Ajida — Yakitori and Ramen Happiness

Ajida

I recently posted a few writeups referencing ramen. Thinking that I had grown weary of ramen during my university days, it is rather surprising now that I have been hankering for it. Sure, it’s not the blocks that you open and drop in hot water for boiling. I can’t seem to get enough of devouring it nice and piping hot in a large bowl. So, I thought it would be a good idea to have a bowl for old time’s sake, at least to tide me over for a few months as I try to wean myself from this new addiction.

Wasabi Yakitori

Wasabi Yakitori

While on my hunger quest, I wandered past a Japanese grill and ramen restaurant in Chicago’s Loop. I paused on initial discovery because restaurants in the Loop are for the downtown business crowd: translation — fast food and fast casual so patrons can rush back to the office; authenticity not required. But Ajida at 201 N. Wells Street surprised me, starting with the fact that they’re open on Sundays.

Seeing that there were yakitori options on the menu, I started with four delectable meats on skewers. There were two skewers of wasabi yakitori, consisting of tender chicken breast brushed with a liberal amount of wasabi mayo, enough to clear the sinuses. There were umeshisho yakitori, which were chicken breast brushed with sour plum and basil. One that I loved from the first bite was mentai yakitori — chicken breast with spicy vegetable sauce. The gyu ebi kushi yaki, thinly sliced beef roiled with shrimp, was simply not enough, it was so blooming satisfying. The unagi kushi yaki meant me having another other of the barbecue eel.

Umeshisho, Mentai, Gyu Ebi, Unagi Kushi Yakitori

Flight of Yakitori

And then there was the curry age mono ramen. If anyone wants an example of a Japanese and Thai fusion being done uncompromisingly right, this bowl of ramen is the only example needed. Yakitori of deep-fried, battered shrimp came with the bowl of noodles in a broth topped with curry sauce, pickled red ginger, and scallion. Having recently gone to an Americanized Chinese restaurant that attempted a Thai dish and murdered the curry by cooking the base with an oyster sauce base, I had developed a distaste for Thai curry. Ajida rescued me from my Thai curry despair.

Curry Age Mono Ramen

Curry Age Mono Ramen

For the finale, I had a scoop of green tea ice cream and a scoop of red bean ice cream. I have yet to find any in the local markets and I’ve been okay with that since I freeze my own ice cream. But when I get ice cream with a wow factor in the flavour the way I got in the ice cream at Ajida, it is simply remarkable and you have to enjoy it slowly. No, it’s not fancy and it’s not spectacular. It’s just damn good.

Green Tea and Red Bean Ice Cream

Green Tea Ice Cream

Green Tea and Red Bean Ice Cream

Red Bean Ice Cream

Ajida has been in operation for two years. Much like Ara On, another Asian restaurant I’ve gone to in the Loop, I had passed by without a second glance because downtown restaurants sacrifice quality in flavour for quantity in patrons. The restaurant was empty, given it was a Sunday and I arrived early. The one indicator I paid attention to, that being a slow and stream of Japanese coming through, was all I needed to know that I might want to reconsider slacking up from having ramen; at least from Ajida, I’ll say.

Ajida Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Mexcais, Frenchican, Mexique

Mexique

For the past few years, I have been going to a few restaurants in the West Town vicinity of Chicago. During the summer, I got to see much of the area while on foot. One restaurant I passed by several times was Mexique at 1529 W. Chicago Avenue. There was a “white table-cloth” feel to the restaurant and with that in mind, I never went in because I was usually in short pants and walking shoes. So, I decided that I would go one evening after work when I was better attired.

Black Bean Purée, Bread, Chicken Pâté

Black Bean Purée, Bread, Chicken Pâté

Chicken Pâté, Bread, Black Bean Purée

Chicken Pâté, Bread, Black Bean Purée

I considered having the dining experience be more ala carte. And then I decided that I wanted a sampling of several menu items. The 6-course tasting menu was the better option. Having received the explanation that the food at Mexique is Mexican with a French influence, I knew that I couldn’t go wrong with a seafood approach to the tasting. While I waited for the courses to arrive, I had black bean purée and chicken pâté with French bread. The black beans as a purée instead of thick frijoles was great for spreading as was the spicy pâté, both a great complimentary start and marriage between Mexican and French.

Soup and Wine

Soup and Wine

The first course was poblano pepper soup accented with feta cheese, pineapple relish, quince, and celery root. The remarkable thing about this soup is that neither the spiciness of the peppers nor the sweetness of the pineapple relish overpowered the recipe. A white wine accompanied this dish, one with a lovely touch of sweetness. There were notes of peach and apricots in the wine. Smooth on the palate, it was splendid in the pairing in that it brought out the flavours of the soup rather than competing with it on the tongue.

Ceviche

Ceviche

The second course was an interesting and addictive take on ceviche. Cobia fish in citrus juice was the main seafood ingredient. The French influence came in with the inclusion of the stock prepared with green vegetables, green chilies, also paprika oil and micro greens. There were small dollops of poblana mousse that, once stirred in the ceviche, made the base slightly creamy. The wine that paired with this course was a Sauvignon Blanc from a vineyard in California. There was a high mineral aspect to it, a bit tart, that again allowed the ingredients in the ceviche to pop more than they probably would have had there been no wine served with the course.

Mahi-Mahi with Salmon Tartar

Mahi-Mahi with Salmon Tartar

The third course was one that I initially flagged as the highlight of the evening after a taste of the first morsel. There was mahi-mahi in a lovely sorrel sauce and red quinoa with salmon tartar. The entire dish was drizzled with a burned onion aioli. Those who enjoy seafood would love sampling the mahi-mahi and the salmon tartar. Paired with this was a crisp Spanish Rioja wine, consisting of fully ripe fruits, mainly grapes that played well with the flavours of the sorrel.

