de Quay, Where Indonesia and Netherlands Come Together

de Quay

In late 2015, when I was looking for an Indonesian restaurant in the city, my restaurant advisor suggested that I should try de Quay 2470 N. Lincoln Avenue. Having forgotten my camera and not having a cellphone with the snazzy professional setting for the camera, the photos did not come out to my liking and there was no way that I was going to review such incredibly delicious food and associate the food with dark, orange, and blurry photos. Realizing that I still had not written a proper review, I returned recently and was very glad that I did.

Curry Chicken

Curry Chicken

For my first return visit, it was a brief passing and I sat at the bar. Vibrant and filled to capacity in the general seating area, the bar was a great option. I ordered the curried chicken and paired it with a glass of Pinot Noir. The breast of chicken had been marinated in buttermilk and Indonesian spices, and served with basmati rice that had toasted almonds, dried apricot seroendeng, and pea tendrils. For those who love a bloom to their dishes, the aromatic flavour of the dish will certainly scream winner. And the Pinot Noir was a splendid balance while letting the dish take main stage.

Spekkoek

Spekkoek

The dessert was an almond spekkoek, a very appetizing Dutch layer cake that came with a dollop of pandan ice cream. Extremely moist and not very sweet, this is a dessert that should be enjoyed slowly and all the better with a cup of coffee. Now, consider the ice cream accordingly when being slow about eating the dessert, but the nutty flavour of the pandan is a nice accompaniment to the spekkoek. It is a wonder that de Quay does not tout this as the most spectacular dessert you will find in Chicago.

Deerstalker

Deerstalker

The second visit involved more food, as my restaurant advisor accompanied me this time. We started with a deerstalker and an FP-45 for cocktails. Having recently gone to a gin bar, the deerstalker was a fitting starter of gin, vermouth, orange bitters, maple syrup, and fresh thyme. The Old Tom gin, Gran Classico bitters, vermouth, brown sugar, and Angostura bitters in the FP-45 were simply first-rate for an initial libation.

FP-45

FP-45

Indulging the first landing of pea soup, which was a part of the restaurant week offerings, set the mood for what we realized would be a fantastic evening of dining. Hearty more like a stew, the bowl of mirepoix, smoked rookworst, turnips, and crispy shallots with the peas made this a winter soup that works well for the nippy Chicago temperatures. The lovash crackers were a nice touch and the soft baguette that came with the dish was fine for sopping up the remaining remnants of the soup, along with the curry butter.

Pea Soup with Bread and Wafers

Pea Soup with Bread and Wafers

The second landing, also a menu item for restaurant week, was a goat Gouda Bavarian. Served with a spiced pecan seroendeng, raisins, butternut squash, and with a chestnut vinaigrette, it was nice that the goat cheese was not so overpowering so it did not usurp the taste of the other ingredients in the dish.

Goat Gouda Bavarian

Goat Gouda Bavarian

Curious as to the shrimp and mussels menu item and how such a dish could have been prepared to take advantage of an Indonesian influence, we had for our third landing of a bowl of plump shrimp, shelled mussels, roasted hot peppers, and snow peas in a coconut curry sauce with baguette slices for sopping. An absolute winner, the beauty of this dish was not having to fight with plucking the morsels from the shells. You only had to start delighting yourself on the best mussels dish in Chicago.

Shrimp and Mussels

Shrimp and Mussels

The fourth landing was a plate of sate glazed, grilled salmon. The Indonesia fried rice nasi goreng played well with the salmon and a medley of green beans and cauliflower along with wafers and shrimp crisps made for a dish that is well worth repeat visits for samplings. Not the usual searing done to the salmon, it was flaky and succulent, which made the dish that more delightful.

Sate Glazed Grilled Sea Salmon

Sate Glazed Grilled Sea Salmon

The fifth landing came as baked chicken breast in coconut milk and aromatic spices with pea tendrils over a mango and Thai basil emulsion. An added touch was a coconut Gouda croquette. The chicken had been prepared such that it was easy to cut through it with a fork. And it was quite noticeable that the seasoning had worked its way throughout the chicken during cooking.

Baked Chicken with Gouda Croquette

Baked Chicken with Gouda Croquette

The finale was an apple tart that came with an accompaniment of dried currants in a crème fraîche. I had not been eating sweets for several weeks and felt like I had a bit of heaven with each bite. Very much like the spekkoek during my first visit, this was not as sweet as most tarts are, given the apples were not in a compote, and that probably explains why the apples tasted like they had been just plucked from a tree.

Apple Tart

Apple Tart

The one word I use to describe restaurants that have top service and inviting food is outstanding. That certainly applies to de Quay. The restaurant is not large and seating may be close. Reservations are highly recommended, as a lot of diners coming through who clearly appreciate the rich savoury dishes. There may be some poetic licensing with the dishes, but that’s okay. If you were to close your eyes, you would undoubtedly agree that the smells and aromas of Indonesia were not compromised.

