Balena, Lincoln Park Italian

Balena

Balena

I have not been on very many restaurant outings this year since I had added a few inches to my size and had to reassess my wardrobe. So, I’ve had to get some control and do some things like walking architectural tours and theatre. And immediately after going to see “Pass Over” at Steppenwolf, what should my wandering eyes see across the street but Balena at 1633 N. Halsted Street. I have no willpower.

Complimentary Wafers

Complimentary Wafers

Large, airy, and light on the inside, this Italian restaurant has a casual feel to it that I think many would enjoy. There is enough space such that you can have an intimate table without being crowded and you can also have a large party without feeling the restaurant cannot accommodate all who are dining. Aside from the cosmetics of the interior, the service and the food were winners for me. As for ordering, I specified that I wanted to indulge my dining experience in a pescatarian fashion. The server hit the mark with what I had told her to surprise me with.

The first course was Calabrian prawn spiedini. These large shrimp came with heads and tails on, all on wooden skewers. Not overpowered by the seasoning, it was quite evident that the shrimp was fresh. Paired with this course, I had a glass of Vermentino, a white wine from the Piedmont region of Italy that was dry enough to balance out the shrimp without biting at the back of the jaw.

Prawn Spiedini

Prawn Spiedini

The second course was a kale Caesar salad. Prepared in the same manner as Caesar salad with romaine lettuce, the kale had a rich yet bitter taste. With the glass of Vermentino, the bitter bite was a bit more pronounced. It was a nice option for a salad, albeit a large portion compared to what was expected. Those who love the go-to green leafy vegetable will love this salad.

Kale Caesar Salad

Kale Caesar Salad

The third course was simply outstanding. This was a plate of striped bass topped with a small salad tossed in a mild vinaigrette. Lightly seared to give the skin a bit of a crisp, the meaty bass retained a lot of the silk texture that made it a dish worthy of ordering again on return visits. This was the server’s personal favourite and understandably so, given its perfection in seasoning, preparation, and taste. Per the server’s recommendation, I had a glass of Sauvignon Blanc that was a perfect accompaniment.

Striped Sea Bass with Salad

Striped Sea Bass with Salad

The finale was a deconstructed sundae that came as a melange of shortbread, brown butter gelato, raspberry gelato, and fresh raspberries. Complex flavours if taken alone, but enjoyed together with an accompanying cappuccino made this a refreshing finish for a satisfying early dinner.

Deconstructed Sundae

Deconstructed Sundae

During the perusal of the menu, I noticed that the offerings were not heavy with tomato sauces. There were several pastas that I noted for future visits since I opted for seafood during my first visit. There are also some hearth-fired pizza options that caught my eye as well. The menu is not extensive and I get the impression that the restaurant makes adjustments seasonally. We shall see. We shall eat.

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

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

Buona Terra, Buona Cibo

Buona Terra

Recently I have been told that I have shown a bit of favouritism towards a certain Piemontese osteria. The individual observed that I perhaps didn’t appreciate “authentic” Italian food. While having a bit of a walkabout through another section of Logan Square, where I didn’t think there was much foot traffic, I passed by what looked like a rustic Italian restaurant. Well, what do you know? Now was as good a time as ever to possibly “broaden my Italian palate,” as I had been told.

Italian Bread

Homemade Italian Bread

Buona Terra Ristorante at 2535 N. California Avenue is a quaint little spot, walking distance from Logan Boulevard. The interior seems quite homey and welcoming. With the weather being nice outside, I opted to have a seat in the front patio at one of the many tables.

Since I had been snacking for most of the day on my walkabout, I was not famished. However, there was enough room to fancy a few dishes. So, after placing my order, I enjoyed a basket of Italian bread with a garlic paste spread. The bread was fresh, just as I love it. The garlic paste was powerful enough to murder a vampire within a 6-foot range. I was heavy-handed with spreading it on the bread, too.

