Herb, A Savoury Thai Spa

One of my favourite spots in Chicago is the Bryn Mawr area in Edgewater between Sheridan Road to the East and Broadway Street to the West. With ongoing growth in the area, it would seem that some new restaurant, coffeehouse, or boutique has sprung up and such was the case with a restaurant called Herb at 5424 N. Broadway Street. Since I was going abroad for personal holiday, I wanted to squeeze in a dining experience so that I would be reminded that I live in one of the most spectacular cities in the world, albeit ruined by overgeneralization and convenient stereotypes.

Herb

Having read a few reviews, I was curious as to how there would be any kind of twist done to Thai food. There is a restaurant in Chicago’s Albany Park neighbourhood called Arun that supposedly added a fine dining component to Thai food. Most of the time you find that making food chic is nothing more than a gimmick. As I discovered at Herb, it just means the chef is damn good at his or her craft. Minus the aesthetics of the interior, I had what I will call my first Thai spa ever.

Betal Leaf with Toasted Coconut and Apricot

Betal Leaf with Toasted Coconut and Apricot

I was in a mood for a full experience and opted for a six-course degustation. To whet my palate, there was betal leaf with toasted coconut, peanut, some diced fruit, and apricot purée. Served open-faced, you roll the betal leaf up and plop it into your mouth in one bite. The first thing I noticed was the tartness of some of the diced fruit along with the leaf, later followed by the sweetness of the coconut, and then finished off with a tangy hint from the apricot purée. There were no competing flavours all at once on the initial bite, each one taking turns, and I must admit that I have never had that kind of experience before in my culinary jaunts.

Moo Yang

Moo Yang

Neau Yang

Neau Yang

Leading into the appetizers, I started with moo yang. This was a dish of grilled pork that was served yakitori style on skewers. Visually, it looked like dishes you see in food magazines. Food magazines can never begin to capture how well coriander root, lettuce, roasted banana pepper, and spicy tomato sauce work on the meat. Each bite starts with a spicy kick and ends with a mild sweet finish from having been soaked in coconut milk. By the time I had the neau yang, I noticed a theme of alternating flavours playing on the palate. With this appetizer of grilled beef highlighted with shallot, cucumber, coriander leaf, carrot, mint, red chili, toasted rice with chili lime dressing, there is a rising action of tanginess followed by a climax of sweetness and then a denouement of spiciness with a finale of wow — if wow can be described as a flavour.

Yum Tour-Pu with Lemongrass Ginger Tea

Yum Tour-Pu with Lemongrass Ginger Tea

One may think that having flavour come and go while other flavors alternate in a single bite could become old hat quickly. I could become a vegan cold turkey eating the yum tour-pu salad. This salad came as sawtooth coriander, grape tomato, yard long bean, fried shallot, kaffir lime leaf. There was go-between of faint tartness and spiciness. Again, for the flavours to have been complex, the profile of the salad had been prepared such that you experience multiple sensations on your tongue without ever feeling like there was a bit too much to the dish. It was nothing short of Willy Wonka greets Asian dining.

Tom Hed Ka-min

Tom Hed Ka-min

On to the soup, the tom hed ka-min was akin to tom ka gai but prepared with mushrooms instead of with chicken. This bowl came as enoki, shimeji, king oyster mushroom, heart of palm, herbal coconut broth, and highlighted with a desire to get patrons addicted. As the server poured the broth, I thought the soup was stunning visually. It was after the first slurp that I realized even photography could do no justice to the richness of the dish. Not only did the broth taste like coconut, and I don’t mean coconut soup from a can, and the mushrooms were indeed fresh, but this was not a small portion. Coming from the restaurant’s summer menu, I could indulge this all year round.

