More Angry Pasta at Vapiano

Ginger Ale

Ginger Ale

Note: The Lincoln Park location at 2577 N. Clark Street closed in July, 2014. There is a new location in The Loop at 44 S. Wabash Avenue.

My appetite alarm had gone off an hour before it was time for the close of my day at work. Suffice it to say, that is problematic in ways that I can’t describe. All of my thoughts become scrambled and I get edgy to the point of being irritable. I keep saying to myself that I have to do something about my constant appetite, but that may require therapy. And I don’t have money to give to a therapist when I prefer forking it over to a restaurant. Needless to say, I wanted something with a kick to it because the weather outside was biting. To my wondering surprise, I had received a text message from a friend who had mentioned a restaurant in the Lincoln Park neighbourhood, at 2577 N. Clark Street called Vapiano. I recalled walking by the restaurant countless times and thinking, Oh, that looks like a cool lounge. Well, I had to put my thoughts of chi-chi ambience aside and do something about my growling belly. So, I was on the #22 Clark Street bus heading to Vapiano to show some love — or a display of usual hunger.

Strawberry Spinach Salad

Strawberry Spinach Salad

Not even through the door good, the hostess greeted me with a warm welcome. With the wave of her arm, I had my pick of seats. I had arrived before the crowd and it was fantastic being able to choose a seat without any children of the corn and negligent parents in sight. Having a clear view of the open kitchen, my food alarm was dictating that I really indulge. Indulged I did. It was off to the bar for a ginger ale — yes, a non-alcoholic drink since this was a “school night.” Then I was off to the salad bar for what I thought would be a side salad. I ordered a spinach and strawberry salad that was topped with goat cheese, pine nuts, and balsamic vinaigrette. This “thing” didn’t come on a small plate. It came in a huge, deep dish. If I could put a face on my appetite, let’s just say that it wore a huge smile. While I am not the greatest fan of goat cheese, when it is added to a salad as an accent, it makes everything splendid in the world.

Penne Arrabbiata

Penne Arrabbiata

My next order was penne arrabbiata. My pores exhale spices and I tend to love dishes that are heavy-handed with spices. While placing my order for the pasta dish, the chef asked me how spicy I wanted it, on a scale of 1 to 5. After he gave a jeering smile, I settled on a 4. He prepared the penne arrabbiata ANGRY the way that it should be, the way that I like it. The beauty of the dish was that this didn’t come from a bag, out of a can, or from some frozen tray. There was nothing fast about its preparation and the flavour, spicy and angry as it was, was a testament to Vapiano making sure not to fall into the category of “fast food.” Oh, and I used the homemade Italian bread to sop up the sauce. Bravo!!!

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

My New Year’s Absolution was to minimize the amount of sweets in my diet. So far, I have been off to a good start. However, I have willpower issues. I had a chat with my nutritionist, or rather a pleading session, about being able to treat myself every once in a while. She told me that instead of having a hunk of cake, fist size scoop of ice cream, eye-popping slice of ice cream, or slab of cheesecake, I could have an occasional scoop of sorbet, bowl of fruit, or a light cream dessert. Well, what should Vapiano have as a dessert option but a panna cota with strawberry sauce? It was light. It was creamy. It was dreamy. It was my allotment for the month of January. I ordered a cappuccino that I drank sans any sweetener. Either the coffee had been prepared with a quality bean or in a cappuccino machine that wasn’t caked with coffee mud. Wait. The coffee was Illy. Yep, for those who have gone to Intelligentia and are in the know about good coffee, Illy ranks up there on the “Never Disappointing” list. My appetite screamed, Molto bene!!!.

