See Gino, See Gino Eat, C Chicago

C Chicago

Earlier this year a great friend and I went to a popular seafood restaurant in Chicago’s River North neighbourhood. The name showed up in countless reviews as being one of the best in the city. My friend and I enjoyed the presentation and the atmosphere. The food was comme ci, comme ça. When my friend mentioned a seafood restaurant that opened recently in River North I thought of our experience at the “hyped up” restaurant. Well, C Chicago at 20 W. Kinzie Street did not fail us.

Lobsterscargot

Lobsterscargot

We started with a dish that you can share — lobstercargot. This was C Chicago’s take on escargot, but with lobster instead. It had been prepared lumache style. Brought to the table and polated atop crostinis, you could smell the garlic. There were six morsels that set the tone for the rest of the evening.

King Crab Bisque

King Crab Bisque

My friend and I are fans of bisques at seafood restaurants. Much like me, she loves it more when there is no bacon in the recipe. C Chicago again excels by not going below the Mason-Dixon Line with the king crab bisque. The servers bring a bowl to the table with charred corn, peppers, and croutons in the shape of cut calamari. And there at the table, they pour the bisque. The presentation pales in comparison to the delicious flavour.

King Crab Claw

King Crab Claw

My friend loves king crab. With it being in season, she ordered a claw. Much of the claw had been cracked while there was still a little work to be done at the table. From what I could see, there was quite a bit of meat inside. My friend’s expressions of food bliss were all I needed to know that this was a splendid culinary option.

Dover Sole

As to the main dishes, C Chicago tilts the scale well beyond a 10 out of 10. The dover sole is filleted at the table, leaving you with some extremely meaty fish that is then accented with a brown butter drizzle. The saucepan of brown butter is left in case you wish to add more. Honestly, the fish was delectable without the brown butter.

Salmon

The salmon, which is usually prepared rare, but medium well during our visit, was indescribably mouth-watering. Accompanied with salmon roe and a verjus vinaigrette, the only thing missing was a slice of bread to go around the plate afterwards. From the seafood options that we had, it was evident that C Chicago is vying to have its name on the list of top seafood restaurants in Chicago.

Key Lime Pie

Key Lime Pie

Chocolate Ganache Cake

Chocolate Ganache Cake

With there being no rush, we waited before having dessert. There was key lime pie, which came as a dome atop a graham cracker crust. There was no “surprise bite” at the back of the jaw and the pie was not sweet in the excessive sense. There was a proper balance that actually made it possible to taste lime, not lime flavouring. The decadent dessert for the evening was a chocolate ganache cake. This looked like the dainty chocolate cakes I’ve had at several bakeries, cakes with cornbread texture. The chocolate ganache cake at C Chicago was “moyse” — yes, I spelled that incorrectly. Served with strawberries, a raspberry sauce, and a white chocolate sauce, we enjoyed this thoroughly with coffee.

Those who have been in Chicago for many years may remember Keefer’s Steakhouse that was at the corner of Kinzie Street and Dearborn Street. Well, Keefer’s had closed in 2014 and C Chicago since replaced the restaurant. I cannot speak for the menu offerings that the predecessor had, but I can attest that the successor was a thoroughly satisfying experience. I have a witness, my great friend, who can also tell you how the food at that certain restaurant I mentioned earlier had made us start questioning seafood restaurants in the River North area that received way too much press on atmosphere and not necessarily on the food.

C Chicago Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Seafood Bonanza, Shaw’s Crab House

Cranberry Juice

Cranberry Juice

For those of you reading this, I hope that you are at home or at some location where the temperatures are not as hateful as the temperatures in Chicago. As much as 2014 promised to be a good year, the Arctic temperatures have been prohibitive for going outside. By now, I would have gone to at least four restaurants and blogged them, but by the time I pack up to leave work during the week, my focus is on going home to get into my sweats and fuzzy bear claws. Yes, I have a pair of those. And the weekends seem to be candidates for sub-zero temperatures and mini blizzards. However, I simply cannot sit inside all the time. During one of my “escape from the cabin” moments, I went to a nearby coffeehouse to edit some photos. After a few hours of productivity, I received a text from a great friend who asked if I was interested in partaking of Chicago’s Restaurant Week at one of my favourite seafood restaurants. Well, with food being a factor, my text response was YES — I typed it in all caps. Knowing that there would be a crowd the closer it got to 7:00 PM, we made reservations for 5:15 at Shaw’s Crab House at 21 E. Hubbard Street in the River North section of downtown.

Bread and Wafers

Bread and Wafers

While perusing the menu for any ala carte options, we gnashed away on cheddar rolls and wafers. Um, um, good. Sure, this comes complimentary with the meal, but is still worth mentioning because the bread must be baked on the premises. You cannot find cheddar rolls like these in the market in the bakery section, on the aisles with aging loaves of bread, or in the frozen food section. Our server gave use a grand explanation of the restaurant week menu. Let’s just say that Shaw’s Crab House knows how to lure its customers back for repeat visits. There was clam chowder for the soup. For the entrées, the choices were king crab legs and Maine lobster. Dessert options were key lime pie, which you can never go wrong with, and a raspberry walnut cobbler. Far be it from us to be dining prudes, we ordered a dungeness crab claw for an appetizer. We also added potatoes au gratin and creamed spinach to our entrée orders.

Crab Claw

Crab Claw

Clam Chowder

Clam Chowder

The crab claw came to the table pre-cracked. It would have been a chore, quite possibly with things flying about the table. The claw was full of meat, bursting with flavour. Now, granted it wasn’t a substantial appetizer, it was certainly worth the order. For when the clam chowder arrived at the table, it was evident that the remainder of the evening would be based on complete culinary satisfaction. Thank God for restaurants that don’t feel the need to accentuate clam chowder with pork. There must have been complaints from some pork eaters about a few seafood restaurants that left the oink factor out of their clam chowder recipe because, sure enough, it shows up in the bowl at some eateries. Shaw’s Crab House has not fallen victim to that recipe blackmail.

