Lula Cafe, Been So Long

Lula Cafe

When family visits, I avoid downtown tourist traps. Coming from cultural hubs like New York City, Toronto, Montreal, and London, nothing can kill an enjoyable stay in Chicago like going to some establishment and faking a smile throughout the experience. And when Caribbeans start sucking their teeth, you have to redeem yourself quickly. Well, during my sister’s visit, I took her to several ethnic restaurants where I have gone already and to a few restaurants where I have not been. Lula Cafe at 2537 N. Kedzie Boulevard in Logan Square is one cafe that I bypassed for years because of arriving late and having to wait for almost an hour for a seat.

La Piña Coronado

La Piña Coronado

Penicillin

Penicillin

With fantastic temperatures finally gracing Chicago, we had waited for an outdoor seat so that we could soak up some sun, feel the breeze, and enjoy some brunch. Since no brunch is complete without a cocktail, we had one apiece for starters. My sister had a la piña coronado, which definitely screamed Caribbean. The recipe of agricole, amaretto, pineapple, coconut made for quite a refreshing cocktail. I am a fan of scotch, so I had the penicillin. The combination of scotch and ginger was a winner, for true.

Scrambled Eggs with Cream Cheese

Scrambled Eggs with Cream Cheese

Having eaten something only a few hours before arriving at Lula Cafe, my sister ordered pancakes and scrambled eggs. To hear her describe them, they were tasty pillows accented with confectioners sugar. One highlight that certainly cannot be missed was the apple chicken sausage. Either the sausage was grilled or there was some liquid smoke used in the recipe, for it tasted like it had been smoked at a backyard barbecue. For me, I had scrambled eggs with cream cheese. And for the main brunch item, I ordered brioche French toast that was crusted with pistachios and topped with raspberries. The French toast was so good that it didn’t require any syrup. This French toast may be one of the main reasons why there is a constant crowd at the cafe.

French Toast with Berries

French Toast with Berries

Lula Cafe is a small cafe with limited seating inside and some patio seating outside. It seems as though there is a constant tide of customers and I imagine the ebb is during closing only. Even then, the service is fantastic. The output from the kitchen reminds me of home cooking, not restaurant cooking, and this may also be something what customers find so inviting. I had been tempted to take my sister into downtown to one of the numerous breakfast spots, but I am glad that I decided to go to a place closer to my apartment. I only have to remember to arrive as soon as the doors open when I go again.

Click to add a blog post for Lula Cafe on Zomato

Seafood Bonanza, Shaw’s Crab House

Cranberry Juice

Cranberry Juice

For those of you reading this, I hope that you are at home or at some location where the temperatures are not as hateful as the temperatures in Chicago. As much as 2014 promised to be a good year, the Arctic temperatures have been prohibitive for going outside. By now, I would have gone to at least four restaurants and blogged them, but by the time I pack up to leave work during the week, my focus is on going home to get into my sweats and fuzzy bear claws. Yes, I have a pair of those. And the weekends seem to be candidates for sub-zero temperatures and mini blizzards. However, I simply cannot sit inside all the time. During one of my “escape from the cabin” moments, I went to a nearby coffeehouse to edit some photos. After a few hours of productivity, I received a text from a great friend who asked if I was interested in partaking of Chicago’s Restaurant Week at one of my favourite seafood restaurants. Well, with food being a factor, my text response was YES — I typed it in all caps. Knowing that there would be a crowd the closer it got to 7:00 PM, we made reservations for 5:15 at Shaw’s Crab House at 21 E. Hubbard Street in the River North section of downtown.

