NaKorn Urban Thai, Aroi Mak Mak

NaKorn Urban Thai

Greater Chicago boasts a large number of Thai restaurants. There are two that have been my absolute favorite: JJ Thai Street Food at 1715 W. Chicago Avenue in West Town for authentic Thai street food and Herb at 5424 N. Broadway Street in Edgewater for refined Thai with 100% authenticity. After most recent visits to NaKorn Urban Thai at 1622 Orrington Avenue in downtown Evanston, it has officially become my third go-to Thai restaurant.

NaKorn Negroni

NaKorn Negroni

While passing through Evanston and a quick search to see what offerings were on the menu at NaKorn, there was a draw to the complete absence of a lot of ubiquitous Thai dishes (e.g., pad thai, pad see ew, curries, Bangkok chicken, bamee noodles, and the like). Recognizing that my original list of two favorite restaurants didn’t serve those staples and I had fallen in love with their dishes, I imagined that NaKorn was a winner.

Not a large restaurant, but not small either, it’s airy and spacious for those who like to enjoy their meals with dinner guests or alone without having neighboring diners practically sitting on top of you. For my first visit, I sat outside to enjoy the summer weather and to imbibe a negroni while figuring out what I wanted for dinner. And oh was the negroni a hit without being heavy-handed: just perfect.

Taro Chicken

Taro Chicken

I opted for a prix fixe flight of three courses. The first was taro chicken. Marinated in lemongrass-infused coconut milk and fried lightly before coated in a chili-peanut gastrique, this appetizer popped with flavor. As much as I joke about hating peanuts, the flavor was faint yet not to a point of being undetectable, but enough to let the coconut and taro take center stage on the palate. Simply outstanding.

Pan Roasted White Fish Fillet

Pan Roasted Whitefish Fillet

The second flight was pan roasted whitefish fillet with a sweet pepper chutney and chili tamarind reduction. The whitefish was not only flaky but it was also tender, clearly prepared to perfection. Rather than having this with an air of pomp and circumstances, this dish is best eaten mixed together. Having the fennel, cucumber, radish, whitefish, chutney, and tamarind reduction is a symphony.

Sazerac

Sazerac

For my second cocktail, I was in a bit of a New Orleans mood, so I ordered a sazerac. My restaurant adviser and I laugh about how at one of Chicago’s most touted restaurants, I left a sazerac at the bar intentionally because it was heavy on the alcohol and tasteless simultaneously. That was not the case with the sazerac at NaKorn. This one was smooth, in the same manner that they mix them in New Orleans.

The finale was a plate of mango and sticky rice. While you can never go wrong with mango and stick rice, this dish fueled an addiction that made me catch myself when I was tempted to order another plate of it. The sticky rice had been prepared to order, evident in it not being gummy. And to make the dessert that more appetizing, there was a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream served with it. Yes, that did add a twist while kicking an old favorite up several notches without compromising any of the love in all of the bites.

Mango Sticky Rice

Mango and Sticky Rice

Giving myself time before a return visit, I included my restaurant adviser for the second jaunt.  We opted for a few dishes without going overboard because she had made a suggestion for another visit so we could sample from the upcoming autumn menu. Really paying attention to the menu and also having brief conversation with one of the managers, it became apparent that the dishes were of the variety enjoyed at home in Thailand proper. That explained why there wasn’t even basil chicken available for ordering.

North Shore Punch

North Shore Punch

Shake and Shimmy

Shake and Shimmy

To keep the summer theme going, my adviser ordered a North Shore Punch. I ordered a Shake and Shimmy. The North Shore Punch looked artsy, a visual parfait of vodka, lemonade, and Thai chili-honey syrup. The Shake and Shimmy was a refreshing cocktail of rose hip, Brut Rosé, cranberry, and soda. And in our Garden of Eden, we had watermelon bites topped with crispy shallots. I never would have thought the combination of watermelon and shallots would be so divine. When the manager described this as a summer dish that her grandmother prepared when she was in Bangkok, I understood why this was a favorite of hers.