Crab Legs

Crab Legs

Potatoes Au Gratin

Potatoes Au Gratin

Maine Lobster

Maine Lobster

Creamed Spinach

Creamed Spinach

The entrées were divine. The crab legs were full of meat. With melted butter for dipping, that was all we needed to forget that the temperatures in Chicago were in the single digits. It was all about concentrating on cracking the legs, digging out the succulent meat, and devouring it like seafood lovers. The Maine lobster came to the table steamed. Each bite exploded. No tough texture, no unsavoury aftertaste, only bliss. And not being one to let lobster go to waste, when I got to the head, there was a voice in my head that screamed, FINISH HIM!!! I complied. The mushy texture from the head is not something that appeals to a lot of people. It’s a bit reminiscent of marrow, for those of you who have chewed chicken bones to splinters and partaken of the tasty insides of the bones. It may be better used to season some soups or other recipes. For me, if I paid for it, it’s good as gone — unless I become so bitter that I feel the need to throw the plate against the wall. The potatoes au gratin were delicious beyond words. They did not come from a Betty Crocker box. And the creamed spinach reminded me of the spinach artichoke dip that a restaurant named Houston’s used to prepare — before that restaurant closed permanently for business.

Coffee

Coffee

As part of the Restaurant Week menu option for desserts, there were key lime pie and raspberry walnut cobbler. My main New Year’s Absolution was to remove desserts from my diet except for my birthday. So far I have been faithful, with the exception of having a panna cotta at one restaurant. My nutritionist and doctor said that I could indulge sorbet, fruit, and light cream desserts. To keep from possibly getting out of hand, I passed on the dessert and let my great friend take mine home with her. So, she had the pie and the cobbler. I settled on coffee laced with Bailey’s Irish creme. My friend had a regular coffee with cream. Talk about a great wrap-up to a fantastic meal.

Coffee with Bailey's Irish Creme

Coffee with Bailey’s Irish Creme

For years I had gone to Shaw’s during lunch when I worked about two blocks way from the restaurant. Even when I changed jobs, I was always confident that my palate would find satisfaction in all that the menu had to offer. Because Shaw’s is not ethnic, per se, I never blogged it. This time I felt that it was worthy of inclusion on Chicago Alphabet Soup. Now that I am being more serious about sticking to a strict seafood and vegetarian diet, there may be more seafood restaurants showing up on the blog. The service at Shaw’s Crab House was way past outstanding. Any time a server takes time to explain things in a great detail and offer recommendations without a scowl or a need to rush away from the table, the experience is usually a hit thereafter. Not once have I had a meal that I was not pleased with and the most recent dining experience was such a highlight that I was talking to my food and singing. And looking back on all of this, going out in the cold wasn’t such a bad idea. I got my usual food bonanza in the process.

Shaw's Crab House on Urbanspoon Shaw's Crab House on Foodio54

Degustation Japanese Style

Roka Akor

SakeDuring the week of 3 February 2013 through 10 February 2013, many restaurants were participating in Chicago Restaurant Week. I had received an email about some of the restaurants and their menus, several that piqueing my interest. One restaurant that stood out on the list was Roka Akor, at 456 N Clark Street.  The River North section of Chicago is already filled with notable high-end restaurants that have reasonable prices for those who appreciate good food and who also do not want to worry that the final bill will leave them gasping in shock. Having gone to Bombay Spice Grill immediately next door, I had made a mental note to visit Roka Akor to see if the menu had items that would be a good fit for Chicago Alphabet Soup. Looking at the menu display outside the restaurant is one thing. Sitting still and looking at the menu online is another and it was reviewing what Roka Akor had for the appetite that made my decision to go for a seating that more easy. One thing that stood out more was the Robatayaki style cooking that the restaurant employs. I had experienced Robatayaki style cooking in Japan, but not in America.  I made a reservation so that I could arrive early for dinner, well before the serious dinner crowd started to file in. I had plans to do some serious photography and while making the reservation, I was clear about that so that I could get a seat where I would not be in the way of the staff or other dining patrons. Plenty of seating and romantic ambience, I was ready for my food adventure. Much to my surprise, I got a seat right in front of the Robatayaki bar and sashimi bar. Yes, I was ready for action.

Seared ScallopIn keeping with indulging degustations in my dining excursions, I scanned the menu and when the server came by to ask if I was ready, I gave my response. I had been waffling between going with the Restaurant Week menu, picking random items from the different sections of the menu, or letting the server have carte blanche with the selection. The menu for Restaurant Week had items on it that I have eaten countless times, so that option was thrown out. Picking items from the menu at random was another idea that I took a pass on because I would have selected comfort items. So, it was putting the selection into the capable hands of the server that I went for. An indication that I was in good hands was the glass of sake that he had recommended, and I am kicking myself for not remembering it. I remember my server’s name and his face, though, which means I can always go back and request that very sake. But, it was a sake that was smooth going down and with a hint of a floral note.  Now, I will be the first to admit that I have not come close to achieving wine, spirits, or sake snobbery. However, I could find myself navigating a room with a glass of the sake that I had and pretending to be higher above my station than I am already. I thank my server for opening my repertoire more.

