Cafe Versailles, Feeling Rather French

Cafe Versailles

One of my favourite restaurants in Chicago — Zebda — is owned and operated by some Algerians. Located in the Irving Park neighbourhood just off one of the many bizarre three-way intersections on the North Side, the restaurant teems with Algerians and North Africans. There is a constant feeling of being in someone’s home and the food is definitely a draw that keeps me returning. What I have also noticed in that Pulaski-Montrose-Elston area are several other cafes and restaurants that are owned and operated by Algerians. One of those cafes is Cafe Versailles at 4102 N. Pulaski Road, which is a few blocks south of the Pulaski-Montrose-Elston triangle.

Cafe Latte

Cafe Latte

While passing by it on my way from the Far North Side, I decided to stop in for a quick sampling. I had already had a nice lunch and only wanted a finale. I figured that a cup of coffee would suffice and with Cafe Versailles being a French cafe, I was certain that there would be crepes on the menu. Upon entering and a brief scan of the menu, there was serendipity. There were crepes for the craving. For a sit-down, I had a cup of cafe latte and a crepe filled with apples and drizzled with caramel. Noting the Bristot brand of coffee, it became evident why the flavour of my cafe latte was so robust and still required no sweetener. The apples were fresh, sliced, and not drowning in a sugary glaze, unlike what you get at many creperies that fill their dessert crepes with apples. The natural sweetness of the apples and the light drizzle of caramel did the trick.

Apple Caramel Crepe

Apple Caramel Crepe

Cafe Versailles has an atmosphere akin to what coffeehouses were before they were taken over by students and single mothers with children who would rather be at home playing rather than watching their mothers engaging girlfriend banter. Everyone is relaxed and the owners tend to be rather conversational. And nothing screams “truly authentic” like being able to watch the owners make the crepes within eyeshot. With the closing of Icosium Kafe, that did a fantastic job preparing savoury and sweet crepes, it is nice to find one that is closer to home for me. The menu has a nice selection of crepes that I think I shall sample over time, as well as salads and sandwiches made to order. A flight to Paris takes seven hours. A trip to Cafe Versailles takes probably fifteen minutes, at most. Guess which location I will visit this week.

Click to add a blog post for Cafe Versailles on Zomato

Feeling French, Craving Crepes, Crepe Bistro

Crepe Bistro

Now that Icosium Kafe in Lincoln Park and its sister location in Andersonville closed their doors to business, the creperies in Chicago that I loved had dwindled down to Crepe Town in Uptown. There are several crepe shops in Chicago, but rude and dismissive service kill the appetite. Having been to Crepe Town recently, I wanted to try another creperie in the city that I hadn’t visited before. And while roaming around in the Loop, I happened upon Crepe Bistro at 186 N. Well Street. Serendipity.

Upon entry, there are a few tables in the front area and a full bar to the immediate left. I looked like around the corner and saw that there were some lounge chairs and a sofa, very much the atmosphere of coffeehouses before they became classrooms for Internet access. I opted to sit outside since the weather was fantastic. After a quick glance at the menu, I was ready for action once the server approached.

Bellini. Coconut shrimp. Tomato basil soup. Kathmandu crepe. Banana nutella crepe. Coffee with cream.

The Bellini was exactly what I needed after a long week of Murphy’s Law at work making me want a hammer to the back of the head. When initially brought the table, it looked like a fanciful liquid parfait. And the bartender, who was also my server, deserves an encore for mixing the Bellini in such a fashion that it was smooth and easy on the way down. The coconut shrimp was delicious, although the accompanying sauce made the appetizer mildly sweeter. I gobbled the rest sans the sauce. The tomato basil soup didn’t taste like anything from a can, or doctored up from a can, so I was pleased with each spoonful.

Crepe Bistro Collage

Kathmandu Crepe. Coconut Shrimp. Tomato Basil Soup. Bellini. Banana Nutella Crepe.

The Kathmandu crepe was a winner. Stuffed with chicken, mushrooms, and mozzarella, and topped with a curry sauce and mango chutney, I was glad to have been hanging out in the Loop and hankering for crepes. Unlike minimalist crepes I have had at other creperies in Chicago and very much like Crepe Town in Uptown, the Kathmandu crepe was loaded. Per the server’s recommendation, I had the banana nutella crepe that ranks up there with my favourite bananas foster crepe. Again, here was another crepe that was stuffed instead of flat and cute for presentation. Along with the banana nutella crepe, I decided to take coffee with cream. If I have said it once, I have said it a million times: the biggest indicator of a quality coffee is being able to drink it without any sweeteners. Yes, I used the milk, but milk is not excessively sweet enough to overpower bitter coffee and the coffee at Crepe Bistro was anything but bitter.

