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

Out with the Old, In With the Wow

Please return your seats and your trays to their upright positions. We will be landing shortly.

I have been on and off of airplanes so much during 2011 that there was a point when I knew exactly when the announcement was about to come on. During one of my most recent trips, the announcement was a reminder of me returning a city that I only visit for a few days annually. Jackson, MS, was my destination for a quick escape from Windy Chicago and from London fog. During my years of living in Jackson — so very, very, very long ago — I remembered downtown and two buildings that were blots on the downtown’s landscape. There was the Standard Life building, which is the tallest building in downtown. The other building was the King Edward Hotel. Both buildings, vacant and abandoned for decades, had been nothing more than markers indicating a city that had come to a standstill when the doors to both structures closed for business. Fast forward to 2011 and the King Edward Hotel is now the Hilton Garden Inn that boasts apartments, hotel rooms, and a fabulous restaurant.

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My childhood best friend and I have a ritual. We usually, if not always, catch up with each other the afternoon before I return to Chicago — or destination X — because that is generally the only time I would come outside for any length of time when I am in Jackson. This time we made it a point to get together to clown well before my return north. He had recommended that the restaurant at the Hilton Garden Inn should be a fantastic place for lunch. Having spoken highly of a meal the chef had prepared for some doctors at an event and with me being a food addict, there was no way I was going to turn my nose up at sampling something worthy of a bravo. So it was off to downtown Jackson to see what the transition was from King Edward Hotel to Hilton Garden Inn at 235 W. Capitol Street, and what the kitchen had to place a smile on my face.

Goat Cheese with Pomegranate Syrup

While my friend and I waited for one of my high school classmates and her sister and another of my friend’s high school classmates, we feasted on homemade yeast rolls twisted with fresh spinach and topped with toasted black pepper and butter. Clearly, this was an indicator that all was going to be well in the land. These were not frozen rolls that had been defrosted and placed into the oven for warmth and then garnished with butter and spinach, no. These rolls were so delicious that my friend and I indulged ourselves while we waited for the others. When the others did arrive, that was when we began our venture into Food Wonderland.

Fresh Vegetable Salad

First to the table was a fresh vegetable salad with a pancetta vinaigrette in a balsamic reduction. Being a pescatarian — that being a vegetarian who indulges seafood — the ham in the pancetta vinaigrette simply went down without complaint. I have a feeling that the absence of it may have taken away from the salad. Served in concert with the vegetable salad was a dollop of goat cheese over a pomegranate syrup and topped with black pepper. Goat cheese, to me, has a consistency and a mild hint of cream cheese, so I am always pleased whenever it arrives at the table tempting me to feast on it. Having recently delighted my palate to some baked goat cheese in chunky tomatoes, I knew that the cheese would leave me with a smile. Yes, it did, indeed.

Pumpkin Soup with Shrimp and Spinach

Second to the table was puréed pumpkin soup with a shrimp and spinach. I have always been a fan of sweet potato soup and kale, so I initially had thoughts of the bitter after-taste of pumpkin from pumpkin pie when we were told the ingredients. Very much to my surprise, this was not pumpkin with the bite that gets you at the back of the jaw. Could it have been the addition of the plump shrimp? Could it have been the accent from the spinach? Could it have been that the pumpkin was prepared to satisfaction? I prefer to believe that it was a combination of all three, with the latter being the most outstanding part of the recipe. I could see myself having this tasty soup all through the autumn and never tiring of it.

Curry Turkey with Cilantro on Rice

Third to the table was a roasted turkey breast in a coconut and curry sauce with spiced rice, garnished with fried onions and fresh cilantro. Somewhat reminiscent of Thai food, I was in heaven with each bite. Never mind the fact that the flavours were not having competition, but the roasted turkey — there goes my vegetarianism for the year — was so succulent and juicy that it was hard to keep on the fork. Well, once it went on the tongue, yes, it was hard to keep on the fork. Perfection on a plate and me giving full acknowledgement with every whiff of the delicacy is the best way that I could describe the experience.

Not quite completed, the fourth dish to grace the table was a skirt steak encrusted red fish, accompanied by a cilantro simple syrup. One can never have enough cilantro in his or her dish. Well, I should clean that up and make it personal. I can never have enough cilantro in my food. And I will never have a fit about having my share of any tasty fish placed before me. The only time I winced was when I had gotten to the last few bites and did not want the moment to end. I could have left a bit in honour of those who could not join us. But those individuals were, no doubt, too busy anyway. So I heaved a heavy sigh and finished the last morsels sans any remorse. By now, I was operating in slow motion.

Skirt Steak Crusted Redfish

For dessert there were two desserts — one for those whose diets included meat and one for those whose diets did not. There was a bacon and cinnamon roll bread pudding topped with a Chivas Regal gastrique. I let go of the pescatarian wagon for this one and performed a natural act of eating without shame. My mouth burst with fireworks and flavours. I never would have considered bacon to be an engaging recipe ingredient for any dessert and the bacon was prepared so that you only got a pop of the taste on the first bite and then it became faint after eating the bread pudding. Most restaurants would have a sensation akin to duelling pianos going about the tongue, teeth, and jaws. Not so with this dessert, as it was apparently prepared for just a hint of the bacon while the bread pudding stole the show. For those who were not fans of meat, red meat being at the top of their list, Mississippi mud pie was served. By now, all I could do was look at the dessert and ponder its magic. My language was garbled, my mind was roaming, and once the slurring became painfully evident, photographing the mud pie — with shaky hands — was all that I could muster.