SashimiFirst to the table was a grilled diver scallop. This was not just the usual morsel that comes with some seafood dishes. Seasoned with lemon sweet soy, crushed wasabi pea, yuso mayonnaise, and purple shiso crust, my fork sank through it without any effort and I smiled a wide smile as my teeth sank through each bite. Of course, the scallop was more of a starter than anything else, the initial presentation had me wondering if I was going to be in store for aesthetically pleasing dishes to the visual senses while compromising flavour. Oh was I wrong. Not only was the scallop anything but tough but you could taste the flavours, none competing with the other. The sushi chef had mentioned that this particular dish was one of his favourites and it was really nice to know because there was thought put into presenting something for me that the chef actually preferred. I doubt that it was because he had prepared it that he viewed the dish highly. It was just delicious. The same was to be said for the butterfish and tuna tataki that the sashimi chef had prepared. Yet again, there was a small dish of what looked more artistic than culinary. There was no rush, so I took small bites and enjoyed each with the accompanying sake. By the time I had completed two of the pieces, I had acknowledged that Roka Akor was not just a restaurant of visually stunning dishes but it was a fine dining establishment with a sushi chef, sashimi chef, and cooking staff that give attention to making sure each taste a dining customer has guarantees a return visit. In the same fashion that the sushi chef had explained the dish, since I was sitting at the counter, the sashimi chef did the same. And, thus, began conversation about Roka Akor in Scottsdale, Arizona, and in London, United Kingdom. And there was dialogue such that the chefs inquired of how I had become interested in blogging ethnic restaurants. It was not just me taking photos and scribbling dishes, but there was suddenly a feeling that I had gone to friends’ homes and told to make myself comfortable.

Sashimi Platter

The next dish was one I saw being prepared that I thought was going to another dining patron. There was no tossing items on the plate or rearranging anything haphazardly. There was an attention to detail and a display of care that had I caught on videotape, you would be able to see a bit of love going into the preparation. I had to ask if I could photograph the process, only to find out that the platter was for me. For a noticeable moment, I was rather speechless.  Here was a dish that you see in magazines and on television shows, a product after styling and polishing. I was watching magic. I was anticipating bliss. When all was done, a sashimi platter on ice was placed before me and all eyes were on me as my server explained what the treat entailed. Bluefin tuna, stripe jack, amber jack, oyster with ponzu sauce and fresh lime, shrimp, head of shrimp, salmon with truffle butter, super white tuna, yellowtail, red snapper, and Japanese seaweed salad with ponzu sauce. It is rhetorical to mention that the only thing I could mouth was, “Wow!” At my age of 44, I have been to restaurants on the high-end that have presented dishes that were fitting for pedestals while fitting for throwing against the wall. Restaurants that were all the rage, touted as bigger than life, and Roka Akor places a sashimi platter in front of me that deserves more high praise than I can type. Every morsel of seafood on the platter was fresh, obvious from the lack of fishy smell and absent of any questionable taste. And still, the sake that I polished off with the platter was an ideal pairing.

Seafood PlatterMore conversation was had while the next course was being prepared. The idea was to give me an idea of all the offerings that Roka Akor has without having me sample every item that there was on the menu. Since the sashimi chef had wowed me with the cold platter of delectable sashimi, the sushi chef was composing a platter of cooked seafood. And again, I was blown away with a selection of the absolute best, freshest seafood. Grilled Pacific lobster, Alaskan king crab, roasted Fanny Bay oyster, and tempura huma huma were all I needed to state with clarity that I had been to heaven. I shall start by saying that the texture of oysters never curried favour with me. However, the grilling of the oyster yielded the texture found in mussels. The seasoning of the oyster painted another smile on my face that stretched with each bite of the flavourful lobster, crab, and huma huma. Another thing to note is that while the plate looked substantial, I was not stuffed to capacity after I had completed the dish, licked my fingers, and raised my arms in the air as though I had defeated an aggressive boxer. I have enjoyed seafood this flavourful and fresh on the West Coast, East Coast, and along coastal countries abroad. As far inland as Chicago is, the seafood much be imported fresh, daily in order for the dishes to be so exquisite while remaining void of muddy flavouring. And my taste buds were appreciative of the seasoning to the seafood not being overpowering or overcompensation in any manner. The mark of an outstanding chef is knowing the right balance or ratio to make a dish pop. I will be the first to say that no one can argue that the chefs at Roka Akor do anything less than produce the best dishes for the palate.

Dessert Platter
By the time I had finished the cooked seafood platter, I requested some time before the dessert came. In Asian dining, desserts are not heavy, so I had a bit of confidence that I would be able to handle whatever was in store. I had completed a second glass of sake and my server brought a Riesling that was almost sweet enough to be a dessert wine. When the dessert had finally arrive, I understood why there was a tempering of the wine that was accompanying the work of art that I stared at in amazement. There was a medley of fresh fruit: watermelon, honey-dew melon, raspberries, blackberries, oranges, pineapple, and pomegranate. Included was a scoop of raspberry sorbet that I swear had been made fresh in the back with crushed raspberries. I have not had any sorbet from the market with such flavour that pops. And if all of that was not enough to make the most cantankerous food critic stand up and dance, there was a ginger crème brûlée topped with a few kernels from a pomegranate that puts crème brûlées at other restaurants to shame. This I am not making up for effect. After you have had crème brûlée regular style, tasting a hint of ginger in it somehow makes everything okay in the land. Ginger, like cilantro, goes great with many dishes. And as to the dessert at Roka Akor, I now find it hard to debate anyone about fruit not being the perfect wrap-up for a meal.

Preparing Sashimi Platter

Having recently entertained a degustation where I had given the server free rein to come up with the courses for me and having enjoyed the whole experience more than I could say, I was impressed even more with the culinary options I had at Roka Akor. The server said that they all are basically experts in the restaurant’s menu. Yet and still, recommending dishes for someone who is a stranger and every recommendation coming out a success means that something else is working right. The next time a list of top restaurants gets published, Roka Akor should be on that list.