Fruit Salad

Fruit Salad

L'Amuse

L’Amuse

Before moving to the main course, there was some time to allow the stomach to get accustomed to so much damn good food and to entertain a few palate cleansers. The first was a medley of fruit. Although it was called a fruit salad because it consisted of strawberries, red grapes, purple grapes, white grapes, passionfruit, tomatoes, and grapefruit, this was another dish that could have me become a vegan convert. The surprise came when I discovered three different profiles: sweetness, spiciness, and tartness. The fruit provided a natural sweetness, shredded chilis gave a spicy kick, and the vinaigrette had a mild salt base. Later there was another l’amuse of a jelly with peanuts and mint wrapped in a thin layer of cucumber. Yet again, there was sweetness followed by a passing tartness. Clearly the chef has perfected generating sensations and waking up your taste buds linearly.

Gang Gai Tai

Gang Gai Tai

Gai Sa-Mu-Pri

Gai Sa-Mu-Pri

The first main course was gang gai tai. I love my Thai curry to be thick. Herb did not disappoint. A recipe consisting of Southern-style coconut curry, fuzzy melon, butternut squash, Thai eggplant, red bell pepper, kaffir leaf, and sweet basil, and served with jasmine rice, I was amazed at how light it was. The dish that I thought looked bland was anything but bland. The herbal chicken over jasmine rice made very good use of coriander and lemongrass marinated with spicy-sweet chili garlic sauce. Being curious about why the ingredients were so profound in the dishes, I inquired of the chef who responded that they grow the herbs and spices in the garden behind the restaurant. I think it also explained why there was an absence of salt and MSG in the dishes. The discriminating palate knows.

Flight of Fruit

Flight of Fruit

For the finale, there was a flight of fruit. There was rambutan that reminded me of lychee. There was mango over sticky rice, which is a staple dessert in Thai dining. Because I only asked for a flight of light dessert, there were two that I did not get a name for and since I have not developed enough familiarity with my new cellphone, I did not get the voice recorder started so that I could have the chef give the names. However, one was like gelatin coated in coconut and the other was a gelatinous cake, both bite size and both a new, tasty experience. The final dessert was taro root that put me in mind of tamarind. All light, all natural, all a perfect ending to what was the best Thai dining experience I have had to date.

Herb is not a restaurant where you go simply for a sampling of Thai dishes prepared differently than what you expect at commonplace Thai restaurants. Here is where you go for a culinary spa. Well, that is what I would call it. There is no rush, no pressure, and no disappointment. You pamper your appetite, indulge yourself, and relax thereafter because any good meal here is guaranteed to induce food comatose. I can say with certainty that Herb will make my top 10 list for 2015 because of such fantastic service in addition to some fine dining that does not come as a hefty price. I treated myself well to a Thai spa. I highly recommend you try it also.

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

Degustation Japanese Style

Roka Akor

SakeDuring the week of 3 February 2013 through 10 February 2013, many restaurants were participating in Chicago Restaurant Week. I had received an email about some of the restaurants and their menus, several that piqueing my interest. One restaurant that stood out on the list was Roka Akor, at 456 N Clark Street.  The River North section of Chicago is already filled with notable high-end restaurants that have reasonable prices for those who appreciate good food and who also do not want to worry that the final bill will leave them gasping in shock. Having gone to Bombay Spice Grill immediately next door, I had made a mental note to visit Roka Akor to see if the menu had items that would be a good fit for Chicago Alphabet Soup. Looking at the menu display outside the restaurant is one thing. Sitting still and looking at the menu online is another and it was reviewing what Roka Akor had for the appetite that made my decision to go for a seating that more easy. One thing that stood out more was the Robatayaki style cooking that the restaurant employs. I had experienced Robatayaki style cooking in Japan, but not in America.  I made a reservation so that I could arrive early for dinner, well before the serious dinner crowd started to file in. I had plans to do some serious photography and while making the reservation, I was clear about that so that I could get a seat where I would not be in the way of the staff or other dining patrons. Plenty of seating and romantic ambience, I was ready for my food adventure. Much to my surprise, I got a seat right in front of the Robatayaki bar and sashimi bar. Yes, I was ready for action.