I went during the late morning on a Saturday, so it wasn’t crowded the way I figure it gets later in the day or through the week. It may have been my luck to get the bartender for my server because not only was she good with suggestions, but also quite conversational: a trait in good bartenders. While observing the outdoor menu that was on a placard, I was curious as to whether Crepe Bistro was pandering to Russian, French, or some fusion of the two. During conversation with the bartender, she mentioned that the owner was Russian. Ah, that explained borscht on the placard. However, Crepe Bistro indeed honours French cuisine along the lines of crepes.

So, now Crepe Town and Crepe Bistro are my two favourite creperies in the city. I may have to search for a few other creperies that I may find myself fancying regularly. Well, that is provided the servers aren’t serving attitude with my orders.


Crepe Bistro on Urbanspoon

Triste de Vous Voir Partir

Homemade Bread and Butter

Homemade Bread and Butter

Is it possible for one of your best meals to also turn out to be your most disappointing meal? On a pleasant, late Saturday afternoon, a great friend and I found ourselves pondering that question. Put a footnote there, as we shall return with the explanation of why we were disappointed.

We met at Henri at 18 S. Michigan Avenue. For years we had gone to an Asian restaurant next door to the restaurant and each time we said that we would have to go to Henri. Having been in a French mode as of late, we agreed that it was time that we actually went to Henri rather than simply talked about going.

With perfect weather for outdoor seating, we sat outside and had a brief review of the menu while enjoying complimentary homemade bread that had been glazed with honey. In our usual experimental mood, we chose to indulge our own degustation and wine pairing. We explained to the server what we liked — seafood, no pork, no beef, nothing with nuts in it — and told him to surprise us.

Diver Scallops

Diver Scallops

Escargot Bourgogne

Escargot Bourgogne

For our first course, we had diver scallops and escargot bourgogne. The diver scallops came surrounded by a champagne and grapefruit gelatin, and they sat atop a marmalade of endive that’s caramelized to give a hint of bitterness and sweetness. Also with it came a sliver of grapefruit with a mint purée. The escargot bourgogne was marinated in butter and garlic. The escargot were flat top cooked on toasted brioche with truffle, garlic hollandaise, and a salad with a lemon vinaigrette, preserved lemon, and fig purée. To keep our palates wet, the glass of sancerre was silk on the tongue.

Split Pea Soup

Split Pea Soup

The second course was split pea soup. The surprise in this dish was that there was tartness to the soup that was somehow cancelled out by the sweetness of the English peas. Yes, there was enough of a hint in the tartness, but not to the point of inducing a wince, much like what one experiences when getting the first taste of a lemon. The soup was divinely creamy, which was an indication of having been puréed to an extreme or indeed having cream added. And the oakiness chablis was splendid for cutting through the richness of the English peas.

Sancerr

Sancerre

Chablis

Chablis

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir

Rosé

Rosé

Indulging the third course was when my friend and I had earmarked Henri as the most outstanding French restaurant in Chicago proper. Duck cassoulet and nettle ravioli were the two dishes that were our determining factors — and we probably would have said the same of any other dishes. The duck cassoulet is not a dish that you find to excess in Paris. Those in Southern France mostly partake of this casserole and Henri honoured that recipe very, very satisfactorily, and the glass of Pinot Noir was the perfect companion. This casserole of duck confit and black beans, instead of white beans as used in the recipe in France, was absolutely worthy of having the bowl licked afterwards. The plate on which the nettle ravioli came was also a candidate for losing tact and licking. Nettle pesto, truffle duxelle cream, shiitake, peas, and radish, coupled with insatiable appetites made for a work of art that fell victim to our knives, forks, and gnashing teeth. Vegetarians would overdose on the nettle ravioli, for it is that inviting to the palate. And like my friend, the rosé will be an excellent accompaniment to the ravioli.

Duck Cassoulet

Duck Cassoulet

Nettle Ravioli

Nettle Ravioli

The dessert course was light and exemplary of how marvelous the French are when it comes to desserts. We had a banana souffle, three-tier chocolate mousse, and coffee. The presentation for the souffle was unexpected. The souffle came to the table, the server poked a hole in it, and then poured bananas in a creamy sauce atop it while the souffle was falling. One may say, “Oh, that’s nice,” but it only takes one scoop to have a passive remark turn into, “Oh, my God, I need to have some more of that.” The three-tier chocolate mousse looked more like a small sculpture. Yes, it was culinary art, in all sense of the word. Chocolate cake on the bottom, white chocolate mousse in the middle, and a dollop of more white chocolate, and topped with a drizzled chocolate cap, this dessert was too dainty to devour. We devoured it and wrapped up with coffee and cafe au lait.