Roka Akor on Urbanspoon

Watashi no namaedesu Williams-san

Sen Sushi

Happiness is sitting outside enjoying a cool breeze blowing through your hair. For me, I have to settle for the breeze blowing across my head since I’m bald. Happiness is watching friends and couples going about their way, smiles on their faces, laughter in the air about them. Happiness is having a career that you love and a supervisor who isn’t a mad man making you hate your job. Happiness is having options for whatever dining delight your stomach may desire. Bliss is walking into a sushi bar and slowly dragging yourself out after you have been right proper stuffed. Rapture is having that cigarette afterwards, even though you really don’t smoke, but you have the imaginary smoke to celebrate great taste.

Sauce and Chopsticks

There is one Japanese sushi bar in Oak Park, Illinois, that I enjoy a lot. I have lost track of the number of times that I have been to Sushi House in the Lake Street and Marion Street block. So I figured I would seek out another sushi bar option, not necessarily in the pedestrian-crowded section of Oak Park. And what should I find as a suggested sushi bar nearby but Sen Sushi at 814 S. Oak Park Avenue. Walking distance from my favourite Brazilian cafe, Taste of Brazil, I am surprised that I had passed the sushi bar and never glanced at it long enough to register its presence. Then again, it does not have any glaring “grab you” indicators. Situated between a market and some other establishment, it tends to blend with what is on either side. However, food enthusiasts like myself have a tendency to find hidden gems. With décor of hard wood and everything having clean, straight lines, I grabbed a seat at the bar, pulled out my camera to get ready to photography my experience, and looked up to find that several people had sat at the bar with me rather than at the seats along the long wall. Subarashii — that would be “fantastic.”

Squash Bisque with Crab

Since it was during the day, I was okay with water for my beverage. Scanning the menu, I saw a soup that I wanted to try. There were also two maki rolls that I figured I would indulge. With the weather being moderately chilly, but not frosty yet, and the trees in vibrant autumn colours, I said to myself that the squash bisque with crab would be my soup of choice. Whose idea was it to put that soup on the menu? Not only was it tasty enough for me to want another bowl, but I was transported briefly to Hudson River stretch of New York around Poughkeepsie. Don’t ask me why but I could only think of trees with bursts of reds, yellows, oranges, and browns with their reflections in the clear Hudson River, and a cornucopia of squash, pumpkin, spices, and gingerbread men begging to be picked up. The soup was neither a victim of heavy-handed spices, nor was it an attempt at an autumn soup. Each spoonful reminded me of why autumn is perhaps my favourite season of the year. And to say that the addition of crab to the soup was only an added bonus would be an insult. A bit reminiscent of lobster bisque, the chunks of real crab in the squash bisque made everything absolutely beautiful in the Land of Food.

Spider Roll, Tiger Maki

I had two sushi rolls. One was a spider roll. This futomaki was battered deep-fried soft shell crab with chipped cucumber, avocado, daikon sprouts, and spicy mayonnaise, rolled inside nori and sushi rice. First, I had the crab in the squash bisque, and then I had it soft shell style in the sushi roll. Kon’nichiwa — that would be “hello.” One thing I always try to note or detect — with my mock sushi snobbery — is the freshness of the sushi. Is there a muddy hint? Is there a fishy tone? Does all of the seafood taste like cod? Is the texture rubbery? I am happy to report that the spider roll brought about a smile that I didn’t bother to hide. The other roll was a tiger maki. I must admit that the recipe of shrimp tempura, kampyo, spicy mayonnaise, salmon, kabayaki sauce, red tobiko, and black tobiko resulted in a creation that was worthy. Such love on a serving block deserves an encore and trust me when I say that I shall return to show my appreciation just the same. Both rolls were a bit more substantial than I thought they were when the server first placed them before me. Ah, but I had forgotten about the soup that I had slurped in the true Japanese fashion — loudly and without shame, for to be prim about such a tasty delight would have been offensive.

Spider Roll, Tiger Maki

The prices are what you would expect to pay at any really great sushi bar. Perhaps on a Friday or a Saturday night I shall have to see if their drink menu warrants a rave review. I can say with authority that the soup and the sushi were big on my list of things that bring about happiness. Even with the sushi bar filling up shortly after I had arrived — and got ready to start photographing my food — the seating and the ambient lighting on the inside, along with a respectful tone from the dining patrons, makes Sen Sushi a fantastic place for relaxation while eating, as well as great dating venue. Being a narcissist, I can attest to the latter, although I appreciate the former. The service from the wait staff may be a bit off-putting, but once you engage them in conversation, you find that the airs are just a façade because the floor staff is actually quite conversational, especially after you ask for recommendations. I was happy not to be rushed, although there were others coming in to have a seat for some in-house dining. They understand that they have small real estate, but they also apparently appreciate patrons’ business. So after an arigatō here and a sayōnara there, I was on my way down the street, missing my steps on the curb and speaking Japanese to several of the Oak Park ilk who probably thought I was making fun of any Asian language. They probably didn’t understand that happiness is enjoying an ethnic meal so much that you become a part of the ethnicity.

SEN Sushi Bar on Urbanspoon

Gino, Japanese Style

SaganoMemorial Day in Chicago and the air had a hint of autumn to it. Compared to what we had experienced for a stretch of time a few weeks ago — white hot heat and humidity that left you dripping after only a minute or two of being outside — the temperatures in the 70’s, cool breezes, and cerulean blue sky were all worth bottling. I had been to several restaurants and was more overzealous with my photography than normal. Nothing says, “You have been a rather busy man,” like the discovery of you having taken well over 2,000 photos that have had taken at five restaurants in a short window of time. So, in addition to having to scribe a commentary about the dining experiences, I had to go through a large volume of photos to find out which ones I would feature on Chicago Alphabet Soup. However, there was no way that I was going to edit photos and type up journal entries on an empty stomach. No, no!