De Quay Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Herb, A Savoury Thai Spa

One of my favourite spots in Chicago is the Bryn Mawr area in Edgewater between Sheridan Road to the East and Broadway Street to the West. With ongoing growth in the area, it would seem that some new restaurant, coffeehouse, or boutique has sprung up and such was the case with a restaurant called Herb at 5424 N. Broadway Street. Since I was going abroad for personal holiday, I wanted to squeeze in a dining experience so that I would be reminded that I live in one of the most spectacular cities in the world, albeit ruined by overgeneralization and convenient stereotypes.

Herb

Having read a few reviews, I was curious as to how there would be any kind of twist done to Thai food. There is a restaurant in Chicago’s Albany Park neighbourhood called Arun that supposedly added a fine dining component to Thai food. Most of the time you find that making food chic is nothing more than a gimmick. As I discovered at Herb, it just means the chef is damn good at his or her craft. Minus the aesthetics of the interior, I had what I will call my first Thai spa ever.

Betal Leaf with Toasted Coconut and Apricot

Betal Leaf with Toasted Coconut and Apricot

I was in a mood for a full experience and opted for a six-course degustation. To whet my palate, there was betal leaf with toasted coconut, peanut, some diced fruit, and apricot purée. Served open-faced, you roll the betal leaf up and plop it into your mouth in one bite. The first thing I noticed was the tartness of some of the diced fruit along with the leaf, later followed by the sweetness of the coconut, and then finished off with a tangy hint from the apricot purée. There were no competing flavours all at once on the initial bite, each one taking turns, and I must admit that I have never had that kind of experience before in my culinary jaunts.

Moo Yang

Moo Yang

Neau Yang

Neau Yang

Leading into the appetizers, I started with moo yang. This was a dish of grilled pork that was served yakitori style on skewers. Visually, it looked like dishes you see in food magazines. Food magazines can never begin to capture how well coriander root, lettuce, roasted banana pepper, and spicy tomato sauce work on the meat. Each bite starts with a spicy kick and ends with a mild sweet finish from having been soaked in coconut milk. By the time I had the neau yang, I noticed a theme of alternating flavours playing on the palate. With this appetizer of grilled beef highlighted with shallot, cucumber, coriander leaf, carrot, mint, red chili, toasted rice with chili lime dressing, there is a rising action of tanginess followed by a climax of sweetness and then a denouement of spiciness with a finale of wow — if wow can be described as a flavour.

Yum Tour-Pu with Lemongrass Ginger Tea

Yum Tour-Pu with Lemongrass Ginger Tea

One may think that having flavour come and go while other flavors alternate in a single bite could become old hat quickly. I could become a vegan cold turkey eating the yum tour-pu salad. This salad came as sawtooth coriander, grape tomato, yard long bean, fried shallot, kaffir lime leaf. There was go-between of faint tartness and spiciness. Again, for the flavours to have been complex, the profile of the salad had been prepared such that you experience multiple sensations on your tongue without ever feeling like there was a bit too much to the dish. It was nothing short of Willy Wonka greets Asian dining.

Tom Hed Ka-min

Tom Hed Ka-min

On to the soup, the tom hed ka-min was akin to tom ka gai but prepared with mushrooms instead of with chicken. This bowl came as enoki, shimeji, king oyster mushroom, heart of palm, herbal coconut broth, and highlighted with a desire to get patrons addicted. As the server poured the broth, I thought the soup was stunning visually. It was after the first slurp that I realized even photography could do no justice to the richness of the dish. Not only did the broth taste like coconut, and I don’t mean coconut soup from a can, and the mushrooms were indeed fresh, but this was not a small portion. Coming from the restaurant’s summer menu, I could indulge this all year round.

Fruit Salad

Fruit Salad

L'Amuse

L’Amuse

Before moving to the main course, there was some time to allow the stomach to get accustomed to so much damn good food and to entertain a few palate cleansers. The first was a medley of fruit. Although it was called a fruit salad because it consisted of strawberries, red grapes, purple grapes, white grapes, passionfruit, tomatoes, and grapefruit, this was another dish that could have me become a vegan convert. The surprise came when I discovered three different profiles: sweetness, spiciness, and tartness. The fruit provided a natural sweetness, shredded chilis gave a spicy kick, and the vinaigrette had a mild salt base. Later there was another l’amuse of a jelly with peanuts and mint wrapped in a thin layer of cucumber. Yet again, there was sweetness followed by a passing tartness. Clearly the chef has perfected generating sensations and waking up your taste buds linearly.

