Moroccan, Hairpin Arts Centre, Logan Square

Recently, while making some updates to Chicago Alphabet Soup, I crossed one of my earlier write-ups, one that I had done on a Moroccan restaurant named Andalous. It has since closed and not to sound gloomy in an exaggerated fashion, there was a pang of disappointment in the discovery. Andalous was the only Moroccan restaurant that I had found in Chicago — and I am sure there are many more since the first outing to the restaurant — but the food was outstanding and considering the owner took time out to explain a lot dishes to my friend and me, I was sold on the restaurant being a top recommendation to those near and who would visit from afar. I had visited Rabat, Marrakech, and Agadir, so I had a point of reference for authenticity for the dishes. Andalous did not disappoint on the first visit, but it’s closing was a shock.

Black and Green Olives

Black and Green Olives

So after continuing to refine posts on Chicago Alphabet Soup and reminiscing about Andalous, there arrived an email invitation in my inbox. It was for a dinner at the Hairpin Arts Centre at 2800 N. Milwaukee Avenue. Having lived in Logan Square since late 1995, I was not aware of any art centres in the area. Then again, work had required a lot of travel, which kept me jetting across the skies, across the oceans, and to destinations fun and exciting. Even when in Chicago, I was constantly in motion meeting with friends, dining at various restaurants, and relaxing so that I was not living my life in one day. Other than my condo and a few watering holes, I never paid much attention to any other locations in the neighbourhood. I figured the invitation would give me the opportunity to see the arts centre and indulge one of my favourite engagements — eating.

Hummus

Hummus

This was indeed a traditional affair. Christopher Turner, a butcher at The Butcher & Larder at 1026 N Milwaukee Avenue, was the chef. In true Moroccan form, we had to remove our shoes. The invitation had been extended to a fair amount of individuals, so there was a long table that we all sat around on pillows on the floor. I thought to myself that this was going to be a good evening. For starters, there were black and green olives that clearly did not come from a jar. There was also homemade hummus, quite noticeable with a bit of grit to the texture, a sure indication that it was not procured pre-made. With khobz, or Moroccan flatbread, the hummus was an appetizing highlight.

Khobz

Khobz

Because the lighting was relatively dim and we had to pass dishes in communal fashion, there were a few dishes that I did not get to capture any visual impressions of. There were carrots that had been prepared with spices and everyone devoured them to completion. There was also what is quickly becoming a favourite vegetable of mine, as well as the source for my red velvet cakes turning out properly red and moist — beets. Many times I have joked about how my grandmother’s spirit is rolling her eyes and declaring, “Now that boy decides that he loves beets.” I had been engaged in conversation with the individuals seated near me, so I had missed the explanation of how the carrots and beets were prepared. I will simply say that rabbit food prepared Moroccan style is not a bad thing.

Lamp Presentation Lamp Presentation Lamp Presentation

The first meat dish to come to the table was a beef tangine. I have been quite good with keeping seafood as the only meat in my diet, with a few occasions of falling off the wagon and sampling chicken or beef. With my decision to become a pescatarian being a personal decision, not religious or because of a detriment to my health or fad, I opted for a scoop of the beef tangine with baked apples. One, I am glad the beef was not tough. I used the kobhz to pick up the meat and noticed how tender it was to the touch. It was succulent to the bite. Second, the seasoning of cloves and cinnamon made it that more tasty and the gravy added a richness that I must admit captured the beef tangine I had in Morocco many years ago. The apples and raisins in the dish allowed for a natural sweetness to the gravy to lessen any acidity in the recipe. The table that initially was a burst of conversation was accented with quiet.

Harissa

Harissa

Now, there was not going to be meat only, so there was fennel served with the beef tangine. Whenever I have had fennel, it has been in salads and such that any flavouring it could offer would be faint. I do not like licorice, Sam I Am, I do not like it. However, fennel served without anything else being in the way of flavour has a distant licorice highlight to it. I love fennel. How can this be? It’s as bad as me hating peanuts while having an addiction to peanut butter cookies at the same time. Yes, I am an enigma, one who appreciates a plate of smile-inducing fennel.

Beef Tangine

Beef Tangine

Once the course of beef tangine and fennel was cleared, we had an intermiso of pomegranate juice with rose-water and mint. Aside from the rose-water being added, the drink reminded me of hibiscus tea or kakade that I loved during my trips to Alexandria, Egypt. Rose water seems to be a common addition to some beverages and desserts in the Mediterranean, so I can only imagine there being an influence in Moroccan recipes. As soon as I find some market in the Chicago metropolitan area that sells rose-water, I will prepare my own concoctions of liquid happiness. The second intermiso was a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice with rose blossom water, served in a glass with cinnamon and sugar around the rim. If this isn’t a summer drink, I cannot tell you what is. I am adding rose blossom water to my list of ingredients for my summer beverages.

