Paladar Cuban Restaurant and Rum Bar

Paladar Cuban Restaurant and Rum BarA few years ago while enjoying the great outdoors and having some Mexican food at a neighbourhood restaurant, the owner had mentioned a nearby Cuban restaurant that he thought I would enjoy. The name he gave was Paladar, at 2252 N. Western Avenue. Like a lot of recommendations, I filed the name and then forgot about it until recently when I was walking along Western Avenue. Let me just start by saying that I should start taking recommendations seriously.

Guava Mojito

Guava Mojito

Mango Mojito

Mango Mojito

Arriving early before the lunch crowd on a Saturday afternoon, I perused the menu, deciding on a common appetizer and leaving the main dish up to my server’s recommendation. To wet my palate, the first cocktail I had was a guava mojito. Reminding myself not to down it like I was thirsting for water, it was hard to fight the temptation to turn it up and finish it in a few gulps because it was mixed just that well. Not heavy-handed with alcohol, it was apparent that the recipe had a good bit of it by the time I got halfway through the drink.

Flight of Empanadas

Flight of Empanadas

Along with the guava mojito, I had a flight of empanadas. There was a guava with cheese that was the best of that kind that I’ve had at any other Cuban restaurants in Chicago. The shredded chicken was flavourful enough that I made it a point to order several for take-away. The same applied to the beef empanada that I ordered in equal quantity to enjoy later. All served with three sauces — house barbecue, spicy avocado, and habanero — these baked treats were worth indulging what most would consider usual fare at Latin American restaurants.

Sauces: Habanero, Spicy Avocado, Barbecue

Sauces: Habanero, Spicy Avocado, Barbecue

Usually when I go to Cuban restaurants I order what I consider safe dishes (e.g., ropa vieja sandwich or ropa vieja plate, arroz con pollo, or chuletas). This time I deviated by accepting my server’s recommendation for chivo. Having eaten more than my share of curried goat, the slow cooked goat stew served with congri and sweet plantains at Paladar was all the reminder I needed to develop a new love for this stew. From the meat falling off the bone without any help to the nice kick from the habanero to the sweet plantains that were caramelized rather than dry to yucca that fell apart on the fork, it should not have taken this long for me to indulge a plate of such an outstanding dish. And the mango mojito that I had with the main dish was a case of a bartender’s concoction done correctly.

Chivo

Chivo

For the finale, I opted for bomba. More like Italian tartufo, this came to the table as an ice cream ball of chocolate and vanilla ice cream encasing a maraschino cherry and slivered almonds, covered in a dark chocolate shell. I countered the cold with a café con leche, a perfect ending to a perfect meal. Perhaps I shall have traditional flan, bread pudding, or guava with cheese on my next visits, but the ice cream was a plus for my first pass.

Bomba y Cafe con Leche

Bomba y Cafe con Leche

During the first few times I had walked past Paladar, the restaurant seemed empty. On entry during my proper sit-down visit, the restaurant still seemed vacant, but then I realized there are two rooms in the restaurant. I sat in the front room, which filled in quickly after I had arrived and ordered. Noting the various cadences of Spanish spoken in the front room, I detected sing-sing Cuban Spanish, rapid fire Puerto Rican Spanish, easy-come-easy-go Mexican Spanish, and the ting-ting-ting of silverware on my plate. Given Chicago’s many Cuban restaurants on its landscape, it’s fantastic having one in Logan Square landscape that’s within short distance to home. I will need to get some more empanadas when I run out of the ones that I ordered to take home with me. Hint, hint.

Paladar Restaurant & Rum Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Troquet River North, French Style

Troquet River North

Chardonnay

Chardonnay

Several years ago, a colleague who discovered my love for food and blogging about it had recommended a French restaurant in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighbourhood. Like some suggestions, I had entered it into my cellphone but never followed through. And when I did, finally, I discovered that the restaurant had moved closer to downtown. With Restaurant Week in full swing for Chicago, I saw a listing for Troquet, the restaurant that was once farther north, and that the restaurant was participating. So, it was off to 111 W Huron Street for a sampling.

With this being my first visit, I was more of a curiosity seeker than someone wanting to try a long list of menu items. I settled on a few dishes that I figured would be a good introduction to Troquet and a way to gauge whether repeat visits were worthwhile. The first dish that I started with was a bowl of creamy tomato soup. This came in a deep bowl, topped with some croutons that tasted like nothing from the bags at market, and also accented with a drizzle of chili oil. Before the first spoonful, it was apparent that this was not soup from a can, which some restaurants in the Chicago metropolitan area have sneaked out to tables. The chili oil didn’t overpower the base, yet it did provide a mild kick that made the tomato soup stand out as a favourite.