Cafe au Lait

Cafe au Lait

Banana Souffle

Banana Souffle

Three Tier Chocolate Mousse

Three Tier Chocolate Mousse

As you can tell, this was a meal to make most chefs jealous. Not only was the meal worthy of high praise, but the service was absolutely top. The server took time to explain the dishes. Then again, my friend and I had let him place the orders, so explanations were proper. Even with the wine pairings, the sommelier came to the table and not only gave the names of the wines, but also provided a brief history and location of the vineyards where the wines were produced. Nothing about the experience can be referenced as not being good.

Where the disappointment came into play was with the discovery that Henri will close its doors for business in June, 2014. We had the opportunity to shake hands with the owner, as he was welcoming customers to the restaurant and engaging them in polite banter. He remarked that he will open an Italian restaurant in Henri’s place. Henri, being in a section of Michigan Avenue that has a lot of foot traffic and tourists, can be “intimidating” when onlookers see everyone dressed in finery. Chicago has a few French restaurants and several others that have a French influence, which is not the same as being authentically French. The output from the kitchen at Henri is authentically French, reminiscent of meals I have had in Paris, Chalon-sur-Saône, Avignon, and Marseille. Chicago boasts a plethora of Italian restaurants. The same cannot be said of French restaurants. Those who had their first enjoyable experience at Henri and those who had become repeat customers will miss the richness of the flavours, the authenticity of the food, and the addiction that ensued thereafter.

Comment pourrait-on le faire?

Henri on Urbanspoon

La Petite Folie dans Hyde Park

White Wine

White Wine

When I was in my 20’s, I had the opportunity to travel and work abroad. While many of my classmates were starting families, getting divorces, stabbing voodoo dolls of those who were enjoying life, and wearing fake smiles, I was jetting across the skies to Tokyo, Singapore, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, London, Stuttgart, and Beijing. One splendid city I got to travel to was Chalon-sur-Saône in France. Nothing like the metropolis of Paris, it was quaint in its own right. And the food was more provincial than the rich, sleep-inducing cuisines of the Parisian flare. Remembering my days of youth, I recalled a certain French restaurant in Chicago’s Hyde Park. Having never gone to the restaurant when I lived in Hyde Park for several years, I made a reservation so that I no longer had an excuse for never putting my feet under a table there. I was off to 1504 E. 55th Street in Hyde Park to see what I had been missing.

Crutide Salad

Crutide Salad

Because I wanted to enjoy my meal like a degustation, I started with a crutide salad. Marinated beets, celery remoulade, and carrot threads with herbed mustard vinaigrette sat atop a bed of spinach. Usually, the French will have carrots and celery in a vinaigrette for a snack. But having the vegetables chopped into threads and served under a drizzle of vinaigrette was just as fine.

Puréed Asparagus Soup

Puréed Asparagus Soup

The soup was a winner without a lot of seasoning added. For this course, I had puréed asparagus with asparagus tips and scallions. The flavouring, albeit light, was rather mild due to the soup being vegan. So, there was no broth added. Since my diet is low in salt, I was rather happy to enjoy the bowl of soup without overpowering herbs, competing spices, or heavy on sodium.

Sturgeon, Spinach, Potatoes

Sturgeon, Spinach, Potatoes

When it came to the entrée, I had mixed feelings. The sturgeon was fantastic. One thing to note is that sturgeon has a silky texture to it, so that can become a deterrent to those who are accustomed to flaky fish. Again, there wasn’t an overpowering recipe to the fish. The spinach was also flavourful without excess. The potatoes, however, were rather tough — the texture you find when something has set for a while and then reheated immediately before served. Had it not been for the sturgeon and spinach, the dish would have been comme ci, comme ca.

Gelatos: White Peach, Chocolate, Hazelnut

Gelatos: White Peach, Chocolate, Hazelnut

Now that I reached my 46th birthday, which was when I said I would add desserts back to my diet, I opted for three scoops of ice cream. There were white peach, chocolate, and hazelnut. Those were perfect, as they were light and not heavy with sugar the way cakes, pies, and cookies are. Plus, the scoops were ideal with the cup of coffee that I took with only milk.