The first menu item I had was a carpaccio. This came as thinly sliced beef, topped with Parmesan and mushrooms. There was a hint of olive oil that actually brought out more flavour than the dish would have had on its on. This was a light dish, a perfect start. It was after a few bites rather addictive. Thankful that I had not finished the basket of bread, I applied a bit of the carpaccio to a few slices of bread and had a satisfactory go of it.

Carpaccio

Carpaccio

The main dish was a plate of penne all’ arrabbiata. Remembering how I had been told that I perhaps had not had a good plate of pasta and didn’t know any better, penne all’ arrabbiata is my go-to litmus test. Nevermind me having been a fashion model who spent days on end in Milan and a person who simply enjoys vacationing in Florence, Naples, Catanzaro, and San Marino, what do I really know about pasta? But I digress. The penne all’ arrabbiata was indeed fantastic. There was a good kick in the spices and the dish was an explosion on the palate. It was angry. I’d eat it again and again.

Penne all' Arrabbiata

Penne Arrabbiata

Since I had been rather experimental as a secret dessert baker at home, and oh how I’ve gone off the rails with baking cakes, cookies, pies, and freezing a variety of homemade ice creams, I was kind to myself and finished with an espresso. Served with an almond biscotti, I took it slowly until the baby at the table behind me started bawling as if trying to get the attention of people from a quarter-mile away.

Buona Terra Ristorante is fantastic. Seeing that there was a constant crowd of patrons coming in for dinner, the few dishes I had were the additional indication of how appreciative one with a refined palate enjoys the output from the kitchen. In the vein of fabulous restaurants to grace the Logan Square landscape, I must admit that it is an option I recommend. I shall certainly recommend it to the individual who thought I was a snob for saying I prefer Italian food other lasagna, ravioli, pizza, and spaghetti. And I’ll even make the recommendation in Italian. I wonder what the reply will be.

Espresso

Espresso

Buona Terra Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Animale, Casual Atmosphere with Fine Dining

When I initially went to Osteria Langhe in Logan Square, which is my favourite Italian restaurant, I wondered if the owner would ever open another restaurant. When he said that he and his managing partner were considering opening an Italian restaurant that serves casual Italian, I thought to myself, “No, please don’t join the ranks of stock Italian restaurants.” And when Animale opened at 1904 N. Western Avenue, I went and was rather confused. The ambience and decor are casual. The food screams “fine dining.”

Animale

A good friend and I met one early evening shortly after Animale had its opening. Noting that you order at the counter and then have a seat, after which a server brings your food, we opted for a 6-course degustation for sharing. We started with a pappardelle — roasted carrots, green onions, beef cheeks, and buttery flat noodles that were topped with bread crumbs. The first bite was the indicator that led us to believe that the owners are modest. Such flavour and authenticity aren’t present in most casual dining, honestly. The pappardelle was, in a word, outstanding.

Pappardelle

Pappardelle

One of the exotic dishes we tried was animelle. This was bacon wrapped in sweet breads, topped with a spicy endive salad, and drizzled with mustard honey. This dish fell outside of the usual fare found on Italian menus. Starting with sweet breads, American Italian restaurants don’t entertain such options. Dishes like animelle come with such pop that not only do you forget that it’s Italian but you make ticklers to yourself to plan return visits.

Animelle

Animelle

Another exotic dish was sanguinaccio. This dish was remiscent of pollo e funghi that I had enjoyed at Osteria Langhe. Instead of chicken and mushrooms wrapped in a tasty pastry, there was blood sausage encased in a puff pastry. Served on top of lentils in a La Tur citrus cream and a few leafs of endive, it becomes increasingly easy to dismiss spaghetti and meatballs as an Italian delicacy.

Sanguinaccio

Sanguinaccio

When I was younger, there was a commercial that used to come on with a little boy wanting to spend the night at his friend’s house to avoid going home to a meal of liver. At the end of the commercial, the kid was nonplussed because, per him, “Larry’s mother is cooking liver, too.” He probably wouldn’t have been so displeased if his mother or Larry’s mother were cooking fegato. These rabbit livers were accented with thyme and served with mushrooms, shallots, and madeira atop toast. And they had been cooked so that the consistency was slightly spreadable on the toast. Delicious.