Tomato Soup

Tomato Soup

The second landing was a plate of dorade atop cauliflower, mushrooms, and spinach. Dorade was a curiosity menu item for me, being a lover of seafood, but having never had dorade. The texture was flaky with a faint note of silkiness. I initially thought that I had Chilean sea bass. The skin had been seared enough to have a bit of a crisp to it. However, the fleshy meat was succulent and bursting with flavour. The accompanying vegetables had been seasoned such that they were not screaming with salt or an excess of seasoning. This was a perfect landing.

Dorade

Dorade

The finale was an apple tart. The apples, which had mild hints of tartness and were crisp, were sliced thinly and served atop a flaky pastry that wasn’t a victim of too much sugar. This was an indication of the pastry having been baked on the premises from scratch. To make the dessert that more better, the caramel drizzle tasted like caramel that had been prepared using sugar and butter in a skillet in the kitchen. Yes, it was homemade. It was not melted blocks of Brach’s caramel.

Apple Tart

Apple Tart

Troquet is a spacious restaurant and surprisingly quiet. The interior gives off the feeling of a restaurant that was once a bar and has been repurposed. French restaurants in Chicago tend to have a bistro feel (casual) or a white tablecloth atmosphere (fine dining). River North boasts watering holes for those who love vibrant bar scenes. In the vein of French restaurants, Troquet is not a bar and while it’s not a pretentious place, the cuisine seems to stand out. For a place with great service and outstanding French food, Troquet is worthy of countless return visits.

Troquet - Hotel Felix Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Ras Dashen, Ethiopian Flavour

Ras Dashen

For weeks I had been mentioning Ethiopian food to a colleague who wanted to sample some. Having been to a few Ethiopian restaurants in the city that I have reviewed and one that I hadn’t reviewed, I wanted to return to the latter. With my restaurant advisor joining us, Ras Dashen at 5846 N Broadway Street was the destination for some cultural dining after coming down from a Thanksgiving high.

Qezqaza Chai

Qezqaza Chai

Nice and spacious on the inside with seating that accommodates those who like traditional Ethiopian seating or those who prefer tables, Ras Dashen has a comfy feeling. The atmosphere is relaxing such that you can enjoy the complete dining experience while also engaging others in your party without competition from too much acoustics.

We started with qezqaza chai, which is cold red tea accented with spices commonly found in Indian tea, like cinnamon, cloves, and black peppercorns. Along with the tea we indulged cups of mereq, this version cooked with creamed lentils, boasting a flavour akin to puréed mild, sweet potato soup.

Mereq

Mereq

For the main platter, we spared no expense. In keeping with opting for variety, we ordered one chicken, one lamb, one seafood, and a round of vegetarian menu items. The chicken was doro wat, which was dark meat chicken and boiled egg in a spicy berbere sauce. The lamb dish was yebeg de berbere, succulent lamb stew bursting with bold spices. The seafood dish was asa wat, fillet tilapia in a dark berbere sauce that had been prepared from roasted, ground flaxseed. As to the vegetarian offerings, we had telba shimbera misser wat — puréed chickpeas, split peas, and flaxseed in a dark berbere sauce. There was kik alicha, which were puréed yellow split peas cooked with onions, garlic, ginger, and green peppers. We even had tikil gomen alicha — spiced cabbage, potato, and carrot stew. And a final vegetarian item we ordered was ethio salata, which came as romaine lettuce, green onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, and jalapeños. There wasn’t one item that we did not enjoy thoroughly, evident from the empty platter when we were done.

Communal Platter

Communal Platter

The finale was a plate of Ethiopian bread pudding topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. In the same vein of employing cinnamon and cloves in recipes, the bread pudding had both and a nice share of raisins, dates, and nuts. Served warm, it was a fantastic ending to a hearty and delectable cultural meal.

Ethiopian Bread Pudding

Ethiopian Bread Pudding

No Ethiopian meal is complete without tea or Ethiopian coffee. Although there was no Ethiopian coffee service, complete with toasting the beans and going through a ritual, a pot of Ethiopian coffee simply can’t be beaten. Those who have taken Ethiopian coffee will attest that it bests any franchise, chain, or independent coffeehouse trying to play like a franchise or chain. The same is applicable to the coffee at Ras Dashen.

