Lula Cafe, Been So Long

Lula Cafe

When family visits, I avoid downtown tourist traps. Coming from cultural hubs like New York City, Toronto, Montreal, and London, nothing can kill an enjoyable stay in Chicago like going to some establishment and faking a smile throughout the experience. And when Caribbeans start sucking their teeth, you have to redeem yourself quickly. Well, during my sister’s visit, I took her to several ethnic restaurants where I have gone already and to a few restaurants where I have not been. Lula Cafe at 2537 N. Kedzie Boulevard in Logan Square is one cafe that I bypassed for years because of arriving late and having to wait for almost an hour for a seat.

La Piña Coronado

La Piña Coronado

Penicillin

Penicillin

With fantastic temperatures finally gracing Chicago, we had waited for an outdoor seat so that we could soak up some sun, feel the breeze, and enjoy some brunch. Since no brunch is complete without a cocktail, we had one apiece for starters. My sister had a la piña coronado, which definitely screamed Caribbean. The recipe of agricole, amaretto, pineapple, coconut made for quite a refreshing cocktail. I am a fan of scotch, so I had the penicillin. The combination of scotch and ginger was a winner, for true.

Scrambled Eggs with Cream Cheese

Scrambled Eggs with Cream Cheese

Having eaten something only a few hours before arriving at Lula Cafe, my sister ordered pancakes and scrambled eggs. To hear her describe them, they were tasty pillows accented with confectioners sugar. One highlight that certainly cannot be missed was the apple chicken sausage. Either the sausage was grilled or there was some liquid smoke used in the recipe, for it tasted like it had been smoked at a backyard barbecue. For me, I had scrambled eggs with cream cheese. And for the main brunch item, I ordered brioche French toast that was crusted with pistachios and topped with raspberries. The French toast was so good that it didn’t require any syrup. This French toast may be one of the main reasons why there is a constant crowd at the cafe.

French Toast with Berries

French Toast with Berries

Lula Cafe is a small cafe with limited seating inside and some patio seating outside. It seems as though there is a constant tide of customers and I imagine the ebb is during closing only. Even then, the service is fantastic. The output from the kitchen reminds me of home cooking, not restaurant cooking, and this may also be something what customers find so inviting. I had been tempted to take my sister into downtown to one of the numerous breakfast spots, but I am glad that I decided to go to a place closer to my apartment. I only have to remember to arrive as soon as the doors open when I go again.

Click to add a blog post for Lula Cafe on Zomato

Starting the Morning at Bite Cafe

Bite Cafe

Going for breakfast on Saturday and Sunday mornings in Chicago can be rather discouraging. Many breakfast spots have long lines outside and crowded waiting areas inside. If you are like me and you are not a fan of waiting a long time for something to eat, you end up preparing your own breakfast at home. And then you stumble upon Bite Cafe.

Coffee with Cream

Coffee with Cream

It could be that I arrived as soon as they opened for business because the restaurant did start to fill up later, but not such that patrons had to wait outside for a seat. This was a huge plus. Quite cozy on the inside, Bite Cafe does not fit the big box or even medium size restaurants. Not of the hole-in-the-wall variety, but definitely inviting, my appetite and I were rather happy.

Scrambled Eggs and Mashedbrown

Scrambled Eggs and Mashedbrown

I ordered mashedbrown, eggs scrambled well with Gruyère cheese, and the challah bread French toast. The mashedbrown was a potato cake that I’d buy in bulk and eat in the mornings for a breakfast snack. And since I was able to get Gruyère cheese in my eggs rather than American, jack, or cheddar cheese, I was in love. The French toast was so blooming good that it didn’t require any more syrup than the maple syrup drizzle that came on it. The hazelnut butter and banana creme anglaise gave flavour without making the toast excessively sweet.

Challah Bread French Toast

Challah Bread French Toast

So, it seems that Bite Cafe also has lunch and dinner menus. I shall have to return after work one of the days to check out those offerings. The breakfast set was definitely good enough for me to consider several more mornings visits.

Bite Cafe on Urbanspoon

Punta Cana, Chicago, Not Dominican Republic

Punta Cana Restaurant

I cannot really say if international traveling makes me suffer from jet lag more or if it does wicked things to heighten my appetite. Having returned from a long trip, where I stood up for a friend in his wedding, I have been waffling between napping, unfolding, and hunting for something to fill my jaws. Honestly, that’s routine for me every weekend, but globetrotting really spikes my want for putting my feet under the table and making magic — making food disappear.

Mangu, Eggs, Fried Cheese

Mangu, Eggs, Fried Cheese

Now, I am not a fan of denying myself a proper breakfast. And my friend’s uncle and aunt, who was hosting a group of us, cooked a Dominican breakfast that left me a tad bit rumpled with a constant smile. Their desayuno was exactly the hint I needed to find myself venturing towards the southern end of Logan Square to Punta Cana Restaurant at 2200 N. Kimball Avenue. Small, quaint, family style, and with the kitchen viewing distance from the seating area even for those with nearsighted vision, I was at one of the tables having a Dominican staple of mangu, eggs, and fried cheese. Sprung!!! When your hunger actually has a voice, trust me when I say that a plate of mashed plantains, eggs sunny side up, and fried cheese will satisfy your craving. And with a cafe con leche in hand — Starbucks  what? Intelligentia where? Dunkin Donuts huh? — I was very much in my happy place.

