Volo Restaurant and Wine Bar

During planning for restaurant outings to sample wines and cheeses, I received a recommendation for a wine bar along a hidden stretch in Chicago’s Roscoe Village neighborhood. A bit rustic in the look and feel with plenty seating, I had a midweek reservation for an early meal. Volo Restaurant and Wine Bar at 2008 W. Roscoe Street was the landing spot.

Fall Flight

Fall Flight

My restaurant adviser and I had designs on trying a few cheese flights along with wine flights for pairings. While the flights were not extensive, there were enough for us to have a few samplings. The first wine flight was a bubbly flight. The 2014 Spagnol, extra dry Prosecco from Veneto, Italy, wasn’t dry to the point of inducing puckering and the notes of apple, pear, and bread crust, surprisingly, made for a smooth and balanced bubbly. The NV Jaillance, Cuvée de l’Abbaye Rosé from Cremant de Bordeaux, France, was subtle on the tongue with a faint accent of strawberries and cream. The NV La Vida al Camp, Brut Cava from Cava, Spain, gave a nose of grapefruit and floral notes.

Flights of Cheese

Flights of Cheese

With autumn soon arriving, we indulged the fall flight. The 2015 Maison Yves Chaley et Fille, Haute Côtes du Nuits Blanc from Burgundy, France, played well on the palate with fresh Grannny apple, pear, lemon zest, and floral tones. The 2012 Cantina Bove, ‘Marso,’ Montelpulciano d’Abruzzo, from Abruzzo, Italy, was earthy with a mix of black fruits and herbal tones. The 2014 Arsonist, Red Blend carried us to California with a silky blend of Petit Verdot, Malbec, and  Cabernet Sauvignon, bearing notes of blue and black fruits, vanilla, and clove for a spicy finish.

Pinot Noir Flight

Pinot Noir Flight

Sparkling Flight

Sparkling Flight

We had a nice selection of cheeses to start off the evening along with our first flights. For sheep’s milk cheese, we could not go wrong with the three month aged Manchego from La Mancha, Spain, a fantastic semi-firm cheese with a creamy finish. For cow’s milk cheese, we had a Camembert from France, soft and creamy with a flowery rind and a umami flavor. Another favorite, which was a brie, was certainly an offering that we could not miss. And with a vintage gouda from Netherlands on the menu, there was no way we were going to pass on enjoying that along with embedded, crunchy caramel. Wanting to try something made from goat’s milk, we had a Montchevre garlic and herb from Wisconsin. The mix of roasted garlic, rosemary, and thyme in the cheese worked with the the goat cheese almost playing background. One other cheese that we requested to come to the table as a surprise was one akin to a crumbly gorgonzola, very mild, and quite inviting as with the accompanying candied walnuts, crushed figs, and honey.

Salmon Salad

Salmon Salad

Moving into the small plates, we tried a salmon salad that had a light citrus vinaigrette along with julienne cucumbers and crisps. Slightly reminiscent of a deconstructed ceviche, the salad was a rather nice touch to the finishing sips of our initial wine flights. After enjoying this and an allowance for a few minutes, we then ordered a bowl of mussels in a white wine sauce with shallots, parsley and French butter. Very partial towards mussels that come in a saffron sauce, the white wine sauce was ideal not only for the moment but rather fitting given the theme of the wine bar.

Mussels

Mussels

Having enjoyed the cheeses, salmon salad, and mussels with toast, we had an interest in more flights of wine. Having overlooked it earlier, there was the cheese and charcuterie flight. The 2015 PortoVino, Cardedu, Vermentino de Sardegna Nuo from Saardina, Italy, was herbaceous with a slight edge of minerality. The 2016 Domaine Haut de Mourier, Voignier “Cuvee Stephanie Bouix,” from Languedoc, France, came from a mountainous region with a nose of apricots and peaches followed by pear, apple, lavender, and honey. The 2013 Juris, St. Laurent from Burgenland, Austria, had tones of cranberry, raspberry, and florals, slightly tart, yet a wonderful selection for those who love Pinot Noir.