While La Petite Folie has all the trimmings of French ambience, one may struggle with the provincial menu. There are no creams and rich sauces, which are what you find in Parisian restaurants. Granted I did not indulge the dishes with beef or chicken in them, those may have been in a heavy sauce. Nevertheless, the salad, soup, and entrée were very much reminiscent of what I remembered from passing through Eastern France. For those who are conscious about their budget, La Petite Folie surprisingly is not taxing on the wallet. This could be an incentive for you to try several delights of their offerings. I shall certainly return to see what else they have for my appetite. In the meantime, Bon appetit!

La Petite Folie on Urbanspoon

Je suis en amour avec Oceanique

Oceanique

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

L'amuse Bouche: Icelandic Arctic Char

L’amuse Bouche: Icelandic Arctic Char

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

Blood Orange Old Fashion

Blood Orange Old Fashion

Wild Maine Lobster Consomme

Wild Maine Lobster Consomme

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

L'amuse Bouche: Ravioli

L’amuse Bouche: Ravioli

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

Beet Salad

Beet Salad

Chartreuse Sazerac

Chartreuse Sazerac

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

L'amuse Bouche: Wild Skate

L’amuse Bouche: Wild Skate

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

Evanstonian

Evanstonian

Atlantic Char

Atlantic Char

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

L'amuse Bouche: Berry Pineapple Sorbet

L’amuse Bouche: Berry Pineapple Sorbet

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

Pot de Creme

Pot de Creme

Whiskey Chocolate Martini

Whiskey Chocolate Martini

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

Ravenswood Rye Whiskey Few White Whiskey Buggy Whip Wheat Whiskey

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

Oceanique on Urbanspoon Oceanique Restaurant on Foodio54

A-One Italian-French and A10

A10 Hyde Park

February is speeding with a quickness. And I had thought that I would have visited at least one restaurant per week since the New Year began. Alas, the constant snowing and arctic temperatures when snow isn’t falling joined forces to have me running to the warmth of my condominium rather than to the inviting flavours of any restaurants. That is not a good thing because it means once the temperatures warm up finally and I go outside to venture to restaurants for sampling, I will overdo it and then have issues with the night elves that visit my closet and stitch up my pants such that they’re tight around the belly. Ugh, I hate winter, but I love food enough to brave the chill of the Chicago air every once in a while.

A10 Dinner

A10 Dinner

Baguette

Baguette

A great friend and I had managed to escape to Hyde Park a few weeks ago to sample a new restaurant on the Hyde Park landscape. We were so blown over by the service and the food that the experience had plagued our thoughts and conversations since. After a long weekend of being inside, I had cabin fever. I am not a fan of shopping and long walks along the beach with the wind blowing angrily off of Lake Michigan may be a romantic escape for those who like to play roulette with pneumonia.  But food is my lover and I can stand a walk to the subway and connect to a bus to get to a destination that will take my mind way from the fact that the temperatures never got out of the single digits. So, after making reservations, we went back to A10 at 1462 E. 53rd Street in the new chi-chi fantasy world that has taken over the corner of 53rd Street and Lake Park.

Benromach Scotch Whiskey

Benromach Scotch Whiskey

Templeton Rye

Templeton Rye

Elijah Craig Bourbon Whiskey

Elijah Craig Bourbon Whiskey

There is always the request for what one would like to start with drinking. My friend tried her hand with an old-fashioned whiskey cocktail since I had it on the first visit and apparently wouldn’t shut up about how much I loved it. After her first few sips, she had kept mentioning how it was an excellent option. I was in a rare mood — no rarer than usual, though. I requested a flight of whiskies. You can hear all the beer connoisseurs mumbling through upturned sneers, “Snob.” With a baguette in front of us served with a plate of olive oil and balsamic with garlic cooked such that it was spreadable, we were off to a smashing start.

Garlic Soup

Garlic Soup

For starters, my friend had a bowl of roasted garlic soup and I had a Portobello mushroom pizza. The soup was hearty and full of flavour. I recommend it highly if you are all about being heart healthy. Even if you are one of those fans of vampire movies and you fear one of the pretty actors with polished fangs may come to you one night to bite your neck, a bowl of that soup would  be perfect for fending off those wicked vampires. The Portobello mushroom pizza was more like grilled toast with cheese, sautéed onions, and pickled carrots. Giordano’s what? Eduardo’s what? Lou Malnati’s what? Domino’s what? Pizza Hut what? The Portobello mushroom pizza was a blast.

