Testaccio, Rome in Chicago

For my third landing, I was going for a couscous tagine and was saving a flight of spiedini for my fourth landing. My server recommended that I have both together, which was a splendid suggestion. This third course was a marriage of Morocco, Algeria, and the Mediterranean. The couscous came with eggplant and pine nuts, the latter that I may need to take care to note in the future. It was satisfying the way I remembered in Casablanca, Fes, Marrakech, Rabat, and Algiers. Having it with the flight of lamb kefta, swordfish, and beef filet resulted in a flavor bonanza. If you want to know how tender meat should be prepared, you definitely need to have a dining experience at Testaccio. Continue reading

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Nia — Mediterranean, Tapas Style


Two years ago a friend surprised me by taking me to a restaurant that she had not heard me talk about. She had mentioned that it was in the West Loop. Chicago’s West Loop is one area that had a rapid growth spurt, resulting in high-priced condominiums, expensive townhouses, bars that fill up quickly, and some nice restaurants. We went to Nia at 803 W. Randolph Street for some Mediterranean food. Because the dining experience was very satisfying then, I made a note to myself to visit again after work so that I could sample some more offerings from the menu.

Being a short distance from where I work, I decided to brave the Chicago wind for the few blocks it took me to walk to Nia. With my New York City stride, I was there in no time, coat off, gloves put away, menu in hand, and had an appetite that I needed to deal with without delay. One thing I remembered about Nia was that the menu was mostly of small plates. Nevertheless, I figured I would do well to order a few items to put a smile on my face and not so much that I would find myself fighting sleep thereafter.

Nia, Collage

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album


With the evening being what I called a “school night,” I had cranberry juice instead of a spirit or a cocktail. For starters, I ordered a plate of hummus with pita. Given this was a “small plate,” they didn’t skimp on the servings. This came with roasted garlic, a red pepper coulis, and a dollop of horseradish cream. I mixed it all up and worked that pita on the plate until there was a smear of hummus left. I don’t think I need to tell you that I liked it “that” much.

My next course consisted of wild mushrooms with truffle oil. Truffles are all the rage, it seems, and anything accented with its oil is a dish sent from heaven — or hell if you are “that” wicked. I married this dish with a plate of jumbo garlic shrimp in a lemon butter sauce. Although the four shrimp looked manageable, by the time I had finished the mushrooms and the shrimp, I forced myself to slow down so not to deprive myself of dessert. I did, however, request some extra pita so that I could get the last remnants of truffle oil and the lemon butter sauce. It would have been a crime to let any of that go to waste.

My dessert course left me humming, evident from the neighbouring stares I received. The bread pudding came drizzled with a caramel sauce and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream that I swear had saffron in it. If that was the case, then it was not ice cream from the frozen section at the local market. I completed my dessert option with a cup of coffee and cream. Now, I am not a coffee snob, but I know when a French press has been used. The coffee is simply perfect and this was the case with the cup of delight I had with the bread pudding.

For the duration that I sat at Nia, there was a constant flow of patrons coming in and I noticed that turnover was low. That was an indication that people come to enjoy themselves. It’s a great spot for a date. There is the mood lighting — or rather dim lighting. Even those who dine solo at the bar find themselves engaged in conversation with others. The volume gets loud as more customers show up, though. With this being my second visit, I was happy as I teetered from the restaurant. The first time was good. This time was better. I wonder if the third time will be a charm. Well, there is only one way to find out.

Nia Mediterranean 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.

Acknowledging My Threshold

I Dream of Falafel

This past Saturday I ate to the point where it was 2:30 in the morning before I could lie down with any kind of comfort. I have come to the realization that American dining indulges gluttony and quick eating which is great for getting customers in and out of restaurants fast, but you will pay a price for rapid gorging. I had stuffed myself with a heavy breakfast and then went overboard with dinner. Now, I must say that I had no regrets while go over my limit — the regrets came afterwards.

Today I had no room for filling my belly until almost towards the end of the day. I had been doing some architectural photography and scouting for some areas to do more photography for my portfolio when there was a moment of realization that I had perhaps a little room for something solid — having had my fill of water to keep myself replenished during my walking. But what should catch my eye while in West Loop but I Dream of Falafel at 555 W. Monroe Avenue. Not specific to any exact country — esoteric to North Africa, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean — I figured I would see what was on the bill of fare and get something for a snack instead of anything to add to my feeling the previous night. Much like any fast food restaurant, I Dream of Falafel is a bright restaurant to add to the long list of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean eateries that are starting to dominate Chicago cuisine.

Sweet Potato Falafel with Tahini Sauce

I ordered sweet potato falafel with tahini sauce to stay in line with my want for snacks. What a fantastic choice. The four yummy treats were filling, as it were since bread will fill you up, and Utopian. I have yet to have falafel prepared to a point of being utterly discouraging to the palate, but these sweet potato falafel were crunchy on the outside without being hard and they were moist — the letter “t” is silent here — on the inside. Since I was going to do a bit more photography before the end of the day, I had some lemonade. What a combination. What a slice of heaven. And the price for it all? Under $5.00. Yes, four sweet potato falafel with tahini sauce and bottomless lemonade came to a price that will draw me back again and again. What a life.

If you work in the West Loop, live in the West Loop, or hang out in the West Loop, then add 555 W. Monroe Avenue to your global positioning system. Or add I Dream of Falafel and let the Molly give you the directions to get there. It is that good and I have not yet sampled any of the other menu items. Rest assure that I will over time, but I am actually daydreaming of falafel as I am typing this journal entry. It is a good thing that with me acknowledging my threshold I am only thinking of the snacks, not acting on my want for some more of them.