Watermelon with Crispy Shallots

Watermelon with Crispy Shallots

The next shared dish was vegetarian scallops. Eryngii king mushroom had been prepared so that it had the consistency of tender scallops and had I not glance at the menu a second time, I never would have known the difference. Served with a house made chili jam and topped with frisée and edible flowers, this was another flight that my adviser and I agreed should be eaten slowly so to experience the kick from the chili jam appearing and disappearing on the tongue. Plus, the whole concept of mushroom passing for scallops, albeit not as a trick, is simply fantastic and creative.

Vegetarian Scallop

Vegetarian Scallops

The third landing was a plate of coriander crispy shredded beef brisket. Described as having been shredded by hand, it was apparent there was a lot of preparation involved in the the dish, but what made it a case study in “Best Beef Brisket Ever” was the right amount of herbs and spices used without overpowering the taste buds. Served atop sticky rice, I will now be very critical of any brisket I have in the future because the culinary bar in preparing succulent brisket has been raised thanks to NaKorn.

Coriander Crispy Shredded Beef Brisket

Coriander Crispy Shredded Beef Brisket

Moving into the main flights, the first entrée was a plate of steamed baby lobster tail with kohlrabi, micro greens, and a Thai chili broth served with coconut rice. With both adviser and me being seafood fanatics, every morsel from the lobster dragged through the chili broth made for a culinary delight. This was the first time I have had lobster at a Thai restaurant and this recipe has become quite possibly the one I will hanker for when lobster is on the menu. Plating was visually stunning. However, there was a point when we resorted to using fingers for extracting the plump meat from the shell and dispensing of using forks except for when eating the rice.

Steamed Baby Lobster Tail

Steamed Baby Lobster Tail

The second entrée was a plate of jumbo lump blue crab served with Thai rice noodles and a spicy turmeric-coconut curry soup poured on the side. Three words come to mind again: Garden of Eden. The crab was fresh and I can always count on my adviser to speak to the quality of crab, of which she vouched could be the equivalent of truth serum. Certainly the aroma was inviting just from the wafting while arriving at the table. The soup had a flavor akin to what one finds in kow soy. The lump crab made it one of NaKorn’s most recommended dishes.

Jumbo Lump Blue Crab

Jumbo Lump Blue Crab

The finale was a take on a favorite that we have had at one of the Thai restaurants I mentioned earlier. There was a mix of jackfruit, mango, and water chestnuts. This is usually served in coconut milk with a little bit of sugar, but instead it was served with a scoop of panna cotta. Thailand meets Italy. Aroi. Delizioso. Outstanding. For an absolute scrumptious dinner, this wrap-up left us with a want for a quicker return than we scheduled.

Panna Cotta with Fruit

Panna Cotta with Fruit

NaKorn retains authenticity in the Thai dishes. The plating may look like something other than Thai, but the palate will say otherwise. No, they don’t prepare pad thai, panang, tom yum, or dishes in sweet gravies loaded with mushrooms, onions, carrots, and bell peppers. They do expose patrons to dining that is customary to Thailand proper while adding creativity to presentation without diminishing the dishes to middle of the road. In a long list of Thai restaurants that have cookie-cutter output from the kitchen, it’s refreshing finding NaKorn moving out ahead with menu items that have those who don’t speak Thai saying, “Aroi mak mak.”