Gang Gai Tai

Gang Gai Tai

Gai Sa-Mu-Pri

Gai Sa-Mu-Pri

The first main course was gang gai tai. I love my Thai curry to be thick. Herb did not disappoint. A recipe consisting of Southern-style coconut curry, fuzzy melon, butternut squash, Thai eggplant, red bell pepper, kaffir leaf, and sweet basil, and served with jasmine rice, I was amazed at how light it was. The dish that I thought looked bland was anything but bland. The herbal chicken over jasmine rice made very good use of coriander and lemongrass marinated with spicy-sweet chili garlic sauce. Being curious about why the ingredients were so profound in the dishes, I inquired of the chef who responded that they grow the herbs and spices in the garden behind the restaurant. I think it also explained why there was an absence of salt and MSG in the dishes. The discriminating palate knows.

Flight of Fruit

Flight of Fruit

For the finale, there was a flight of fruit. There was rambutan that reminded me of lychee. There was mango over sticky rice, which is a staple dessert in Thai dining. Because I only asked for a flight of light dessert, there were two that I did not get a name for and since I have not developed enough familiarity with my new cellphone, I did not get the voice recorder started so that I could have the chef give the names. However, one was like gelatin coated in coconut and the other was a gelatinous cake, both bite size and both a new, tasty experience. The final dessert was taro root that put me in mind of tamarind. All light, all natural, all a perfect ending to what was the best Thai dining experience I have had to date.

Herb is not a restaurant where you go simply for a sampling of Thai dishes prepared differently than what you expect at commonplace Thai restaurants. Here is where you go for a culinary spa. Well, that is what I would call it. There is no rush, no pressure, and no disappointment. You pamper your appetite, indulge yourself, and relax thereafter because any good meal here is guaranteed to induce food comatose. I can say with certainty that Herb will make my top 10 list for 2015 because of such fantastic service in addition to some fine dining that does not come as a hefty price. I treated myself well to a Thai spa. I highly recommend you try it also.

Herb Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Taste of Trinidad, Flavour for the North Side

Those who spend time in Chicago’s North Side and along the expanding Northwest Side corridor can attest to how great it is having stretches of shops and restaurants that pander to pedestrian traffic. Although Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Wicker Park, and River North may be the areas many will name first, Rogers Park is slowly becoming a haunt. No longer is Sheridan Road the only popular walking stretch, but there is also Howard Street just to the west of the Howard Red Line stop.

Taste of Trinidad

A few weekends ago I went to a Senegalese restaurant on Howard Street and fell in love with the establishment. On my way back to the Howard Red Line stop, I walked past a Trinidadian restaurant. This past weekend I went to that restaurant — Taste of Trinidad at 2045 W. Howard Street. Having had some authentic Trinidadian food, I had to see if this new find would be worthy of any return visits. Well, it is.

Sorrel

Sorrel

Ginger Beer

Ginger Beer

Considering how the temperatures waited until September to become unbearably hot and humid, I started with a sorrel. This hibiscus drink is very popular in Caribbean and West African menus. Per my usual extreme craving, I ordered a curry chicken roti. I had the option of having the roti with or without the bone. Going the cultural route, I ordered the dish with the bone in. Looking more like a stuffed burrito, there was chicken in a hearty curry gravy with chickpeas and potatoes. Delicious. And the roti was substantial, quite filling.

Roti with Curry Chicken

Roti with Curry Chicken

Because food at Taste of Trinidad is prepared to order, I waited a few minutes before ordering a plate of curried shrimp with pelau, plantains, and cabbage. The shrimp were fat. The curry gravy was out of this world. The pelau, which were rice and beans, could be a meal alone and one so tasty that no one would complain about no meat. As usual at Caribbean and African restaurants, the plantains were clearly prepared after they were properly ripe because they were neither al dente nor were they less than sweet. And the cabbage was simply divine. Having downed all of that, slowly and to completion, I had a homemade ginger beer that puts bottled ginger beer products to shame.

Curry Shrimp, Pelau, Plantains

Curry Shrimp, Pelau, Plantains

I some time to talk to the owner. He had mentioned that the restaurant was a franchise, after which I inquired as to whether the other franchise location was Cafe Trinidad at 700 E. 47th Street. His response was, “Yes!!!” I had already become a fan of Cafe Trinidad and I was rather pleased that Taste of Trinidad is consistent with good food and fantastic service. When the owner said, “I know you’ll be back,” I guess he could see on my face that I was a satisfied customer. Then again, it may have been the smear of gravy that was at the corner of my lips.

Taste of Trinidad Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Jerky Jerk, No Jerking Around

Gino at Jerky Jerk

With the temperatures in Chicago now feeling consistently tropical, I had started getting more into a Caribbean frame of mind. Recognizing that there are a few Caribbean restaurants in the Chicago metropolitan area, most of them I have gone to already, I was on the hunt for a different spot. A great friend had mentioned Jerky Jerk in Chicago’s Rogers Park at 1217 W. Devon Avenue.

