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.

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

Domo Arigato, Mr. Robata

Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill

Recently I received an email about a Japanese sushi and robata grill in the Noble Square neighbourhood in Chicago. I can’t tell you how many solicitations arrive in my inbox from advertising agencies and marketing houses wanting to provide photos and written copy for me to post on Chicago Alphabet Soup. Bad enough I don’t think WordPress allows advertising — as that could mean me making money off of a free site, which would probably go over like a lead balloon. But when I got the email about the Japanese restaurant, I knew that the person who sent it apparently follows Chicago Alphabet Soup enough to know that the blog site is a showcase of my photography and experiences at restaurants and that I only feature ethnic restaurants — albeit some American restaurants are on the site because they are worthy of their inclusion of ethnic influences.

Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill at 1715 W. Chicago Avenue was the subject restaurant. Although it is on a stretch of Chicago Avenue that has pedestrian traffic, it is not in a high foot traffic area. Nevertheless, it has more of the hipster allure to it, which is pretty much gobbling up the landscape of Chicago. It is more reflective of a younger crowd and truth be told, the hipster cabal tends to be representative of diverse thought and that also carries over into the acceptance of different cuisines. Well, it was easy for me to fit in to the scene and noting the constant ebb and tide of customers through the restaurant, it was apparent that they are doing great business.

Green Tea

Green Tea

I knew that I was going to be overzealous with my dining options, so I ordered hot green tea to ease digestion of the numerous culinary options I had planned to have. Then I began the dangerous task of wanting more than I knew I should have had. Starting small, or so I thought, I ordered a tuna poke. This was Hawaiian tuna salad with green and white onion, Japanese chilli pepper, soy sauce, and sesame oil, served atop avocado with an avocado fan for the backdrop. For those who claim to be adventurous with their dining, and you know you say you’re open to trying new things more or less to impress someone, the tuna is raw. Since I love my fair share of sushi, it was no problem for me working my chopsticks on the tuna poke until it was all gone. I must say that the soft texture of the raw tuna and the creamy texture of the avocado may be a bit much for some people, so beware if you are daring.

Tuna Poke

Tuna Poke

Next to come to the table was a flight of the robata grill. These items were prepared yakitori style, being that they were skewered on sticks the way they are prepared for street food in Japan. There was soft shell shrimp with a yuzu sauce. Again, this may be a bit daring for some people’s palates because you get the whole shrimp from head to tail. Next was chicken brushed with black bean sauce and topped with green onions. Looking at it, one may think that it is bland. The flavours burst with each bite to the point where it was anything but pedestrian. Per the server’s recommendation, I had nasu, which was Japanese eggplant with teriyaki sauce. Eggplant parmesan what? Baigan bharta what? Give me tender Japanese eggplant on a stick from now on. Another item on the platter that was slightly different but well worth ordering was shishto. Who would have thought that Japanese sweet peppers with ponzu and teriyaki sauce would have such a winning flavour? Imagine my surprise when I exclaimed, “Wow’” after the first bite. Spicy but not peppery, this yakitori item is a favourite now.

Flight from Robata Grill

Soft Shell Shrimp. Chicken and Black
Bean Sauce. Nasu.

Flight from Robata Grill

Shishito. Nasu. Chicken and
Black Bean Sauce.

After some time to relax and let the previous servings settle, I was ready for more. I ordered a whole grilled squid. Topped with ginger and garlic and served with jalapeño dipping sauce, I immediately swore off having fried calamari and fried squid ever again. I had made that statement before. However, it was an absolute declaration this time. There was no rubbery texture to the squid and that is one of the things about squid that most think is bothersome. That was not the case with the whole grilled squid at Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill. And having squeezed lemon over the squid and used the jalapeño dipping sauce, I accepted the fact that I had a winning lunch and was even happier that I had followed the advice of the email note I had received and gone to the restaurant.

Whole Grilled Squid

Whole Grilled Squid

But that was not the end of it. The server had asked me if I wanted to try any sushi. Thinking that I would have been too full up to this point, I was hesitant. Drinking the hot tea really did wonders for not leaving me feeling stuffed. So, I told my server what I liked and she recommended a maki roll that they call Sorry, I’m Drunk. That was a rather curious name for a sushi roll. And even after it came to the table, I still could not believe the name. Unagi, cooked shrimp, spicy mayonnaise, black and red tobiko, chilli oil, and scallions comprised a magnificent display on a wooden board. It looked like a flower, with the sauce and the arrangement. There was such a wow factor to each bite. Freshness to each piece was a testament to the quality of the ingredients. Even the unagi sauce was not sweet, which means you can taste the unagi, shrimp, and spicy mayo. It was incredible.

Sorry I'm Drunk

Sorry I’m Drunk

Well, there was no way I was going to leave without having tried a dessert. I figured I could not go wrong with something light. Mochi balls were it. The flavours were mango, green tea, and strawberry, each placed on a plate and accented with sauces that gave the presentation of a flower and buds. You can’t go wrong with mochi balls and whether they are prepared in-house or somewhere else, they have such a bloom of flavour that you cannot fight when the option to sample some is presented to you. This was an absolute wonderful ending to a fantastic meal.

Mochi Ice Cream Balls

Mochi Ice Cream Balls

The quality of food at Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill is comparable to or better than any high-end restaurant in Chicago. Where Yuzu comes out ahead of the game is with reasonable prices. Much like the low cost for street food, you get some really great sushi, robata grill items, and other greats without feeling as though you have given a down-payment on an apartment. Another positive note is the outstanding service. I am a huge advocate of going to restaurants where the wait staff is extremely helpful and even conversational. It makes the experience that more enjoyable. There is only one other robata grill in Chicago where I have had enjoyed my visits thoroughly and now Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill is its competition. A return visit is necessary.

Arigato gosatimasu.

Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill on Urbanspoon

New Camera, Chopsticks, Maki Rolls

Grand Katachi

At the end of this week, an order arrived for me from an Amazon purchase. Not that I really needed another one, but I had ordered a Nikon 1 J1 mirrorless camera. Because I had been using my high-end Nikon and Canon cameras, I had relegated all other cameras to point-and-shoot status. Honestly, the point-and-shoot cameras are more ideal for the foodtography that I do because they are less conspicuous and they bring very little attention to me clicking away capturing impressions of the food delights. But I am such a stickler for the quality of the photography that I post on Chicago Alphabet Soup, which may be why so many advertising agents who read the blog think I purchase the photos from the restaurants I review. Nevertheless, the Nikon 1 J1 arrived and that meant I needed to start testing it out to see if it was indeed worthy of the purchase.

Green Jasmine Tea

Green Jasmine Tea

I spent Saturday testing shots at  my favourite Indian restaurant in Edgewater. Then I sauntered over to my favourite North Side coffee and dessert shop for more clicks. Sunday morning before church I tried my hand at foodtography at a breakfast spot I had discovered. Up to that point, I was loving the output that I was seeing. Then later in the day, my belly was growling and that meant it was time for me to head out in search of something full of flavour to quiet the rumbling. With a bit of the North Side disrupted with a street festival — a reason for guzzling beer, as if one can’t do that in his or her own home or in a sports bar — I lingered around the Lincoln Park vicinity and wandered past a Japanese sushi bar named Grand Katachi at 4747 N. Damen Avenue, that had a magnetic appeal to it. And I, the culinary vampire, entered so that I could sink my pretty teeth into some worthy goodness.

Gyoza

Gyoza

I started with jasmine green tea and gyoza. These fried Japanese dumplings served with balsamic shoyu dip were great for whetting the appetite. There was a moment when I thought of the festival participants, many who were barely a few weeks over the age of 21 and so giddy with elan that they could finally drink without someone of legal age sneaking them a beer, stumbling around spilling their beer and giggling for no valid reason. They could have been getting fed something aside from fizzy pop and carnival vittles, served by vendors with dirty hands. That was a quick thought as I worked the metal chopsticks on the gyoza and washed the morsels down with the jasmine green tea.

Sweet Potato Maki

Sweet Potato Maki

Caterpillar Maki

Caterpillar Maki

Being a little more adventurous than I should have been, I had ordered three maki rolls all at once. It was when the flight of maki came to the table that my eyes widened and I thought to myself that I should have played it safely and ordered one at a time. Water under the bridge, as they say, since I simply decided that I would pace myself and enjoy the maki rolls. The North Side was practically in gridlock thanks to the street festival a few major blocks south of where I was and I had time to click away with my recent Nikon 1 J1 purchase.

Dragon Maki

Dragon Maki

Not trying to be a prude about my experience and tackling each maki linearly to completion before moving on to the next, I had one piece of each until I was done and reaching for the pillow at the table next to me. The sweet potato maki was the first to have me singing with a low soprano: Satisfying. Then there was the caterpillar maki that kicked in with a tenor: Gratifying. The dragon maki rounded everything out in bass: Electrifying. In my mental Disney, I was in the middle of the floor with a spotlight on me while I was singing, “What’s up, maki rolls? Whoa, whoa, whoa,” after which I launched into my Tom Jones dance. However, in reality, pedestrians who were walking by the restaurant were looking at me sitting at the window seat with a face fixed complete with a stupid smile. Don’t ask me how I finished all of the maki rolls. Just know that I did. And another nugget of information is I somehow had enough room for dessert. So, I had green tea ice cream.  Cue scene with me rocketing to the moon.

Cup of Tea

Cup of Tea

Green Tea Ice Cream

Green Tea Ice Cream

Grand Katachi seems like a potpourri of all things hip once you go in. Usually, Japanese sushi bars and lounges have the sterile, Stanley Kubrick effect where it is quite evident that the interior designer and decorator were men. Pay attention to the colour schemes, or the lack thereof. Now, I will admit that I went when perhaps it was light in patrons. However, the service was top and seeing that I all but licked the plate and found a way to sop the remnants of the ice cream from the glass, the quality was also top. If my mind serves me correct, you bring your own alcohol if you so desire to have libations other than soda, tea, or water. The prices don’t come in a discount fashion, so beware if you’re budget conscious. Not all of the action is to be had on Lincoln Avenue proper. And if you get a new camera or even if you don’t, I think you will find bliss at Grand Katachi. You may even do your Tom Jones dance while clicking the metal chopsticks to make the sounds of castanets. What’s up, maki rolls? Whoa, whoa, whoa.

Grand Katachi on Urbanspoon Grand Katachi on Foodio54

All on Cue, Japanese Barbecue

Gyu-Kaku

My New Year’s Resolution for 2013 has been rather simplistic — get my weight up to 230 pounds. That may seem like a piece of cake for some people. But in my Disney show, my high metabolism does not allow for me to balloon that fast. The good thing is that my appetite from having started working out last year got me up to 215 pounds. My height has been a blessing in terms of distributing my weight gain, so I don’t look as though I weigh over 200 punds. The weight training I have been doing so far in 2013 is blowing up everything to the point where my wardrobe is fitting snug and the protein powders keep me in the refrigerator — even in the middle of the night — when I’m not at a restaurant ordering from a menu. I will be at my target weight in no time and then probably find myself wondering what a few additional pounds on top of 230 would look like. Needless to say, in my Disney show, I will enjoy getting there.

Miso Soup

In keeping with my constant appetite frenzy, I had met with a friend at a Japanese barbecue restaurant that she and I had gone to a few times during the summer. To the casual pedestrian, Gyu-Kaku at 210 E. Ohio Street in the Streeterville neighbourhood may look like a tourist trap. Only once you go in and hear all the Japanese being spoken do you realize that this restaurant is a haven of authenticity. For me, it also means a lot of food and me diligently working towards fulfilling my New Year’s Resolution quite possibly well in advance of the year ending. As frosty as it was outside and being only a few blocks away from Lake Michigan where the wind was whipping back and forth between the skyscrapers, sitting down at a table with a hot barbecue grill in the middle was a splendid option.

