Papaspiros Agora, Trying the New

Papaspiros Greek Taverna

A few years ago when I was on assignment in West Suburbs, I had made Oak Park, Illinois, a stopping ground for dinner on Friday evenings. Traffic was always aggravating and driving a manual shift car never made matters any better. Oak Park has a nice selection of ethnic restaurants and one that I had not tried was Papaspiros Greek Taverna at 733 Lake Street. It was an outstanding dining experience and by the time I had decided to return for a repeat excursion, the restaurant had closed. Well, it has since reopened in a new location across the street at 728 Lake Street.

Cranberry Juice and Water

Cranberry Juice and Water

Hummus

Hummus

Sesame Seed Bread

Sesame Seed Bread

Saganaki

Saganaki

With it being a perfect Saturday afternoon, I had an outdoor seat and prepared myself to savour some Greek dishes. I started with hummus. These creamed chickpeas, served with slices of tomato and cucumber and accented with olive oil, were quite nice and delectable. There was no pita served along with the hummus, so I used the complimentary sesame seed bread instead. That was fine until I was running out. I had ordered saganaki and good saganaki can have a spreadable consistency. The saganaki was also tasty. And usually, saganaki is set aflame at the table and then doused with lemon juice. The saganaki simply came to the table already bubbling in the small skillet.

Shrimp Souvlaki

Shrimp Souvlaki

Slowly I am starting to work myself back into my pescatarian diet. Blogging has a tendency for me to have chicken every once in a while and an occasional slice of beef. However, having had an appetizing seafood entree at another Greek restaurant recently, I thought that it would be a good idea to sample some seafood options from Papaspiros. The shrimp souvlaki was a perfect choice. Plump shrimp marinated in herbs and skewered with onions and bell peppers, each bite was worthy of a want to return. The garden salad and rice pilaf that came covered in a red tomato sauce along with halved potatoes were quite a lip-smacking accompaniments.

Arni Kokkinisto

Arni Kokkinisto

During my visit to Papaspiros at its former location, the first entrée I indulged was arni kokkinist — tender braised lamb, flavoured with fresh herbs, spices, and white wine, and served with green beans in light tomato sauce. Being a pescatarian at the time, eating lamb was a stretch, but it was not going to cause immediate ruin. With lamb meat falling off the bone and exploding with great taste along with fantastically seasoned green beans, the arni kokkinist deserved an encore.

Sea Bass

Sea Bass

For the second round, I had sea bass with rice pilaf and steamed mixed vegetables of potatoes, carrots, zucchini, and cabbage. I ordered the sea bass complete with bones and with the head intact and t I took my time savouring each bite. Well, I should put that in context. I took my time so that I was not swallowing the small bones in the fish. The rice pilaf and the mixed vegetables were perfect companions to the dish and my server smiles wider every time she passed by and saw me nodding my head in appreciation for the offerings that she had suggested.

Grecian Riganati Chicken

Grecian Riganati Chicken

After sitting for awhile, I was ready for a third entrée. I had Grecian riganati chicken. Oven roasted chicken marinated with olive oil, lemon sauce, and oregano, and served with rice pilaf was a perfect wrap-up entrée. The server had told me in advance that it would take half an hour for the preparation and it had come to the table in perfect timing. Each bite was succulent. The meat was moist and I kept working my knife and fork slowly until I could not finish all of it. The server was rather impressed with my feasting talents.

Galaktoboureko

Galaktoboureko

I should have stopped, but what is a splendid meal without a proper dessert? I had coffee and galaktoboureko. Semolina-based custard flavoured with lemon in phyllo, drizzled, and sprinkled with cinnamon with honey was enough to fly me to the moon. I think the patrons who were sitting next to me wanted me to stop humming, for I was exhibiting too much bliss. If you have some awesome food sitting before you and you are enjoying it, there is nothing wrong with letting it be known accordingly.

In 2012, I had the complete package of satisfaction: great service, outstanding food, and reasonable price. On this recent visit, the service I received from my server was top. The rest of the staff had a distant disposition that was kind of rattling. The food has not suffered as a result of the move, and the price is still sweet to the wallet. If Papaspiros draws crowds on Friday and Saturday nights the way I recalled during the stint at the former location, it may be a good idea to go during the afternoon on weekends. Certainly if the weather is pleasant enough for outdoor seating, take advantage of the restaurant’s authentic Greek menu items. Just don’t scream, “Opa!” The staff may think you’re ready to start throwing dishes on the ground.