Whitefish with Potato Puree and Black Bean Sauce

Whitefish with Potato Puree and Black Bean Sauce

Thinking that the third course was spectacular in terms of taste, the fourth course was unforgettable. This was a whitefish with a black bean sauce prepared with a red wine reduction. The white potato purée had a surprising pop on the palate, as it was clearly not seasoned with salt and pepper only. Garnishes were baby carrots, confit style and micro greens. This course came paired with a Chardonnay. The complexity in this wine came in the form of ripe apples, vanilla, and oak. As if the whitefish wasn’t flaky and tender enough, the silky and buttery notes in the wine made the fourth course a culinary dream.

Skate with Vegetables and Grapes Over Plantain

Skate with Vegetables and Grapes Over Plantain

Given each course was progressively better than the previous one, I should have known the fifth course would be a winner. This was another seafood dish, prepared with skate marinated in tequilla over spinach, cauliflower, and picked grapes, and set atop a fully ripe and compressed plantain. There was a nice amount of achiote seeds used for seasoning this dish and all of the ingredients were fantastic for letting each come through individually on the tongue. A French wine came with this dish. Medium bodied wine with notes of raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries, this was a perfect accompaniment for a dish that had so many complex flavours.

Arroz Con Leche with Ice Cream

Arroz Con Leche with Ice Cream

The finale was one that I had to request a pause before having it arrive at the table. The prior dishes, albeit manageable, were slightly more filling than I had expected. I figured there would be a dessert that would be familiar, but perhaps rich. Sure enough, the arroz con leche with vanilla bean ice cream. This traditional Mexican dessert of rice pudding was enhanced with rompope, Mexican eggnog, and sprinkled with candied pumpkin seeds as well as white chocolate crumble. The dessert wine with the course was and Alameda. The figs, dates, prunes, and raisins in this sherry were fantastic, which made this wine a perfect match for the arroz con leche.

Sherry

Sherry

Those who are expecting tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, and traditional Mexican fare may find Mexique a bit weird or lacking in purist techniques. Even those who fancy Tex-Mex may not be okay with the cuisine either. This is not a restaurant that one may consider upscale Chipotle or a chic Mexican restaurant. Those who like variety and those with broad palates will find the ala carte and the tasting menus to be worthy of one or more visits. The sitting area is large, so there is lots of room for stretching out in preparation for dining. Make reservations, as the restaurant tends to fill up quickly. The constant influx of patrons is all you need to know that the food is good. Well, I’ve shown you pictures already. Now get ready for the taste.

Mexique Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Keren Kitchen — At Home for Eritrean

Keren Kitchen

Recently, I have made a decision to modify my diet so that I get back to ethnic food and seafood only. There was a point when I indulged friends who wanted to go to a lot of meat-centric American restaurants and my hunger somewhat got out of hand. I noticed that the flat tummy I had achieved was getting a little pudgy again. I simply cannot have that, but I shall not deprive myself of good food either. I can compromise: I shall eat plenty of what not contributing to bloating the bloody tire I had around my waistline.

Injera

Injera

Along with the change in my diet and consistent warmer weather, I am walking more. While strolling through West Lakeview, I wandered past a restaurant that looked very much like something family owned. At 1513 W. Irving Park Road is Keren Kitchen. Mostly Eritrean, there is also a Mexican component to the menu. Having been to DenDen Restaurant in Chicago’s Rogers Park, I was curious to see if Karen Kitchen would warrant a return visit.

Qulwa Dorho, Alicha Atar, Past Dish

Qulwa Dorho, Alicha Atar, Past Dish

I started with qualwa dorho, alicha atar, and past dish. The qualwa dorho came as chicken and tomatoes in a savoury gravy, accented with clarified butter. The alicha atar was very reminiscent of creamed lentils that I have had at several Ethiopian restaurants. The past dish consisted of potatoes, carrots, and green beans. I must say now that I won’t have to travel farther north to Rogers Park for Eritrean food now. Although I was dining solo, the dish was served on injera bread in the cultural manner. Being accustomed to eating Ethiopian food with my fingers, I applied the same technique here, completing the whole platter much to the server’s surprise.

Asa Qulwa

Asa Qulwa

With some room in the tummy, I opted to fill it with asa qualwa. This dish was not served on injera, It came as seasoned, plump tilapia on yellow rice with salad. For every article promoting fear propaganda about tilapia, I doubt the authors of the write-ups have had asa qualwa from Keren Kitchen. They would not write such drivel otherwise. Because this dish was substantial, I had half of it prepared for take-away so that I could enjoy it once more later when I was home.

Hazelnut Ice Cream

Hazelnut Ice Cream

For a dessert, I had hazelnut ice cream drizzled with caramel. Given all that I had eaten already, the ice cream was not only refreshing, but it was also light on the stomach. And because I always have my desserts without nuts, I was pleasantly surprised at how much of a nice accent the hazelnuts were. Topping it all off, I took tea with cinnamon and cardamom. I was in heaven, but I was almost there anyway after the first scoop of qualwa dorho.

Spiced Tea

Spiced Tea

Keren Kitchen opened doors for business November, 2014. The restaurant resides in what looks to have been a house that was converted for restaurant use. Because I did not try anything from the Mexican menu, I shall have to return for a sampling. What I had during my first visit was divine. The Eritrean and Mexican owners are absolutely outstanding, as was the service. During my afternoon visit, the restaurant was not filled, so I had time to talk to them about how Keren Kitchen came to be. And just when I decided to become more disciplined about what I eat, I happen upon this gem. I will become a regular.

Keren Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Rio’s D’Sudamerica in Norteamerica

Rio's D'Sudamerica

Up until the 90’s, Chicago’s go-to neighbourhoods for restaurant life were in the neighbourhoods that bordered Lake Michigan north of downtown. By the mid-90’s there was a new stretch of go-to neighbourhoods along Milwaukee Avenue and the Blue Line elevated train. Gold Coast, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Uptown, Andersonville, and Edgewater now have competition. West Town, Ukrainian Village, Wicker Park, and Bucktown started gaining popularity, as swanky boutiques, independent coffeehouses, intimate restaurants, and nice housing filled the landscape. And none of the restaurants and shops were disappointing. For example, there is Rio’s D’Sudamerica at 2010 W. Armitage Avenue in Bucktown neighbourhood, where you can have some of the best, authentic Peruvian cuisine in the city.

