Top 10 Jaunts for 2013

December has arrived and it is during this time that I always ponder whether there was something I had intended to do between January and the end of November, but somehow never got around to doing. I swear time went slower when I was a kid. The summers dragged on forever — and I didn’t complain. Christmas break felt like a whole month. School was the equivalent of endless punishment. Fast forward to age 45 and each year feels compressed from a full twelve months to about seven. However, I still get to partake of my favourite hobby second to photography: eating. And for the end of 2013, I decided that I would do something different — a list of Top 10 Jaunts for 2013. So, this post will be dedicated to the restaurant discoveries that tempted my palate. Since I have already written extensive blog postings for each, I will only present highlights.

10. Pasteur
I had spent a lot of time in the Edgewater neighbourhood during the summer. My favourite Indian restaurant is there. One day while walking down Broadway, I happened to see a building full of Chicago architecture with a menu in the window. Having passed the building many times, it looked too fancy to register as a restaurant, but I was glad to have been in a casual mood the one Saturday I stopped and took notice of it. The food was outstanding and the service was top. From the interior, one can easily get the sensation of being in Europe, but it’s the Vietnamese influence in the food that pops. With the menu items supposedly having a French and Vietnamese fusion, I didn’t detect a heavier French accent. It was the Vietnamese flavours that stood out more. In the future I shall return for more good food and great service, and hopefully see if there is more balance to the menu.

Pasteur, Collage
9. Freddy’s Pizzeria and Grocery
A great friend had sent a text message to me to prompt me about Freddy’s while I was at an Italian restaurant on the Far North Side. She had already enlightened me to a few cafes and restaurants in Berwyn, so I trusted her recommendation. She gave me the formal introduction to Freddy’s Pizzeria and Grocery. This is a small grocery store with an annex built on to the side of the market for those who wish to sit and eat without having to rush home to devour the food. There is authenticity to every dish that puts a lot of big box Italian restaurants to shame. It’s evident when you enter the door and see the long line that stretches from the door, to the back of the grocery store, all along the counter, and up to the cash register. I think the trip out to Cicero is worth it, but I advise you to be prepared because staring at the selection of delicious food behind the counter may throw you into a food frenzy.

Freddy's Pizza and Grocery

8. Silom 12
Grub Hub is a beautiful thing and a glorious thing during the winter when delivery is a viable option. I had tried Silom 12 numerous times as a take-away choice when I was too lazy to operate my own stove. Not once was I dissatisfied with what I had ordered. Well, while I was having my hallway bathroom remodelled this summer, I needed a moment to escape from the sound of drills, saws, and banging. Where should I find myself but at Silom 12 for a proper sit-down. And oh was I pleased beyond words. Logan Square is one of America’s hottest neighbourhoods and with the addition of restaurants like Silom 12, it’s easy to understand why. One would think that the price per dish may make the cha-ching sound. No, the price, service, and food make a harmonious sigh of satisfaction. Well, let me take that back and make it personal. I made a harmonious sigh of satisfaction with each bite of food I took and believe me when I say that I ate a lot.

Silom 12

7. Masouleh
When I first moved to Chicago, I spent a little over a year in Northbrook. There was only so much that I could take of the sound of crickets. New York City had spoiled me. So I moved into Chicago proper and my first Chicago apartment was in Rogers Park. At that time Rogers Park had a heavy Mexican influence. Fast forward to 2013 and there seems to be more diversity gracing the Rogers Park landscape. One addition to the neighbourhood is Masouleh. I had met up with some friends after work one Friday evening and had fallen in love with the place after only having some herbs, cheese, and radish put on the table. It was authentic and when I say authentic I mean the flavours popped the way I remember Iranian food tasting. I don’t mean plain hummus and pita bread either. I had to return for my very own adventure and by the time I had finished a parfait glass of Persian ice cream, I was typing my initial blog post from the moon.

Masouleh

6. Kabul House
The first restaurant I went to when I started Chicago Alphabet Soup was Kabul House. It was at a different address. Months had passed and then a few years went by. When I had made plans to return, it was closed. Then there was a cloud of sadness because I remembered the food being so delicious. My friend and I were at the restaurant for hours, slowly taking care of the fine dining that came from the kitchen. Well, I was informed that Kabul House had opened at a new location. I had added it to my list and during Memorial Day, I was so glad that I went. Let’s just say that I rolled my eyes and I don’t mean as in disgust or to be cheeky. Oh, off with the person’s head who said that it’s never as good as the first time. It was better the second time around.