Miso SoupBecause I wanted to get some almond butter for baking almond butter cookies, I knew that I could not go wrong with Trader Joe’s almond butter. The Trader Joe’s in Oak Park never disappoints, so I drove over to pick up the necessary ingredient and a few more items. While in Oak Park, I headed toward the intersection of Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street. What had I not tried? I asked myself. And after a brief scan of eateries in the area, I saw a Japanese restaurant that I know I had not been to. Yes, I have been quite an African-American-Asian as of late and walking into Sagano at 731 Lake Street with no hesitation was an indication that I have a food lust for Asian cuisine. Quaint and intimate on the inside, I opted to enjoy the inside when it is colder, for the weather was way too nice for me to waste my time inside staring at walls.

Soft Shell CrabGive me some miso soup. I swear there must be a pack for that soup, but it the best regardless. There was a bit of a nip in the wind, so the warmth of the miso soup was good enough to guard me against the quick drop in temperatures and me feeling it because I was sitting in the shade. And then there was the soft shell crab. The first time I had soft shell crab was at a Thai restaurant. And now that I think of it, the restaurant also had a Japanese menu and soft shell crab seems to be a staple. I don’t know where to begin with describing the wonders of each bite. Served with shredded beats, shredded carrots, and some other shredded vegetable that had a water base to it, the plate already looked like art, let alone something you would associate with delighting the taste buds. Being fanatical about my food photography, I clicked a count of well over 275 photos of the soft shell crab from various angles — from my seat, from standing up, from kneeling at the edge of the table, landscape, portrait, tilting, you name it. But as soon as I sank my teeth into it, the photos did the dish absolutely no justice. Absent of a surplus of seasoning, and I know that it wasn’t seasoned with salt and pepper only, the soft shell crab and the shredded vegetables were lip smacking. I wanted more, so much more, a lot more, but I had also ordered another dish.

Soft Shell CrabAt Japanese restaurants, I always order sushi, as if though it is a cardinal sin to order anything else. Because this is the case, I made the decision that I would break that chain for this particular day and indulge something from the entrée menu. Teriyaki chicken with vegetables and rice. Would think that was bland. However, the tender chicken that had been cooked in a light teriyaki sauce and served with a melange of broccoli, carrots, zucchini, green beans, shredded carrots, and another shredded vegetable that does not come to mind, as well as with rice, left me speechless. All this time I had been depriving myself of something new, Sam I Am, and the teriyaki chicken burst with each bite. Having polished off a bowl of the miso soup and then gobbling up the plate of soft shell crab with the shredded vegetables, I savoured each bite of the teriyaki chicken dish. There was no need to rush through the small feast with the weather being so pleasant outside and the food being so blooming delicious. In my mind, I heard a voice chanting “Yummmmm! Yummmmm! Yummmmm!” while imagining myself sitting in a yoga pose meditating so that I could find my chi. From now on, I shall balance out my Japanese feasting by having an occasional entrée other than sushi and maki rolls.

Teriyaki ChickenAfter having such a great time with my little personal feast at Sagano, it was necessary for me to walk off a bit of the stuffing. My destination was to go to the Marion Street end of Oak Park for some kind of dessert, something just a bit light instead of incredibly filling. Ice cream would be it, I said to myself. At 134 N. Marion Street is Cold Stone Creamery. It appears that Chicago has an anti sentiment against Cold Stone, as majority of them closed their doors to the frozen yogurt epidemic. Being a man who makes his own homemade ice cream, that whole chilly froth that is all the rage is not something I care for much. When it comes to ice cream, Cold Stone Creamy is where you go and I rank it higher than Baskin & Robbins. Nevertheless, I got to the location in time to order an Oreo Overload in a recently baked waffle cone. No sooner had I sat than some teenagers rumbled in. Nothing tests the nerves like five teenagers giggling and pontificating for fifteen minutes before ordering. Add to that, there was conversation that went along the following lines:

 I wanna like try that flavour.
(Giggle)
Did you like see Jillian’s blouse?
(Giggle)
Oooh, you’re like getting chocolate.
(Giggle)
Like I’m gonna take my ice cream outside and like people watch.
(Giggle)

Oreo OverloadGrowing up during the 80’s, I was very much accustomed to the whole Valley Girl and Surfer Dude scene. Add to that the ear-grating Valley-speak. It had a short shelf life, but listening to it while devouring a frozen treat was a notch or two more horrible than brain freeze from ice cream. Too much use of the word like and incessant giggling will make you want to run your fingers down a chalkboard to drown out the fray. When it was evident that well over 15 minutes had passed and others were staring as though watching someone shrinking, I got up and left the snickering villains to their own devices.

Such a perfect day it was to be out and about enjoying Japanese cuisine and more ice cream than my belly should have been forced to endure. But, hey, if I am going to have any kind of suffering, it shall have to be the sweetest pain and satisfying. Like, how often do you get to have Japanese food and then ice cream all in, like, the same day? (Giggle)

Sagano Sushi on Urbanspoon
Cold Stone Creamery on Urbanspoon

My Dr. Seuss Moment

Emilio's Tapas

Will you eat them in the house?
Will you eat them with your spouse?
Will you eat them in the sun?
Will you eat them just for fun?
Will you even lick the plate?
Will you have your tapas very late?

Red Sangria

When my friends and I advance in our careers and in our social lives, we have a tendency to celebrate big. Dinner gatherings. Trips to beautiful and exotic places. Catching up at champagne and wine bars. Symphonies. Jazz sets. All the good things that other people who could enjoy but do not because they sit around damning those who live life to the fullest. In the like manner that I experienced when I left one place where I was working so that I could advance several notches up and most certainly during the entire month of April when I celebrated my birthday ad nauseam, a great friend recently accepted a position with a company where she moved up a few notches by leaps and bounds and celebrating was a must. There was absolutely no way that we were going to pass on throwing support and enjoying something worthy of culinary happiness.