Spicy Chicken Over Coconut Rice

Spicy Chicken Over Coconut Rice

The fourth and final wine flight on the menu was the Pinot Noir flight. The 2012 Ara, “Pathway” Pinot Noir from Marlborough, New Zealand, was sweet without crossing into dessert wine territory and perfectly spicy, which paired extremely well with a spicy Asian fried chicken dish that came over coconut rice. The 2014 Bouchard Père et Fils, Pinot Noir, from Burgundy, France, had a bloom of cherry, raspberry, currant, and early notes, and unlike a lot of wine with tannins, the tannins in this selection did not overpower the sips. Finishing with a 2014 Rascal, Pinot Noir, from Williamette Valley Vineyards in Oregon, the cranberry, black cherry, and strawberries in this wine could easily make one fall in love with Oregon wines.

The Wrap-up

The Wrap-up

Finishing with coffee from one of the local roasters, we agreed that the selections were very nice for something light. It was certainly great having a server who was knowledgeable of the wines and could speak to why they paired well with certain cheeses and dishes, as well as speak to personal preference. The wine bar was not teeming with patrons, which may have been due to many in the area crowded into some other bars watching a Cubs game. But if you are looking for a nice date spot without the noise and clamoring, Volo Wine Restaurant and Wine Bar is a sweet spot for libations, small plates, cheeses, and satisfaction.

Volo Restaurant Wine Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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

Mango Pickle, Edgewater Indian

Mango Pickle

With ongoing growth in Chicago, neighbourhoods like Edgewater are becoming hubs for a lot of cultural cuisine. There is influence from the Vietnamese community just to the South in Uptown. There are several authentic Thai restaurants, Ethiopian restaurants, a nearby Nigerian restaurant, sushi bars, American cafes, and a dusting of Indian restaurants. Mango Pickle at 5842 N. Broadway Street was my latest jaunt for a sampling of something representative from afar.

Smoky Negroni

Smoky Negroni

Touted as a cafe, Mango Pickle is a spacious restaurant that serves Sunday brunch and dinner Wednesdays through Saturdays. For my first visit, I went for Sunday brunch. I started with a Smoky Negroni since you can never go wrong with a negroni. The bartender mixed a great brunch cocktail that was neither heavy-handed with the alcohol nor too light that it was watery. To get a good sampling of offerings, I started with chicken soup, which came in a deep plate with tender chicken and root vegetables over a curry gravy. Although I was expecting the landing to arrive in a cup or a bowl, it was still a flavourful dish that I would have again.

Chicken Soup

Chicken Soup

The second brunch landing was a plate of carrot halwa with French toast. Topped with pecans and drizzled with a light syrup, this was a rather light offering considering the toast had the consistency of fluffy, scrambled eggs, rather than grilled bread. The carrot halwa was the item in the dish that stood out as representative of something in Indian dining. With the natural sweetness of the halwa, it was a nice accompaniment to the toast.

Carrot Halwa and French Toast

Carrot Halwa and French Toast

For the third brunch landing, I had bun maska with homemade jam and accompanied it with a cup of masala chai. This was the first time I had ever eaten this Maharashtrian favourite. Dusted with powdered sugar, the bun maska was warm, right from the oven, buttered, and outstanding with the jams. As to the masala chai, Mango Pickle needs a walk-up window where one can order the chai for take-away.

Bun Maska & Chai

Bun Maska & Chai

Recognizing that the brunch seemingly had an Indian influence to American breakfast, I returned a few days later for a tasting of the dinner offerings. Very much like during Sunday brunch, the restaurant was crowded and full of energy. I was full of anticipation.

Chai with Bourbon and Somrus

Chai with Bourbon and Somrus

I started with a cup of masala chai that came with a small vial of bourbon and another small vial of Somrus Indian liqueur. Being a fan of whiskey, scotch, and bourbon, there were no complaints while enjoying the bourbon in part with the chai. Where I was completely won over was with the Somrus Indian liqueur. Having gotten a taste of the liqueur at a media event in December 2016, I was quick to make a reminder to myself to seek out a bottle of it for enjoyment at home.

As usual, I opted for a few landings so I could have a good idea of what Mango Pickle had for the dinner crowd. I started with a lamb slider that came open-faced atop naan and accented with a drizzle of kasundi mustard. Not a large appetizer, but certainly one that will awake the taste buds, I recommend this as a starter.