Cup of Ethiopian Coffee

Ethiopian Coffee

When it comes to Ethiopian food, individuals either love it or hate it. It is best enjoyed in a communal setting with a group of friends or family. The injera bread may be a different flavouring on the palate for many because of the slight tangy taste, bordering on what a few may deem as sour. However, mixed with hearty sauces in the vegetables and meats, the whole dining experience is a winner. Chicago’s Edgewater community houses several Ethiopian restaurants, so you can get a good selection of Ethiopian fare from each. I highly recommend Ras Dashen for not only good food, but also for outstanding service and quality all around.

Ras Dashen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Ajida — Yakitori and Ramen Happiness

Ajida

I recently posted a few writeups referencing ramen. Thinking that I had grown weary of ramen during my university days, it is rather surprising now that I have been hankering for it. Sure, it’s not the blocks that you open and drop in hot water for boiling. I can’t seem to get enough of devouring it nice and piping hot in a large bowl. So, I thought it would be a good idea to have a bowl for old time’s sake, at least to tide me over for a few months as I try to wean myself from this new addiction.

Wasabi Yakitori

Wasabi Yakitori

While on my hunger quest, I wandered past a Japanese grill and ramen restaurant in Chicago’s Loop. I paused on initial discovery because restaurants in the Loop are for the downtown business crowd: translation — fast food and fast casual so patrons can rush back to the office; authenticity not required. But Ajida at 201 N. Wells Street surprised me, starting with the fact that they’re open on Sundays.

Seeing that there were yakitori options on the menu, I started with four delectable meats on skewers. There were two skewers of wasabi yakitori, consisting of tender chicken breast brushed with a liberal amount of wasabi mayo, enough to clear the sinuses. There were umeshisho yakitori, which were chicken breast brushed with sour plum and basil. One that I loved from the first bite was mentai yakitori — chicken breast with spicy vegetable sauce. The gyu ebi kushi yaki, thinly sliced beef roiled with shrimp, was simply not enough, it was so blooming satisfying. The unagi kushi yaki meant me having another other of the barbecue eel.

Umeshisho, Mentai, Gyu Ebi, Unagi Kushi Yakitori

Flight of Yakitori

And then there was the curry age mono ramen. If anyone wants an example of a Japanese and Thai fusion being done uncompromisingly right, this bowl of ramen is the only example needed. Yakitori of deep-fried, battered shrimp came with the bowl of noodles in a broth topped with curry sauce, pickled red ginger, and scallion. Having recently gone to an Americanized Chinese restaurant that attempted a Thai dish and murdered the curry by cooking the base with an oyster sauce base, I had developed a distaste for Thai curry. Ajida rescued me from my Thai curry despair.

Curry Age Mono Ramen

Curry Age Mono Ramen

For the finale, I had a scoop of green tea ice cream and a scoop of red bean ice cream. I have yet to find any in the local markets and I’ve been okay with that since I freeze my own ice cream. But when I get ice cream with a wow factor in the flavour the way I got in the ice cream at Ajida, it is simply remarkable and you have to enjoy it slowly. No, it’s not fancy and it’s not spectacular. It’s just damn good.

Green Tea and Red Bean Ice Cream

Green Tea Ice Cream

Green Tea and Red Bean Ice Cream

Red Bean Ice Cream

Ajida has been in operation for two years. Much like Ara On, another Asian restaurant I’ve gone to in the Loop, I had passed by without a second glance because downtown restaurants sacrifice quality in flavour for quantity in patrons. The restaurant was empty, given it was a Sunday and I arrived early. The one indicator I paid attention to, that being a slow and stream of Japanese coming through, was all I needed to know that I might want to reconsider slacking up from having ramen; at least from Ajida, I’ll say.

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

Juno, Gino, You Know, It’s Good

Juno

While waffling between going to my favourite Italian restaurant or going for sushi, the latter won. Juno at 2638 N. Lincoln Avenue in Chicago’s Lincoln Park was one restaurant that looked interesting and after reading a few reviews, there was some hesitation. In retrospect, the evening was one well spent. It was good that I went.

My restaurant advisor and I arrived for a 6:30 PM reservation. The restaurant was empty until 7:30 when the dinner crowd came. Then it was all high energy. There is the minimalist Japanese style to the restaurant that actually gave me some ideas for remodeling my condo. However, the food was what we were there for. As you will discover, we loved it.

