Italy Comes to Chicago

Castello del Poggio BrachettoLiving in Chicago and being a food blogger for fun has way more excitement to the food adventures than I can say. There are new discoveries that the palate may delight. There are existing eateries that serve as magnets for returning culinary lovers. Many restaurants provide an atmosphere of community for large parties consisting of friends or family members. We shall not discount any of the boutique restaurants that provide intimate settings and swell background jazz music. And with Chicago having one of the world’s largest global communities, ethnic dining awaits you at practically every corner. The reasons for loving dining at Chicago’s restaurants are endless. But what is more fantastic is that even with staple cuisines like Chinese, Mexican, and Italian, there are twists that make such restaurants seem like a first-time find. Such was the case during a recent excursion to Basil Leaf Cafe at 2465 N. Clark Street in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighbourhood.

When I began Chicago Alphabet Soup, I had been adamant about avoiding Chinese, Mexican, and Italian restaurants — Chinese restaurants because I will scream if someone offers beef with brocolli, general chicken, or sweet and sour what-not ever again; Mexican because you can have enchiladas, frijoles, and Tex-Mex tacos only so much; and Italian because spaghetti and meatballs — me being pescatarian — and ravioli are as exhaustive as any can of Chef Boy-Ardee. But I received an invitation to meet with several other food bloggers and sommeliers for a food and wine pairing at Basil Leaf Cafe. Seeing that the restaurant’s menu online was more rustic, an indication that we would not have our fair share of red sauce splashing about our plates, I agreed to the dinner gathering and replied with my appetite as a guest.

As it turned out, the dinner and wine pairing was with Francesco Zonin of Casa Vinicola Zonin USA. Imagine an evening of fine wine and delicious food with the president of Zonin USA. Humourous and looking more like a fashion model, after providing a bit of history on the company, he explained that the dinner would feature Casa Vinicola Zonin’s Tenuta Ca’ Bolani Estate wines. Now, Tenuta Ca’ Bolani grows internationally known wines such as Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Also, there are well indigenous varieties, such as Traminer, Muller Thurgau, Tocai Friulano, Pinot Bianco, and Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso. Not that my wine snobbery is polished, I have yet to drink an Italian wine — white or red — that I found not to my liking. And, honestly, not being chic-chic enough to pair the right wines with my food, this evening was certain to be one worthy of documenting.

Amouse Bouche

For our amouse bouche, we started with baked, fresh figs topped with gorgonzola and mascarpone cheese and drizzled with a balsamic redux. Let me just say that I have baked cookies with figs in them and my grandmother had a way of making wine with figs and muscadines. Never have I dined on figs prepared the way they were this evening. My palate is refined, so hearing the appetizer, I figured that it would be an interesting festival on the tongue. Well, interesting is not the right word to describe how addictive the amouse bouche was. The figs were sweet, of course, but the mixture of cheeses and balsamic redux turned this into a rather tasty dessert. With this course, there was a Zonin Prosecco. This white wine was closer in sweetness to a dessert wine without the sweetness that you get in an ice wine. As an entry into the evening’s dining, the combination of the fig appetizer and the Prosecco was superb.

First CourseThe first course was the initial indication that things were going to be quite splendid for the rest of the evening. There were porcini dusted sea scallops, sweet pea puree, and micro green salad. Although I am a pescatarian, scallops are one seafood item I have tended to shy away from because some restaurants embrace cooking scallops al dente. What that translates to is a tough  texture, the equivalent of chewing a rubber ball. The master chef, sous chef, or head cook at Basil Leaf Cafe must have decided that he or she was not going to serve a scafezza — disaster — to a room full of food lovers. This was the first time I have had scallops so tender that the knife glided through the meat instead of me needing to slice through it. The seasoning, while it could have been heavy-handed and overpowering, was there but faint enough to let the flavour of the scallops come through. The sweet pea puree was a nice complement to the dish and it too was seasoned well enough that the tongue did not scream from too much seasoning. And served with the first course was a Tenuta Ca’Bolani Pinot Grigio. As with any Pinot Grigio, the flavour was light and had a distant fruity tone, ideal on the tongue and accommodating enough to let the dish have the spotlight.

Second Course

For the second course, the vegetarian in me stood on the table and danced. Hmmm. No, not exactly. I shall simply say that I nodded — excessively — in appreciation. This dish consisted of poached pear in Castello del Poggio Moscato D’Asti over baby arugula, topped with gorgonzola cheese, glazed pecans and honey balsamic. The pear was not merely sliced and poached. There had to have been some additional seasoning added because had there been crust, I would have foresaken eating apple pie or peach pie ever again. And because the glaze was not thick like molasses, I smiled even more knowing that this tasty treat did not come from a can. The salad was a nice companion to the pear, green, fresh, and lightly touched with the honey balsamic instead of drowned in it. The wine served with the second course was a Tenuta Ca’ Bolani Sauvignon Blanc, only a notch sweeter than the Pinot Grigio, ideal enough to take a backseat to the pear — that would have made an awesome pie — and the delectable salad.

