Blood orange, cherries, rye whiskey, and Angostura Bitters make for a rather refreshing whiskey cocktail, one that has made the plain old-fashioned fade from my request list.

L'amuse Bouche: Ravioli

L’amuse Bouche: Ravioli

A few minutes passed and then there was a second l’amuse to come to the table. This one was a butternut ravioli prosciutto with parmesan, and crispy sage, served in a brown butter reduction. Considering this was only a palate cleanser interlude, I was in my Food Magazine mode capturing the sight of it before devouring it slowly. Only in my dining experiences abroad have I had a l’amuse interspersed throughout dinner. Even at many of the high-end restaurants in Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, there may be one given at the onset of the meal. Oceanique again smashes the norm. Then again, it may have been because I was creative with ordering a flight of whiskey cocktails and the chef did not want me stumbling about after departing the restaurant.

Beet Salad

Beet Salad

Chartreuse Sazerac

Chartreuse Sazerac

The second course was a salad. One thing I have noticed in my restaurant excursions is that many are fans of beets. Oceanique has a beet salad in a mild vinaigrette that comes to life with a dollop of goat cheese. If ever I were to resort to a diet of rabbit food only, recipes like the one in the beet salad creation would become a staple in my salad recipes. Anyone who favours Thousand Island, ranch, or blue cheese dressing on their salad, should try the beet salad at Oceanique. And the whiskey cocktail that accompanied the salad was a Chartreuse Sazerac. This was another masterpiece, one of whiskey, Peychaud Bitters, and simple syrup with a lemon twist. The second course was absolute tops.

L'amuse Bouche: Wild Skate

L’amuse Bouche: Wild Skate

By the time I had completed the second course, another couple had come in and sat at the table on the other side of me. Plenty of room in the main dining area and lots of tables in the room where I was sitting and they needed to sit near and call some friends, who I gathered was supposed to join them. I sighed and after looking at some of the photos and video that I had captured, the third l’amuse arrived. This was wild Maine skate with leeks and carrots in a white wine reduction. Skate has a texture that is reminiscent of sea bass but slightly silkier. It may be different to some palates, but the flavour overpowers the feel of sinking your teeth through a flavoured cloud. If I could describe how love tastes, the wild Maine skate would be my example.

Evanstonian

Evanstonian

Atlantic Char

Atlantic Char

Up to this point, everything had been a winner. The third course is where I began to wonder why Oceanique was not on the candidate list for a Michelin star. Atlantic char served over mushrooms and puréed split green peas in a savoury reduction were all I needed to start my petition to Michelin to do the correct thing by Oceanique. I had forgotten to mention that I am not a fan of pork in my diet, so the dish came with a few bacon pieces that I moved to the side. However, the bloom in the taste was a true winner for the seafood lover in me. I had not enough compliments for the chef for such a divine course. And to the bartender, the Evanstonian that he mixed has now become my favourite whiskey cocktail. Made with Few white whiskey from an Evanston-based distillery, orange bitters, sweet vermouth, and a splash of Creole Shrubb rum, this cocktail was silky on the tongue and without a bite at the back of the throat. It was this third course that will certainly have Oceanique at the top of my list for the Top 10 restaurant excursions for 2014. And I may have to create a list of Top 10 bartender stations for the year also and add Oceanique to the number one spot in advance.

L'amuse Bouche: Berry Pineapple Sorbet

L’amuse Bouche: Berry Pineapple Sorbet

Allowing time to let the food and cocktails settle, I reviewed more of my photos and video so that I could get an advanced idea of what editing I would do later. Soon the final l’amuse came to the table, appropriately in the form of a berry pineapple sorbet, topped with blackberry and a dash of fresh mint. Having recently become an avid fan of sorbet, I was mumbling “Wow” with each mini scoop. After I had finished the last scoop, the second couple that came in and commenced to place phone calls was joined by two others who spoke in jovial and loud tones. Their need for loud banter became quiet when the bartender approached my table for the dessert course and the chef had come to the table to shake my hand. It had become evident that one of the women was from the South because when she saw the dessert offerings, she rattled off, “I do declare.”

Pot de Creme

Pot de Creme

Whiskey Chocolate Martini

Whiskey Chocolate Martini

The dessert course was for the chocolate fanatic in me — and in all the chocolate lovers who were not at Oceanique with me. The pot de creme is already a part of every chocoholic’s fever dream. This delight was served with blackberries, raspberries, passionfruit, and shavings of Godiva chocolate. You have to enjoy this dessert slowly. To gorge it down quickly would be a crime. Because I was supposed to abstain from desserts until my birthday in April, I initially had a bit of guilt. But I have been good in fending off my dessert desires, so I allowed myself a moment of weakness. To make matters even more wicked, the whiskey chocolate martini was enough for me to be okay with burning in hell. Journeyman wheat whiskey, Godiva white liqueur, half and half, and a splash of Kahlua, and the second woman at the table next to me was clutching her “invisible” pearls and mumbling, “Oh my,” while the men were in a trance.

Ravenswood Rye Whiskey Few White Whiskey Buggy Whip Wheat Whiskey

One thing that my return visit to Oceanique has taught me is that it would be cliché and erroneous to say that if you have gone to one seafood restaurant, you have gone to all of them. The quality of the output from the kitchen is simply divine. Some of the offerings are to be appreciated by a finer palate, though. The term mixologist has been bandied about rather frequently as of late and having discovered that it’s used to reference bartenders, not disc jockeys and emcees, the mixologist at Oceanique deserves an award. The restaurant is not in the immediate downtown section of Evanston, which may make some express surprise when they discover where it is located. The prices are high, as the restaurant caters to high-end and fine dining. With there being a French influence, anything that purports to be French and comes at a cheap price should warrant a rapid dash towards the hills. And as my taxi driver woke me from my snoring on my way home from the restaurant, I paid my fare and spoke in a mock Southern accent: I am in love with Oceanique, I do declare.