Portobello Mushroom Pizza

Portobello Mushroom Pizza

My taste buds had me in a mood for seafood. Fortunately, A10 doesn’t disappoint when it comes to seafood offerings for my palate. I ordered a cold smoked trout that was served over whipped garlic potatoes. Wow! Having had trout fried, having it smoked such that the fish was flaky and meaty has now moved it up into my Top 5 Fish Loves. Because it was all so fantastic, I worked my knife and fork in slow motion, trying to make the moment last as long as possible without letting the dish get cold.

Cold Smoked Trout with Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Cold Smoked Trout with Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Many of the specials had pork in the recipe, which was not something that appealed to my friend. Instead, she ordered blue crab ravioli with fried green tomatoes. During the first visit, she and I had shared a bit of our dishes and when I had tasted the ravioli that was bursting with blue crab, I understood fully why she ordered it again. This was not a case of “when all else fails,” but one of “you are certain not to fail by ordering the ravioli dish.”

Blue Crab Ravioli and Fried Green Tomatoes

Blue Crab Ravioli and Fried Green Tomatoes

We sat for a while after we wrapped up our entrées, reminiscing about how Hyde Park used to look. It appears that change is taking over the landscape of Hyde Park in a rapid fashion that would otherwise eradicate charm in other neighbourhoods because of poor execution. However, Hyde Park has been a bastion of diversity and change, so the new look doesn’t feel out-of-place. By the time my friend’s coffee and my cappuccino arrived, we had recounted where old establishments were that have gone away to give way to a shinier, dynamic Hyde Park.

Cappuccino and Biscotti

Cappuccino and Biscotti

In addition to our coffees, there is one dessert we had that I think that everyone in the Chicago metropolitan area, as well as visitors to the Chicago area, must try. It’s soft serve ice cream — and I don’t mean that cold foam you get at McDonald’s. It’s homemade ice cream, but accentuated with almond granola, a honey drizzle, and thyme. I have prepared my share of savoury ice cream, so this dessert was clearly a winner to me. This was my guilty pleasure dessert in advance of my birthday. I had an allowance for something sweet, yet not sugary and definitely not saccharine. It would be a lie for me to say that I was not in love after the very first scoop.

Soft Serve with Honey-Drizzled Granola

Soft Serve with Honey-Drizzled Granola

A10 is relatively new, perhaps only a few months of being in business. Unlike a lot of restaurants that are still in their neophyte stages, complete with fumbling and blaring presentations of overcompensation, A10 has the air of a well-oiled machine. It is also quite obvious that the residents of Hyde Park are appreciative of the restaurant gracing 53rd Street, as there is a constant flow of those from the neighbourhood coming in to partake of the menu offerings. For this to have been my second visit, I have been a minimum of ten notches past impressed. It’s not that the hostesses remembered me. It’s not that our first server came by and spoke. It’s not that those on the hospitality staff welcomed my friend and me back. It’s that they got it right. And for that, I say, “C’est bon et bravo!”

A10 Hyde Park, Bar

A10 Hyde Park, Bar

A10 on Urbanspoon A10 Hyde Park on Foodio54

Crepe Town, Where French Meets Thai

Crepe Town

As of late, it has occurred to me that I have been driving more than taking public transportation. That detracts from being able to see the world at eye level because driving in Chicago requires you to focus your attention in front of you always – except for when cars and daredevil children dash in front of you from behind parked cars. Fortunately in Chicago, the best way to combat missing out on ground activity is to take the bus. If you see something that catches your eye, pull the cord so the bus driver can let you get off at the next stop, exit the bus, and engage.

Green Tea Bubble Tea

Green Tea Bubble Tea

I followed my own advice this past weekend. While strolling pass a few boutique cafés in Uptown, I espied the word “Crepe” in one of the windows. With limited French representation on Chicago Alphabet Soup, this finding was a boon. There were two window seat tables that awaited me. I obliged and entered an airy boutique, greeted and welcomed by a smiling face. Having gone to two other creperies in the city, I wondered how Crepe Town at 3915 N. Sheridan Road, my new find, would compare. A brief scan of the menu had quickly proven that I was going to be in for an eclectic treat, not just some crepes accented with a drizzle, dash, or splash of something. I knew that everything was going to be fine when the green tea bubble tea arrived and left me mouthing “Wow” after the first sip.