Third Course

As if the amouse bouche and the first two courses were not splendid enough, the third course was where the chef let it be known that he really shines. Wild mushroom risotto cooked in Tenuta Ca’ Bolani Sauvignon with fennel dusted shrimp sat on plates like works of art that should not be touched. The risotto had been cooked maybe a few seconds past al dente, not the point where it was mushy and thankful that it was not gummy. The plump shrimp exploded with each bite. I imagined them popping as I slowly gnashed away at them while having at the wild mushroom risotto. I know several individuals who swear that they make the best risotto and I made mental notes of them all being liars because the risotto at Basil Leaf Cafe is indeed the best that I have had at Chicago Italian restaurants. Then again, it may have been the combination of seafood with the risotto instead of beef or chicken. Switching up the dish in terms of the meat accompaniment may have been what made the dish that more pleasing to the palate. Add to that a glass of Tunuta Ca’ Bolani Refosco. Granted this wine is served mostly with red meat, the strong currants, wild berry, and plum flavours make this a de rigeour request for me with seafood. Unless the seafood is in a rich, creamy sauce, a full bodied wine like a Refosco will redefine love.

Tenuta Ca' Bolani Refosco.One thing I have discovered with multiple food courses at Italian restaurants is that when the chefs start pulling you in with their addictive dishes, they keep going up in notches until you quiver with an addiction. The fourth course consisted of grilled salmon topped in a balsamic and berry reduction with fingerling potatoes and brussel sprouts. I shall start by saying that I never had an aversion to brussel sprouts as a child, surprisingly never getting enough of them. The brussel sprouts at Basil Leaf Cafe were al dente, but I completed them all the same. As to the grilled salmon, I had a brief vision of me on a psychologist’s couch whining about how I could not live without the dish and how I would make all sorts of promises — none that I would keep — so that I could have more. I tend to prefer my fish seasoned well, barring tartar sauce or even ketchup. Anything sweet on fish has a tendency to detract from the flavour. Then I showed up at Basil Leaf Cafe and that changed with the balsamic and berry reduction. It may have been because the sauce was more of a glaze and not a drenching. And with this feast of bliss was a glass of Feudo Principi Di Butera Nero D’Avola. This lush and impressive red is resplendent with a cherry fragrance and a hint of spice. The texture is smooth and velvety. I mean, it is easy to be lured into thinking you are downing a pricey bottle off wine, but for its complexity in taste, the price is reasonable enough for me to restock my wine cache with some of it.

Fourth Course

Of course by now, everyone at the table has a dreamy, hazy feeling from so much good food and even more fabulous wine. But what meal is complete without a dessert? None, I say. The dessert at Basil Leaf Cafe was indeed a new one to me. Crispy gnocchi with vanilla bean ice cream, topped with chocolate and pistachio came out in a substantial bowl. The ice cream with the chocolate shavings and pistachio was fine all by itself. However, the crispy gnocchi was a surprise and one that I welcomed. Now, I may add that the gnocchi was not crispy like a rice crispy bar and it was not deep-fried, but rather toasted. Not seasoned with anything other than perhaps a faint coat of sugar, what initially looked to be a heavy dessert turned out to be light. With this dessert finale was a dessert wine: a Castello del Poggio Brachetto. This reminded me of an ice wine that I had tried in the Finger Lakes region of New York State — a wine that was incredible and costly to match. And now that I think of it, the dessert was not overly sweet, and perhaps for good reason so that the sweetness of the wine would not create a saccharine crisis for all at the table.

Dessert

This was the second food and wine pairing that I have had within the past few weeks, the first at an exotic Asian boutique restaurant and now this addiction-filled dinner experience at Basil Leaf Cafe. Having partaken of food and wine pairings in the past, there were always dishes where clearly the chefs were trying too hard and they stumbled. What was apparent at Basil Leaf Cafe was that the chef knew the right mixture of ingredients for the dishes and how to present the star and supporting dishes so that nothing competed on the tongue. The wine pairings were worthy, each on the mark. With the photography that I do at all of the restaurants where I visit for journaling, it was also quite nice seeing others engage their food from the taste point of view and from the artistic standpoint. And how often do you get to say you dined with the president of an Italian winery that produces and sells some of the top wines in the world? New friends, new beginnings, wonderful service, and a memorable night of food and wine at one of Chicago’s spectacular Italian eateries. What more could I have asked for?

Answer: A cab home.

Basil Leaf Cafe on Urbanspoon

Vivo, Italian Style

Vivo

One of the great things about having a food blog is you often receive a lot of recommendations for restaurants to sample. There are some ethnicities that I do not have represented on Chicago Alphabet Soup and some that I do not have represented as thoroughly as possible. There is one community in Chicago that has a large presence and surprisingly, I had only two restaurants reflective of said community — Italian. A flurry of email notes had come to me lately and one that stood out more was with a suggestion that I try a certain Italian restaurant in Chicago’s Near West Loop. Having ventured into the West Loop neighbourhood on occasion to meet with friends at any of the few coffee shops, I was familiar with a lot of growth in the area and I also had the chance to dine at a few of the establishments there. But after following a cue from one individual who had recommended the Italian restaurant I mentioned, I have a feeling when I return from my assignment in Washington, DC, I shall venture to the West Loop more.