Bread Pudding with Caramelized Bacon

Nick Wallace, who is the executive chef for the restaurant at Hilton Garden Inn, came to our table to welcome us to the restaurant, of which we thanked him profusely for hosting us for a chef’s table lunch. A young man in his early thirties, he employs a “waste not” mantra that adds appeal to his recipes as what may be a garnish in one menu item may be a base in another menu item. And use of local ingredients means freshness in what goes into the culinary works. It was clear from the smells and tastes of what came from the kitchen. While the King Edwards Hotel has relinquished its abandoned status to being an establishment with proper pomp and circumstances, the restaurant shines. Attentive and knowledgeable wait staff and a dynamic chef, well before you complete your meal, chances are you will shout Bravo! If I did not have such British polishing, I would have shouted in the restaurant. However, I waited until I was in the car far, far, away from listening ears.

Mississippi Mud Pie

And Now for Our Regularly Scheduled Program

To the tune of “The Little Drummer Boy”

Eat, they told me
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
There’s so much food to eat
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
I made an ugly face
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
I had a foodgasm
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Chomp, cha, chomp, chomp

Baked Goat Cheese and Tomatoes with Toast

When my flight from Washington, DC, landed in Chicago, I was not a good ten paces in the terminal before I dropped to my knees and kissed the ground. If I had my way to describe things, I would say that God shows favour in Chicago because after several months in Washington, DC, the last people to turn their backs on that city are those who choose to live there. It is very humbling having someone scoff at your career in data management and statistics — that being a politician or a lawyer is viewed as worthy of sitting to the left of God, I guess. And of all things to lack, the food was so excessively bland that I wanted to bark. But the one guarantee that I knew with certainty was that I was returning to Chicago, to a world of culture and a variety of damn good food.

Shrimp Chipotle Fettuccini

I spent Saturday unpacking, washing, and packing again because I will be going away for the Christmas holiday. Happiness! On top of those personal chores, I was running all over the city test driving Volkswagen Jetta cars. Merry Christmas to me. By the end of the day and into the night, I was too tired to contemplate cooking and I did not want the smell of take-away in my new car. So I slept that night with a huge smile on my face and an agenda for the next day.

Mexican Hot Chocolate

It was off to Hyde Park in Chicago to a familiar restaurant of days past — Medici on 57th Street. Again, I say that I do believe God shows favour in Chicago. With good parking Karma, I found myself going into Medici and greeted with the most pleasant smile before taken to a seat where I could begin to overcompensate for the last few months in Washington, DC. Because the restaurants in Chicago have some allowance for a tweak to a menu item, I handed the menu back to the waitress and told her to surprise me. Out came a cup of baked goat cheese with chunky tomatoes and pesto, served with toast. Let me just say that you have not had a dip worthy of delighting yourself over until you have had the baked goat cheese at Medici on 57th. The waitress had said that it was her favourite and I played like it was marginally okay all while I did everything except run my finger around the inside of the bowl and lick it. Then came the shrimp chipotle fettuccine and broccoli. I have had fettuccine with shrimp, but spicing it up with chipotle added a twist that I had found surprisingly outstanding. The broccoli was crunchy, but not raw because it must have been steamed. It burst with flavour. And the shrimp were plentiful, considering they were large and plump.

Apple Pie ala Mode

The shrimp chipotle fettuccine was incredibly filling. But the waitress had said to me that I should have a dessert. So, I had the entrée boxed up so that I could take care of business with some dessert. She recommended the apple pie, which came with large slices of apple and caramel. This apple pie had a shortbread crust. Imagine that. Now imagine having that lovely bowl of bliss with vanilla ice cream. My eyes rolled about in my head and I stifled the moans and groans that would have escaped my lips had I been at my home eating the dessert. To wrap up the whole experience, I had Mexican hot chocolate. We are not talking about melted chocolate in hot water with cinnamon sprinkled on top. No, this was a cup of scalded milk and chocolate with cinnamon do correctly. I finally moaned, much to the laughter of those around me.

I will admit that family in DC did take me to some restaurants that were worthy of writing home about. Then again, those restaurants were in Maryland and in Virginia. It may be because of gentrification that Washington, DC, falls short of cultural diversity and that kind of absence hampers cultural norms like food selection. Chicago celebrates cultural diversity and even the gentrification that is filling in the Windy City still does not have enough influence to have the food pander to a single palate. If you are eating Stepford cuisine in Chicago, chances are it is because you are snacking on a frozen dinner.

I’m going to burn in hell
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
I ate too much to tell
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
I need elastic pants
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Another foodgasm
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Chomp, cha, chomp, chomp

Medici on 57th

Medici on 57th on Urbanspoon