Lamb Slider

Lamb Slider

The second landing was baigan bharta, a traditional creamed eggplant dish in Indian cuisine. Spicy the way I had requested it, this was a very satisfying vegetarian option. This dish came with root vegetables and was topped with papadum. One thing I noticed with the inclusion of root vegetables (i.e., beets and sweet potatoes) is a hint of Eastern European flare sneaking into certain dishes. It works well here, for sure.

Baigan Bharta

Baigan Bharta

The final landing was still in keeping with vegetarian options. It was chana masala. This dish had a heavier ginger base than I have had before at any Indian restaurants domestically or abroad. I ordered basmati rice with the chana masala that had herbs and two small dollops of ghee added. Fantastic. Looking back, I think naan would have tempered the ginger a bit, but the ginger was actually good for digestion given how much I had ordered.

Chana Masala

Chana Masala

Since I often spend a lot of time in Edgewater visiting with friends, I never paid much attention to Mango Pickle on the landscape. So, I can’t say that it is a new addition to Edgewater. It is, however, a welcomed one, I’m sure. The service during Sunday brunch was superb. And during my return for dinner, the server recognized me as “the photographer who sat at the high-top.” That alone was enough to prove consistency in the service. And for the food, I’m won over completely. Even with the faint hint of Eastern European showing up in the ingredients, the restaurant serves some delicious Indian cuisine still. You should add Mango Pickle to your “Must Go Here” list.

Mango Pickle Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Macku Sushi, More, More, More

Macku Sushi

A year ago, almost to the date, I went to a Thai restaurant in Edgewater for their one-year anniversary. With Chicago and the surrounding neighbourhoods being saturated with Thai restaurants, it was nice finding one that retained authenticity while also applying some jazzy techniques to the recipes. While at the anniversary gathering, one individual recommended several restaurants that she felt would suit my taste and would be a fit for the blog. Macku Sushi at 2239 N. Clybourn Avenue was one of the recommendations. So, one year later, almost to the date, I followed through on the suggestion.

There is the usual minimalist decor and non-cluttered seating that one finds in Japanese restaurants that focus primarily on food. With me having sat by the window, I got a good view into the preparation and cooking station, which was all I needed to know that I was about to get satisfaction with a variety of flavour. Now, having gone to countless Japanese restaurants, I was not interested in yet another bento box, teriyaki platter, or litany of maki rolls. Instead, I handed the menu back to my server and told him that I wanted an omakase and sake pairing. And then the fun began.

Click photos to open in Flickr album
Eighth Course
Second Course Fourth Course
Seventh Course

For those who have indulged one or more omakases, there is the awareness that each dish is the chef’s whim. Some items are on menu, some aren’t. I opted for a bit of experimentation. Over the course of the dining experience, I had ten landings. There were tuna, salmon, pumpkin soup, Japanese snails as a take on escargot, oysters, uni, whitefish, tuna tacos, and a selection of nigiri. In true outstanding dining spirit, each landing was progressively better than the previous landing, and the very first course was already a winner. It was nice having an explanation of each dish, and even a bit of history to some, rather than having plates delivered in obligatory fashion. That added touch shows that the servers are knowledgeable of what’s served, not just gophers running dishes to tables. As to the sake pairings, not being a sake expert, I was extremely happy that each pairing complemented the dishes.

Macku Sushi deviates from the usual maki roll and sushi fare that comprise a mainstay in Japanese dining. The plates are not substantial in size, so there really isn’t the potential for stuffing yourself. And while Macku Sushi is not high-end dining, the prices associated with the sizes of many of the dishes may be high-end for those who expect buffet offerings. The high points are the quality and freshness in the ingredients and the service. One would have to be offended for no other reason than being offended is an option to find anything wrong with Macku Sushi. Authenticity in the kitchen output, top service, and they haven’t fallen into the Pan-Asian trap, I pass along the recommendation that I received a year ago. GO!!!

Macku Sushi Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Buona Terra, Buona Cibo

Buona Terra

Recently I have been told that I have shown a bit of favouritism towards a certain Piemontese osteria. The individual observed that I perhaps didn’t appreciate “authentic” Italian food. While having a bit of a walkabout through another section of Logan Square, where I didn’t think there was much foot traffic, I passed by what looked like a rustic Italian restaurant. Well, what do you know? Now was as good a time as ever to possibly “broaden my Italian palate,” as I had been told.

