Norman’s Bistro — N’awlins with Samba

Norman's Bistro

When I moved from Hyde Park to Logan Square, my trips to the South Side diminished. There are so many restaurants, cafes, and boutiques in Logan Square and surrounding neighbourhoods such that there is no need to venture too far away to find anything. One thing I must admit that the South Side has are restaurants that have a southern influence. Wondering where I could find one such restaurant, Google popped up a restaurant named Norman’s Bistro, at 1001 E. 43rd Street.

Norman’s Bistro serves New Orleans cuisine with a Brazilian influence to it. Having lived in Central Mississippi and visited New Orleans quite often, I was already sold on the N’awlins aspect of the food. I was rather intrigued about the Brazilian influence, wondering if it I would detect any of the recipes that I recalled from my days in São Paulo. I imagined that the New Orleans flavouring would stand out more, not a case of trying to have a 50-50 fusion to the recipes.

Norman's Bistro, Collage

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album

There were complimentary yeast rolls. No sooner had I touched the first roll than I realized they were homemade. The texture was not anything like I have had from bakeries or grocery stores, but what I have had consistently from ovens in friends’ and family’s homes. I started with a garden salad with a raspberry vinaigrette. Nothing spectacular, but the salad was fresh, not the bowl of wilted vegetables that I often get at restaurants. For a starter, there was a cup of seafood chili. You can have your chili with chicken, beef, or pork. Although not as spicy as I prefer, the seafood chili quickly became my favourite.

One dish I was curious about was the gumbo. It was a melange of corn, chicken, shrimp, and lobster in a delectable red roux. Served in a large bowl with a scoop of rice, I was either “that” hungry or incredibly bottomless because there was no way I should have completed that whole bowl. Again, not spicy in a peppery sense but packed with a bloom in flavour, I didn’t bother trying to compare the gumbo to the gumbo that I devoured in New Orleans. The gumbo at Norman’s Bistro holds its own. And the mini cornbread muffins that came with it were a big hit. Actually, they were so blooming good that I felt that the two I had were not enough. I saved up enough of one of them so that I could sop up the rest of the gravy from the gumbo.

By the time I had finished the seafood chili and the gumbo, I had to let some time pass before indulging a dessert. And for a sweet, I had a slice of salted caramel cake. I can’t say whether the cake was baked in-house, or not, but I will admit that it was worth it. It reminded me of the dobo torte that I have had at an Austrian restaurant in Chicago called Julius Meinl. There were layers of cake, salted caramel, and vanilla cream. Given the layering wasn’t “mass-produced perfect,” it was clear that even if it was baked at a bakery, it was one of a kind and delicious to boot.

Norman’s Bistro is one restaurant that I consider to be a surprise find. Many restaurants in the Bronzeville neighbourhood are closer to Martin Luther King Drive and S. Cottage Grove Avenue. There are a few other nice sit-down restaurants scattered throughout Bronzeville, but the far east end of 43rd Street had been void of much activity for a long time. Norman’s Bistro has a spacious interior for dining and another room in the restaurant that I imagine doubles as a spillover room for crowded evenings, as well as a party room. Service is laid back and if you eat as much as I did, the last thing you want is a server hovering over you. I can’t say when next I will be visiting New Orleans, but I will be going back to Norman’s Bistro within the next few weeks.

Norman's Bistro on Urbanspoon

Lobster Roll Craze, Starting in Chicago

At times I go through craving spurts. As of late, seafood has been my constant addiction and I am the last person to say that I tire of it, especially with so many options to please the palate. However, my thoughts have been more focused on lobster rolls. I blame part of that on having read a prior post I had written about Devon Seafood Restaurant and remembering the lobster roll I had there. So, I wondered if there were any small restaurants that had lobster rolls on their menus. Yes, there are and I made entries on my calendars to check out three that were not far from where I live.

Note: If you sample from any of the restaurants I mention in this post or from any seafood restaurants in your area, and you get a lobster roll in your grasp, indeed show the restaurant some love. For those on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, hashtag lobsterrollcraze (#lobsterrollcraze) and give the restaurant’s name.

New England Seafood Company

My first seafood excursion was at New England Seafood Company at 3341 N. Lincoln Avenue. It was late afternoon and before the after-five crowd, and it was even more surprising to see a constant flow of individuals coming in and out. I ordered a bowl of lobster bisque and a bowl of clam chowder for starters. I had fasted for 20 hours for a doctor’s appointment and so I was very close to having a Suarez moment. (Anyone who has been following World Cup will get the reference.) The bisque was a lobster bisque addict’s bowl of heaven. It wasn’t smooth like the usual bisque because it was full of shredded lobster. The clam chowder had chased away my final Suarez craving and left me wanting more, but I had to save room for my main reason for coming to the restaurant.