Cranberry Juice, United Shooters, Smoked Hamachi

Click to see photos in Flickr album

The server gave us a visual description of the items on the menu to whet our appetites. Given the menu was only one page, we had no problem narrowing down selections for a 10-course degustation.

For our first landing, we had uni shooters. Two vials on ice contained sea urchins, wasabi, tobiko, orange zest, and cucumber. With the sticks that were inserted, we stirred the ingredients and downed the contents in a swallow. Not a filling course, but that was fine. The flavour was simply delightful on the palate with a pleasant aftertaste that we chose not to cleanse with our cranberry juice or sake.

The second landing arrived under a dome with captured smoke. After removal of the dome, there were two spoons of hamachi with shiitake and sweet corn. Devoured in whole from the spoons, this was the size of what one would consider a l’amuse. Still, such a small item had an extreme pop in flavour, thanks in part of the cherry wood accented smoke.

Juno Queen, Sake, Juno King

Click to see photos in Flickr album

The third and fourth landings came as a pair. The Juno Queen was spicy scallop with taro and sweet potato on the top with rice in the centre and wrapped in salmon. Since the queen will always have a king, there was the Juno King, which was a signature nigiri of spicy king crab wrapped in tuna and topped with crunchy potatoes. Words cannot describe how delectable these nigiri items were. Only facial expressions would be telling. And because the two are better served together for comparison and contrast, if nigiri were a marriage, the Juno Queen and Juno King are perfect models.

Seared Scallop, Grilled Octopus, Ceviche Maki

Click to see photos in Flickr album

The fifth landing was the first of the hot menu items that we ordered. This was a plate of grilled octopus with pickled Granny Smith apples, ao nori, and zucchini ribbons atop an eggplant purée. As plain as it looked on the plate, it was anything but bland to the taste.

The sixth landing was the server’s personal favourite and quite understandable after the first bite. Tender seared scallop sat atop squid inked fettuccine with shrimp, black bean, and chopped red chili peppers. When scallops are done correctly, the flavour profile of the scallops come through with freshness and no muddy flavour. That was certainly the case with this course, and it helped that the fettuccine was an equally scrumptious complement.

For the seventh landing, we sampled one of the signature maki rolls, the ceviche. There were whitefish, tuna, and scallions in the middle. On top were shrimp, a hint of spicy aioli, and house made pineapple salsa. With fresh seafood, this was truly Peruvian and Japanese working together in a dish at its finest.

Steak Tataki, Lavender Cake with Lychee Sorbet, Mushroom Ramen

Click to see photos in Flickr album

Moving back to the hot plate items, the eighth landing was steak tataki. This was a plate of medium rare steak with Swiss chard, miso, corn, peaches, and sliced jalapeños. Again, this was a winner in flavour

The ninth landing we ordered was mushroom ramen. This landing had trumpet mushrooms, roasted corn, napa cabbage, pickles, soft boiled egg, and house made noodles in a savoury broth. Ramen has become quite popular in many Japanese restaurants. At Juno, the mushroom ramen had enough flavour appeal to make it a highly recommended ramen dish to order.

For the final landing, we had a dessert of lavender cake topped with sesame seeds, along with cantaloupe, lychee sorbet, and candied almonds. There was also a delectable citrus sauce poured in the bowl that took the dessert to a new level in bliss. Certainly not a heavy dish, but the flavours of all of the ingredients played well without any overpowering or competition on the palate. It was simply heaven.

Juno does exceptionally well with small plates, keeping in the tradition of serving dishes like in Japan. There is a bit of a high price per item, negligible for those who appreciate fine dining. Those who are accustomed to the “Chicago way,” that being restaurants giving so much food that you have to take some home, may find the cost problematic given the size of the dishes. For us, quality trumped quantity. And the service is simply outstanding. Overall, Juno was an enjoyable dining experience on three sticking points that we use to rate restaurants: quality of food, service, and price.

Kesshutsu shita.

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

California Pizza Kitchen, When Change Is Good

California Pizza Kitchen

Years ago when I worked on the Magnificent Mile, a colleague had a love for California Pizza Kitchen. It had become something of a palate cleanser for having too much pizza from Lou Malnati’s, Giordano’s, and other Chicago-style pizza eateries. For me, too much pizza, period, had made me lose interest in ever returning to any pizzeria, California Pizza Kitchen included. Imagine my surprise when I received an invitation for a review.

