I Come From Another World

HarvestBerwyn, Illinois, is surprisingly becoming a suburb for those who have no compunction about indulging tasty food. A former colleague who lives in Berwyn has introduced me to a few restaurants that have shown themselves worthy of repeat visits. There supposedly was a feature on television for a restaurant that is out of this world. Autre Monde, translated as “another world,” and at 6727 Roosevelt Road, was touted as a must-go-to eatery for those whose palates enjoy cuisine with a Mediterranean flair. My former colleague had gone to the restaurant and had spoken to how you cannot describe the taste — you simply had to experience it. Well, that was all I needed to hear to know that I wanted to be transported to a another world where people relished at aromas that tickled the noses and flavours that danced about the tongue like lords a leaping.

Autre Monde has a look and feel that is rather common among a lot of lounges in the immediate West Loop and Near North Side sections of Chicago. The lighting is dim, giving a muted orange glow. Everyone is glamorous, almost to the point where you wonder if it hurts to be so beautiful. The atmosphere is intimate. It is always recommended that you make reservations well in advance for the assurance of a seat and you arrive for the time that you have made the reservations, lest you relinquish your seat. The restaurant fills quickly. Of course, the service is outstanding and they will accommodate you if you visit without a reservation. But once you are there, be prepared for one of the best dining experiences of your life and a recognition that Chicago suburbs are, per the current urban lingo, on and popping.

Hummus and Fava Beans SpreadHaving the Christmas season upon us, my former colleague and I were in a festive mood. This was going to be a gathering before I departed to spend Christmas with my family and she to spend it with hers. With the restaurant filled, bearing others who came with co-workers and other friends dancing and doing things a notch short of embarrassing, we figured we would really get started with something from the drink menu. There is a drink called Harvest that is nothing short of autumn in a glass. I never would have imagined that whiskey and cider would be a great combination. Add a dash of cinnamon and you have a winning drink. Because we had saved our appetites for Autre Monde, we were careful not to imbibe the Harvest as though we had been crawling across the desert and were ridiculously thirsty. We tempered ourselves and placed our orders to cater to our degustation wants.

The first course we opted to sample was a plate of hummus and fava beans. There is no reason to ever go to a Mediterranean restaurant and not order any hummus. It is a staple in the Mediterranean diet and with some pita bread, you can fall in love with those creamed chickpeas, olive oil, and spices. Now, add fava beans to the mix and this was nothing short of Silence of the Gino, Mediterranean style. I have had fava beans with fish, chicken, pork, and in a complete vegetarian meal. I have even had them with a Chianti. Having it prepared as a spread was a new experience and one that I enjoyed more than I can put into words. It may be that it was something completely different to my palate. It may be that it was really that delicious. We’re not talking a dish that was heavy-handed with spices enough to be the glaring complete antithesis of a boring plate. It was a perfect start.

Mussels au Sete
Then we moved on to Mussels au Sete. I wanted muscles. I got some now. My arms are noticeably larger than they were several months ago. But I wanted mussels that tasted award winning in a savoury gravy. Lucky for me, I was already at Autre Monde and was happily obliged. It had to be the light gravy that made the mussels have an unforgettable taste. Heavy enough on the garlic but not enough to send a vampire running back to his coffin, my former colleague and I dipped the complementary toast in the sauce and devoured the delicate mussels with a tempered hunger. After all, we had more in mind to sample.

Moroccan Chicken WingsThe third menu item was one we saw going to other tables. The patrons were baring their teeth, frowning, and gnashing away with an animal intensity that made Sally in “When Harry Met Sally” come across rather tame in her mockery during the famous restaurant scene. Moroccan chicken wings landed on our plates and we topped them with cucumber yoghurt and a light pepper syrup. The combination of cool and hot was not something that my dining companion and I were going for but mixing the cucumber yoghurt and the pepper syrup really made the chicken wings scream. Even without adding the yoghurt and syrup, the wings had a flavour that held its own. The crust on the wings was delicate, nothing like the harsh crunch that you get on most fried chicken and definitely not a case of the Kentucky Fried Chicken sort, where the batter is almost feathery. We were contemplating ordering more of the wings, but that would have taken away from the degustation sampling we had planned. We were happy to have bared our teeth, frowned, and gnashed away on the wings that we had the way everyone else had.