New England Seafood Company Collage

The lobster roll was so wrong, so very, very wrong because nothing as good as the lobster roll I had should be released to customers. Stuffed to the point where lobster was falling out of the bread, I tell you no lie when I say that I dragged out working on that lobster roll and homemade chips to an epic 45 minutes. I didn’t want it to end. When I was done, I sat looking pensively until the server offered a chocolate chip cannoli and coffee, of which I accepted. After a good report from my doctor, I deserved it.

Da Lobsta

At 12 E. Cedar Street in Chicago’s Gold Coast is Da Lobsta. Several times I have gone to the location in the French Market, which is in the adjacent depot station to Ogilvie Centre. At the French Market location, I had been going so much that the staff working there knows me by face and that means I get rated-10 lobster rolls while everyone else gets rated-8. Okay, that’s not proper and I should be ashamed of myself. (Laugh track) For a blog write-up, I decided to go to the Gold Coast location and I was quite happy I did.

Da Lobsta Collage

The lobster bisque at Da Lobsta is smooth and creamy when initially set in front of you. Don’t be fooled, for after you stir it, you see chunks of lobster swimming around in it. If you are like me, you’ll smile before scooping it up and trying not to dribble it across the front of your shirt. It’s New England lobster bisque, for sure. And the clam chowder, albeit not thick in a creamy way, is definitely worthy ordering a cup. But their lobster roll is where you’ll develop a constant yearning. There is a combination of shredded lobster and chunks. You’ll understand why you get a fork with the sandwich and if you think you’re in a dream while indulging one of the lobster rolls, you will not want to wake up. If you get there when the staff is handing out samples of lobster mac and cheese, do not decline. Take the sample. You’ll probably order some for take-away.

Fish Bar

My third excursion was at Fish Bar. At 2956 N. Sheffield Avenue, this boutique seafood restaurant has the look of a bar, but it’s all about seafood and a good selection of wet bar offerings. The beauty of this restaurant is that the staff is upfront and personal — not as in being in your personal space, but as in being like great friends. They don’t just tell you their names as a courtesy, but they ask for your name and address you accordingly while you’re there. One would have to be anti on a personal level to not fall in love with that kind of service. But you’ll be blown away with the food regardless.

Fish Bar Collage

I had a cup of clam chowder that if I had some bread with it, I would have sopped the remaining chowder without pause or complaint. The gumbo had a roux base that I favour because there was no skimping on the okra. The person responsible for the recipe had to have gone to some restaurant shacks in the eastern parts of New Orleans because they got it correct. Where I had to pause and smile my usual stupid smile when food is good was with the lobster roll. There were chunks of lobster in the lobster roll, although they will cut the lobster up more if requested. But you really know you’re indulging a delicacy when the lobster bursts when your teeth pierce the chunks. And with them adding cumin to the homemade mayonnaise, I sat and pondered ordering another one for take-away. I waited for an hour and had a crabby patty — crab cake slider with a dusting of bread crumbs covering a serious clump of meaty crab — instead. However, I am still thinking about the lobster roll and how I felt some kind of way after it was all gone.

Some may inquire about a ranking and it would be unfair. Each restaurant prepares the lobster rolls differently, which gives each their individual charm. Now that I have put them out there, perhaps you can post back letting it be known how you’d rank them. I gave three boutique seafood restaurants. There are some big box restaurants that prepare some lobster rolls worthy of telling your Facebook and Twitter friends. I bet there are also some walk-ups and small seafood cafes doing the same. Get your lobster rolls craze on.

New England Seafood Company Fish Market on Urbanspoon Da Lobsta on Urbanspoon Fish Bar on Urbanspoon

New Orleans Comes to Chicago

Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop

Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop

One thing I have discovered about Facebook is that it can be a dangerous tool, especially to those of us who have constant appetites. For example, I was reading some comments on a friend’s wall and I saw a photo of a huge pot of what looked like gumbo. Well, I clicked on the photo and – lo and behold – when it opened to a larger photo, it was indeed a pot of gumbo. Needless to say, my food alarm went off and I was in a bit of a frenzy. Mind you, it was only a few hours past lunch and the photo had thrown me in a fit of hunger. This is what a food addiction has come to for me: anticipating 5:00 PM so that I can address my hankering.