Bread and Wafers

Bread and Wafers

While perusing the menu for any ala carte options, we gnashed away on cheddar rolls and wafers. Um, um, good. Sure, this comes complimentary with the meal, but is still worth mentioning because the bread must be baked on the premises. You cannot find cheddar rolls like these in the market in the bakery section, on the aisles with aging loaves of bread, or in the frozen food section. Our server gave use a grand explanation of the restaurant week menu. Let’s just say that Shaw’s Crab House knows how to lure its customers back for repeat visits. There was clam chowder for the soup. For the entrées, the choices were king crab legs and Maine lobster. Dessert options were key lime pie, which you can never go wrong with, and a raspberry walnut cobbler. Far be it from us to be dining prudes, we ordered a dungeness crab claw for an appetizer. We also added potatoes au gratin and creamed spinach to our entrée orders.

Crab Claw

Crab Claw

Clam Chowder

Clam Chowder

The crab claw came to the table pre-cracked. It would have been a chore, quite possibly with things flying about the table. The claw was full of meat, bursting with flavour. Now, granted it wasn’t a substantial appetizer, it was certainly worth the order. For when the clam chowder arrived at the table, it was evident that the remainder of the evening would be based on complete culinary satisfaction. Thank God for restaurants that don’t feel the need to accentuate clam chowder with pork. There must have been complaints from some pork eaters about a few seafood restaurants that left the oink factor out of their clam chowder recipe because, sure enough, it shows up in the bowl at some eateries. Shaw’s Crab House has not fallen victim to that recipe blackmail.

Crab Legs

Crab Legs

Potatoes Au Gratin

Potatoes Au Gratin

Maine Lobster

Maine Lobster

Creamed Spinach

Creamed Spinach

The entrées were divine. The crab legs were full of meat. With melted butter for dipping, that was all we needed to forget that the temperatures in Chicago were in the single digits. It was all about concentrating on cracking the legs, digging out the succulent meat, and devouring it like seafood lovers. The Maine lobster came to the table steamed. Each bite exploded. No tough texture, no unsavoury aftertaste, only bliss. And not being one to let lobster go to waste, when I got to the head, there was a voice in my head that screamed, FINISH HIM!!! I complied. The mushy texture from the head is not something that appeals to a lot of people. It’s a bit reminiscent of marrow, for those of you who have chewed chicken bones to splinters and partaken of the tasty insides of the bones. It may be better used to season some soups or other recipes. For me, if I paid for it, it’s good as gone — unless I become so bitter that I feel the need to throw the plate against the wall. The potatoes au gratin were delicious beyond words. They did not come from a Betty Crocker box. And the creamed spinach reminded me of the spinach artichoke dip that a restaurant named Houston’s used to prepare — before that restaurant closed permanently for business.

Coffee

Coffee

As part of the Restaurant Week menu option for desserts, there were key lime pie and raspberry walnut cobbler. My main New Year’s Absolution was to remove desserts from my diet except for my birthday. So far I have been faithful, with the exception of having a panna cotta at one restaurant. My nutritionist and doctor said that I could indulge sorbet, fruit, and light cream desserts. To keep from possibly getting out of hand, I passed on the dessert and let my great friend take mine home with her. So, she had the pie and the cobbler. I settled on coffee laced with Bailey’s Irish creme. My friend had a regular coffee with cream. Talk about a great wrap-up to a fantastic meal.

Coffee with Bailey's Irish Creme

Coffee with Bailey’s Irish Creme

For years I had gone to Shaw’s during lunch when I worked about two blocks way from the restaurant. Even when I changed jobs, I was always confident that my palate would find satisfaction in all that the menu had to offer. Because Shaw’s is not ethnic, per se, I never blogged it. This time I felt that it was worthy of inclusion on Chicago Alphabet Soup. Now that I am being more serious about sticking to a strict seafood and vegetarian diet, there may be more seafood restaurants showing up on the blog. The service at Shaw’s Crab House was way past outstanding. Any time a server takes time to explain things in a great detail and offer recommendations without a scowl or a need to rush away from the table, the experience is usually a hit thereafter. Not once have I had a meal that I was not pleased with and the most recent dining experience was such a highlight that I was talking to my food and singing. And looking back on all of this, going out in the cold wasn’t such a bad idea. I got my usual food bonanza in the process.