Salad

We started with drinks, one thing that bartenders at Asian restaurants do to complete satisfaction. My friend had an Asian pear martini. I had a lychee mojito. Martinis and mojitos are as popular as or more popular than beer in Chicago. And bartenders get martinis and mojitos right. Along with our drinks came miso soup. Noting from an off-the-shelf carton, I can attest. There was no salt in it. Any time a dish comes heavy with salt, that is a huge indication of something not being homemade. All you get with the miso soup at Gyu-Kaku is flavour, not the risk of high blood pressure. I turned my cup up and slurped it true Japanese style. The soup was delicious and it warmed me up on the inside. There was no need to be a prude about it. After we had finished our cups of happiness then came a cup of pure bliss. If you have ever had salad at a Japanese restaurant, then you know what it is like to be in good favour. Cucumber, cherry tomatoes, fresh lettuce, eggs, cheese, ginger dressing, and smiles are all you get. It was exactly what we wanted, as we had anticipated devouring some of the salad ever since we had decided to meet at Gyu-Kaku for dinner.

Salmon

We had ordered the Geisha course, which was enough for two people. Just as the first round of meat and vegetables arrived for us to put on the barbecue, there was some sashimi salmon brought to the table. Served raw, we employed our chopsticks and worked them on the salmon without dropping anything. Well, whatever we did drop ended up on our tongues where it eventually disappeared down our throats. The sashimi salmon was the last bit of raw meat that we had. It was then time for us to begin grilling our own meat and continuing with our moment of food happiness.

On the Grill

With the Geisha course, my friend and I were presented with a few marinated meats that we  had to grill ourselves. Prime rib eye stead. Bara kalbi. Chuck kalbi. Bistro harami. Shrimp. Vegetables consisting of corn, onions, bell peppers, zucchini, and mushrooms. Smiles. Since we are regulars at Gyu-Kaku, we knew the routine as far as how long each meat was to remain on the grill and whether to place the items in the middle or on the sides. We were quite efficient and even slick enough to pluck some of the meat from the grill with our chopsticks. With amazing agility, we grilled, ate, had conversation, and nodded with appreciation for all the good things that had been seasoned well, cooked to our satisfaction, and gobbled to completion. Move over Korean barbecue. Hello, Gyu-Kaku.

Bibimbap

Now, of all the menu items to come with the Geisha course, the one that I love the most is the bibimbap. Queue scene with me walking like the Frankenstein monster, arms outstretched, and moaning. What do you want? Bibimbap. What do you like to eat? Bibimbap. What can you not get enough of? Bibimbap. You’re a zombie, so now what do you want? Bibimbap. Prepared tableside in a hot concrete bowl, my friend and I requested to have our bibimbap spicy. We are not adverse to having the flavour of our food pop by the addition of peppers. Bibimbap is not meant to be served like baby food. It is meant to make the scalp exhale heat. And on what was very much a frosty Friday night, we were zombies that groaned, grunted, and applied our chopsticks to our bowls of bibimbap. Have you ever known the Frankenstein monster to derive any pleasure before the townspeople torched to tower to which he fled? He should have been granted a taste of bibimbap. He may have become a welcomed part of the community.

S'mores

After polishing off all the delectable meats, vegetables, and further making ourselves bibimbap-satisfied zombies, we sat for a moment before indulging a sweet. We were always accustomed to sitting downstairs and had never paid attention to the area beyond the upstairs bar where we often wait before getting our table. Well, this evening, we sat in the upstairs part of the restaurant, which is past the upstairs bar. Same cozy ambience and still filled with other Japanese who were no doubt happy to have a restaurant in the city reminiscent of what they had in Japan, we took it all in as we let our stomachs settle. And then came the dessert option. Marshmallows, dark chocolate, and Graham crackers sat on a plate before my friend and I got our skewers and sang our own brand of a campfire song while roasting our marshmallows. Nothing spectacular and no presentation with a wow factor, as it was just us preparing our own dessert. If you ever engage the notion of making samores in the future, I highly recommend dark chocolate and if it is bittersweet chocolate, all the better. For an after-dinner drink, it was loose leaf green tea for us. None of that what-not in the bag, especially with us being tea snobs. And we drank it without any sugar, which was an indication that it was a very, very good leaf. When we were done, we banged our glasses on the table and yelled “arigato” to our server. Well done.

Green Tea

Gyu-Kaku is whistling distance from the Magnificent Mile. For those with milder palates, there are numerous restaurant options to satisfy your appetite. But for those who love a good adventure, Gyu-Kaku is certainly an option I would entertain every time the chance comes up. It is a great place to go with friends who don’t mind rolling up their sleeves and taking part in the cooking process of the food. Everything is marinated to perfection, if not beyond idyllic. All you have to do is engage, enjoy, and appreciate the package. Perhaps in your very own Disney, you too will walk around like the Frankenstein monster, grunting, growling, and gobbling all good things Gyu-Kaku can put in front of you. And would you look at that. I am now a little over 215 pounds, per the scale. I’m well on my way.

Gyu-Kaku Chicago on Urbanspoon

Degustation Japanese Style

Roka Akor

SakeDuring the week of 3 February 2013 through 10 February 2013, many restaurants were participating in Chicago Restaurant Week. I had received an email about some of the restaurants and their menus, several that piqueing my interest. One restaurant that stood out on the list was Roka Akor, at 456 N Clark Street.  The River North section of Chicago is already filled with notable high-end restaurants that have reasonable prices for those who appreciate good food and who also do not want to worry that the final bill will leave them gasping in shock. Having gone to Bombay Spice Grill immediately next door, I had made a mental note to visit Roka Akor to see if the menu had items that would be a good fit for Chicago Alphabet Soup. Looking at the menu display outside the restaurant is one thing. Sitting still and looking at the menu online is another and it was reviewing what Roka Akor had for the appetite that made my decision to go for a seating that more easy. One thing that stood out more was the Robatayaki style cooking that the restaurant employs. I had experienced Robatayaki style cooking in Japan, but not in America.  I made a reservation so that I could arrive early for dinner, well before the serious dinner crowd started to file in. I had plans to do some serious photography and while making the reservation, I was clear about that so that I could get a seat where I would not be in the way of the staff or other dining patrons. Plenty of seating and romantic ambience, I was ready for my food adventure. Much to my surprise, I got a seat right in front of the Robatayaki bar and sashimi bar. Yes, I was ready for action.