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

Je suis en amour avec Oceanique

Oceanique

Earlier in February, Chicago hosted what has become the annual Restaurant Week. Many restaurants participated, all pandering to a wide range of tastes: American, comfort, ethnic, barbecue, street, exotic, and more. Thanks to frigid temperatures and work-related travel, I was only to take in about three restaurants. And even then, I opted to have my degustation from their menus rather than partaking of the offering from the Restaurant Week menu. I was not dissatisfied, to say the least. Now, one of the restaurants on the list was Oceanique at 505 Main Street in Evanston, Illinois. Seafood with a French influence, something more to the liking of Southern France along the coast. With an outstanding selection of seafood for the pescatarian in me, I paired the menu choices with a flight of mojitos. Flights are not on their menu, so Oceanique got big ups from me when the bartender complied and came up with a flight that won me over tenfold. Not having my camera then, it was necessary for me to return for a proper blog.

L'amuse Bouche: Icelandic Arctic Char

L’amuse Bouche: Icelandic Arctic Char

Much to my surprise, Chicago was in the throes of Chef’s Week during my return. I was in a mood to be truly experimental, so I had made up my mind that I was going to have another degustation and entrust the server and bartender to create an experience that would make my visit worthier than the first visit. Having secured a seat in the dining area across from the bar, taken the white balance for my photos and video, and happy that I was seated nowhere near anyone, I started with a l’amuse of Icelandic Arctic char ceviche wrapped in leek with a cilantro oil essence. It was served with cucumber, fresh seaweed, and crispy potato. By the time I had finished the l’amuse, a couple arrived and rather than sitting in the main dining area, they chose to sit at the table IMMEDIATELY NEXT TO ME.

Blood Orange Old Fashion

Blood Orange Old Fashion

Wild Maine Lobster Consomme

Wild Maine Lobster Consomme

For my first course, I had wild Maine lobster consomme. At most seafood restaurants, there is almost a guarantee of having a chowder or some bisque served. Oceanique deviates from the norm with ravioli of chantarelles, chunks of lobster, cilantro, and chopped carrots in a clear broth. Outstanding! Because I was being daring for what I wanted in my beverage selection, I had requested a flight of whiskey cocktails for my refined palate. The first, which was served with the consomme, was a slight twist on the old-fashioned — a blood orange old-fashioned. Blood orange, cherries, rye whiskey, and Angostura Bitters make for a rather refreshing whiskey cocktail, one that has made the plain old-fashioned fade from my request list.

L'amuse Bouche: Ravioli

L’amuse Bouche: Ravioli

A few minutes passed and then there was a second l’amuse to come to the table. This one was a butternut ravioli prosciutto with parmesan, and crispy sage, served in a brown butter reduction. Considering this was only a palate cleanser interlude, I was in my Food Magazine mode capturing the sight of it before devouring it slowly. Only in my dining experiences abroad have I had a l’amuse interspersed throughout dinner. Even at many of the high-end restaurants in Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, there may be one given at the onset of the meal. Oceanique again smashes the norm. Then again, it may have been because I was creative with ordering a flight of whiskey cocktails and the chef did not want me stumbling about after departing the restaurant.

Beet Salad

Beet Salad

Chartreuse Sazerac

Chartreuse Sazerac

The second course was a salad. One thing I have noticed in my restaurant excursions is that many are fans of beets. Oceanique has a beet salad in a mild vinaigrette that comes to life with a dollop of goat cheese. If ever I were to resort to a diet of rabbit food only, recipes like the one in the beet salad creation would become a staple in my salad recipes. Anyone who favours Thousand Island, ranch, or blue cheese dressing on their salad, should try the beet salad at Oceanique. And the whiskey cocktail that accompanied the salad was a Chartreuse Sazerac. This was another masterpiece, one of whiskey, Peychaud Bitters, and simple syrup with a lemon twist. The second course was absolute tops.

L'amuse Bouche: Wild Skate

L’amuse Bouche: Wild Skate

By the time I had completed the second course, another couple had come in and sat at the table on the other side of me. Plenty of room in the main dining area and lots of tables in the room where I was sitting and they needed to sit near and call some friends, who I gathered was supposed to join them. I sighed and after looking at some of the photos and video that I had captured, the third l’amuse arrived. This was wild Maine skate with leeks and carrots in a white wine reduction. Skate has a texture that is reminiscent of sea bass but slightly silkier. It may be different to some palates, but the flavour overpowers the feel of sinking your teeth through a flavoured cloud. If I could describe how love tastes, the wild Maine skate would be my example.