Sancocho

Sancocho

A few days had passed and I returned. I was curious as to whether they had a certain staple in the Dominican diet that Dominicans enjoy during the weekends. I wanted some sancocho. Wouldn’t you know that as soon as I got through the door, there were others sitting at the few tables with their faces hovering over bowls of the soup? I must have been a bit too overjoyed because a few seconds had passed before I registered that the woman at cash register had asked me where I was from because my Spanish was so fluent. If I don’t know anything else in any other language, I have a comfort ordering food. And believe me when I say that you, too, will speak Spanish complete with accent and inflections once you start slurping some sancocho. ¡Aye, Dios mios!

When I made the first pass over the alphabets for the blog, finding a country representative of D was challenging. There was one Dominican restaurant that I did stumble upon. With these recent visits to Punta Cana Restaurant, I have a feeling there may be more. I shall have to hunt for them because it may be some time before I get back to Dominican Republic. In the meantime, it costs me far less to walk or bike to Punta Cana Restaurant for some more mangu and sancocho. Gino, your plate of food is in la concina.

Batter & Berries and Breakfast Bliss

Berries & Batter

Weekends are for rest. Well, that has been the lie I had been convincing myself was real for the past few years. After long hours at work and then having to get on the computer to do extra stuff, I would look forward to weekends when I would stay in bed late, get up and grab a quick snack, and then lounge around my condo with a plate of something nearby. Alas, there are errands to run, clothes to wash, cleaning around the condo to be done, and a frenzied email that needs to be addressed. Nevertheless, work doesn’t end. So, I have to fortify myself for the onslaught. For example, today I met a great friend at Batter & Berries in Chicago’s Lincoln Park at 2748 N. Lincoln Avenue. Getting there involved work, as driving down roads riddled with cavernous pothole requires dexterity, quick reflexes, and a large vocabulary to avoid a potty vernacular when slamming into any of the many potholes.

Eggs Scrambled with Gouda Cheese

Eggs Scrambled with Gouda Cheese

My friend had gone to Batter & Berries already, so she had warned me of the crowd that the restaurant experiences. Chicago boasts some fantastic breakfast spots where people will gladly wait in long lines — inside or outside, even in cold temperatures — for a seat so that they can slice away at some pancakes, omelette, waffles, or sausages. Knowing the location of where Batter & Berries is, we agreed that we would get there shortly after the doors opened for business. Wouldn’t you believe that at 8:00 AM, the restaurant was full?

Eggs Benedict Over Crab Cakes With Hashbrowns

Eggs Benedict Over Crab Cakes with Hashbrowns

My friend ordered a plate of eggs Benedict over crab cakes. This came with hashbrowns. Not being a fan of poached eggs, my friend ordered the eggs Benedict scrambled. Yes, it was a slight modification to the original recipe for assurance that the eggs were not runny. The crab cakes were of the Maryland style, that being lump crab with light breading. This was fantastic because not only were they delicious, but you don’t have to go all the way to Maryland to have crab cakes done properly. And also with the dish came a side of vanilla rum French toast with a dollop of maple butter. Per my friend’s facial expression, she would have gone outside and had a cigarette to show approval of how tasty the French toast was.

Flight of French Toast

Flight of French Toast

I ordered a flight of French toast. Yes, I am exhausting all avenues of flights, having started with a flight of mojitos, and recently indulging flights of whiskey cocktails. Far be it from me to ring the bell tower when it comes to food. Wait. I will ring the bell tower to announce how much I loved the slices of the vanilla, strawberry, lemon, caramel, and blueberry French toast. I rolled my eyes, hummed, went into radio silence mode, smiled my stupid smile, and mumbled nonsense. And to make matters worse, I had a plate of scrambled eggs with gouda cheese in it. For my next confession, I shall let it be known that I have fallen in love with eggs scrambled well with gouda cheese in them.

Berries & Berries was well worth me getting out of bed early. While I can’t flag the restaurant as being couched in any specific ethnicity, I have an allowance for American fare on Chicago Alphabet Soup, especially when it involves the most important meal of the day. The service is outstanding and you really get won over when they show you photos of different dishes on iPads while using the same device to place your order. The prices are incredibly reasonable. But what matter most is the loving from the kitchen, whipped up in some batter with berries and a sprig of bliss.

Batter & Berries on Urbanspoon

Swedish Foodtography and Cinnamon Rolls

Ann Sather

Years ago when it was my turn at work to bring in doughnuts, bagels, or something sweet for breakfast, I always went by Ann Sather for my purchase. In the suburbs where I was working at the time, there were the various bakeries that sold the usual doughnuts, ala Dunkin Donuts. Unlike when Dunkin Donuts had first opened its doors to business, it has since become a bake shop and the concept of the baking the doughnuts on the premises had come to a disappointing halt. Needless to say, I chose to buy some fresh cinnamon rolls to take to work when it was my turn rather than torture my co-workers with stale Dunkin Donuts purchased at sunrise. People at work would mumble, Oooh and Aahhh. They envied our city fare when it came to tasty food.

