Wrap It Up, I’ll Take It

Bombay Wraps

The Chicago Blackhawks hockey team won the Stanley Cup. That meant Chicago was in the throes of a huge celebration and downtown was teeming with red jerseys, drunken presentations, and suburbanites who were acting as though they had never seen skyscrapers before.

“Wow, look at those buildings. They’re so tall. They go way up into the sky.”

Mango Lassi

Mango Lassi

And since the weather was nice outside and majority of the parade spectators were lingering around until the after-work rush hour, that meant public transportation was going to be a wild and packed ride for the few stops I take to get home. So, I lingered around downtown a little longer and wandered over to a certain Indian café that really gets me going with a smile.

Bombay Wraps at 122 N. Well Street in the Loop is a sparkling hole in the wall that server some really, really tasty street food. There are seats inside, but mostly when I’ve gone, which was during noon, the place has been filled such that you get your food to go. They close around 6:00 PM through the week, but stay open late on Fridays. Well, since people who work downtown go home or as far away from their job locations as possible, I figured I would get something quick from Bombay Wraps and call it a wrap.

Samosas and Cilantro Chutney

Samosas and Cilantro Chutney

Samosas with cilantro chutney. Potato tava wrap. Chicken tikka wrap. Mango lassi.

I sat outside and worked those samosas over with the casualness of a dignified brute. I love that the samosas are bite size rather than the size of a fist. Don’t get me wrong, as I smile with rapture any time I get a delicious samosa, be it large or small. But these, for some reason, are perfect. So flaky and bursting with potatoes and peas, it would be hard to even pretend like they do nothing for me.

Potato Tava

Potato Tava

The potato tava that came with curried mashed and chunky potatoes in a chapati wrap starts my rocket every time. I get it with spicy cilantro chutney and red onions – the latter to fend off pests, but me brushing my teeth and negates the effects of the onions. My rocket shoots straight for the stars with the chicken tikka wrap every time. The spicy sauce and red onions on the chicken tikka wrap really accents the dish with a kick that keeps me coming back to Bombay Wraps. And the pre-made mango lassi works beautifully as an all-natural drink. No high fructose corn syrup in my drink, please. I guess you could say that I am as fascinated with Bombay Wraps as the suburbanites are with wringing their necks looking up at the buildings on the downtown skyline.

Chicken Tikka

Chicken Tikka

I love going to full service Indian restaurants because it is a guarantee that the food is worthy of the visit. This whole concept of Indian street food is nothing new to me, having had it in surplus while visiting in Bangalore, Delhi, and Sri Lanka. I would make a wild statement about there needing to be more, but with the proliferation of Middle Eastern restaurants and all of them having the Chipotle assembly line technique to food preparation – and food quality a few notches below okay – I shall bite down hard and accept Bombay Wraps as “the” place to go for worthwhile street goodies.

To quote the Fabulous Thunderbirds from years ago: Wrap it up, I’ll take it.

Bombay Wraps on Urbanspoon

Your Love Deserves an Encore

During my high school days, there was a singer by the name of Cheryl Lynn. You may remember her songs “Got to Be Real,” “Shake It Up Tonight,” and “Star Love.” Here we had a woman with the pipes of an angel and who could stand flat-footed at the microphone and belt out a song without any studio magic — or that awful auto-tune phenomenon — to cover up poor vocal talents. And she did not shake her rump like she was performing in a Bollywood video. I loved the songs that Cheryl Lynn graced the airwaves with. But there was one song in particular that I played endlessly when I had first heard it. “Encore.” Your good loving deserves an encore, she would sing. And when I find myself returning to certain restaurants, I am reminded of how much “Encore” applies and I all but bring my own microphone and perform for others at the restaurants.

Lobster Gyoza

Earlier during the summer I went to a relatively new restaurant in Oak Park, Illinois, named Seven Ocean. Sitting at 122 N. Marion Street in the cobblestone stretch among boutiques and cafes, I was thoroughly impressed with the dining experience and the service I had received. Granted I had a prix fixe meal along with a wine pairing, I walked away feeling that the summer menu was absolutely brilliant and the chef will make a mark in the culinary world if the restaurant continues to perform with an air of high calibre affectation. Now that the temperatures had started to become consistently chilly, that being autumn was in the air, I wondered if Seven Ocean was one of those restaurants that changed their menus to be reflective of the seasons. The answer, in short, was yes and there was, of course, the tune in my head of Cheryl Lynn singing my favourite song.

While having a quick stroll through Oak Park and having stopped in at a nearby dessert shop for a quick cup of coffee, I sauntered over to Seven Ocean and allowed the magnet to pull me on in completely. Although there were no comfy sofas and chaises placed strategically throughout the restaurant, there was the sound of boutique jazz playing in the background that made everything that more inviting. I still think that the design was done per a man. The straight lines and muted olive earth tones were nothing akin to flash, flair, reds, and curves. The aesthetics of the restaurant are too stiff, and that may be why the food is the antithesis of the cosmetics of the restaurant. Talk about a well-placed balance. Because I had sampled the summer fare from the prix fixe menu, I settled for creating my own menu selection.