Seared ScallopIn keeping with indulging degustations in my dining excursions, I scanned the menu and when the server came by to ask if I was ready, I gave my response. I had been waffling between going with the Restaurant Week menu, picking random items from the different sections of the menu, or letting the server have carte blanche with the selection. The menu for Restaurant Week had items on it that I have eaten countless times, so that option was thrown out. Picking items from the menu at random was another idea that I took a pass on because I would have selected comfort items. So, it was putting the selection into the capable hands of the server that I went for. An indication that I was in good hands was the glass of sake that he had recommended, and I am kicking myself for not remembering it. I remember my server’s name and his face, though, which means I can always go back and request that very sake. But, it was a sake that was smooth going down and with a hint of a floral note.  Now, I will be the first to admit that I have not come close to achieving wine, spirits, or sake snobbery. However, I could find myself navigating a room with a glass of the sake that I had and pretending to be higher above my station than I am already. I thank my server for opening my repertoire more.

SashimiFirst to the table was a grilled diver scallop. This was not just the usual morsel that comes with some seafood dishes. Seasoned with lemon sweet soy, crushed wasabi pea, yuso mayonnaise, and purple shiso crust, my fork sank through it without any effort and I smiled a wide smile as my teeth sank through each bite. Of course, the scallop was more of a starter than anything else, the initial presentation had me wondering if I was going to be in store for aesthetically pleasing dishes to the visual senses while compromising flavour. Oh was I wrong. Not only was the scallop anything but tough but you could taste the flavours, none competing with the other. The sushi chef had mentioned that this particular dish was one of his favourites and it was really nice to know because there was thought put into presenting something for me that the chef actually preferred. I doubt that it was because he had prepared it that he viewed the dish highly. It was just delicious. The same was to be said for the butterfish and tuna tataki that the sashimi chef had prepared. Yet again, there was a small dish of what looked more artistic than culinary. There was no rush, so I took small bites and enjoyed each with the accompanying sake. By the time I had completed two of the pieces, I had acknowledged that Roka Akor was not just a restaurant of visually stunning dishes but it was a fine dining establishment with a sushi chef, sashimi chef, and cooking staff that give attention to making sure each taste a dining customer has guarantees a return visit. In the same fashion that the sushi chef had explained the dish, since I was sitting at the counter, the sashimi chef did the same. And, thus, began conversation about Roka Akor in Scottsdale, Arizona, and in London, United Kingdom. And there was dialogue such that the chefs inquired of how I had become interested in blogging ethnic restaurants. It was not just me taking photos and scribbling dishes, but there was suddenly a feeling that I had gone to friends’ homes and told to make myself comfortable.

Sashimi Platter

The next dish was one I saw being prepared that I thought was going to another dining patron. There was no tossing items on the plate or rearranging anything haphazardly. There was an attention to detail and a display of care that had I caught on videotape, you would be able to see a bit of love going into the preparation. I had to ask if I could photograph the process, only to find out that the platter was for me. For a noticeable moment, I was rather speechless.  Here was a dish that you see in magazines and on television shows, a product after styling and polishing. I was watching magic. I was anticipating bliss. When all was done, a sashimi platter on ice was placed before me and all eyes were on me as my server explained what the treat entailed. Bluefin tuna, stripe jack, amber jack, oyster with ponzu sauce and fresh lime, shrimp, head of shrimp, salmon with truffle butter, super white tuna, yellowtail, red snapper, and Japanese seaweed salad with ponzu sauce. It is rhetorical to mention that the only thing I could mouth was, “Wow!” At my age of 44, I have been to restaurants on the high-end that have presented dishes that were fitting for pedestals while fitting for throwing against the wall. Restaurants that were all the rage, touted as bigger than life, and Roka Akor places a sashimi platter in front of me that deserves more high praise than I can type. Every morsel of seafood on the platter was fresh, obvious from the lack of fishy smell and absent of any questionable taste. And still, the sake that I polished off with the platter was an ideal pairing.

Seafood PlatterMore conversation was had while the next course was being prepared. The idea was to give me an idea of all the offerings that Roka Akor has without having me sample every item that there was on the menu. Since the sashimi chef had wowed me with the cold platter of delectable sashimi, the sushi chef was composing a platter of cooked seafood. And again, I was blown away with a selection of the absolute best, freshest seafood. Grilled Pacific lobster, Alaskan king crab, roasted Fanny Bay oyster, and tempura huma huma were all I needed to state with clarity that I had been to heaven. I shall start by saying that the texture of oysters never curried favour with me. However, the grilling of the oyster yielded the texture found in mussels. The seasoning of the oyster painted another smile on my face that stretched with each bite of the flavourful lobster, crab, and huma huma. Another thing to note is that while the plate looked substantial, I was not stuffed to capacity after I had completed the dish, licked my fingers, and raised my arms in the air as though I had defeated an aggressive boxer. I have enjoyed seafood this flavourful and fresh on the West Coast, East Coast, and along coastal countries abroad. As far inland as Chicago is, the seafood much be imported fresh, daily in order for the dishes to be so exquisite while remaining void of muddy flavouring. And my taste buds were appreciative of the seasoning to the seafood not being overpowering or overcompensation in any manner. The mark of an outstanding chef is knowing the right balance or ratio to make a dish pop. I will be the first to say that no one can argue that the chefs at Roka Akor do anything less than produce the best dishes for the palate.

Dessert Platter
By the time I had finished the cooked seafood platter, I requested some time before the dessert came. In Asian dining, desserts are not heavy, so I had a bit of confidence that I would be able to handle whatever was in store. I had completed a second glass of sake and my server brought a Riesling that was almost sweet enough to be a dessert wine. When the dessert had finally arrive, I understood why there was a tempering of the wine that was accompanying the work of art that I stared at in amazement. There was a medley of fresh fruit: watermelon, honey-dew melon, raspberries, blackberries, oranges, pineapple, and pomegranate. Included was a scoop of raspberry sorbet that I swear had been made fresh in the back with crushed raspberries. I have not had any sorbet from the market with such flavour that pops. And if all of that was not enough to make the most cantankerous food critic stand up and dance, there was a ginger crème brûlée topped with a few kernels from a pomegranate that puts crème brûlées at other restaurants to shame. This I am not making up for effect. After you have had crème brûlée regular style, tasting a hint of ginger in it somehow makes everything okay in the land. Ginger, like cilantro, goes great with many dishes. And as to the dessert at Roka Akor, I now find it hard to debate anyone about fruit not being the perfect wrap-up for a meal.