Italian Bread

Homemade Italian Bread

Buona Terra Ristorante at 2535 N. California Avenue is a quaint little spot, walking distance from Logan Boulevard. The interior seems quite homey and welcoming. With the weather being nice outside, I opted to have a seat in the front patio at one of the many tables.

Since I had been snacking for most of the day on my walkabout, I was not famished. However, there was enough room to fancy a few dishes. So, after placing my order, I enjoyed a basket of Italian bread with a garlic paste spread. The bread was fresh, just as I love it. The garlic paste was powerful enough to murder a vampire within a 6-foot range. I was heavy-handed with spreading it on the bread, too.

The first menu item I had was a carpaccio. This came as thinly sliced beef, topped with Parmesan and mushrooms. There was a hint of olive oil that actually brought out more flavour than the dish would have had on its on. This was a light dish, a perfect start. It was after a few bites rather addictive. Thankful that I had not finished the basket of bread, I applied a bit of the carpaccio to a few slices of bread and had a satisfactory go of it.

Carpaccio

Carpaccio

The main dish was a plate of penne all’ arrabbiata. Remembering how I had been told that I perhaps had not had a good plate of pasta and didn’t know any better, penne all’ arrabbiata is my go-to litmus test. Nevermind me having been a fashion model who spent days on end in Milan and a person who simply enjoys vacationing in Florence, Naples, Catanzaro, and San Marino, what do I really know about pasta? But I digress. The penne all’ arrabbiata was indeed fantastic. There was a good kick in the spices and the dish was an explosion on the palate. It was angry. I’d eat it again and again.

Penne all' Arrabbiata

Penne Arrabbiata

Since I had been rather experimental as a secret dessert baker at home, and oh how I’ve gone off the rails with baking cakes, cookies, pies, and freezing a variety of homemade ice creams, I was kind to myself and finished with an espresso. Served with an almond biscotti, I took it slowly until the baby at the table behind me started bawling as if trying to get the attention of people from a quarter-mile away.

Buona Terra Ristorante is fantastic. Seeing that there was a constant crowd of patrons coming in for dinner, the few dishes I had were the additional indication of how appreciative one with a refined palate enjoys the output from the kitchen. In the vein of fabulous restaurants to grace the Logan Square landscape, I must admit that it is an option I recommend. I shall certainly recommend it to the individual who thought I was a snob for saying I prefer Italian food other lasagna, ravioli, pizza, and spaghetti. And I’ll even make the recommendation in Italian. I wonder what the reply will be.

Espresso

Espresso

Buona Terra Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Momotaro, West Loop Japanese Style

MomotaroWith warmer temperatures in Chicago, dining invitations are coming in steadily. In a single day, I had an invitation to lunch for a sampling of Mediterranean food and an invitation to a dining event involving several Italian eateries later in the afternoon. To add to my plate, my restaurant advisor had booked me for dinner at Momotaro in Chicago’s West Loop at 820 W. Lake Street. Arriving for early dinner on a Wednesday evening, the restaurant generated a feeling of Friday after work. The dining area was filled and the energy was high. With the understanding that Momotaro prepares dishes for those who like small plates, we agreed to order several items that were good enough for getting a range of tastes.

One item we started with that we had not indulged at any Japanese restaurants was ikejime. Think of an orange gazpacho served with harami sashimi that comes atop ice. You put the sashami in the gazpacho and then enjoy. The pro was the dish was so blooming good. The con was the dish was so blooming good that we wanted it in a larger portion.

Ikejime

Ikejime

The unagi don was a highlight. This came in a small bowl as a mix of barbecued eel with shiitake and kanpyo mixed in rice. The unagi don was rather reminiscent of bibimbap prepared tableside at Korean restaurants. A plus to this menu item was that there was a liberal amount of barbecued eel for the feast.

Unagi Don

Unagi Don

Next for our palates was kani jomaki. This was a maki roll filled with cucumbers, crab, eel, and tomago. After a brief dip in the accompanying soy sauce, the rest was devoured without use of the sauce. If you order this dish, do not use soy sauce. This maki roll should be enjoyed without any palate disruptions from extra sauces.