A short trip from the now-popular Logan Square, I met a friend so that I could get an entry on Chicago Alphabet Soup for Peru. She started with a lemon drop martini and I started with a mojito. Compliments to the bartender for mixing drinks that weren’t watery or overpowering. To quote Goldilocks, “It was just right.” My friend had been to Rio’s D’Sudamerica before, so I accepted her recommendations. One that sounded rather pedestrian was papa a la huancaina. This is now my favourite potato salad. The creamy sauce made the dish a dream. With us being seafood fanatics, we also ordered a dish of camarones en costra de quinua con pure de yuca-rocoto y salsa de maracuya. Four plump shrimp, encrusted in quinoa, were served over yucca seasoned with rocoto, olive oil, and lemon juice glazed with passion fruit sauce. Who in his or her right mind would want to awake from this dream?

Rio's D'Sudamerica Collage

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album

As if the appetizers weren’t divine enough, there was a platter of camarones a la plancha for an entrée. It would be hard to tire of eating sautéed shrimp that had been cooked in a red chili sauce and topped with a garlic and butter cream sauce. Served with white rice that actually had flavour, this was an entrée to enjoy slowly. Although I have had camarones al la plancha before, this was the first time I was silent because it was so lip-smacking. The dish that was new to me was the plate of arroz chuafa con camarones. I have had my share of Chinese fried rice and liked it. However, I am now in love with Peruvian fried rice and the shrimp that exploded in this rice dish that was sautéed with green onions, egg, ginger, and soy sauce was absolutely addictive. I am a fan.

Because the appetizers and entrées were hearty, we sat for awhile and let our bellies settle before our final attack on some desserts. Light in texture, full of flavour, and heavy on the arteries, we had flan Peruano. This was not a regular flan, for it was creamy. The texture was not like that of old Jell-O, but like slicing through a cloud. Not drowned in a caramel glaze, it wasn’t sugary, which made it that more enjoyable on the palate. The dessert that could result in a continuous, long line outside of Rio’s D’Sudamerica is the lucuma temptation. This ice cream, which is made from the lucuma fruit, yielded the flavour of dulce con leche. Had we not been sated, I would have ordered another dish of it.

Rio’s D’Sudamerica has a large interior with plenty of seating. Because the food on the incredible scale is perhaps a 20 on a scale of 1 to 10, the restaurant fills up quickly. As always, I am a stickler for quality of food, service, and price. Rio’s D’Sudamerica blew me away on all three. This is one of the reasons why Bucktown is one of the sought-after neighbourhoods in Chicago. It is definitely the main reason I have an entry on my calendar for a return in a few weeks.

Rios D'Sudamerica on Urbanspoon

A-One Italian-French and A10

A10 Hyde Park

February is speeding with a quickness. And I had thought that I would have visited at least one restaurant per week since the New Year began. Alas, the constant snowing and arctic temperatures when snow isn’t falling joined forces to have me running to the warmth of my condominium rather than to the inviting flavours of any restaurants. That is not a good thing because it means once the temperatures warm up finally and I go outside to venture to restaurants for sampling, I will overdo it and then have issues with the night elves that visit my closet and stitch up my pants such that they’re tight around the belly. Ugh, I hate winter, but I love food enough to brave the chill of the Chicago air every once in a while.

A10 Dinner

A10 Dinner

Baguette

Baguette

A great friend and I had managed to escape to Hyde Park a few weeks ago to sample a new restaurant on the Hyde Park landscape. We were so blown over by the service and the food that the experience had plagued our thoughts and conversations since. After a long weekend of being inside, I had cabin fever. I am not a fan of shopping and long walks along the beach with the wind blowing angrily off of Lake Michigan may be a romantic escape for those who like to play roulette with pneumonia.  But food is my lover and I can stand a walk to the subway and connect to a bus to get to a destination that will take my mind way from the fact that the temperatures never got out of the single digits. So, after making reservations, we went back to A10 at 1462 E. 53rd Street in the new chi-chi fantasy world that has taken over the corner of 53rd Street and Lake Park.

Benromach Scotch Whiskey

Benromach Scotch Whiskey

Templeton Rye

Templeton Rye

Elijah Craig Bourbon Whiskey

Elijah Craig Bourbon Whiskey

There is always the request for what one would like to start with drinking. My friend tried her hand with an old-fashioned whiskey cocktail since I had it on the first visit and apparently wouldn’t shut up about how much I loved it. After her first few sips, she had kept mentioning how it was an excellent option. I was in a rare mood — no rarer than usual, though. I requested a flight of whiskies. You can hear all the beer connoisseurs mumbling through upturned sneers, “Snob.” With a baguette in front of us served with a plate of olive oil and balsamic with garlic cooked such that it was spreadable, we were off to a smashing start.

Garlic Soup

Garlic Soup

For starters, my friend had a bowl of roasted garlic soup and I had a Portobello mushroom pizza. The soup was hearty and full of flavour. I recommend it highly if you are all about being heart healthy. Even if you are one of those fans of vampire movies and you fear one of the pretty actors with polished fangs may come to you one night to bite your neck, a bowl of that soup would  be perfect for fending off those wicked vampires. The Portobello mushroom pizza was more like grilled toast with cheese, sautéed onions, and pickled carrots. Giordano’s what? Eduardo’s what? Lou Malnati’s what? Domino’s what? Pizza Hut what? The Portobello mushroom pizza was a blast.

Portobello Mushroom Pizza

Portobello Mushroom Pizza

My taste buds had me in a mood for seafood. Fortunately, A10 doesn’t disappoint when it comes to seafood offerings for my palate. I ordered a cold smoked trout that was served over whipped garlic potatoes. Wow! Having had trout fried, having it smoked such that the fish was flaky and meaty has now moved it up into my Top 5 Fish Loves. Because it was all so fantastic, I worked my knife and fork in slow motion, trying to make the moment last as long as possible without letting the dish get cold.