Fegato

Fegato

Now, Osteria Langhe has a signature ravioli called plin that is addictive. There it’s simply mini raviolis filled with La Tur and parmesan cheese. At Animale, they’re hand-pinched pillows filled with La Tur cheese and served with house pancetta and arugula. It is difficult for me to say which recipe I like most and I know that I shall return to Osteria Langhe and Animale countless times to sample their plin so I can eventually be decisive about which I prefer more.

Plin

Plin

For the finale, we had panna cotta. There was no way we were going to skip such a delight, and we had the dessert topped with a chocolate sauce and sprinkled with hazelnuts, and raspberries. The portion was perfect, given all the food we had eaten, and it was the same recipe from Osteria Langhe that makes it a difficult dessert to turn away from.

Panna Cotta

Panna Cotta

The last time a restaurant owner mentioned opening a casual dining restaurant as a replacement for a fine dining French restaurant, it was a disappointment. Seeing how Osteria Langhe has raised the bar for Italian dining, from my personal experience, it was clear that quality would be top priority at Animale. Service falls in the Absolutely Best category, if I may add. The atmosphere may be laid back and completely devoid of pretense, but be prepared for the next best Italian restaurant in Chicago. With such bloom in flavour, I foresee long lines at Animale. I’ll be in those lines quite a few times.

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

Pizza Capri, Hyde Park Haunt

Pizza Capri

When I lived in Hyde Park, several friends and I would block every Thursday to gather at any of the great restaurants in the neighbourhood. Given the multicultural environment in Hyde Park, there were restaurants representative accordingly. One of our favourites was Pizza Capri at 1501 E. 53rd Street. With so many Italian restaurants in Chicago having menus full of dishes with red sauces, Pizza Capri switched up a bit by adding cream sauces and other menu items that differ from the usual Italian restaurant fare.

Potato Soup, Bread, Olive Oil

Potato Soup, Bread, Olive Oil

Fast forward to 2015 and I had a craving for something to feast on from Pizza Capri. Opting to indulge a three course meal, I started with a cup of potato soup, along with the complimentary bread and olive oil accented with herbs. The potato soup popped with the flavour of potatoes and it was seasoned well enough that I didn’t miss any salt in the recipe. Instead of pasta, I ordered a small rosemary potato and chicken pizza. This was a complete deviation from a pizza with a tomato sauce, cheese, and toppings ranging from sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, olives, and other ingredients. This pizza was simply divine. And with it being thin crust, it was hearty, but not to the point of me not being able to finish all of it.

Rosemary Potato and Chicken Pizza

Rosemary Potato and Chicken Pizza

Knowing that I was going to have a finale of coffee and dessert, I waited for about 15-20 minutes before having a cappuccino and a flourless chocolate cake. Just like I remember from my days past, the cappuccino was brewed well enough that I could take it without any sweeteners. As to the flourless chocolate cake, it was addictive. With the consistency of a mousse, atop a crème anglaise, topped with strawberries, and drizzled with chocolate syrup, it was the perfect companion to the cappuccino.

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

Flourless Chocolate Cake

Flourless Chocolate Cake

Since my first visit to Pizza Capri in the lat 90’s, the service and the high quality of the food have always been consistent. There are a few items on the menu that have classic red sauces and you can never fail by ordering any of the items. There are also specialty pizzas and other Italian dishes like alfredos and pasta in cream sauces that are also winners. But since my friends and I are now on different continents, whenever we have a reunion in Chicago, Pizza Capri is where we come together.

Pizza Capri Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Top 10 Jaunts for 2014

December has arrived and yet again I have the feeling that there is something that I did not do during the months of January to November. I did satisfy my resolutions for the year — getting my master bathroom remodelled, bringing my blood sugar level down, and engaging in regular exercise to shrink the tire that was around my waistline. What I did not miss throughout the year were delectable meals. And that brings me to my Top 10 Jaunts for 2014. Although I included some American restaurants in my write-ups this year, the following restaurants area reflective of the theme that I created for Chicago Alphabet Soup. So, here are my favourite ethnic jaunts for the year.