Merguez and  Couscous

Merguez and Couscous

We waited for well over fifteen minutes before the next course came to the table. This allowed for bellies to settle without being inundated with more tasty food immediately. Conversation was lively, new names were introduced that I won’t recall but whose faces I will remember, and anticipation was full in the air. Then came merguez and couscous. I had given in with the previous course and indulged the beef, so I forewent the merguez. Those who were seated near me raved about how they loved the chicken and lamb sausage. It definitely sounded like a winner and their facial expressions indicated so in the affirmative. I did enjoy the couscous, which had a citrus flavouring to it. What I loved most about the couscous was that it wasn’t of the consistency of mushy rice or sticky grits. I was reminded of cornbread dressing without the soupiness of it sitting in broth. Had I partaken of some merguez, I bet the dish would have been several notches past the 10 that I had already given it.

Mint Tea and Dessert

Mint Tea and Dessert

After the finale of merguez and couscous, there were desserts and traditional mint tea. The chef for the evening was honest enough to inform us all that the desserts were catered courtesy a bakery named M Desserts. Anyone who has had any desserts from the Middle East, you know that there is a high level of intricacy to the design and baking process. You cannot whip up some batter, put it on baking sheets, bake for some length of time at some set temperature, and serve as if you were some master baker. There is a science to desserts from the North African/Middle Eastern/Mediterranean part of the world. I shall have to find M Bakery. Nevertheless, there was an array of pastries, and cookies, all sweet and full of nuts the way they are prepared and served in Morocco. And we could not have any of those desserts without some mint tea served traditionally in a glass, from which you have to use the tips of your fingers to hold the glass by the rim and sip.

Relaxation

Most of the guests were personal friends of the guest chef. They described him as being great as a butcher. Although I have never been to the shop where he works, I would venture to say that his chef talents probably put his chop-chop skills to shame. It is unfair for me to say that what I had transported me back to my visits to Morocco, but I will say that the food would be worthy of return visits to any restaurant where he was the master chef. I hope that his volunteer chef work for the evening will help towards raising awareness about the Hairpin Arts Centre. Considering I have lived in Logan Square for years and have passed the building where the arts centre resides, the absence of a moniker or any advertisements have resulted in me constantly passing by a significant part of the Logan Square landscape. I would hope to see more coming out of and going into the Hairpin Arts Centre, and I would gladly support Christopher Turner if he were to take his talents up a notch along the lines of culinary arts.

Armenian, Siunik and Oberweis — Oh, Be Wise

Note: Suinik Armenian Grill has moved to 1707 Chestnut Avenue in Glenview, Illinois.

Last year there were some weekends that had such great weather that I took advantage of riding my bicycle through several neighbourhoods without succumbing to dehydration. The fun thing with the bike rides was going down side streets and happening upon various little hidden coves of cafés and boutiques. When driving and when riding public transit, you see everything from the main road. Hidden gems down residential streets and around corners never pass the eyes such that you register their presence. I missed those discoveries. And earlier this year, I found Skokie, Illinois, to have several points of interest that no one brings to life in discussion. One spot that jumped out at me when I had gone to Skokie for Afghani and then again for Jamaican food was a certain Armenian grill.

Siunik

Siunik Armenian Grill has a bit of that Chipotle “thing” going. But the authenticity in the flavouring of the food will soon make you forget that Chipotle exists. At 4639 Oakton Street in Skokie, Siunik Armenian Grill serves up some “real” Armenian tastes. All the other Armenians who continuously poured in will co-sign on that observation. I had a chicken kebab plate. The spiced chicken looked as though it could have been dry but when you bit down into each piece and it exploded with juice, I gave up on judging books by their covers. And the couscous with mushrooms puts the generic couscous that Middle Eastern fast food eateries serve to shame. There must be a marinade to the mushrooms because it was not merely a case of biting into something with texture. It was all about sinking teeth into a recipe that had been prepared to tradition. The two pedestrian items that I had were cabbage salad and bread. The cabbage salad reminded me of slaw without the mayonnaise – and I was happy all the same without it. But then there was the hummus. Again, this was not a menu item that was simply added to the bill of fare because everyone is serving hummus. Even after having skimmed the paprika and cilantro off the top with a scoop of the bread, there was so much bloom in the recipe that I ordered some to go.

Armenian Chicken Plate

Armenian Chicken Plate

When I was all done, I headed North into Skokie in search of some ice cream. In the Chicago metropolitan area, ice cream parlours are generally taken over by teenagers and tweens who giggle and embed the word “like” between every other word they use in sentences. And that’s before, during, and after ordering their ice cream. Yet I still burn for some creamy treats on occasion and I endure the torture of giggling, indecisiveness, and excessive use of “like.” What should be nearby but an Oberweis creamery at 4811 Dempster Street. It had to have been divine because the ice cream parlour was absent of the giggle-like nightmare. I ordered a fudge sundae with cookies and cream and espresso cappuccino for my two scoops. I was so very, very, incredibly, magnificently, stupendously happy. I guess it goes without saying that I was also bordering on food comatose.

Double Scoop Sundae

Double Scoop Sundae

Much like sections of Chicago proper, immediate neighbouring suburbs also have a few locations that go unnoticed. It takes a casual drive or a long stroll through some areas to find these areas where tradition meets culinary delights. It very well could be that tourism is not the target import and so there is no advertisement to draw larger crowds to these gems. However, you do find those representative of the ethnicities present and that is always an indication that the restaurants reflect the “old country” proper. I have passed by several locations that flashed by my peripheral and have considered returning for longer gazes to see what would tempt the palate. Had I not done just that this past weekend, I never would have had some of the most delicious Armenian.