Swedish Waffles

Swedish Waffles

My discovery of Ann Sather also meant that I had at least one ethnic restaurant to blog for Chicago Alphabet Soup. My first visit to Ann Sather for the purpose of blogging the restaurant was at the Southport Corridor location. I was stuffed to capacity, happy as a lark, and had a nice write-up for the reading audience. Later, the restaurant closed its doors to business. The Southport Corridor had lost a great establishment and I had a write-up to a location that was no longer open for patronage. Of course, there were other locations of Ann Sather in the city and I made it a point to eventually get around to returning for an update to my original blog entry. That day came and it was the Edgewater location at 1147 Granville Avenue where I had a window seat and an appetite for something from the menu.

Eggs Scrambled with Mascarpone Cheese

Eggs Scrambled with Mascarpone Cheese

Filled with the usual North Side cast of characters, I eyed the bill of fare for the breakfast options and was ready to stop my belly from rumbling. I ordered the Swedish waffles and eggs scrambled well with mascarpone cheese. The waffles were thin, but not crepe thin, and fluffy. They certainly were not of the Eggo quality either, as I could taste the buttery flavour in the recipe. The two of them, that I drizzled rather than drowned with syrup, were just what I needed to silence the monster. The first time I had gone to Ann Sather for breakfast, I was introduced to having cream cheese in my scrambled eggs. This time there was no cream cheese, but there was mascarpone cheese and I indulged it all the same. The two guys sitting next to me when I had ordered the eggs looked at me as though I was an exotic not from America. Well, I am from London, albeit I grew up in America, but that is besides the point. When the eggs had arrived, they watched me with curiosity. I think some people love looking at exotics. And for a nice wrap-up, I had coffee and a cinnamon roll. You have not had a good cinnamon roll until you have had a warm, soft cinnamon roll from Ann Sather. I know there are some individuals debating my observation, someone whose point of reference for a good cinnamon roll is a concoction not too different from a Pillsbury cinnamon roll from the can. I pity said individuals.

Cinnamon Roll and Coffee

Cinnamon Roll and Coffee

It goes without saying that Chicago has countless restaurants that come and go. Ann Sather is a Chicago chain and one that people appreciate greatly. All you have to do is walk by any one of the locations and see the place teeming with patrons. The breakfasts simply cannot be denied as some of the best you will get in Chicago. Walker Brother, Original Pancake House, IHOP, and the various breakfast houses that those of the suburban ilk love more than their weekend trip to Wal-Mart are worthy of their praise. Then there is Ann Sather where not only do you get stupendous breakfast, outstanding service, and food at a price that doesn’t make you sigh, but you can also get a cinnamon roll that will shoot you straight to the moon. Hmm. Houston, we have a problem. We’re out of cinnamon rolls.

Ann Sather Restaurant on Urbanspoon

I Am 45

The Williams Smile

The Williams Smile

On 5 April 2013, at 1:15 PM, I officially turned 45. As a mathematician I tend to be more exact with things than necessary. When I turned 30, I was too busy planning the celebratory birthday party to realize that I had reached a third decade in my life. By the time I turned 40, family had a huge birthday party for me and it was just another day. Now that I am 45, it occurred to me that the next big birthday for me will be 46, not 50 as some would say. Truth be told, I look forward to each year with more excitement than the previous years.

As I get older I am aware of more things that are pertinent in my Disney.

  • There are things I am not supposed to have. And I’m okay with that.
  • There are places I am not supposed to go. And I’m okay with that.
  • There are people I am not supposed to have messing up my happiness. I am ecstatic over that.
  • Time goes by faster now than it did when I was a kid. Summer break used to last forever.
  • I am with the person who makes me happy. Note the strikethrough. That alone shaves 20 years off my face.
  • Smiling removes wrinkles naturally. To think that people pay for Botox injections and nip-tucks.
  • I am aware of the passage of time, as there isn’t enough time to eat all that I’d like to eat.
  • Food is my lover and anyone who thinks otherwise should be fitted for a straight jacket. (Being careful so my high school crush doesn’t read this statement.)

Instead of a huge party with dozens of people milling around and me not getting a chance to sit and talk with any of them at great length, I opted for more personal celebratory gatherings with friends, family, and my high school crush who kept teasing me with the promise of baking me an Italian cream cake. I started the morning meeting some friends for breakfast. With it being my birthday, they wanted me to be “in the moment,” which meant we were not doing anything with an ethnic leaning to have me switch into blogger mode. That didn’t mean I should leave my camera at home. So, into the bag went the camera and out the door I dashed to Marmalade at 1969 W. Montrose Avenue in the Ravenswood neighbourhood of Chicago. I was in blogger mode and that was inevitable. Super service, contrary to some disturbing reviews I’ve come across, and I will chalk that up to us getting to the restaurant at 7:00 in the morning when everything was new and patrons with bitterness, indecisiveness, and wants for vicious reviews had not poured in.

Cafe au lait. Eggs scrambled well with cream cheese. Cubano French toast.

Cafe Au Lait

Cafe Au Lait

The cafe au lait was not bitter, not in the least. I drank it without any sugar and said silently, “Intelligentia, you have competition.” By the second cup, I was saying, “Intelligentia what?” Nothing spectacular about cream cheese in my eggs, as that is a staple for my desired preparation of eggs. Where I wanted to stand up and sing “Gino Marmalade,” was with the Cubano French toast. I would gladly have enjoyed a petite mort after the first bite of the French toast in guava marmalade with a cream anglaise, topped with strawberries, guava, and granola. The lyrics would have been something like:

Gitchi, gitchi, ya ya da da da
Gitchi, gitchi, ya ya here
Mocha chocolata ya ya
Hungry Gino Marmalade

Scrambled Eggs

Scrambled Eggs

The prices for the menu items are reasonable. The service was outstanding. The food was so yum-inspiring that I could have sung an aria. Whatever gripes reviewers on Yelp have with Marmalade, I will return and I will have to make it a point to fight the urge to stand up and launch into the following lyrics:

Voulez-vous manger avec moi ce jour?
Voulez-vous manger avec moi?
Voulez-vouz manger avec moi cest jour?
Voulez-vous manger avec moi?

