With or Without Camera at Tamarind

Tamarind

It seems that every time there is a need for someone to use a city as a disclaimer for unsavoury crime, Chicago becomes the disclaimer du jour. How sad, I say, because those individuals apparently have not been to sections of Chicago like Hyde Park, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Uptown, Gold Coast, Streeterville, Loop, West Loop, Wicker Park, Bucktown, Logan Square, and South Loop. After catching up briefly with some friends so that I could loan a camera to one of them, I dashed to a Pan-Asian restaurant in the South Loop neighbourhood named Tamarind at 614 S. Wabash Avenue. I had been before, once on an imposed-upon date, and then again just because I had a craving. The weather was so nice that the outdoor patio was calling me and Tamarind happens to be one of those restaurants with outdoor seating that is not situated near an alley.

Red Ginger Martini

Red Ginger Martini

Now, although the weather was moderate, there was sunlight beaming down on me. That meant a refreshing drink was required. Oh what should they have on their menu but a red ginger martini. My hat goes off to the mixologist who poured and mixed pomegranate juice, Chambord, and vodka, and accented it with ginger. The martini was not overpowering, which meant I was not stumbling down the sidewalk to the subway afterwards, and it was not weak like some martinis I have had, all which were worthy of being thrown against a wall. Let’s just say that I was refreshed afterwards.

Miso Soup

Miso Soup

Most would consider miso to be a pedestrian soup. Yes, miso soup is not spectacular. You can even purchase it from your local market in a packet. I think you only have to add water. I really can’t tell since I prefer to go to a Japanese restaurant and have it prepared from scratch. Sure, someone is saying, “You never know. They may prepare it from a packet and doctor it up so that you think it’s authentic.” If you have had anything from a packet, trust me when I say that you know better. And in true Japanese form, I picked up the cup and slurped with no shame.

Caterpillar Maki

Caterpillar Maki

Dragon Maki

Dragon Maki

As much as I would have loved to have shown my diligence as a Nebraska football player with insatiable appetite, I settled for two sushi rolls. For the previous visits, I had tried some rather exotic sushi rolls, but never any of the tempered rolls. So there was the caterpillar maki, which had unagi as the main seafood ingredient, and topped with avocado. I looked around to see if anyone was nearby before I moaned. And then there was the dragon maki. Filled with tempura shrimp, one half of the roll topped with avocado and the other half topped with unagi, I scanned the area again about letting an exaggerated moan escape.  But that was not the thing to send me to the moon. The dessert of banana wonton with red bean ice cream and apricots fired my rocket off on the first bite. I concede that they may have purchased the red bean ice cream from some local Asian market. It was still like what I remember in Osaka from a dessert shop. But the banana wonton was prepared on the premises. You can’t warm up a wonton with a banana stuffed in it and have it be so blooming good. You just can’t!

Banana Won Ton

Banana Won Ton

As many times as I have been in the South Loop area and knowing that I had been to Tamarind several times, I am surprised that I never blogged it before now. Then again, I may not have had my camera. Truth be told, I photographed the food this time with my cellphone camera. I can’t have that, me being an avid photographer with expensive digital cameras. Anyway, the service is always inviting and I have yet to have a meal from Tamarind that left me gasping in dismay. Chances are I will never have anything from their bill of fare that I will find disappointing. The prices are comparable to what you will find at any Japanese sushi bar. And to the aforementioned spin doctors and pundits who attack Chicago because wherever it is they are has no appeal, I highly recommend that they venture to the South Loop for a visit to Tamarind and then work their way up to the other neighbourhoods that I mentioned so that they can be wowed with loving from some of Chicago’s greatest restaurant kitchens. They can even go with or without a camera.

Tamarind on Urbanspoon Tamarind Sushi on Foodio54

All on Cue, Japanese Barbecue

Gyu-Kaku

My New Year’s Resolution for 2013 has been rather simplistic — get my weight up to 230 pounds. That may seem like a piece of cake for some people. But in my Disney show, my high metabolism does not allow for me to balloon that fast. The good thing is that my appetite from having started working out last year got me up to 215 pounds. My height has been a blessing in terms of distributing my weight gain, so I don’t look as though I weigh over 200 punds. The weight training I have been doing so far in 2013 is blowing up everything to the point where my wardrobe is fitting snug and the protein powders keep me in the refrigerator — even in the middle of the night — when I’m not at a restaurant ordering from a menu. I will be at my target weight in no time and then probably find myself wondering what a few additional pounds on top of 230 would look like. Needless to say, in my Disney show, I will enjoy getting there.