Papaspiros on Urbanspoon

Friendship to Be, Lao You Ju

Lao You Ju

A few years ago, I left a company that was couched in political maneuvering and led by a chief executive officer who let it be known that the employees’ “measly” 2% pay increases were a small sacrifice — so that the Board of Directors could get their 25% pay increases. It was on to another company that was couched even deeper in political madness with a revolving door of contractors and permanent employees who came and went, and a management staff that consisted of supervisors and managers in title only. About two years ago, there began flight from the latter company and recently the company had a reduction in workforce. Several of us who had become good friends while working together had fled and we all remained in touch. We decided that it was time for a gathering. You can never have a proper reunion without food. And with one of us knowing the owner of one of Chicago’s most popular Chinese restaurants, a date was set and there were a Chinese, an African-American, an Indian, a West Indian, and a Filipino walking into Lao You Ju at 2002 S. Wentworth Avenue in Chicago’s Chinatown. Sounds like the introduction to a joke, right? No, it was just five former colleagues gathering for laughter and some authentic Chinese food.

Satay Chicken

Satay Chicken

Preserved Egg Pork Congee

Preserved Egg Pork Congee

Lao You Ju boasts a swell menu of dim sum, Hong Kong style. There are indeed some exotic menu items that the modest palate may find visually intriguing, but not necessarily tasteful. For the five of us who had gathered, our palates are varied, so we played it safely while indulging one or two items that are more commonplace in the Chinese culinary space. Because we had opted mostly for dim sum, we started with satay chicken and preserved egg pork congee. Satay chicken is nothing more than well-seasoned chicken skewered onto wooden sticks. Many of you will have had satay chicken with peanut sauce at Thai restaurants. There was no sauce with the dish at Lao You Ju, as it was rather flavourful sans it. The congee came in a communal size bowl, rice porridge for an insatiable appetite. We filled our cups and went to work.

Cheese Rolls with Shrimp

Cheese Rolls with Shrimp

Shumai

Shumai

While talking about another former colleague who used to take random vacations “off the books” and then return 3 to 4 weeks later as though it was “only a thing,” there arrived cheese rolls with shrimp and shumai. The cheese rolls were like crispy egg rolls that encased cream cheese and plump shrimp. At a lot of Americanized Chinese restaurants, some syrupy dipping sauce would have accompanied the rolls. For those of us at the table, we were quite glad to not have some side order usurping the flavour of the rolls with a punch of unnecessary sweetness. Along with the cheese rolls with shrimp came some shumai. Having forgotten that pork was a heavy staple in the Chinese diet, we tackled them anyway. Rather than requesting that the recipe be modified and erasing authenticity, we gobbled the shumai without complaint — and then realized after we had completed them that we didn’t dunk them in any sauce before devouring them.

Jin-Sha Shrimp

Jin-Sha Shrimp

Crispy Papaya Pastry

Crispy Papaya Pastry

We laughed about how the business analysts, Business Intelligence analysts, and quality assurance team could never seem to work as good as they could have together thanks to interference from management and the fact that information technology is becoming more about service than it is about solutions. Right about this time was when we got to indulge ourselves in some jin-sha shrimp. General chicken what? Kung pao chicken what? Beef with broccoli what? I am in love with this whole concept of fried corn with peppers and breaded shrimp. Put some orange chicken in front of me and I will be inclined to throw it against the wall. To make matters ever more tastefully exciting, there were crispy papaya pastry served. They looked way too twee to have experienced the grinding of our teeth on them. The natural sweetness of the papaya made them that more pleasing to the palates because we got to taste the fruit in all of its bloom.

Beef Tripe

Beef Tripe

Lamb Hot Sizzling Plate

Lamb Hot Sizzling Plate

Two weeks after I had left the company, I got a text message from one of my friends who was at dim sum lunch with us. He had left to go abroad to get married and to have his honeymoon with his wife. When the text message had come across and he discovered the address of where I was working, it turned out that he had accepted a position with a company across the street. Not only is the world flat, but it is indeed very small. We all laughed about that story and chuckled when the small dish of beef tripe was placed in front of us. Tripe, to me, is one of those menu items that shows that cooks will spare no parts. The texture is akin to that of a rubber band, which may not be endearing to many diners. The recipe for the beef trip at Lao You Ju was surprisingly worthy, although I will never get accustomed to having to chew, chew, chew, and chew some more before swallowing it. As to the lamb hot sizzling plate, this spicy dish was a winner. Served with white rice, we worked our chopsticks in true fashion. Move over, Greeks, because you’re not longer the standard bearers of cooking outstanding lamb dishes.