Cubano French Toast

Cubano French Toast

For lunch, I met with two friends I had worked with when I was driving off the map to the wonderful West Suburbs. We met at Wok’n Fire at 1576 W. Lake Street in Addison, Illinois. It’s the usual big-box atmosphere like what you get at Pei Wei Asian Diner and at PF Chang. But the aromas made the restaurant smell less of a buffet cafeteria and more like some good food was being prepared in the kitchen. After laughter about how the company had become a revolving door and joking about how some people manage to get promotions although they take vacation time in impromptu, unscheduled fashion, it was time for food. Per recommendation from one of my friends, I ordered Schezuan tilapia. Served with brown rice, spinach, and in a Schezuan sauce with red peppers, onions, broccoli, and mushrooms, lunch had a wow factor that left me weak in the knees. I had to drive back into the city and doing it behind the wheel of a manual shift after such a fantastic lunch, I was glad to get home and take a nap in advance of dinner. But before my siesta, I had a long chat with Ma Williams who boasted about how proud she was of me and how she’s glad I have been taking care of myself and some other mushy stuff that indicates I was never a disappointment. Not many mothers can say that and we Williams offsprings became high-end. And then she asked me if I had made use of the cake pans she sent to me for my birthday gift. Ma Williams always gets me the birthday gifts that make me smile.

Schezuan Tilapia

Schezuan Tilapia

Now, let me just say that I slept so good during the afternoon that I had thought I slept a bit too long. There was no way that I wanted to miss my birthday dinner. Sure, I can go to Marion Street Cheese Market at 100 S. Marion Street in Oak Park, Illinois, at any time. But for a proper celebration, and I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed, it was necessary for me to get up and be ready to head out for a worthwhile meal.

Flight of cheeses — Dante, l’amuse gouda, and sharp cheddar. Sunchoke arancini. Quiche. Salad. Flight of wine. Pot de creme.

Quiche and Salad

Quiche and Salad

Sunchoke Arancini

Sunchoke Arancini

The flight of cheeses came with candied walnuts, toasted almonds, a flavourful jam, wafers, and bread. So perfect and we worked our teeth on the items that begged for us to continue. Yep, we even paused conversation so we could concentrate. The sunchoke arancini was several stops past the last exit to wonderful. Ingredients of hazelnut chimichurri, sunchoke puree, sunflower sprouts, and lemon made for a vegetarian’s plate of happiness. We smiled through each bite. The quiche was of the kind that the meekest person would clobber a corn-fed Indiana football player senselessly if the football player were to mess with the mild person’s quiche. We’re talking about a quiche with Sarvecchio parmesan, caramelized onions, and parsnip puree served with braised spinach. You simply will not stop making comment about how delicious it is after each bite. Oh, and let me not forget to add that we each had flights of wine. Liquid bliss! For me, I told the server to bring a flight, any flight. It didn’t matter. I didn’t care. It was my birthday and he did not disappoint — three reds, two from France and one from Chile. The flight paired well with everything. The dessert was a pot de creme — chocolate hazelnut pudding topped with a baked meringue. There is a special corner in hell for me after working that pot de creme with exaggerated facial expressions, the homemade butter cookies, and a cup of coffee that was made from a fine bean. As we teetered out of the restaurant, it was rather apparent why we all return there so much. And people who don’t like that assessment are sitting back saying, “I know better places.” I can only shake my head and say, “Umpf, umpf, umpf. Tell me anything.”

Pot de Creme and Butter Cookies

Pot de Creme and Butter Cookies

As a kid, I used to think that people in their 40’s were old. I am quite amazed at how my perspective has changed since, rather considerable if I may add. When I look in the mirror and the only things that can possibly give my age away are my balding head and the grey in my beard, I realize that I can shave and those indicators go away as well. When I think about how I had furrows in my brow and pessimism in my eyes during my twenties, none to be seen in my physical appearance now, it feels nice announcing my age. Because then I can watch the show when people start to actively debate me and call me a liar who wants to be older than he really is. And I smile, yet again removing any potential wrinkles.

Hello, my name is Gino Williams and I am 45 years old. Oh, and I am a food addict.

Marmalade on Urbanspoon Wok'n Fire on Urbanspoon

Ride of the Foodies, Scandinavian Style

Svea Restaurant

With the weather warming up a bit, albeit a tease, getting out of bed earlier on the weekends has become easier. That means I have been able to start indulging the most important meal of the day — breakfast. It often starts off with a slice of cake and a tall glass of milk. If not cake, then there is some kind of croissant filled with apples, cream cheese, or chocolate, and milk to wash it all down. I guess I should provide a little more context and state that I have those lovely treats for my weekday breakfast delights while packed on the subway heading into downtown for work. But Saturdays come and I get to enjoy breakfast the right way — at some restaurant with my feet planted under a table, a plate of happiness in front of me, and a book in the hand that is not wielding a fork or spoon.