With downtown Chicago taking on a more European feel in that dinner is starting later, we met at Emillio’s Tapas, at 215 E. Ohio Street in the Streeterville neighbourhood. We had passed by the restaurant several times when often we went to any one of the restaurants in the area for lunch. It looked swanky. There was always a crowd. It came across as a place to sample. We figured that instead of passing by and saying, “That looks like a nice place,” we would test our observation. A very nice Chicago summer evening with the sun slowly creeping over behind the skyscrapers and us sitting outside with the wind flicking across our cheeks, we were ready to see how the Spaniards entertain their appetites. And since we all had been to Spain before, we had a point of reference for how it’s done. Tapas we wanted, so tapas we were going to have.

Calamares Con Ajo Y Limon

A nice evening for us to enjoy, what better way to get started than with a refreshing beverage? Red sangria.

I’ll drink it on the phone.
I’ll drink it while at home.
I’ll drink it in the sun.
I’ll love it till I’m done.

The concoction of red wine, brandy, apples, lemons, and oranges was potent and smile-inducing. And it was not just one glass that we had, but it was a full carafe so that we could enjoy as much as we wanted without stopping our waitress to place another order. But, there was a second carafe, so touché. And with our first glass, we had calamaraes con ajo y limon. These baby octopuses were cooked to a texture that was not al dente but not quite yet splendidly tender. The buttery-lemony sauce that they swam in before jumping on our fork tines and then plopping on our tongues was slightly addictive. We dipped our bread in the sauce, sopped, and dealt the octopuses their fate. May they know that we appreciated how delectable they tasted.

Papas Bravas

Next to the table was a plate of papas bravas. Usually, this dish comes topped with melted cheddar cheese, which sometimes puts me in the mind of Velveeta doctored up in the microwave. Hmm. This time the papas bravas was sprinkled with grated cheese and served over a mild tomato sauce with red peppers. There was a contradictory note to the dish, as it was more lukewarm than it should have been yet flavourful. My friend remarked that the potatoes tasted old. My appetite, although discriminating, does not detect “old.” Nasty. Disgusting. Horrid. Worthy of throwing against the wall. Yes, those descriptions come to mind, but old is a new one on me. Then again, I ate what was left. I mean, people on the other side of the world are starving and although I have upper middle class means, I cannot let tasty food go to waste unless it is absolutely beastly.

Congrejo Concha Blanda

As the two earlier plates were a little better than fair to middling, another glass or two of the sangria and the order of congrejo concha blanda made it all right for the evening. Happiness was in the air. The congrejo concha blanda was a plate of soft shell crab served with white rice over another cream-based sauce. Anyone who loves crab would bow at the chef’s feet for preparing such a masterpiece in dining. We thought the rice was seasoned enough to raise our eyebrows in appreciation, so imagine the soft shell crab being cut and devoured by gleeful diners such as ourselves. Wow.

I’ll lick my fingers clean.
I’ll start being nice and stop being mean.
I’ll love it, Sam I Am.
But I still won’t eat green eggs and ham.

We shall just say that when you take the last few substantial morsels of the soft shell crab and start going around the plate to get the gravy, you are in heaven. Being dainty, prudish, or prim would be unacceptable. Perhaps if I were a country Jasper from the hills, I would have lifted the plate to my face and licked it lovingly.

Falda de Cebon al la Parrilla

By now, we had completed one carafe of sangria and were mildly knackered. Thankful that we had a good amount of complementary bread and all of the other hearty dishes, much of the alcohol had been soaked up. So we were ready for more refreshing liquid bliss. What better way to enjoy each glass full of happiness than with falda de cebon ala parrilla? As a pescatarian, vegetables and seafood are what I will entertain in my diet primarily. But this was not my celebratory dinner, so when the guest of honour wanted skirt steak, there were no complaints. When we started cutting in to the steak and forking it into our mouths, we would have started a petition for the swift public flogging of anyone who moaned about having something so lip-smackingly divine placed before them. I am sure that God looked down at us and said to Himself that we will meet fire for smiling so raptly through the deadly sin of gluttony. Yes, I will burn in hell for such relish and I shall dress accordingly. The guest of honour was passing the steak knife to me to cut the meat, to which I replied, “Woman, I’m handling this with a butter knife. Can’t you see?” And by now, we were a bit squiffy from so much drink that everything was funny — the parent pushing what looked like a six-year-old child in a buggy; the man with the exploding soda pop all over the back of some stranger’s shirt; the bitter woman who dropped the scoop of strawberry ice cream on her shoe, making it look like a saucy pom-pom; and me being too quick with the cava sauce and almost pushing it off the plate with a forkful of steak.

Chocolate Cake with White Chocolate and Caramel Mousse

Having loved what we had, it was time to indulge some dessert. Too much food already and sangria surplus, we opted for lighter desserts. At the risk of blasphemy and apologies to all of the Pharisees, the chocolate cake with white chocolate mousse and caramel mousse once again had God shaking His head. Garnished with a sprig of mint and a strawberry, this was clearly a work of the devil. And maybe God viewed our enjoyment as a part of His plan. Some southern Baptist preacher may have been screaming from the pulpit that we were going to burn in hell, though, which is usually the case if you find satisfaction in anything. Nothing close to syrupy or to the point of having our teeth feel as though we had set them on ice because of too much sugar, this dessert was indeed perfection. Light in texture, heavy on the bliss factor, it also went well with the sangria. Do not ask. And as if the chocolate cake with the wonder mousse were not enough, we finalized our dessert with profiterole del pirineo. You would never think that something as pedestrian as puff pastries filled with ice cream and topped with chocolate sauce would be better than a sunny day at the park. Oh, but when the chocolate is dark chocolate, you may discover the secrets of love, the 12 rabbits and the cheesecake, how to make incompetent politicians disappear, and all sorts of good things. As I polished off the last of my glass of sangria, and I had the bottom of the carafe, I was all sixes and sevens — a complete mess, I say. It had occurred to me perhaps two hours after we had left that I made a rather loud declaration of, “Oh my God!” on the outdoor patio in the presence of patrols and wait staff while eating that dessert. Well, there was no denying that all we had eaten was worthy of any kind of smashing reaction, regardless of how embarrassing it may have been afterwards.