Panna Cota with Strawberry Sauce

Panna Cota with Strawberry Sauce

If you have been to Food Life in Water Tower, you will have some familiarity with the method for ordering and obtaining your food. You receive a card, after which you then go to which ever station you wish to order — salads, pasta, beverages, and desserts. When you give your order, you then “register” your order at the station. Once the orders have been fulfilled, you then pick them up, return to your table, and commence to devouring all the good eats. When all is done, you pay at the close by giving the cashier your card, who then cashes you out. It’s that simple. There are no servers who come to your table, takes your order, and brings your food to you. The atmosphere is spacious and great for a gathering of friends, especially in the bar area. While many may think that a restaurant void of a server providing table service is the equivalent of fast food, the output from the kitchen is anything but fast. And with me having had angry pasta that tasted the way I remember it tasting in Florence, I think I shall have to return to see if it was just my hunger that made the dish taste so blooming tasty, or if it was indeed heaven buried on red sauce.

Vapiano on Urbanspoon

Gino in the Sky With Food

Lulu's

Lulu’s

The Beatles may have made the song “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” famous. The first phase of my birthday celebration had a case of “Gino in the Sky With Good Food.” I cannot even get around to saying that I would put that to any music, let alone script a full set of lyrics to sing to it. What I can say is that celebrating my birthday this year has been an absolute blast and as I can become drunk on food, there were a few moments of food bliss that had me in my mood for wanting to perform. It may be the stiff Brit in me that said, “Just revel in all the good food you’re eating this week. Don’t embarrass yourself, as you know you flush rather easily.

I had to go to Evanston to get a camera from a friend. I had let him borrow it so that he could photograph a pretty-pretty for a portfolio. While in the neighbourhood, a few other friends had told me that I should meet them at Lulu’s. At 804 Davis Street in the middle of downtown Evanston, we got a table and was ready for action.

Ginger Ale Lemonade

Ginger Ale Lemonade

Lulu’s is one of those restaurants that presents itself as an Asian-fusion eatery. You peruse the menu and start to think that perhaps it falls more in line with Pan-Asian. There is also the mention of dim sum, so one could think that maybe there is all Chinese fare. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s food. I am all for cultural blending, but please let the culinary part of that marriage not suffer. Lulu’s obliged by not being an agent of “horror” dining.

I started with a ginger ale lemonade. From the menu, it looked like a drink I would be okay with. The server said that it was intense and she accentuated the word “intense” with a pithy growl. There was no way I was going to turn down something that brings about that much expression. After the first sip, I understood why. Wow! You could taste the ginger. I’m not talking the fizzy, bubbly stuff that makes you belch when you turn up a can of Schwepp’s ginger ale. A blend of ginger ale and lemonade sounds almost “too experimental,” but it works incredibly well as a mixed drink here. There is no alcohol in it and that was fine. However, this drink should be mandatory serving when the temperatures in Chicago reach the point of equatorial.

Curried Squash Soup

Curried Squash Soup

In the like manner that I exhibit when I go to restaurants now, I was in the mood for a degustation. The premise of the restaurant was dim sum, so there would be a little of something, not the American style dining where you practically beg for a pillow after dinner so that you can lie down. For my first course, I had the curried squash soup.

Mama’s little baby loves curry, curry
Mama’s little baby loves curry squash soup

Let me start by saying that anyone who has a complaint about Lulu’s, for any reason, should have a bowl of that soup and take a breath. Each sip, or slurp as it concerned me, brought about the dumb smile I wear when I’m experiencing food rapture. You could taste a hint of the curry without feeling as though the chef had poured a tablespoon of it on your tongue. It may have been cinnamon, allspice, or nutmeg that made the whole bowl burst with flavour. One thing I will say is that none of it was disappointing. None of it, I say.