Shaw's Crab House on Urbanspoon Shaw's Crab House on Foodio54

Top 10 Jaunts for 2013

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

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

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

Freddy's Pizza and Grocery

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

Silom 12

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

Masouleh

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

Kabul House

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

Pannenkoeken

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

Den Den

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

De-Jred Fine Jamaican

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

Roka Akor

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

Basil Leaf Cafe

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

Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill

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

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

Pasta D’Arte, Arrabbiata Gino

Pasta D'Arte

For the record, I am not angry. While adding more Italian into my vocabulary, I learned that arrabbiata is Italian meaning angry. And there is a story to me actually finding out what the word meant. A few years ago, an individual who had designed the website for three restaurants I had written about, left a comment on a page. I think I still have a big head from the positive feedback he had given. But what stuck out most were the recommendations for a few hidden gems. Before leaving for personal holiday — that was clipped a few days thanks to catching a bad cold in Houston, of all places — I went back to the comment section of my food journal and found the recommendations. Needing to round out the real Italian eateries unbeknownst to those in the know, I saw the suggestion for Pasta D’Arte at 6311 N. Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago’s Norwood Park. That became my destination.

Cranberry Juice

Cranberry Juice

With the weather being nice, there was no reason to stay inside and miss the sunlight. Now that we are getting closer to autumn, the sun is dropping below the horizon faster in the evenings. So, I had a table on the front patio while watching an orange sun slowly climb down from a blue sky. What better way to refresh my palate than with a glass of cranberry juice. Had I not been driving and most definitely if I had no intentions of devouring more than necessary, I would have opted for a glass — or a bottle — of wine. I thought quick of being too far from home behind the wheel and decided that I would default to prude status and enjoy the cranberry juice instead. Aahhhhh!

Italian Bread

Italian Bread

First to the table was a loaf of Italian bread, grated Parmesan cheese, and mixed, pickled vegetables. The bread was not yanked from the ice box, thawed, and put in a bread basket with clean linen before brought to the table. It was nice and crusty on the outside, light and airy on the inside, quite a great start as I dipped it in olive oil accented with the Parmesan cheese. It was clear that with the complementary menu items coming out with high satisfaction marks, nothing could be unappealing on the menu.

Insalata Caprese

Insalata Caprese

Then the caprese insalata came to the table for my first course and I forgot rather quickly how tasty the bread was. In case I may not have written this in any of my blog posts, I am addicted to tomatoes. These were cut into slices, not into halves the way they are in most caprese salads. Fresh mozzarella, black olives, and a dollop of pesto in the middle left me with one word for the server when he asked me how everything was — Bravo!!! Most of the time the salad is accented with a balsamic vinaigrette. I must admit that the pesto was not only a pleasant surprise but it was a better touch.

Sopa

Sopa

The second course was a soup — jokingly referred to as a garbage soup. Where many think of minestrone as a potpourri of soup ingredients, the soup that I had a Pasta D’Arte now ranks up there with soups that fit my Rant and Rave category like New England clam chowder, lobster bisque, and pumpkin bisque. Prepared with a vegetable broth and plum tomatoes, it had sage, white beans, barley, onion, and garlic. This was an ideal soup for my low salt diet and flavoured such that you really don’t miss the added sodium. Reminding myself that I was sitting outside one the front patio, I did not take any slices of the Italian bread and go around the inside of the bowl of soup in the manner of an unpolished embarrassment. Correction — I waited until all was clear. I may have my prude tendencies, but they’re conditional, and indulging this soup was not one of those times to be prim.

Penne all' Arrabbiata

Penne all’ Arrabbiata

The third course was where I got my language lesson. I had been waffling between ordering a penne all’ arrabbiata or a ravioli di arragosta. The server told me that at Pasta D’Arte they make the pasta angry — or arrabbiata — by adding red pepper, black pepper, garlic, and onions. And after eating it, I was very, very angry in a very, very good way. I love spicy food and Italian restaurants that temper their recipes for a palate that won’t give bad reviews lighten the “kick” to the dish that makes it what it is. From the first bite, all I kept saying was, “Thank God the chef prefers that you have the dish as it was indeed intended to be prepared.” I was reminded very much why the restaurants that you have to go over the river and through the woods — to Grandmother’s house we go — to find are so much better than anything you will find on a main stretch.