Seaweed Salad

Often I like to request recommendations from the server as to what he or she would prefer. That works brilliantly at times, but it is a bit of a presumptuous thought that the servers know exactly what I want and will suggest bill of fare items without me wincing. Many times, I do believe they have been so worked to near spiritual defeat during their work hours that they appreciate someone requesting his or her own meal. There are moments when you can hear the sigh from servers as though air is being released from a deflating tire when you lead in with, “What would you recommend?” In restaurants where the faces change rather quickly, it helps knowing what you want before the server approaches the table to take the order. Having witnessed some fed-up servers make recommendations in a manner fitting for a saucy comedy club sketch, I showed a bit of a command for what I think is best for my palate — I should be an expert on my own taste.

Coconut Soup

My approach to the meal was to delight a multi-course meal with a pescatarian fare. I started with lobster stuffed gyoza. Japanese style gyozas filled with lobster, sitting atop shiso leaves and red cabbage, and glazed with a ponzu sauce was absolutely a great choice for a starter. The gyozas gave an Asian influence to the appetizer and perhaps had there been only one gyoza and I was at an Italian trattoria, I could have called it a l’amuse bouche. Alas, there was nothing left of the gyozas after a few slow minutes of me slicing, forking, and indulging. A few minutes passed and then there was the second course, a seaweed salad. Seaweed may not look all that appetizing when you are snorkelling, but Japanese seaweed, cucumber, sesame, and vinegar dressing never tasted so divine. The seaweed had the texture of well-cooked, thin green beans and the vinegar dressing entertained a citrus flavouring that would leave most questioning whether there was any vinegar in the dressing at all. There is something to be said for a salad looking so bland having such a bloom to its taste. Again, here was another course that had an Asian influence to it that did not fail.

In keeping with a Thai appeal, there was coconut soup. I was already quite enthralled with the first two courses, but the coconut soup as the autumn soup went over so well that I did not miss anything in the pumpkin or yam family doctored up with a hint of cinnamon, a dash or nutmeg, or a touch of allspice. There were crab meat, shimeji mushrooms, and tobiko that arrive in a bowl and then covered with steamed coconut milk. If you have ever been to a Thai restaurant, I guess I could relate the soup to tom kha. You may have recognized from my many posts on Thai restaurants where I have been that I have a very strong preference for foods influenced by Thai culture. The pairing of the herbs and spices in the recipes never fall short of works of culinary care, evident in the high notes of flavours in the dishes served. That same notion became apparent after a whiff of the coconut soup at Seven Ocean, well before the first sip. Also with the soup, I had a Sauvignon Blanc from a vineyard in New Zealand. Neither dry nor sweet, there was a hint of a floral note that made the wine a superb complement with the soup. I could not have offered a better wine suggestion and this was where I deferred to my server for an ideal selection of wine to accompany the meal.

Prawn Yakisoba

By the time I was finished with the soup, I had convinced myself that nothing could possibly go wrong. Then the prawn yakisoba over Asian cabbage accented with soba sauce and fish flake that moved its own from the rising heat, came to the table. I had started singing “Encore” by Cheryl Lynn off key, making up words for the lyrics that I could not remember, humming the song in other parts, doing a little dance with my eyes closed, and then opening my eyes to see that some other customers and my server were staring at me. The prawn yakisoba was absolutely fantastic, but I had to deal with my embarrassment however I saw fit. It was just that in the meantime, the succulent, well-seasoned shrimp had a wow factor along with the noodles in the rich sauce. Another glass of the Sauvignon Blanc and there was no argument that the prawn yakisoba became, at that moment, my all-time favourite autumn dish. Realizing that I had already made a fool of myself with my singing and dancing, and I could not go back in time to catch myself, I began humming again. This time, I kept it low enough that no one could hear me.

When I first went to Seven Ocean, I had a dessert of sticky rice with mango and crème fraiche. During the evening of my most recent jaunt, I had a different take on the dessert. There was sticky rice but topped with a mango sorbet and then there was a moat of light mango soufflé around the scoop of sorbet. Brilliant, I thought to myself, as I enjoyed the magic of each spoonful. When the dessert was mentioned, I initially thought that I was going to have the same dessert I had during my first visit. Part of my misunderstanding was because I was still bandying the song “Encore” around in my mind while the server was telling me about the dessert. Oh was I glad I decided to have it instead of coffee. If someone were to ask me to define love, I would tell them to got to Seven Ocean and request the autumn version of dessert.