Singapore Fried Rice Noodles with Chicken

Singapore Fried Rice Noodles

Three Cup Chicken

Three Cup Chicken

The Singapore fried rice noodles with chicken was another one of those dishes that will make you want to take up a picket sign and advocate for the closure of all the China Buffet restaurants in the world. And from there, you will probably march in front of every Chop Suey hole in the wall that is open for business. Let’s just say that we didn’t leave any noodles or gravy on the plate — and we all used chopsticks. I have had Singapore fried rice noodles prepared correctly, so I shall not risk having to inquire, “What on earth is this?” at any other Chinese restaurants. And the three cup chicken, Taiwanese style, was a food lover’s dream. Tender, moist, falling off the bone chicken, swimming in a rich gravy and bursting with each bite, was enough to illicit a smoke immediately afterwards.

Fried, Dried Shrimp Crepes

Fried, Dried Shrimp Crepes

Spare Ribs

Spare Ribs

During the reduction in workforce at the company where we all had left, it seemed that one of the main managers who was a model control freak discovered why the axe loves those in management ranks. We had a moment of silence for him, but only because the server was putting a plate of fried, dried shrimp crepes, and a bowl of spare ribs in front of us. The crepes were a pleasant surprise, although having been served in a sauce, they were not of the texture that you get at French creperies. They were, however, like dumplings, but packed with a smile in each bite. It took a while to realize what the spare ribs were. For me, I have always seen them coming off of a grill with a red colouring or drowned in barbecue sauce. Nevertheless, these spare ribs were tastier than any that I have had before — ever.

Green Chive Dumplings

Green Chive Dumplings

Crispy Durian Pastry

Crispy Durian Pastry

We wrapped up with green chive dumplings that were packed with mustard greens. By now I was surprised that I was able to put any more in my mouth to swallow, let along raise my chopsticks to reach for another bit. But these dumplings were way too inviting to let sit. And believe me when I say that they sat for a short time before going down the hatch. For dessert, we had crispy durian pastry. Who would have thought that biscuits with papaya baked in them could leave five individuals speechless after four hours of non-stop eating and laughter? I am considering calling in for a batch of those biscuits to have for a pre-bed snack at night.

Lao You Ju packs out during lunch and I understand why. It is not typical Chinese for Americans. It’s authentic. When you enter the restaurant, you will see a sea of Chinese faces and hear the language accordingly, which is the best indication of authenticity of a restaurant. Aside from travels to Hong Kong and Beijing in mainland China, Vancouver, Toronto, and San Francisco, I haven’t had authentic Chinese food in America except for when my first roommate after college had his parents come to visit and in 2005 when a former colleague had invited one of his Chinese co-workers to meet us at Dragon Court in Chicago’s Chinatown. Now I get to say that I have recently had some more Chinese food prepared correctly thanks for Lao You Ju all because of former colleagues gathering for a small reunion and friendship.

Lao You Ju on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Information


* Restaurant Name
Lao You Ju
* Overall
★★★☆☆
* Neighborhood / Cuisine
Near South Side
* Street Address
2002 South Wentworth Avenue, Chicago, IL 60616
* Phone
(312) 225-7818

Vivo, Italian Style

Vivo

One of the great things about having a food blog is you often receive a lot of recommendations for restaurants to sample. There are some ethnicities that I do not have represented on Chicago Alphabet Soup and some that I do not have represented as thoroughly as possible. There is one community in Chicago that has a large presence and surprisingly, I had only two restaurants reflective of said community — Italian. A flurry of email notes had come to me lately and one that stood out more was with a suggestion that I try a certain Italian restaurant in Chicago’s Near West Loop. Having ventured into the West Loop neighbourhood on occasion to meet with friends at any of the few coffee shops, I was familiar with a lot of growth in the area and I also had the chance to dine at a few of the establishments there. But after following a cue from one individual who had recommended the Italian restaurant I mentioned, I have a feeling when I return from my assignment in Washington, DC, I shall venture to the West Loop more.

Black and Green

Black and Green

Vivo, at 838 W. Randolph Street, opened its doors twenty years ago and this fall marked its anniversary. Very large, mood lighting set, and filled with patrons whose palates appreciate fine dining, Vivo is a top restaurant that I am surprised I had never heard of prior to the prompting sent to me in an email note. While there are plenty of seats in the main dining area for small and large parties of diners, outdoor seating, and a very appealing full bar, there is also a relaxing lounge upstairs. But this adventure was about food, more than about leisure. A colleague and I met at the restaurant to treat our taste senses to the culinary delight of the Vivo kitchen, and so that I could now say that I have at least three Italian restaurants I can recommend without hesitation.