Ravioli di Arragosta

Ravioli di Arragosta

The fourth dish was the ravioli di arragosta. Waffling is a good thing because if you can’t make up your mind between two dishes, having both is an option that is never a bad idea. The ravioli di arragosta was a plate of ravioli stuffed with lobster and I don’t mean with a hint of lobster. It was served in a cream sauce with tomatoes and shredded lettuce. I do believe I had made a conscious decision to forego red sauces after having this dish. It was, of course, a rather quick thought because I remembered the penne all’ arrabbiata, which is prepared in a red sauce. It was mandatory that I ordered some ravioli di arragosta for to go.

Flight of Sorbet

Flight of Sorbet

I sat for a while and enjoy more of the nice temperatures and let the food settle some before having a dolci. It was warm and a nice way to cool off was to have a flight of sorbet. There were cups of lemon, raspberry, and blood orange. Recently, I had tried my hand at making pineapple sorbet and the sorbet at Pasta D’Arte gave me some ideas for some more sorbet recipes to attempt. As much as I have searched for sorbet in the frozen section at the market, nothing that I have ever found close to the bloom of flavour that the lemon, raspberry, and blood orange sorbets gave. Since I have decided to wean myself from coffee, I did not indulge a cappuccino, espresso, or regular coffee. Instead, I had another cranberry juice, which was a nice accompaniment to the sorbets.

All in all, the visit to Pasta D’Arte may have been long awaited, but good things come to those who wait. The service was absolutely top, and it is crystal clear that service at authentic Italian restaurants set a high bar in customer service. Add to that high quality food and the trip out to the fringes of the far Northwest Side of Chicago becomes a highlight in your culinary landscape. I am shocked to have taken so long to follow up on the recommendations sent to me via a comment on a previous post. However, I’m glad I did and whenever I am  not angry enough, I know a certain penne all’ arrabbiata that will help.

Trattoria Pasta D'Arte on Urbanspoon Pasta D'Arte Trattoria on Foodio54

Tasty Comedy — Thalia Spice

Thalia Spice

As an amateur photographer, it would be nice to have someone who I could consider my muse. Alas, there is no one. But there is this whole thing with food that seems to drive me. I grab the camera and head out the door, along with my insatiable appetite. I don’t know if that is a case of a muse driving me or food being a rather strong incentive. With weather being nice outside for a weekend, I had decided that I would take my bicycle for a spin. I rode through Logan Square, down through Bucktown and Wicker Park, and even did a pass through West Town. Yes, I made the rounds through the hip sections of the city — sorry Lincoln Park, Lincoln Square, and Lakeview, but your popular days have passed. As I biked east away from West Town, I noticed the name of a muse on a restaurant. Lo and behold, there was Thalia Spice at 833 W. Chicago Avenue.

Lychee Juice

Lychee Juice

I had been to Simply Thalia in the pedestrian walkway between the Blue Line and the Red Line at Washington Street. I remembered having to go twice, the second time to give the restaurant another chance to wow me — which it eventually did. I recognized that Thalia Spice was the parent restaurant, so I wanted to see if the dishes were somewhat the same or better. Taking a seat outside and getting the white balance set for my photography, I was all ready. And then these two bronze dolls pulled up in their car, hopped out with their angry dogs, and eyed a table next to mine. It had to have been the expression on my face that made them settle on sitting on the far end of the outdoor seating area. I mean, I had come to eat food, not to watch them pet their dogs.