Kani Jomaki

Kani Jomaki

Sticking with eel as a main ingredient, we had una kyu. Again, this was a maki roll that did not require soy sauce for dipping. Since there were some flavourful dabs on the plate, we used those instead. Outstanding and nothing but fresh taste of eel, this roll was more fantastic than most specialty rolls. Simple is often better, as was the case here.

Una Kyu

Una Kyu

Now that our rockets had been primed, the kani miso was the final countdown to liftoff and we were well on our way to the stars. I love seafood. However, my restaurant advisor feens for crab and the kani miso was a crab lover’s vice. There was creamy crab miso inside of a crab. Served with sourdough, there was no conversation while devouring this dish. There were the occasional acknowledgements of “This is delicious,” “Wow,” and “I don’t want this to end,” though.

Kani Miso

Kani Miso

And as all good things must come to an end, we had an ebi sashimi as a l’amuse between dinner and dessert. Rather than the ebi being served inside of a shell, butterflied, or simply outside of the shell, the chef had prepared the shrimp to a tartar texture.  This was a new way of having shrimp and one that satisfied the palate.

Ebi Sashimi

Ebi Sashimi

One dessert consisted of green peaches with a meringue crumble and a dollop of vanilla ice cream. This was another surprise, as one always think of peaches that bakers put into peach pies and peach cobblers. Green peaches are different, with the same burst in flavour, and rather sweet. For anyone saying, I will not eat green peaches, Sam I Am, you will after you have them at Momotaro.

Green Peaches and Cream

Green Peaches and Cream

The final dish was a citrus angel food cake with fruit and ice cream. If one could describe a flavour, think of a dreamsicle. The combination of orange from the cake and vanilla from the ice cream took me back to my youth of having a go of those frozen treats no sooner than my parents brought them into the house. After so much food, this dessert, as was the plate of peaches and cream, was light.

Angel Food Cake with Fruit and Cream

Angel Food Cake with Fruit and Cream

Momotaro always makes the list of top sushi restaurants to sample from in the city. The menu isn’t extensive, so the potential for being overwhelmed with too many options is small. I highly recommend getting a taste of as many small plates as possible and indulging the hot plate items. Yes, you can have sushi, nigiri, and sashimi from any Japanese restaurant. Momotaro seems to do an outstanding job letting diners enjoy a different variety of other Japanese delicacies while maintaining authenticity in the output. West Loop cheated with drawing a crowd with wide palates with the opening of Momotaro.

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

AraOn — Asia Takes Over France in Chicago

With Chicago’s ongoing renaissance, The Loop is filling in more with restaurants that remain open past happy hour. I was surprised to find AraOn in a rather inconspicuous location at 160 W. Adams Street tucked between W Hotel and US Bank. Noting the moniker of Asian French Cuisine, I figured it would behoove me to see what the menu had that would make me okay with delaying going home for the evening.

Ara On

There is a big box feel to AraOn and I expected that given it’s location downtown. Some people are rather Better Homes & Gardens with their thoughts about restaurants, so they will love the decor. I like the fact that seats are not on top of each other which means you don’t have to compete with your neighbours to be heard during conversation with members of your own party. What matters to me most is if the main thing I’m paying for was worth it: food and/or drink.

Miso Soup

Miso Soup

I am leery of fusion, especially when it comes to certain Asian cuisines blending with European or South American flavours where there was no influence per Asian migration. I must admit that AraOn gets it right. For my first course, I started with a miso soup. This was the traditional preparation and there was nothing amiss with it. The second course consisted of duck dumplings that came with braised mustard greens, shrimp, and maitake mushrooms in a consomme of seafood-duck broth. This was the one dish that I noticed had a blend of Asian preparation with the dumplings blended with French preparation of the consomme.

Duck Dumplings

Duck Dumplings

There was a brief l’amuse of sashimi salmon with roe atop a savoury gravy that I had not expected. Immediately after the first bite, I acknowledged that I could have indulged the dish as a regular course. The salmon was meaty without being oily and the “clean” flavour was an indication of having some of what was no doubt fresh catch seafood.

L'amuse

L’amuse

The third course was a clay bowl of sesame crusted salmon with bibimbap. Not only was the salmon bursting with flavour, but it was incredibly flaky while being succulent. I can’t state any French influence in this dish, but the bibimbap is my favourite Korean dish. Kimchee, bean sprouts, pickled shiitake mushroom, spinach, and braised beef short rib nicely sectioned off that I mixed with rice and a spicy pepper sauce made for a hearty dish that again reminded me of why bibimbap is indeed a favourite.