Mango Sorbet and Souffle Over Coconut Sticky Rice

So, after all was done, I was very happy that I had gone to Seven Ocean for a sampling of the autumn menu. It was not only a meal, but it was an experience. Like all of the restaurants where I have returned for more than one visit, I was again taken in to the point where I made plans to return during the month of January or February to see what their winter menu will have for those who appreciate fine dining and something with an unconventional twist. Because Seven Ocean is up-scale, the price is reflective accordingly. The restaurant is not a showcase in fanfare or grandstanding. Simply put, the service and dining are smashing. Yes, Seven Ocean, your good loving deserves an encore.

Seven Ocean on Urbanspoon

If I Were Lost

Saigon Pho  CafeOne of the things about being a part of the international community is that I am indeed open to trying new and exciting things, especially when it comes to food. As of late, I have been going to restaurants and switching into a mode of what it would be like to be abroad, lost, and hungry. Although I have several languages in my multilingual box, there could be the chance that I wind up somewhere among people who can only acknowledge my presence, but who cannot communicate with me other than with a nod, a quizzical frown, a smile, and a response of “Sorry, but I don’t speak English.” In the meantime, I would have to eat and it would help to not be a haughty American who sneers at everything that does not get come in the form of French fries, hamburger, hot dog, steak, potatoes, or macaroni and cheese. American comfort food has taught me one thing: it will bloat your waistline more than it will get you help abroad if you are hungry.

Egg Rolls

Egg Rolls

I went to Forest Park, Illinois, to a stretch of eateries along Madison Street. On this particular day when I went, there were several different languages that I picked up and that is not something you find too common in the suburbs unless you are in the middle of a tourist setting where global visitors congregate. But in the midst of all the languages bandied about, outdoor cafes with patrons taking coffee, and quaint little side streets, there was a Vietnamese cafe that beckoned to me more. I obeyed and entered Saigon Pho & Cafe at 7237 Madison Street.

Mango Smoothie

Mango Smoothie

The inside is reminiscent of a polished hole in the wall. Far from the usual garish display that you may find at some Asian restaurants, it was quite homey. Being the only exotic in the restaurant, I was greeted with authenticity, not with distance. That was absolutely cool because the welcome made it a little easier to switch into the mode of imagining what it would be like to be in Hanoi somewhere off the beaten path and wanting something to eat rather than being guarded. I have been to several Vietnamese restaurants. However, I have never been to Vietnam and noting that the wait staff and a few who poked their heads out from the kitchen were all Vietnamese, I figured this would also give me the chance to try a few words in the language to give myself comfort. All of that went out the window when the waiter saw my camera and we launched into lengthy conversation about cameras, camera equipment, photography, and locations for getting great shots.

After the pleasantries had been exchanged and I had gotten out a few butchered words in Vietnamese, I placed my order. I ordered a mango smoothie without tapioca pearls. I love those pearls but even with the straw being wide, they tend to block the flow of the smoothie. Asian restaurants and cafes have a monopoly on smoothies and getting them correct. The mango smoothie at Saigon Pho & Cafe came in a fancy glass with a decorative stirrer, not in a plastic cup. And let me just say that the flavour exploded and had a little bit of pulp in it, which was all the hint I needed to know that some actual mangoes had been in a blender for the drink. And to go along with the smootie, I had egg rolls with a spicy plum sauce. Much like mini egg rolls that you have at Chinese and Thai restaurants, they were crunchy on the outside and filled with carrots, bean sprouts, and chopped shrimp.

Seafood Pho

Seafood Pho

With the weather having waffled a bit as of late, my sinuses had been having their merry way with me. Knowing that Vietnamese food can have a kick to it, I scanned the menu for one of the soups. If you do not remember anything about Vietnamese cuisine, they tend to shame anyone who attempts to make a good soup. The seafood pho that I had was a prime example. Loaded with vermicelli, shrimp, mussels, and fish balls, not only did the spices tell my nasal passages to behave but the taste was dazzling. But let me not forget one ingredient that I would otherwise assume the haughty American stance and thumb my nose in disdain. There were a few pieces of tripe in the soup. Ah, don’t bother looking it up on Google. Tripe is the inner lining of the stomach. We all know that chitterlings are a delicacy, and one that I would gladly endure being set on fire for rather than eating. However, tripe is one ingredient that I have partaken of in Nigerian pepper soup and in other Vietnamese soup without as much as a grimace. It may be that the texture is more akin to that of calamari rather than that of an uncooked dumpling. It may be that I have beheld the malodorous horror of chitterlings before they were boiled to their edible state and not experienced the same of tripe. It may also be that tripe, if cooked the right way, has more of a seasoned taste to it. Either way, I devoured all of the soup.

Vietnamese Crepe

Vietnamese Crepe

Wanting at least one other thing to journal for my experience at Saigon Pho & Cafe, I ordered a Vietnamese crepe with shrimp. Brought to the table on a large plate was a crepe stuffed with shrimp, bean sprouts, and spices. There was also a plate of lettuce, mint, carrots, cucumber, and a vinaigrette sauce. In the traditional manner of eating the dish, you take a little bit of the crepe, wrap it in lettuce with carrots and cucumber, dip it in the vinaigrette sauce, and then eat. There was only a little bit of the crepe that I could tackle before surrendering and requesting a box for the remainder of it. While I waited and cashed out, the waiter and I talked more about cameras, the wise choice of buying a camera body and investing in lenses, and recommendations of some Vietnamese restaurants in the city north of where I live.

