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.

Self-Assessment, Thai Style

Silom 12

At various times I take self-assessments that give me clarity and reality checks to keep my head out of the clouds. I have accepted the fact that I live in a trendy section of Chicago that is becoming more hip by the minute. I also accept the fact that I will not have a six-pack abdomen ever again – unless I do something drastic like resort to liposuction. At the risk of making a sexist statement, it is actually okay to be physically attracted to someone before dating them rather than trying ridiculously hard to convince yourself that you really want to wake up next to someone who makes your withdraw. And I acknowledge fully that Chicago is North America’s answer to outstanding food. Meanwhile, someone is saying, “No, New York City is” – where appetizers at brand name restaurants start at around $45.

Seafood Sauce and Chips

Seafood Sauce and Chips

With my condominium in the midst of going through some renovation, things are a bit all over the place. Bad enough I am all sixes and nines because of having things scattered, that does not interfere with my constant appetite. Rather than fidgeting around in the kitchen trying to concoct something to gobble before going to a Fourth of July barbecue to look at people devour chicken and ribs drowned in sauce, I figured I would get something righteous – and healthy, per my self-affirmation. Remembering a certain Thai restaurant that I have ordered take-away from several time, I left my condo in its disarray and zoomed to Silom 12 at 1846 N. Milwaukee Avenue.

Ginger Tea

Ginger Tea

The weather had been waffling between fair skies and overcast with a suspect look for a sudden downpour. So, instead of sitting outside and chancing having my food get doused by rainfall, I sat inside by a ceiling-to-floor window that opened up to the outside. It was the middle of the day and everyone was probably going towards the lake to watch fireworks – if there were any to be on display once the sun set. I had placed my order, got my camera ready, heaved a slight sigh, and three women came in and chose to sit next to me. Of all the spots in the empty restaurant, they sat next to me and gossiped loudly. I think I have been cursed.

Tuna Tataki

Tuna Tataki

I started with ginger tea to get my stomach ready for all the tasty food I was going to indulge. Let me just say that this ginger tea was not from a tea bag. There were crispy rice chips and a seafood sauce that had a faint hint of barbecue to it. How about that for the Fourth of July. This was a unique complimentary serving, light, yet blooming with flavour. My first hearty dish was an appetizer of tuna tataki. This was a very appetizing plate of seared tuna that was sesame-crusted with crispy egg noodles in a spicy Thai style seafood reduction. Served over julienne cucumber that came out of a garden, completely untouched by pesticides and “make it grow faster” enhancers, those three pretty-pretties had to watch my facial expressions of appreciation. I have had tuna tataki at several Japanese robata grills, but now I can say absolutely that Silom 12 has a version on its menu that is serious taste-worthy competition.

Larb Tod

Larb Tod

My next dish was larb tod. This was a plate of fried, ground chicken in rice powder and fresh herbs served with lemon over a bed of lettuce and red onions. I have a friend whose aunt had sent him hot curry from Thailand a few years ago and he prepared some larb for me that was immediately addictive. I was expecting the same from Silom 12, and it may have been the absence of the curry that detracted from what I was expecting. It was good, but I was thinking the first bite would have left me with a facial expression of wow. Nevertheless, my appetite refused to allow me complaining time, so the larb tod disappeared after I had worked my chopsticks on the dish for several minutes. And then came the dish that I was really at Silom 12 to have anyway – panang gari goong. That had been my dish of choice every time I called for delivery or take-away. The panang curry was sweet and spicy the way I requested, without leaving me with the feeling that my hair was on fire, though. Filled with red and green peppers, green beans, and plump shrimp, I was okay knowing that I could sit through any barbecue and watch people smear barbecue sauce across their lips, chins, cheeks, and every across their receding hair lines.

Panang Gari Goong

Panang Gari Goong

I washed the remaining lunch down with the ginger tea from the first cup and was then ready for a wrap-up of dessert. Per my server’s suggestion, there was banana wonton for my delight. Ripe bananas, accented with cinnamon and sugar, and fried inside of a wonton to a crisp went over so very well. There were slices of bananas on the side and a fantastic scoop of vanilla ice cream drizzled with caramel and lime sauce. Now, I could have had Thai custard, sticky rice and mango, and perhaps some other Thai favourite. But the banana wonton was ideal for my ridiculous craving. Truth be told, I was in a complete meditative state after I had finished the dessert and downed the last cup of ginger tea. Everything was quite okay in my world.

Banana Wonton

Banana Wonton

It is a good thing that I had ordered from Silom 12 several times before my in-house visit. It is a must that I dine at the restaurant before I feature it on Chicago Alphabet Soup, so this trip was necessary. The price is comparable to what you find at all Thai restaurants in the Chicago metropolitan area. The service was several notches past outstanding. And if you like the lounge scene – i.e., seating, interior design, and ambient music – Silom 12 is the place for you. When all was said and done, I left with another self-assessment.

I will be going back.

Silom 12 on Urbanspoon