Evanstonian

Evanstonian

Atlantic Char

Atlantic Char

Up to this point, everything had been a winner. The third course is where I began to wonder why Oceanique was not on the candidate list for a Michelin star. Atlantic char served over mushrooms and puréed split green peas in a savoury reduction were all I needed to start my petition to Michelin to do the correct thing by Oceanique. I had forgotten to mention that I am not a fan of pork in my diet, so the dish came with a few bacon pieces that I moved to the side. However, the bloom in the taste was a true winner for the seafood lover in me. I had not enough compliments for the chef for such a divine course. And to the bartender, the Evanstonian that he mixed has now become my favourite whiskey cocktail. Made with Few white whiskey from an Evanston-based distillery, orange bitters, sweet vermouth, and a splash of Creole Shrubb rum, this cocktail was silky on the tongue and without a bite at the back of the throat. It was this third course that will certainly have Oceanique at the top of my list for the Top 10 restaurant excursions for 2014. And I may have to create a list of Top 10 bartender stations for the year also and add Oceanique to the number one spot in advance.

L'amuse Bouche: Berry Pineapple Sorbet

L’amuse Bouche: Berry Pineapple Sorbet

Allowing time to let the food and cocktails settle, I reviewed more of my photos and video so that I could get an advanced idea of what editing I would do later. Soon the final l’amuse came to the table, appropriately in the form of a berry pineapple sorbet, topped with blackberry and a dash of fresh mint. Having recently become an avid fan of sorbet, I was mumbling “Wow” with each mini scoop. After I had finished the last scoop, the second couple that came in and commenced to place phone calls was joined by two others who spoke in jovial and loud tones. Their need for loud banter became quiet when the bartender approached my table for the dessert course and the chef had come to the table to shake my hand. It had become evident that one of the women was from the South because when she saw the dessert offerings, she rattled off, “I do declare.”

Pot de Creme

Pot de Creme

Whiskey Chocolate Martini

Whiskey Chocolate Martini

The dessert course was for the chocolate fanatic in me — and in all the chocolate lovers who were not at Oceanique with me. The pot de creme is already a part of every chocoholic’s fever dream. This delight was served with blackberries, raspberries, passionfruit, and shavings of Godiva chocolate. You have to enjoy this dessert slowly. To gorge it down quickly would be a crime. Because I was supposed to abstain from desserts until my birthday in April, I initially had a bit of guilt. But I have been good in fending off my dessert desires, so I allowed myself a moment of weakness. To make matters even more wicked, the whiskey chocolate martini was enough for me to be okay with burning in hell. Journeyman wheat whiskey, Godiva white liqueur, half and half, and a splash of Kahlua, and the second woman at the table next to me was clutching her “invisible” pearls and mumbling, “Oh my,” while the men were in a trance.

Ravenswood Rye Whiskey Few White Whiskey Buggy Whip Wheat Whiskey

One thing that my return visit to Oceanique has taught me is that it would be cliché and erroneous to say that if you have gone to one seafood restaurant, you have gone to all of them. The quality of the output from the kitchen is simply divine. Some of the offerings are to be appreciated by a finer palate, though. The term mixologist has been bandied about rather frequently as of late and having discovered that it’s used to reference bartenders, not disc jockeys and emcees, the mixologist at Oceanique deserves an award. The restaurant is not in the immediate downtown section of Evanston, which may make some express surprise when they discover where it is located. The prices are high, as the restaurant caters to high-end and fine dining. With there being a French influence, anything that purports to be French and comes at a cheap price should warrant a rapid dash towards the hills. And as my taxi driver woke me from my snoring on my way home from the restaurant, I paid my fare and spoke in a mock Southern accent: I am in love with Oceanique, I do declare.