10. Turquoise Cafe
Roscoe Village is a nice spot for checking out some swanky boutiques, small cafes, and fine dining without “fine dining costs.” After a stroll down the avenue, stop in for some Turkish offerings. Spacious on the inside for several patrons and growling bellies, outdoor seating during the spring and summer, Turquoise Cafe is one of a few Turkish restaurants in Chicago. It is “the best” in Chicago, though.

Turquoise Cafe, Collage

Turquoise Cafe, 2147 W. Roscoe Street, Chicago, IL 60618

 


9. Rio’s D’Sudamerica
Bucktown is one of Chicago’s premier neighbourhoods. Homeownership, boutiques, and restaurants make up a landscape that result in a constant flow of pedestrians. When a lot of those patrons develop appetites, they find seats at Rio’s D’Sudamerica for Peruvian food packed full of wow. Rio’s D’Sudamerica is large on the inside, but unlike most big box restaurants, the food is consistently blooming with Peruvian flavour. A clear indication is the constant influx of Peruvians who frequent the restaurant. And with service that does not rush you, trust me when I say that you will be stuffed when you are done.

Rio's D'Sudamerica Collage

Rio’s D’Sudamerica, 2010 W. Armitage Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647

 


8. A10
Chicago’s Hyde Park has experienced a renaissance. With that came the addition of an Italian restaurant that deviated from the expected dishes consisting of red sauces and meatballs. There is a coastal influence to the menu, which means a splendid selection of seafood. The wait staff is engaging, the bar service is phenomenal, and the food is so awesome that you may find yourself making a reservation for a return at least once a month. The menu changes each season, so this is even more of a good reason to make A10 Hyde Park a constant entry on your calendar.

A10 Hyde Park, Collage

A10, 1462 E. 53rd Street, Chicago, IL 60615

 


7. Little Bucharest
There doesn’t appear to be a long list of Romanian restaurants in Chicago. Little Bucharest in Irving Park makes up for that. More like a banquet hall, which allows diners to sit comfortably, this bistro does not shy away from authenticity in the Romanian recipes. Expect some hearty dishes, as in plentiful in quantity. There are no boiled potatoes and bland meat dishes. Everything has a wow factor. And before you leave, you may get a special christening of an alcoholic spirit.

Little Bucharest Bistro Collage

Little Bucharest Bistro, 3661 N. Elston Avenue, Chicago, IL 60618

 


6. taKO’s KOreanos
Many restaurants will try to introduce fusion in their cuisine. Some fail. And then there are those like taKO’s KOreanos in Andersonville that get it correct. Who would have thought that Mexican and Korean would make for such a fantastic cultural cuisine marriage? Tacos, enchiladas, and burritos are prepared with Korean accents to the fillings. Having been opened since April with no kinks in the service or output from the kitchen, one would only have to notice the steady stream of customers coming and going to recognize that the fusion dishes are constant draws to those who love a mix of Mexico and Korea.

taKO's KOreanos, Collage

taKO’s KOreanos, 1706 W. Foster Avenue, Chicago, IL 60640

 


5. Altiro
The drive out to Geneva, IL, may be far. I recommend taking the Metra train so that you can go to sleep afterwards. Tacos, tacos, and more tacos, but nothing of the Taco Bell ilk and nothing of the Mexican taqueria brand either. Altiro has cornered the market on creating a variety of tacos that would otherwise be noteworthy entrées without the flour tortillas. Expect to find a bit of Central America and South America in the recipes. I have always thought that French, Italian, and Asian restaurants have the best bar service. Add Altiro to the list. For those who are indecisive, simply tell the server to surprise you and prepare to be pleasantly surprised.