Siunik Armenian Grill on Urbanspoon Siunik Armenian Grill on Foodio54

Algerian, Zebda

Zebda

It was a Saturday afternoon in Chicago and the temperatures had warmed up enough that going outside was mandatory — for the following day would come and the temperature would be frosty or the weather would be bleak and rainy. With such great weather to enjoy, what better way to round out a fantastic afternoon than to add a little spice. A little North African spice was perfect. After a break from going to various ethnic eateries in Chicago due to being abroad on personal holiday, I was looking forward to putting my feet under some table and getting fed. Destination: Zebda.

Harrira

Harrira

Located at 4344 N. Elston Avenue in Chicago’s Old Irving Park neighbourhood, Zebda looks like a minimalist deli that has nothing to offer except for an empty store-front. But looks can be surprising, as cliché as that sounds. I had ordered from Zebda before on GrubHub.com, so I knew that what was on the menu was a very small sample of what was on the entire bill of fare. The owner, who was a jolly yet reserved guy, greeted me a bit stiffly until I let some French slip during my greeting — proper French, not cuss words — and then it was on.

Zebda is primarily in the business for take-away orders and for delivery. There are only two tables in the deli, but that was okay. There was a true hole-in-the-wall feel to the place as a result of the limited seating. So it was off to one of the tables for business. I had ordered a harrira, which is a traditional soup that Moroccans and those influenced by Moroccan cuisine partake. The first time I ever had harrira was courtesy a friend’s sister when I was in Morocco many years ago. I had fallen in love with the soup then and, of course, have tasted a fair share of attempts from restaurants at it. Then I have some at Zebda and I am addicted fully. I was absolutely pleased after the first sip when it was apparent that the cook had not held back on the spices. I loved it, absolutely loved it.

Couscous Crusted Salmon

Couscous Crusted Salmon

Instead of rushing my main dish out after seeing that I had only finished half of the bowl of soup, the owner had conversation with me instead. He told me about how the deli has been in business for a few years and how they are accommodating the palates of those from Morocco, Algeria, the whole of the Mediterranean, and North Africans who have lived in France. Noticing the passing faces and the languages spoken in the area where the restaurant is, it was clear to see that there is a heavy concentration of North Africans in the Old Irving Park area, not along Broadway where there is a solid concentration of Western and Eastern Africans. The owner went on to give me the meaning behind the word zebda and how it is used among Algerians in France as a term of endearment. Sweet, I thought to myself, nothing like going into an establishment to spend your money and you get treatment like you are family. I loved it and coupled with the fact that the soup was a bowl of heaven, the ease of interaction with which the owner had with me made my decision to return that much easier for me.

But the catalyst that sealed my decision to go back to Zebda was the entrée that I had ordered. As I had mentioned earlier, I had ordered from Zebda on GrubHub.com, which meant I had an awareness that I was going to have something way past delicious delivered to my table. I was not prepared to be wowed the way that I was. Couscous crusted salmon served over julienne carrots and zucchini. After the first bite, I could have taken off running down the street with a stupid smile on my face for no reason other than I had tasted something so addictive that I can now put a physical description on the word addictive. There are restaurants that under-cook salmon until it is practically sushi with a quick flame set to it and there are some restaurants that cook salmon until you know it is indeed dead. Then you have Zebda who cooks the salmon enough that it has a crust but it is still tender, flaky, and juicy. Add to that julienne carrots and zucchini that have been flavoured just right and not such that you will need blood pressure medicine or an up in your current blood pressure medication. When the owner asked me if the food was okay, he had this smirk on his face as though he knew he had me by the nose after the second bite. I smiled and nodded my head to acknowledge my satisfaction. The owner responded with a wider smile and, ‘Thank you.”

After Meal Tea

After Meal Tea

When I finished the entree and sat for a while, the owner approached and offered me tea — on the house. More and more I am finding that it is not just me clicking away with any one of my high-end cameras that gets me something extra or an item coming up missing on my final tab. It has to be me engaging the owners and/or staff in conversation as well as enjoying the food and their service. A limitless palate and an open mind are necessary ingredients for a recipe in top customer satisfaction. But back to the tea. The tea was peppermint tea served with the mint leaves in it. And having a familiarity with North African culture, mint tea is not just merely for drinking, but it is a symbol of hospitality and tradition. Small things like the offering of tea makes my visits to restaurants and eateries like Zebda worth the trips. Even my British sentiments, that which loves tea, enjoyed every sip.

Zebda has a fantastic menu and for those whose palates delight in tastes from North Africa and the Mediterranean, you will find great pleasure in partaking in the wonders of Zebda’s kitchen. The brick and mortar establishment is small and it really does have only two tables — three chairs — so going with a large party is not an option. The service was top, the price was a sure invitation back, and the food was super. For those of you who are vegetarian, North African food will hit the spot. Let Zebda take care of that for you.

9 April 2011

Zebda on Urbanspoon