Oceanique on Urbanspoon Oceanique Restaurant on Foodio54

Flavour Explosion — Mt. Everest Restaurant

Mt Everest RestaurantIt dawned on me today that the jeans I had struggled unsuccessfully to get into had a 32-inch waist, so I tossed them aside and settled for a pair of jeans with a 34-inch waist. Well, that did some good since I burst the seams at the seat of those while I was bending over to tie my shoes. I have now burst the seat in three pairs of jeans since I began my weight gain regime. I guess I should really be more serious about capping my weight gain at 205 pounds because the 36-inch-waist jeans are fitting rather nicely without a belt and I am having to replace my wardrobe, but that may mean I will have to cut back on my restaurant enjoyment. No, no way, I cannot have that. Food is still my lover.

It was a cold night in Chicago — “No, really?” you ask — and an adventurous restaurant friend and I decided to warm up over plates of Nepali food at Mt. Everest Restaurant at 618 Church Street in Evanston, Illinois. We would certainly warm up with heat from the restaurant and the spices would help even more. Located in downtown Evanston, Mt. Everest Restaurant has a storefront façade, but then becomes an expansive eatery once you enter. Courteous wait staff make sure you are thoroughly satisfied before you leave.

Samosas and Momo Chicken

Samosas and Momo Chicken

We started with two swruwats — the word for appetizers in Nepali. One was a plate of vegetarian samosas, which were flaky pastries stuffed with potatoes, green peas, herbs, and spices. The other appetizer was a plate of momo chicken. This was minced chicken mixed with Nepali spices, steamed inside wheat bread and served with Nepali aachar. I have a rule that if the appetizers are good enough to make you want to have a smoke, and I do not smoke, the rest of the dinner is certain to be outstanding. Mt. Everest Restaurant exceeded my expectations.

The good thing about eating at the ethnic restaurants is that they serve the food family style. When I say family style, I do not merely mean the family eats together. Think of Thanksgiving when food comes to the table and everyone serves themselves — as well as uninvited guests that other knucklehead family members feel should be present. I find myself eating family style more with my friends, but we are all immigrants or first generation Americans who grew up eating from a common pot. As is the norm, my friend and I ordered three entrées family style: palungo ko saag, kukhura ko maasu, and dal makhani.

The palungo ko saag was fresh garden spinach cooked with chopped tomato, onion, garlic, ginger, and Himalayan spices. The kukhura ko maasu was chicken cooked in typical Nepali village style with local herbs and spices. The daal makhani were black lentils simmered until tender and tempered with ginger, garlic, tomatoes, herbs and spices. Served with rice, aloo paratha, and garlic naan, it was hard to walk out of the restaurant with any kind of disappointment. I did have a concern about falling asleep on public transportation and missing my stop. I was thankful it was cold enough to keep me awake while I waited for the train, though.

Palungo Ko Saag, Kukhura Ko Maasu, Daal Makhani

Palungo Ko Saag, Kukhura Ko Maasu, Daal Makhani

Normally, we would opt for some dessert after dinner, but the entrées were too filling. I had already reached the point where my eyelids were getting heavy and my speech had begun to slur. That meant I could not pack in any more food. We decided to order cups of chai. You cannot go wrong with a good cup of chai and Mt. Everest Restaurant definitely did not serve up any of that store-bought stuff from the carton.

By now, you probably already know that Mt. Everest Restaurant is on my recommended list. The prices of the food are not as exorbitant as I would expect for a restaurant that serves large portions, enough to induce sleeping. You had better believe I am going back and I would even go back while it is cold outside. Then again, my food addiction always has me running up in some restaurant regardless of how cold it is or how much snow we have on the ground, so I guess weather conditions are moot. Go! Go to Mt. Everest You will not walk away unhappy, but you will be sleepy after eating all of the food. That is a given.

Mt. Everest Restaurant on Urbanspoon