Thai Language and Food Course

Coconut Shrimp

Coconut Shrimp

Today was one of those days when all I wanted was to be outside and away from the condo. The previous week was blocked with the beginning stages of the renovation on my hallway bathroom. After five years of living in the condo, it is time for me to grow up. Although the complete renovation of my condo unit will be over the period of a few years, it is necessary. And as my neighbourhood is starting to feel the introduction of gentrification, property value will increase and it will be a good idea for me to upgrade my condo accordingly. But back to my original thought, I needed to escape so that cabin fever did not have me inside having a panic attack.

I had covered a lot of ground in terms of restaurants that I had wanted to post and there are still some that I am holding off for later dates — special dates that have meaning and significance. A lot of time had passed since I was last in Hyde Park — or rather New Hyde Park now after seeing so much change — so I made that my destination. Thankful for good parking karma, I secured a spot not far from my favourite Thai restaurant in Hyde Park. Thai 55 at 1607 55th Street was my stopping ground for putting my feet under the table for some aroy Thai. Now, I know that I have Thai restaurants galore on Chicago Alphabet Soup, but that is one cuisine I doubt I will ever tire of eating. Besides, it was Thai food that became my main staple when I was bringing my high cholesterol down — successfully — without medication. But for today, I was also going to see my great pheụ̄̀xn — friend — Wongchana for our usual discussion about politics, faulty religion, community awareness, and social consciousness. At the same time, I got to rehearse my Thai.

Basil Chicken

Basil Chicken

First, to get the tummy ready, I ordered ginger tea. This was not tea in the bag, no. This was a pot of chopped ginger root that I let steep in boiling water for at least five minutes. The kick of the ginger was all I needed to know that I was preparing my stomach for a good lunch. For an appetizer, I had coconut shrimp with a spicy plum sauce. Any time I have had shrimp that looked as plump as what I had, it turned out to be a morsel of shrimp hidden inside of a ridiculously thick façade of crust. That was not the case here. Then came the basil chicken. My common Thai entrée preference has always been a curry dish, be it gang dang gai, panang goong, or gang gari gai. Clearly I was in a different mode today, although sticking with a spicy dish. Thai chillies, red and green peppers, shredded cabbage, and ground chicken simmering in a slightly sweet — not saccharine — brown gravy made my lunch moment worthy of this blog posting. Served with jasmine rice, I was quite satisfied for settling for this option.

While my friend and I sat and talked, and oh can we talk, out came a dessert of fried banana with a light caramel glaze. They had read my mind. You know that you have established more than just a customer-client relationship with a restaurant, but you have formed a family bond instead when the wait staff knows a certain dish or dessert to bring to you. Mind you, my two favourite Thai desserts are sticky rice with mango and Thai custard. Nevertheless, I polished off the fried banana and ginger tea while giving my conspiracy theory about the Benghazi disaster and how I think that private contract firms have no business involved in managing national security interests.

Fried Banana

Fried Banana

Thai 55 may be one of my all-time favourite Thai restaurants in Chicago for sentimental reasons. As I had mentioned, this was where I started learning to speak Thai. I thank my great friend Wongchana for that. Imagine an African-Caribbean man such as me speaking something more exotic and fascinating than my own mother tongues. Because of the close relationship I have with all who work at Thai 55, it is unfair for me mention how great the service is. To me, it is simply outstanding by default. The quality of food is the next big item I seek in restaurants and I have never had a dish at Thai 55 that I found displeasing to my palate. It sounds rather fantastic saying that especially after close to, if not more than, ten years of being a regular patron of thier cuisine. But don’t just take my word for it. Go and discover for yourself that all is good and aroy at Thai 55.

Pee Chaai

Thai 55th Restaurant on UrbanspoonThai 55th Restaurant on Foodio54

Your Love Deserves an Encore

During my high school days, there was a singer by the name of Cheryl Lynn. You may remember her songs “Got to Be Real,” “Shake It Up Tonight,” and “Star Love.” Here we had a woman with the pipes of an angel and who could stand flat-footed at the microphone and belt out a song without any studio magic — or that awful auto-tune phenomenon — to cover up poor vocal talents. And she did not shake her rump like she was performing in a Bollywood video. I loved the songs that Cheryl Lynn graced the airwaves with. But there was one song in particular that I played endlessly when I had first heard it. “Encore.” Your good loving deserves an encore, she would sing. And when I find myself returning to certain restaurants, I am reminded of how much “Encore” applies and I all but bring my own microphone and perform for others at the restaurants.