Oceanique on Urbanspoon Oceanique Restaurant on Foodio54

Half Italian, Half French, 100% Satisfied

With Facebook being a constant in social media, I decided that it was time to establish a presence for Chicago Alphabet Soup via Facebook. I can’t say that I will ever entertain Twitter since the 140 character limitation is not enough for a good stream of consciousness. Tumblr seems to be the new “it” social media tool. Yes, another account to create and another password to have to manage. My short-term memory is already giving me warnings that I need to limit the number of social media outlets that I have signed up for. And my short-term memory works in concert with my ongoing appetite to prompt me when I should deal with things that really matter — like getting my keys and my wallet, and leaving my condo to get something to eat.

Latte

Latte

My neighbourhood of Logan Square is becoming a Wonderland. It seems that almost every month there is some new boutique, cafe, coffee shop, or eatery dotting the landscape. What was once viewed as a shooting gallery — to quote one friend who almost had a theatrical Scarlett O’Hara attack when I told her I was moving to Logan Square — has now become one of the most sought after neighbourhoods in Chicago. But what should I discover this past Sunday but a swanky grocery store and deli. In the stretch of Milwaukee Avenue that is undergoing a renaissance between the Traffic Circle of Doom and Diversey Avenue is Half Italian, at 4653 N. Milwaukee Avenue. Enter and embrace your inner hipster, but also be prepared for quality. Because I was going strictly for something to eat and drink, I did a quick glance of the grocery items just in case there was something that caught my fancy worthy enough for a future purchase. After all of a second, it was all about a latte and — clutch your pearls, your wig or toupee, and even your martini — a BLT. I didn’t just fall off the wagon; I did a proper tuck and roll. For starters, the latte was of the kind that I love, the kind where you can drink it without sugar. The bloke who prepared the cup of wow for me raised his eyebrows when I was outside at one of the tables photographing it. As for the BLT — cue the sound of a chorus dragging out “aaaahhhhhhh” — I don’t know if it was the smokey taste of bacon that made me smile like a dunce, the freshness of the lettuce and tomato, the spicy mayonnaise, the fact that the sandwich was on Italian bread rather than Sunbeam light bread, or the joke I was reading on a friend’s Facebook wall. Half Italian has a new customer and if I keep gaining weight, my jeans that fit comfortably now will become skinny jeans and I’ll fit the hipster mold. No! Reverse, rewind, scratch that.

BLT

BLT

Now, there was no need for me to saunter back to my condo because the day was several notches past ideal. No clouds, no humidity, no heat, a nice breeze, and me not wanting to show any more neighbours my remodeled Stanley Kubrick bathroom. So, I headed to Oak Park to my favourite dessert shop — Sugar-Fixé at 119 N. Marion Street. I had more coffee that required no sugar and a verine. Shall we stop and have a moment of reflection? (Pause) That parfait of chocolate mousse layered with moist brownies and topped with English toffee not only photographed well, but I had to minimize my scooping to smaller nibbles so that I could savour the whole thing slowly. And from somewhere in the background, Isabelle Antena was singing “LaPecheresse a la Ligne.” How fitting. Sitting outside having verine and taking coffee is so European. First, I was Italian (buona) and then I was French (bon). I know that it seems Chicago has decided to get out of the business of cupcake mills and become the land of the most addictive doughnuts, but a plethora of French patisseries in Chicago of the Sugar-Fixé kind would make this city the most populated city in the world. Now that I think of it, Sugar-Fixé has become my de facto landing spot for coffee and dessert that never fail — unless I am going to Julius Meinl for sweets, savouries, and live music.

Verine

Verine

Many people go for long walks on Sunday. Some clog the roads with casual drives, the speed limit being too much for them. Others just keep up mess. I prefer scouting out all the good things to quiet the monster that is affectionately known as my belly. After being half Italian, half French, and 100% satisfied this past Sunday, I will try to continue a tradition of being Pan-ethnic with some other fooderies. Hmm. If people can do pub crawls — and, yes, most crawl literally after endless imbibing — then I can do a gluttony trek. I may be in pain after overindulging, though, but that’s par for the culinary course. And I will post the photos on Facebook, not the ones of me on the floor in tears because I’m too full to sleep and fighting food comatose at the same time.

Half Italian Grocer & Deli on Urbanspoon

Midweek Escape to Italy

So, my cell phone rings while I am still at work and it is one of my great friends. There is the inquiry as to what I was doing after work, to which I answered that I was sitting at my desk — well past 5:00 PM — pondering what to eat. Food consumes — no pun intended — my free thoughts. What to eat? Where to eat? Do I drive there, walk, or take public transit to get the food source? Should it be quick or a dining experience where I can sit still and really enjoy my meal? My friend’s call snapped me out of my waffling at least such that I could think of a general location. There was a certain Italian restaurant where she and I had gone last summer. And talk about clarity, there was no case of introducing other options along with the Italian restaurant. It was off to 116 N. Oak Park Avenue in Oak Brook for a midweek escape to Il Vicolo.

Gnarly Head

Gnarly Head

The temperatures were moderate enough that we wondered if there would be seating available outside. Once we arrived and there was a bit more bite in the wind than before we left our respective job locations — she coming from Oak Brook Terrace and me coming from downtown Chicago — it dawned on us that temperatures are not consistently warm until the last week of June. Nevertheless, we had a window seat and imagined the warmth of the sun as we watched pedestrians’ pass by with clattering teeth.

