La Sardine, Not The Canned Kind

La SardineSeveral months ago the owner at my favourite Italian restaurant in the world, Osteria Langhe, recommended a French bistro to me since he knew that I liked the European feel to my dining experience. During my last visit to the Italian restaurant, I thanked the owner for his recommendation. He then offered a recommendation for another French restaurant that he was confident I would enjoy. My sister and I blocked an evening for a sampling and before going into the full review, I’ll just say that I will thank the owner at my favourite Italian restaurant for this most recent suggestion.

Located at 111 N. Carpenter Street in Chicago’s West Loop District is La Sardine. Come to find out that this restaurant is the sister location to Le Bouchon, which was the first French restaurant given to me as a recommendation. La Sardine is larger, less of a bistro, but without any doubt, the food is just as spectacular and the service is also top.

Not being in a rush, my sister and I opted for a round of various dishes for fulfillment of our own little degustation. There was a potato leek soup that puts to shame some of the same soup that I have had at numerous restaurants worldwide. Unlike the thin base that I have had in the past, this was creamy without the potatoes being the thickening agent. Fresh ingredients in the recipe and this was a perfect starter.

Potato Leek Soup

Potato Leek Soup

During my first visit to Le Bouchon, I had ordered the soupe à l’oignon gratinée. When my sister and I had returned for what was to be my second visit, she had not had the French onion soup, so it was a part of the meal for our La Sardine sampling. After cutting through the baked gruyère cheese and down through the crouton, she understood why I talked incessantly about how much of a fan I was of the soup. Midway through the soup, she declared that it was the best she had ever eaten.

Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée

Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée

It would be wrong to go to a French restaurant and not partake of any escargot. So, we had a platter of plump escargots à la bourguignonne bubbling in burgundy, garlic, parsley, and butter. After we had finished the savoury morsels, we used the homemade French bread to sop the remaining sauce from the little cups on the platter.

Escargots à la Bourguignonne

Escargots à la Bourguignonne

Sin entered the picture when the bowl of moules au cidre arrived at the table. Granted the morsels in the mussels are light, the quantity of mussels was not small. To add to that, the mussels were swimming in a delectable cream sauce accented with cider and shallots. After we finished the mussels, we then used the French bread to sop the rest of the sauce. My sister, being a Catholic, spoke to an invisible priest, “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.” Me being a practising Buddhist, simply acknowledged that I was enjoying the moment of gluttony and decided to be at peace with my higher power after coffee.

Moules au Cidre

Moules au Cidre

For my main dish, I ordered the rãble de lapin. The rabbit was delectable, tender, not oily, and nothing akin to gamey on the palate. Served with a potato risotto in an au jus, I had pretty much decided that I will spend quite a bit of time at La Sardine cleaning plates.

Rãble de Lapin

Rãble de Lapin

My sister ordered the magret de canard. This dish, one consisting of duck that was neither oily nor gamey, was a winner. This one came with lentils and rapini in an addictive orange sauce. There were exaggerated pauses in conversation during the main course. I have a habit of humming when food is divine and my sister gets reticent for a few minutes. We were silent for at least fifteen minutes.

Magret de Canard

Magret de Canard

There was no room for dessert. And although we watched some captivating sweets going to different tables, the most we could indulge was coffee. Coffee is the after-diner drink my sister always has and I opted for a cafe au lait. Quality bean, clean coffee machine, or whatever it may be, I can speak to the cafe au lait not requiring any sweetener and not making me feel like there was something bitter in the cup.

Cafe au Lait

Cafe au Lait

The service at La Sardine is through the roof. The restaurant fills quickly and there is a nonstop flow of patrons coming and going. Still, it is evident that the service plays a part in the experience being splendid for those who come. The food is hands-down the best French food in Chicago that I have had as of late — and I include the sister restaurant Le Bouchon in the number one slot with La Sardine. Seating is close, a rather European effect, so be forewarned if you go. Make a reservation because the energy is high. Go on an empty stomach, don’t be in a rush to stuff yourself, and be prepared to experience sin with all the good flavours of France.

Mon Dieu.

La Sardine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

I Come From Another World

HarvestBerwyn, Illinois, is surprisingly becoming a suburb for those who have no compunction about indulging tasty food. A former colleague who lives in Berwyn has introduced me to a few restaurants that have shown themselves worthy of repeat visits. There supposedly was a feature on television for a restaurant that is out of this world. Autre Monde, translated as “another world,” and at 6727 Roosevelt Road, was touted as a must-go-to eatery for those whose palates enjoy cuisine with a Mediterranean flair. My former colleague had gone to the restaurant and had spoken to how you cannot describe the taste — you simply had to experience it. Well, that was all I needed to hear to know that I wanted to be transported to a another world where people relished at aromas that tickled the noses and flavours that danced about the tongue like lords a leaping.

Autre Monde has a look and feel that is rather common among a lot of lounges in the immediate West Loop and Near North Side sections of Chicago. The lighting is dim, giving a muted orange glow. Everyone is glamorous, almost to the point where you wonder if it hurts to be so beautiful. The atmosphere is intimate. It is always recommended that you make reservations well in advance for the assurance of a seat and you arrive for the time that you have made the reservations, lest you relinquish your seat. The restaurant fills quickly. Of course, the service is outstanding and they will accommodate you if you visit without a reservation. But once you are there, be prepared for one of the best dining experiences of your life and a recognition that Chicago suburbs are, per the current urban lingo, on and popping.