Beef Patty

Beef Patty

There are traditional dishes that I always get whenever I go to Jamaican restaurants. Beef patties are one of them. Unlike some beef patties that I’ve gotten at a few other Jamaican restaurants, the ones at Jerky Jerk were stuffed with meat. There were no air pockets in these, and with them being spicy, I ordered five more for take-away.

Curry Chicken, Rice and Bean, Cabbage

Curry Chicken, Rice and Bean, Cabbage

I hadn’t had curry chicken in months and I had an appetite for some in a major way. Spicy and loaded with Caribbean taste, the plate of tender chicken with rice and peas and cabbage really made my day. And because I had been in the gym, I was not full even after the plate of curry chicken. So, I had some Mrs. Brown chicken stew with more rice and peas and more cabbage. I can’t say exactly what spices were in the recipe other than what seemed like a marriage of curry and jerk seasoning. What I can say is that I was more than happy to order more of the curry chicken and Mrs. Brown stew chicken for taking home with me.

Mrs. Brown Stew Chicken, Rice and Beans, Cabbage

Brown Stew Chicken, Rice and Beans, Cabbage

Jerky Jerk is more like a walk-up. There are only a few tables in the dining area and chances are there are several other Jamaicans in the dining room having a go of it in Patois. The atmosphere is very much like what you experience when you are in Jamaica. And the food is definitely prepared full of flavour the way it is on that wonderful Caribbean island. I think my paternal grandparents would have been pleased.

Jerky Jerk Caribbean Grille Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

One, Two, Three, Pho 55

Pho 55

In previous posts, I have mentioned how Hyde Park has been undergoing changes. And these are welcomed changes. I have gone to a few of the new establishments on 53rd Street. However, there are a few pockets in Hyde Park that bear surprises. Pho 55 at 1611 E. 55th Street is one of those surprises. What was once a Middle Eastern restaurant for years is now a Vietnamese restaurant with some delicious menu items for those who are open to sampling dishes from Vietnam.

Lemongrass and Lime

Lemongrass and Lime

Coming in from humid temperatures, I was in the mood for something refreshing. I asked for a recommendation from the server and she told me that the lemongrass and lime drink would be a good option. I accepted the recommendation. I was glad that I accepted the recommendation. It was akin to a marriage of lemonade, limeade, and a hint of club soda.

Deep Fried Wonton Sheet

Deep Fried Wonton Sheet

For a starter, I had deep-fried wonton sheets. The thin, minced shrimp inside of the fried wontons were not substantial, but the flavour overcompensated. Served with a sweet and sour sauce and atop a green salad, I could have devoured an entrée sized platter of these fried wontons.

Grilled Chicken in Green Curry

Grilled Chicken in Green Curry

Having left a graduation ceremony, I had a white shirt on with my suit. Because of that, I did not have a soup for fear that the broth would splash about my shirt. Instead, I ordered grilled chicken in green curry with rice and a salad. I love spicy food and the green curry was spicy enough for a bite yet mild enough that I could enjoy the taste of the dish. Rice at Vietnamese restaurants alway has a perfect texture and the same was the case at Pho 55. As to the salad, I could have cut up the chicken, put it all in a bowl and had a wonderful time working my chopsticks on the dish. I was glad I ordered the curry dish than a pho. I did get one speck of curry on my shirt, though.

Fried Banana with Vanilla Cream

Fried Banana with Vanilla Cream

Being conscious again of my sugar intake, I had fried banana with vanilla cream sauce. The natural sweetness of the bananas in the fried wontons was better than any sugary dessert that I could have ordered. The vanilla cream sauce was only an accent, more like melted vanilla ice cream of the homemade variety.

Pho 55 does not have that hustling and bustling feeling that one experiences at Vietnamese restaurants in Chicago’s Little Vietnam along Argyle Avenue. There is a slight upscale atmosphere per the interior decor, but without upscale attitude. The service is fantastic. When you let a server make recommendations and he or she doesn’t act put upon, you have a winner in customer service. With outstanding food from the kitchen, it’s all about one pho the money, two pho the show, three to get ready, and pho to go. Yes, I know that sounds corny, but I couldn’t help it.

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Siam Thai Cuisine — How I Got Started

Siam Thai Cuisine

During my days of living in Hyde Park, I became rather acquainted with three Thai restaurants on the E. 55th Street stretch between Lake Park and Hyde Park Blvd. There were Thai Snail, Thai 55th, and Siam Thai Cuisine. Thai Snail was where I learned a few phrases in Thai. Thai 55th was where I practiced speaking Thai. Siam Thai Cuisine was where I became more conversational. Having been gone from Hyde Park for seven years, I found myself in the area checking out the new edition to 53rd Street. But for lunch, I went to Siam Thai Cuisine at 1641 E. 55th Street.