Olive Oil, Parmesan Cheese, Pepper

Olive Oil, Parmesan Cheese, Pepper

Usually whenever my friend and I would catch up for dinner, we would never have wine or a “loaded” beverage during “school nights.” We reserve libations for weekends when we don’t have to worry about sleeping through the ringing of the morning alarm. However, I was in one of my “just bring it” moods and opted for some wine. In past posts I have mentioned that I have no wine snobbery. What I said to the server was that I’d relay what I like for possible dinner courses and she could surprise me with an accompanying wine accordingly. After my friend and I had given our requests, the server said that there would be a red wine that we both should try. And, so there was a bottle of Gnarly Head, a Pinot Noir, brought to the table. There was a quick pour, a swishing around in the glass, a tasting, and a nod of approval, and then the glasses were filled. Bravo.

Tortino Di Melanzane

Tortino Di Melanzane

With a basket of complimentary bread, fresh olive oil, parmesan cheese, and cracked black pepper, we enjoyed homemade Italian bread. One of the things about being serious with baking, I can tell when bread is fresh and when it has been purchased from a grocer or bakery. This bread came from the oven at Il Vicolo. That says something for authenticity and our devouring it was testament to our approval of not having perfectly prepared Sunbeam or Wonder bread put in front of us. For a salad, we started with a grilled calamari salad that left us not wanting fried calamari ever again. Don’t get me wrong, as there are some restaurants where the fried calamari has been the absolute best. However, tender grilled calamari and baby octopus in a very light lemon garlic and olive oil served over a mixed green salad were fantastic. Next time I return to Il Vicolo, I will inquire as to whether they use fresh vegetables because the salad had the kind of flavour that pops, much like what I have had any time I have gone to the country where pesticides and growth enhancers are not used on the crops.

Grilled Calamari and Salad

Grilled Calamari and Salad

The dining experience got into full swing with a tortino de melanzane. We all have had eggplant parmesan and have friends who swear that they, their mother, or their grandmother prepares the best eggplant parmesan ever. Whatever. You can have it. Give me tortino de melanzane. The baked eggplant was neither mushy nor crunchy. Goldilocks would even agree that it was just right. The mozzarella was not piled on so high that it introduced a choke factor. The tomato sauce was moderately chunky the way Ragu wished that jarred foolishness they sell was chunky. Again, full of flavour without the feel of salt on the tongue. And they included one of my all-time favourite highlights of cilantro. Now I was understanding fully why the Gnarly Head was the wine of choice per the server. The oak flavour was all the spice needed to complete the marriage with the meal. Listen to me sounding like a real food critic. Ha!

Penne Arrabbiata

Penne Arrabbiata

Italian cuisine may be known for a good mix of herbs and spices in the dishes, yet most dishes are not spicy. You don’t turn red in the cheeks after forking your meal into your mouth. Well, some people have mild constitutions and anything other than just salt has them screaming and putting on a show. I have been gaining weight slowly over the past few months, so I keep carbohydrates in my diet. Hence, I had pasta and this time I had a spicy penne arrabbiata. My first exposure to penne arrabbiata was with the purchase of a bag of it from Trader Joe’s. I was surprised that something frozen could taste so blooming delicious because food from the frozen section is saturated with ingredients that people use for trick words in spelling bees. Then after having penne arrabbiata at some Italian restaurants, it became a source of addiction. Well, the same can be said for the pasta dish at Il Vicolo. It was spicier than what I have had anywhere else, but that made it all the more appetizing to me because I love fire with my flavour. Each bite was bliss and rather than drowning the penne in the sauce, the sauce was more like an accent. Outstanding!

Nocciola

Nocciola

By now my camera was starting to do its own thing. Buttons were inoperable, which really made it horrible for me being able to set the focus point for my compositions. Even resetting the white balance to account for the sunlight gone down was impossible. Sure, I should have been in the moment rather than photographing my food. But how else can I present impressions of my dining experiences to make you want to dash out to the restaurant? It would have been so unfair for me to leave out such appetizing photos. Alas, I could only muster so much and I put the camera away and made a note to myself to trash it when I got home. I have three other digital cameras that work without giving me grief. The cheap one I used for these shots was disposable. My friend had ordered pappardelle gamberi e funghi. I don’t particularly like to have my friends wait for me to finish snapping away with my camera because ticking off close to a hundred shots per dish could mean having fork up lukewarm food. So, I missed capturing her dish of tasty homemade flat pasta with shrimp and mushrooms in a fresh tomato and basil sauce. This is one dish that I have yet to have all to myself and I must return to for that very purpose, per my friend’s recommendation.

Chocolate Lava Cake

Chocolate Lava Cake

We wrapped up with coffee and dessert. The coffee had a robust flavour, yet it required very little sweetener. And there were the desserts. Instead of the ubiquitous plate of tiramisu or cannoli, my friend had chocolate lava cake and I had nocciola. The chocolate lava cake, which had a preparation time of eight minutes, apparently was a big hit with my friend. Then again, the last time she had cake was earlier in April for her birthday, thankful that Easter had passed and sampling a dolce was not a frowned-upon option. I had it before and agreed with her expressions that indicated it was a worthy dessert. The nocciola was certainly real gelato. You can’t buy that flavour in the frozen dairy section of your local market. You just can’t.

On weekends, Il Vicolo has a tendency to fill up quickly. Once you have had any of their dishes or interacted with the wait staff, you understand why. The prices of the dishes are far from exorbitant. Of all the times going, I have not had a dining experience that resulted in me leaving dissatisfied. If anything, I always make plans for a return visit. If you go on the weekends and for the evening courses, make a reservation. Trust me when I say that you will not want to stand around watching plates boasting flavours and aromas that cause drooling. You will want to work your knife and fork on some morsel without delay. As for me, I do believe a midweek escape to Il Vicolo is in order for the near future.