Black and Green

Black and Green

Vivo, at 838 W. Randolph Street, opened its doors twenty years ago and this fall marked its anniversary. Very large, mood lighting set, and filled with patrons whose palates appreciate fine dining, Vivo is a top restaurant that I am surprised I had never heard of prior to the prompting sent to me in an email note. While there are plenty of seats in the main dining area for small and large parties of diners, outdoor seating, and a very appealing full bar, there is also a relaxing lounge upstairs. But this adventure was about food, more than about leisure. A colleague and I met at the restaurant to treat our taste senses to the culinary delight of the Vivo kitchen, and so that I could now say that I have at least three Italian restaurants I can recommend without hesitation.

Cranberry Juice

Cranberry Juice

My friend and I had decided that we would not order from the menu, instead opting to accept advice from the server and have what came to the table. While we waited for the experience to begin, we partook of a whole loaf of bread with a saucer of grated parmesan and pepper in olive oil. The flavour of the bread and oil combination was a clear indication that the rest of the evening was going to be a winner. Because I had intentions of writing a journal of the evening, we had each dish come to the table individually. We started with a caprese, which is a simple antipasto that is very common in the Italian region of Campania. Four grilled tomatoes and mozzarella cheese seasoned with salt, ground pepper, basil leaves, and olive oil were served and our palates screamed with appreciation for the flavour that burst forth with each bit.

Insalata Caprese

Insalata Caprese

Next we had Gnocchi Gratinati. These handmade Italian potato dumplings with parmesan cream and black truffle essence usually come as an entrée. However, we were treated to the inviting dish as an appetizer. Having had Gnocci in the past that ranged dramatically between rubbery to mushy, it was a delight having it prepared in a manner such that it melted on the tongue. The cream gravy was perfect, that being it did not dominate the dish, and it was not so minimum that the dumplings were too much. There was a perfect marriage of ingredients, spices, and flavour.

Gnocci

Gnocchi

We had decided that we would have two entrées. Vivo entertains a rustic influence in the preparation of its food, so we opted for something with less of the traditional pasta and red sauce. The first entrée was a plate of salmon, potatoes, and salad. The starters were already top and having the salmon dish made us aware fully of just how splendid Vivo is with its dishes. The salmon was lightly seared, but not to the point where the salmon was dry. No, the salmon was tender, flaky, and full of flavour. Coupled with the rustic potatoes and salad that also tasted like the ingredients had been picked from a nearby garden, we received each bite with anticipation of what our next entrée would be like.

Entrée d'Salmon, Ensalada y Papas

Entrée d’Salmon,
Ensalada y Papas

And when the next entrée arrived at the table, we were treated with something that really sets Vivo apart from any other Italian restaurant I have dined at in Chicago. We had succulent lamb in a rich brown gravy served with risotto. Of course, by now, we were moving in slow motion, but we were very much happy with the dish. The lamb must have been cooked very slow for several hours because it pulled back from the bone without any assistance from us and there was very little chewing to be done, as the lamb could have been likened to the effect that you get when you eat cotton candy. As to the risotto, I will not try to cook it at home ever again. I shall go to Vivo any time I want risotto that leaves me with a smile and a longing for more. This risotto must be flagged in some critic’s write-up as the best in any Chicago restaurant. That is not exaggeration.

Lamb and Risotto

Lamb and Risotto

We sat for a while so that we could digest a bit of the food we had been eating — for what was about two hours with ten-minute breaks in between. After some time had passed, we decided that we would have a dolce or two. However, we opted for something light. First to the table was a plate of lemon sorbet, raspberry sorbet, and a mixture of fruit. Usually I would have gelato, but the sorbet was a very nice touch and an addictive choice. The lemon sorbet tasted as fresh as a freshly squeezed lemon. The raspberry sorbet had to have been prepared with fresh raspberries, much like the ones served along with sweet strawberries, and plump grapes. Next to the table was a slice of heaven. Pistachio ice cream under meringue and served with raspberries and strawberries under hot fudge was just the dessert that could salvage any broken relationship. These desserts were so delicious that it was wrong for them to be so blooming outstanding. This was the perfect end to a fabulous meal, although we left walking in slow motion because of so much food, so much delicious and inviting food.

Italian Ice Cream

Italian Ice Cream

Vivo is not a run-of-the-mill eatery and while most restaurants that have great ambience do not have the balance of great food from the kitchen, Vivo does a fantastic job in both atmosphere and dining. It is apparent that on weekends, there is an influx of patrons and the restaurant is in constant motion. However, the service was fabulous and top in a way that should be bottled and marketed to several eateries in Chicago and outside of Chicago. If you happen to be in Chicago’s Near West Loop neighbourhood, there are several options from which you can choose for your dining pleasure. If you want a dining experience that is a guarantee not to disappoint, make Vivo at 838 W. Randolph Street your destination. It took me a long time to get there, but it will not take me a long time to return.

Vivo, Relaxation

Vivo on Urbanspoon Vivo Restaurant on Foodio54