Seared ScallopIn keeping with indulging degustations in my dining excursions, I scanned the menu and when the server came by to ask if I was ready, I gave my response. I had been waffling between going with the Restaurant Week menu, picking random items from the different sections of the menu, or letting the server have carte blanche with the selection. The menu for Restaurant Week had items on it that I have eaten countless times, so that option was thrown out. Picking items from the menu at random was another idea that I took a pass on because I would have selected comfort items. So, it was putting the selection into the capable hands of the server that I went for. An indication that I was in good hands was the glass of sake that he had recommended, and I am kicking myself for not remembering it. I remember my server’s name and his face, though, which means I can always go back and request that very sake. But, it was a sake that was smooth going down and with a hint of a floral note.  Now, I will be the first to admit that I have not come close to achieving wine, spirits, or sake snobbery. However, I could find myself navigating a room with a glass of the sake that I had and pretending to be higher above my station than I am already. I thank my server for opening my repertoire more.

SashimiFirst to the table was a grilled diver scallop. This was not just the usual morsel that comes with some seafood dishes. Seasoned with lemon sweet soy, crushed wasabi pea, yuso mayonnaise, and purple shiso crust, my fork sank through it without any effort and I smiled a wide smile as my teeth sank through each bite. Of course, the scallop was more of a starter than anything else, the initial presentation had me wondering if I was going to be in store for aesthetically pleasing dishes to the visual senses while compromising flavour. Oh was I wrong. Not only was the scallop anything but tough but you could taste the flavours, none competing with the other. The sushi chef had mentioned that this particular dish was one of his favourites and it was really nice to know because there was thought put into presenting something for me that the chef actually preferred. I doubt that it was because he had prepared it that he viewed the dish highly. It was just delicious. The same was to be said for the butterfish and tuna tataki that the sashimi chef had prepared. Yet again, there was a small dish of what looked more artistic than culinary. There was no rush, so I took small bites and enjoyed each with the accompanying sake. By the time I had completed two of the pieces, I had acknowledged that Roka Akor was not just a restaurant of visually stunning dishes but it was a fine dining establishment with a sushi chef, sashimi chef, and cooking staff that give attention to making sure each taste a dining customer has guarantees a return visit. In the same fashion that the sushi chef had explained the dish, since I was sitting at the counter, the sashimi chef did the same. And, thus, began conversation about Roka Akor in Scottsdale, Arizona, and in London, United Kingdom. And there was dialogue such that the chefs inquired of how I had become interested in blogging ethnic restaurants. It was not just me taking photos and scribbling dishes, but there was suddenly a feeling that I had gone to friends’ homes and told to make myself comfortable.

Sashimi Platter

The next dish was one I saw being prepared that I thought was going to another dining patron. There was no tossing items on the plate or rearranging anything haphazardly. There was an attention to detail and a display of care that had I caught on videotape, you would be able to see a bit of love going into the preparation. I had to ask if I could photograph the process, only to find out that the platter was for me. For a noticeable moment, I was rather speechless.  Here was a dish that you see in magazines and on television shows, a product after styling and polishing. I was watching magic. I was anticipating bliss. When all was done, a sashimi platter on ice was placed before me and all eyes were on me as my server explained what the treat entailed. Bluefin tuna, stripe jack, amber jack, oyster with ponzu sauce and fresh lime, shrimp, head of shrimp, salmon with truffle butter, super white tuna, yellowtail, red snapper, and Japanese seaweed salad with ponzu sauce. It is rhetorical to mention that the only thing I could mouth was, “Wow!” At my age of 44, I have been to restaurants on the high-end that have presented dishes that were fitting for pedestals while fitting for throwing against the wall. Restaurants that were all the rage, touted as bigger than life, and Roka Akor places a sashimi platter in front of me that deserves more high praise than I can type. Every morsel of seafood on the platter was fresh, obvious from the lack of fishy smell and absent of any questionable taste. And still, the sake that I polished off with the platter was an ideal pairing.