Fontina and Wild Mushroom FlatbreadWe then graduated to fontina and wild mushroom flatbread. The whole concept of flatbread is all the rage in Chicago and has been for years. There are restaurants that make sandwiches with flatbread. Some pizzerias use flatbread as crust. There are even a few speciality cafés that serve it with dips and spreads. But when it is done right, it is an absolute showcase of talent. Looking at the fontina and wild mushroom flatbread, one would think it was pedestrian fare. It is anything but plain. The recipe apparently was well-balanced enough that the herbs and spices were present without overpowering the fontina cheese and the mushrooms. And let me not miss expressing the fact that you could taste the mushrooms, not simply chew them and know that they were on the flatbread.

Because the fontina and mushroom flatbread was so amazing, we wanted one more flatbread. An option was the spicy duck sausage flatbread. We immediately flagged this flatbread as a mandatory reason for a future repeat visit. Sun-dried tomatoes and seasoned duck sausage on flavourful cheese. It also found its way between our fingers, rising up from the plate, up towards our mouths where it entered and our teeth went to work. Smiles. Smiles as though we were on Fantasy Island. But it was no fantasy. If I had to choose between Chicago style pizza, Brooklyn style pizza, and the spicy duck sausage flatbread, Autre Monde would be happy to know that their little belly happy menu item would win.

Spicy Duck Sausage FlatbreadFor the finishing touch, we had pot de crème. Many people seek a pot of gold. If I want happiness, I only need the chocolatety hazelnut flavour of pot de crème to paint my face with a smile. So delicious it was that we intentionally took almost half an hour to eat all of it. There was no reason for us to rush through such a perfect dessert. The hazelnut influence in the chocolate custard had the right ratio to let you know that there was the presence of hazelnut but not such that it competed with the chocolate. After all, there were shavings of hazelnut on top with the homemade whipped cream. There could not have been a more fitting sweet.

Pot de CremeAutre Monde is, to put it succinctly, out of this world. For Berwyn to be such a homey suburb, you would never think that a restaurant with high-end atmosphere and top billing cuisine would be there. A few years ago, Berwyn was primarily a walk-up café haven where you were guaranteed some authenticity in the food you ate. The addition of Autre Monde and a few other restaurants will eventually have Berwyn filled with foodies seeking their Holy Grails of dining experiences. The price is commensurate with the quality of the output. The first time I went to Autre Monde, I did not have my camera and wished that I did. There was no way I was leaving home the second time around sans my toy to capture the culinary impressions. Actually, I wished that I had a camcorder to record my thousand faces of happiness as I ate. While I was able to capture the menu items that my former colleague and I had, and a picture is worth a thousand words, you will find that there are a thousand ways to express bliss for something delicious from another world.

Autre Monde Cafe on Urbanspoon

Ending Song to Carol Burnette Show

It was a Friday night. I am soon to depart Chicago for Washington, DC, where for the next three months I will be on weekend scavenger hunts for restaurants to rival those in Chicago. I must say that Chicago has made it impossible for any other city in the world to best it in the cuisine department — that is unless you go to Melbourne, Australia, where you are guaranteed to shout from the rafters that you have been to food Mecca. But some critics with mild palates have stamped San Francisco as the top food haven in America. Far be it from me to debate someone who has never exhausted himself or herself to great satisfaction at a dining establishment in Second City.