Altiro, Collage

Altiro, 308 Anderson Boulevard, Geneva, IL 60134

 


4. LaNotte Cafe & Bar
The father-son team at LaNotte Caffe & Bar should be taken on the road. Well, their comedy acts should. The food, however, should remain in Berwyn where it is close enough for those in the metropolitan area to get to easily. One may argue that there is a such thing as too many Italian restaurants in the Chicago area. What they can’t say is that they know where the very best Italian restaurants are. LaNotte Cafe & Bar falls into the category of “must visit.” Food is prepared to order and to specification per the customer. The seafood dishes are my favourite and if you order the sea bass that the father de-bones tableside, then you too will understand why that dish is at the top of my list.

La Notte Cafe & Bar, Collage

La Notte Cafe & Bar, 6822 Windsor Avenue, Berwyn, IL 60402

 


3. Himshikar Restaurant
One may be able to find Indian, Pakistani, and combination Indo-Pak restaurants throughout Chicago. However, for the absolute best Nepali restaurant in Chicago, Himshikar Restaurant in the Sauganash neighbourhood is highly recommended for frequent visits. The food is slow cooked, so it does not come to the table immediately. But never mind that. You can relax or even engage the owners in conversation while the kitchen staff prepares your dishes. Himshikar Restaurant is not a large restaurant, so it makes it easy to engage the staff while trying not to shoot to the moon from such incredibly flavourful Nepali food. And once the food arrives, be ready for culinary excitement.

Himshikar Restaurant, Collage

Himshikar Restaurant, 6031 N. Cicero Avenue, Chicago, IL 60646

 


2. Oceanique
Anyone who has had authentic French food will tell you that not everything is drowned in rich cream. There is also provincial French food, which is very indulgent. Oceanique captures the best of both flavours of France. Moderate in size, this restaurant forgoes the big box effect for authenticity in the dining experience. Coupled with superb bar service and A-list table service, each meal is guaranteed to make you forget that you don’t have to fly all the way to France to have some of the best French food on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Oceanique, Collage

Oceanique, 505 Main Street, Evanston, IL 60202

 


1. Osteria Langhe
Don’t expect pasta and pizza. Osteria Langhe serves Italian food that has a bit of a French influence to it. The risotto is the absolute best and the seafood dishes are unparallelled. And if you are so inclined to want pasta, the plin is the best in Chicago. Although the food at Osteria Langhe keeps one returning for more, the atmosphere, splendid bar service, and table service create a feel of going to someone’s home rather than going to an establishment. There is truly an “old country” Italian feel in the middle of cultural hub Logan Square. Chances are by your third visit, you will be on first name basis with the staff.

Osteria Langhe, Collage

Osteria Langhe, 2824 W. Armitage Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647

 


Well, it is at this time that I want to take time to wish a Happy Holidays to all who have been following Chicago Alphabet Soup via the blog, on Facebook, and through my Instagram posts. May the New Year bring you peace, joy, and happiness. And may some server at a restaurant bring you a dish that keeps you returning for more. Until 2015, good eating!

Ristorante, Trattoria, Osteria Langhe

Osteria Langhe

A friend told me that all I post on my Facebook page are photos of food. If he were following me on Instagram, he would keep a constant appetite after looking at all of the photos of food that I post there. And speaking of Instagram, someone who is on my friends list on that social media outlet had been posting photos of food at a new restaurant that opened in Logan Square. After seeing way too many photos of appetizing compositions, I made a prompt reservation for a visit. Osteria Langhe, at 2824 W. Armitage, was where all the magic happened. Yes, this is where I made four courses disappear.

Grilled Octopus

Grilled Octopus

Salad

Salad

Osteria Langhe serves Italian cuisine that is more customary in the Piedmont region. With me being in one of my experimental moods, I didn’t bother looking at the menu. I gave the server my boilerplate disclaimer — I love seafood and while I have no food allergies, I hate nuts, and as to something to drink, simply tell the bartender whatever you plan to send to the table and have him or her mix something along the lines of a cocktail accordingly.

