Seadog Sushi Bar

Seadog Sushi BarHaving watched several photos of sushi on Instagram, it goes without saying that I was in a mood to work some chopsticks. While passing through Wicker Park, there were restaurants quickly filling up with customers who had departed work for the day. Many were probably trying to get into a warm building since Chicago went from tropical to near autumn in a matter of days. Well, not wanting to deal with crowds, I pulled out my cellphone, flipped through some more Instagram photos, and saw a few postings from a restaurant walking distance from where I was pondering what to eat. I quickly made my way to Seadog Sushi Bar at 1500 W. Division Street.

Sea Soup

Sea Soup

Having indeed arrived early enough, I had a window seat and enough room to navigate the table for some shots at different angles. Well, I cannot claim true foodie credibility without photographs of my dining experience. And I was glad to have wiggle room without being in anyone’s way or them in my compositions. Thanks to the sudden drop in temperature, I started with a pot of green tea and a bowl of sea soup. There was no shortage of shrimp, whitefish, and crab in the soup. The flavour of the broth reminded me of sweet soy sauce. The green tea balanced out the sweetness.

The Island

The Island

Spooky Maki

Spooky Maki

An appetizer that grabbed my eye was The Island. It was sushi, but prepared unlike any sushi that I have had before. This was a dish of crispy sushi rice atop ebi tempura. There was a honey mayonnaise in the recipe that gave the sushi a pop that I enjoyed without use of soy sauce. The interesting maki roll was the Spooky Maki. This sushi roll was made of unagi, jalapeno, and cilantro served with a spicy mayonnaise and unagi sauce. The unagi sauce was rather sweet. After patting much of the unagi sauce on the plate, the sushi pieces were delicious.

Green Tea

Green Tea

Seadog Sushi Bar seems like a quaint restaurant, not one that is boisterous and loud. Granted I went as soon as the doors opened for even dinner, there is a bit of a laid back feel in the atmosphere regardless. There is a BYOB policy, so for those who wish to imbibe a cocktail or a beer while feasting on sushi, they may bring their spirits and Seadog will provide glasses. Overall, it was a splendid experience. I will have to keep in mind that it may be wise to order dishes one at a time. I am discovering that a lot of restaurants deliver orders to the table rather quickly and you may not be done with one dish before another one arrives at the table. Seadog Sushi Bar abides by that Americanized way of service. Good sushi is not to be rushed.

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Degustation Japanese Style

Roka Akor

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

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

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

Sashimi Platter

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

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

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

Preparing Sashimi Platter

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

Roka Akor on Urbanspoon

Of Finding Many Holy Grails

Ruk Sushi Bar and Thai Ciuisine

When it comes to recommended dining in Chicago, newspapers and magazines tend to promote certain neighbourhoods more than others. Lincoln Park. Lakeview. Andersonville. Near West Loop. Near South Loop. Hyde Park. Wicker Park. Bucktown. Logan Square. River North. Uptown. Downtown. These are the ones that receive the most press and rightfully so. But these neighbourhoods comprise a rather small percentage of Chicago as a whole. In my politically correct vernacular, restaurants in these areas tend to cater to those with milder palates, lest some editorial gets posted by someone who was red in the face from spicy food. Along the lines of seeking something not a part of the common recommended eateries, I happened upon a Japanese sushi bar and Thai cuisine restaurant in Chicago’s Portage Park. At 4431 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Ruk may be found. Granted Portage Park is undergoing an incredibly slow urban renewal, there are some pearls that are starting to dot the landscape as buildings that were once vacant have since transformed into bars and restaurants. Ruk is one of these new establishments.

Crunchy Shrimp Maki

With an interior that looks like it was once a sports bar but now has a minimalist feel, Ruk is a great culinary boutique for some of the best sushi and Thai cuisine in Chicago. Upon entry, you are greeted with a welcome and escorted to any of the window seats. Yes, everyone gets a window seat. Behind the counter were two young Mexican sushi chefs who deserve high marks. This is the second sushi bar I have gone to where the sushi chefs were Mexican and who could easily raise the bar for flavour in the food without compromising the authenticity of the experience.

Spicy Ebi Tempura

Hungry as usual and daring to boot, I ordered two maki rolls and a Thai dish. I started with a crunchy shrimp maki that had shrimp tempura, cucumber, scallion, tempura crunch, masago, spicy mayo, and kabayaki sauce. Although the shrimp had been cut, there was still a lot of it in the roll. For there to have been five pieces, it was filling and the preparation had so much flavour without going all over the place that I could have ordered another crunchy shrimp and not had any remorse about possibly not trying another roll. But I ordered a spicy ebi tempura instead. Shrimp tempura, spicy mayo, cucumber, and scallion worked together in a magnificent combination that had me nodding to the sushi chefs in appreciation — I sat across from the sushi stand. I had a mind to order another sushi roll, but I wanted to try something from the Thai menu. I must admit that I find it fascinating that there seems to be a constant pairing of Japanese and Thai in Chicago, neither pairing cuisine with countries that border them. I have only experienced a blending of Thai, Indian, and Burmese cuisines in Toronto. Then again, Toronto is Utopian in its cultural diversity. But that is quite okay. And it was just fine when the panang chicken came to the table. I have had panang that was so bad that I wanted to throw the bowl against the wall. I have had panang so good that my eyes rolled back in my head. And then I taste the panang — and I ordered it Thai spicy since I have no mild palate — at Ruk and all I wanted to do was hum while my foot kept tapping the floor. The panang gravy was not hearty, but it was thick nevertheless and the taste-vibrant green and red peppers were the ideal accent. To the cook who prepared that dish with fresh chicken and superb panang deserved an applause.

Panang Curry with Chicken

In fairness to the newspapers and magazines that give plugs to the aforementioned neighbourhoods as having the best cuisine, I understand that they want to promote businesses that will be comfortable for the multitude. Having gone to most of the recommended eateries, I can attest to how delicious the meals were that I had eaten. However, the atmosphere in many comes across “upscale sports bar for the professional man and woman.” Loud and boisterous, you have to yell to be heard. Dining should not come with aggravation, even if the food puts many New York City restaurants to shame. But a few miles away from those locations are some of the absolute best authentic cafes and restaurants. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I continue to seek many fooderies — my made-up word — where my appetite and I may be sated while continuing the quest for finding as many holy grails of dining as possible.

Ruk on Urbanspoon