Kabul House

5. Pannenkoeken Cafe
If anyone ever starts rattling off the old adage that the best meal of the day is breakfast, tell them to put a footnote on that and immediately rush to Pannenkoeken Cafe. I am not one for eating lunch or dinner delights from Germany because they are heavy on the stomach. Not quite as sleep-inducing as Eastern European food, but you will drag afterwards. A German breakfast, on the other hand, causes the angels to sing. Pannenkoeken Cafe is a small cafe, so getting there early is advisable. Now, although the breakfast isn’t heavy on the belly, it is filling. So, you have to go on several visits. You have to. You must! Don’t even think about The Original Pancake House. Make your own pancakes at home, but go to Pannenkoeken Cafe for a proper breakfast that will give you a perpetual smile.

Pannenkoeken

4. Den Den Eritrean Restaurant
Rogers Park has developed a bit of magnetism to it thanks to the addition of a few ethnic eateries. There are several Ethiopian restaurants in Edgewater. While going to Masouleh one evening, my great friend who had recommended Freddy’s to me pointed Den Den Eritrean Restaurant out to me. I don’t think I had taken a few steps before I retrieved my smart phone and blocked some time for a visit. I had never thought of any Eritrean representation in Chicago’s culinary landscape. Everything about Den Den was top-notch. While I can’t say that Eritrean and Ethiopian are the same, the food preparation, serving, and method of eating the food are the same. However, Den Den takes the top spot among the Ethiopian restaurants I’ve been to in Chicago. And I’ve been to all — except one that I zipped pass while speeding up Ashland Avenue.

Den Den

3. De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine
Skokie has a small section in a business district that isn’t on a busy street. Had I not gone to Kabul House to renew my food vows, I never would have stumbled across a restaurant that has some cultural significance to me. When I saw the word “Jamaican” flash in front of my eyes, the return to the small stretch of Oakton Avenue was mandatory. The saltfish and ackee, callalou, rice and beans, beef patty, and june plum juice reminded me so much of my paternal grandmother’s kitchen that I spent almost every Saturday at De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine. And when I didn’t get back during a Saturday visit, there were occasional trips for take-away throughout the week. Certainly when you find something with a cultural attachment, it’s hard to detach.

De-Jred Fine Jamaican

2. Roka Akor
Earlier in the year, I wanted to try something new in the downtown vicinity. Most restaurants in downtown fall into the tourist trap or “big box” categories. You go and then tell your friends that you had gone to such-and-such restaurant because that’s where all of the Joneses had gone before you. But Roka Akor is where you go when you want to keep up with the Williamses. I was blown away on the first visit with the good fortune of having a server who had hit the mark on every menu choice offered as an option. There wasn’t one dish to be placed in front of me that I wasn’t raving about by the second bite. Getting to sit at the robata grill was a splendid option because I got to chat with the sous chef and the sashimi chef. You can’t do that at just any restaurant, and certainly not at a tourist trap or “big box” eatery.

Roka Akor

1. Basil Leaf Cafe (Tie)
Coming up with the number one spot was hard — and I’m not saying that just to have something to say. I started the year off with Basil Leaf Cafe being the first ethnic restaurant I was sampling. This was also the first time that I had decided to have a degustation without ordering from the menu. I trusted my server to make all recommendations and bring to the table a soup, a salad, two entrées, and a dessert. Basil Leaf Cafe had raised the bar up through the clouds and even on return visits, I was always in awe of how I could simply state that I liked seafood and vegetarian dishes, hand the menu back to the server, and let him or her bring to the table culinary choices that had indicated that they apparently listen to their dining patrons.

Basil Leaf Cafe

1. Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill (Tie)
I don’t know where to begin with Yuzu. This was another hard decision because I wanted there to be ten restaurants on my Top 10 list. It turned out to be eleven because Basil Leaf Cafe and Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill were deserving of the top position. My first visit to Yuzu had moved the expectation bar way up. No one disappears behind a door and comes back with a delectable dish. The sushi station and the robata grill are on full display, so you know exactly what you are getting. I was curious as to how a sushi bar could have a constant flow of patrons early in the day on a summer Saturday. It was after the first bite of some grilled eggplant from the robata grill that I understood why. Based on all of the robata grill items and sushi that my server had brought to the table, I honestly believe I could have won the lottery if I had asked her for the winning numbers. Everything was delicious.

Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill

I am hoping that 2014 will not be as busy and fast as 2013 has been. Yes, there is the saying that you should take time to smell the roses. But when there is the aroma of some inviting food wafting from the kitchen, put those roses in a vase and go see what the source of the aroma is. I know that I shall do just that in the New Year. I have to come up with ten more new restaurants for 2014. That means weight gain. Oh wait, no, that means I had better get started coming up with a list of eateries to sample throughout 2014.

And at this time, I would like to thank all who have been following Chicago Alphabet Soup and who have been giving me encouragement. Enjoy the holiday and may the New Year bring you joy and continued peace. And if none of that, then may some server bring you a dish that makes you sing a happy song.