With my thoughts fixated on gumbo and me having a lengthy weak moment, I knew where I could go to satisfy my craving. It was not necessarily ethnic food from the standpoint of ethnically non-American. I could make an exception for some New Orleans Cajun cooking. Hey, if I’m going to indulge some good American ethnic food, it will be worthy of the trip to get to a restaurant or cafe that represents the best Southern style cooking to be found. So, at 5:00 PM, I was off to Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop at 825 Church Street in Evanston, Illinois.

Johnny Cakes

Johnny Cakes

I got a seat outside so that I could enjoy the nice weather and listen to a band that was playing a few blocks away at an outside plaza. Having been to the Chicago Hyde Park location before it had closed, I had an idea of what I wanted. The server had a look of awe as I rattled off what I wanted. I started with complimentary Johnny cakes. Think small pancakes without syrup. There was a dollop of honey butter that came with the cakes and that was all I needed to be transported back South.

Then I had fried green tomatoes that came with shredded lettuce and chives. As a child, my grandmother used to fry green tomatoes. We would dash some hot sauce on those bad boys, sit back, and have a real go of. I did the same with the fried green tomatoes from Dixie Kitchen. I will admit that adding the “salad” to the fried green tomatoes struck me as a bit of a “trying to be exotic” addition because fried green tomatoes can hold their own without extra accessories. I ate it all to completion anyway.

Fried Green Tomatoes

Fried Green Tomatoes

The second course was a plate of crawfish and corn fritters prepared hush-puppy style, and served with a jalapeño jelly. The fritters looked like beignets and I bet that is what they were – filled with crawfish and corn. That was fine, though, as I found them to be well worth the sampling. The fritters are not stuffed to capacity with crawfish and corn, so be forewarned. There is a fair amount of each ingredient in each fritter but you do not get a well-formed ball of crawfish and corn and a coating of crust that holds it all in place. Served with the jelly, it made for a combination that I think comes across as a perfect snack.

Crawfish and Corn Fritters

Crawfish and Corn Fritters

And then came the reason that I had made Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop my after-work destination. I had a cup of their gumbo. May we have a moment of silence? (Pause) I never know what to do with myself when I get a spoonful of Dixie Kitchen gumbo into my tummy. The gumbo at Dixie Kitchen is not prepared with a roux base the way it is in New Orleans, but it is prepared with a gravy base. The gravy may have its origins in a roux base so I shall concede a little. That’s fine because it tastes delicious just the same. The cup of gumbo burst with shrimp, chicken, and andouille sausage over rice. Although I had long since taken pork out of my diet, there are some concessions that I will make all in the name of enjoying good food. I did not request to have the gumbo without the sausage. I wanted the full experience, as I have always enjoyed. I was satisfied.

Cup of Gumbo

Cup of Gumbo

But I still had a little more room for something else. I had resigned myself to the notion that I was not going to indulge any dessert, so I ordered some étouffée. Unlike the appetizer size portions for the previously mentioned items, the étouffée was a full entrée That meant I had decided to eat an appetizer amount and get the rest for take-away. Again, there wasn’t the full New Orleans experience, but I am in Chicago. There are allowances. The étouffée was prepared with a roux base and full of crawfish, shrimp, onions, celery, and peppers. The flavour was there, not the spicy kick, though. It wasn’t until I stirred up the rice and the gravy more that there was a bit more seasoning to the dish than initially. Needless to say, I enjoyed the dining experience on location and had enough to take home for later food bliss.

Crawfish Etouffee

Crawfish Etouffee

Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop has that shack-on-the-bayou look about it. The Evanston location doesn’t present that look and feel as much as the location that used to reside in Chicago’s Hyde Park use to display. There may be some New Orleans traditional jazz or Zydeco music playing in the background. There are always filled bellies and chomping jaws on site. It may be that you’ll get fired if you have a nasty attitude because the service is always great. As far back as 1995, the quality of food, serve, and price has been consistently good. The food may not be exactly what you get when you go to New Orleans, but for a location so far removed from the South, it still keeps those like me who have been to New Orleans coming back. Comparing any other food to New Orleans cuisine is unfair because food in Southern Louisiana really explodes with a bloom that no one outside of New Orleans and the backwater sections of Louisiana can reproduce. In the meantime, I have made a mental note to myself to not click on any more thumbnail photos that look anything like it could be gumbo, étouffée, jambalaya, or any other kind of New Orleans cuisine. Food addictions consume your thoughts so full and complete.

Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop on UrbanspoonDixie Kitchen & Bait Shop on Foodio54