Lobster Gyoza

Earlier during the summer I went to a relatively new restaurant in Oak Park, Illinois, named Seven Ocean. Sitting at 122 N. Marion Street in the cobblestone stretch among boutiques and cafes, I was thoroughly impressed with the dining experience and the service I had received. Granted I had a prix fixe meal along with a wine pairing, I walked away feeling that the summer menu was absolutely brilliant and the chef will make a mark in the culinary world if the restaurant continues to perform with an air of high calibre affectation. Now that the temperatures had started to become consistently chilly, that being autumn was in the air, I wondered if Seven Ocean was one of those restaurants that changed their menus to be reflective of the seasons. The answer, in short, was yes and there was, of course, the tune in my head of Cheryl Lynn singing my favourite song.

While having a quick stroll through Oak Park and having stopped in at a nearby dessert shop for a quick cup of coffee, I sauntered over to Seven Ocean and allowed the magnet to pull me on in completely. Although there were no comfy sofas and chaises placed strategically throughout the restaurant, there was the sound of boutique jazz playing in the background that made everything that more inviting. I still think that the design was done per a man. The straight lines and muted olive earth tones were nothing akin to flash, flair, reds, and curves. The aesthetics of the restaurant are too stiff, and that may be why the food is the antithesis of the cosmetics of the restaurant. Talk about a well-placed balance. Because I had sampled the summer fare from the prix fixe menu, I settled for creating my own menu selection.

Seaweed Salad

Often I like to request recommendations from the server as to what he or she would prefer. That works brilliantly at times, but it is a bit of a presumptuous thought that the servers know exactly what I want and will suggest bill of fare items without me wincing. Many times, I do believe they have been so worked to near spiritual defeat during their work hours that they appreciate someone requesting his or her own meal. There are moments when you can hear the sigh from servers as though air is being released from a deflating tire when you lead in with, “What would you recommend?” In restaurants where the faces change rather quickly, it helps knowing what you want before the server approaches the table to take the order. Having witnessed some fed-up servers make recommendations in a manner fitting for a saucy comedy club sketch, I showed a bit of a command for what I think is best for my palate — I should be an expert on my own taste.

Coconut Soup

My approach to the meal was to delight a multi-course meal with a pescatarian fare. I started with lobster stuffed gyoza. Japanese style gyozas filled with lobster, sitting atop shiso leaves and red cabbage, and glazed with a ponzu sauce was absolutely a great choice for a starter. The gyozas gave an Asian influence to the appetizer and perhaps had there been only one gyoza and I was at an Italian trattoria, I could have called it a l’amuse bouche. Alas, there was nothing left of the gyozas after a few slow minutes of me slicing, forking, and indulging. A few minutes passed and then there was the second course, a seaweed salad. Seaweed may not look all that appetizing when you are snorkelling, but Japanese seaweed, cucumber, sesame, and vinegar dressing never tasted so divine. The seaweed had the texture of well-cooked, thin green beans and the vinegar dressing entertained a citrus flavouring that would leave most questioning whether there was any vinegar in the dressing at all. There is something to be said for a salad looking so bland having such a bloom to its taste. Again, here was another course that had an Asian influence to it that did not fail.

In keeping with a Thai appeal, there was coconut soup. I was already quite enthralled with the first two courses, but the coconut soup as the autumn soup went over so well that I did not miss anything in the pumpkin or yam family doctored up with a hint of cinnamon, a dash or nutmeg, or a touch of allspice. There were crab meat, shimeji mushrooms, and tobiko that arrive in a bowl and then covered with steamed coconut milk. If you have ever been to a Thai restaurant, I guess I could relate the soup to tom kha. You may have recognized from my many posts on Thai restaurants where I have been that I have a very strong preference for foods influenced by Thai culture. The pairing of the herbs and spices in the recipes never fall short of works of culinary care, evident in the high notes of flavours in the dishes served. That same notion became apparent after a whiff of the coconut soup at Seven Ocean, well before the first sip. Also with the soup, I had a Sauvignon Blanc from a vineyard in New Zealand. Neither dry nor sweet, there was a hint of a floral note that made the wine a superb complement with the soup. I could not have offered a better wine suggestion and this was where I deferred to my server for an ideal selection of wine to accompany the meal.