Seafood PlatterMore conversation was had while the next course was being prepared. The idea was to give me an idea of all the offerings that Roka Akor has without having me sample every item that there was on the menu. Since the sashimi chef had wowed me with the cold platter of delectable sashimi, the sushi chef was composing a platter of cooked seafood. And again, I was blown away with a selection of the absolute best, freshest seafood. Grilled Pacific lobster, Alaskan king crab, roasted Fanny Bay oyster, and tempura huma huma were all I needed to state with clarity that I had been to heaven. I shall start by saying that the texture of oysters never curried favour with me. However, the grilling of the oyster yielded the texture found in mussels. The seasoning of the oyster painted another smile on my face that stretched with each bite of the flavourful lobster, crab, and huma huma. Another thing to note is that while the plate looked substantial, I was not stuffed to capacity after I had completed the dish, licked my fingers, and raised my arms in the air as though I had defeated an aggressive boxer. I have enjoyed seafood this flavourful and fresh on the West Coast, East Coast, and along coastal countries abroad. As far inland as Chicago is, the seafood much be imported fresh, daily in order for the dishes to be so exquisite while remaining void of muddy flavouring. And my taste buds were appreciative of the seasoning to the seafood not being overpowering or overcompensation in any manner. The mark of an outstanding chef is knowing the right balance or ratio to make a dish pop. I will be the first to say that no one can argue that the chefs at Roka Akor do anything less than produce the best dishes for the palate.

Dessert Platter
By the time I had finished the cooked seafood platter, I requested some time before the dessert came. In Asian dining, desserts are not heavy, so I had a bit of confidence that I would be able to handle whatever was in store. I had completed a second glass of sake and my server brought a Riesling that was almost sweet enough to be a dessert wine. When the dessert had finally arrive, I understood why there was a tempering of the wine that was accompanying the work of art that I stared at in amazement. There was a medley of fresh fruit: watermelon, honey-dew melon, raspberries, blackberries, oranges, pineapple, and pomegranate. Included was a scoop of raspberry sorbet that I swear had been made fresh in the back with crushed raspberries. I have not had any sorbet from the market with such flavour that pops. And if all of that was not enough to make the most cantankerous food critic stand up and dance, there was a ginger crème brûlée topped with a few kernels from a pomegranate that puts crème brûlées at other restaurants to shame. This I am not making up for effect. After you have had crème brûlée regular style, tasting a hint of ginger in it somehow makes everything okay in the land. Ginger, like cilantro, goes great with many dishes. And as to the dessert at Roka Akor, I now find it hard to debate anyone about fruit not being the perfect wrap-up for a meal.

Preparing Sashimi Platter

Having recently entertained a degustation where I had given the server free rein to come up with the courses for me and having enjoyed the whole experience more than I could say, I was impressed even more with the culinary options I had at Roka Akor. The server said that they all are basically experts in the restaurant’s menu. Yet and still, recommending dishes for someone who is a stranger and every recommendation coming out a success means that something else is working right. The next time a list of top restaurants gets published, Roka Akor should be on that list.

Roka Akor on Urbanspoon

Most Important Meal of the Day

Blue Max

From most of my posts, you already know that I have a love affair with the fooderies — there’s my made-up word — in Oak Park, Illinois. As of late, when I have had coffee after dinner at Oak Park restaurants, it occurred to me that it was not Folgers, Maxwell House, imported Starbucks, or some variation of an attempt on coffee. My coffee snobbery is rather limited, but I know that when I can drink a cup of coffee with cream and not add any sugar, something is quite right with how the coffee is brewed. Or, like Ethiopian coffee, the beans are of a greater quality. It was after one of my dining excursions that I inquired what brand of coffee they were serving. Blue Max was the response. And having had a friend tell me about Blue Max Coffee in Forest Park, Illinois, at 26 Lathrop Avenue, it was time for me to go to the source.

LatteA beautiful Saturday morning with a clear sky, a mild breeze, and trees so vibrant with colours that they looked like they were on fire, I found a parking space in front of Blue Max Coffee and was ready to enjoy some of the best coffee that I have had in the Chicago metropolitan area. And I was going to have some breakfast while I was at it. But let me set the stage. Blue Max Coffee is inside of a house. You do not enter a restaurant. No, you enter a house that has been converted into what some would liken to a bed and breakfast. I sat in the family room across from Paul Bunyan and Professor Pete on one end and Mr. and Mrs. Loving on the other end. Much like pubs and small cafes in Europe, there is a bit of a familiarity among the customers and a lot of comfort, as the patrons who were at Blue Max when I went engaged me in conversation once my camera came out the bag. You would have thought we all lived on the same street, seeing that conversation flowed with such ease.