Gino in the Sky With Food

Lulu's

Lulu’s

The Beatles may have made the song “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” famous. The first phase of my birthday celebration had a case of “Gino in the Sky With Good Food.” I cannot even get around to saying that I would put that to any music, let alone script a full set of lyrics to sing to it. What I can say is that celebrating my birthday this year has been an absolute blast and as I can become drunk on food, there were a few moments of food bliss that had me in my mood for wanting to perform. It may be the stiff Brit in me that said, “Just revel in all the good food you’re eating this week. Don’t embarrass yourself, as you know you flush rather easily.

I had to go to Evanston to get a camera from a friend. I had let him borrow it so that he could photograph a pretty-pretty for a portfolio. While in the neighbourhood, a few other friends had told me that I should meet them at Lulu’s. At 804 Davis Street in the middle of downtown Evanston, we got a table and was ready for action.

Ginger Ale Lemonade

Ginger Ale Lemonade

Lulu’s is one of those restaurants that presents itself as an Asian-fusion eatery. You peruse the menu and start to think that perhaps it falls more in line with Pan-Asian. There is also the mention of dim sum, so one could think that maybe there is all Chinese fare. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s food. I am all for cultural blending, but please let the culinary part of that marriage not suffer. Lulu’s obliged by not being an agent of “horror” dining.

I started with a ginger ale lemonade. From the menu, it looked like a drink I would be okay with. The server said that it was intense and she accentuated the word “intense” with a pithy growl. There was no way I was going to turn down something that brings about that much expression. After the first sip, I understood why. Wow! You could taste the ginger. I’m not talking the fizzy, bubbly stuff that makes you belch when you turn up a can of Schwepp’s ginger ale. A blend of ginger ale and lemonade sounds almost “too experimental,” but it works incredibly well as a mixed drink here. There is no alcohol in it and that was fine. However, this drink should be mandatory serving when the temperatures in Chicago reach the point of equatorial.

Curried Squash Soup

Curried Squash Soup

In the like manner that I exhibit when I go to restaurants now, I was in the mood for a degustation. The premise of the restaurant was dim sum, so there would be a little of something, not the American style dining where you practically beg for a pillow after dinner so that you can lie down. For my first course, I had the curried squash soup.

Mama’s little baby loves curry, curry
Mama’s little baby loves curry squash soup

Let me start by saying that anyone who has a complaint about Lulu’s, for any reason, should have a bowl of that soup and take a breath. Each sip, or slurp as it concerned me, brought about the dumb smile I wear when I’m experiencing food rapture. You could taste a hint of the curry without feeling as though the chef had poured a tablespoon of it on your tongue. It may have been cinnamon, allspice, or nutmeg that made the whole bowl burst with flavour. One thing I will say is that none of it was disappointing. None of it, I say.

Potato Croquettes

Potato Croquettes

When my second course came, which were four potato croquettes, I was feeling a bit excited by the third bite. I remembered having potatoes smothered in melted cheddar cheese at a Spanish tapas restaurant several years ago. That was actually the first time I really did have a cigarette after dinner. If it weren’t so frosty this evening and if I were indeed a smoker, I would have paused for a moment to go outside and puff away on a Marlboro. Not drowned in cheddar cheese, but rather topped with a spicy mayonnaise, I simply could not force myself to take itsy-bitsy bites and be okay with it. Partaking of those potato croquettes was nothing more than an experiment in trying to maintain your composure. I moaned out loud and then covered it up by coughing. Yes, I need therapy; I know that. But you don’t understand. Potatoes are supposed to be bland, salted at most. Those croquettes were wicked delicious.

Coconut Shrimp and Cole Slaw

Coconut Shrimp and Cole Slaw

A few months ago, I was visiting a friend who let me bake a cake in her kitchen. Well, the cake was for her anyway. Anyway, she ordered delivery from Lulu’s. One of the dishes that I had requested was coconut shrimp because I wanted to be in a tropical mood to take my mind off the fact that snow and sleet were falling fast outside. I was nonplussed, disappointed, horrified, petrified, and morbidly bitter. Okay, so that is a bit exaggerated, but I was almost in tears because the delivery was a mess. Fast forward to my latest in-house dining experience and there sitting before me is a plate of coconut shrimp and a dollop of cole slaw. Note to readers: Do not get the coconut shrimp as delivery. Get a table and order it for in-house dining. You will shoot straight to the moon. The coconut shrimp were plump, exploding with flavour. The batter was nothing like the saccharine B-chef gotcha that I had as a delivery item. It was all about joy on a plate. I was so in love.

Wonton Wonton Sundae

Wonton Wonton Sundae

This was a pre-celebratory birthday dinner for me, which meant that there would be dessert. I am well past the age of being okay with someone singing “Happy Birthday” to me at a restaurant because it always smacks of a free dessert after the meal. Again, I get embarrassed very easily and part of that is because my parents were not advocates of free meals, soup kitchen mentality as Ma Williams called it. I must admit that I can be selective if I think the free meal is worthy and I have indulged some without my conscience beating me up over it. As to the pre-birthday dessert at Lulu’s, an Instagram photo I posted to my Facebook wall sent one of my friends into a tailspin. Three fist-sized scoops of ice cream — vanilla, coconut, and banana chocolate chip — sat atop a fried wonton that had been coated with sugar and cinnamon. Another large fried wonton doctored up like the one under the ice cream towered on the plate. All of it was drizzled with chocolate, caramel, and confectioner’s sugar, and my friend was out in orbit. The people at the table across from where we were sitting told me to stop heaving such heavy sighs. When I told them to get their own, it was our turn to tell them to keep it quiet. Oh my God!!!