Prawn Yakisoba

By the time I was finished with the soup, I had convinced myself that nothing could possibly go wrong. Then the prawn yakisoba over Asian cabbage accented with soba sauce and fish flake that moved its own from the rising heat, came to the table. I had started singing “Encore” by Cheryl Lynn off key, making up words for the lyrics that I could not remember, humming the song in other parts, doing a little dance with my eyes closed, and then opening my eyes to see that some other customers and my server were staring at me. The prawn yakisoba was absolutely fantastic, but I had to deal with my embarrassment however I saw fit. It was just that in the meantime, the succulent, well-seasoned shrimp had a wow factor along with the noodles in the rich sauce. Another glass of the Sauvignon Blanc and there was no argument that the prawn yakisoba became, at that moment, my all-time favourite autumn dish. Realizing that I had already made a fool of myself with my singing and dancing, and I could not go back in time to catch myself, I began humming again. This time, I kept it low enough that no one could hear me.

When I first went to Seven Ocean, I had a dessert of sticky rice with mango and crème fraiche. During the evening of my most recent jaunt, I had a different take on the dessert. There was sticky rice but topped with a mango sorbet and then there was a moat of light mango soufflé around the scoop of sorbet. Brilliant, I thought to myself, as I enjoyed the magic of each spoonful. When the dessert was mentioned, I initially thought that I was going to have the same dessert I had during my first visit. Part of my misunderstanding was because I was still bandying the song “Encore” around in my mind while the server was telling me about the dessert. Oh was I glad I decided to have it instead of coffee. If someone were to ask me to define love, I would tell them to got to Seven Ocean and request the autumn version of dessert.

Mango Sorbet and Souffle Over Coconut Sticky Rice

So, after all was done, I was very happy that I had gone to Seven Ocean for a sampling of the autumn menu. It was not only a meal, but it was an experience. Like all of the restaurants where I have returned for more than one visit, I was again taken in to the point where I made plans to return during the month of January or February to see what their winter menu will have for those who appreciate fine dining and something with an unconventional twist. Because Seven Ocean is up-scale, the price is reflective accordingly. The restaurant is not a showcase in fanfare or grandstanding. Simply put, the service and dining are smashing. Yes, Seven Ocean, your good loving deserves an encore.

Seven Ocean on Urbanspoon

Suit and Thai

Jin Thai Cuisine

Thai Iced TeaOne of the things about living in Chicago and having a job that requires occasional commuting to the suburbs and travel away from the city is that you lose a bit of your social life. Being stuck in traffic, a good part of your commute being done in second or third gear, and having to watch out for the ambitious drivers who rush to get to red lights and stop signs is never an enjoyable experience. Let me not get started with required travel that means you wake up in some hotel in a different time zone that wrecks your sleep and ultimately your body clock. It is impossible to have a social life and that can also become problematic for someone who has an aggressive appetite like I do. Then I bite down real hard and recognize that I have a mortgage to pay for the next twenty years. Of course, there are times when I am able to partake of some culinary adventures — albeit sometimes rushed because I am responding to some work related crisis — and I find great satisfaction in feeding my hunger monster some worthy ethnic food when I have a good stretch of free time in Chicago to enjoy the meals.

A few weeks ago I was passing through the North Side of Chicago on my way to my old neighbourhood in Rogers Park. On the way, there was a certain Thai restaurant that grabbed my attention. Seeing that it was empty, I figured I would go in and enjoy a nip of something before continuing to my old stomping ground. From what I could tell, the restaurant — Jin Thai Cuisine — at 5438 N. Broadway was relatively new. That had to be why there wasn’t a large crowd of patrons sitting around filling their jaws with the tasty Thai food that comes from the kitchen. During the first visit, I had ordered panang chicken that blew my mind and made my hunger monster spin out of control with bliss. From the first experience, there was no reason that I should not have returned and with my camera to capture the impression of the happiness that comes from their stove. So on my second visit, I went early and found the restaurant again light with customers. Having a window seat, I perused the menu — knowing that I was going to have an appetizer and a curry dish. I was ready for action, as always.