For the few phrases of Vietnamese that I did get off my tongue, with a few corrections, English is quite a common language there. That’s fine, but when going to restaurants where there is someone in the kitchen or taking the order who knows as much English as I know Vietnamese, it would help to have a comfort requesting something for the palate. At Saigon Pho & Cafe, the price was much less that what one would expect. And with the wait staff being cool with my attempt at the language, I have a feeling that much like the way I learned Thai, I will polish my language talents in Vietnamese while indulging some pho on a regular basis. Hmm. No chance for me getting lost in Forest Park getting to the restaurant, for sure.

Saigon Pho & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Bang the Gong

Hot Woks, Cool Sushi

ChopsticksYears ago, a great friend and I used to frequent a restaurant in downtown Chicago named My Thai. It was a fantastic escape after work on Fridays for some of the best curry dishes that you could find in the city. And if curry was not something we were hankering for, then there were other dishes like pad thai, bamee noodles, basil chicken, or ginger tofu. We never wanted for anything that was not served up lovingly from their kitchen. Then after a length of time not going, we happened to go to the restaurant one day after work and discovered a surprise — it was no longer there, but replaced with another Pan-Asian restaurant. How could this be? Who had allowed this to happen? Why were we not consulted for our permission? And the other My Thai chains were not in walking distance such that our growling bellies would entertain any more time seeking good Thai cuisine in the immediate area. So, we took a chance and had some food so yummy that it left us quivering. Bang the gong!

Fast forward to a few days ago, and I found myself at one of the chains for this new restaurant. Located at 2032 W. Roscoe Village is one of the sister restaurants for Hot Woks Cool Sushi. The first chain branch where my friend and I had gone still retained the minimalist feel that the prior My Thai restaurant had. Another branch that is two blocks from where I work in downtown Chicago has chic-chic ambience. The location in Roscoe Village brings the same air to it. Minimalist and airy, I had a window seat off to the side of the sushi chef stand. As I perused the lunch menu, I remembered saying that I would not blog chain or franchise restaurants. Well, when it is good, there is no denying that a write-up is necessary. As for Hot Woks Cool Sushi, I had to ask myself why it had taken so long to pen how worthy the whole dining experience there is.

GyosaHot Woks Cool Sushi has Japanese and Thai cuisines on the menu with a hint of Chinese added for a little more fusion appeal. I opted for the Japanese selection. As usual, I had to start with an appetizer, entertain an entrée, and work my way up to dessert. Starting out, I had gyoza. In many Asian dining, you will hear the term pot stickers. Yep, these are the same, and served with a soy sauce they are incredibly heavenly on the palate. These were a little more crispy on the outside than usual and that actually worked in their favour as they absorbed more of the sauce. And I tended to all five pieces until there was only the shredded carrots left that I also gobbled with a smirk plastered across my face.

Unagi Maki and Spicy ShrimpWith it being lunch time and me having missed breakfast, I did not hold back on ordering two maki rolls. I had a ravenous appetite — albeit no more mad than usual. There are two types of maki rolls that I love, hands down. There was unagi maki and a spicy shrimp maki. Once I got over the notion that eel was not a snake, as opposed to seafood, I could enjoy eel rolled up in some rice and served sushi style. Hence, the unagi roll being one that I ordered without hesitation. I am not one to speak to which part of the week seafood is freshest in restaurants, but the eel was absolutely tasty without any “old” or muddy accents in the flavour. I was quite happy working my chopsticks on the maki pieces and plopping them in my mouth. There were smiles, although I was not on Fantasy Island, but I was quite appreciative of the wonders of what sat before me. And when I had begun to attend to the spicy shrimp, I was devoutly in love. Having been to the East Coast and returned with a bit of sinus congestion, the kick in the spicy shrimp maki opened my nasal passages nicely. And ever so the danger boy that I am, I dipped the pieces in the soy sauce that I had primed with a few small dollops of wasabi. Happiness. Bliss. Rapture. Glee. Elation. Pick a word, any word to describe how satisfied I was and submit it to Webster’s with a photo of my smiling face for inclusion in the dictionary. Then again, only my expression could describe the satisfaction I derived from fresh ingredients wrapped in rice, stacked neatly on a plate for my temptation, and the flavour that dance about between my cheeks.

Unagi Maki and Spicy ShrimpAs if that was not enough, I simply could not leave without having dessert. No sticky rice with mango. No sticky rice, period. No Thai custard. Sure, those were on the menu, but I had to have mochi balls. I was all about them bringing me mango and green tea mochi balls. As I sat at my window seat having my way with the cold dessert, I pondered the marvel of cloud formations flying above in the sky. As you may have noticed, I have a tendency to pontificate about meaningless things when I am indulging culinary delights. I wondered where do these Asian restaurants find these ice cream balls. One friend said that I can find them at Trader Joe’s. Believe me when I say that I will go to all of the Trader Joe’s in the metropolitan Chicago area in search of these delights — until I go back to Hot Woks Cool Sushi.