Bruschetta

Red, Red, Wine

My circle of friends had a proper send-off for me. We met at Tasting Room at 1415 W. Randolph Street in Chicago’s Near West Loop. Right at the edge of one of Chicago’s premier locations that houses swanky boutiques, fantastic restaurants, coffee houses, fancy shops, and a demographic consisting of artists, bankers, lawyers, engineers, and the like, Tasting Room was a most inviting choice. There are two floors that you may choose for meeting to sip an aperitif or two and sample tasty delights. The bottom floor has a full bar and a generous seating area of tables and lounge chairs. Sweet. And there is the second floor that has a wide-open loft feel with plenty more tables and lounge seating. Windows, tall and wide, face downtown and you see the splendour of the skyscrapers with lights painting the windows while you enjoy company. This is exactly what happened for my friends and me this particular Friday evening.

I have lost track of the number of times I have been to Tasting Room, spanning as far back as 2009. The quality of the food has always been a magnet that draws me back. The knowledge of the wait staff, and I do believe the server we had this time is a sommelier, exceeds that of what you will find at most casual dining establishments. Tasting Room is not for the frugal, but at the same time, it is not one to cause fear of going broke. With such splendid service and great space, it is an excellent location for a gathering of small friends or a send-off with a large party. And because you are certain to find at least one bottle of wine worthy of taking home, may I recommend the adjoining wine shop? Yes, I may.

Vino Rojo

We all ordered flights of wine, the names relating to the Rat Pack that was so famous during the 1980’s. The white wines were attributed to the female cast of the Rat Pack: Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Demi Moore, and others. The red wines had names linked to Judd Nelson, John Cusack, Michael Anthony Hall, Emilio Estevez, and other male characters of the bunch. It was a rather touching theme, one that made me aware of how old I am because I remember all of those Rat Pack movies — “Breakfast Club,” “Pretty in Pink,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Better Off Dead,” and several other worthy movies from that group that makes me wince when I see picture shows by the present ilk of silver screen Thespians. The table before us held flatbread pizzas — one with ricotta cheese and spinach, another with olives and pine nuts, and a margherita pizza topped with fresh tomatoes. We grinned as we delighted ourselves on Bruschetta with sweet, dried cranberries. A crab cake sandwich with spicy, authentic onion rings appeared from the kitchen and were dealt a swift end. And the piave cheese fondue that was ideal for the small group was well-received, as was evident from the fact that we had all but wiped the fondue bowl to completion. White bread, rye bread, potatoes, apples, and chicken swirled around in piave cheese and then popped into our mouths without hesitation. We all smiled.

Delicious

When the night ended, I remembered the start of the lyrics to the song that Carol Burnette used to sing at the end of her variety show: It’s so nice we had this time together. The thing that left me with a smile is that I also remembered that the show came on again the next week. The laughter, commiseration, and fellowship that I have with my circle will resume when I return. But now that I have been so informed of how warm winters are in Washington, DC, I may want to work out some arrangement where I spend the summer in Chicago and winters in DC. I can suffer through not going to a Chicago restaurant for a few months. Well, I can try to convince myself of that. I guess.

Tasting Room at Randolph Wine Cellars on Urbanspoon

Going Green Zebra

Green Zebra

Chicago. Sunday. It is late morning. My stomach is talking to me — lucky for me no one else can hear the voice. I am thinking of something contemporary. I am experiencing a want for something with kick, which goes without saying. And then a flash comes to mind. I will satisfy my craving with some vegetarian food. There is a saying, “It is never as good as the first time.” I remember a certain restaurant and how my mouth burst with flavour when I went the first time. Well, let me be the first to say that during this second trip to this particular eatery, the old saying no longer applies when it comes to Green Zebra. It is so much better — better by leaps and bounds — the second time. Located at 1460 W. Chicago Avenue on the corner of Chicago Avenue and Greenview Avenue is perhaps one of Chicago’s top vegetarian restaurants. I must admit that with this being my second visit and being thoroughly satisfied with my dining experience, Green Zebra ranks as one of my top restaurants in the city. Now, New York City may be known for bringing the concept of brunches to mainstream midday fellowship. Green Zebra is the first to take it up a notch.