Ginger Chicken Soup

Ginger Chicken Soup

For a refreshment, I started with lychee juice. If you want to slowly break yourself from downing soda pop, I highly recommend lychee juice if you can get your hands on some. Whether the juice at Thalia Spice was concentrate or not, it was well worth it. After scanning the menu briefly, I recognized the whole Pan-Asian pizazz that the restaurant puts forth. They cover as many Asian ethnicities as possible: Indonesian, Burmese, Malaysian, Indian, Chinese, Thai, and Japanese, just to name a few. I keep thinking Jack of All Trades, Master of None, because something gets compromised. One dish that showed mastery was the ginger chicken soup, which was very reminiscent of tom yum soup. The ginger added the right amount of kick to the soup without the need for pepper, and I found it to be worthy of a very nice winter soup. Where there was a lacking in mastery was with the Indian makhani chicken. Visually appetizing, but absent in flavour. It may have been that the dish was not spicy, as Indian food is divine when served with a highlight of some spicy curry. Unfortunately, the chicken makhani fell prey to the Pan-Asian effect, resulting in a dish that was probably tempered based on one of the other Asian influences. Not all Asian cuisines are fitting for a mix-and-match menu. A milder palate would enjoy the offerings, as the flavours may be not be overwhelming the way the food may taste natively.

Indian Chicken Makhani

Indian Chicken Makhani

For the look and feel of a high-end restaurant, Thalia Spice does not have the price that makes you wonder if you need to take out a miniature loan. The service is absolutely wonderful, as the server was not only helpful, but she was also cognizant of me taking photos of my food and did not rush me. I imagine the restaurant fills up on weekends, more on Friday and Saturday nights. Going during the day on a Sunday allowed for a great seat outside — granted I got there in time to secure a great table before the two showed up with their dogs that growled. It may have been a comedy of error that things worked out the way they did. Then again, Thalia was the muse of comedy.

Thalia Spice on Urbanspoon

Cheese for the Camera

Marion Street Cheese Market

It has been quite some time since I posted a write-up about one of my food excursions. Work had been quite a beast with teeth that gnarled at my time and devoured what free hours I had. Most evenings I returned home from work and performed magic in my own kitchen. Realizing that I own my condo and should take more advantage of it than I had been, I gathered my pots and pans and made very good use of my stove. Recently, a great friend and I had been meeting for dinner every Friday to get in a grand amount of laughter about all sorts of foolishness and a certain colourful expletive we manufactured — that I will not post here, hahaha. With it being evenings when she and I got together, there was never enough light to capture the impressions of the wonderful delights that sat before us before we handled business. Having a moment in my daily schedule to do something other than work and overcompensate with relaxation from being worked to spiritual defeat, I ventured to Oak Park, Illinois, to Marion Street Cheese Market at 100 South Marion Street for outdoor seating to indeed enjoy myself and the culinary supplements of the bistro.

Grapefruit Juice

As I sat perusing the menu, I was reminded of a certain relationship that I praise God for delivering me from. When I first relocated to Chicago from New York, I was dating an incredibly unhappy woman who wanted me to quit my six-figure salary job and move to North Carolina for nickels and work like a Hebrew slave to save enough money to buy her a five bedroom house that we would never fill completely. Give up my career, my church home, my family development, an exciting life in the metropolis of Chicago, and move into the suburbs of Raleigh — not into Raleigh, by the way — so that I could sit on a porch after working two jobs Jamaican style to further cater to her unhappiness. It dawned on me that I would have been dead by stroke or self-inflicted gunshot wound by now, and never would have partaken of all the wonderful culinary delights and flair that the Chicago metropolitan area had to offer. When my pineapple juice came, I smiled and pontificated tipping a bit on the ground in hopes that she had found whatever it was she was seeking. Then I said, “Forget that!” and prepared to handle the matter at hand.