Mochi Balls

Now, at most sushi restaurants that dole out the same quality as Hot Woks Cool Sushi, you can expect to pay the price handsomely. I cannot say whether it is for ambience or for name at many Japanese establishments, but at Hot Woks Cool Sushi you pay an inviting tab for atmosphere, top service, and a quality dining experience. I may have had my purist thoughts about chain restaurants when I started Chicago Alphabet Soup, but it takes certain establishments to wreck that meme and have me rumpled at the table, all but drooling while trying to figure out when next I can get my feet under the table again at — shall we say — Hot Woks Cool Sushi.

Bang the gong!

Hot Woks Cool Sushi on Urbanspoon

Eurythmics Comes to Mind

Sweet dreams are made of this,
Who am I to disagree?
I travelled the world and the seven seas,
Everybody’s looking for something

Ah, I remember that song from the Eurythmics, way back when I was in high school and a huge fan of the 80’s British invasion. That song had been playing quite a bit recently, and I attribute part of it to serendipity in advance of me going to a boutique restaurant in Oak Park, Illinois, named Seven Ocean. While Annie Lennox provided her velvet voice over the words “seven seas,” Seven Ocean fit rather nicely and I was happy all the same, for I was going to have an adventure in fine dining.

Willamet Valley Vineyards RiselingLocated in downtown Oak Park at 122 N. Marion Street on a cobblestone stretch of small shops, restaurants, and independent cafes, is the neighbourhood’s most recent addition — Seven Ocean. Providing fine cuisine with an Asian influence, Seven Ocean is minimalist in its interior decoration. Not that ambience only defines a restaurant, that being the food here takes centre stage, there is a Stanley Kubrick sterile feel that I actually like. Then again, the man in me loves straight lines, simple colours, and lots of space. With nice jazz playing in the background, I was certain that the evening was going to be worth the visit. Given an intrepid and great waiter, he explained to me what I would receive in a seven-course tasting with wine pairing. Lucky for me I had skipped having a hearty lunch because seven courses with wine were certain to induce a state of bliss.

Tuna Tar Tar

For starting, I had tuna tar tar with a 2010 Riesling from Willamette Valley Vineyards. As far as white wines go, and I am not a wine snob, you simply cannot go wrong with a Riesling. On the dish, the only meat that I like raw is that in sushi. Even in Japan, I was okay delighting myself with several dishes of seafood that had not passed over any flame. Tar tar, on the other hand, is something I tend to avoid, mostly because it is some tar tar made from beef or another four-legged animal that I do not even eat cooked. However, the tuna tar tar at Seven Ocean receives exemption. Fresh tuna with Asian pear, avocado, aioli, raw wasabi tobileo, and chilli oil came on a plate with fried lotus root chips. So colourful, so appealing, and so appetizing, I slowly worked the tuna tar tar until there was only a faint smear of the chilli oil left. Not that I will indulge myself relentlessly on any other kind of tar tar after loving the tuna tar tar the way that I did, I will remember that Asian influence in food entertains exotic preparation. It was evident that Seven Ocean got it correct.

Fried Tiger Prawn

The second course was tiger prawn, lightly breaded and fried with a crust reminiscent of tempura. Served with beet root, wasabi sprout, and a tamarind caramel reduction, it had dawned on me that I was then in food heaven. Yes, the portions were small, as this was a taste, but the prawns were so plump that they practically popped shortly after my teeth sank past the tempura crust. Low-key jazz music playing in the background, each bite was hypnotic. Had there been a worry bothering me earlier, I had completely forgotten whatever the trouble was by the time I had finished the second course.

Edamame Cream Soup

Black Rice Noodle Served Cold in Balsamic VinaigretteThen came another glass of a white wine, a 2011 stainless Chardonnay from Chamisal Vineyards. A bit dryer than the Riesling, it was still an excellent accompaniment to the edamame cream soup that came as the third course. Usually, you when you hear the word edamame, you think of the bowl of salted beans served at Japanese restaurants. Served as a soup with soy, fresh cream tobiko and truffle oil and bacon infusing, you have a winning delicacy. After the second course was a peak dish, I initially thought that the soup was going to be a trip down into the valley. Absolutely not. Given some light, tasty bread or some exotic wafers, I could eat that edamame soup endlessly while enjoying wine with it.

Next to the table was black rice noodle served cold in balsamic vinaigrette with crab meat and sweet pepper over an asparagus spear. There was a tremendous Japanese persuasion in this dish. Not really sold on the course when the waiter was first explaining the dish, I was completely wowed after twirling a bit of the noodle and spooning it with the crab meat onto my tongue. Far from elaborate in presentation, the flavour was a work of culinary art and I beheld the visual effect briefly before continuing to polish off the rest. Even the asparagus spear that looked to have been steamed only tasted better than some doctored-up asparagus that I have had at other eateries. The fourth course was another winner.