Cranberry Juice

Cranberry Juice

My friend and I had decided that we would not order from the menu, instead opting to accept advice from the server and have what came to the table. While we waited for the experience to begin, we partook of a whole loaf of bread with a saucer of grated parmesan and pepper in olive oil. The flavour of the bread and oil combination was a clear indication that the rest of the evening was going to be a winner. Because I had intentions of writing a journal of the evening, we had each dish come to the table individually. We started with a caprese, which is a simple antipasto that is very common in the Italian region of Campania. Four grilled tomatoes and mozzarella cheese seasoned with salt, ground pepper, basil leaves, and olive oil were served and our palates screamed with appreciation for the flavour that burst forth with each bit.

Insalata Caprese

Insalata Caprese

Next we had Gnocchi Gratinati. These handmade Italian potato dumplings with parmesan cream and black truffle essence usually come as an entrée. However, we were treated to the inviting dish as an appetizer. Having had Gnocci in the past that ranged dramatically between rubbery to mushy, it was a delight having it prepared in a manner such that it melted on the tongue. The cream gravy was perfect, that being it did not dominate the dish, and it was not so minimum that the dumplings were too much. There was a perfect marriage of ingredients, spices, and flavour.

Gnocci

Gnocchi

We had decided that we would have two entrées. Vivo entertains a rustic influence in the preparation of its food, so we opted for something with less of the traditional pasta and red sauce. The first entrée was a plate of salmon, potatoes, and salad. The starters were already top and having the salmon dish made us aware fully of just how splendid Vivo is with its dishes. The salmon was lightly seared, but not to the point where the salmon was dry. No, the salmon was tender, flaky, and full of flavour. Coupled with the rustic potatoes and salad that also tasted like the ingredients had been picked from a nearby garden, we received each bite with anticipation of what our next entrée would be like.

Entrée d'Salmon, Ensalada y Papas

Entrée d’Salmon,
Ensalada y Papas

And when the next entrée arrived at the table, we were treated with something that really sets Vivo apart from any other Italian restaurant I have dined at in Chicago. We had succulent lamb in a rich brown gravy served with risotto. Of course, by now, we were moving in slow motion, but we were very much happy with the dish. The lamb must have been cooked very slow for several hours because it pulled back from the bone without any assistance from us and there was very little chewing to be done, as the lamb could have been likened to the effect that you get when you eat cotton candy. As to the risotto, I will not try to cook it at home ever again. I shall go to Vivo any time I want risotto that leaves me with a smile and a longing for more. This risotto must be flagged in some critic’s write-up as the best in any Chicago restaurant. That is not exaggeration.

Lamb and Risotto

Lamb and Risotto

We sat for a while so that we could digest a bit of the food we had been eating — for what was about two hours with ten-minute breaks in between. After some time had passed, we decided that we would have a dolce or two. However, we opted for something light. First to the table was a plate of lemon sorbet, raspberry sorbet, and a mixture of fruit. Usually I would have gelato, but the sorbet was a very nice touch and an addictive choice. The lemon sorbet tasted as fresh as a freshly squeezed lemon. The raspberry sorbet had to have been prepared with fresh raspberries, much like the ones served along with sweet strawberries, and plump grapes. Next to the table was a slice of heaven. Pistachio ice cream under meringue and served with raspberries and strawberries under hot fudge was just the dessert that could salvage any broken relationship. These desserts were so delicious that it was wrong for them to be so blooming outstanding. This was the perfect end to a fabulous meal, although we left walking in slow motion because of so much food, so much delicious and inviting food.

Italian Ice Cream

Italian Ice Cream

Vivo is not a run-of-the-mill eatery and while most restaurants that have great ambience do not have the balance of great food from the kitchen, Vivo does a fantastic job in both atmosphere and dining. It is apparent that on weekends, there is an influx of patrons and the restaurant is in constant motion. However, the service was fabulous and top in a way that should be bottled and marketed to several eateries in Chicago and outside of Chicago. If you happen to be in Chicago’s Near West Loop neighbourhood, there are several options from which you can choose for your dining pleasure. If you want a dining experience that is a guarantee not to disappoint, make Vivo at 838 W. Randolph Street your destination. It took me a long time to get there, but it will not take me a long time to return.