Thai Iced Tea

Thai Iced Tea

 

The manager still remembered me, not that I changed that much, except for a full, grey beard. After greetings and pleasantries in Thai, the manager said that I should order “my usual.” I was not going to argue with him about that. I had a glass of Thai iced tea, which is my favourite kind of iced tea. There is something about the smokiness in the tea that beats any pitcher of sun tea brewed below the Mason-Dixon Line. And when there is a plate of potstickers served with it, even the chilly temperatures that we have been having were tolerable. Soy sauce accented with sesame seeds came with the potstickers that were lightly fried, so the texture was not al dente like boiled dumplings. These were my favourite appetizer.

Potstickers

Potstickers

 

Having made a conscious and disciplined decision to remove beef and pork from my diet, I was certain that I was going to have panang chicken come to the table. Ah, but I forgot. My favourite entrée was yellow curry shrimp. Hearty like a gravy instead of a thin base, this is still my favourite. Filled with plump shrimp, red bell peppers, green bell peppers, and cubes of potatoes, and served with jasmine rice, I was rather glad that the manager remembered how much I loved the dish years ago.

Yellow Curry Shrimp and Rice

Yellow Curry Shrimp and Rice

 

Siam Thai Cuisine still has a bit of a hole in the wall charm to it. The manager was an absolute great individual, very much the same outstanding person, just with more grey hair now. I went to Siam Thai Cuisine at least once a week during my Hyde Park days, either for dining in or for take-away. After this most recent visit and the temperatures warming up soon, consistently — I hope — I may have to bring myself to be okay taking the bus ride from Logan Square to Hyde Park weekly. When your Thai food is “that” aroy, you’ll understand.

Click to add a blog post for Siam Thai Restaurant on Zomato

Ben’s Noodles and Rice, And I Don’t Mean Uncle Ben’s

Ben's Noodles & Rice

Thai Iced Tea

Thai Iced Tea

December has arrived. As much as December is a festive month, it is also the time that I spend wondering what happened to the other eleven months in the year. In addition to that, there are several holiday parties that I have attended so far, each where I nursed one to two glasses of a nice scotch while I watched others relive their college days of drinking and not being aware that someone had a cellphone out recording their antics. But this December has been one where I have spent a lot of time in front of the mirror looking at my flat tummy thanks to a few months of CrossFit. (Insert bear growl.)

After a Saturday morning of doing some “dreamed up” CrossFit exercises, I had an appetite unlike I have had since I started CrossFit training in September. I finished off some pancake mix that a friend had given me along with a plate of eggs scrambled with sautéed onions and cilantro. I washed it all down with three glasses of protein shakes and my belly was still growling. There was waffling between going for Indian food or Italian for lunch. I settled on Indian as opposed to Italian and while on my way to my favourite Indian cafe, I walked by a Thai restaurant that looked to have a cozy cafe feel to it. Well, having never been there, I stopped in. Ben’s Noodles and Rice at 1139 W. Bryn Mawn Avenue was my destination.

Basil Rolls with Spicy Plum Sauce

Basil Rolls with Spicy Plum Sauce

I was not in a mood for pondering what I wanted. Truth be told, I glanced at the menu for some appetizer that I hadn’t had before. The basil rolls with spicy plum sauce caught my eye. It was meant to be because the fine, ground beef wrapped in basil leaves, wrapped more in finger-length pastries, and then deep-fried was a highlight.  A bigger highlight was the Thai iced tea, which wasn’t merely red tea with milk in it. This tea had a smoky flavour to it that heightened my addiction for the beverage. It may not be to the liking of everyone’s palate, but I was satisfied with its balance to the basil rolls.

Tom Yum Goong

Tom Yum Goong

The temperatures in Chicago had been quite nippy, and being only a few blocks from the lake doesn’t make matters better, I wanted something spicy. I ordered tom yum goong and requested it to be Thai spicy. Warning: If you are not accustomed to eating spicy food, do not order your dishes Thai spicy. Instead, order them mild. I loved the peppery bite in each sip and final slurp of the tom yum goong. Plump shrimp, fresh mushrooms, cilantro, chives, and flavourful broth made for a perfect recipe in a bowl to make the wintry chill not so bad.

Panang Curry Chicken

Panang Curry Chicken

Fried Banana

Fried Banana

To thoroughly sate my appetite, I ordered panang curry chicken. It has been rather hard for me to deviate from Thai curries, being a culinary zombie for any curries. The panang curry was of a thin consistency, but packed with green peas, bell peppers, chicken, and a wow factor. Having had green curry, red curry, yellow curry, panang, and mussaman at countless Thai restaurants, I highly recommend to anyone that they opt for curries when they order. Definitely order the panang curry at Ben’s Noodles & Rice. And for my finale, I had the fried banana and a cup of green tea. Bananas dipped in coconut milk, deep-fried, and dusted with confectioners sugar are the best. They’re golden. They’re delicious. They make me smile. They are the best, indeed.