Flight of Cheeses

It goes without saying, that I had an appetite. First thing I ordered was a flight of cheeses. There were three options that I could choose: a fixed list, a choice of three, or a choice of five. Like I said, I had a hunger well before I reached the bistro, so I opted for the choice of five cheeses. There was sarvecchio, which is fruity, nutty Italian style parmesan cheese. It had the mildness and consistency of brie sans the rind. I had the smile of a man who was pleased. The second cheese I had was gruyère surchoix. This smooth and mellow cheese was akin to cheddar and I do not mean Velveeta. Slightly sharp, but not such that it bit the back of the jaw, there was an accent of light floral notes. I kid you not. There was a faint hint of lavender and when you can add a floral touch to a dish without making it seem like you are actually eating a patch of botany, you have a bit of heaven in front of you.

Cranberry and Almond

Not that I was going to gobble the cheeses as though I were a monster, I savoured each one with the basket of bread that came complementary. In between each cheese, I reset my palate with the cranberries, plum jam, and toasted almonds. Add to that the fact that the weather was ideal — not hot, not chilly, and not windy — the non-rushed atmosphere lent a feeling of being at an outdoor bistro in Paris or along the countryside in Britain. The third cheese I had was les frères. Another cheese that had the consistency of sharp cheddar, it came with a fruity accent wrapped in an earthy washed rind. Only a little crumbly, it was fantastic with the glass of spicy red Chono Camendere. Not that I am an agent of wine snobbery, but spicy red wines get me going. The first time I had a glass of Chono Camendere I smiled my usual stupid smile until my date told me to get a grasp on myself. I got enough control to enjoy a fourth cheese of bergblumenkäse — smooth, unpasteurized, aromatic, Alpine style cheese that went well with the jam spread. The tartness of the jam was balanced by the faint sweetness of the cheese, neither competing on the palate for attention.

Flight of Cheeses

If the aforementioned cheeses were not enough to make any unhappy person excessively elated, the l’amuse should make any grinch loveable. Here we are talking about delicious two-year aged Gouda, nutty with hints of burnt caramel. Before the summer ends, I will have to go to Marion Street Cheese Market and buy some l’amuse, olives, a bottle of wine, a loaf of bread and then bike to the park to have my own private picnic. Ever the fan of Gouda, I could feast on this cheese alone without complaint. But adding burnt caramel only heightens my taste senses and I find myself not being able to live without such pleasure. Okay, it is not that serious, but you have to sample l’amuse to know the true meaning of culinary pleasure.

Chocolate and Orange French Toast

Mind you, Marion Street Cheese Market does not rush you at all. So I sat for half of an hour while slowly finishing the cranberries and almonds that had come with the cheese. After having a respite, I ordered chocolate and orange French toast. During the first bite, I acknowledged that Marion Street Cheese Market has no concept of messing up what they have on their menu. I have had some French toast that is worthy of writing home about, but I have not had French toast that had me almost pulling a Sally from “When Harry Met Sally.” Sitting outside going through such motions would have had the police on location putting handcuffs on me and possibly trying to finish off the French toast instead of their jelly doughnuts. We are talking a case of no syrup required and although the toast was under a fair amount of chocolate, it was not drowned. There was, however, me doing all but licking the plate after I had finished. And when I was done, I had a chai latte that did leave me with a muted whimper of delight. The whole experience was indicative of why my friend and I keep returning after work on every other Friday. Outstanding cheeses, top wine selections, small plates, large plates, desserts, and coffee, all alluring and appealing to anyone whose sensibilities will allow them to indulge their appetites without remorse.

Chai Latte

At the end of my food blissatisfaction, I noticed on my receipt that there are $10-off discounts at the winery or cheese market if purchased the day of dining. There was a certain bottle of Puzzle — a smile-inducing spicy red wine — that needed a home. So I went in, bought a bottle of Puzzle, and brought it home so that I can care for it. It will be perfect with an Indian meal, I must say. When I go back to Marion Street Cheese Market, I shall buy some l’amuse cheese for that personal picnic I mentioned earlier. And now that I think of it, I shall get a bottle of Chono Camendere or another bottle of Puzzle to go with the cheese. If I am not overloaded, I shall take my camera with me to the picnic and shoot a photo of my little event. I shall cheese for the camera.

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