Vivo, Relaxation

Vivo on Urbanspoon Vivo Restaurant on Foodio54

Yassa — Absolument Délicieux

Yassa

This little piggy went to market.
This little piggy did not.
This little piggy had roast beef.
This little piggy had none.
This little piggy went to an African restaurant on the South Side of Chicago with some friends and got stuffed — and no one got shot much to everyone’s chagrin.

The next time someone screams and runs around in circles flailing his or her arms in protest of me going to a restaurant on the South Side to get some culinary satisfaction, this little piggy will clap the individual across the cheek. An adventurous restaurant friend and I, joined by a third individual who appreciates trying something other than McDonald’s, found ourselves at Yassa African Restaurant at 716 West 79th Street in Chicago’s North Chatham neighbourhood. Usually the South Side is known for the vast array of soul food cafés, catfish shacks, and rib joints. Now my people are popping up on the scene and satisfaction has resumed it’s place in my vocabulary.

Fatya

Fatya

Unlike some restaurants where you may get a side of attitude with your entrée, Yassa was worth saying that we’d return just from walking through the doors and having the owner say, “Make yourself at home. Have a seat anywhere you’d like.” And he didn’t say it with disdain. The hostess who came to the table greeted us in French and complete with a smile. My people. Apparently appreciative of good music, there was a three-piece jazz band playing live music in the background. No disc jockey scratching some records. No get-down boogie mama dancing with swivel hips. No lyrics inducing facial expressions of concern. It was all good.

Nem

Nem

What Yassa lacks in aesthetics, it makes it up in spades in the food. We ordered fataya and nem. The fataya were four rather large empanadas — pastries filled with fish and West African spices. Those lovelies would make great snacks for lazy moments at home. The nem were like egg rolls, but stuffed with fish and other spices. This is another item that I will probably order every time I go back to Yassa.

Grilled Tilapia

Grilled Tilapia

My friends and I have a saying that if the appetizers are good, then we know the entrées are certainly going to be good. Well, we were correct and we were wrong in this instance. The appetizers were big hits, but the entrées were not just merely good. They were worthy of licking the plates. Let me just say that the large portions that Yassa serves up to customers are not for the faint of heart. I repeat, the large portions are not for individuals who waste food. We ordered a whole grilled tilapia that came with a week’s supply of the best plantains — aloco — outside of Africa and the West Indies. The fish was so large that it hung off the plate and it was so tasty. The plantains were so good that you would have thought we were land sharks the way we devoured everything except the bones. We ordered dibi lamb, which were grilled lamb chops served with spicy squash and couscous. We ate it all and even got cultural. Forks? Knives? Eating good food like that without using your fingers is insulting. We picked up the meat and dealt with it like men who appreciate good food. Well, that was not enough. We had brochette chicken, which is chicken, peppers, and onions done up shish kabob style and served with atieke and spicy squash. The atieke was yucca prepared like couscous. To wash all of these good eats down, we had sorrel juice and ginger juice. Just thinking about the juice now makes me want to get on the bus and go back right this moment. My people.

Brochette Chicken

Brochette Chicken

I should have mentioned that the plates were the size of party platters. I didn’t think it was possible to serve that amount of food and still stay in business. Then again, seeing how many customers were coming in and out, it then became apparent that as long as the restaurant serves up great food and outstanding service, they could care less about the overwhelming portions. I know that’s a high selling point for me. My people.

One dessert common in Senegal is thiakry and we ordered that after dinner. Thiakry is curdled milk with millet. Think yogurt, but with a dash of Africa thrown in for extra taste. I’ll take it. Given all the food that we had devoured, this was a hearty enough drink to please the tummy while not being stuffed more than what we were already.

Dibi Lamb

Dibi Lamb

For all of the food, juice, and dessert that we ordered, how much do you think we paid? How much do you think we should have paid? When we looked at the tab, we wondered if the waitress had forgotten something. The price is incredibly inexpensive, especially when you take into consideration the large portions of food that you receive. Then again, it’s not the price that matters as much as the satisfaction that you get. The faces of the customers and the silence of my growling belly were true indications of how great Yassa African Restaurant is. We went. We ate. We three little piggies exhaled all the way home. And we’ve already made plans to go back, even if it is the only restaurant on the South Side that will give my business to. Am I wrong for that? My belly says, “No.” My people.

Yassa African Restaurant on Urbanspoon