Profiterol del Pirineo

So, this was yet another case of outstanding food, super great service, and me fighting sleep on the subway while going home well after 11:00 at night. The prices were not as steep as I thought they would have been, but the allure and outdoor ambiance made Emilio’s Tapas a place that I shall visit again. I have some great eating experiences in Chicago, but there are times when it is so good that I have my Dr. Seuss moments. This was one of them.

I will eat them in my house
I will eat them with my spouse.
I will eat them in the sun.
I will eat them just for fun.
I will have my tapas very late.
I will even lick the plate.
I will eat them, Sam I Am.
Now, go away so that I can.

Emilio's Sol Y Nieve on Urbanspoon

Eurythmics Comes to Mind

Sweet dreams are made of this,
Who am I to disagree?
I travelled the world and the seven seas,
Everybody’s looking for something

Ah, I remember that song from the Eurythmics, way back when I was in high school and a huge fan of the 80’s British invasion. That song had been playing quite a bit recently, and I attribute part of it to serendipity in advance of me going to a boutique restaurant in Oak Park, Illinois, named Seven Ocean. While Annie Lennox provided her velvet voice over the words “seven seas,” Seven Ocean fit rather nicely and I was happy all the same, for I was going to have an adventure in fine dining.

Willamet Valley Vineyards RiselingLocated in downtown Oak Park at 122 N. Marion Street on a cobblestone stretch of small shops, restaurants, and independent cafes, is the neighbourhood’s most recent addition — Seven Ocean. Providing fine cuisine with an Asian influence, Seven Ocean is minimalist in its interior decoration. Not that ambience only defines a restaurant, that being the food here takes centre stage, there is a Stanley Kubrick sterile feel that I actually like. Then again, the man in me loves straight lines, simple colours, and lots of space. With nice jazz playing in the background, I was certain that the evening was going to be worth the visit. Given an intrepid and great waiter, he explained to me what I would receive in a seven-course tasting with wine pairing. Lucky for me I had skipped having a hearty lunch because seven courses with wine were certain to induce a state of bliss.

Tuna Tar Tar

For starting, I had tuna tar tar with a 2010 Riesling from Willamette Valley Vineyards. As far as white wines go, and I am not a wine snob, you simply cannot go wrong with a Riesling. On the dish, the only meat that I like raw is that in sushi. Even in Japan, I was okay delighting myself with several dishes of seafood that had not passed over any flame. Tar tar, on the other hand, is something I tend to avoid, mostly because it is some tar tar made from beef or another four-legged animal that I do not even eat cooked. However, the tuna tar tar at Seven Ocean receives exemption. Fresh tuna with Asian pear, avocado, aioli, raw wasabi tobileo, and chilli oil came on a plate with fried lotus root chips. So colourful, so appealing, and so appetizing, I slowly worked the tuna tar tar until there was only a faint smear of the chilli oil left. Not that I will indulge myself relentlessly on any other kind of tar tar after loving the tuna tar tar the way that I did, I will remember that Asian influence in food entertains exotic preparation. It was evident that Seven Ocean got it correct.

Fried Tiger Prawn

The second course was tiger prawn, lightly breaded and fried with a crust reminiscent of tempura. Served with beet root, wasabi sprout, and a tamarind caramel reduction, it had dawned on me that I was then in food heaven. Yes, the portions were small, as this was a taste, but the prawns were so plump that they practically popped shortly after my teeth sank past the tempura crust. Low-key jazz music playing in the background, each bite was hypnotic. Had there been a worry bothering me earlier, I had completely forgotten whatever the trouble was by the time I had finished the second course.

Edamame Cream Soup

Black Rice Noodle Served Cold in Balsamic VinaigretteThen came another glass of a white wine, a 2011 stainless Chardonnay from Chamisal Vineyards. A bit dryer than the Riesling, it was still an excellent accompaniment to the edamame cream soup that came as the third course. Usually, you when you hear the word edamame, you think of the bowl of salted beans served at Japanese restaurants. Served as a soup with soy, fresh cream tobiko and truffle oil and bacon infusing, you have a winning delicacy. After the second course was a peak dish, I initially thought that the soup was going to be a trip down into the valley. Absolutely not. Given some light, tasty bread or some exotic wafers, I could eat that edamame soup endlessly while enjoying wine with it.

Next to the table was black rice noodle served cold in balsamic vinaigrette with crab meat and sweet pepper over an asparagus spear. There was a tremendous Japanese persuasion in this dish. Not really sold on the course when the waiter was first explaining the dish, I was completely wowed after twirling a bit of the noodle and spooning it with the crab meat onto my tongue. Far from elaborate in presentation, the flavour was a work of culinary art and I beheld the visual effect briefly before continuing to polish off the rest. Even the asparagus spear that looked to have been steamed only tasted better than some doctored-up asparagus that I have had at other eateries. The fourth course was another winner.

Fried Red Snapper

Up to the table with the fifth course was a glass of 2011 savignon blanc from Wither Hills Vineyard in Marlborough, New Zealand. Not a bad choice, it was an ideal selection for the fried red snapper. Pan seared with home made sweet and sour sauce, chopped apple, red onion, and dried chilli, I could have stopped, said that the five courses were top, requested the bill, paid, and left it at that. The West Indian in me loves red snapper, but having it at Seven Ocean really introduced a lust factor for the seafood that I had never experienced before. I thought the presentation was eye-catching, but nothing compared to the concert of ingredients making such a delectable recipe for love. And the savignon blanc was a remarkable partnering. Just to savour each bite, I was slow about engaging the dish to completion too fast and then having eater’s remorse. Love is to be cherished and that red snapper was the epitome of love.