Potato Croquettes

Potato Croquettes

When my second course came, which were four potato croquettes, I was feeling a bit excited by the third bite. I remembered having potatoes smothered in melted cheddar cheese at a Spanish tapas restaurant several years ago. That was actually the first time I really did have a cigarette after dinner. If it weren’t so frosty this evening and if I were indeed a smoker, I would have paused for a moment to go outside and puff away on a Marlboro. Not drowned in cheddar cheese, but rather topped with a spicy mayonnaise, I simply could not force myself to take itsy-bitsy bites and be okay with it. Partaking of those potato croquettes was nothing more than an experiment in trying to maintain your composure. I moaned out loud and then covered it up by coughing. Yes, I need therapy; I know that. But you don’t understand. Potatoes are supposed to be bland, salted at most. Those croquettes were wicked delicious.

Coconut Shrimp and Cole Slaw

Coconut Shrimp and Cole Slaw

A few months ago, I was visiting a friend who let me bake a cake in her kitchen. Well, the cake was for her anyway. Anyway, she ordered delivery from Lulu’s. One of the dishes that I had requested was coconut shrimp because I wanted to be in a tropical mood to take my mind off the fact that snow and sleet were falling fast outside. I was nonplussed, disappointed, horrified, petrified, and morbidly bitter. Okay, so that is a bit exaggerated, but I was almost in tears because the delivery was a mess. Fast forward to my latest in-house dining experience and there sitting before me is a plate of coconut shrimp and a dollop of cole slaw. Note to readers: Do not get the coconut shrimp as delivery. Get a table and order it for in-house dining. You will shoot straight to the moon. The coconut shrimp were plump, exploding with flavour. The batter was nothing like the saccharine B-chef gotcha that I had as a delivery item. It was all about joy on a plate. I was so in love.

Wonton Wonton Sundae

Wonton Wonton Sundae

This was a pre-celebratory birthday dinner for me, which meant that there would be dessert. I am well past the age of being okay with someone singing “Happy Birthday” to me at a restaurant because it always smacks of a free dessert after the meal. Again, I get embarrassed very easily and part of that is because my parents were not advocates of free meals, soup kitchen mentality as Ma Williams called it. I must admit that I can be selective if I think the free meal is worthy and I have indulged some without my conscience beating me up over it. As to the pre-birthday dessert at Lulu’s, an Instagram photo I posted to my Facebook wall sent one of my friends into a tailspin. Three fist-sized scoops of ice cream — vanilla, coconut, and banana chocolate chip — sat atop a fried wonton that had been coated with sugar and cinnamon. Another large fried wonton doctored up like the one under the ice cream towered on the plate. All of it was drizzled with chocolate, caramel, and confectioner’s sugar, and my friend was out in orbit. The people at the table across from where we were sitting told me to stop heaving such heavy sighs. When I told them to get their own, it was our turn to tell them to keep it quiet. Oh my God!!!

Lulu’s is a quaint little restaurant and seems to fill up rapidly, especially immediately after work. The service can be slightly off-putting, as you could find yourself waiting a while before any of the servers get untangled from running rampant through the restaurant. When a server does approach your table, you get an attentive member of the wait staff. If it is a rather busy evening, it may be a good idea to be concise with your order. The scene in “When Harry Met Sally” may be hilarious when watching that movie, but applying that technique of complexity to your ordering at Lulu’s could result in a botched order and you’re then penning an unsavoury review on Yelp. But if you are like me, you will get your Pan-Asian/fusion/dim sum/élan and everything will be quite okay in the land. Hmm. I think I need to return for the third phase of my month-long birthday celebration. Lulu’s now!!!

Lulu's on Urbanspoon

Down the Yellow Hutong Road

Hutong Fresh Asian Cafe

One thing I must admit is that you can never get enough of good Asian food when it is prepared properly. Some may inquire as to what other way can Asian food be done. If you have had any authentic Asian food, and by that I mean cooked in someone’s home, not at a buffet kitchen, then you know the difference. The food is spicy — not necessarily in the manner that it burns when you eat it — but it is full of flavour. There is a bloom to what you eat. You almost do not want to refuse offerings of more. For something quick, many of the express Asian cafes and buffet halls provide something akin to frozen shrimp meals: a lot of crust and the rest is essence. Bite into a  shrimp that comes with a frozen dinner and tell me how much actual shrimp you sank your teeth into. That is what you get with a lot of Asian cafes that do not want to offend a common palate. An absence of spices, a hint of flavour, and a lot of questionable output, you may find yourself barking like a dog in protest for having something so anti-delicious.