Complimentary Bread, Olive Oil

Bread with Olive Oil

My restaurant advisor, who had also worked with me in the Magnificent Mile, and I recently went to the location in Arlington Heights, Illinois, at 3 S. Evergreen Avenue. Not a considerable distance via commuter train, we arrived for dinner one evening after work. The restaurant was quite lively with families and friends. The front room service was top.

Flight of Sangria

Flight of Sangrias

While perusing the menu, we noticed that there was less focus on pizzas and the specialty pastas that our mutual colleague and we had indulged numerous times years past. Instead, there were appetizers and entrées that piqued our interests more than the usual fare that we remembered. Certainly thinking that it would be a better option to try something different, we told our server to make recommendations and send the dishes to the table. We did stipulate that we preferred to avoid pizza and pasta.

As we waited, we imbibed some rather refreshing cocktails. I ordered a flight of sangrias ranging from a white plum to peach to red raspberry. My restaurant advisor had a strawberry mojito. What we both noticed was that the cocktails did not have the watered recipe that one finds in drinks served at big box restaurants. These had the bracing snap of having been mixed by a mixologist.

Strawberry Mojito

Strawberry Mojito

We had a mini complimentary loaf of bread with herbed olive oil. Basil Leaf Cafe, which is one of my favourite Italian restaurants in Chicago proper, preps their olive oil in the same manner. A huge plus with the bread being fresh, the complimentary feature was great.

Tequeños

Tequeños

First to the table was a plate of tequeños. Very reminiscent of tequeños that I have had at a few Peruvian restaurants, the chicken and avocado in the ones at California Pizza Kitchen were mouth-watering. The added ingredient of bacon in the tequeños was unexpected. Then again, we didn’t order from the menu, but rather let our server handle the menu selections. Nevertheless, we were pleased.

The first entrée was a plate of herbed roasted chicken with vegetables. It was by the second bite that we wondered why the restaurant had not been highlighting such delectable dishes more in the past. The chicken was not only tender, but it was incredibly juicy. Add to that well seasoned cauliflower, squash, and potatoes, this dish actually rivaled chicken dishes that I have eaten at some restaurants in Chicago that people rant and rave about as if the meat had been marinated in gold.

Roasted Chicken and Vegetables

Herb Roasted Chicken with Vegetables

The second entrée was the final determinant that California Pizza Kitchen had decided to take a different approach with its menu offerings. The rib eye steak topped with a light garlic paste had been cooked to a perfect medium well that left the meat succulent. The salad in a light vinaigrette and the fingerling potatoes that had been seasoned with touches of basil comprised  a dish that my advisor and I agreed was better than some steak dinners we’ve had at a few noteworthy restaurants.We had not expected such a divine meal up to this point.

Ribeye Steak, Salad, Potatoes

Steak with Salad and Potatoes

Rather than order multiple desserts, we settled on a butter cake topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and garnished with whipped cream. As sated as we were from the complimentary bread, appetizer, and entrées, it still would have been a crime to have left any of the dessert. Although the cake was pedestrian in it’s presentation, it was anything but regular on the palate. With a cup of coffee each, we finalized the dessert and acknowledged that California Pizza Kitchen was a winner.

Butter Cake, Ice Cream

Butter Cake with Ice Cream

During a brief conversation with one of the staff members of the restaurant, there was mention that California Pizza Kitchen had started a move towards offering dishes that appeal to customers that preferred an expanded menu. It seemed that a certain age bracket preferred pizza and pasta, while an older age bracket had a taste for finer menu items. Without deviating from their core menu, the enhanced menu seems to have been influenced as a result of listening to their regular customer base. What they have done now was enriched their offerings for also enticing refined palates.

California Pizza Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Azucar, 9 Years of Tapas

Azucar

When I moved to Logan Square, there were several restaurants on the landscape that looked inviting. I made plans to go to the restaurants and then I realized one day that eight years had passed … and I had not gone to several of the restaurants. Azucar Tapas & Cocktail Bar at 2647 N. Kedzie Avenue was one of the many eateries that I passed and never stopped in for a sampling. I corrected that recently.

Olivos Machacadas en Casa

Olivos Machacadas en Casa

Having had a spell of hot and humid weather recently, Chicago experienced a reprieve from feeling tropical. During my visit to Azucar, I sat outside to enjoy the nice breeze and a degustation of a few tapas items. For a refresher, I started with a white peach sangria that was quite refreshing. While the alcohol was not heavy-handed, it was indeed there. To go with the sangria was olivos machacadas en casa, which was a selection of olives and baby pickles.