Italy Comes to Chicago

Castello del Poggio BrachettoLiving in Chicago and being a food blogger for fun has way more excitement to the food adventures than I can say. There are new discoveries that the palate may delight. There are existing eateries that serve as magnets for returning culinary lovers. Many restaurants provide an atmosphere of community for large parties consisting of friends or family members. We shall not discount any of the boutique restaurants that provide intimate settings and swell background jazz music. And with Chicago having one of the world’s largest global communities, ethnic dining awaits you at practically every corner. The reasons for loving dining at Chicago’s restaurants are endless. But what is more fantastic is that even with staple cuisines like Chinese, Mexican, and Italian, there are twists that make such restaurants seem like a first-time find. Such was the case during a recent excursion to Basil Leaf Cafe at 2465 N. Clark Street in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighbourhood.

When I began Chicago Alphabet Soup, I had been adamant about avoiding Chinese, Mexican, and Italian restaurants — Chinese restaurants because I will scream if someone offers beef with brocolli, general chicken, or sweet and sour what-not ever again; Mexican because you can have enchiladas, frijoles, and Tex-Mex tacos only so much; and Italian because spaghetti and meatballs — me being pescatarian — and ravioli are as exhaustive as any can of Chef Boy-Ardee. But I received an invitation to meet with several other food bloggers and sommeliers for a food and wine pairing at Basil Leaf Cafe. Seeing that the restaurant’s menu online was more rustic, an indication that we would not have our fair share of red sauce splashing about our plates, I agreed to the dinner gathering and replied with my appetite as a guest.

As it turned out, the dinner and wine pairing was with Francesco Zonin of Casa Vinicola Zonin USA. Imagine an evening of fine wine and delicious food with the president of Zonin USA. Humourous and looking more like a fashion model, after providing a bit of history on the company, he explained that the dinner would feature Casa Vinicola Zonin’s Tenuta Ca’ Bolani Estate wines. Now, Tenuta Ca’ Bolani grows internationally known wines such as Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Also, there are well indigenous varieties, such as Traminer, Muller Thurgau, Tocai Friulano, Pinot Bianco, and Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso. Not that my wine snobbery is polished, I have yet to drink an Italian wine — white or red — that I found not to my liking. And, honestly, not being chic-chic enough to pair the right wines with my food, this evening was certain to be one worthy of documenting.

Amouse Bouche

For our amouse bouche, we started with baked, fresh figs topped with gorgonzola and mascarpone cheese and drizzled with a balsamic redux. Let me just say that I have baked cookies with figs in them and my grandmother had a way of making wine with figs and muscadines. Never have I dined on figs prepared the way they were this evening. My palate is refined, so hearing the appetizer, I figured that it would be an interesting festival on the tongue. Well, interesting is not the right word to describe how addictive the amouse bouche was. The figs were sweet, of course, but the mixture of cheeses and balsamic redux turned this into a rather tasty dessert. With this course, there was a Zonin Prosecco. This white wine was closer in sweetness to a dessert wine without the sweetness that you get in an ice wine. As an entry into the evening’s dining, the combination of the fig appetizer and the Prosecco was superb.

First CourseThe first course was the initial indication that things were going to be quite splendid for the rest of the evening. There were porcini dusted sea scallops, sweet pea puree, and micro green salad. Although I am a pescatarian, scallops are one seafood item I have tended to shy away from because some restaurants embrace cooking scallops al dente. What that translates to is a tough  texture, the equivalent of chewing a rubber ball. The master chef, sous chef, or head cook at Basil Leaf Cafe must have decided that he or she was not going to serve a scafezza — disaster — to a room full of food lovers. This was the first time I have had scallops so tender that the knife glided through the meat instead of me needing to slice through it. The seasoning, while it could have been heavy-handed and overpowering, was there but faint enough to let the flavour of the scallops come through. The sweet pea puree was a nice complement to the dish and it too was seasoned well enough that the tongue did not scream from too much seasoning. And served with the first course was a Tenuta Ca’Bolani Pinot Grigio. As with any Pinot Grigio, the flavour was light and had a distant fruity tone, ideal on the tongue and accommodating enough to let the dish have the spotlight.

Second Course

For the second course, the vegetarian in me stood on the table and danced. Hmmm. No, not exactly. I shall simply say that I nodded — excessively — in appreciation. This dish consisted of poached pear in Castello del Poggio Moscato D’Asti over baby arugula, topped with gorgonzola cheese, glazed pecans and honey balsamic. The pear was not merely sliced and poached. There had to have been some additional seasoning added because had there been crust, I would have foresaken eating apple pie or peach pie ever again. And because the glaze was not thick like molasses, I smiled even more knowing that this tasty treat did not come from a can. The salad was a nice companion to the pear, green, fresh, and lightly touched with the honey balsamic instead of drowned in it. The wine served with the second course was a Tenuta Ca’ Bolani Sauvignon Blanc, only a notch sweeter than the Pinot Grigio, ideal enough to take a backseat to the pear — that would have made an awesome pie — and the delectable salad.