Preparing Sashimi Platter

Having recently entertained a degustation where I had given the server free rein to come up with the courses for me and having enjoyed the whole experience more than I could say, I was impressed even more with the culinary options I had at Roka Akor. The server said that they all are basically experts in the restaurant’s menu. Yet and still, recommending dishes for someone who is a stranger and every recommendation coming out a success means that something else is working right. The next time a list of top restaurants gets published, Roka Akor should be on that list.

Roka Akor on Urbanspoon

Oh, You’re So Coy

Koi Japanese Sushi Bar

Recently, a few visits to some high quality restaurants in Berwyn, Illinois, proved that the neighbouring suburbs are becoming a food force with which to reckon. It was always a given that Oak Park had a lot of talent, one of the main reasons why I spend so much time there with my feet under some table. But I had forgotten about Chicago’s suburban neighbour to the north: Evanston. And during a visit with a schoolmate from high school and college, we sauntered over to a Pan-Asian restaurant Koi at 624 Davis Street, in downtown Evanston.

Chopsticks and Warm Sake

As we got to the door, it had occurred to me that I think I had seen Koi listed as a sister restaurant to Sushi House in Oak Park, Illinois. Well, I think I have. After the fifteenth visit, I had stopped counting how many time I had gone to Sushi House, so I was certain that I would have an experience at Koi that would be memorable enough to have me come back. There was the formula lounge feel with dim lights, straight edges to the décor, painfully attractive hostesses, and faint Brazilian jazz playing in the background.

Edamame

Lucky for us, we had arrived before the theatre crowd. Forgetting that downtown Evanston is not like Mayberry, there is life after the sun goes down. There were several patrons who had come in a half hour after we had arrived and they were in a rush to have their meals before dashing off to see some show or cinema event. We had placed our orders and were snacking on the complementary edamame while imbibing wine and warm sake. Chilly outside, we were certain to be warm and toasty on the inside.

Volcano Maki

Now, with this restaurant catering to the palate that loves sushi and maki rolls, we had a balance of exciting, pedestrian, and commonplace. For the exciting maki roll, we had a volcano. The presentation alone was a work of art. What would have come out as a maki roll with imitation crab was one where we instead requested real crab. Sure there was a $2.00 additional charge, but there was no valid reason for us to deprive ourselves of the real thing. The spicy mayonnaise added a proper kick such that there was no need to put wasabi in the soy sauce. The misleading thing about the maki was that the leading meat in the recipe per the menu was crab. Instead, tuna was the stand-out meat. That was fine, but people who are sushi fanatics can flag such advertisement as false. However, we worked our chopsticks on the maki.

California Roll

For the pedestrian, we had a California roll. Another university schoolmate had joined us and was adventurous yet with more reserve than my grade school friend and I were. And unlike most California rolls, again we requested real crab meat. We had no desire to gnash on meat extracted from imitation crabs. Where do you find them? Are they some McDonald’s product, like McNuggets and McRib? Is there such a thing? If there is, we could not speak to its flavour on this particular evening. The basic ingredients of crab, avocado, and cucumber were no different than what you have in any California roll. The thing is the flavour in real crab stands out more than the smack of the fabricated crab. My grade school friend had a Riesling that she said was a perfect match for the maki rolls. Our mutual friend and I had warm sake that took our minds completely off the fact that it was frosty and raining outside in London fashion.

The commonplace maki roll was shrimp tempura maki. Tempura shrimp, lettuce, avocado, cucumber, and three individuals applying chopsticks a notch or two less than relentless would be the best way to describe things. Again, we had another maki roll that looked more aesthetically pleasing than one would think as far as flavour goes. We had our moments of brief silence while directing our attentions on the previous two maki rolls, but the tempura shrimp maki resulted in impregnated silences. To the average person, it would have been uncomfortable. To the three of us, it was our way of acknowledging the goodness of what sat before us without us being verbal about it.

Shrimp Tempura Maki

Then we entertained the Pan-Asian aspect of the restaurant. This was when I accepted the fact that Koi is not on a par with Sushi House, as the latter remains true to Japanese authenticity in its cuisine only. There was a plate of shrimp fried rice ordered. Filled with fresh, plump shrimp and bursting with flavour without any overcompensation, anyone could have seen that there were three very happy people at the table. I also have to admit when you can taste the egg in a dish, the real thing was used versus the out-of-the-carton what-not. This may be one of the very notable things that Koi should work without pause.

Shrimp Fried Rice

Where it really became evident that we were delighting ourselves a bit too much was when my schoolmate and I started speaking in Japanese while having shrimp lo mein. Neither one of us look anything relatively close to Asian, although my infectious smile results in a slant to my already-exotic eyes. Instead of lo mein sauce on the noodles, we had a Schezuan sauce. Again, plump shrimp sat under tasty noodles in sauce before we bit, chewed, and smiled.

Lo Mein Noodles with Shrimp

Koi is a fantastic Pan-Asian restaurant. But it is advisable to go before the crowd starts because the tide of hungry patrons seemed to introduce a bit of scrambling to the wait staff. Some people could misinterpret the vacant attention to uncaring customer service when it is simply a case of being overwhelmed with a sudden influx of people coming in with various requests for this, that, and the other. Expect to pay a pretty penny. And while the service could become taxed due to a quick rush of customers, they are still gracious. The next time I go I shall not be so coy with my appetite. I shall request my very own little degustation so that I can try more from the menu. Yes, that coming after I have already listed the serious dishes we had during this visit.