Empanadas Pollos

Empanadas Pollos

The next course to arrive was a plate of empanadas pollos. These were tapas size empanadas, but they packed a huge flavour profile. They were not merely stuffed with shredded chicken, but they were stuffed with well-seasoned shredded chicken. Served atop a tomato sauce and accented with basil, these were ideal with the finishing of the sangria.

White Peach Sangria

White Peach Sangria

Red Raspberry Sangria

Red Raspberry Sangria

I then moved into a seafood option that was extremely tasty. The gambas a pil-pil came as shrimp sautéed in spices and served in a dish that had a creamy garlic butter sauce. The perfect accompaniment with this dish was a mini loaf of bread that was ideal for sopping up the garlic butter sauce. Also, with this dish, I had opted for a red raspberry sangria that was as refreshing as the white peach sangria and also mixed nicely to hide the alcohol.

Gambas a Pil-Pil

Gambas a Pil-Pil

The final tapas I ordered was piquillos al fuego. Even as a vegetarian option, this was absolutely divine. These piquillos peppers were stuffed with a blend of cheeses and chopped portobello mushrooms, lemon, and chickpeas. As an accent, they were topped with fennel and a roasted garlic cream sauce. I had thought the bread with gambas a pil-pil was filling. The piquillos al fuego helped induce a desire for sleep and I was okay with that.

Piquillos al Fuego

Piquillos al Fuego

Per my server’s recommendation, I ordered pastel de chocolate for a postre. Being a few notches close to sated, this decadent cake put me over the top. Served with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream, I didn’t think that something so small could be so incredibly rich. And when I say that it took me over 30 minutes to finish it, it was because I didn’t want to have any regrets about leaving any before departing the restaurant.

Pastel de Chocolate con Helado

Pastel de Chocolate

Azucar recently celebrated nine years in spring, 2016. Just across the street from the Logan Square Blue Line and between El Cid immediately next door and a very short walking distance from Longman & Eagle, it’s in a prime location where there is plenty foot traffic. The menu is not extensive, which is very good for narrowing down selections, and the food is full of flavour. It took me eight years to walk the few short blocks from my condo to Azucar. It won’t take eight more years. That’s a guarantee.

Azucar! Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Animale, Casual Atmosphere with Fine Dining

When I initially went to Osteria Langhe in Logan Square, which is my favourite Italian restaurant, I wondered if the owner would ever open another restaurant. When he said that he and his managing partner were considering opening an Italian restaurant that serves casual Italian, I thought to myself, “No, please don’t join the ranks of stock Italian restaurants.” And when Animale opened at 1904 N. Western Avenue, I went and was rather confused. The ambience and decor are casual. The food screams “fine dining.”

Animale

A good friend and I met one early evening shortly after Animale had its opening. Noting that you order at the counter and then have a seat, after which a server brings your food, we opted for a 6-course degustation for sharing. We started with a pappardelle — roasted carrots, green onions, beef cheeks, and buttery flat noodles that were topped with bread crumbs. The first bite was the indicator that led us to believe that the owners are modest. Such flavour and authenticity aren’t present in most casual dining, honestly. The pappardelle was, in a word, outstanding.

Pappardelle

Pappardelle

One of the exotic dishes we tried was animelle. This was bacon wrapped in sweet breads, topped with a spicy endive salad, and drizzled with mustard honey. This dish fell outside of the usual fare found on Italian menus. Starting with sweet breads, American Italian restaurants don’t entertain such options. Dishes like animelle come with such pop that not only do you forget that it’s Italian but you make ticklers to yourself to plan return visits.

Animelle

Animelle

Another exotic dish was sanguinaccio. This dish was remiscent of pollo e funghi that I had enjoyed at Osteria Langhe. Instead of chicken and mushrooms wrapped in a tasty pastry, there was blood sausage encased in a puff pastry. Served on top of lentils in a La Tur citrus cream and a few leafs of endive, it becomes increasingly easy to dismiss spaghetti and meatballs as an Italian delicacy.

Sanguinaccio

Sanguinaccio

When I was younger, there was a commercial that used to come on with a little boy wanting to spend the night at his friend’s house to avoid going home to a meal of liver. At the end of the commercial, the kid was nonplussed because, per him, “Larry’s mother is cooking liver, too.” He probably wouldn’t have been so displeased if his mother or Larry’s mother were cooking fegato. These rabbit livers were accented with thyme and served with mushrooms, shallots, and madeira atop toast. And they had been cooked so that the consistency was slightly spreadable on the toast. Delicious.