Kanom Buang

The waitress had warned me that the servings are large at Jin Thai Cuisine. She was not there when I went the first time, so she was not aware of how I pander to my appetite, even if it means handling large portions that others would find overwhelming. I started with a Thai iced tea and let me just say that I need to return and ask for the Jin Thai Cuisine recipe specifically. Of all the Thai iced teas I have had, this was the first time that it popped for me. There are now three refreshing drinks that I could imbibe endlessly — Jamaican june plum juice with ginger, Brazilian lemonade, and Jin Thai iced tea. This red tea with milk was worthy of high marks. Mind you, when I say this I am not merely giving a shameless plug. No, no, there is a great deal of satisfaction derived from sipping the Thai iced tea from Jin Thai Cuisine.

RotiFirst to the table was kanom buang. This was a rather large plate consisting of a crispy crepe stuffed with tofu, shrimp, coconut flakes, and bean sprouts. Served with it was a cucumber salad with a sweet and spicy dressing and a side salad that had mint in it. This plate was large enough to have been an entrée and I remembered the waitress saying that the portions were large. Considering the kanom buang was an appetizer, I thought that it would have been manageable. I managed to eat all of it, but she was not giving me a false statement when she had qualified her statement by saying that everything came in large portions. At first, the whole dish looked visually stunning, the colours bursting on the plate. Then I had the first bite and my eyes rolled towards the back of my head. Anyone who complains about never having any kind of personal pleasure should go to Jin Thai Cuisine and order this dish. No competing flavours, just everything allowed to shine as you sink your teeth into a delightful treat that could make the French turn their noses up with bitterness for someone making their delicacy sing like Valkyries.

I sat for a while before indulging an entrée. Remembering the bowl of panang chicken and jasmine rice from the first visit, I imagined the yellow curry chicken would be of similar size. Pause. And it was. But the rub with the yellow curry chicken is that it did not come with chopped Idaho potatoes in it. No, it had sweet potatoes. I am one for trying something different and when it is done correctly, there could be a break in the clouds, a ray of light shining down, and a chorus of angels singing. That was indeed the case with this bowl of yellow curry chicken. I do not think I want to have yellow curry prepared with white potatoes from this day forward. The sweet potatoes were not sweetened but their essence sweetened the curry sauce. Prepared Thai spicy style because I needed to burn out my allergies, I joined the aforementioned angels in song. Eaten with a plate of roti bread, there could have been an earthquake, people running through streets screaming, cars crashing into each other, and the winning lottery numbers in my possession, and I would not have cared. Well, let me not tell that lie about not caring about the winning lottery numbers. I may be a man with an easy appetite, but a fool is not a part of my fiber. I never would have thought that I could have had such a wonderful reaction from something as minimalist as changing up potatoes in a dish. And then I was reminded that my whole ethnic dining quests have been all about finding differences and varieties in my culinary experiences.

Yello Curry Chicken

Jin Thai Cuisine is one of those spots that I can see becoming a regular haunt for me. Yes, I know I say that in every post, which is indeed evident of me being a man with an incredibly easy appetite. There simply is no reason to shirk a restaurant that has outstanding service, delicious food, and low prices. Even if I tried, I could not come up with a reason why I should not return to Jin Thai Cuisine within the next few months at least four more times. If you live in the vicinity of the 5400 block of N. Broadway or you find yourself in that area, stop in and see for yourself. And now that I think of it, there may be a few evenings after work when I shall forego going home to get out of my work clothes and go have a suit and Thai moment at Jin Thai Cuisine.

Jin Thai on Urbanspoon

Lessons Learned: Reality and Food

There are a few things that I have come to recognize:

  • Chicago temperatures waffle in extremes — blusteringly cold or blisteringly hot.
  • Men serve women food in large portions.
  • Women serve men food in large portions.
  • Never stand in line behind a group of women who are ordering ice cream.
  • My appetite is out of control — rhetorical.

I had ventured out several weeks ago when the temperatures were not so blooming tropical, and I entertained what I termed Snacking on Saturday. The temperatures were a bit murderous today with the mercury rising into the 90’s and the humidity coating the city like a blanket. There was no need to stay in the condo and brood over the heat — we have had a whole month of uncomfortable temperatures — so I dressed lightly and decided to be about business of finding some food satisfaction.

I met with a friend early in the morning for breakfast at an Austrian cafe — Julius Meinl — that is east of where I live. The decision was an impromptu one so I had rushed out of the condo and left my camera. This marks the second time I have done something foolish like that when I know I will end up chastising myself. I had a great time slicing through crispy waffles and forking up tasty scrambled eggs. My lips curled up. My eyelids grew heavy — and it was 9:30 AM when we were busy indulging ourselves in breakfast.