Coffee

Coffee

For a few weeks, I had been to Pannenkoeken Cafe for some of the best German breakfasts I have had on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Today I wanted to expand my European repertoire. While browsing the web, I had found a Scandinavian restaurant in the Andersonville neighbourhood of Chicago. I was aware of a small Swedish concentration in the area and a little west of Andersonville, but to find something Scandinavian-specific was a bonus. Queue soundbite of “Ride of the Valkyries,” and me driving down Clark Street in my Volkswagen Jetta, windows down, sun roof back, slow motion, wind blowing through my hair. Now queue sound of needle being taken off the record a bit too hastily. It’s too cold to have windows down in the car and I have not even a bit of fuzz on my head, as I shaved it all off. However, I did drive to 5236 N. Clark Street to Svea Restaurant for some proper food action.

Eggs, Hashbrows, Sausage

Eggs, Hashbrows, Sausage

Because really good ethnic restaurants and cafes fill with patrons quickly, I was at the restaurant as soon as the doors opened at 7:00 AM. With a warm welcome from the waitress/cashier and from the cook, I got a seat at the window and checked the options. A cup of hot coffee warmed up the body a little, not that I was completely frozen, since I had parked across the street. After some discussion about the way the weather and temperatures had been waffling, I ordered a Viking breakfast. On one plate came scrambled eggs that I got with cream cheese, Swedish hashbrowns, rye toast, and sausage. At the table was a happy me. I could have had a plate of the scrambled eggs with cream cheese alone. There may have been some salt in it, but not of the dosage my tongue detects at places like International House of Pancakes, Golden Nugget, or Original Pancake House. The hashbrowns were not the crunchy, shredded horror bites that many breakfast shops serve. These seasoned potato cubes screamed, “Keep eating me.” I keep forgetting that Europeans are not big on frying everything imaginable, so I snapped back to reality when I noticed the sausages were boiled. They reminded me of large Vienna sausages — without salt and the aftertaste. Then there were thin Swedish pancakes with lingonberry jam. These were not the substantial American style pancakes that put you to sleep after devouring half of the stack. Think of crepes that had been cooked on a griddle. I worked my knife and fork on the two pancakes to completion and did not experience food comatose immediately afterwards. And truth be told, the lingonberry jam was perfect to the point where there really was no need for syrup. After I was done, I commented to the waitress that all I needed was a red beard, for I had gobbled all of that food like a true Viking warrior. She responded that I had indeed enjoyed my little feast like a Viking that was celebrating from having performed well in battle.

Swedish Pancakes

Swedish Pancakes

Truly Svea Restaurant is an outstanding cafe for some authentic Scandinavian and Swedish food. I noted that there were lunch items and dinner items. Being only able to speak to the breakfast options, I would recommend it highly, especially for those who like hearty breakfasts during Chicago’s cold months. Svea Restaurant has a cash-only policy, so go to the ATM in advance, get some cash, and drive over to 5236 N. Clark Street for a brekkie fit for a Viking. If you have a CD player or even an MP3 player, be sure to queue “Ride of the Valkyries” while on your way to the restaurant. Trust me, you will understand.

Svea on Urbanspoon

Forget Crepes, All About Pannenkoeken

Pannenkoeken

While perusing some photos of food on Foodspotting, I had come across a composition of a pancake that screamed for me to come and get it. I had made a note of the name of the restaurant where the photo was taken and had entered a reminder into my cell phone for a visit. Chicago winters make it impossible to extract yourself from your warm bed on Saturday mornings. And I have fleece sheets on my bed. For every Saturday in February my alarm went off, I hit the off button, and then promptly went back to bed. With a little bit of warming in the temperatures and going to bed early on a Friday evening, I finally got up and went to Pannenkoeken, the restaurant where the photo I saw on Foodspotting was captured. At 4757 N. Western Avenue in Chicago’s Lincoln Square, is one of the quaintest German cafes in the city. When I say quaint, it is very small, in the vein of cafes and eateries in Europe, where you indeed sit close to neighbouring patrons. It was just my style.

Eggs Scrambled Well with Mascarpone

Because I needed to wake up completely, not just merely functionally, I had a cup of coffee to start. The only sweetener I had in the coffee was whatever there was from the sweetness of the cream. I made a mental note that whatever roast they were using was not bad. Perusing the menu, I was quite happy to see that there was a retention of authenticity in the servings. Pannenkoeken evidently does not feel a need to accommodate breakfast cuisine not of the German kind. Yes, there were Belgian waffles on the menu, but Belgium is not far from the borders of Germany and I am sure Germany is not without having been influenced accordingly. There was French toast on the menu, yes. But there were options for pannenkoeken that really stood out most. Not an exhaustive menu, like you find at something as pedestrian as an Original Pancake House, but the flavourful options seemed daunting because after looking at the servings, temptation wants you to try everything. I was content with sampling at most three menu choices on this first visit.

