Cafe Des Architectes, Un Peu de Français

Recently, I have been in a bit of a French mood. For the longest I had been searching for restaurants that had a basque feel, and without the churn of a crowd. Like in France, one can enjoy a meal alone or in small company in some bistros and cafes without an excess of ambient noise and people crowding your space. My restaurant adviser and I had culled together a list of restaurants that we thought would be good samplers.

Bread Service, Trout Croquette, Lump Crab, Heart of Palm, Summer Squash Soup

Bread Service, Trout Croquette, Lump Crab, Heart of Palm, Summer Squash Soup

First on our list was Cafe Des Architectes in the Gold Coast Sofitel Hotel at 20 E. Chestnut Street. Just west of the Magnificent Mile is this fantastic restaurant that’s surrounded by swanky clothing boutiques and other very appealing restaurants. Located off to the side of the lobby is this very spacious, airy, and well-lit restaurant that also has a large outdoor seating area. With weather being extremely nice for October, we sat outside during our first visit to enjoy the moderate temperatures and to watch people in their comings and goings.

Chardonnay, Champagne, Pinot Noir

Chardonnay, Champagne, Pinot Noir

Opting for small plates, we ordered from the appetizer section with a pescatarian focus. Starting off was a l’amuse of trout croquette atop an aioli and the first of three pairings, a champagne that neither nipped at the back of the jaw nor left a pucker on the front-end of the sip. Seasoned well and void of an excessive amount of breading, the bite size trout was still meaty and the aioli was not the least bit overpowering. The Maryland style crab cakes were a reminder of why those are a favorite. Served with a chipotle aioli, citrus segments, and an avocado purée, there was not a crumb of breading on the crab cakes, which meant we got to enjoy seasoned, fresh crab to the fullest. Following with the hearts of palm, which came with a cauliflower custard, radicchio, and caviar, it was evident that the restaurant was going for full flavor even with small plates. And then we had the chilled summer squash soup with a nice smear of mint yogurt, curry oil, and granola. While most may be accustomed to a hot soup, this is the epitome of a summer soup, best served when it’s very hot outside, enjoyed regardless of when the temperatures are warm enough for patio dining.

Escargot Pappardelle, Butternut Squash Ravioli with Shrimp

Escargot Pappardelle, Butternut Squash Ravioli with Shrimp

Getting more into pasta, we had escargot pappardelle. Accented with a garlic cream, parsley, and parmesan, the plump escargot popped with each bite in this light pasta dish. Unlike when escargot is served in a bubbling pesto, there still was enough of the garlic cream in the dish to remind you of how delicious the delicacy is. Wrapping up the many landings with black truffle and corn ravioli with rock shrimp, pancetta, and parmesan, we acknowledged that we had no room for a cheese board as a dessert. The ravioli was also light, but still it was filling without leaving us overly stuffed. Paired with a pinot noir, this was perfection on the palate.

Espresso, Macaron, Chocolate

Espresso, Macaron, Chocolate

The finale was espresso that was clearly made from a fine bean. While my restaurant adviser was sharing a few chocolates from Veruca Chocolates, we received complimentary sweets of mango macarons and key lime wrapped in chocolate. Enjoying this with the coffee was superb, as the macaron was fresh and the chocolate was nothing like the blocks of chocolate you get from anchor stores at the mall. The key lime was creamy, the white chocolate, which had been decorated to look almost like a precious stone, was outstanding, and it all went well with the espresso. The first visit was noteworthy given the appreciation for the quality of the food and the attentiveness of the service. So, we indeed had a return visit.

Cheese Flight, Sparkling Flight, Espresso, Chardonnay

Cheese Flight, Sparkling Flight, Espresso, Chardonnay

Having enjoyed a nice selection of small plates during the première visite, we settled specifically for wine and cheese, champagne and cheese for my adviser. Yet another day with perfect weather, we had an outdoor seat and settled on a selection of soft mild, semi-firm, and one firm cheese. The creamy and buttery fromages of Edel de Claron, Tallegio, and Brie St. Rocco worked well on sourdough. The Fourme d’Ambert, Morbier, and Tomme were semi-firm enough to enjoy on the olive bread that came with the cheeses. The Cantalet was just right for enjoying with the multigrain bread. And for even more enjoyment, the summer berries and miniature madeleines were exactly what we needed to mentally go back to France. Of course, there was no way of departing without taking an espresso.

Cafe Des Architectes has a very laid back feel. There was no rush, which is a rather appealing touch to a restaurant because good food should be savored. Cafe Des Architectes does a fabulous job making your visit the first of many. The closest I will get to France this year will be via a rendezvous in Paris en route to Morocco. In the meantime, I am enjoying this bit of France in Chicago.

Cafe Des Architectes Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sable Saves the Evening

A few weekends ago my adventurous sister and I decided that we wanted to try another seafood restaurant. One seafood restaurant just north of downtown had been spoken of highly in reviews, so we opted to see if it was worthy of the high praise. Upon entry, it was clear that the restaurant was a great place to go for having drinks. However, the sazerac that I had left me wondering if I was missing something. And after a forced meal of dishes that looked appetizing, but weren’t, my sister and I were on the hunt for a Plan B. She had mentioned a neighbouring restaurant not far from the seafood restaurant, so we were off to overcompensate for the hunger pains that were overtaking us.

Sable

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album

 

We went to Sable at 505 N. State Street in Hotel Palomar. Crowded at the bar with a large seating area for those who want to have a dining experience, Sable seemed like it would be an ideal Plan B. It was. We took a seat in the dining area without having to wait and the server was over to the table to explain the menu, make note of some specials, and offer suggestions. With it being cold outside, my sister started with an Easy Livin’ drink — her way of projecting herself onto a sunny beach. I had an alcoholic beverage that was more like a hot toddy with a nice amount of brandy, a hint of chocolate, some bitters, and bliss. I really don’t know exactly what was in the concoction, but I will say that it was a thousand miles better than the sazerac I’d had earlier that I swear was water with a splash of whiskey and absinthe.

Understanding that we had arrived late, we settled on two items that we knew would do well to ease the growling in our bellies and replace our scowls with smiles. There were creamed corn brulee and mussels. Creamed corn is an appetizing dish all on its own. Having a brulee crust atop of it did not detract from the dish. Actually, this was one item that I have been ranting and raving about since I went to Sable. The other was a huge bowl of mussels in a white wine sauce with garlic and garlic toast on the side. Hello, mussels. Good bye, Dracula. The last time we recalled having mussels as delicious as the ones we had at Sable was when we had gone to Autre Monde in Berwyn, Illinois. Those little morsels were greeted with insatiable appetites and gnashing teeth. Not to let any of the sauce go to waste, we soaked the toast in the sauce and devoured it to complete satisfaction.

 

For our finale, we ordered sorbet — blood orange and blackberry basil. These two scoops were what dreams of made of. Accompanied with berries and dainty cookie crisps, I read my sister’s mind when she was saying to herself, “This is where we should have come from the start.” Sable was an excellent contingency plan.

It may be the weekends or it may be every evening, but the bar section of Sable fills up quickly with a motley crew of lively patrons. Most restaurants in Chicago accept reservations and Sable may be a participating restaurant that does the same. Considering how good the food is for a hotel restaurant, I understand the crowd. What we had, albeit not a lot for our visit, was fine dining without fine dining prices. Those who are looking for a great restaurant with perfect drinks and outstanding food, make Sable your first choice if you are in the River North and Near North area of downtown. You will not be disappointed.

Sable Kitchen & Bar 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