Koi Sushi & Chinese on Urbanspoon

Watashi no namaedesu Williams-san

Sen Sushi

Happiness is sitting outside enjoying a cool breeze blowing through your hair. For me, I have to settle for the breeze blowing across my head since I’m bald. Happiness is watching friends and couples going about their way, smiles on their faces, laughter in the air about them. Happiness is having a career that you love and a supervisor who isn’t a mad man making you hate your job. Happiness is having options for whatever dining delight your stomach may desire. Bliss is walking into a sushi bar and slowly dragging yourself out after you have been right proper stuffed. Rapture is having that cigarette afterwards, even though you really don’t smoke, but you have the imaginary smoke to celebrate great taste.

Sauce and Chopsticks

There is one Japanese sushi bar in Oak Park, Illinois, that I enjoy a lot. I have lost track of the number of times that I have been to Sushi House in the Lake Street and Marion Street block. So I figured I would seek out another sushi bar option, not necessarily in the pedestrian-crowded section of Oak Park. And what should I find as a suggested sushi bar nearby but Sen Sushi at 814 S. Oak Park Avenue. Walking distance from my favourite Brazilian cafe, Taste of Brazil, I am surprised that I had passed the sushi bar and never glanced at it long enough to register its presence. Then again, it does not have any glaring “grab you” indicators. Situated between a market and some other establishment, it tends to blend with what is on either side. However, food enthusiasts like myself have a tendency to find hidden gems. With décor of hard wood and everything having clean, straight lines, I grabbed a seat at the bar, pulled out my camera to get ready to photography my experience, and looked up to find that several people had sat at the bar with me rather than at the seats along the long wall. Subarashii — that would be “fantastic.”

Squash Bisque with Crab

Since it was during the day, I was okay with water for my beverage. Scanning the menu, I saw a soup that I wanted to try. There were also two maki rolls that I figured I would indulge. With the weather being moderately chilly, but not frosty yet, and the trees in vibrant autumn colours, I said to myself that the squash bisque with crab would be my soup of choice. Whose idea was it to put that soup on the menu? Not only was it tasty enough for me to want another bowl, but I was transported briefly to Hudson River stretch of New York around Poughkeepsie. Don’t ask me why but I could only think of trees with bursts of reds, yellows, oranges, and browns with their reflections in the clear Hudson River, and a cornucopia of squash, pumpkin, spices, and gingerbread men begging to be picked up. The soup was neither a victim of heavy-handed spices, nor was it an attempt at an autumn soup. Each spoonful reminded me of why autumn is perhaps my favourite season of the year. And to say that the addition of crab to the soup was only an added bonus would be an insult. A bit reminiscent of lobster bisque, the chunks of real crab in the squash bisque made everything absolutely beautiful in the Land of Food.

Spider Roll, Tiger Maki

I had two sushi rolls. One was a spider roll. This futomaki was battered deep-fried soft shell crab with chipped cucumber, avocado, daikon sprouts, and spicy mayonnaise, rolled inside nori and sushi rice. First, I had the crab in the squash bisque, and then I had it soft shell style in the sushi roll. Kon’nichiwa — that would be “hello.” One thing I always try to note or detect — with my mock sushi snobbery — is the freshness of the sushi. Is there a muddy hint? Is there a fishy tone? Does all of the seafood taste like cod? Is the texture rubbery? I am happy to report that the spider roll brought about a smile that I didn’t bother to hide. The other roll was a tiger maki. I must admit that the recipe of shrimp tempura, kampyo, spicy mayonnaise, salmon, kabayaki sauce, red tobiko, and black tobiko resulted in a creation that was worthy. Such love on a serving block deserves an encore and trust me when I say that I shall return to show my appreciation just the same. Both rolls were a bit more substantial than I thought they were when the server first placed them before me. Ah, but I had forgotten about the soup that I had slurped in the true Japanese fashion — loudly and without shame, for to be prim about such a tasty delight would have been offensive.

Spider Roll, Tiger Maki

The prices are what you would expect to pay at any really great sushi bar. Perhaps on a Friday or a Saturday night I shall have to see if their drink menu warrants a rave review. I can say with authority that the soup and the sushi were big on my list of things that bring about happiness. Even with the sushi bar filling up shortly after I had arrived — and got ready to start photographing my food — the seating and the ambient lighting on the inside, along with a respectful tone from the dining patrons, makes Sen Sushi a fantastic place for relaxation while eating, as well as great dating venue. Being a narcissist, I can attest to the latter, although I appreciate the former. The service from the wait staff may be a bit off-putting, but once you engage them in conversation, you find that the airs are just a façade because the floor staff is actually quite conversational, especially after you ask for recommendations. I was happy not to be rushed, although there were others coming in to have a seat for some in-house dining. They understand that they have small real estate, but they also apparently appreciate patrons’ business. So after an arigatō here and a sayōnara there, I was on my way down the street, missing my steps on the curb and speaking Japanese to several of the Oak Park ilk who probably thought I was making fun of any Asian language. They probably didn’t understand that happiness is enjoying an ethnic meal so much that you become a part of the ethnicity.

SEN Sushi Bar on Urbanspoon

Gino, Japanese Style

SaganoMemorial Day in Chicago and the air had a hint of autumn to it. Compared to what we had experienced for a stretch of time a few weeks ago — white hot heat and humidity that left you dripping after only a minute or two of being outside — the temperatures in the 70’s, cool breezes, and cerulean blue sky were all worth bottling. I had been to several restaurants and was more overzealous with my photography than normal. Nothing says, “You have been a rather busy man,” like the discovery of you having taken well over 2,000 photos that have had taken at five restaurants in a short window of time. So, in addition to having to scribe a commentary about the dining experiences, I had to go through a large volume of photos to find out which ones I would feature on Chicago Alphabet Soup. However, there was no way that I was going to edit photos and type up journal entries on an empty stomach. No, no!

Miso SoupBecause I wanted to get some almond butter for baking almond butter cookies, I knew that I could not go wrong with Trader Joe’s almond butter. The Trader Joe’s in Oak Park never disappoints, so I drove over to pick up the necessary ingredient and a few more items. While in Oak Park, I headed toward the intersection of Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street. What had I not tried? I asked myself. And after a brief scan of eateries in the area, I saw a Japanese restaurant that I know I had not been to. Yes, I have been quite an African-American-Asian as of late and walking into Sagano at 731 Lake Street with no hesitation was an indication that I have a food lust for Asian cuisine. Quaint and intimate on the inside, I opted to enjoy the inside when it is colder, for the weather was way too nice for me to waste my time inside staring at walls.