The angels sang when I forked my first forkful of pasta a la tom yum into my mouth. I never would have fathomed the concept of Thai meets Italian with tom yum soup being the foundation for the dish. The pasta a la tom yum was flavoured with special chili herb sauce and then topped with mushrooms and shrimp. Just imagine me having a taste of that delicacy and now imagine me at the best Italian restaurant ever, making a scene that they can’t match the pasta a la tom yum I had at Crepe Town. I think the server was perhaps a bit concerned that I was slightly unbalanced because I know I did more than my share of mumbling and heaving heavy sighs throughout the meal. The angels continued to sing.

Spaghetti a la Tom Yum

Spaghetti a la Tom Yum

By the time my order of Spice Up arrived at the table, the angels had taken off their robes and were doing jazz hands, kicks, and spins. We are talking about fried fish filet with coconut curry sauce and basil. The freshness and burst of taste of the fish were highlights alone. Add to that the fish being blanketed within a tasty crepe and accented with a curry sauce. This dish was so wrong for all the right reasons. Imagine me having a delightful bite of this crepe dish. Now imagine me at the best French bistro ever, shouting that they don’t know what they’re doing and they need to take lessons from the chef at Crepe Town. By the time I had eaten a fourth of the crepe, I had to apologize to the server for my constant ramblings. I’m not lying. I am sure you have seen alcoholics who babble at imaginary friends. You probably pitied them, too. You would have had the same sentiments while watching me shaking my head, smiling ridiculously, rolling my eyes, and prattling on to no one in particular about random nonsense.

Spice Up

Spice Up

After finalizing the pasta and the crepe dishes, I requested a pause so that my feet come come back down to the ground. Really, I was hovering close to the ceiling. There was such a high from the bloom of flavourful dishes that I had just polished off. And while I was slowly returning to earth, I engaged the server in conversation about how long the restaurant had been in business. When she responded that they had been open for three years, it was indeed clear that I had been missing a lot by driving. All the times I had passed by Crepe Town and never looked off to the side and had I taken the Red Line to the Sheridan stop to browse the cafés and boutiques for a spell, I would have stumbled upon the meaning of bliss well before now. And after a little more conversation, I had made the observation that the dishes had a Thai influence to them. There are a few restaurants in Chicago that inject fusion into their menus, but Crepe Town is the example of perfection when it comes to blending two very disparate cultural cuisines.

Bananas Foster

Bananas Foster

A little more banter and my feet were firmly planted on the floor. My belly was ready for some dessert. I ordered bananas foster and a cappuccino. I have to pay for the hole in their ceiling because my rocket blasted straight for the constellation Eating Gino before I completed the third bite. The delectable crepe encased bananas and caramel. Served with a dollop of vanilla ice cream and an accent of whipped cream, I operated in slow motion, working my knife and fork on the dessert while resuming my blarney. To make it worse, the cappuccino was from high quality beans. Not requiring any sweetener was the indicator. I covered my mouth to keep from shouting. I turned my face from the window so that pedestrians would not see my display of food satisfaction. And who should I face with a stifled smile plastered across her face but the server. “It’s ‘that’ good?” she asked. “Yes,” I responded, “can’t you tell?” There was laughter.

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

Crepe Town is a quiet café that I am sure fills to capacity earlier in the day on the weekends. It may also be a hot spot for the after-five crowd. I was fortunate to have gone when I had much of the café to myself. I could photograph my dishes without feeling as though I was disturbing anyone and I could enjoy my food without some laissez faire parent letting his or her Damien and Rhoda have a run of the place. If you want good crepes in the Chicago metropolitan area, there are a few creperies that I could recommend. I have blogged one crepe house – Icosium Kafe – that is still high on my list of recommendations and I have gone to another one that wasn’t worth blogging. Just to let you know how much I fell in love with the food, service, and the place, it is looking like Crepe Town may be a candidate for my Top 10 List of eateries for 2013. The angels would agree.

Crepe Town on Urbanspoon

Half Italian, Half French, 100% Satisfied

With Facebook being a constant in social media, I decided that it was time to establish a presence for Chicago Alphabet Soup via Facebook. I can’t say that I will ever entertain Twitter since the 140 character limitation is not enough for a good stream of consciousness. Tumblr seems to be the new “it” social media tool. Yes, another account to create and another password to have to manage. My short-term memory is already giving me warnings that I need to limit the number of social media outlets that I have signed up for. And my short-term memory works in concert with my ongoing appetite to prompt me when I should deal with things that really matter — like getting my keys and my wallet, and leaving my condo to get something to eat.