I Dream of Falafel on Urbanspoon

Snacking on Saturday

Finally a Saturday that was not botched due to rain and thunderstorms. Granted it was piping hot outside, the last thing I wanted to do was turn on my stove for any unnecessary reason. So I decided that I would enjoy outdoors via a bike ride. And then a brilliant idea came to mind — Snacking on Saturday. It was off to some restaurant or a series of restaurants for some street food. A whole day of food discovery without being fancy in attire for a formal sit-down meal would work perfectly for my chronic appetite.

Plain Hummus

I rode to the subway station and carried my bicycle on the train with me for the first pass. I wanted to return to Oak Park, Illinois, for a quick breakfast. Instead of waffles, scrambled eggs, grits — which I would take being set on fire before eating, bacon, and all the traditional American fare, I arrived at Oak Park and biked to Jerusalem Cafe, located at 1010 Lake Street. I had been to Jerusalem Cafe for lunch and for dinner, so there was a comfort stepping outside of my breakfast comfort and going with something as zany — to most — as some hummus. Plain and served with pita, this was just the pick-me-up that I needed to get started for the day. Usually hummus is doctored up to the point where the spices can be rather overpowering rather than complementary. Hummus all by itself is a splendid kick to the taste buds. With it being hot, I opted to have iced tea prepared Mediterranean style — with a hint of cardamom. Satisfaction, I say.

Tandoori Chicken Sandwich

I biked back to the train and caught it back into Chicago proper. Back at my Logan Square stop, I biked north into the Irving Park neighbourhood. In keeping with something from the Mediterranean/North African part of the world, Zebda was my next destination. I had made the trek up to 4344 N. Elston Avenue several months ago and was satisfied thoroughly. I had even ordered delivery since because they never fail to prepare something that has my appetite screaming, Yes! Yes! Yes! Instead of having a large lunch, I ordered a tandoori chicken sandwich. Succulent chicken, salad, all topped with a mint yogurt sauce made for a tasty treat of delightfulness. I sat at one of the two tables and engaged the cafe staff and a few passing Algerians about other Algerian eateries in Chicago — and outside of Chicago for those who have familiars in other parts of the world.

Red Velvet Whoopee Pie

Nothing came to mind for my next stop, so I had a leisure bike ride with no destination in mind. With the heat bearing down on me, I did have a notion to get some water to hydrate myself. I stopped at a non-descriptive coffee house and had two bottles of water and a red velvet cake whoopee pie. Since red velvet cake and red velvet cupcakes are all the rage, there was no way that I was going to pass up on sampling the dessert that needed to be snatched from the dessert case and handled with care. I savoured that little bit of love and sat for a nice spell reading a novel on my Kindle while letting the water settle so that it would not feel like my belly had the ocean sloshing around in it.

Samosa with Spicy Chutney

By the time I had finished at the coffee house it was still relatively early. On my way home, I passed down a street with some Caribbean men and women working an inviting grill. True to my Caribbean roots, I pulled up and asked what they had. One item that was a winner was doubles — a sandwich of flatbread with curried chickpeas and topped with a tamarind chutney. As soon as the woman had said that they had doubles, I knew they were from Trinidad and Tobago. Common sense should have told me to go straight home without entertaining any more food, but they had doubles and I was doubled over on my bicycle for the rest of the ride home. I was a happy man, but filled to capacity.

Coconut Shrimp  with Spicy Plum Sauce

I spent a few hours at home relaxing as the temperatures seemed to drop slightly enough to eliminate the feeling of baking. Dinner was on my mind, but I wanted to keep in line with having street food versus the ubiquitous table meal. Two spots came to mind. One was a certain hole-in-the-wall called Rajun cajun. I had been there numerous times. 1459 E. 53rd Street in Hyde Park was a regular spot for me and the first leg of my eating pleasure this evening. Instead of biking, I rode the subway into the city and then transferred to the express bus to go into Hyde Park. At Rajun Cajun I ordered a half dozen samosas with spicy chutney. There was no need for me to stuff myself senselessly, so I had one samosa while catching up with the owner, his wife, and his brother in-law.

Thai Custard

Not to borrow trouble, I settled on one final restaurant for snacks after I left Rajun Cajun. Thai 55 at 1607 E. 57th Street was it. One of my great friends is the owner and we had not had the opportunity, as of late, to catch up and discuss culture, politics, religion, and path forwards. Considering he is the only person I can discuss the first three topics without arguments or debates, it was a must that I pay him a visit. Much to my surprise, his brother and his sister in-law were there instead, having come from Barberry Thai on the North Side. I had coconut shrimp with a spicy plum sauce and Thai custard. Love. Love. Love. I shall have to catch up with my friend before he returns to Thailand permanently. Then again, I am one to board a plane to any international destination with appeal.

Overall, my little excursion in having snack food only was rather fun and exciting. I need to figure out where I should set the threshold to tell myself stop because having a food addiction seems to override common sense and then I experience misery from over-indulgence. The pain is only temporary and I relish in it after all is said and done. And because I had so much enjoyment on this pass, I shall have to plan another Saturday of snacking. But I think I shall have to take the bus to a neighbourhood and go about a scavenger hunt for edible street food. I simply cannot entertain Biking-for-Bites every Saturday. Haha.

Thai 55th  Restaurant on Urbanspoon