French Toast with Mascarpone and Blueberry Compote

Switching into my vegetarian mode for breakfast, I started with a plate of eggs scrambled well with mascarpone cheese. I have such a great love for cream cheese in my scrambled eggs, but trying mascarpone cheese in my eggs really hit a resounding note with me. Now when I go to restaurants for breakfast or brunch, Italian restaurants for sure, I will request mascarpone cheese to be added to my scramble. Then there was the plate of French toast with mascarpone cheese and home-made blueberry compote. After eating the blueberry compote, the blueberries exploding with flavour that the tongue relished, I do not want any more of that syrupy brew that comes from the can. I could quickly devolve into a brat in a high chair throwing his plate against the wall if I get anything claiming to be home-made compote yet nothing more than fruit drowned in molasses. There was so much flavour in the compote at Pannenkoeken and the French toast not reminding me of cinnamon on an Eggo waffle. And then an apple ginger pannenkoeken arrived at the table. By the time I came up for air, and I mean every word of that, there had been a change of faces at several tables. Again, the apples were not from some can, apparent because they were not dripping with syrup. And the ginger in the pannenkoeken. You could taste the ginger in the pannenkoeken. The thin pancake looked as though it would be a feat to undertake, but I smiled as I worked my fork, knife, and teeth on it. I was satisfied thoroughly — and again, I mean every word of it.

Apple Ginger Pannenkoenen

One thing I should mention is that Pannenkoeken has a cash-only policy. It can become quite easy to find yourself delighting the taste buds without a care in the world and then extract a credit card from the wallet once the bill arrives. You will have to pay cash. That is a small inconvenience — and you cannot even call it that. After all that I had eaten, the bottomless cup of coffee while at the cafe, and the coffee that I bought to go, the tab was considerably lower than what I would have had to pay at any of the brand name big box restaurants. As I mentioned earlier, the cafe is very small and intimate, so I highly recommend that you arrive as soon as the doors open. I am not joking. Trust me. When you get there, you will understand. Hmmm. You may even find yourself saying, “Lecker,” and not even know where your impromptu use of German came from.

Pannenkoeken Cafe on Urbanspoon

Most Important Meal of the Day

Blue Max

From most of my posts, you already know that I have a love affair with the fooderies — there’s my made-up word — in Oak Park, Illinois. As of late, when I have had coffee after dinner at Oak Park restaurants, it occurred to me that it was not Folgers, Maxwell House, imported Starbucks, or some variation of an attempt on coffee. My coffee snobbery is rather limited, but I know that when I can drink a cup of coffee with cream and not add any sugar, something is quite right with how the coffee is brewed. Or, like Ethiopian coffee, the beans are of a greater quality. It was after one of my dining excursions that I inquired what brand of coffee they were serving. Blue Max was the response. And having had a friend tell me about Blue Max Coffee in Forest Park, Illinois, at 26 Lathrop Avenue, it was time for me to go to the source.

LatteA beautiful Saturday morning with a clear sky, a mild breeze, and trees so vibrant with colours that they looked like they were on fire, I found a parking space in front of Blue Max Coffee and was ready to enjoy some of the best coffee that I have had in the Chicago metropolitan area. And I was going to have some breakfast while I was at it. But let me set the stage. Blue Max Coffee is inside of a house. You do not enter a restaurant. No, you enter a house that has been converted into what some would liken to a bed and breakfast. I sat in the family room across from Paul Bunyan and Professor Pete on one end and Mr. and Mrs. Loving on the other end. Much like pubs and small cafes in Europe, there is a bit of a familiarity among the customers and a lot of comfort, as the patrons who were at Blue Max when I went engaged me in conversation once my camera came out the bag. You would have thought we all lived on the same street, seeing that conversation flowed with such ease.

BreakfastFor my breakfast option, I ordered a Belgian waffle with a side of summer fruit — orange slice, honey-dew melon, and cantaloupe — and eggs scrambled with cream cheese. I was a bit surprised to see the scramble egg sitting atop the waffle, thinking perhaps I was supposed to cut into both at the same time and commence my devouring act. I gobbled the summer fruit and then placed the scrambled eggs on the side so that I could mix in the cream cheese and add pepper. Happiness. Rapture. Bliss. Love. Fresh eggs with my chosen cheese and a waffle that didn’t have that “box” taste to it, I was a rather pleased man. But the winner was the cup of latte. Hello, lover! Where have you been all my life? Several months ago I had a latte from one of those “big box,” staple coffee houses that may be found on every corner in downtown Chicago — hint, hint — and it was both burnt and bitter. How do you mess up a latte like that? There was not enough sugar that I could add to murder the burnt and acrid taste. In the same vein of my last experience with McDonald’s, Burger King, and the plethora of fast food thingies, it may be that my body craves for finer things and it was time for me to upgrade my taste in coffee to something that is neither quick nor excessively surplus. The latte at Blue Max Coffee was the complete antithesis of that cup of horror I had several months pass. The mark of a good cup of coffee is when you can drink it without any sweetener. I was beside myself with satisfaction. And it was then that I understood why so many of the local restaurants and cafes in Oak Park support Blue Max Coffee. It is a guarantee to keep customers returning, such was the case watching the constant line of customers who were coming for dining in and for take-away.

MochaGranted my first visit was a rather surreal experience with the comfort of the staff and other patrons being so welcoming and conversational, I made plans to return for another visit. The saying goes, “It’s never as good as the first time,” but that does not mean you should not try to see if any subsequent time is indeed better. So that was exactly what I decided to do. The next Saturday, I had my alarm clock set so that I could awake early enough to get dressed and out of the condo in time to return to Blue Max for a second round of breakfast. Remembering how the restaurant filled up quickly and had a continuous tide of patrons, I recognized that if I wanted to get a seat, it would be in my best interest to arrive shortly after the doors open. Again, there were Paul Bunyon and Professor Pete sitting in what I assume to be their usual area engaged in animated, sitcom-style discussions about politics and economics.