Third Course

As if the amouse bouche and the first two courses were not splendid enough, the third course was where the chef let it be known that he really shines. Wild mushroom risotto cooked in Tenuta Ca’ Bolani Sauvignon with fennel dusted shrimp sat on plates like works of art that should not be touched. The risotto had been cooked maybe a few seconds past al dente, not the point where it was mushy and thankful that it was not gummy. The plump shrimp exploded with each bite. I imagined them popping as I slowly gnashed away at them while having at the wild mushroom risotto. I know several individuals who swear that they make the best risotto and I made mental notes of them all being liars because the risotto at Basil Leaf Cafe is indeed the best that I have had at Chicago Italian restaurants. Then again, it may have been the combination of seafood with the risotto instead of beef or chicken. Switching up the dish in terms of the meat accompaniment may have been what made the dish that more pleasing to the palate. Add to that a glass of Tunuta Ca’ Bolani Refosco. Granted this wine is served mostly with red meat, the strong currants, wild berry, and plum flavours make this a de rigeour request for me with seafood. Unless the seafood is in a rich, creamy sauce, a full bodied wine like a Refosco will redefine love.

Tenuta Ca' Bolani Refosco.One thing I have discovered with multiple food courses at Italian restaurants is that when the chefs start pulling you in with their addictive dishes, they keep going up in notches until you quiver with an addiction. The fourth course consisted of grilled salmon topped in a balsamic and berry reduction with fingerling potatoes and brussel sprouts. I shall start by saying that I never had an aversion to brussel sprouts as a child, surprisingly never getting enough of them. The brussel sprouts at Basil Leaf Cafe were al dente, but I completed them all the same. As to the grilled salmon, I had a brief vision of me on a psychologist’s couch whining about how I could not live without the dish and how I would make all sorts of promises — none that I would keep — so that I could have more. I tend to prefer my fish seasoned well, barring tartar sauce or even ketchup. Anything sweet on fish has a tendency to detract from the flavour. Then I showed up at Basil Leaf Cafe and that changed with the balsamic and berry reduction. It may have been because the sauce was more of a glaze and not a drenching. And with this feast of bliss was a glass of Feudo Principi Di Butera Nero D’Avola. This lush and impressive red is resplendent with a cherry fragrance and a hint of spice. The texture is smooth and velvety. I mean, it is easy to be lured into thinking you are downing a pricey bottle off wine, but for its complexity in taste, the price is reasonable enough for me to restock my wine cache with some of it.

Fourth Course

Of course by now, everyone at the table has a dreamy, hazy feeling from so much good food and even more fabulous wine. But what meal is complete without a dessert? None, I say. The dessert at Basil Leaf Cafe was indeed a new one to me. Crispy gnocchi with vanilla bean ice cream, topped with chocolate and pistachio came out in a substantial bowl. The ice cream with the chocolate shavings and pistachio was fine all by itself. However, the crispy gnocchi was a surprise and one that I welcomed. Now, I may add that the gnocchi was not crispy like a rice crispy bar and it was not deep-fried, but rather toasted. Not seasoned with anything other than perhaps a faint coat of sugar, what initially looked to be a heavy dessert turned out to be light. With this dessert finale was a dessert wine: a Castello del Poggio Brachetto. This reminded me of an ice wine that I had tried in the Finger Lakes region of New York State — a wine that was incredible and costly to match. And now that I think of it, the dessert was not overly sweet, and perhaps for good reason so that the sweetness of the wine would not create a saccharine crisis for all at the table.

Dessert

This was the second food and wine pairing that I have had within the past few weeks, the first at an exotic Asian boutique restaurant and now this addiction-filled dinner experience at Basil Leaf Cafe. Having partaken of food and wine pairings in the past, there were always dishes where clearly the chefs were trying too hard and they stumbled. What was apparent at Basil Leaf Cafe was that the chef knew the right mixture of ingredients for the dishes and how to present the star and supporting dishes so that nothing competed on the tongue. The wine pairings were worthy, each on the mark. With the photography that I do at all of the restaurants where I visit for journaling, it was also quite nice seeing others engage their food from the taste point of view and from the artistic standpoint. And how often do you get to say you dined with the president of an Italian winery that produces and sells some of the top wines in the world? New friends, new beginnings, wonderful service, and a memorable night of food and wine at one of Chicago’s spectacular Italian eateries. What more could I have asked for?

Answer: A cab home.

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