Soft Shell CrabGive me some miso soup. I swear there must be a pack for that soup, but it the best regardless. There was a bit of a nip in the wind, so the warmth of the miso soup was good enough to guard me against the quick drop in temperatures and me feeling it because I was sitting in the shade. And then there was the soft shell crab. The first time I had soft shell crab was at a Thai restaurant. And now that I think of it, the restaurant also had a Japanese menu and soft shell crab seems to be a staple. I don’t know where to begin with describing the wonders of each bite. Served with shredded beats, shredded carrots, and some other shredded vegetable that had a water base to it, the plate already looked like art, let alone something you would associate with delighting the taste buds. Being fanatical about my food photography, I clicked a count of well over 275 photos of the soft shell crab from various angles — from my seat, from standing up, from kneeling at the edge of the table, landscape, portrait, tilting, you name it. But as soon as I sank my teeth into it, the photos did the dish absolutely no justice. Absent of a surplus of seasoning, and I know that it wasn’t seasoned with salt and pepper only, the soft shell crab and the shredded vegetables were lip smacking. I wanted more, so much more, a lot more, but I had also ordered another dish.

Soft Shell CrabAt Japanese restaurants, I always order sushi, as if though it is a cardinal sin to order anything else. Because this is the case, I made the decision that I would break that chain for this particular day and indulge something from the entrée menu. Teriyaki chicken with vegetables and rice. Would think that was bland. However, the tender chicken that had been cooked in a light teriyaki sauce and served with a melange of broccoli, carrots, zucchini, green beans, shredded carrots, and another shredded vegetable that does not come to mind, as well as with rice, left me speechless. All this time I had been depriving myself of something new, Sam I Am, and the teriyaki chicken burst with each bite. Having polished off a bowl of the miso soup and then gobbling up the plate of soft shell crab with the shredded vegetables, I savoured each bite of the teriyaki chicken dish. There was no need to rush through the small feast with the weather being so pleasant outside and the food being so blooming delicious. In my mind, I heard a voice chanting “Yummmmm! Yummmmm! Yummmmm!” while imagining myself sitting in a yoga pose meditating so that I could find my chi. From now on, I shall balance out my Japanese feasting by having an occasional entrée other than sushi and maki rolls.

Teriyaki ChickenAfter having such a great time with my little personal feast at Sagano, it was necessary for me to walk off a bit of the stuffing. My destination was to go to the Marion Street end of Oak Park for some kind of dessert, something just a bit light instead of incredibly filling. Ice cream would be it, I said to myself. At 134 N. Marion Street is Cold Stone Creamery. It appears that Chicago has an anti sentiment against Cold Stone, as majority of them closed their doors to the frozen yogurt epidemic. Being a man who makes his own homemade ice cream, that whole chilly froth that is all the rage is not something I care for much. When it comes to ice cream, Cold Stone Creamy is where you go and I rank it higher than Baskin & Robbins. Nevertheless, I got to the location in time to order an Oreo Overload in a recently baked waffle cone. No sooner had I sat than some teenagers rumbled in. Nothing tests the nerves like five teenagers giggling and pontificating for fifteen minutes before ordering. Add to that, there was conversation that went along the following lines:

 I wanna like try that flavour.
(Giggle)
Did you like see Jillian’s blouse?
(Giggle)
Oooh, you’re like getting chocolate.
(Giggle)
Like I’m gonna take my ice cream outside and like people watch.
(Giggle)

Oreo OverloadGrowing up during the 80’s, I was very much accustomed to the whole Valley Girl and Surfer Dude scene. Add to that the ear-grating Valley-speak. It had a short shelf life, but listening to it while devouring a frozen treat was a notch or two more horrible than brain freeze from ice cream. Too much use of the word like and incessant giggling will make you want to run your fingers down a chalkboard to drown out the fray. When it was evident that well over 15 minutes had passed and others were staring as though watching someone shrinking, I got up and left the snickering villains to their own devices.

Such a perfect day it was to be out and about enjoying Japanese cuisine and more ice cream than my belly should have been forced to endure. But, hey, if I am going to have any kind of suffering, it shall have to be the sweetest pain and satisfying. Like, how often do you get to have Japanese food and then ice cream all in, like, the same day? (Giggle)

Sagano Sushi on Urbanspoon
Cold Stone Creamery on Urbanspoon

Annual Narcissism Celebration

Iguana CafeSeveral years ago, I did something that a lot of people who have limited success in relationships refuse to do. I backed off and spent time getting to know and love myself rather than seeking someone to do that for me. Well, those several years were actually fifteen years ago. What was supposed to be a brief self-assessment turned into a case of me practising narcissism. And truth be told, since then I have not gone to bed with grief, tears on my pillow, sleepless nights, or a diminished sense of self because I was abiding by an emotionally damaging mantra of “I am nothing without a woman.” This had marked my fifteenth year celebration. Not being one for shopping and I am going abroad mid September through mid October, I made an appointment with my ego to go to some restaurants and feast in celebration of having discovered that the world will not come to a screeching halt because I am single.

Belgian WaffleMy first stop was Iguana Cafe in the River North section of Chicago at 517 N. Halsted Street. It is one of those boutique restaurants that has a coffee-house feel to it and fills up with those who have an urban chic appeal to themselves. That may be very much due to the ambience that the cafe exudes. Two very close friends had given rave reviews about Iguana Cafe, almost bordering on fanatical. So I had to see what the appeal was. On entry, one thing I found a bit disconcerting was whether to seat myself or wait. Not as though the cafe was bursting with patrons, the staff seemed rather scrambled. But I waited for a few minutes before being acknowledged and taken to a seat — where I waited for a noticeable amount of time before my order was taken.