Libations

Libations

Paloma

Paloma

Amaro

Amaro

For my first course, I had polipo. This dish of grilled octopus, heirloom tomatoes, basil, capers, saffron oil, and grilled bread was a fantastic starter. The octopus did not have a rubbery texture to it. The tenderness of it made cutting into it feel almost like slicing through very tender chicken. Although the salad of tomatoes and mini greens came without much of a vinaigrette, there was enough to accompany the salad while letting the octopus have the stage as the star.

The bartender had mixed some libation that I never captured because I was engaged in lively conversation with the owner. However, it was quite refreshing and had a vodka base. Thanks to me not getting the name of the drink, I now have a reason to return, for sure, and to order the drink again. I will show a photo of the libation since that will be the only cue I will have as to what it was.

The second course was a salad of spicy mixed greens, kohlrabi, green peas, parmesan, and croutons of fried veal brains. Not having pork in my diet, I had forgotten to say that I am a pescatarian so that the fried veal brains would have been omitted, but the “sweetbread” croutons were actually flavourful. They were like fried cotton candy — if you can imagine that. Nevertheless, after waving my magic wand, that being my fork, I made the salad vanish.

Shrimp and Scallop Risotto

Shrimp and Scallop Risotto

Soft Shell Crab, Insalata Russa

Soft Shell Crab, Insalata Russa

The third course of risotto with shrimp and scallop was where I thought that I had reached the apex of my dining experience. The risotto comes as a different variety per day and I was fortunate that I got the seafood version. A very, very creamy base to it, the risotto reminded me of French cooking. This dish, however, was Italian cooking at its finest. I savoured the risotto at great length because such a dish should not be devoured as if rushing thereafter is a necessity.

With the third course, and as a continuation into the fourth course, I had a Paloma. This was another summer drink made with grapefruit, lime sugar, tequila, and Filbert’s grapefruit soda. Those in Chicago may have, or may not have, ventured down into the 3400 block of South Ashland Avenue and quenched your thirst on a Filbert’s soda. Their grapefruit soda in the Paloma was definitely a divine ingredient.

The fourth course was the dish that solidified my decision to become a regular at Osteria Langhe. This plate of soft shell crab and insalata russa is one that everyone should try, especially those who think that they know where the best Italian food is served. The soft shell crab had an egg batter that made it very light and there was so much meat in the crab that each bite was an explosion. The insalata russa, which is a combination of potato salad and tuna salad, was a dream. Not a salad that one finds on Italian menus, it was an ideal choice for this dish and a great introduction to something authentically Italian that is not served in America-side Italian eateries.

Panna Cotta

Panna Cotta

The fifth course was the finale. Nothing spectacular like a tiramisu, tartufo, biscotti, or cannoli, but creamy and outstanding for a wrap-up, I had a panna cotta served with mixed berries. Along with that came a small glass of Amaro liqueur. Having a dessert like this prepared at the restaurant means it comes without artificial ingredients. All you get is greatness in taste.

One may say that there is a such thing as too many Italian restaurants. However, there is never a bad thing when it comes to discovering more to Italian dining than pasta and pizza. The introduction to Piedmont cuisine was absolutely luscious and a draw for what will be a constant return for me. The service is out of this world, from the owner who is fully engaging in conversation the way restaurant owners are in Italy to servers who can offer tempting recommendations to the bar service that mixes liquid satisfaction without any disappointment. Osteria Langhe has a “Make yourself at home” feel to it and regular customers — like I have decided to become — will attest that another Italian restaurant on the Logan Square landscape is a dream come true.

Osteria Langhe on Urbanspoon

La Notte Cafe & Bar

La Notte Cafe & Bar

It dawned on me that although I have blogged a lot of restaurants in and around the metropolitan Chicago area, there are more that I have visited and not blogged. I don’t always have my camera with me and because I often leave my cellphone at home intentionally, I then don’t have anything to record spoken annotations of certain dining experiences. Fortunately, there are some restaurants that are still in business and their first visits were so memorable that I have since returned. La Notte Cafe & Bar at 6822 Windsor Avenue in Berwyn, Illinois, is an example of one of those restaurants where I went well over a year ago without a camera for capturing the impressions of all the good food.