Fried Red Snapper

Up to the table with the fifth course was a glass of 2011 savignon blanc from Wither Hills Vineyard in Marlborough, New Zealand. Not a bad choice, it was an ideal selection for the fried red snapper. Pan seared with home made sweet and sour sauce, chopped apple, red onion, and dried chilli, I could have stopped, said that the five courses were top, requested the bill, paid, and left it at that. The West Indian in me loves red snapper, but having it at Seven Ocean really introduced a lust factor for the seafood that I had never experienced before. I thought the presentation was eye-catching, but nothing compared to the concert of ingredients making such a delectable recipe for love. And the savignon blanc was a remarkable partnering. Just to savour each bite, I was slow about engaging the dish to completion too fast and then having eater’s remorse. Love is to be cherished and that red snapper was the epitome of love.

Roast Duck Breast

When I thought that nothing could best what I had eaten already, there came as the sixth course a glass of 2009 cabernet savignon from La Linda Vineyards and roast duck breast in mild Thai red curry with saffron rice, crispy fried red onion, and langon. After the first bite, I forced myself to pause. Words could not describe how much I wanted to dance, sing, do something involving running for no apparent reason. Let me just say that the langon, which is an Asian tree fruit like lichee, tasted better than any plum or grape that I have ever had. Naturally sweet, this otherwise bland looking ball is so delicious that I would find it hard to believe that Asian children cringe whenever their parents try to get them to eat langon. As to the duck breast, this was not the oily duck that I have had at numerous restaurants before. Eaten with the companion saffron rice that was topped with the fried red onions, I was a man full of life and sated with great food.

Dinner is Served

Last to the table was dessert. Thankful that this was not heavy since I had been filled proper with six prior courses, I smiled at the presentation of a familiar dish — a plate of fresh sliced mango with sweet sticky rice, coconut cream with strawberry sauce drizzle, and chocolate sauce. Granted the dessert was not as fancy as the other dishes, and it was light so that one could finish all of it without feeling forced, the mango and sticky rice comprised a Thai delicacy that I have loved ever since I began eating Thai cuisine years ago. The chocolate sauce was more for effect, but the rest pandered to my constant appetite nicely.

La Linda Cabernet Savignon, 2009From the reservation to the confirmation of the reservation to the arrival and then to the whole dining experience, Seven Ocean is at the top of my list of restaurants. Not particularly a fan of fusion or Pan-Fill-in-the-Blank restaurants, when an establishment gets the concept correct, I will be the first to admit that I can become their greatest fan. The price is stiff, but nothing like restaurants that vie for or obtain top Michelin star ratings. I must say that I got more than what I paid for and the service was worthy of bottling, which is not something possible to do. Understanding that Seven Ocean just opened their doors, I hope that they receive more business. There are three factors working in their favour: delicious cuisine, fantastic service, and reasonable fare. Sweet dreams are made of these things. Fortunately for me, I travelled to Seven Ocean and found another awesome haunt for my culinary wants.

Seven Ocean on Urbanspoon

Curry With Chopsticks

Bombay Chopsticks

One of the things about being a part of the global community is that friends from other countries are constantly giving me suggestions for restaurants. At dinner a few weeks ago, I had discussion with a friend about a high-end restaurant in Chicago proper that does an outstanding job blending Indian and Latin flavours. She had then told me about a restaurant that had recently opened in Hoffman Estate, Illinois, named Bombay Chopsticks at 721 W. Golf Road. The name had given me an idea of what one could expect if going to the restaurant for some food happiness. I immediately associated Bombay with India and chopsticks with Japan. No sooner had she mentioned the restaurant than I entered a date into my calendar so that I could see what Bombay Chopsticks has on its menu.

Spices

It was out to the Northwest Suburbs on a beautiful yet brisk Saturday morning so that I could be certain of beating the crowd. Upon entering Bombay Chopsticks, I felt as though I was at a lounge. There is a full bar at the entrance. When you go past the bar and around the corner, there is a large area for seating and the decor is definitely inviting. There are comfy booths, which are perfect for dates. There are enough table seats for parties of four or more. The lighting inside was ideal in that going as a single person does not make you feel as though you are in an intimate setting; there was no mood lighting giving that effect. Led to a table by an accommodating hostess who was okay with me having my pick of seats because I was going to photograph my food — par for the course — I had a feeling that everything was going to be just fine this afternoon.