Latte

Latte

My neighbourhood of Logan Square is becoming a Wonderland. It seems that almost every month there is some new boutique, cafe, coffee shop, or eatery dotting the landscape. What was once viewed as a shooting gallery — to quote one friend who almost had a theatrical Scarlett O’Hara attack when I told her I was moving to Logan Square — has now become one of the most sought after neighbourhoods in Chicago. But what should I discover this past Sunday but a swanky grocery store and deli. In the stretch of Milwaukee Avenue that is undergoing a renaissance between the Traffic Circle of Doom and Diversey Avenue is Half Italian, at 4653 N. Milwaukee Avenue. Enter and embrace your inner hipster, but also be prepared for quality. Because I was going strictly for something to eat and drink, I did a quick glance of the grocery items just in case there was something that caught my fancy worthy enough for a future purchase. After all of a second, it was all about a latte and — clutch your pearls, your wig or toupee, and even your martini — a BLT. I didn’t just fall off the wagon; I did a proper tuck and roll. For starters, the latte was of the kind that I love, the kind where you can drink it without sugar. The bloke who prepared the cup of wow for me raised his eyebrows when I was outside at one of the tables photographing it. As for the BLT — cue the sound of a chorus dragging out “aaaahhhhhhh” — I don’t know if it was the smokey taste of bacon that made me smile like a dunce, the freshness of the lettuce and tomato, the spicy mayonnaise, the fact that the sandwich was on Italian bread rather than Sunbeam light bread, or the joke I was reading on a friend’s Facebook wall. Half Italian has a new customer and if I keep gaining weight, my jeans that fit comfortably now will become skinny jeans and I’ll fit the hipster mold. No! Reverse, rewind, scratch that.

BLT

BLT

Now, there was no need for me to saunter back to my condo because the day was several notches past ideal. No clouds, no humidity, no heat, a nice breeze, and me not wanting to show any more neighbours my remodeled Stanley Kubrick bathroom. So, I headed to Oak Park to my favourite dessert shop — Sugar-Fixé at 119 N. Marion Street. I had more coffee that required no sugar and a verine. Shall we stop and have a moment of reflection? (Pause) That parfait of chocolate mousse layered with moist brownies and topped with English toffee not only photographed well, but I had to minimize my scooping to smaller nibbles so that I could savour the whole thing slowly. And from somewhere in the background, Isabelle Antena was singing “LaPecheresse a la Ligne.” How fitting. Sitting outside having verine and taking coffee is so European. First, I was Italian (buona) and then I was French (bon). I know that it seems Chicago has decided to get out of the business of cupcake mills and become the land of the most addictive doughnuts, but a plethora of French patisseries in Chicago of the Sugar-Fixé kind would make this city the most populated city in the world. Now that I think of it, Sugar-Fixé has become my de facto landing spot for coffee and dessert that never fail — unless I am going to Julius Meinl for sweets, savouries, and live music.

Verine

Verine

Many people go for long walks on Sunday. Some clog the roads with casual drives, the speed limit being too much for them. Others just keep up mess. I prefer scouting out all the good things to quiet the monster that is affectionately known as my belly. After being half Italian, half French, and 100% satisfied this past Sunday, I will try to continue a tradition of being Pan-ethnic with some other fooderies. Hmm. If people can do pub crawls — and, yes, most crawl literally after endless imbibing — then I can do a gluttony trek. I may be in pain after overindulging, though, but that’s par for the culinary course. And I will post the photos on Facebook, not the ones of me on the floor in tears because I’m too full to sleep and fighting food comatose at the same time.

Half Italian Grocer & Deli on Urbanspoon

Lessons Learned: Reality and Food

There are a few things that I have come to recognize:

  • Chicago temperatures waffle in extremes — blusteringly cold or blisteringly hot.
  • Men serve women food in large portions.
  • Women serve men food in large portions.
  • Never stand in line behind a group of women who are ordering ice cream.
  • My appetite is out of control — rhetorical.

I had ventured out several weeks ago when the temperatures were not so blooming tropical, and I entertained what I termed Snacking on Saturday. The temperatures were a bit murderous today with the mercury rising into the 90’s and the humidity coating the city like a blanket. There was no need to stay in the condo and brood over the heat — we have had a whole month of uncomfortable temperatures — so I dressed lightly and decided to be about business of finding some food satisfaction.

I met with a friend early in the morning for breakfast at an Austrian cafe — Julius Meinl — that is east of where I live. The decision was an impromptu one so I had rushed out of the condo and left my camera. This marks the second time I have done something foolish like that when I know I will end up chastising myself. I had a great time slicing through crispy waffles and forking up tasty scrambled eggs. My lips curled up. My eyelids grew heavy — and it was 9:30 AM when we were busy indulging ourselves in breakfast.