Madelienes with Honey Butter and Raspberry Jam

Madelienes with Honey Butter and Raspberry Jam

Upon entering what looks very art-deco and stylish, a hostess greeted me with a genuine welcome and showed me to a window seat. She must have been reading my mind because I wanted a seat where I could have enough light for photographing the dishes I had planned to order. I was now ready for action. I placed my order and while I waited for the goodness of the kitchen to be delivered to my table, I had complimentary madeleines with honey butter and raspberry jam. Usually you find the French biscuits baked using flour. These were baked with corn meal. I had to be decent because two were simply not enough. I was well aware that they were complementary, but after spreading the honey butter and raspberry jam on the two heavenly treats, my mind was rambling as to why they were not main items on the menu. If you want to diffuse a confrontation, I recommend madeleines with the spreads from Green Zebra.

Flatbread, Brunch Style

Flatbread, Brunch Style

The first time I had gone to Green Zebra I had ordered a German pancake and I had enjoyed it so much that I wanted it again. On my initial visit the pancake was prepared with caramelized squash. Yes, surprise, surprise! This time the pancake was prepared with pears. Who moved my cheese? Whose idea was it to sample with the German pancake by adding pears and make it even more tasty than it was the first time I went? Whose idea was it to change their menu to indulge seasonal culinary wonder, definitely making me want to see what will be on their winter menu since I was pleased with their spring menu and found that the autumn menu today was top? Oh the delight. Oh the rapture. Oh the happiness from it all. Chicago is also becoming home of flatbread dishes. Instead of ordering just one dish to journal, I wanted one more to describe as well. While ordering my brunch meal I asked the waiter for recommendation of another dish that would complement the German pancake without being too overwhelming. Granted I have an incredible appetite, walking bent over like an upside down letter L is not cute. So he offered the breakfast flatbread. The crispy flatbread was served under sautéed onions and mushrooms with shreds of Romaine lettuce, all cooked in a bourbon sauce, and served with an egg sunny side up. I have never been a fan of my eggs being done any way other than scrambled — maybe with cheddar cheese or cream cheese. It takes having your eggs sunny side up done correctly for you to appreciate just how fantastic they are that way. The only regret I have for having eaten this dish is that I enjoyed it so much that I may burn in hell from finding excessive pleasure in each bite.

German Pancake

German Pancake

The cranberry juice that I had with the brunch was not from a can, carton, or bottle. I would debate that notion even if they were to pull the carton from the icebox and show it to me. Well, it may have been, but I have not had cranberry juice as fresh as what I had at Green Zebra. Whatever they did to it or wherever they got it from, I hope that they have it again when I go back. For an after-brunch drink, I settled for green tea with no sugar. One of the things I grew to appreciate as a wrap-up to my meals when I was in Australia was a cup of green tea, which helps digestion. Even better is that the green tea was loose leaf, which panders well to my British sensibilities.  And while sipping my tea and reading Chicago Tribune on my Kindle about the political landscape with the Chicago mayoral race the waiter offered some suggestions as to other vegetarian restaurants and other eateries in the neighbourhood where I live in Chicago proper. I shall visit them, but I shall return to Green Zebra and quite possibly for dinner since I know they have fantastic brunches.

Green Tea

Green Tea

Having a disposable income is an outstanding thing and when you go to awesome restaurants like Green Zebra and get the tab, you automatically flag such restaurants as regular stops for your culinary adventures. Not only is the price one that will keep you returning but the ambience, community, and top service will have you running back without hesitation. Oh, and let me not forget about the food. The first time was a charm for me. This second time was a slice of heaven. It was heaven. It was heaven on earth. Did I say that it was heaven? Yes, then let me burn in hell. And I am confident that the third, forth, fifth, and nth times will get progressively better.

Green Zebra on Urbanspoon