For my third landing, I was going for a couscous tagine and was saving a flight of spiedini for my fourth landing. My server recommended that I have both together, which was a splendid suggestion. This third course was a marriage of Morocco, Algeria, and the Mediterranean. The couscous came with eggplant and pine nuts, the latter that I may need to take care to note in the future. It was satisfying the way I remembered in Casablanca, Fes, Marrakech, Rabat, and Algiers. Having it with the flight of lamb kefta, swordfish, and beef filet resulted in a flavor bonanza. If you want to know how tender meat should be prepared, you definitely need to have a dining experience at Testaccio. Continue reading
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
While enjoying some robata grill happiness at Yuzu, my favourite sushi and robata grill in Chicago’s West Town, the owner sat with my restaurant advisor and me so that we could catch up, having not seen each other since the New Year began. Afterwards, she walked us over to the first location where Yuzu first opened its doors for business for an introduction to the owners of the new restaurant that had moved in. My restaurant advisor and I only sampled a small dish called sai-krok e-sam. Two grilled Thai style pork and sour rice sausages were all we needed to return to JJ Thai Street Food at 1715 W. Chicago Avenue.
Having perused the menu, we noticed that much of the usual Thai fare was not listed. There was no pad Thai, pad see-ew, red curry, green curry, yellow curry, or Thai fried rice dishes. And during conversation with the owner, who was not present when the owner of Yuzu had walked us over to make the first introduction, it was then known that the food was prepared truly culturally, with made-to-order customizations on request. This was a plus because it was apparent we’d have dishes cooked they way they are cooked in Thailand proper.
Two menu items that we started with were gai satay, which were three skewers of chicken served with a creamy peanut sauce and a cucumber salad. Unlike gai satay at many Thai restaurants, the chicken breasts were substantial. And it took very little work to get the succulent chicken off of the skewers. The dish also came with grilled toast that tasted like cake when dipped in the accompanying peanut sauce. The second item was a small platter of gyo tod, which were fried wonton stuffed with ground chicken. Served with a spicy sweet and sour sauce, I don’t think I will ever want crab rangoon after having these lovelies.
Where it was evident that JJ Thai Street Food would make a consistent favorable impression on the palate was with the tom yum hung nam knon. This pot of soup had a spicy kick to it but without the highlighted sweetness one gets at a lot of Thai restaurants. The mushrooms were plump. There were no bell peppers, carrots, and onions. The shrimp was not popcorn shrimp. For the soup to have been minimalist with ingredients, it was aromatic to smell and divine to taste.
Because my restaurant advisor and I had budgeted the whole afternoon for a sampling of multiple dishes, one main landing we ordered was khao khai ra berd ta lay. Not a dish one usually skims across on menus at Thai restaurants, this plate of stir-fried shrimp, squids, and mussels with basil over rice and topped with a sunny side up egg was simply heaven. The spices were welcoming enough without making the dish hard to enjoy, but perfect enough to wake senses.
Our second main landing reminded me of a lamb panang dish I’ve had at Herb, which is my favourite fine dining Thai restaurant in Chicago. The khao panaeng neua was panang beef served over rice. Another minimalist dish, it came without the addition of a long list of ingredients, just a hearty gravy accented with a perfect amount of herbs and spices. This was proof that very little can be a plus with preparing extremely enticing menu items.
The final landing was khao mun gai, which was braised chicken served over ginger rice with a cup of chicken stock. Looking at the plate, one would think it had no flavor to it. The khao panaeng neua had already resulted in very little conversation between my restaurant advisor and me, but the khao mun gai had rendered us completely silent. This must be a surprise dish because for it to look tasteless, the seasoning of the chicken without being too much and the ginger rice made for an outstanding dish. Even with the accompanying spicy side sauce, there was a punch before adding it that made the dish addictive.
Chicago boasts a large number of Thai restaurants and while I have been to many that I love and frequent, JJ Thai Street Food is indeed the second Thai restaurant where I have developed an addiction. I recommend it highly. The service is impeccable. Being familiar with authentic Thai food and having a limited grasp of the Thai language, I had a bit of ease with ordering and asking for recommendations. But I am certain that the service would have been just as outstanding had I not switched in my limited Thai. As to the food, I cannot express how much I have become a fan. Everything is cooked once the order is placed, so nothing comes to the table immediately. Be glad because that means you’re getting a meal with fresh ingredients, not pre-packaged, not defrosted and microwaved, but prepared on the spot. I’ll leave you with two phrases to use while at JJ Thai Street Food: aroy (delicious) and kab kun krub (thank you).