BreakfastFor my breakfast option, I ordered a Belgian waffle with a side of summer fruit — orange slice, honey-dew melon, and cantaloupe — and eggs scrambled with cream cheese. I was a bit surprised to see the scramble egg sitting atop the waffle, thinking perhaps I was supposed to cut into both at the same time and commence my devouring act. I gobbled the summer fruit and then placed the scrambled eggs on the side so that I could mix in the cream cheese and add pepper. Happiness. Rapture. Bliss. Love. Fresh eggs with my chosen cheese and a waffle that didn’t have that “box” taste to it, I was a rather pleased man. But the winner was the cup of latte. Hello, lover! Where have you been all my life? Several months ago I had a latte from one of those “big box,” staple coffee houses that may be found on every corner in downtown Chicago — hint, hint — and it was both burnt and bitter. How do you mess up a latte like that? There was not enough sugar that I could add to murder the burnt and acrid taste. In the same vein of my last experience with McDonald’s, Burger King, and the plethora of fast food thingies, it may be that my body craves for finer things and it was time for me to upgrade my taste in coffee to something that is neither quick nor excessively surplus. The latte at Blue Max Coffee was the complete antithesis of that cup of horror I had several months pass. The mark of a good cup of coffee is when you can drink it without any sweetener. I was beside myself with satisfaction. And it was then that I understood why so many of the local restaurants and cafes in Oak Park support Blue Max Coffee. It is a guarantee to keep customers returning, such was the case watching the constant line of customers who were coming for dining in and for take-away.

MochaGranted my first visit was a rather surreal experience with the comfort of the staff and other patrons being so welcoming and conversational, I made plans to return for another visit. The saying goes, “It’s never as good as the first time,” but that does not mean you should not try to see if any subsequent time is indeed better. So that was exactly what I decided to do. The next Saturday, I had my alarm clock set so that I could awake early enough to get dressed and out of the condo in time to return to Blue Max for a second round of breakfast. Remembering how the restaurant filled up quickly and had a continuous tide of patrons, I recognized that if I wanted to get a seat, it would be in my best interest to arrive shortly after the doors open. Again, there were Paul Bunyon and Professor Pete sitting in what I assume to be their usual area engaged in animated, sitcom-style discussions about politics and economics.

Switching things up a bit, but not that much, I had a cafe mocha. Much like the latte that I had ordered the previous weekend, there was no need for any sweetener. Not that I will ever order a regular coffee to see if it will bite me at the jaw line, I must admit that specialty coffees at Blue Max seem to be dandy sans sugar. Thanks to Blue Max Coffee, I can get my hands around several cups of coffee that satisfy my palate the way the latte and the cafe mocha did.

Scrambled Eggs with Cream Cheese

My breakfast option on my second visit was also not that much different, as I ordered pancakes. They were chocolate chip pancakes and while I think the chocolate chips would be better on or in a crispy Belgian waffle, I did not have to put any syrup on the pancakes, as I smeared the melted chocolate chips across the three pancakes in the stack that I had. Not appetizer size and not substantial, three pancakes in the morning along with a cup of coffee can be more filling than one may want to admit. It may also have been the scrambled eggs with cream cheese that had me stuffed a little more quickly than I had anticipated. The waitress had a quizzical look on her face when I had said I wanted the cream cheese mixed with the scrambled eggs. Many are so accustomed to cheddar cheese or American cheese that something different sounds a bit “out in space.” In addition to the plate of scrambled eggs with cream cheese, she brought a smile because my unique order had given her a cheese option for her scrambled eggs.