Cold Smoked Trout with Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Cold Smoked Trout with Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Many of the specials had pork in the recipe, which was not something that appealed to my friend. Instead, she ordered blue crab ravioli with fried green tomatoes. During the first visit, she and I had shared a bit of our dishes and when I had tasted the ravioli that was bursting with blue crab, I understood fully why she ordered it again. This was not a case of “when all else fails,” but one of “you are certain not to fail by ordering the ravioli dish.”

Blue Crab Ravioli and Fried Green Tomatoes

Blue Crab Ravioli and Fried Green Tomatoes

We sat for a while after we wrapped up our entrées, reminiscing about how Hyde Park used to look. It appears that change is taking over the landscape of Hyde Park in a rapid fashion that would otherwise eradicate charm in other neighbourhoods because of poor execution. However, Hyde Park has been a bastion of diversity and change, so the new look doesn’t feel out-of-place. By the time my friend’s coffee and my cappuccino arrived, we had recounted where old establishments were that have gone away to give way to a shinier, dynamic Hyde Park.

Cappuccino and Biscotti

Cappuccino and Biscotti

In addition to our coffees, there is one dessert we had that I think that everyone in the Chicago metropolitan area, as well as visitors to the Chicago area, must try. It’s soft serve ice cream — and I don’t mean that cold foam you get at McDonald’s. It’s homemade ice cream, but accentuated with almond granola, a honey drizzle, and thyme. I have prepared my share of savoury ice cream, so this dessert was clearly a winner to me. This was my guilty pleasure dessert in advance of my birthday. I had an allowance for something sweet, yet not sugary and definitely not saccharine. It would be a lie for me to say that I was not in love after the very first scoop.

Soft Serve with Honey-Drizzled Granola

Soft Serve with Honey-Drizzled Granola

A10 is relatively new, perhaps only a few months of being in business. Unlike a lot of restaurants that are still in their neophyte stages, complete with fumbling and blaring presentations of overcompensation, A10 has the air of a well-oiled machine. It is also quite obvious that the residents of Hyde Park are appreciative of the restaurant gracing 53rd Street, as there is a constant flow of those from the neighbourhood coming in to partake of the menu offerings. For this to have been my second visit, I have been a minimum of ten notches past impressed. It’s not that the hostesses remembered me. It’s not that our first server came by and spoke. It’s not that those on the hospitality staff welcomed my friend and me back. It’s that they got it right. And for that, I say, “C’est bon et bravo!”

A10 Hyde Park, Bar

A10 Hyde Park, Bar

A10 on Urbanspoon A10 Hyde Park on Foodio54

Top 10 Jaunts for 2013

December has arrived and it is during this time that I always ponder whether there was something I had intended to do between January and the end of November, but somehow never got around to doing. I swear time went slower when I was a kid. The summers dragged on forever — and I didn’t complain. Christmas break felt like a whole month. School was the equivalent of endless punishment. Fast forward to age 45 and each year feels compressed from a full twelve months to about seven. However, I still get to partake of my favourite hobby second to photography: eating. And for the end of 2013, I decided that I would do something different — a list of Top 10 Jaunts for 2013. So, this post will be dedicated to the restaurant discoveries that tempted my palate. Since I have already written extensive blog postings for each, I will only present highlights.

10. Pasteur
I had spent a lot of time in the Edgewater neighbourhood during the summer. My favourite Indian restaurant is there. One day while walking down Broadway, I happened to see a building full of Chicago architecture with a menu in the window. Having passed the building many times, it looked too fancy to register as a restaurant, but I was glad to have been in a casual mood the one Saturday I stopped and took notice of it. The food was outstanding and the service was top. From the interior, one can easily get the sensation of being in Europe, but it’s the Vietnamese influence in the food that pops. With the menu items supposedly having a French and Vietnamese fusion, I didn’t detect a heavier French accent. It was the Vietnamese flavours that stood out more. In the future I shall return for more good food and great service, and hopefully see if there is more balance to the menu.

Pasteur, Collage
9. Freddy’s Pizzeria and Grocery
A great friend had sent a text message to me to prompt me about Freddy’s while I was at an Italian restaurant on the Far North Side. She had already enlightened me to a few cafes and restaurants in Berwyn, so I trusted her recommendation. She gave me the formal introduction to Freddy’s Pizzeria and Grocery. This is a small grocery store with an annex built on to the side of the market for those who wish to sit and eat without having to rush home to devour the food. There is authenticity to every dish that puts a lot of big box Italian restaurants to shame. It’s evident when you enter the door and see the long line that stretches from the door, to the back of the grocery store, all along the counter, and up to the cash register. I think the trip out to Cicero is worth it, but I advise you to be prepared because staring at the selection of delicious food behind the counter may throw you into a food frenzy.

Freddy's Pizza and Grocery

8. Silom 12
Grub Hub is a beautiful thing and a glorious thing during the winter when delivery is a viable option. I had tried Silom 12 numerous times as a take-away choice when I was too lazy to operate my own stove. Not once was I dissatisfied with what I had ordered. Well, while I was having my hallway bathroom remodelled this summer, I needed a moment to escape from the sound of drills, saws, and banging. Where should I find myself but at Silom 12 for a proper sit-down. And oh was I pleased beyond words. Logan Square is one of America’s hottest neighbourhoods and with the addition of restaurants like Silom 12, it’s easy to understand why. One would think that the price per dish may make the cha-ching sound. No, the price, service, and food make a harmonious sigh of satisfaction. Well, let me take that back and make it personal. I made a harmonious sigh of satisfaction with each bite of food I took and believe me when I say that I ate a lot.

Silom 12

7. Masouleh
When I first moved to Chicago, I spent a little over a year in Northbrook. There was only so much that I could take of the sound of crickets. New York City had spoiled me. So I moved into Chicago proper and my first Chicago apartment was in Rogers Park. At that time Rogers Park had a heavy Mexican influence. Fast forward to 2013 and there seems to be more diversity gracing the Rogers Park landscape. One addition to the neighbourhood is Masouleh. I had met up with some friends after work one Friday evening and had fallen in love with the place after only having some herbs, cheese, and radish put on the table. It was authentic and when I say authentic I mean the flavours popped the way I remember Iranian food tasting. I don’t mean plain hummus and pita bread either. I had to return for my very own adventure and by the time I had finished a parfait glass of Persian ice cream, I was typing my initial blog post from the moon.