Iced ChaiWith it being morning, I scanned the extensive menu for something along the lines of breakfast fare. Usually breakfast menus leave me with a gasp, for there is so much that leaps from the pages along the lines of appetizing dishes. At Iguana Cafe, the bill of fare was somewhat pedestrian although exhaustive. Noting that, I ordered a Belgian waffle because I was confident that the kitchen staff would not botch that. I also ordered Greek yogurt with strawberries and bananas and an iced chai to wash it all down. The Belgian waffle certainly was not a defrosted breakfast delight, as it was still crispy on the outside, warm and fluffy on the inside after I had snapped about 75 shots of it from various angles. Filling the whole plate, the taste finally made things feel okay, because the initial impression of the cafe was — shall we say — a bit run of the mill. As an individual who is not a fan of yogurt from the dairy section at the local grocer, the Greek yogurt with strawberries and bananas really etched itself in my mind as a highlight. Greek yogurt alone is a bit of an acquired taste because it is not loaded with sugar, saccharine, Splenda, Equal, or high fructose corn syrup the way you find yogurt in the supermarket. The natural sweetness of the fruit was all that was needed. And the chai, although it may have been the quick mix in the pourable carton, was still good enough on ice to wet the throat. So, I get to say that the dining experience at Iguana Cafe was worthy.

Greek YogurtAfter an enjoyable breakfast, I felt as though I was at a Jamaican cafe when it came time for paying the tab. In Jamaica, you practically beg for the tab and have to push your way to the counter to pay the bill. I waited for the tab to be brought to the table — and I waited, and waited, and waited. By the third time having to request the check, I walked to the till to pay the tab. Crime. Treason. Horror. Murder. The stares I received from the staff, as if though I was supposed to sit and wait for fifteen more minutes while the time on the parking metre ran out. This is not written as a deterrent, but while the food left me with a smile, the whole customer service thing was missing from the equation. To quote the youth of the present urban setting, “It is what it is.” And as I walked out the door with a filled stomach, I checked Iguana Cafe off my list of restaurants to sample.

The Sit Down Cafe & Sushi BarBy lunch, my belly was growling. I had been pondering whether I wanted to go to a restaurant on the North Side but remembered a certain cafe from my days of living in Hyde Park. The first experience was so pleasing that I wanted to return for another episode at the outdoor seating area. So it was off to The Sit Down Cafe at 1312 E. 53rd Street. The weather was perfect: no hot and humid temperatures, blue skies, and a mild breeze. Reaching the restaurant and finding that there were plenty of outdoor seats because everyone was inside — or elsewhere — I requested a table that was in a shaded part of the front patio and had pulled out my camera to start my calibration for my photography. And wouldn’t you know that out of all of the outdoor seating, these two loud-mouth women sat immediately next to me and grimaced at me clicking away with my camera in advance of receiving my food. Apparently none of the other seats were good enough. To borrow an observation from my brother, “We have been cursed such that we have a tendency to attract foolishness.” He actually used another word rather than “foolishness.”

Pineapple, Orange, and Pomegranate JuiceFor a refreshing beverage, I had a pinorgranate juice. This was a blend of pineapple juice, orange juice, and pomegranate juice. Oh was it tasty. I have had pineapple and orange juice but the addition of the pomegranate juice added a hint of tartness that did some tricks on the tongue when matched with the sweetness of the other juices. Americanized Asian dishes have a love of adding sweet and sour meat-of-your-choice to their menus. The sweet and tart marriage in the glass of pinorgranate juice had given me an idea of some juicing to try at home. Not to stuff myself relentlessly, I opted for a maki roll because the rolls I had during my first visit were so outstanding that I do not think I gave the write-up justice when I did my first journal entry for The Sit Down Cafe. On this visit, I ordered a dragon roll. Tempura shrimp, avocado, cucumber, tobiko, and barbecued eel. What more could you ask for in food satisfaction? Of course I could rattle off several more choices, but the dragon roll never fails and I found a bit of a perverse satisfaction watching the two mouths frown and scoff at my photography enjoyment and subsequent exaggerated sighs of bliss. I bet they won’t sit immediately next to someone else in an otherwise empty restaurant or patio again. I don’t remember having the dragon roll when I had gone the first time, so the light feast this time was virginal at The Sit Down Cafe. Although the cafe has some other fare on their menu like a few Italian dishes, they are absolute top in terms of their sushi.

Dragon RollThe waitress who had taken my order remembered me from a year ago during my first visit. Since patrons usually snap photos with their cell phones and point-and-click phones, seeing someone photograph their food from multiple angles and with up to well over 300 clicks of the camera, I guess it would be hard to forget someone who is not only passionate about their photography but who also cleans his plate. Again the loud mouths sized me up because to hear the waitress engage me in long conversation about what I do for a living if photography is not it, what I had been doing since the first visit, some of my favourite cities for specific cuisines, and some  recommended restaurants in the city was not something she did with the other dining patrons. The complete converse of Iguana Cafe, I left The Sit Down Cafe feeling as though I had left a friend’s house. And as the waitress had said, I have a feeling that you’ll be back more now that you’re in Chicago more, I will indeed return for more juice and sushi on a regular basis.

Brownie SundaeTowards the latter part of the day, and after having snacked on something throughout the remainder of the afternoon, I decided that I would treat myself to some ice cream. I had gone to one of my favourite neighbouring suburbs to see “Beasts of the Southern Wild” at the picture show. A little extra time on my hand I walked over to the Oberweis Ice Creamery at 124 N Oak Park Avenue and had a brownie sundae with a large scoop of chocolate ice cream, a scoop of cookies and cream, whipped cream and topped with a cherry. It was a perfect ending to an A+ day. After a full day of having my cell phone off so that I would have no disruption to my annual narcissism celebration, I returned home to voice mails from friends about broken hearts, divorce, and emotional torture. For some twisted reason, I smiled to myself because if I were to introduce them to the joys of narcissism, they would learn to love themselves and know the next time when someone is trying to bring trash into their homes to mess up the merry work. People take trash out for a reason. For me, if I’m not busy staring at myself in a mirror, I’m staring at my reflection in an empty plate. And I smile.

Iguana Cafe on Urbanspoon
The Sit Down Cafe on Urbanspoon