Croissant, Petit Rum and Vanilla Bundt Cake

A little later in the morning I wanted something else yet light. By now, I had one of my many cameras. And in my neighbourhood is La Boulangerie at 2569 North Milwaukee Avenue. What a lovely little French bakery this is and satisfying as well, if I may add. The selection is rather small and I was quite okay with that after I had bitten into my croissant. It was apparent the thing had been baked early in the morning. Given it was not hot, as if right from the oven, it was so soft and airy on the inside, flaky and smile-inducing on the outside. I had also ordered a small rum and vanilla bundt cake. Oh happy day! La Boulangerie does not sell coffee, so I had gone next door to New Wave Cafe where all of the local and imported hippies congregate to discuss things that matter to them — and no one else can understand. The cappuccino there really had an effect on me that left me with a lasting impression that will, of course, mean I will return for cappuccino from there several more times.

After relaxing at home for a few hours, I had begun to get cabin fever. It was time to seek something else into which to sink my teeth. I remembered a certain Middle Eastern eatery I had stumbled upon in Chicago’s Near West Loop neighbourhood. I Dream of Falafel at 555 W. Monroe Avenue was it. For me, it was a reality, as I headed for the subway and went into downtown to put my feet under a table at the cafe. And here is where I came to the realization that women give men way more food than men give each other. I had a hankering from some sweet potato falafel and perhaps something else on the menu. I ordered a chicken schwerma — so not vegetarian of me — with peppers, lettuce, onions, and tahini sauce. The thing was so tasty that I was sprung like you will not believe. And because the sweet potato falafels are prepared on-demand, I had to wait. For my wait, the cashier — a very appealing young woman — gave me extra. Recognizing that this has been commonplace, in the future I shall let others go ahead of me whenever men are taking orders.

Chicken Schwerma

Roaming around downtown for a few hours, the humidity had begun to wear me down to almost spiritual defeat. I could have had soda, which would be full of aspartame or high fructose corn syrup, so I took a pass on that. Water would have worked, but I wanted flavour. Aha! I headed for the subway and went out to Oak Park to Taste of Brasil, my favourite Brazilian cafe, for some lemonade. But, Gino, to go all the way to Oak Park for some lemonade is ridiculous. You have to have some of it to understand. Absolutely refreshing and prepared with real lemons — none of that artificial mess laced with aspartame or high fructose corn syrup — and condensed milk. The lemonade was enough to make the heat unnoticeable. Well, not quite, but good enough to cool me off a little.

Towards the end of the day, I figured that I would wrap up my snacking expedition by having a small dinner, something akin to snack food. I was in Oak Park anyway, so I went to the downtown mall area to the best Venezuelan cafe outside of Venezuela and met up with some friends. Aripo’s Arepa House at 118 N. Marion Street was my destination. I ordered what is called a domino — an empanada stuffed with black beans and shredded white cheese, and served with a spicy dipping sauce that makes all of your worries disappear. It had never dawned on me to inquire what a domino really was. However, I was glad that I took a chance on the order because I will make a few more trips back just to buy some of those tasty wonder treats for snack food at home.

After joshing around with my friends for a while, we retired to a French pastry shop across the street from Apripo’s. Sugar Fixe at 119 N. Marion Street captures the essence of coffee and dessert as the French does. There were two desserts that stood out most: a chocolate mousse and a mango mousse with pineapple and coconut. I had recently baked a devil food cake with a Mexican hot chocolate ganache for the icing, so I opted for the citrus mousse. Satisfaction in a thousand languages or in the stupid smile that I usually wear after eating too much food is all that I say to describe the mousse. The cappuccino I had tasted like the cappuccino I have had abroad, all prepared with meticulous care. Again, Sugar Fixe is one of those pastry shops that prepares its desserts in small batches so that they do not get old or simply become display items because no one wants anything that has been sitting out for days and weeks on end.

Austrian Mango Mousse with Pineapple and Coconut

I did not make the promise to myself that I would not overeat. When it comes to food, the promise of behaving when it comes to the quantity that I indulge is not mandatory. I simply comply with my want. One thing I must say is that I will be glad when the temperatures return to a point where walking one to two blocks do not result in feeling like you have stood under a waterfall. There are some other locations in the city that I shall journal and I will simply have to be ready with camera in hand and appetite on hand.