Nottetini

Nottetini

Sidecar

Sidecar

A great friend and I returned for a second visit. Figuring that there would be a large dining crowd for the fantastic Saturday that it was, we arrive for a 4:00 PM seating. To make things even better, we sat outside on their patio and quenched our thirsts with a nottetini and a sidecar. The nottetini was truly a glass of Italy, a mixture of limoncello and vodka. James Bond would enjoy this one without having to mention wanting it shaken instead of stirred. I requested the sidecar with a slight modification. I wanted it mixed with whiskey for the base as opposed to a sour liqueur. Bravo!

Zuppe del Giorno

Zuppe del Giorno

We were in our usual mode of wanting a degustation. The beauty of going to small and family owned restaurants like La Notte is that you can order accordingly. And the menu may be adjusted to taste or ordering desires. This means nothing is thawed, popped into a microwave or conventional oven, arranged on a plate, and then brought to the table with a declaration of “Voila!” So, in keeping with our degustation, we started with the zuppe del giorno. This cup of love had a New England clam chowder base with smoked gouda cheese, shredded tilapia, fresh shrimp, a purée of shiitake mushroom, and finished with shallots, cognac, and a splash of tabasco sauce. Assolutamente deliziosa.

Soft Shell Crab Over Salad

Soft Shell Crab Over Salad

A lot of my recent restaurant outings have reintroduced chicken and some beef into my diet. The result of that, and I really shouldn’t put the blame on indulging meat, is that I have gained a few inches in my waistline. That is quite fine, except for me having a hard time zipping and buttoning some tailor-made pants that cost a mint. In addition to my new gym membership, I need to get back to a regimented pescatarian diet. The great thing about La Notte is that the seafood selection is splendid. So, we ordered soft shell crab. The soft shell crab came with a balsamic glaze and honey mustard over a mixed greens and cherry tomatoes. Very simple, yet savoury.

Risotto with Shrimp and Scallops

Risotto with Shrimp and Scallops

Italian dining does not always have to include pasta. And anyone who has had risotto worth using as a trump card in discussion about who has had the best dish ever will agree that Italian cuisine has some versatility that will make you forget about penne, spaghetti, fettuccine, and angel hair pasta. The risotto we ordered came with a cheese base blooming with great taste, giant shrimp, tender scallops, and chopped asparagus. Served family style, the dish was substantial. The chef left disappointment out of the recipe completely. Grazie a dio per questo.

Sea Bass and Vegetables

Sea Bass and Vegetables

With the platter of sea bass and mixed, grill vegetables of squash, zucchini, red onions, bell peppers, and cherry tomatoes, we got a tableside presentation in deboning the bass. Watching the owner work his magic with only a fork and spoon, and then applying a garlic drizzle to the dish, you have to appreciate the art involved in filleting the fish. But the burst of gusto in each bite had me almost forgetting about the side pasta that had come with the dish. And given that there is quite a bit of the sea bass and vegetables, the dish is still light.

Limoncello

Limoncello

Tulip

Tulip

There exists an atmosphere very much like that of the “old country.” There is no rush. My friend and I sat to let the soup, appetizer, and entrées settle. After some time, we decided that we would indulge dessert, which is another vice that I need to control. We had some homemade limoncello — my friend because she was not driving and me as a disclaimer to null the discomfort from a pulled muscle. The son at La Notte explained that his grandmother sends lemons from Phoenix, Arizona, and that is what they use to make the limoncello. Good on them because it is worthy of savouring from a sniffer.

Tartufo

Tartufo

There was a chocolate tulip, filled with chocolate sorbet and topped with chocolate. Be forewarned if you order the tulip, it is rich. And if the tulip isn’t enough, the tartufo is another option for catering to the monster. A small ball of vanilla ice cream encased in a bigger ball of chocolate ice cream and then dusted with cocoa powder and hazelnuts. Served with strawberries and whipped cream, all you have to do is add the clinking of a spoon on your plate and a scream afterwards.