Roast Duck Breast

When I thought that nothing could best what I had eaten already, there came as the sixth course a glass of 2009 cabernet savignon from La Linda Vineyards and roast duck breast in mild Thai red curry with saffron rice, crispy fried red onion, and langon. After the first bite, I forced myself to pause. Words could not describe how much I wanted to dance, sing, do something involving running for no apparent reason. Let me just say that the langon, which is an Asian tree fruit like lichee, tasted better than any plum or grape that I have ever had. Naturally sweet, this otherwise bland looking ball is so delicious that I would find it hard to believe that Asian children cringe whenever their parents try to get them to eat langon. As to the duck breast, this was not the oily duck that I have had at numerous restaurants before. Eaten with the companion saffron rice that was topped with the fried red onions, I was a man full of life and sated with great food.

Dinner is Served

Last to the table was dessert. Thankful that this was not heavy since I had been filled proper with six prior courses, I smiled at the presentation of a familiar dish — a plate of fresh sliced mango with sweet sticky rice, coconut cream with strawberry sauce drizzle, and chocolate sauce. Granted the dessert was not as fancy as the other dishes, and it was light so that one could finish all of it without feeling forced, the mango and sticky rice comprised a Thai delicacy that I have loved ever since I began eating Thai cuisine years ago. The chocolate sauce was more for effect, but the rest pandered to my constant appetite nicely.

La Linda Cabernet Savignon, 2009From the reservation to the confirmation of the reservation to the arrival and then to the whole dining experience, Seven Ocean is at the top of my list of restaurants. Not particularly a fan of fusion or Pan-Fill-in-the-Blank restaurants, when an establishment gets the concept correct, I will be the first to admit that I can become their greatest fan. The price is stiff, but nothing like restaurants that vie for or obtain top Michelin star ratings. I must say that I got more than what I paid for and the service was worthy of bottling, which is not something possible to do. Understanding that Seven Ocean just opened their doors, I hope that they receive more business. There are three factors working in their favour: delicious cuisine, fantastic service, and reasonable fare. Sweet dreams are made of these things. Fortunately for me, I travelled to Seven Ocean and found another awesome haunt for my culinary wants.

Seven Ocean on Urbanspoon

Food Pandemic

A beautiful and warm Saturday for the month of February and my appetite had been reminding me that the bagel and tea that I had earlier in the day was not enough to carry me through until dinner. I was on the Northwest Side of Chicago and wondered what I would eat to please the monster — my hunger, that is. I pulled out my trusty cell phone and accessed Yelp to get recommendations for some eateries in the nearby area. One listing that showed up was for a Singaporean restaurant. Hmmm. I did not know that Chicago had a Singaporean community, but I have managed to find a lot of ethnicities all over the great city of Chicago. The restaurant, Jess Cafe at 5819 W. Belmont Avenue, is actually Pan-Asian. I heaved a heavy sigh, as Pan-Asian restaurants tend to be more about quantity than quality per se. They will cover everything from Japanese to Chinese to Vietnamese to Thai to Malaysian to Indonesian to Cambodian to Mexican and Italian. Unless the cuisine is explicitly listed in its own section, you could be mislead into thinking you are eating something authentically representative of any of the Asian ethnicities when it could be a concoction instead of a dish from “the old country.” And I thought again about how I would label Jess Cafe on Chicago Alphabet Soup. This left me wondering if I should consider Pan-Asian as an ethnic listing for some restaurants.

Tempura Shrimp

On initial entry into Jess Cafe, I was certain that the whole experience was going to be a complete racket. While not bustling with patrons, there appeared to be the entire kitchen staff at a table having an afternoon meal and siesta. The wait staff was all over the place. And the individual at the front counter was having a rather casual yet engaging conversation on the phone. Remember the saying “You never get a second chance to make a first impression”? After standing for a couple of minutes — not knowing whether I was to seat myself or not — I took the initiative to secure a nearby booth. I sat for a while before someone brought me water and after sitting some more looking through the colossal menu, I managed to get the eye of someone so that I could place my order. Let me just add that the menu was extensive to the point where I think the restaurant covers every recipe known in Asian cuisine. I eyed shrimp tempura and another dish of salt and pepper soft shell crab.

The shrimp tempura reminded me more of coconut crusted shrimp rather than thinly battered tempura shrimp. One thing I must say is that I was glad the shrimp was plump and succulent in the batter. And the shrimp seemed to have been seasoned well, as it was not just merely shrimp in a crispy batter. There was some pop to the dish. Perhaps their take on tempura was different than what you get in Japanese cuisine. The salt and pepper soft shell crab was outstanding. This came with steamed rice and a vinegar-based dipping sauce that reminded me of a salt and pepper chicken dish that I had eaten at a Vietnamese restaurant in Chicago’s Edgewater neighbourhood several years ago. What I will add is that I have yet to have any soft shell crab that I did no like. One would think that salt and pepper only would not be enough to season anything such that it would be flavourful. That was not the case with the soft shell crab. That was all the seasoning that was needed and my empty plate was testament to that.

Soft Shell Crab

Surprisingly, Jess Cafe was worth the trip. The reviews that I had read were mixed, waffling between devoted love of the restaurant and utter disgust. Minus the sketchy service, the food and the price make Jess Cafe an eatery worthy of a return. In the reviews, there were a lot of plugs for how awesome the bubble tea and the smoothies are. Well, on my next visit, I shall have to see if there is truth to those assertions. And at the end of the day, I returned home to make plans for my next food adventure. Hahaha. Insert sound byte of me saying, “Yum,” with exaggeration.

Arigato. She-she nee. Gam si hapni da. Thank you.

Jess Cafe on Urbanspoon