Masouleh

6. Kabul House
The first restaurant I went to when I started Chicago Alphabet Soup was Kabul House. It was at a different address. Months had passed and then a few years went by. When I had made plans to return, it was closed. Then there was a cloud of sadness because I remembered the food being so delicious. My friend and I were at the restaurant for hours, slowly taking care of the fine dining that came from the kitchen. Well, I was informed that Kabul House had opened at a new location. I had added it to my list and during Memorial Day, I was so glad that I went. Let’s just say that I rolled my eyes and I don’t mean as in disgust or to be cheeky. Oh, off with the person’s head who said that it’s never as good as the first time. It was better the second time around.

Kabul House

5. Pannenkoeken Cafe
If anyone ever starts rattling off the old adage that the best meal of the day is breakfast, tell them to put a footnote on that and immediately rush to Pannenkoeken Cafe. I am not one for eating lunch or dinner delights from Germany because they are heavy on the stomach. Not quite as sleep-inducing as Eastern European food, but you will drag afterwards. A German breakfast, on the other hand, causes the angels to sing. Pannenkoeken Cafe is a small cafe, so getting there early is advisable. Now, although the breakfast isn’t heavy on the belly, it is filling. So, you have to go on several visits. You have to. You must! Don’t even think about The Original Pancake House. Make your own pancakes at home, but go to Pannenkoeken Cafe for a proper breakfast that will give you a perpetual smile.

Pannenkoeken

4. Den Den Eritrean Restaurant
Rogers Park has developed a bit of magnetism to it thanks to the addition of a few ethnic eateries. There are several Ethiopian restaurants in Edgewater. While going to Masouleh one evening, my great friend who had recommended Freddy’s to me pointed Den Den Eritrean Restaurant out to me. I don’t think I had taken a few steps before I retrieved my smart phone and blocked some time for a visit. I had never thought of any Eritrean representation in Chicago’s culinary landscape. Everything about Den Den was top-notch. While I can’t say that Eritrean and Ethiopian are the same, the food preparation, serving, and method of eating the food are the same. However, Den Den takes the top spot among the Ethiopian restaurants I’ve been to in Chicago. And I’ve been to all — except one that I zipped pass while speeding up Ashland Avenue.

Den Den

3. De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine
Skokie has a small section in a business district that isn’t on a busy street. Had I not gone to Kabul House to renew my food vows, I never would have stumbled across a restaurant that has some cultural significance to me. When I saw the word “Jamaican” flash in front of my eyes, the return to the small stretch of Oakton Avenue was mandatory. The saltfish and ackee, callalou, rice and beans, beef patty, and june plum juice reminded me so much of my paternal grandmother’s kitchen that I spent almost every Saturday at De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine. And when I didn’t get back during a Saturday visit, there were occasional trips for take-away throughout the week. Certainly when you find something with a cultural attachment, it’s hard to detach.

De-Jred Fine Jamaican

2. Roka Akor
Earlier in the year, I wanted to try something new in the downtown vicinity. Most restaurants in downtown fall into the tourist trap or “big box” categories. You go and then tell your friends that you had gone to such-and-such restaurant because that’s where all of the Joneses had gone before you. But Roka Akor is where you go when you want to keep up with the Williamses. I was blown away on the first visit with the good fortune of having a server who had hit the mark on every menu choice offered as an option. There wasn’t one dish to be placed in front of me that I wasn’t raving about by the second bite. Getting to sit at the robata grill was a splendid option because I got to chat with the sous chef and the sashimi chef. You can’t do that at just any restaurant, and certainly not at a tourist trap or “big box” eatery.

Roka Akor

1. Basil Leaf Cafe (Tie)
Coming up with the number one spot was hard — and I’m not saying that just to have something to say. I started the year off with Basil Leaf Cafe being the first ethnic restaurant I was sampling. This was also the first time that I had decided to have a degustation without ordering from the menu. I trusted my server to make all recommendations and bring to the table a soup, a salad, two entrées, and a dessert. Basil Leaf Cafe had raised the bar up through the clouds and even on return visits, I was always in awe of how I could simply state that I liked seafood and vegetarian dishes, hand the menu back to the server, and let him or her bring to the table culinary choices that had indicated that they apparently listen to their dining patrons.

Basil Leaf Cafe

1. Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill (Tie)
I don’t know where to begin with Yuzu. This was another hard decision because I wanted there to be ten restaurants on my Top 10 list. It turned out to be eleven because Basil Leaf Cafe and Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill were deserving of the top position. My first visit to Yuzu had moved the expectation bar way up. No one disappears behind a door and comes back with a delectable dish. The sushi station and the robata grill are on full display, so you know exactly what you are getting. I was curious as to how a sushi bar could have a constant flow of patrons early in the day on a summer Saturday. It was after the first bite of some grilled eggplant from the robata grill that I understood why. Based on all of the robata grill items and sushi that my server had brought to the table, I honestly believe I could have won the lottery if I had asked her for the winning numbers. Everything was delicious.

Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill

I am hoping that 2014 will not be as busy and fast as 2013 has been. Yes, there is the saying that you should take time to smell the roses. But when there is the aroma of some inviting food wafting from the kitchen, put those roses in a vase and go see what the source of the aroma is. I know that I shall do just that in the New Year. I have to come up with ten more new restaurants for 2014. That means weight gain. Oh wait, no, that means I had better get started coming up with a list of eateries to sample throughout 2014.

And at this time, I would like to thank all who have been following Chicago Alphabet Soup and who have been giving me encouragement. Enjoy the holiday and may the New Year bring you joy and continued peace. And if none of that, then may some server bring you a dish that makes you sing a happy song.

Crepe Town, Where French Meets Thai

Crepe Town

As of late, it has occurred to me that I have been driving more than taking public transportation. That detracts from being able to see the world at eye level because driving in Chicago requires you to focus your attention in front of you always – except for when cars and daredevil children dash in front of you from behind parked cars. Fortunately in Chicago, the best way to combat missing out on ground activity is to take the bus. If you see something that catches your eye, pull the cord so the bus driver can let you get off at the next stop, exit the bus, and engage.