Pancakes and FruitWith a few words of banter with Paul and Pete, a satisfying cup of mocha, and a filling breakfast, the second Saturday was off to a good start. I cannot say that I will photograph coffee and food every Saturday at Blue Max Coffee, but I will become a regular, if only for the coffee. There are pastry options that I eyed briefly, but had not thought to entertain because I wanted to sample their breakfast fare. One thing I can admit with certainty is that the only coffee I can say I enjoy aside from Ethiopian coffee at one of my favourite, local haunts and what I also brew at my condo, you are guaranteed to smile with each sip of liquid love from Blue Max Coffee. Inexpensive. Fabulous service. Good food. Yes, I have already made a date for a third visit. I wonder if Paul Bunyon and Professor Pete will be there when I return for my next round.

Blue Max Coffee Incorporated on Urbanspoon

Hello, Nice to Meet You

East Gate Cafe

This past weekend was a rather busy one in a productive kind of way. I had agreed to bake cookies for my catering partner’s high school class reunion. Forgetting exactly how much effort is involved in baking a bulk, I spent all Friday night almost until sunrise Saturday and all day and night Saturday baking — ten dozen peanut butter cookies, ten dozen butter cookies, ten dozen macadamia white chocolate cookies, ten dozen oatmeal cranberry cookies, and ten dozen bittersweet chocolate chip coconut cookies. Sigh. Needless to say, I was like one of those medical interns who had finished medical school and had to pull a 36-hour shift. Add to that me entertaining guests who were visiting from out-of-state. I was reminded this past weekend that the body has an aggressive way of shutting down after sleep deprivation. But there was a necessary reward before my physiology started turning off the motor.

Iced Coffee

After dropping off the cookies at the reunion picnic, I had a little time to myself before going to collect my friends from their individual outing sans me. Not too far from where the drop-off point was for the reunion is a small stretch of shops and boutique restaurants in the Oak Park, Illinois, neighbourhood. Along Harrison Street, there is a quaint block of some of the most inviting establishments. Earlier this year, a past co-worker and I had gone into this East European coffee-house after we’d had dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant. Eastgate Cafe, owned by a couple, at 102 Harrison Street is a magnet with appeal. The atmosphere was one akin to going into someone’s home and mostly because it was an apartment that had been converted into a coffee-house. Not only is the ambience welcoming, but also the disposition of the owners who interact with you as though they have known you for a great number of years. If I had to give an essence statement, I would say that the whole experience is like going to one of your favourite family member’s home.

Upon entry, the husband, who is Irish, said very casually, “I sense that you want an iced coffee.” With the heat and humidity playing in concert, an iced coffee was a great option. I responded that, yes, I would like an ice coffee and a sandwich along the seafood line. And so there was tuna salad on Italian bread with crisp lettuce, red delicious tomato, and a slightly spicy mayonnaise. Served with a potato salad that I will say is the best that I have had since I had last eaten any prepared by Ma Williams, I was a pleased man. Now, people will always say that no one prepares [fill in the blank] as good as their mothers, and I am one to convince myself of that same statement. However, the potato salad was mustard potato salad rather than mayonnaise potato salad. There is a bit of an accent added when mustard is used. And when there are not so many raw vegetable added in excess because the recipe lists them, there is no crunch factor to entertain while eating the dish. This was the case at Eastgate Cafe. Having taken a seat outside so that I could photograph the delights in natural light, the husband had stepped outside for a moment and inquired as to whether I was enjoying the tuna salad and potato salad, and if I wanted to have my photo taken. Oh, but I am too modest to be on the other end of the camera being caught with my mouth stuffed and eyes rolling around in my head.