Ben’s Noodles & Rice is definitely one to go to for an authentic Thai dining experience. There was a constant flow of individuals coming in to enjoy a meal at the restaurant and a steady stream of customers coming in to order something for to-go. Noticing a lot of customers and the restaurant staff greeting each other by name and very familiarly, it was evident that Ben’s Noodles & Rice is common grounds for those who appreciate not only the outstanding food, but the top service. When I think back on the possibility of me having had Indian or Italian food for lunch this particular day, I am glad that I settled on Thai. Yes, I will be one of those customers who return to Ben’s Noodles & Rice so often that they will probably make recommendations for me in advance of me reaching for a menu.

Ben's Noodles and Rice on Urbanspoon

Paprika Soul With Chutney on the Side

Paprika

One would think that for a man who loves to eat a lot, he would cook his own food most of the time. I use the eyes on my stove to boil water for my tea and the conventional oven to heat food. But to actually pull together some ingredients, concoct a dish, and then cook is something I haven’t done in quite some time. So, I either pick up food to-go on the way home from work or I order delivery from GrubHub. One of my most recent GrubHub orders came from an Indian restaurant that was out of my delivery range, which meant I had to drive to the location to get the food. Well, it was so blooming delicious that I decided to go in for a proper sit-down to blog.

Mango Lassi

Mango Lassi

Papadam and Chutneys

Papadam and Chutneys

Paprika, at 2547 W. Lawrence Avenue, sits in a small strip of stores. It’s a quaint restaurant with a seating area that looks like the repurposed family room in a house. And that whole look and feel create an atmosphere of being at someone’s home, even before the owner welcomes you and tells you to make yourself at home. Having been in business for fifteen years in the Devon Avenue stretch, Paprika moved to Lawrence Avenue a few years ago in the Albany Park neighbourhood that abuts Lincoln Square. At this new location is where they are providing great service and lip-smacking fare.

Samosas

Samosas

As usual, I had a ravenous appetite. There were complimentary papadam and three sauces — tamarind chutney, cilantro chutney, and a spicy paprika sauce — that came to the table. Knowing that I was going to have my dishes spicy, I ordered a mango lassi, which was refreshingly outstanding. For a starter, I ordered vegetable samosas. Mild in flavouring, that was fine since I knew that the entrées I had planned to sample would compensate for the tempered spices in the samosas. I couldn’t quite place if the samosas were baked or if they were lightly deep-fried. Slightly crispy, they had the texture of French beignets — that being crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. I mashed them up, added the sauces, and gobbled them.

Coconut Curry Chicken

Coconut Curry Chicken

There was no buffet, so ordering was indeed off the menu. There were two entrées that I wanted to sample. After waffling between whether to order the butter chicken or the coconut curry chicken, I accepted the owner’s recommendation and ordered the latter. I was expecting the base to be of coconut milk. However, it was curry gravy with shaved coconut. I immediately fell in love with the dish after the first swallow. Unexpected is good when it comes to Indian food.

Rice

Rice

The second entrée was chana aloo. Served with naan, I should have ordered bhatura or poori instead of the naan. Because I had requested to have the chana aloo spicy, I got it the way I love it. I could taste the cumin and cloves. The basmati rice that came with both main dishes also brimmed with a hint of saffron and cloves. Scooped with the chana aloo and scooped with the coconut curry chicken, I was thoroughly pleased that I had made Paprika my lunch spot.

Chana Aloo

Chana Aloo

Well, with a meal consisting of a satisfying appetizer and two entrées well worth writing about, I sat and talked to the owner at length. We chatted about the plethora of Indian restaurants in London, the authenticity of traditional meals in Toronto, and how street food in the alleys of Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, and Calcutta is hands down the best. And somehow conversation segued into what we thought was some of the best dessert to be found. That was when I had some kheer placed in front of me. When people say, “It’s the best [fill in the blank with choice dessert] ever,” there is a tendency to hide giving side eyes and saying to yourself, “Yeah, right.” The kheer at Paprika was so incredible that I would have body slammed a rugby player if he were to have messed with my kheer. Anyone can mix rice, milk, sugar, saffron, cinnamon, raisins, pistachio, and almonds. Not everyone can “get it right” the way Paprika does.