As usual in Pan-Asian cuisine, this time there being Indian and East Asian, the menu is extensive. The pescatarian in me scanned the menu for vegetarian and seafood options, so I had narrowed down my choices. Now, not that I was difficult, but I was rather eccentric with my order. There were three entrées that I wanted. That being the case, appetizers were not an option. There were two vegetarian dishes and one seafood dish that turned my food alarm on. When placing my order, I told the waitress that I wanted three entrées, each to be served as small tastes, with the rest packed for me to take home. She had recommended salt and pepper okra, shrimp in chilli garlic tomato sauce, and baby potatoes Thai style. I complied and while I waited for the experience to begin, I sipped some rather refreshing mango juice.

Salt and Pepper Okra

The waitress had placed the order linearly. Instead of having everything come to the table at once only to get cold, the first entrée arrive at the table was the salt and pepper okra. As a lover of gumbo, which is full of okra of the slimy nature, I was anxious to see how fried okra would taste in a salt and pepper batter. Much like some salt and pepper chicken I have had at a Vietnamese restaurant and salt and pepper soft shell crab I have had at a Pan-Asian restaurant recently, this fried okra dish reminded me of both in a “precious memories” kind of way. Spicy the way I like peppery food and served with crispy noodles and steamed rice, I was grateful that the first recommendation had won me over.

Shrimp in Chili Garlic Tomato Sauce

There was a bit of timing between the first entrée and the second one. This was to allow a moment of rest before the second course. Next to the table was a bowl of shrimp in a chilli garlic tomato sauce. This dish was closer to Indian and what I recalled during a visit to Bombay several years ago — although the dish I had eaten in Bombay was filled with fish rather than shrimp. At any rate, the shrimp in this bowl of satisfaction were plump to the point where they really did burst in my mouth when I bit into them. The sauce was spicy in a divine way. I cannot say that most people would be okay with the pepper dancing around their tongue and jaws, but it was outstanding to me. Eaten with rice to minimize some of the pepper, this was yet another suggestion that was a winner.

Baby Potatoes Thai Style

We allowed for more time between the second entrée and the third entrée. Granted the portions were small, as I was taking the remaining portion of the entrées home, they were still filling. Once I gave the signal, the order was placed and the third dish came to the table in the form of baby potatoes prepared Thai style. This was another spicy dish that was prepared in a gravy that had peanuts and a bit of a kick to it. Not really being a fan of any kind of nuts — except for almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, and pine nuts — I made no fuss about the peanuts in the dish and I ate it with the steam rice that came with it. There was a moment of complete satisfaction to be acknowledged as I worked my fork and spoon on the rice and the baby potatoes in the Thai gravy. By the time I had completed this dish, I was incredibly grateful that the waitress had given three fantastic recommendations because, as I had mentioned, the menu was filled with a large selection of choices.

Vanilla Ice Cream, Crispy Noodles with Honey and Sesame Seeds

Customary but not necessary was dessert. There was a bit of time that I let pass before I had decided to indulge something sweet to the palate. I ordered crispy noodles drizzled with honey and accented with sesame seeds and two scoops of vanilla ice cream. I put honey in my tea, in my yogurt, and in my honey chocolate cake, but having it served over crispy noodles and ice cream was new. And let me just say that this was a new experience that I enjoyed to the point of rapture. And now that I think of it, the only other time I have had a dessert with similar ingredients was an Ethiopian restaurant where they drizzled chocolate instead of honey over the ice cream and crispy noodles. However, having it today really made me that more appreciative of having an experimental palate.

Ready for Action

Usually I have a tendency to avoid restaurants that receive too many negative reviews. The experience actually comes in three parts: what you put into it by being open to trying something different, your positive interaction with your server, and what you want to get out of it different from what you have already had before. On entrance into Bombay Chopsticks, I was greeted with a welcome. My server was the epitome of outstanding customer service and attentiveness, as well as knowledgeable enough to recommend three dishes to a stranger, which is what I was when I sat at the table. Be forewarned that the prices range from $12 to $15 for the entrées. Also be aware that the flavours can be overpowering if your palate is accustomed to milder dishes. Yes, you can order the food milder, but there is more pop when the spices are added as they are in the dishes natively. As I had initially thought of India and Japan, I found that there is a bit of East Asia with hints of Indian preparations added. There are no duelling spices, so whichever ethnicity is represented in the recipe is allowed to shine. Before I departed Bombay Chopsticks with the remainder of my entrées, I sent a text message to my friend to thank her for prompting me about the restaurant and I made a mental note to myself that I shall find my way back out to Hoffman Estates in the near future for another restaurant jaunt at Bombay Chopsticks. This was a positive experience.

Sukriyā.

Bombay Chopsticks on Urbanspoon

Lessons Learned: Reality and Food

There are a few things that I have come to recognize:

  • Chicago temperatures waffle in extremes — blusteringly cold or blisteringly hot.
  • Men serve women food in large portions.
  • Women serve men food in large portions.
  • Never stand in line behind a group of women who are ordering ice cream.
  • My appetite is out of control — rhetorical.