Salmon with Bibimbap

Salmon with Bibimbap

I saved room for a fourth course of dessert. That came as matcha ice cream atop lemon custard with meringue crisps — so reminiscent of lemon meringue pie — and matcha macarons. The matcha was prevalent in the dessert, but not overpowering, which gave me an hint that loose leaf tea was used in the preparation. Small indicators like this wink at an appreciation for culinary arts because a quick dessert would have lacked in flavour sorely.

Matcha Ice Cream

Matcha Ice Cream

The service at AraOn is winning. The food is also worthy of repeat visits. And for what tastes like fine dining, the prices are reasonable. I have to remember to switch into my British and Caribbean modes so that there is a stagger of 5-10 minutes between courses. There were overlaps during the courses. Add to that I paired wine with the dishes, there was a bit of a rush that resulted in me being sated too fast and buzzed. Understanding that it is not possible for restaurants in and around downtown to know when individuals prefer to dine with ease or with haste, I shall adjust my ordering technique accordingly in the future. I’ll order a course, hold the menu, finish dish, order next dish, and repeat for remaining courses. I shall return, so I’ll apply my method and again enjoy all the good things on the AraOn menu.

Ara On Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Via Lima, Straight to My Belly

Via Lima

Since I have started taking blogging a little more serious, I got an Instagram account a little over a year ago and devoted all of my photos to food rather than stream of consciousness shots. In doing that, I have been following several restaurants in the metropolitan Chicago area. One that resulted in an addiction from simply looking at the photos was Via Lima in North Centre at 4024 N. Lincoln Avenue. The photos were of Peruvian food, but fancy. Well, it was necessary to feed the addiction.

Plantain Chips

Plantain Chips

Arriving in the early evening after work, I had a pick of seats without feeling crowded. Via Lima is a spacious restaurant, but after you start indulging the food, ambiance will be the absolute last thing on your mind. No extensive menu, I saw quite a bit that I wanted. Instead, I opted for a variety of appetizers, saving the entrées for a return visit. My server offered recommendations and I enjoyed complimentary plantain chips with amarillo sauce while I waited.

Tequeño Pollo y Mariscos

Tequeño Pollo y Mariscos

Pisco Sour Habanero

Pisco Sour Habanero

The first appetizer was a plate of tequeños. Two of the fried wontons were stuffed with chicken and seasonal vegetables. The other two were stuffed with seafood and seasonal vegetables. Served with amarillo sauce and a creamy guacamole, I could have had several orders of these tasties without complaint. These appetizers hint at the Chinese influence in Peruvian cuisine and I admit that it works extremely well in the recipe. With a cocktail of pisco sour habanero, all was quite okay in the land. For those who try this cocktail, it is worthy, but remember that the habanero is not to be taken like it’s candy.

Causitas

Causitas

The second appetizer was a plate of causitas, which were potato cakes doctored with your choice of meat. One I had with chicken, avocado, tomatoes, black olive, and boiled egg. The other was with shrimp and the toppings. The spicy sauces that came with the appetizer, one amarillo and a rocoto sauce, were perfect accompaniments. Per the preparation and presentation of causitas, one will see French influence. I think this was one of the fancy photos I saw on Instagram. It could have come to the table looking a complete mess and the flavour still would have been a winner.

Pisco Sour

Pisco Sour

Ceviches Trio

Ceviches Trio

The third appetizer was a trio of ceviche. Thinking that I had already eaten the best appetizer on the menu, I was totally confused as to which appetizer I enjoyed the most when the ceviche came. More confusing was trying to decide which ceviche in the trio I liked the most. There were a classic ceviche, one with ají amarillo, and one with rocoto — mild to spicy. One thing that I really liked about the ceviche was that they used choclo in the recipe. Anyone who has had this Peruvian corn will attest to authenticity of the dish. Also, one thing to note is the Japanese influence in this dish. And with this appetizer, I had a regular pisco sour. It was as refreshing as the one I had with the habanero.