Switching things up a bit, but not that much, I had a cafe mocha. Much like the latte that I had ordered the previous weekend, there was no need for any sweetener. Not that I will ever order a regular coffee to see if it will bite me at the jaw line, I must admit that specialty coffees at Blue Max seem to be dandy sans sugar. Thanks to Blue Max Coffee, I can get my hands around several cups of coffee that satisfy my palate the way the latte and the cafe mocha did.

Scrambled Eggs with Cream Cheese

My breakfast option on my second visit was also not that much different, as I ordered pancakes. They were chocolate chip pancakes and while I think the chocolate chips would be better on or in a crispy Belgian waffle, I did not have to put any syrup on the pancakes, as I smeared the melted chocolate chips across the three pancakes in the stack that I had. Not appetizer size and not substantial, three pancakes in the morning along with a cup of coffee can be more filling than one may want to admit. It may also have been the scrambled eggs with cream cheese that had me stuffed a little more quickly than I had anticipated. The waitress had a quizzical look on her face when I had said I wanted the cream cheese mixed with the scrambled eggs. Many are so accustomed to cheddar cheese or American cheese that something different sounds a bit “out in space.” In addition to the plate of scrambled eggs with cream cheese, she brought a smile because my unique order had given her a cheese option for her scrambled eggs.

Pancakes and FruitWith a few words of banter with Paul and Pete, a satisfying cup of mocha, and a filling breakfast, the second Saturday was off to a good start. I cannot say that I will photograph coffee and food every Saturday at Blue Max Coffee, but I will become a regular, if only for the coffee. There are pastry options that I eyed briefly, but had not thought to entertain because I wanted to sample their breakfast fare. One thing I can admit with certainty is that the only coffee I can say I enjoy aside from Ethiopian coffee at one of my favourite, local haunts and what I also brew at my condo, you are guaranteed to smile with each sip of liquid love from Blue Max Coffee. Inexpensive. Fabulous service. Good food. Yes, I have already made a date for a third visit. I wonder if Paul Bunyon and Professor Pete will be there when I return for my next round.

Blue Max Coffee Incorporated on Urbanspoon

Yakitori Meets Logan Square

One of the great things about living in an up and coming neighbourhood is that you get to see all of the changes that take place. New clothing boutiques. New coffee shops. Boulangeries. Food markets. A yakitori. When I am not driving, I take advantage of public transportation and I can see many businesses pass before me. One that caught my eye was in an area that once housed a once-defunct bar that seems to have become a part of the growth in my neighbourhood of Logan Square. What was once a dive is now a high-end boutique restaurant that panders to the yakitori style of cooking. Lucky for me 2853 N. Kedzie Avenue is not far from where I live, which means that Yusho is now on my list of restaurants in my vicinity to visit frequently.

Pisco Punch

Common with many boutique restaurants, you experience ambience and some rather nice boutique jazz or lounge music that can be rather hypnotic. Yusho is a restaurant for a date or for meeting friends. For me, it was a chance to see if this addition to the Logan Square neighbourhood will warrant several encores. Perusing the menu, I started with a pisco punch. Something that I could certainly see myself indulging on a hot summer day, the glass of Don Cesar special pisco, sencha, pineapple, and umeboshi gomme syrup, and garnished with lemon, gave an indication that the bartender on staff deserved an applause. Usually when drinks are well-balanced, the flavour is flat. Not that I am a beverage guru — or snob — but it was easy to tell which ingredients made the liquid concoction without any of them being tempered or overpowering. Mind you, I had come to this conclusion after about four sips, after which it was time for me to give my first round of orders.

Chicken Skin

For starters, I let go of my purist food wagon and rolled around in the dirt, muck, mire, spices, seasoning, and bliss. As I am not one for eating fried foods, having given that up years ago to avoid my doctor shaking her head because of heightened blood pressure, I cannot say where the voice came from that requested fried chicken skin. Sure enough, that was what came to the table. Reminiscent of wafers served in Indian restaurants as appetizers, but clearly not wafers, the thin chicken skin had a smooth texture, not the bubbly, crispy coating that you see on chicken that had been swimming around in hot grease. And, no, it was nothing like the awful pork rind skins that you buy at the market or at gas stations. Brushed with Japanese mustard, garlic, and togarashi, the pescatarian in me had not one regret for polishing off the skins. I was off to the great start with just the cup of doctored-up skins and wondered what else I could request to come to the table to best the first order.

Grilled Oyster

Second to the table was another item that I have avoided for over forty years — oysters. Granted these were not the oysters that you dip in hot sauce and lemon before letting them slide down your throat, that being they were grilled oysters, they were oysters nevertheless. Grilled and accented in apple cider, sake, and tapioca, I said to myself, “Bottoms up,” and swallowed what was nothing akin to the deterrent I have seen people indulging in numerous seafood restaurants. The taste did not leap about in my mouth, but I smiled anyway now knowing that I can enjoy grilled oysters. Well, I had to admit that although this was my first experience eating oysters and finding satisfaction in it, other restaurants may send something to the table to murder my new-found love.

