Momotaro, West Loop Japanese Style

MomotaroWith warmer temperatures in Chicago, dining invitations are coming in steadily. In a single day, I had an invitation to lunch for a sampling of Mediterranean food and an invitation to a dining event involving several Italian eateries later in the afternoon. To add to my plate, my restaurant advisor had booked me for dinner at Momotaro in Chicago’s West Loop at 820 W. Lake Street. Arriving for early dinner on a Wednesday evening, the restaurant generated a feeling of Friday after work. The dining area was filled and the energy was high. With the understanding that Momotaro prepares dishes for those who like small plates, we agreed to order several items that were good enough for getting a range of tastes.

One item we started with that we had not indulged at any Japanese restaurants was ikejime. Think of an orange gazpacho served with harami sashimi that comes atop ice. You put the sashami in the gazpacho and then enjoy. The pro was the dish was so blooming good. The con was the dish was so blooming good that we wanted it in a larger portion.

Ikejime

Ikejime

The unagi don was a highlight. This came in a small bowl as a mix of barbecued eel with shiitake and kanpyo mixed in rice. The unagi don was rather reminiscent of bibimbap prepared tableside at Korean restaurants. A plus to this menu item was that there was a liberal amount of barbecued eel for the feast.

Unagi Don

Unagi Don

Next for our palates was kani jomaki. This was a maki roll filled with cucumbers, crab, eel, and tomago. After a brief dip in the accompanying soy sauce, the rest was devoured without use of the sauce. If you order this dish, do not use soy sauce. This maki roll should be enjoyed without any palate disruptions from extra sauces.

Kani Jomaki

Kani Jomaki

Sticking with eel as a main ingredient, we had una kyu. Again, this was a maki roll that did not require soy sauce for dipping. Since there were some flavourful dabs on the plate, we used those instead. Outstanding and nothing but fresh taste of eel, this roll was more fantastic than most specialty rolls. Simple is often better, as was the case here.

Una Kyu

Una Kyu

Now that our rockets had been primed, the kani miso was the final countdown to liftoff and we were well on our way to the stars. I love seafood. However, my restaurant advisor feens for crab and the kani miso was a crab lover’s vice. There was creamy crab miso inside of a crab. Served with sourdough, there was no conversation while devouring this dish. There were the occasional acknowledgements of “This is delicious,” “Wow,” and “I don’t want this to end,” though.

Kani Miso

Kani Miso

And as all good things must come to an end, we had an ebi sashimi as a l’amuse between dinner and dessert. Rather than the ebi being served inside of a shell, butterflied, or simply outside of the shell, the chef had prepared the shrimp to a tartar texture.  This was a new way of having shrimp and one that satisfied the palate.

Ebi Sashimi

Ebi Sashimi

One dessert consisted of green peaches with a meringue crumble and a dollop of vanilla ice cream. This was another surprise, as one always think of peaches that bakers put into peach pies and peach cobblers. Green peaches are different, with the same burst in flavour, and rather sweet. For anyone saying, I will not eat green peaches, Sam I Am, you will after you have them at Momotaro.

Green Peaches and Cream

Green Peaches and Cream

The final dish was a citrus angel food cake with fruit and ice cream. If one could describe a flavour, think of a dreamsicle. The combination of orange from the cake and vanilla from the ice cream took me back to my youth of having a go of those frozen treats no sooner than my parents brought them into the house. After so much food, this dessert, as was the plate of peaches and cream, was light.

Angel Food Cake with Fruit and Cream

Angel Food Cake with Fruit and Cream

Momotaro always makes the list of top sushi restaurants to sample from in the city. The menu isn’t extensive, so the potential for being overwhelmed with too many options is small. I highly recommend getting a taste of as many small plates as possible and indulging the hot plate items. Yes, you can have sushi, nigiri, and sashimi from any Japanese restaurant. Momotaro seems to do an outstanding job letting diners enjoy a different variety of other Japanese delicacies while maintaining authenticity in the output. West Loop cheated with drawing a crowd with wide palates with the opening of Momotaro.

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

Make Maki, Not War — Miku Sushi Lounge

Miku Sushi Restaurant

A few weeks ago I received an email with a recommendation for a sushi lounge in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighbourhood. I must admit that I was rather pleased to have received such a recommendation, given that every time someone suggests a sushi restaurant to me they have been addictive to the point of me constantly returning. With the weather finally being nice in Chicago, I was off to Miku Sushi Restaurant at 4514 N. Lincoln Avenue.

Sunrise Martini

Sunrise Martini

Arriving during noon, I was not subjected to the congestion of the dinner crowd. I had a seat at the sushi bar and briefly scanned the menu. With it being a Saturday and me having the weekend to do as I pleased, I had a sunrise martini during midday. It was rather reminiscent of a Bahama Mama, mostly because there was rum in the mix. One word comes to mind: refreshing.

Kobacha Squash and Crab Soup

Kobacha Squash and Crab Soup

For a starter, I had kobacha squash and crab soup. There is one other sushi lounge, Sen Sushi in Oak Park, that serves kobacha squash and crab soup that I love. And the fact that there is real crab in the recipe, not imitation crab, I was all the more pleased. Now that I know Miku Sushi Lounge has it on their menu, I don’t have to go all the way to Oak Park for this delicious bowl of bliss.

Spicy Shrimp Maki

Spicy Shrimp Maki

My appetite was cranked high enough for me to consider indulging three sushi rolls, and three sushi rolls I indeed indulged. The first was a spicy shrimp maki. There was nothing about this roll that was forgettable, from the fresh ingredients to the burst of flavour with each bite. And, yes, it was spicy, which became more evident when the soy sauce I had infused with wasabi was not required.

Unagi Maki

Unagi Maki

The second maki roll was an unagi roll. Not being one to shy away from eel in my sushi, this was definitely a tasty inclusion in this maki roll. One thing I noticed with the eel was that it had a silky texture. This was in no way a bad thing, but I have never had unagi that was that heavenly on the tongue. Not overdone with sauce, most of this roll was enjoyed without soy sauce for dipping.

Ebi Tempuri Maki

Ebi Tempuri Maki

The ebi tempura maki was simply outstanding. Again, the shrimp was fresh, as were all of the ingredients. I was expecting the ebi tempura maki roll to be slightly pedestrian compared to the spicy shrimp and unagi maki rolls. I was well beyond pleased with the crunch from the tempura and the inviting kick from dipping each piece in the soy sauce with wasabi.

Chocolate Cream Martini

Chocolate Cream Martini

Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Egg Rolls

Dessert Egg Rolls

Still having some room for dessert, I had a chocolate cream martini and chocolate chip cookie dough egg rolls. As to the cocktail, it simply is not possible to go wrong with adding chocolate to the mix. The martini was prepared in such a way that the alcohol was not heavy, which was perfect for allowing the chocolate liqueur to taste like chocolate rather than medicinally. The egg rolls were cute and I liked them, although I would have fallen in love with the dessert had the cookie dough been baked before encased in the wonton and fried. I must admit that the accompanying strawberry sauce added a nice touch.

Miku Sushi Lounge is a spacious restaurant with the usual decor found in sushi lounges. Although the restaurant can accommodate a large capacity of diners, the service, price and food no doubt draw a crowd after 7:00 PM. For a neighbourhood that is teeming with Irish pubs, the flavours from the other side of the Pacific Ocean are also welcomed. To the individual who recommended Miku Sushi Lounge, arigatou gozaimasu.

Miku Sushi on Urbanspoon

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.

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

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

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.

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