Miso Soup

In keeping with my constant appetite frenzy, I had met with a friend at a Japanese barbecue restaurant that she and I had gone to a few times during the summer. To the casual pedestrian, Gyu-Kaku at 210 E. Ohio Street in the Streeterville neighbourhood may look like a tourist trap. Only once you go in and hear all the Japanese being spoken do you realize that this restaurant is a haven of authenticity. For me, it also means a lot of food and me diligently working towards fulfilling my New Year’s Resolution quite possibly well in advance of the year ending. As frosty as it was outside and being only a few blocks away from Lake Michigan where the wind was whipping back and forth between the skyscrapers, sitting down at a table with a hot barbecue grill in the middle was a splendid option.

Salad

We started with drinks, one thing that bartenders at Asian restaurants do to complete satisfaction. My friend had an Asian pear martini. I had a lychee mojito. Martinis and mojitos are as popular as or more popular than beer in Chicago. And bartenders get martinis and mojitos right. Along with our drinks came miso soup. Noting from an off-the-shelf carton, I can attest. There was no salt in it. Any time a dish comes heavy with salt, that is a huge indication of something not being homemade. All you get with the miso soup at Gyu-Kaku is flavour, not the risk of high blood pressure. I turned my cup up and slurped it true Japanese style. The soup was delicious and it warmed me up on the inside. There was no need to be a prude about it. After we had finished our cups of happiness then came a cup of pure bliss. If you have ever had salad at a Japanese restaurant, then you know what it is like to be in good favour. Cucumber, cherry tomatoes, fresh lettuce, eggs, cheese, ginger dressing, and smiles are all you get. It was exactly what we wanted, as we had anticipated devouring some of the salad ever since we had decided to meet at Gyu-Kaku for dinner.

Salmon

We had ordered the Geisha course, which was enough for two people. Just as the first round of meat and vegetables arrived for us to put on the barbecue, there was some sashimi salmon brought to the table. Served raw, we employed our chopsticks and worked them on the salmon without dropping anything. Well, whatever we did drop ended up on our tongues where it eventually disappeared down our throats. The sashimi salmon was the last bit of raw meat that we had. It was then time for us to begin grilling our own meat and continuing with our moment of food happiness.

On the Grill

With the Geisha course, my friend and I were presented with a few marinated meats that we  had to grill ourselves. Prime rib eye stead. Bara kalbi. Chuck kalbi. Bistro harami. Shrimp. Vegetables consisting of corn, onions, bell peppers, zucchini, and mushrooms. Smiles. Since we are regulars at Gyu-Kaku, we knew the routine as far as how long each meat was to remain on the grill and whether to place the items in the middle or on the sides. We were quite efficient and even slick enough to pluck some of the meat from the grill with our chopsticks. With amazing agility, we grilled, ate, had conversation, and nodded with appreciation for all the good things that had been seasoned well, cooked to our satisfaction, and gobbled to completion. Move over Korean barbecue. Hello, Gyu-Kaku.

Bibimbap

Now, of all the menu items to come with the Geisha course, the one that I love the most is the bibimbap. Queue scene with me walking like the Frankenstein monster, arms outstretched, and moaning. What do you want? Bibimbap. What do you like to eat? Bibimbap. What can you not get enough of? Bibimbap. You’re a zombie, so now what do you want? Bibimbap. Prepared tableside in a hot concrete bowl, my friend and I requested to have our bibimbap spicy. We are not adverse to having the flavour of our food pop by the addition of peppers. Bibimbap is not meant to be served like baby food. It is meant to make the scalp exhale heat. And on what was very much a frosty Friday night, we were zombies that groaned, grunted, and applied our chopsticks to our bowls of bibimbap. Have you ever known the Frankenstein monster to derive any pleasure before the townspeople torched to tower to which he fled? He should have been granted a taste of bibimbap. He may have become a welcomed part of the community.