Green Tea Bubble Tea

Green Tea Bubble Tea

I followed my own advice this past weekend. While strolling pass a few boutique cafés in Uptown, I espied the word “Crepe” in one of the windows. With limited French representation on Chicago Alphabet Soup, this finding was a boon. There were two window seat tables that awaited me. I obliged and entered an airy boutique, greeted and welcomed by a smiling face. Having gone to two other creperies in the city, I wondered how Crepe Town at 3915 N. Sheridan Road, my new find, would compare. A brief scan of the menu had quickly proven that I was going to be in for an eclectic treat, not just some crepes accented with a drizzle, dash, or splash of something. I knew that everything was going to be fine when the green tea bubble tea arrived and left me mouthing “Wow” after the first sip.

The angels sang when I forked my first forkful of pasta a la tom yum into my mouth. I never would have fathomed the concept of Thai meets Italian with tom yum soup being the foundation for the dish. The pasta a la tom yum was flavoured with special chili herb sauce and then topped with mushrooms and shrimp. Just imagine me having a taste of that delicacy and now imagine me at the best Italian restaurant ever, making a scene that they can’t match the pasta a la tom yum I had at Crepe Town. I think the server was perhaps a bit concerned that I was slightly unbalanced because I know I did more than my share of mumbling and heaving heavy sighs throughout the meal. The angels continued to sing.

Spaghetti a la Tom Yum

Spaghetti a la Tom Yum

By the time my order of Spice Up arrived at the table, the angels had taken off their robes and were doing jazz hands, kicks, and spins. We are talking about fried fish filet with coconut curry sauce and basil. The freshness and burst of taste of the fish were highlights alone. Add to that the fish being blanketed within a tasty crepe and accented with a curry sauce. This dish was so wrong for all the right reasons. Imagine me having a delightful bite of this crepe dish. Now imagine me at the best French bistro ever, shouting that they don’t know what they’re doing and they need to take lessons from the chef at Crepe Town. By the time I had eaten a fourth of the crepe, I had to apologize to the server for my constant ramblings. I’m not lying. I am sure you have seen alcoholics who babble at imaginary friends. You probably pitied them, too. You would have had the same sentiments while watching me shaking my head, smiling ridiculously, rolling my eyes, and prattling on to no one in particular about random nonsense.

Spice Up

Spice Up

After finalizing the pasta and the crepe dishes, I requested a pause so that my feet come come back down to the ground. Really, I was hovering close to the ceiling. There was such a high from the bloom of flavourful dishes that I had just polished off. And while I was slowly returning to earth, I engaged the server in conversation about how long the restaurant had been in business. When she responded that they had been open for three years, it was indeed clear that I had been missing a lot by driving. All the times I had passed by Crepe Town and never looked off to the side and had I taken the Red Line to the Sheridan stop to browse the cafés and boutiques for a spell, I would have stumbled upon the meaning of bliss well before now. And after a little more conversation, I had made the observation that the dishes had a Thai influence to them. There are a few restaurants in Chicago that inject fusion into their menus, but Crepe Town is the example of perfection when it comes to blending two very disparate cultural cuisines.

Bananas Foster

Bananas Foster

A little more banter and my feet were firmly planted on the floor. My belly was ready for some dessert. I ordered bananas foster and a cappuccino. I have to pay for the hole in their ceiling because my rocket blasted straight for the constellation Eating Gino before I completed the third bite. The delectable crepe encased bananas and caramel. Served with a dollop of vanilla ice cream and an accent of whipped cream, I operated in slow motion, working my knife and fork on the dessert while resuming my blarney. To make it worse, the cappuccino was from high quality beans. Not requiring any sweetener was the indicator. I covered my mouth to keep from shouting. I turned my face from the window so that pedestrians would not see my display of food satisfaction. And who should I face with a stifled smile plastered across her face but the server. “It’s ‘that’ good?” she asked. “Yes,” I responded, “can’t you tell?” There was laughter.

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

Crepe Town is a quiet café that I am sure fills to capacity earlier in the day on the weekends. It may also be a hot spot for the after-five crowd. I was fortunate to have gone when I had much of the café to myself. I could photograph my dishes without feeling as though I was disturbing anyone and I could enjoy my food without some laissez faire parent letting his or her Damien and Rhoda have a run of the place. If you want good crepes in the Chicago metropolitan area, there are a few creperies that I could recommend. I have blogged one crepe house – Icosium Kafe – that is still high on my list of recommendations and I have gone to another one that wasn’t worth blogging. Just to let you know how much I fell in love with the food, service, and the place, it is looking like Crepe Town may be a candidate for my Top 10 List of eateries for 2013. The angels would agree.

Crepe Town on Urbanspoon

Pasteurized Foodist

More and more I am discovering a lot of restaurants in Chicago that have a bit of an experimental edge to them. It seems that these restaurants are popping up as a result of chefs who are of a certain ethnicity studying culinary arts in countries far away from their native lands. One such restaurant that comes to mind is Sushi Samba Rio. There is a blend of Brazilian and Japanese in the food, but I have a feeling a chef who grew up in São Paulo or who had been there is responsible for that creation. There is a very large Japanese population in São Paulo. Another restaurant with a blend of two very different cultures is Vermilion, which marries Latin and Indian flavours. A third restaurant to add to the list is Pasteur, at 5525 N. Broadway Street in Chicago’s Edgewater neighbourhood.