Fegato

Fegato

Now, Osteria Langhe has a signature ravioli called plin that is addictive. There it’s simply mini raviolis filled with La Tur and parmesan cheese. At Animale, they’re hand-pinched pillows filled with La Tur cheese and served with house pancetta and arugula. It is difficult for me to say which recipe I like most and I know that I shall return to Osteria Langhe and Animale countless times to sample their plin so I can eventually be decisive about which I prefer more.

Plin

Plin

For the finale, we had panna cotta. There was no way we were going to skip such a delight, and we had the dessert topped with a chocolate sauce and sprinkled with hazelnuts, and raspberries. The portion was perfect, given all the food we had eaten, and it was the same recipe from Osteria Langhe that makes it a difficult dessert to turn away from.

Panna Cotta

Panna Cotta

The last time a restaurant owner mentioned opening a casual dining restaurant as a replacement for a fine dining French restaurant, it was a disappointment. Seeing how Osteria Langhe has raised the bar for Italian dining, from my personal experience, it was clear that quality would be top priority at Animale. Service falls in the Absolutely Best category, if I may add. The atmosphere may be laid back and completely devoid of pretense, but be prepared for the next best Italian restaurant in Chicago. With such bloom in flavour, I foresee long lines at Animale. I’ll be in those lines quite a few times.

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

Campbell’s Caribbean Cuisine, South Side Jamaica

Campbell's Caribbean Cuisine

When I first moved to Chicago, I was missing Jamaican food. I was accustomed to the countless Jamaican restaurants, cafes, and walk-ups in Brooklyn’s Flatbush, Carnasie, and Prospect Park neighbourhoods. My sister took me to a restaurant on the South Side named Maxine’s and oh was I in heaven. Well, Maxine’s has since moved to a location on Chicago’s West Side and Campbell’s Caribbean Cuisine has taken up residence in its place at 1225 E. 87th Street.

Beef Pattie

Beef Pattie

Fast forward to the near present. My sister and I were hanging out and after I had spent so much time wondering if Campbell’s was worth a trip, my sister grabbed her purse and keys and directed me to the car. Off we went. And on arrival, we noticed that the interior of the restaurant had changed. There was no spectacular decor about the place. The lounge look and feel was gone. But the smell of the food screamed, “Sit down and get ready for what’s going to happen.”

Jerk Chicken

Jerk Chicken

We had a real go of the menu and still decided not to order a ridiculous amount of food because we wanted to see if Campbell’s made the cut worthy enough for return visits. While catching up on happenings since we had last been together, we indulged beef patties and imbibed some ginger beer. The patties hit the spot, for true. And there is no such thing as a bad ginger beer, same being true here.

Brown Stew Chicken

Brown Stew Chicken

We ordered two traditional dishes. One was jerk chicken that was rather reminiscent of jerk chicken you get from the jerk mall in Port Antonio. The chicken fell off the bone with little effort, which was all the indication we needed to know that it was tender and moist. The same was the case with the brown stew chicken that hinted to me to get ingredients so I can make some in my slow cooker. Along with the chicken, we had rice and beans, cabbage, and plantains. Believe me when I say that a recalcitrant child who hates vegetables will love the cabbage here. And if you have the rice and beans and plantains served with it, the kid won’t miss meat.

Rice and Beans, Cabbage, Plantain

Rice and Beans, Cabbage, Plantain

After well over an hour of indulgence, my sister started telling me about some areas on the South Side that I had never gone to when I was living in South Shore and in Hyde Park. She took me to Brown Sugar Bakery at 328 E. 75th Street in a neighbourhood called Greater Grand Crossing. Everyone boasts about baking the best cakes and cupcakes ever. Brown Sugar Bakery has every right to boast the loudest. I had a caramel cupcake with caramel frosting clearly made homemade from brown sugar, butter, and milk. And to all bakeries still into red velvet cakes and cupcakes, just STOP NOW. The cake was not baked using cake mix, the same being true for the caramel cupcake. But it was the flavour and the texture that smacked of an original recipe being used to bake the red velvet cupcake. I have no problem going to the South Side for this kind of goodness. Brown Sugar Bakery has a regular customer and my sister has an appreciative little brother.