Tuna Salad

The waitress who had brought my order to the table, had mentioned that there was live music on Friday nights and she also spoke of several dishes that Eastgate Cafe has on the menu. So not only is the cafe just one for coffee, desserts, and small dishes, but they also have substantial dishes. The wife, the other owner, is Serbian and introduces a bit of the old country into the experience. Aside from one other past co-worker and her twin sister, I have not had any exposure to Serbians in the metropolitan Chicago area. So finding Eastgate Cafe with some Serbian influence in it was perfect. And one dish that was not specifically Serbian, but a creation of the wife, was introduced to me and since I had a bit of room, I welcomed the recommendation. I had a Quiche that was made with feta cheese, roasted red peppers, and was light on spinach. Served with it were two small potato pancakes and a cup of fruit, consisting of watermelon, cantaloupe, honey-dew melon, pineapples, and grapes. When establishments say they are serving fresh fruit, they need to take a cue from Eastgate Cafe where the fruit is not only fresh, but it is also ripe enough that it does not crunch like celery. The potato pancakes, although not accommodated with a dollop of sour cream, were absolutely worthy. Where Eastgate Cafe really shines is with the Quiche. The feta cheese made the Quiche light and fluffy, not the usual dense Quiche you get when made with other cheeses. From looking at it, you could easily mistake it for a slice of homemade cheesecake. The Serbian owner had said that the Quiche was her creation, not a dish customary to Serbia. I loved her remark that people create with writing, painting, fine arts, and photography, as she pointed at my camera. She loves to create and express herself through food. That was the most enriching and enlightening commentary I have heard about food and it spoke highly of a passion she has. Outside of America, food is a reflection of culture, beliefs, customs, and community. The wife had captured that perfectly. It also explains why the cafe has such a draw.

Quiche, Fruit, Happiness

Before I left, the owners extended an invitation for a return to listen to some live music on Friday nights. There was no smug thank you for coming. There was no rushed antics to check on other customers. On request, I showed the photos that I had taken and we talked about the feel of Oak Park. When I had mentioned my past co-worker, the Serbian owner told me to bring her so that she could meet someone from “back home.” There is usually a sentiment, as an African-American or Black for those of us who fall in the Caribbean or African bailiwick that we are watched or discounted when we go to certain establishments. That is true and a hurtful thing that occurs more often than not. But there are countless moments like my visit to Eastgate Cafe where great food and outstanding service overshadows any possible wickedness for lack of embracing diversity. In Ma Williams’ home, I know that I am welcomed. And when the owners felt at ease enough to talk to me as an individual who they appreciated for walking into their place of business and then extended a genuine invitation for return visits, there is another place I will gladly go since I know I will be welcomed. Hello, Eastgate Cafe, it has been a pleasure making your acquaintance.

Eastgate Café - Books/Gifts on Urbanspoon

Cheese for the Camera

Marion Street Cheese Market

It has been quite some time since I posted a write-up about one of my food excursions. Work had been quite a beast with teeth that gnarled at my time and devoured what free hours I had. Most evenings I returned home from work and performed magic in my own kitchen. Realizing that I own my condo and should take more advantage of it than I had been, I gathered my pots and pans and made very good use of my stove. Recently, a great friend and I had been meeting for dinner every Friday to get in a grand amount of laughter about all sorts of foolishness and a certain colourful expletive we manufactured — that I will not post here, hahaha. With it being evenings when she and I got together, there was never enough light to capture the impressions of the wonderful delights that sat before us before we handled business. Having a moment in my daily schedule to do something other than work and overcompensate with relaxation from being worked to spiritual defeat, I ventured to Oak Park, Illinois, to Marion Street Cheese Market at 100 South Marion Street for outdoor seating to indeed enjoy myself and the culinary supplements of the bistro.

Grapefruit Juice

As I sat perusing the menu, I was reminded of a certain relationship that I praise God for delivering me from. When I first relocated to Chicago from New York, I was dating an incredibly unhappy woman who wanted me to quit my six-figure salary job and move to North Carolina for nickels and work like a Hebrew slave to save enough money to buy her a five bedroom house that we would never fill completely. Give up my career, my church home, my family development, an exciting life in the metropolis of Chicago, and move into the suburbs of Raleigh — not into Raleigh, by the way — so that I could sit on a porch after working two jobs Jamaican style to further cater to her unhappiness. It dawned on me that I would have been dead by stroke or self-inflicted gunshot wound by now, and never would have partaken of all the wonderful culinary delights and flair that the Chicago metropolitan area had to offer. When my pineapple juice came, I smiled and pontificated tipping a bit on the ground in hopes that she had found whatever it was she was seeking. Then I said, “Forget that!” and prepared to handle the matter at hand.