Pasteur

Pasteur is a Vietnamese restaurant that has a French influence in the recipes. While wandering around in Edgewater, my stomach was doing the usual growling. As it turns out, I was passing by a building that had a façade blending chi-chi and European. In the window – lo and behold – was a menu. That meant that there was food and I was standing in front of a restaurant. Imagine that. After a brief perusal of the bill of fare, I entered an amazing room that definitely had a rustic European feel to it. Having arrived shortly after the doors had opened for business, I had the pick of seats in the empty great room. I told the server that I was pescatarian, didn’t have any food allergies but HATE NUTS, requested two appetizers, a soup, and an entrée, and told him to surprise me. I pulled my camera from my camera bag, took my white balance, and exhaled as I waited. This is my routine. In addition to my little personal preamble, a group of four came in and sat at the table IMMEDIATELY NEXT TO ME. This whole “sit next to Gino when the restaurant is EMPTY” thing is starting to get tiring. Nevertheless, I injected myself into their conversation. (Sigh) They didn’t mind, but rather enjoyed it.

Spring Roll

Spring Roll

I started with a spring roll. This was not just your ordinary spring roll, but one with sugar cane for the main ingredient. When I was a kid, sugar cane was a delicacy that I enjoyed throughout the summer much the way kids nowadays gobble dangerous snacks of chips, cookies, and pop to excess. The spring roll was made with a ground shrimp paste wrapped around the sugar cane and then grilled. It was served with a plum sauce that I was glad did not come across as competitive with the spring roll. You would be surprised at how some chefs can make the accompaniments more appealing to the palate than the main dish. Where I frowned was with the sprinkles of peanuts on the dish. The good thing is that they made the dish photograph well. However, I shook them off without complaint and commenced to gnashing away on the spring rolls.

Egg Rolls

Egg Rolls

My second course was a plate of egg rolls that I had to eat in the traditional manner. The egg rolls were mixed salmon and dill within the rolled, crispy pastry. They came with lettuce, cilantro, cucumber, pickled carrots, and pickled radish. To eat the egg rolls, I had to roll them in the lettuce with the other vegetables and dip them in a fish sauce before having them suffer the chomp of my beautiful white teeth. I have dined at countless Vietnamese restaurants in Chicago’s Little Vietnam and this is certainly the way you eat some of the appetizers. As high-end as Pasteur projects itself, there is perhaps a clause in their mantra that says they WILL retain authenticity.

Coconut Soup

Coconut Soup

The third course was a curry shrimp soup. I know that this was not a traditional pho. And when I had asked the server if it was Thai, he assured me that it was Vietnamese. I guess there are similarities, but I won’t overgeneralise and say that the flavours of Thailand and Vietnam are synonymous. The soup reminded me of tom ka gai. I had shrimp in this curry soup rather than chicken and I was quite okay with that. When the server had inquired as to whether I was okay with my dishes being spicy, I had replied in the affirmative, so the soup had a bite to it that made the autumn nip outside bearable. By now, the party of four that had sat next to me had begun to eye me with suspicion. Not only was I snapping photos from every possible angle of everything that had arrived at my table, but I was eating all of it without a struggle.

Calamari in Pineapple

Calamari in Pineapple

The fourth course was calamari and vegetables in a carved pineapple. The calamari had been dipped in flour and cooked in a wok with a calamari soy vinaigrette along with mixed vegetables of red and green bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, and fresh lemon juice. The insides of the carved pineapple had been cut into chunks. There was a natural sweetness to the whole dish. When it had come to the table, I could hear my neighbours making remarks as quietly as they could. That looks so delicious. I couldn’t eat it because it looks like art that should be behind a red velvet rope. He didn’t eat all of that other food. I can’t stop looking. That’s a man who enjoys food. I assured them that I did indeed devour the previous courses, albeit slowly, thanks to the aid of hot ginger tea. Plus, this was nearing the two hour mark, so I had everything spaced out to allow my stomach to settle in between. That is what degustations are all about. And the pineapple with calamari and vegetables met a slow end along with the cup of rice that had accompanied the dish.

Fried Banana, Green Tea Ice Cream

Fried Banana, Green Tea Ice Cream

The fifth course was a plate of fried bananas drizzled with chocolate syrup and strawberry syrup and served with a scoop of green tea ice cream. I have had this particular dessert at numerous Thai restaurants and while I cannot say that it is specific to Thai cuisine, I will acknowledge that it may be influenced by the palates of Asia. The bananas were sweet without the addition of sugar. The texture from having been fried was not such that you’d think the chef was thinking about frying chicken. It was crispy without being crusty. I loved the green tea ice cream, so rich, so creamy, so screaming “This was made with loose leaf green tea.” It may have been bought from a local Asian grocer and I don’t care. It was good. DO YOU HEAR ME?

Ginger Tea

Ginger Tea

Because I was in a mood for food roulette, I may not have gotten anything with a true French influence. Then again, it may be that the chef is French and he or she has a great love for the flavours of Vietnam. Instead of applying a fusion, the French aspect may be faint so that there are no competing ingredients in the recipes. My appetite didn’t complain. For the ambience, those who go ga-ga for aesthetics would love Pasteur. The price was so much less than what I had anticipated. The service was outstanding and I say this after my server had hit the right mark with every dish that came to my table. Remember, I simply gave my interests and let him come up with the courses. By the time I was ready to stumble out into the chilly temperatures of the autumn weather, the restaurant had filled with several patrons who were making their growling bellies shut up. And before the party that sat next to me left, I took a picture of them. I used their camera, of course.

Pasteur on Urbanspoon Pasteur on Foodio54

Armenian, Siunik and Oberweis — Oh, Be Wise

Note: Suinik Armenian Grill has moved to 1707 Chestnut Avenue in Glenview, Illinois.

Last year there were some weekends that had such great weather that I took advantage of riding my bicycle through several neighbourhoods without succumbing to dehydration. The fun thing with the bike rides was going down side streets and happening upon various little hidden coves of cafés and boutiques. When driving and when riding public transit, you see everything from the main road. Hidden gems down residential streets and around corners never pass the eyes such that you register their presence. I missed those discoveries. And earlier this year, I found Skokie, Illinois, to have several points of interest that no one brings to life in discussion. One spot that jumped out at me when I had gone to Skokie for Afghani and then again for Jamaican food was a certain Armenian grill.