Kheer

Kheer

What many in Chicago are starting to recognize is that like Middle Eastern food, Indian food is gaining a larger presence. Much of that is because of the great taste in the food and the other factor is, well, it simply taste so blooming fantastic. Because of the popularity of Indian dining, there are more restaurants opening their doors in locations away from Devon Avenue. Not that there weren’t choices from which to pick on Devon, but now there are locations opening quite possibly very close to you. If you love Indian fare and going to restaurants where you are made to feel at home, Paprika is definitely one eatery to add to your list. When the owners greets you with, “Swatgatum,” simply respond with, “Shurkria,” take your seat and prepare to ka some mind-blowing Indian goodness.

Paprika on Urbanspoon

Starting 2014 Spicy, The Indian Garden

Daal Soup

Daal Soup

Calendar year 2013 went out on a good note for me. I brought my weight back down to a manageable 205 pounds. My physician was rather happy about that. Considering all of the food I ate last year, I am surprised that I got down to 205 only. However, it seems that I may have to keep my weight in the range of 200 to 205 pounds. My weight gain ironed out all potential wrinkles that were starting at the corner of my eyes, under my eyes, and across my forehead. Now all I have to do is maintain a low stress level to ensure those wrinkles don’t creep up on my face. My glucose level is still a concern and that feeds into my New Years Absolution: no desserts. Ugh! Where my health is concerned, I won’t run around whining, “It’s so hard eliminating sweets from my diet.”

Naan

Naan

This year started out with Chicago being subjected to sub-zero temperatures. We had a week and a few days of feeling like the city should have been renamed Chiberia. I dressed in my construction man outfit for warmth. Let me be the first to say that construction coveralls are a winter blessing. In addition to the arctic freeze in Chicago, I had to travel some for work. Nothing beats traveling to another city with warmer temperatures and then wind up bitter when having to return to bitter Chicago. The good news is the assurance that some restaurant’s doors would be opened for business and I would enjoy some culinary satisfaction inside where the heat is no doubt turned up to at least 75 degrees. Such was the case when I trudged through snow, across ice, and through downtown wind tunnels — between our numerous skyscrapers — to The Indian Garden at 518 W. Harrison Street in Chicago’s Near South Loop.

Baigan Bharta

Baigan Bharta

I had been to The Indian Garden for lunch with some colleagues during autumn of 2013 and was slightly nonplussed. I love Indian food in all of its spicy glory. The lunch buffet was for the milder palate. Sigh. I smiled as I spooned a bit of this and a bit of that on my plate. A few month later, I returned to get take-away after work. When I got home and devoured a plate of bhindi masala, choley, and shrimp achari, I swore off going to The Indian Garden for their lunch buffet. My personal pact was to go for the after-five fare. And because the take-away was so blooming tasty, I returned for an in-house dining experience.

Daal soup. Baigan bharta. Curry shrimp. Naan. Masala Chai. WOW!!!

Curry Shrimp

Curry Shrimp

The daal soup was a perfect winter soup. There was, of course, the spicy factor that draws me to Indian restaurants. The beauty of this soup was that I didn’t get just a cup of it. No, I had a bowl of the hearty dish and a faint hint of heat rising from my scalp. Put a footnote there. I love spicy food. For my entrées, I really showed how much of an appetite I have. I ordered baigan bharta and curry shrimp. To date, I have not been to any Indian restaurant that had baigan bharta that made me want to run out into the street to meet my match with a renegade Chicago taxi drive. The creamed eggplant at The Indian Garden ranks high on my list of dishes that everyone should try. The curry shrimp left me speechless. As I am getting back to having a serious pescatarian diet, the shrimp curry was a cacophony of flavour, but I felt as though I had not ordered enough. So, I ordered extra to take home. With the basmati rice and tandoori naan, I was Gino in the Sky with Curry. And for my wrap-up, I ordered a masala chai that I drank without any sugar. Yes, it was that good.

Baigan Bharta, Basmati Rice, Curry Shrimp, Naan

Baigan Bharta, Basmati Rice, Curry Shrimp, Naan

The Indian Garden has one other location: 2546 W. Devon Avenue in West Rogers Park. In the same manner as the Near South Loop location, the food is outstanding and the service is remarkable. The location at 518 W. Harrison Street is more intimate than the West Rogers Park spot. From my experiences visiting each, and discounting the first visit for the lunch buffet, I cannot come up with a reason to miss out on all the delectable menu items that your taste buds can endure. Bernadine at 2546 W. Devon Avenue, Stephen at 518 W. Harrison Street, the staff at both sites, and the flavourful dishes that come forth from their kitchens make The Indian Garden a constant destination — or rather a constant destination for me and my constant hunger.