Lulu’s is a quaint little restaurant and seems to fill up rapidly, especially immediately after work. The service can be slightly off-putting, as you could find yourself waiting a while before any of the servers get untangled from running rampant through the restaurant. When a server does approach your table, you get an attentive member of the wait staff. If it is a rather busy evening, it may be a good idea to be concise with your order. The scene in “When Harry Met Sally” may be hilarious when watching that movie, but applying that technique of complexity to your ordering at Lulu’s could result in a botched order and you’re then penning an unsavoury review on Yelp. But if you are like me, you will get your Pan-Asian/fusion/dim sum/élan and everything will be quite okay in the land. Hmm. I think I need to return for the third phase of my month-long birthday celebration. Lulu’s now!!!

Lulu's 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

I Come From Another World

HarvestBerwyn, Illinois, is surprisingly becoming a suburb for those who have no compunction about indulging tasty food. A former colleague who lives in Berwyn has introduced me to a few restaurants that have shown themselves worthy of repeat visits. There supposedly was a feature on television for a restaurant that is out of this world. Autre Monde, translated as “another world,” and at 6727 Roosevelt Road, was touted as a must-go-to eatery for those whose palates enjoy cuisine with a Mediterranean flair. My former colleague had gone to the restaurant and had spoken to how you cannot describe the taste — you simply had to experience it. Well, that was all I needed to hear to know that I wanted to be transported to a another world where people relished at aromas that tickled the noses and flavours that danced about the tongue like lords a leaping.

Autre Monde has a look and feel that is rather common among a lot of lounges in the immediate West Loop and Near North Side sections of Chicago. The lighting is dim, giving a muted orange glow. Everyone is glamorous, almost to the point where you wonder if it hurts to be so beautiful. The atmosphere is intimate. It is always recommended that you make reservations well in advance for the assurance of a seat and you arrive for the time that you have made the reservations, lest you relinquish your seat. The restaurant fills quickly. Of course, the service is outstanding and they will accommodate you if you visit without a reservation. But once you are there, be prepared for one of the best dining experiences of your life and a recognition that Chicago suburbs are, per the current urban lingo, on and popping.

Hummus and Fava Beans SpreadHaving the Christmas season upon us, my former colleague and I were in a festive mood. This was going to be a gathering before I departed to spend Christmas with my family and she to spend it with hers. With the restaurant filled, bearing others who came with co-workers and other friends dancing and doing things a notch short of embarrassing, we figured we would really get started with something from the drink menu. There is a drink called Harvest that is nothing short of autumn in a glass. I never would have imagined that whiskey and cider would be a great combination. Add a dash of cinnamon and you have a winning drink. Because we had saved our appetites for Autre Monde, we were careful not to imbibe the Harvest as though we had been crawling across the desert and were ridiculously thirsty. We tempered ourselves and placed our orders to cater to our degustation wants.

The first course we opted to sample was a plate of hummus and fava beans. There is no reason to ever go to a Mediterranean restaurant and not order any hummus. It is a staple in the Mediterranean diet and with some pita bread, you can fall in love with those creamed chickpeas, olive oil, and spices. Now, add fava beans to the mix and this was nothing short of Silence of the Gino, Mediterranean style. I have had fava beans with fish, chicken, pork, and in a complete vegetarian meal. I have even had them with a Chianti. Having it prepared as a spread was a new experience and one that I enjoyed more than I can put into words. It may be that it was something completely different to my palate. It may be that it was really that delicious. We’re not talking a dish that was heavy-handed with spices enough to be the glaring complete antithesis of a boring plate. It was a perfect start.

Mussels au Sete
Then we moved on to Mussels au Sete. I wanted muscles. I got some now. My arms are noticeably larger than they were several months ago. But I wanted mussels that tasted award winning in a savoury gravy. Lucky for me, I was already at Autre Monde and was happily obliged. It had to be the light gravy that made the mussels have an unforgettable taste. Heavy enough on the garlic but not enough to send a vampire running back to his coffin, my former colleague and I dipped the complementary toast in the sauce and devoured the delicate mussels with a tempered hunger. After all, we had more in mind to sample.

Moroccan Chicken WingsThe third menu item was one we saw going to other tables. The patrons were baring their teeth, frowning, and gnashing away with an animal intensity that made Sally in “When Harry Met Sally” come across rather tame in her mockery during the famous restaurant scene. Moroccan chicken wings landed on our plates and we topped them with cucumber yoghurt and a light pepper syrup. The combination of cool and hot was not something that my dining companion and I were going for but mixing the cucumber yoghurt and the pepper syrup really made the chicken wings scream. Even without adding the yoghurt and syrup, the wings had a flavour that held its own. The crust on the wings was delicate, nothing like the harsh crunch that you get on most fried chicken and definitely not a case of the Kentucky Fried Chicken sort, where the batter is almost feathery. We were contemplating ordering more of the wings, but that would have taken away from the degustation sampling we had planned. We were happy to have bared our teeth, frowned, and gnashed away on the wings that we had the way everyone else had.

Fontina and Wild Mushroom FlatbreadWe then graduated to fontina and wild mushroom flatbread. The whole concept of flatbread is all the rage in Chicago and has been for years. There are restaurants that make sandwiches with flatbread. Some pizzerias use flatbread as crust. There are even a few speciality cafés that serve it with dips and spreads. But when it is done right, it is an absolute showcase of talent. Looking at the fontina and wild mushroom flatbread, one would think it was pedestrian fare. It is anything but plain. The recipe apparently was well-balanced enough that the herbs and spices were present without overpowering the fontina cheese and the mushrooms. And let me not miss expressing the fact that you could taste the mushrooms, not simply chew them and know that they were on the flatbread.