Hummus and Fava Beans SpreadHaving the Christmas season upon us, my former colleague and I were in a festive mood. This was going to be a gathering before I departed to spend Christmas with my family and she to spend it with hers. With the restaurant filled, bearing others who came with co-workers and other friends dancing and doing things a notch short of embarrassing, we figured we would really get started with something from the drink menu. There is a drink called Harvest that is nothing short of autumn in a glass. I never would have imagined that whiskey and cider would be a great combination. Add a dash of cinnamon and you have a winning drink. Because we had saved our appetites for Autre Monde, we were careful not to imbibe the Harvest as though we had been crawling across the desert and were ridiculously thirsty. We tempered ourselves and placed our orders to cater to our degustation wants.

The first course we opted to sample was a plate of hummus and fava beans. There is no reason to ever go to a Mediterranean restaurant and not order any hummus. It is a staple in the Mediterranean diet and with some pita bread, you can fall in love with those creamed chickpeas, olive oil, and spices. Now, add fava beans to the mix and this was nothing short of Silence of the Gino, Mediterranean style. I have had fava beans with fish, chicken, pork, and in a complete vegetarian meal. I have even had them with a Chianti. Having it prepared as a spread was a new experience and one that I enjoyed more than I can put into words. It may be that it was something completely different to my palate. It may be that it was really that delicious. We’re not talking a dish that was heavy-handed with spices enough to be the glaring complete antithesis of a boring plate. It was a perfect start.

Mussels au Sete
Then we moved on to Mussels au Sete. I wanted muscles. I got some now. My arms are noticeably larger than they were several months ago. But I wanted mussels that tasted award winning in a savoury gravy. Lucky for me, I was already at Autre Monde and was happily obliged. It had to be the light gravy that made the mussels have an unforgettable taste. Heavy enough on the garlic but not enough to send a vampire running back to his coffin, my former colleague and I dipped the complementary toast in the sauce and devoured the delicate mussels with a tempered hunger. After all, we had more in mind to sample.

Moroccan Chicken WingsThe third menu item was one we saw going to other tables. The patrons were baring their teeth, frowning, and gnashing away with an animal intensity that made Sally in “When Harry Met Sally” come across rather tame in her mockery during the famous restaurant scene. Moroccan chicken wings landed on our plates and we topped them with cucumber yoghurt and a light pepper syrup. The combination of cool and hot was not something that my dining companion and I were going for but mixing the cucumber yoghurt and the pepper syrup really made the chicken wings scream. Even without adding the yoghurt and syrup, the wings had a flavour that held its own. The crust on the wings was delicate, nothing like the harsh crunch that you get on most fried chicken and definitely not a case of the Kentucky Fried Chicken sort, where the batter is almost feathery. We were contemplating ordering more of the wings, but that would have taken away from the degustation sampling we had planned. We were happy to have bared our teeth, frowned, and gnashed away on the wings that we had the way everyone else had.

Fontina and Wild Mushroom FlatbreadWe then graduated to fontina and wild mushroom flatbread. The whole concept of flatbread is all the rage in Chicago and has been for years. There are restaurants that make sandwiches with flatbread. Some pizzerias use flatbread as crust. There are even a few speciality cafés that serve it with dips and spreads. But when it is done right, it is an absolute showcase of talent. Looking at the fontina and wild mushroom flatbread, one would think it was pedestrian fare. It is anything but plain. The recipe apparently was well-balanced enough that the herbs and spices were present without overpowering the fontina cheese and the mushrooms. And let me not miss expressing the fact that you could taste the mushrooms, not simply chew them and know that they were on the flatbread.

Because the fontina and mushroom flatbread was so amazing, we wanted one more flatbread. An option was the spicy duck sausage flatbread. We immediately flagged this flatbread as a mandatory reason for a future repeat visit. Sun-dried tomatoes and seasoned duck sausage on flavourful cheese. It also found its way between our fingers, rising up from the plate, up towards our mouths where it entered and our teeth went to work. Smiles. Smiles as though we were on Fantasy Island. But it was no fantasy. If I had to choose between Chicago style pizza, Brooklyn style pizza, and the spicy duck sausage flatbread, Autre Monde would be happy to know that their little belly happy menu item would win.

Spicy Duck Sausage FlatbreadFor the finishing touch, we had pot de crème. Many people seek a pot of gold. If I want happiness, I only need the chocolatety hazelnut flavour of pot de crème to paint my face with a smile. So delicious it was that we intentionally took almost half an hour to eat all of it. There was no reason for us to rush through such a perfect dessert. The hazelnut influence in the chocolate custard had the right ratio to let you know that there was the presence of hazelnut but not such that it competed with the chocolate. After all, there were shavings of hazelnut on top with the homemade whipped cream. There could not have been a more fitting sweet.

Pot de CremeAutre Monde is, to put it succinctly, out of this world. For Berwyn to be such a homey suburb, you would never think that a restaurant with high-end atmosphere and top billing cuisine would be there. A few years ago, Berwyn was primarily a walk-up café haven where you were guaranteed some authenticity in the food you ate. The addition of Autre Monde and a few other restaurants will eventually have Berwyn filled with foodies seeking their Holy Grails of dining experiences. The price is commensurate with the quality of the output. The first time I went to Autre Monde, I did not have my camera and wished that I did. There was no way I was leaving home the second time around sans my toy to capture the culinary impressions. Actually, I wished that I had a camcorder to record my thousand faces of happiness as I ate. While I was able to capture the menu items that my former colleague and I had, and a picture is worth a thousand words, you will find that there are a thousand ways to express bliss for something delicious from another world.

Autre Monde Cafe 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