Lucuma Mousse

Lucuma Mousse

Per my server’s recommendation, I had a lucuma mousse. I have had lucuma ice cream at another restaurant in Chicago and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Having it in a mousse was a highlight. Not only was the dessert light, given all the food and drink I had prior to indulging it, but the natural sweetness of it was all that was needed. Accented with a bit of chocolate syrup and topped with whipped cream and a butterscotch cookie, the only thing I needed was a cup of coffee. I’m weaning myself from coffee, so the dulce of lucuma mousse was perfect.

I cannot speak to how service is when the restaurant is filled almost to capacity. What I can say is that I had a server who did a superb job of offering recommendations that hit the spot. When you open a menu and see so many offerings such that you’re indecisive, a server who can nail some menu items that leave you wanting to return in the very near future is a plus. As to the food, if Instagram ever adds a scratch-and-sniff feature, Via Lima will break Instagram with people scratching and sniffing their photos. Via Lima, straight to your belly.

Via Lima Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bismillah, Let Him Go

Bismillah

Every time I go back to London, I return to America with my pores exhaling curry, cumin, and other spices found in Indian food. London has a large Indian population and with that comes the best Indian food outside of India. Chicago doesn’t fall too far behind in having a plethora of restaurants representative of the flavours of India. I exude curry since I am constantly in any one of the Indian cafes on Devon Street. If you are a diligent foodist like me, you will manage to discover some fooderies that are not on any main stretch or within sniffing distance. For example, with traffic being incredibly congested in a section of the North Side — in Edgewater to be exact — I had to snake my way down a side street to avoid sitting still. And what to my surprise should I spy at 6301 N. Ridge Avenue but a hole-in-the-wall by the name of Bismillah. It had to have been serendipity because I was listening to “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen at the very same time I spotted the restaurant. Imagine that.

Vegetable Samosas

Vegetable Samosas

In true hole-in-the-wall fashion, Bismillah will not win any awards for interior decoration. And if you go to the restaurant for aesthetics, you may be too caught up in cosmetics to enjoy the good food that Bismillah serves. While at the counter, I scanned the one menu that was available and placed my order. I was not going to waste my time playing like a curious eater while fighting the temptation to jump behind the counter and start attacking the tasty food that I could see being cooked in the open kitchen. I ordered two vegetable samosas and chicken boti. The two fist-size samosas came with a mint sauce. I mashed up the samosa, poured a nice amount of the mint sauce on them, and handled my business. I smiled. When the skewered, boneless pieces of chicken that looked and tasted like tandoori chicken arrived at the table with basmati rice and a small salad, I was then ready for devouring my main dish. The chicken popped with each bite, an explosion of flavour, a revelation of having something several notches past delectable. It was so good that I exclaimed, “In the name of God,” or bismillah for those in the know. If I continue to eat at all these ethnic eateries, I will become fluent in more than the short list of languages that I speak. When I was done, I had a chai in the traditional manner of an after-supper drink.

Chicken Boti

Chicken Boti

Bismillah is a cash-only restaurant. Yes, many restaurants accept MasterCard, Visa, Discover, and American Express. The prices are incredibly reasonable for the quality and the quantity that you receive. I should warn you that the portions are substantial. And if you are accustomed to going to restaurants that deliver your order in the speed that you get your food when you go to fast food restaurants, every order is prepared on-demand. Nothing is sitting in pots and pans or under heat lamps, so you get everything fresh. Devon Street where? This off-the-path find was worthy of the discovery. There is something to be said for traffic congestion in Chicago and things that you stumble upon when you are trying to circumvent sitting behind the wheel without moving. Bismillah is one of those discoveries that pleases the appetite. And in “Bohemian Rhapsody” when Queen asks the question, “Bismillah, will you let him go,” picture me smashing the record and declaring, “Bismillah, never let me go! Bring me some more chai.”

Bismillah Restaurant on Urbanspoon Bismillah Restaurant on Foodio54

Tomato, Tomahto, Ethiopian, Eritrean

Den Den Restaurant

When I moved to the Chicago metropolitan area in late 1995, my first stop was Northbook. I like to think that I fit into that area well, me being a high-end professional with an income that allowed me to live in a huge, empty apartment without the need of a flatmate. I was as cultured and snobbish then as the locals. I had given up my complete snooty New York City ways and become a laid back Midwest chap. A year into being a bit too relaxed, it was imperative that I moved closer to Chicago proper. The crickets during the summer were driving me cuckoo batty. So, my landing spot became Chicago’s North Side in the hip neighbourhood of Rogers Park. It felt a little like Berkeley, California, with a lot of Mexican influence. Bim, bom, bim.