Because the fontina and mushroom flatbread was so amazing, we wanted one more flatbread. An option was the spicy duck sausage flatbread. We immediately flagged this flatbread as a mandatory reason for a future repeat visit. Sun-dried tomatoes and seasoned duck sausage on flavourful cheese. It also found its way between our fingers, rising up from the plate, up towards our mouths where it entered and our teeth went to work. Smiles. Smiles as though we were on Fantasy Island. But it was no fantasy. If I had to choose between Chicago style pizza, Brooklyn style pizza, and the spicy duck sausage flatbread, Autre Monde would be happy to know that their little belly happy menu item would win.

Spicy Duck Sausage FlatbreadFor the finishing touch, we had pot de crème. Many people seek a pot of gold. If I want happiness, I only need the chocolatety hazelnut flavour of pot de crème to paint my face with a smile. So delicious it was that we intentionally took almost half an hour to eat all of it. There was no reason for us to rush through such a perfect dessert. The hazelnut influence in the chocolate custard had the right ratio to let you know that there was the presence of hazelnut but not such that it competed with the chocolate. After all, there were shavings of hazelnut on top with the homemade whipped cream. There could not have been a more fitting sweet.

Pot de CremeAutre Monde is, to put it succinctly, out of this world. For Berwyn to be such a homey suburb, you would never think that a restaurant with high-end atmosphere and top billing cuisine would be there. A few years ago, Berwyn was primarily a walk-up café haven where you were guaranteed some authenticity in the food you ate. The addition of Autre Monde and a few other restaurants will eventually have Berwyn filled with foodies seeking their Holy Grails of dining experiences. The price is commensurate with the quality of the output. The first time I went to Autre Monde, I did not have my camera and wished that I did. There was no way I was leaving home the second time around sans my toy to capture the culinary impressions. Actually, I wished that I had a camcorder to record my thousand faces of happiness as I ate. While I was able to capture the menu items that my former colleague and I had, and a picture is worth a thousand words, you will find that there are a thousand ways to express bliss for something delicious from another world.

Autre Monde Cafe on Urbanspoon

Gino on the Floor

Fogo de Chao

Thanksgiving, 2012, came and went. There was food for all feasts. Cornbread dressing with brown gravy or cranberry sauce. Collard greens. Candied yams. Macaroni and cheese. String bean casserole. Cornish hens because there will be turkey for Christmas. Sweet potato pies. Apple pie. Peach cobbler. Coconut pound cake. Almond scented white cake. There was, of course, a bit of weight gain after so much delighting. But it was not because of Thanksgiving gluttony. No, I had made a pact with my high school sweetheart that for every pound she took off, I would add a pound. Being such a diligent and honest man by holding up my end of the pony, the joints in my legs are now feeling the girth of 211 pounds. As if that was not enough, I returned from enjoying Thanksgiving with family with a calendar appointment for Fogo de Chão. And everyone’s eyes open wide with surprise.

Salad Bar Options

When I started Chicago Alphabet Soup many years ago, Fogo de Chão at 661 North La Salle Street was the second restaurant I went to. That was when I had a cheap point-and-click camera and before I started using my expensive digital camera properly. It was all about the food. Having then returned from São Paulo, Brazil, I wanted to see if the churrascaria in Chicago would make me miss the megalopolis. I remember the temperatures having a bit more bite than I had been accustomed to below the equator. So it was off to the best churrascaria in Chicago for their dandy bonanza of meat, meat, rare meat, medium rare meat, well-done meat, and then some more meat. Fast forward to 2012 and I have jumped willingly into the diet of a pescatarian. Why did I agree to meet up with friends at Fogo de Chão, of all places? Could it be that my high school sweetheart had told me that she had lost a few pounds and I needed to fulfill my end of the pact? Hmm. I will let that be my excuse.

Caipirinha

Much like the temperatures were during the first visit to Fogo de Chão, I wanted something to put me in the mind of being in São Paulo years ago. A glass of ciapirinha certainly would make that happen. Think of a mojito without the mint. I was quite happy, although I was aware of the sweater I had on, which meant I was aware of being in Chicago instead of in Brazil. Being a lightweight, I needed something to keep the alcohol from having me floating about the restaurant in my own little ether world. It was off to the salad bar. Asparagus. Mushrooms. Cheeses. Bread. Olives. Tuna salad. Chicken salad. Salmon. Smiles. You are told to get a small plate of fruit and vegetables, not to fill up on the salad bar because the gauchos will keep your table occupied with various cuts of meats, rolls that melt on your tongue like cotton candy, mashed potatoes, and baked bananas. This could easily become any glutton’s nirvana.

Spiced Beef, Parmesan Crusted Pork

Then it was time to turn over the card for “sem,” yes, yes, Yes!!! The gauchos hovered through room with slabs of meat on skewers, of which you end up in a daze wanting everything that they bring. If I were a devout pescatarian, I would have stayed away. However, I have no willpower. That was rather evident when there was the mouth-watering aroma from lombo, which is parmesan crusted pork. There was also the essence of some beef ancho wafting up my nose. Imagine if you will Oliver saying, “Please, sir, I want some more.” This wonder meat had me wanting to launch into song, singing, “Food, glorious food, hot mustard and sausage.” Moist. Succulent. Tender. I am sure I could come up with about two dozen more adjectives to describe the flavours, six dozen if I were to describe the taste in several other languages.