I had ventured out several weeks ago when the temperatures were not so blooming tropical, and I entertained what I termed Snacking on Saturday. The temperatures were a bit murderous today with the mercury rising into the 90’s and the humidity coating the city like a blanket. There was no need to stay in the condo and brood over the heat — we have had a whole month of uncomfortable temperatures — so I dressed lightly and decided to be about business of finding some food satisfaction.

I met with a friend early in the morning for breakfast at an Austrian cafe — Julius Meinl — that is east of where I live. The decision was an impromptu one so I had rushed out of the condo and left my camera. This marks the second time I have done something foolish like that when I know I will end up chastising myself. I had a great time slicing through crispy waffles and forking up tasty scrambled eggs. My lips curled up. My eyelids grew heavy — and it was 9:30 AM when we were busy indulging ourselves in breakfast.

Croissant, Petit Rum and Vanilla Bundt Cake

A little later in the morning I wanted something else yet light. By now, I had one of my many cameras. And in my neighbourhood is La Boulangerie at 2569 North Milwaukee Avenue. What a lovely little French bakery this is and satisfying as well, if I may add. The selection is rather small and I was quite okay with that after I had bitten into my croissant. It was apparent the thing had been baked early in the morning. Given it was not hot, as if right from the oven, it was so soft and airy on the inside, flaky and smile-inducing on the outside. I had also ordered a small rum and vanilla bundt cake. Oh happy day! La Boulangerie does not sell coffee, so I had gone next door to New Wave Cafe where all of the local and imported hippies congregate to discuss things that matter to them — and no one else can understand. The cappuccino there really had an effect on me that left me with a lasting impression that will, of course, mean I will return for cappuccino from there several more times.

After relaxing at home for a few hours, I had begun to get cabin fever. It was time to seek something else into which to sink my teeth. I remembered a certain Middle Eastern eatery I had stumbled upon in Chicago’s Near West Loop neighbourhood. I Dream of Falafel at 555 W. Monroe Avenue was it. For me, it was a reality, as I headed for the subway and went into downtown to put my feet under a table at the cafe. And here is where I came to the realization that women give men way more food than men give each other. I had a hankering from some sweet potato falafel and perhaps something else on the menu. I ordered a chicken schwerma — so not vegetarian of me — with peppers, lettuce, onions, and tahini sauce. The thing was so tasty that I was sprung like you will not believe. And because the sweet potato falafels are prepared on-demand, I had to wait. For my wait, the cashier — a very appealing young woman — gave me extra. Recognizing that this has been commonplace, in the future I shall let others go ahead of me whenever men are taking orders.

Chicken Schwerma

Roaming around downtown for a few hours, the humidity had begun to wear me down to almost spiritual defeat. I could have had soda, which would be full of aspartame or high fructose corn syrup, so I took a pass on that. Water would have worked, but I wanted flavour. Aha! I headed for the subway and went out to Oak Park to Taste of Brasil, my favourite Brazilian cafe, for some lemonade. But, Gino, to go all the way to Oak Park for some lemonade is ridiculous. You have to have some of it to understand. Absolutely refreshing and prepared with real lemons — none of that artificial mess laced with aspartame or high fructose corn syrup — and condensed milk. The lemonade was enough to make the heat unnoticeable. Well, not quite, but good enough to cool me off a little.

Towards the end of the day, I figured that I would wrap up my snacking expedition by having a small dinner, something akin to snack food. I was in Oak Park anyway, so I went to the downtown mall area to the best Venezuelan cafe outside of Venezuela and met up with some friends. Aripo’s Arepa House at 118 N. Marion Street was my destination. I ordered what is called a domino — an empanada stuffed with black beans and shredded white cheese, and served with a spicy dipping sauce that makes all of your worries disappear. It had never dawned on me to inquire what a domino really was. However, I was glad that I took a chance on the order because I will make a few more trips back just to buy some of those tasty wonder treats for snack food at home.

After joshing around with my friends for a while, we retired to a French pastry shop across the street from Apripo’s. Sugar Fixe at 119 N. Marion Street captures the essence of coffee and dessert as the French does. There were two desserts that stood out most: a chocolate mousse and a mango mousse with pineapple and coconut. I had recently baked a devil food cake with a Mexican hot chocolate ganache for the icing, so I opted for the citrus mousse. Satisfaction in a thousand languages or in the stupid smile that I usually wear after eating too much food is all that I say to describe the mousse. The cappuccino I had tasted like the cappuccino I have had abroad, all prepared with meticulous care. Again, Sugar Fixe is one of those pastry shops that prepares its desserts in small batches so that they do not get old or simply become display items because no one wants anything that has been sitting out for days and weeks on end.

Austrian Mango Mousse with Pineapple and Coconut

I did not make the promise to myself that I would not overeat. When it comes to food, the promise of behaving when it comes to the quantity that I indulge is not mandatory. I simply comply with my want. One thing I must say is that I will be glad when the temperatures return to a point where walking one to two blocks do not result in feeling like you have stood under a waterfall. There are some other locations in the city that I shall journal and I will simply have to be ready with camera in hand and appetite on hand.