The neighbourhood was chock full of taquerias and Mexican holes-in-the-wall. Trust me when I say that for the three years of me living in Rogers Park, I never tired of Mexican authenticity to my food. And after I had gotten accustomed to what turns of phrases could get me into trouble because Spanish spoken in the Caribbean has a lot more “colour” to phrases than what you get in Mexican Spanish, I was getting extra goodies in my take-out bags. Extras in the bags were always a good thing, unless you were a prude, a Dudley Do-Right, a total spazz. Well, fast forward to 2013 and I find that some other ethnic representation has dotted the Rogers Park landscape. They now have Iraqi, Iranian, and Eritrean restaurants a few blocks away from where I used to live.

You waited until I moved to do this, Rogers Park. How could you?

Spiced Tea

Spiced Tea

I met with a fellow colleague for dinner, after having been to Rogers Park to sample some Iranian food the previous week. We saw an Eritrean restaurant named Den Den Restaurant at 6635 N. Clark Street while on the way to the Iraqi restaurant and both yanked out our smartphones simultaneously to block a date for a visit. In the Edgewater neighbourhood, there are several Ethiopian restaurants, but Eritrean was new to me and definitely something I felt was worthy for Chicago Alphabet Soup. Friday came around. We both had left work at a reasonable time. And the plan for some love on a platter was on the agenda.

Because the weather was not all that good, with constant, sudden downpours, we chose not to imbibe any of the honey mead. Trying to drive in Chicago is already a frustrating task. Driving with slightly impaired reflexes from having drunk a graft of tej was not an option for us. Instead, we had traditional spiced tea — accented nicely with cinnamon and cloves. Mmmm. Not trying to see if we could fill our bellies endlessly, we went for entrée options rather than starting with appetizers and later regretting not having left enough room for finishing everything in front of us. Because I didn’t get a take-away menu or lift one of the menus we ordered from, I am relaying everything from memory.

The meal was primarily vegetarian. There were chopped greens that had a hint of garlic and ginger to them. Happiness. The cabbage with carrots and the melange of potatoes, string beans, and rutabaga didn’t last very long atop the ingera. Bliss. The creamed lentils and the flour chickpeas were so blooming delicious that they were so wrong at the same time. Rapture. And the chicken mixed with red peppers, onions, and jalapeño had us humming — when we weren’t silent. Petite mort. Being addicted to tomatoes, I won’t even get into how I attacked the complimentary salad. With fingers only and ingera, we reached, grabbed, and stuffed into our mouths so much flavour and bloom with assembly line precision. The fact that there were intermittent intervals of silence and humming was all the indication anyone needed to know that Den Den was several notches past outstanding.

Platter of Love

Platter of Love

Many people think of Ethiopian and Eritrean as the same. However, Eritrea is a country in Northeast Africa completely separate from Ethiopia. There are similarities in the people and in the cuisine. One may even find the beliefs and customs to be similar, considering they share a common border and there is a strong possibility for some cross-pollination to occur. What I had found certainly common among Den Den Restaurant and Ethiopian restaurants in Chicago like Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Diamond, Ras Dashen, and Demera is definitely authenticity, a huge presence of those from the country dining in the establishments, and a welcoming spirit that is standard throughout the whole of Africa.

The setting in Den Den Restaurant is very warm and ambient at night. For most who are not fans of ethnic dining, the service may seem a bit slow. That’s not the case. There is simply an acknowledgement that the enjoyment of flavours from the native land should never be rushed. For those who must have silverware, the traditional way of eating Eritrean food is with your fingers. The best experiences in Ethiopian and Eritrean dining are in a communal setting with friends. Talk about a great way for community gatherings. And when you receive the tab, be forewarned that your eyes will widen with disbelief as you note how reasonable the prices are. Some say tomato. Some say tomahto. Some think Ethiopian. Try Den Den Restaurant and let’s talk Eritrean a little more.

DenDen Restaurant and Bar on Urbanspoon