Nice to Meat You

The picanha, the best part of the sirloin and flavoured with garlic, was worthy. I could have told the gaucho to leave a quarter of the slab at the table. Then others in the restaurant would have been screaming for my head on skewer, perhaps. This choice meat was just as tender as the previous selection. There appeared to be something of a glaze to it, as there was a slight sweetness to each bite. Imagine that. Other than at Argentinean steak houses, I have never had meat like this in it natural juices without the addition of sugar to the recipes. Fogo de Chão is the first restaurant to have succeeded in making the meat sing. And I have been to all the popular churrascarias in America, Chicago boasting the majority of them.

Meat

By the time a slice of fraldinha had made it to the table, the pescatarian angel and the vegetarian angel that were sitting on my shoulders had smacked their foreheads and declared defeat of saving my belly from the evils of meat. When I was a heavy carnivore, I wanted my meats to be well done. Well, I chose to have a medium well cut of the fraldinha. Needless to say, I enjoyed it. This is more popular in Southern Brazil, and I remember stuffing myself senselessly with some of it after a capoeira ceremony in Bahia. Yes, it was better that I had partaken of this after hand stands, backward flips, cartwheels, and round-houses. I would have split my pants or landed with a thump otherwise. But at Fogo de Chão I simply had to fan myself to stave off the sweat from working so hard on the constant cuts of meat, mashed potatoes, rolls, and baked bananas.

Meat

In keeping with dining on beef primarily, I requested a cut of the alcatra. It was at this point that the previously mentioned angels were sparring behind my back. This is my favourite. I have been to all the other churrascarias in the city — Texas de Brazil, Sal y Carvão, and Brazzaz — and whatever attempts they have made at alcatra seemed to fall into the okay category. There is no want for a cigarette afterwards. There’s no silence, which is an indication that the food is working magic on you. There is no Wow! Much like me wanting the picanha all to myself, the alcatra invokes that same sensation.

Meat

Rounding out my choices of meats was a cut of filet mignon. Growing up, filet mignon was always presented as bacon wrapped around ground beef. Who thought that was a brilliant idea? For my Brazilian dining experience, I opted for a medium rare cut. Now, usually when I have ever asked for any meat to be medium rare, the cow was still protesting. My appetite would have a quick pace running far from the restaurant. At Fogo de Chão the medium well cut of filet mignon was a tender piece of juicy meat that did not squirt or squirm. I worked my knife and fork on it like those actors in commercials who smile for the camera. But more than smiling, I actually ate the meat and I had no remorse, even for my pescatarian sensibilities.

Flan

After about two hours of flipping the coaster back and forth over to alert the gauchos to bring meat and to stop bringing meat, it was time to stop the meat odyssey and polish the palate with some dessert. I have mentioned in past posts that I could put any cornfed Iowa Bart or Indiana Billy Joe Bob to shame at the dinner table and desert number one of three was a case study of that. The flan was creamy like the flans I loved from Santo Domingo. As much as I love flan, my blood pressure cannot say the same. But I am not a “yes” man to constantly working my teeth on the delectable dessert every time the option presents itself. Pause. Okay, it’s most of the time that I concede to my want and gnash away on flan without complaint.

Pastel de Tres Leches

However, I shall not forget about the tres leches cake. Having had a slice of it from a restaurant a few months ago where I swear they poured a whole carton of milk on the cake, turned the carton upside down, and then hit the carton from the bottom to get the last drops out of it, the pastel de tres leches at Fogo de Chão had a texture not of drowned cake. Enjoyed with some cafezinho, coffee, I can say with certainty that everything was okay in the land. To be honest, let me stop pulling your leg and just say that I was drunk from too much eating. Not one for turning into a jester, had I been at home, I would have danced, sang, and put on a performance. Food, glorious food.

Chocolate Molten Cake, Ice Cream

The award for most gluttonous eater of 2012 goes to, none other than, Gino Williams. The chocolate molten cake with a dollop of vanilla ice cream under a drizzle of chocolate was the coup de grace. Here is where we had Gino on the floor. There is a restaurant in downtown Chicago called Grand Lux Cafe that has the best molten chocolate cake in the whole world. The cake at Fogo de Chão runs a very close second. I had been sitting for three hours filling my jaws and the act of standing was not an option. Having to move about was impossible. It was bad enough that I had to force myself to lean over so I could retrieve my wallet to pay the tab. But standing up and realizing that I was bent over like a geriatric was all anyone needed to see to know that I had shed my British polishing for being a thoroughly satisfied food brute.

My running joke is that Fogo de Chão is indeed a lazy buffet, as all you have to do is sit while the gauchos tempt you with all the various choices of meats. There are the side dishes, but the whole churrascaria experience is worth the trip. You may find other churrascarias in the city, but the one that you may find yourself frequenting is Fogo de Chão, hands down. One thing to note is that the price may grow a few grey hairs in your head, in your beard if you’re bald. Go for lunch instead, when the prices are not as cha-ching as the dinner prices. But make sure it is during a half day at work because eating too much will result in a dire need to go to sleep afterwards. Another thing is that it would be a crime to go to the restaurant if you are not one for eating meat. The salad bar panders to the vegetarian and pescatarian palates wonderfully. Still, the constant view of meat would tempt even a staunch vegan. As for me, I think I gained enough weight to keep my word to my high school sweetheart. But that was not enough. She called and told me that she lost a few more pounds. Looks like I will be getting up to 220 pounds by the beginning of the New Year. My resolution will be to stop making pacts, but it won’t be to stop eating like a bottomless culinary fanatic.