Brown Sugar Bakery

Red Velvet Cupcake, Caramel Cupcake

Because Chicago’s South Side does not have a large multicultural presence reflective of countries abroad, I had not captured many restaurants outside of Hyde Park for Chicago Alphabet Soup. There seems to be a number of Jamaican restaurants and a few other Caribbean restaurants scattered throughout the South Side. I think that this summer will mean me having a chance to try out several other various restaurants in the South Side vicinity. Maxine’s may have gone away and Campbell’s has moved in. And Brown Sugar Bakery may be the undoing of my flat tummy. Then again, all things in moderation. I’ll go every other week instead, not every week.

Campbell's Caribbean Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Momotaro, West Loop Japanese Style

MomotaroWith warmer temperatures in Chicago, dining invitations are coming in steadily. In a single day, I had an invitation to lunch for a sampling of Mediterranean food and an invitation to a dining event involving several Italian eateries later in the afternoon. To add to my plate, my restaurant advisor had booked me for dinner at Momotaro in Chicago’s West Loop at 820 W. Lake Street. Arriving for early dinner on a Wednesday evening, the restaurant generated a feeling of Friday after work. The dining area was filled and the energy was high. With the understanding that Momotaro prepares dishes for those who like small plates, we agreed to order several items that were good enough for getting a range of tastes.

One item we started with that we had not indulged at any Japanese restaurants was ikejime. Think of an orange gazpacho served with harami sashimi that comes atop ice. You put the sashami in the gazpacho and then enjoy. The pro was the dish was so blooming good. The con was the dish was so blooming good that we wanted it in a larger portion.

Ikejime

Ikejime

The unagi don was a highlight. This came in a small bowl as a mix of barbecued eel with shiitake and kanpyo mixed in rice. The unagi don was rather reminiscent of bibimbap prepared tableside at Korean restaurants. A plus to this menu item was that there was a liberal amount of barbecued eel for the feast.

Unagi Don

Unagi Don

Next for our palates was kani jomaki. This was a maki roll filled with cucumbers, crab, eel, and tomago. After a brief dip in the accompanying soy sauce, the rest was devoured without use of the sauce. If you order this dish, do not use soy sauce. This maki roll should be enjoyed without any palate disruptions from extra sauces.

Kani Jomaki

Kani Jomaki

Sticking with eel as a main ingredient, we had una kyu. Again, this was a maki roll that did not require soy sauce for dipping. Since there were some flavourful dabs on the plate, we used those instead. Outstanding and nothing but fresh taste of eel, this roll was more fantastic than most specialty rolls. Simple is often better, as was the case here.

Una Kyu

Una Kyu

Now that our rockets had been primed, the kani miso was the final countdown to liftoff and we were well on our way to the stars. I love seafood. However, my restaurant advisor feens for crab and the kani miso was a crab lover’s vice. There was creamy crab miso inside of a crab. Served with sourdough, there was no conversation while devouring this dish. There were the occasional acknowledgements of “This is delicious,” “Wow,” and “I don’t want this to end,” though.

Kani Miso

Kani Miso

And as all good things must come to an end, we had an ebi sashimi as a l’amuse between dinner and dessert. Rather than the ebi being served inside of a shell, butterflied, or simply outside of the shell, the chef had prepared the shrimp to a tartar texture.  This was a new way of having shrimp and one that satisfied the palate.

Ebi Sashimi

Ebi Sashimi

One dessert consisted of green peaches with a meringue crumble and a dollop of vanilla ice cream. This was another surprise, as one always think of peaches that bakers put into peach pies and peach cobblers. Green peaches are different, with the same burst in flavour, and rather sweet. For anyone saying, I will not eat green peaches, Sam I Am, you will after you have them at Momotaro.

Green Peaches and Cream

Green Peaches and Cream

The final dish was a citrus angel food cake with fruit and ice cream. If one could describe a flavour, think of a dreamsicle. The combination of orange from the cake and vanilla from the ice cream took me back to my youth of having a go of those frozen treats no sooner than my parents brought them into the house. After so much food, this dessert, as was the plate of peaches and cream, was light.

Angel Food Cake with Fruit and Cream

Angel Food Cake with Fruit and Cream

Momotaro always makes the list of top sushi restaurants to sample from in the city. The menu isn’t extensive, so the potential for being overwhelmed with too many options is small. I highly recommend getting a taste of as many small plates as possible and indulging the hot plate items. Yes, you can have sushi, nigiri, and sashimi from any Japanese restaurant. Momotaro seems to do an outstanding job letting diners enjoy a different variety of other Japanese delicacies while maintaining authenticity in the output. West Loop cheated with drawing a crowd with wide palates with the opening of Momotaro.

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