Fresh Ginger AleOne evening when I had finished work, I went to Oak Park, Illinois, to buy some wine, bread, and cheese from a cheese market that has become a big hit with my culinary sensibilities. It has reached the point where whoever is at the counter addresses me by first name. Yes, I love this particular wine shop so much that I am in there weekly procuring something for my snacking pleasure. But let me not digress. Although the downtown area of Oak Park is relatively small, I had covered most of the eateries in the pedestrian area of boutiques, cafes, and restaurants. But there was one that a friend had mentioned and seeing that there was some outdoor seating that I could take, I opted to follow her recommendation. Hutong Fresh Asian Cafe at 1113 Lake Street had the look and feel of the usual boilerplate Asian restaurant. Well, it actually has the canned ambiance of any American get-it-and-go establishment with a dine-in option. Where this restaurant’s impression exceeds expectations is with the output. While they may follow a formula that is popular now among most walk-in restaurants, the cosmetics of the place pale in comparison to the quality of the food that they serve. It may be that the eatery is relatively new, so the greeting from the cashier has a positive light. Then again, the hello with the smile I received may very well have been authentic. At the end of the day, you know people are ready to vacate the premises and go home or wherever. A smile that does not look pained after 6:00 PM is indeed genuine and that makes the establishment that more inviting.

Crab Rangoon

Being safe, I chose the Thai option and started with crab rangoon. Not really paying a lot of attention to the menu, I figured the crab rangoon would come as four small pastries stuffed with cream cheese and crab. Much to my chagrin, there were three crab rangoon, but they were delightfully substantial. And when you bite into them and the cream cheese does not projectile about, you know you have just had something worthy of recommending to friends and family. Much like crab rangoon served at Thai restaurants, there was a sweet and spicy sauce that came as an accompaniment. Yes, it was smashing. Not enough to drench the appetizer, it was enough to glaze them and I enjoyed every chomp just the same. With a pure ginger ale in hand, I was quite the happy chap devouring the wonder appetizer. Not that the ginger ale was something to fan and faint over, I will say that I love all-natural products. Seeing pure ginger floating about in the drink and the taste that was spicy but not enough to choke you, I will seek this particular brand in the markets. Sticking with the Thai theme, I had also ordered a red curry dish with chicken. As I have mentioned in several other posts, Thai restaurants in Chicago tend to waffle between thin curries and hearty curries. At Hutong Fresh Asian  Cafe, the curry was of a consistency somewhere in between. But that was okay. Loaded with green peas, brocolli, bamboo shoots, and eggplant, I understood how the word Fresh got introduced into the name of the restaurant. I kid you not when I say that I believe they have a garden in the back or somewhere nearby that has not fallen prey to the evils of pesticides and growth products. The chicken was fresh, for one, but the vegetables were certainly organic. The colouring and the flavour were all the cues I needed to know that I was putting something healthy into my body. My appetite appreciated it.

Red Curry Chicken

Looks can be deceiving and American restaurants have now taken on what I dub the Stanley Kubrick formula. Most upscale fast food eateries are applying the look and feel of Chipotle, Roti, Burrito Beach, and the like. While those cookie-cutter establishments have everything sitting in front for review, and you get served in a conveyor belt fashion, Hutong Fresh Asian Cafe does not have everything on display for you to point to while in a queue with other customers. One may argue pessimistically that you have no idea what is coming from the kitchen, but if you can taste the freshness, you can be confident that it is worth the trip to ease on down the yellow hutong road to get something that not only will your appetite thank you for, but also your body.

31 July 2012