Fogo de Chão on Urbanspoon

Most Important Meal of the Day

Blue Max

From most of my posts, you already know that I have a love affair with the fooderies — there’s my made-up word — in Oak Park, Illinois. As of late, when I have had coffee after dinner at Oak Park restaurants, it occurred to me that it was not Folgers, Maxwell House, imported Starbucks, or some variation of an attempt on coffee. My coffee snobbery is rather limited, but I know that when I can drink a cup of coffee with cream and not add any sugar, something is quite right with how the coffee is brewed. Or, like Ethiopian coffee, the beans are of a greater quality. It was after one of my dining excursions that I inquired what brand of coffee they were serving. Blue Max was the response. And having had a friend tell me about Blue Max Coffee in Forest Park, Illinois, at 26 Lathrop Avenue, it was time for me to go to the source.

LatteA beautiful Saturday morning with a clear sky, a mild breeze, and trees so vibrant with colours that they looked like they were on fire, I found a parking space in front of Blue Max Coffee and was ready to enjoy some of the best coffee that I have had in the Chicago metropolitan area. And I was going to have some breakfast while I was at it. But let me set the stage. Blue Max Coffee is inside of a house. You do not enter a restaurant. No, you enter a house that has been converted into what some would liken to a bed and breakfast. I sat in the family room across from Paul Bunyan and Professor Pete on one end and Mr. and Mrs. Loving on the other end. Much like pubs and small cafes in Europe, there is a bit of a familiarity among the customers and a lot of comfort, as the patrons who were at Blue Max when I went engaged me in conversation once my camera came out the bag. You would have thought we all lived on the same street, seeing that conversation flowed with such ease.

BreakfastFor my breakfast option, I ordered a Belgian waffle with a side of summer fruit — orange slice, honey-dew melon, and cantaloupe — and eggs scrambled with cream cheese. I was a bit surprised to see the scramble egg sitting atop the waffle, thinking perhaps I was supposed to cut into both at the same time and commence my devouring act. I gobbled the summer fruit and then placed the scrambled eggs on the side so that I could mix in the cream cheese and add pepper. Happiness. Rapture. Bliss. Love. Fresh eggs with my chosen cheese and a waffle that didn’t have that “box” taste to it, I was a rather pleased man. But the winner was the cup of latte. Hello, lover! Where have you been all my life? Several months ago I had a latte from one of those “big box,” staple coffee houses that may be found on every corner in downtown Chicago — hint, hint — and it was both burnt and bitter. How do you mess up a latte like that? There was not enough sugar that I could add to murder the burnt and acrid taste. In the same vein of my last experience with McDonald’s, Burger King, and the plethora of fast food thingies, it may be that my body craves for finer things and it was time for me to upgrade my taste in coffee to something that is neither quick nor excessively surplus. The latte at Blue Max Coffee was the complete antithesis of that cup of horror I had several months pass. The mark of a good cup of coffee is when you can drink it without any sweetener. I was beside myself with satisfaction. And it was then that I understood why so many of the local restaurants and cafes in Oak Park support Blue Max Coffee. It is a guarantee to keep customers returning, such was the case watching the constant line of customers who were coming for dining in and for take-away.

MochaGranted my first visit was a rather surreal experience with the comfort of the staff and other patrons being so welcoming and conversational, I made plans to return for another visit. The saying goes, “It’s never as good as the first time,” but that does not mean you should not try to see if any subsequent time is indeed better. So that was exactly what I decided to do. The next Saturday, I had my alarm clock set so that I could awake early enough to get dressed and out of the condo in time to return to Blue Max for a second round of breakfast. Remembering how the restaurant filled up quickly and had a continuous tide of patrons, I recognized that if I wanted to get a seat, it would be in my best interest to arrive shortly after the doors open. Again, there were Paul Bunyon and Professor Pete sitting in what I assume to be their usual area engaged in animated, sitcom-style discussions about politics and economics.

Switching things up a bit, but not that much, I had a cafe mocha. Much like the latte that I had ordered the previous weekend, there was no need for any sweetener. Not that I will ever order a regular coffee to see if it will bite me at the jaw line, I must admit that specialty coffees at Blue Max seem to be dandy sans sugar. Thanks to Blue Max Coffee, I can get my hands around several cups of coffee that satisfy my palate the way the latte and the cafe mocha did.

Scrambled Eggs with Cream Cheese

My breakfast option on my second visit was also not that much different, as I ordered pancakes. They were chocolate chip pancakes and while I think the chocolate chips would be better on or in a crispy Belgian waffle, I did not have to put any syrup on the pancakes, as I smeared the melted chocolate chips across the three pancakes in the stack that I had. Not appetizer size and not substantial, three pancakes in the morning along with a cup of coffee can be more filling than one may want to admit. It may also have been the scrambled eggs with cream cheese that had me stuffed a little more quickly than I had anticipated. The waitress had a quizzical look on her face when I had said I wanted the cream cheese mixed with the scrambled eggs. Many are so accustomed to cheddar cheese or American cheese that something different sounds a bit “out in space.” In addition to the plate of scrambled eggs with cream cheese, she brought a smile because my unique order had given her a cheese option for her scrambled eggs.

Pancakes and FruitWith a few words of banter with Paul and Pete, a satisfying cup of mocha, and a filling breakfast, the second Saturday was off to a good start. I cannot say that I will photograph coffee and food every Saturday at Blue Max Coffee, but I will become a regular, if only for the coffee. There are pastry options that I eyed briefly, but had not thought to entertain because I wanted to sample their breakfast fare. One thing I can admit with certainty is that the only coffee I can say I enjoy aside from Ethiopian coffee at one of my favourite, local haunts and what I also brew at my condo, you are guaranteed to smile with each sip of liquid love from Blue Max Coffee. Inexpensive. Fabulous service. Good food. Yes, I have already made a date for a third visit. I wonder if Paul Bunyon and Professor Pete will be there when I return for my next round.

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