Croissant, Petit Rum and Vanilla Bundt Cake

A little later in the morning I wanted something else yet light. By now, I had one of my many cameras. And in my neighbourhood is La Boulangerie at 2569 North Milwaukee Avenue. What a lovely little French bakery this is and satisfying as well, if I may add. The selection is rather small and I was quite okay with that after I had bitten into my croissant. It was apparent the thing had been baked early in the morning. Given it was not hot, as if right from the oven, it was so soft and airy on the inside, flaky and smile-inducing on the outside. I had also ordered a small rum and vanilla bundt cake. Oh happy day! La Boulangerie does not sell coffee, so I had gone next door to New Wave Cafe where all of the local and imported hippies congregate to discuss things that matter to them — and no one else can understand. The cappuccino there really had an effect on me that left me with a lasting impression that will, of course, mean I will return for cappuccino from there several more times.

After relaxing at home for a few hours, I had begun to get cabin fever. It was time to seek something else into which to sink my teeth. I remembered a certain Middle Eastern eatery I had stumbled upon in Chicago’s Near West Loop neighbourhood. I Dream of Falafel at 555 W. Monroe Avenue was it. For me, it was a reality, as I headed for the subway and went into downtown to put my feet under a table at the cafe. And here is where I came to the realization that women give men way more food than men give each other. I had a hankering from some sweet potato falafel and perhaps something else on the menu. I ordered a chicken schwerma — so not vegetarian of me — with peppers, lettuce, onions, and tahini sauce. The thing was so tasty that I was sprung like you will not believe. And because the sweet potato falafels are prepared on-demand, I had to wait. For my wait, the cashier — a very appealing young woman — gave me extra. Recognizing that this has been commonplace, in the future I shall let others go ahead of me whenever men are taking orders.

Chicken Schwerma

Roaming around downtown for a few hours, the humidity had begun to wear me down to almost spiritual defeat. I could have had soda, which would be full of aspartame or high fructose corn syrup, so I took a pass on that. Water would have worked, but I wanted flavour. Aha! I headed for the subway and went out to Oak Park to Taste of Brasil, my favourite Brazilian cafe, for some lemonade. But, Gino, to go all the way to Oak Park for some lemonade is ridiculous. You have to have some of it to understand. Absolutely refreshing and prepared with real lemons — none of that artificial mess laced with aspartame or high fructose corn syrup — and condensed milk. The lemonade was enough to make the heat unnoticeable. Well, not quite, but good enough to cool me off a little.

Towards the end of the day, I figured that I would wrap up my snacking expedition by having a small dinner, something akin to snack food. I was in Oak Park anyway, so I went to the downtown mall area to the best Venezuelan cafe outside of Venezuela and met up with some friends. Aripo’s Arepa House at 118 N. Marion Street was my destination. I ordered what is called a domino — an empanada stuffed with black beans and shredded white cheese, and served with a spicy dipping sauce that makes all of your worries disappear. It had never dawned on me to inquire what a domino really was. However, I was glad that I took a chance on the order because I will make a few more trips back just to buy some of those tasty wonder treats for snack food at home.

After joshing around with my friends for a while, we retired to a French pastry shop across the street from Apripo’s. Sugar Fixe at 119 N. Marion Street captures the essence of coffee and dessert as the French does. There were two desserts that stood out most: a chocolate mousse and a mango mousse with pineapple and coconut. I had recently baked a devil food cake with a Mexican hot chocolate ganache for the icing, so I opted for the citrus mousse. Satisfaction in a thousand languages or in the stupid smile that I usually wear after eating too much food is all that I say to describe the mousse. The cappuccino I had tasted like the cappuccino I have had abroad, all prepared with meticulous care. Again, Sugar Fixe is one of those pastry shops that prepares its desserts in small batches so that they do not get old or simply become display items because no one wants anything that has been sitting out for days and weeks on end.

Austrian Mango Mousse with Pineapple and Coconut

I did not make the promise to myself that I would not overeat. When it comes to food, the promise of behaving when it comes to the quantity that I indulge is not mandatory. I simply comply with my want. One thing I must say is that I will be glad when the temperatures return to a point where walking one to two blocks do not result in feeling like you have stood under a waterfall. There are some other locations in the city that I shall journal and I will simply have to be ready with camera in hand and appetite on hand.