Flight of Cheeses

It goes without saying, that I had an appetite. First thing I ordered was a flight of cheeses. There were three options that I could choose: a fixed list, a choice of three, or a choice of five. Like I said, I had a hunger well before I reached the bistro, so I opted for the choice of five cheeses. There was sarvecchio, which is fruity, nutty Italian style parmesan cheese. It had the mildness and consistency of brie sans the rind. I had the smile of a man who was pleased. The second cheese I had was gruyère surchoix. This smooth and mellow cheese was akin to cheddar and I do not mean Velveeta. Slightly sharp, but not such that it bit the back of the jaw, there was an accent of light floral notes. I kid you not. There was a faint hint of lavender and when you can add a floral touch to a dish without making it seem like you are actually eating a patch of botany, you have a bit of heaven in front of you.

Cranberry and Almond

Not that I was going to gobble the cheeses as though I were a monster, I savoured each one with the basket of bread that came complementary. In between each cheese, I reset my palate with the cranberries, plum jam, and toasted almonds. Add to that the fact that the weather was ideal — not hot, not chilly, and not windy — the non-rushed atmosphere lent a feeling of being at an outdoor bistro in Paris or along the countryside in Britain. The third cheese I had was les frères. Another cheese that had the consistency of sharp cheddar, it came with a fruity accent wrapped in an earthy washed rind. Only a little crumbly, it was fantastic with the glass of spicy red Chono Camendere. Not that I am an agent of wine snobbery, but spicy red wines get me going. The first time I had a glass of Chono Camendere I smiled my usual stupid smile until my date told me to get a grasp on myself. I got enough control to enjoy a fourth cheese of bergblumenkäse — smooth, unpasteurized, aromatic, Alpine style cheese that went well with the jam spread. The tartness of the jam was balanced by the faint sweetness of the cheese, neither competing on the palate for attention.

Flight of Cheeses

If the aforementioned cheeses were not enough to make any unhappy person excessively elated, the l’amuse should make any grinch loveable. Here we are talking about delicious two-year aged Gouda, nutty with hints of burnt caramel. Before the summer ends, I will have to go to Marion Street Cheese Market and buy some l’amuse, olives, a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread and then bike to the park to have my own private picnic. Ever the fan of Gouda, I could feast on this cheese alone without complaint. But adding burnt caramel only heightens my taste senses and I find myself not being able to live without such pleasure. Okay, it is not that serious, but you have to sample l’amuse to know the true meaning of culinary pleasure.

Chocolate and Orange French Toast

Mind you, Marion Street Cheese Market does not rush you at all. So I sat for half of an hour while slowly finishing the cranberries and almonds that had come with the cheese. After having a respite, I ordered chocolate and orange French toast. During the first bite, I acknowledged that Marion Street Cheese Market has no concept of messing up what they have on their menu. I have had some French toast that is worthy of writing home about, but I have not had French toast that had me almost pulling a Sally from “When Harry Met Sally.” Sitting outside going through such motions would have had the police on location putting handcuffs on me and possibly trying to finish off the French toast instead of their jelly doughnuts. We are talking a case of no syrup required and although the toast was under a fair amount of chocolate, it was not drowned. There was, however, me doing all but licking the plate after I had finished. And when I was done, I had a chai latte that did leave me with a muted whimper of delight. The whole experience was indicative of why my friend and I keep returning after work on every other Friday. Outstanding cheeses, top wine selections, small plates, large plates, desserts, and coffee, all alluring and appealing to anyone whose sensibilities will allow them to indulge their appetites without remorse.

Chai Latte

At the end of my food blissatisfaction, I noticed on my receipt that there are $10-off discounts at the winery or cheese market if purchased the day of dining. There was a certain bottle of Puzzle — a smile-inducing spicy red wine — that needed a home. So I went in, bought a bottle of Puzzle, and brought it home so that I can care for it. It will be perfect with an Indian meal, I must say. When I go back to Marion Street Cheese Market, I shall buy some l’amuse cheese for that personal picnic I mentioned earlier. And now that I think of it, I shall get a bottle of Chono Camendere or another bottle of Puzzle to go with the cheese. If I am not overloaded, I shall take my camera with me to the picnic and shoot a photo of my little event. I shall cheese for the camera.

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