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

For our finale, my friend had coffee with cream and I had a cappuccino. My indicator for good coffee is when you can take it without any sweeteners. The cappuccino surpassed the test and reminded me of the cups of cappuccino I had during visits to Milan.

Berwyn is slowly becoming a nearby Chicago suburb whose focus is primarily on authentic dining. What many will find are family owned and small restaurants that boast dishes that you will indeed find during visits abroad. La Notte Cafe & Bar is not simply an establishment borrowing Italian charm. The father and son not only retained the Italian customs in the recipes, but also make sure that the dishes that come to the table reflect the same quality that they enjoy in their own homes. The service during my first visit was well past the high mark of 10. The service during the second visit was even better. For what I would consider fine dining, the prices are extremely reasonable. If you want the feel of going to someone’s home and having a meal without being rushed, I highly recommend La Notte Cafe & Bar. I know it won’t take me a whole year for a return visit.

La Notte Cafe on Urbanspoon

Revisiting Caffe De Luca

Caffe de Luca

After a beautiful Saturday with a sky devoid of clouds and temperatures in the 70′s, Sunday began with overcast skies, temperatures in the 50′s, and a constant breeze. The only good thing about the rain is that it probably washed away a bit of the pollen that had been in the air. Nothing can be more aggravating than the feeling of having pepper in your eyes. But, hey, that does nothing to my insatiable appetite. In my blue Jetta that had a bit of a green colouring to it from a light powdering of pollen, I was on my way in search of food. And once I realized how irritating it is to find parking in Chicago proper, I drove out to the neighbouring suburb of Forest Park. Plenty of options available and me being decisive, I walked into Caffe De Luca at 7427 Madison Street.

Broccoli and Cheese Quiche and Fruit

Broccoli and Cheese Quiche and Fruit

I recalled Caffe De Luca when there was the location in Wicker Park. I had gone on my first visit one New Year’s Eve when I wanted to have dinner without entertaining a lot of friends being scrambled about where to dine, when to gather, what to wear in case we were going to a New Year’s Eve party afterwards, and why the restaurant had to be in Wicker Park. I went alone and was a hundred miles past the last exit to Overjoyed when all was said and done. The Forest Park location has the same rustic feel and layout, which were least of my culinary concerns. It were the flavours of Italy I was hoping to relive.

Grilled Shrimp and Asparagus Salad

Grilled Shrimp and Asparagus Salad

Now, because I went during brunch time, I knew I was not going to have spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, pasta, or any of that. No, I started with a broccoli and cheddar quiche and a mixed fruit of honeydew melon, grapes, cantaloupe, and pineapples. The quiche was fluffy. Last time I had a quiche that fluffy was at Eastgate Cafe in Hyde Park, where the owner had explained that she preferred an airy quiche to a dense one. After finishing the quiche and fruit, I then had grilled shrimp and asparagus salad. This salad could be within the top 5 pescatarian delights. Worthy of each bite, I devoured it as reasonably slowly as possible to keep from looking like a man who hadn’t eaten in several days.

The brunch was very satisfying and the price was fantastic. I shall have to return for dinner one evening to see if I can recapture the sensation I experienced during my visit to Caffe De Luca in Wicker Park. Caffe De Luca in Wicker Park is no longer on the Wicker Park landscape, so I shall remove my first post. However, here are the compositions that I captured when I went. Sigh. I miss having Caffe De Luca so close to home.

Bread, Wafers, Chianti

Bread, Wafers, Chianti

Grilled Calamari

Grilled Calamari

Tortellechi Carbonara, Chianti

Tortellechi Carbonara, Chianti

Tortellechi Carbonara

Tortellechi Carbonara

Espresso with Honey

Espresso with Honey

Tiramisu, Coffee

Tiramisu, Coffee

Caffe de Luca 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

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