Eel

For my third course, I rolled my eyes about and fought the urge to stand and shout before throwing a dish on the floor. The eel with brandade, hominy, and wasabi mustard was so delicious that had I not been a prude I would have shown a side of myself in the restaurant that would have had me removed. By the third bite, I was on my cell phone looking for a recipe. I had to have more and in larger quantities. What sat before me shortly before I let out a muted whimper because I had finished it and wanted some more to savour was a tease. It was wrong. The bowl of pleasure should have been tasteless, rubbery, disgusting. But it was anything but that and I had pondered ordering the dish again. Instead, I heaved a heavy sigh and made plans to walk back to the restaurant in a few weeks for more.

Chicken Thigh

The first yakitori dish that I feasted on was chicken thigh. However, looking at it would have most rabid rural food critics arguing that I had skewered meatballs. The chicken had been prepared as meatballs with Anaheim peppers, basil, and topped with savoy cabbage. Such beautiful presentation of the three meatballs on a skewer only to be messed up with me gnashing away at the tender, succulent, addictive meat with proper etiquette. Talk about satisfying to the palate. Talk about meatballs being a thrill to the taste buds without being doused in some gravy. Talk about a recipe because I would be interested in trying this in my kitchen — at least once. By now I had conceded that I will be regular at Yusho.

Sea Urchin

And just when I thought that I could not have anything sitting before me taste better than what I had eaten already, the sea urchin changed my mind. Wrapped in a crispy pastry with nori, shiso, and Buddha’s hand, I logged on to Facebook and posted that I am indeed a food addict. The anise flavouring from the shiso gave an accent to the sea urchin that would have otherwise left the sea urchin simply palatable as opposed to its incredibly luring taste. The marriage of the shiso spice and the citrus and ginger flavouring of the Buddha’s hand had me wanting to go to the kitchen and bow before the chef. While the shiso and Buddha’s hand are perfect complements, the seasoning still allowed the sea urchin to have the spotlight. And that was fine, as I showed the urchin just how much of a star it was in my show.

Two Tribes

Now right about now is when I would write that I was done, stuffed, ready for a nap. But the portions at Yusho are taste size, which meant I was ready for more action. Rather than launching into another appetizing dish, I settled for a moment to collect my thoughts with regards to what else I would sample. While waiting a while I ordered another drink from the bar. This time I wanted to try something with a whisky base to it, recalling how much I prefer a scotch or a whiskey anyway. What to my wondering surprise should I espy a drink called Two Tribes. Concocted of redemption rye, palm sugar, cardamaro, and barrel-aged stone fruit bitters, whiskey sour and amaretto sour quickly became passé in my book. Next time I shall order the drink neat and nurse it until closing. Okay, perhaps not until closing, but I shall enjoy it in the same fashion that I enjoyed the Two Tribes this evening.

Maitake Mushroom

Having given myself a bit of a respite, I was ready to continue. Why does it sound like a hiking expedition? I have no idea, but the bowl of maitake mushrooms with egg vinaigrette and dashi gelée made the wait worthwhile. One thing I will say as a footnote is that I am not a fan of my eggs becoming Olympians and running all over the place once you get started on them. There is one other restaurant in Chicago that had changed my mind and the egg vinaigrette at Yusho has really made me completely accept that runny eggs can be a culinary magnet when seasoned delightfully. The mushrooms held their own, but once I had broken the egg and mixed it all together, my prudish sensibilities had long taken leave and I was left to enjoy every dish that came to the table without complaint.

Gobo Root

Sticking with a vegetarian option, I went down the exotic path — not that I had not been doing that all along. I had never had gobo root and wondered what it tasted like. One of the good things about being experimental and curious about certain foods — except for Chinese street food — I had decided to order something very much in a whim manner. This dish came with sesame, Asian pear slices, and persimmon. How would I describe the texture of gobo root? I would say that it is like sugar cane without the strands. How would I describe the taste? I would liken it to artichoke, but with a bit of a sweet accent to it. How would I describe my first dining experience eating gobo root? I cringed. I winced. I pouted. I wanted more and having finished the main course with the accompaniments, I was in complete happy mode because everything to this point was outstanding. You never want the moment to end.

Chicken Breast

But all good things must come to an end. For me, it came with a climax. Let me put that in perspective. The final dish was a yakitori of chicken breast with gobo root, quince, and five spice. Throughout the whole meal, everything was rising action and then a climax of succulent chicken in a sweet red berry sauce that had left me speechless. Just to see if the chicken could appeal to my taste without the sauce, I plucked a bit and sampled it alone. The chef must have known that someone like me would try to see if the chicken alone could induce a wide smile. My compliments to the chef for success. Knowing that this was my final course and it being so blooming magnificent, I savoured each bite for as long as possible.

Much like yakitori that I had in Japan, the portions are small. Street food is not to be eaten as entrées anyway, so if you go to Yusho, be forewarned that everything from the menu comes as a taste. I actually liked that, as I got a chance to sample several dishes instead of being weighted with one or two main courses. This also means that I shall have to return and try some other menu items, as well as a few that I sampled on my first visit. For such small portions and the ambience and presentation being chic, I was expecting a large tab. Much to my surprise, I was very happy with the bill. Great service, outstanding food, and a calendar entry for a return date, I walked away incredibly pleased that Yusho chose Logan Square for business. Oh, my appetite says, Thanks, too.

Yusho on Urbanspoon