Masala Chai

Masala Chai

Indian Garden on Urbanspoon

Self-Assessment, Thai Style

Silom 12

At various times I take self-assessments that give me clarity and reality checks to keep my head out of the clouds. I have accepted the fact that I live in a trendy section of Chicago that is becoming more hip by the minute. I also accept the fact that I will not have a six-pack abdomen ever again – unless I do something drastic like resort to liposuction. At the risk of making a sexist statement, it is actually okay to be physically attracted to someone before dating them rather than trying ridiculously hard to convince yourself that you really want to wake up next to someone who makes your withdraw. And I acknowledge fully that Chicago is North America’s answer to outstanding food. Meanwhile, someone is saying, “No, New York City is” – where appetizers at brand name restaurants start at around $45.

Seafood Sauce and Chips

Seafood Sauce and Chips

With my condominium in the midst of going through some renovation, things are a bit all over the place. Bad enough I am all sixes and nines because of having things scattered, that does not interfere with my constant appetite. Rather than fidgeting around in the kitchen trying to concoct something to gobble before going to a Fourth of July barbecue to look at people devour chicken and ribs drowned in sauce, I figured I would get something righteous – and healthy, per my self-affirmation. Remembering a certain Thai restaurant that I have ordered take-away from several time, I left my condo in its disarray and zoomed to Silom 12 at 1846 N. Milwaukee Avenue.

Ginger Tea

Ginger Tea

The weather had been waffling between fair skies and overcast with a suspect look for a sudden downpour. So, instead of sitting outside and chancing having my food get doused by rainfall, I sat inside by a ceiling-to-floor window that opened up to the outside. It was the middle of the day and everyone was probably going towards the lake to watch fireworks – if there were any to be on display once the sun set. I had placed my order, got my camera ready, heaved a slight sigh, and three women came in and chose to sit next to me. Of all the spots in the empty restaurant, they sat next to me and gossiped loudly. I think I have been cursed.

Tuna Tataki

Tuna Tataki

I started with ginger tea to get my stomach ready for all the tasty food I was going to indulge. Let me just say that this ginger tea was not from a tea bag. There were crispy rice chips and a seafood sauce that had a faint hint of barbecue to it. How about that for the Fourth of July. This was a unique complimentary serving, light, yet blooming with flavour. My first hearty dish was an appetizer of tuna tataki. This was a very appetizing plate of seared tuna that was sesame-crusted with crispy egg noodles in a spicy Thai style seafood reduction. Served over julienne cucumber that came out of a garden, completely untouched by pesticides and “make it grow faster” enhancers, those three pretty-pretties had to watch my facial expressions of appreciation. I have had tuna tataki at several Japanese robata grills, but now I can say absolutely that Silom 12 has a version on its menu that is serious taste-worthy competition.

Larb Tod

Larb Tod

My next dish was larb tod. This was a plate of fried, ground chicken in rice powder and fresh herbs served with lemon over a bed of lettuce and red onions. I have a friend whose aunt had sent him hot curry from Thailand a few years ago and he prepared some larb for me that was immediately addictive. I was expecting the same from Silom 12, and it may have been the absence of the curry that detracted from what I was expecting. It was good, but I was thinking the first bite would have left me with a facial expression of wow. Nevertheless, my appetite refused to allow me complaining time, so the larb tod disappeared after I had worked my chopsticks on the dish for several minutes. And then came the dish that I was really at Silom 12 to have anyway – panang gari goong. That had been my dish of choice every time I called for delivery or take-away. The panang curry was sweet and spicy the way I requested, without leaving me with the feeling that my hair was on fire, though. Filled with red and green peppers, green beans, and plump shrimp, I was okay knowing that I could sit through any barbecue and watch people smear barbecue sauce across their lips, chins, cheeks, and every across their receding hair lines.

Panang Gari Goong

Panang Gari Goong

I washed the remaining lunch down with the ginger tea from the first cup and was then ready for a wrap-up of dessert. Per my server’s suggestion, there was banana wonton for my delight. Ripe bananas, accented with cinnamon and sugar, and fried inside of a wonton to a crisp went over so very well. There were slices of bananas on the side and a fantastic scoop of vanilla ice cream drizzled with caramel and lime sauce. Now, I could have had Thai custard, sticky rice and mango, and perhaps some other Thai favourite. But the banana wonton was ideal for my ridiculous craving. Truth be told, I was in a complete meditative state after I had finished the dessert and downed the last cup of ginger tea. Everything was quite okay in my world.

Banana Wonton

Banana Wonton

It is a good thing that I had ordered from Silom 12 several times before my in-house visit. It is a must that I dine at the restaurant before I feature it on Chicago Alphabet Soup, so this trip was necessary. The price is comparable to what you find at all Thai restaurants in the Chicago metropolitan area. The service was several notches past outstanding. And if you like the lounge scene – i.e., seating, interior design, and ambient music – Silom 12 is the place for you. When all was said and done, I left with another self-assessment.

I will be going back.

Silom 12 on Urbanspoon