Siunik

Siunik Armenian Grill has a bit of that Chipotle “thing” going. But the authenticity in the flavouring of the food will soon make you forget that Chipotle exists. At 4639 Oakton Street in Skokie, Siunik Armenian Grill serves up some “real” Armenian tastes. All the other Armenians who continuously poured in will co-sign on that observation. I had a chicken kebab plate. The spiced chicken looked as though it could have been dry but when you bit down into each piece and it exploded with juice, I gave up on judging books by their covers. And the couscous with mushrooms puts the generic couscous that Middle Eastern fast food eateries serve to shame. There must be a marinade to the mushrooms because it was not merely a case of biting into something with texture. It was all about sinking teeth into a recipe that had been prepared to tradition. The two pedestrian items that I had were cabbage salad and bread. The cabbage salad reminded me of slaw without the mayonnaise – and I was happy all the same without it. But then there was the hummus. Again, this was not a menu item that was simply added to the bill of fare because everyone is serving hummus. Even after having skimmed the paprika and cilantro off the top with a scoop of the bread, there was so much bloom in the recipe that I ordered some to go.

Armenian Chicken Plate

Armenian Chicken Plate

When I was all done, I headed North into Skokie in search of some ice cream. In the Chicago metropolitan area, ice cream parlours are generally taken over by teenagers and tweens who giggle and embed the word “like” between every other word they use in sentences. And that’s before, during, and after ordering their ice cream. Yet I still burn for some creamy treats on occasion and I endure the torture of giggling, indecisiveness, and excessive use of “like.” What should be nearby but an Oberweis creamery at 4811 Dempster Street. It had to have been divine because the ice cream parlour was absent of the giggle-like nightmare. I ordered a fudge sundae with cookies and cream and espresso cappuccino for my two scoops. I was so very, very, incredibly, magnificently, stupendously happy. I guess it goes without saying that I was also bordering on food comatose.

Double Scoop Sundae

Double Scoop Sundae

Much like sections of Chicago proper, immediate neighbouring suburbs also have a few locations that go unnoticed. It takes a casual drive or a long stroll through some areas to find these areas where tradition meets culinary delights. It very well could be that tourism is not the target import and so there is no advertisement to draw larger crowds to these gems. However, you do find those representative of the ethnicities present and that is always an indication that the restaurants reflect the “old country” proper. I have passed by several locations that flashed by my peripheral and have considered returning for longer gazes to see what would tempt the palate. Had I not done just that this past weekend, I never would have had some of the most delicious Armenian.

Siunik Armenian Grill on Urbanspoon Siunik Armenian Grill on Foodio54

With or Without Camera at Tamarind

Tamarind

It seems that every time there is a need for someone to use a city as a disclaimer for unsavoury crime, Chicago becomes the disclaimer du jour. How sad, I say, because those individuals apparently have not been to sections of Chicago like Hyde Park, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Uptown, Gold Coast, Streeterville, Loop, West Loop, Wicker Park, Bucktown, Logan Square, and South Loop. After catching up briefly with some friends so that I could loan a camera to one of them, I dashed to a Pan-Asian restaurant in the South Loop neighbourhood named Tamarind at 614 S. Wabash Avenue. I had been before, once on an imposed-upon date, and then again just because I had a craving. The weather was so nice that the outdoor patio was calling me and Tamarind happens to be one of those restaurants with outdoor seating that is not situated near an alley.

Red Ginger Martini

Red Ginger Martini

Now, although the weather was moderate, there was sunlight beaming down on me. That meant a refreshing drink was required. Oh what should they have on their menu but a red ginger martini. My hat goes off to the mixologist who poured and mixed pomegranate juice, Chambord, and vodka, and accented it with ginger. The martini was not overpowering, which meant I was not stumbling down the sidewalk to the subway afterwards, and it was not weak like some martinis I have had, all which were worthy of being thrown against a wall. Let’s just say that I was refreshed afterwards.

Miso Soup

Miso Soup

Most would consider miso to be a pedestrian soup. Yes, miso soup is not spectacular. You can even purchase it from your local market in a packet. I think you only have to add water. I really can’t tell since I prefer to go to a Japanese restaurant and have it prepared from scratch. Sure, someone is saying, “You never know. They may prepare it from a packet and doctor it up so that you think it’s authentic.” If you have had anything from a packet, trust me when I say that you know better. And in true Japanese form, I picked up the cup and slurped with no shame.

Caterpillar Maki

Caterpillar Maki

Dragon Maki

Dragon Maki

As much as I would have loved to have shown my diligence as a Nebraska football player with insatiable appetite, I settled for two sushi rolls. For the previous visits, I had tried some rather exotic sushi rolls, but never any of the tempered rolls. So there was the caterpillar maki, which had unagi as the main seafood ingredient, and topped with avocado. I looked around to see if anyone was nearby before I moaned. And then there was the dragon maki. Filled with tempura shrimp, one half of the roll topped with avocado and the other half topped with unagi, I scanned the area again about letting an exaggerated moan escape.  But that was not the thing to send me to the moon. The dessert of banana wonton with red bean ice cream and apricots fired my rocket off on the first bite. I concede that they may have purchased the red bean ice cream from some local Asian market. It was still like what I remember in Osaka from a dessert shop. But the banana wonton was prepared on the premises. You can’t warm up a wonton with a banana stuffed in it and have it be so blooming good. You just can’t!

Banana Won Ton

Banana Won Ton

As many times as I have been in the South Loop area and knowing that I had been to Tamarind several times, I am surprised that I never blogged it before now. Then again, I may not have had my camera. Truth be told, I photographed the food this time with my cellphone camera. I can’t have that, me being an avid photographer with expensive digital cameras. Anyway, the service is always inviting and I have yet to have a meal from Tamarind that left me gasping in dismay. Chances are I will never have anything from their bill of fare that I will find disappointing. The prices are comparable to what you will find at any Japanese sushi bar. And to the aforementioned spin doctors and pundits who attack Chicago because wherever it is they are has no appeal, I highly recommend that they venture to the South Loop for a visit to Tamarind and then work their way up to the other neighbourhoods that I mentioned so that they can be wowed with loving from some of Chicago’s greatest restaurant kitchens. They can even go with or without a camera.

Tamarind on Urbanspoon Tamarind Sushi on Foodio54