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

Indie Cafe, Japanese Style

Indie Cafe

While passing through Chicago’s Edgewater neighbourhood, I walked by a restaurant that I thought was a bar and grill. It turned out to be a Pan-Asian restaurant. I have slowly lost my interest in Pan-Asian cuisine. However, I will make a few exceptions. Indie Cafe at 5951 N. Broadway Street seemed like they were heavier on the Japanese menu. So, that was the option I went with.

Miso Soup

Miso Soup

Figuring that I would have a hearty lunch, I started with a miso soup, wishing that they had kabocha squash soup on the menu instead. After the soup, I had a flight of nigiri. Salmon, tuna, whitefish, octopus, shrimp, hamachi, and unagi, all fresh and all devoured slowly while enjoying jasmine tea.

Omakase

Omakase

Although I had several pieces of nigiri, the flight was still light. After a brief scan of the menu again, I ordered unagi don. This came as a bowl of barbecued eel over rice. This is a dish that I could probably eat daily and never complain about. The eel was not muddy, fishy, or questionable in taste. And unlike at a lot of Americanized Asian restaurants, the sauce was not heavy-handed with syrup.

India Cafe avoids cramming patrons close together. This minimizes the need to compete with others sitting immediately next to you, which means you can have conversation with others in your party without feeling like you are in a sports bar. I didn’t try any of the Thai cuisine since I am slowly working  myself back to indulging Thai at restaurants that prepare Thai food specifically. As to the Japanese fare at Indie Cafe, I must say that I enjoyed it.

Unagi Don

Unagi Don

The Uptown and Edgewater neighbourhoods boast numerous Asian restaurants where you can get a vast selection of Asian delights to fancy your palate. If you are in Edgewater and have a hankering yet you’re going back and forth over what you may find more interesting, give Indie Cafe a try. I recommend going for the Japanese fare on one visit and trying Thai on another one.

Indie Cafe 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