S'mores

After polishing off all the delectable meats, vegetables, and further making ourselves bibimbap-satisfied zombies, we sat for a moment before indulging a sweet. We were always accustomed to sitting downstairs and had never paid attention to the area beyond the upstairs bar where we often wait before getting our table. Well, this evening, we sat in the upstairs part of the restaurant, which is past the upstairs bar. Same cozy ambience and still filled with other Japanese who were no doubt happy to have a restaurant in the city reminiscent of what they had in Japan, we took it all in as we let our stomachs settle. And then came the dessert option. Marshmallows, dark chocolate, and Graham crackers sat on a plate before my friend and I got our skewers and sang our own brand of a campfire song while roasting our marshmallows. Nothing spectacular and no presentation with a wow factor, as it was just us preparing our own dessert. If you ever engage the notion of making samores in the future, I highly recommend dark chocolate and if it is bittersweet chocolate, all the better. For an after-dinner drink, it was loose leaf green tea for us. None of that what-not in the bag, especially with us being tea snobs. And we drank it without any sugar, which was an indication that it was a very, very good leaf. When we were done, we banged our glasses on the table and yelled “arigato” to our server. Well done.

Green Tea

Gyu-Kaku is whistling distance from the Magnificent Mile. For those with milder palates, there are numerous restaurant options to satisfy your appetite. But for those who love a good adventure, Gyu-Kaku is certainly an option I would entertain every time the chance comes up. It is a great place to go with friends who don’t mind rolling up their sleeves and taking part in the cooking process of the food. Everything is marinated to perfection, if not beyond idyllic. All you have to do is engage, enjoy, and appreciate the package. Perhaps in your very own Disney, you too will walk around like the Frankenstein monster, grunting, growling, and gobbling all good things Gyu-Kaku can put in front of you. And would you look at that. I am now a little over 215 pounds, per the scale. I’m well on my way.

Gyu-Kaku Chicago on Urbanspoon

Gino, Japanese Style

SaganoMemorial Day in Chicago and the air had a hint of autumn to it. Compared to what we had experienced for a stretch of time a few weeks ago — white hot heat and humidity that left you dripping after only a minute or two of being outside — the temperatures in the 70’s, cool breezes, and cerulean blue sky were all worth bottling. I had been to several restaurants and was more overzealous with my photography than normal. Nothing says, “You have been a rather busy man,” like the discovery of you having taken well over 2,000 photos that have had taken at five restaurants in a short window of time. So, in addition to having to scribe a commentary about the dining experiences, I had to go through a large volume of photos to find out which ones I would feature on Chicago Alphabet Soup. However, there was no way that I was going to edit photos and type up journal entries on an empty stomach. No, no!

Miso SoupBecause I wanted to get some almond butter for baking almond butter cookies, I knew that I could not go wrong with Trader Joe’s almond butter. The Trader Joe’s in Oak Park never disappoints, so I drove over to pick up the necessary ingredient and a few more items. While in Oak Park, I headed toward the intersection of Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street. What had I not tried? I asked myself. And after a brief scan of eateries in the area, I saw a Japanese restaurant that I know I had not been to. Yes, I have been quite an African-American-Asian as of late and walking into Sagano at 731 Lake Street with no hesitation was an indication that I have a food lust for Asian cuisine. Quaint and intimate on the inside, I opted to enjoy the inside when it is colder, for the weather was way too nice for me to waste my time inside staring at walls.

Soft Shell CrabGive me some miso soup. I swear there must be a pack for that soup, but it the best regardless. There was a bit of a nip in the wind, so the warmth of the miso soup was good enough to guard me against the quick drop in temperatures and me feeling it because I was sitting in the shade. And then there was the soft shell crab. The first time I had soft shell crab was at a Thai restaurant. And now that I think of it, the restaurant also had a Japanese menu and soft shell crab seems to be a staple. I don’t know where to begin with describing the wonders of each bite. Served with shredded beats, shredded carrots, and some other shredded vegetable that had a water base to it, the plate already looked like art, let alone something you would associate with delighting the taste buds. Being fanatical about my food photography, I clicked a count of well over 275 photos of the soft shell crab from various angles — from my seat, from standing up, from kneeling at the edge of the table, landscape, portrait, tilting, you name it. But as soon as I sank my teeth into it, the photos did the dish absolutely no justice. Absent of a surplus of seasoning, and I know that it wasn’t seasoned with salt and pepper only, the soft shell crab and the shredded vegetables were lip smacking. I wanted more, so much more, a lot more, but I had also ordered another dish.

Soft Shell CrabAt Japanese restaurants, I always order sushi, as if though it is a cardinal sin to order anything else. Because this is the case, I made the decision that I would break that chain for this particular day and indulge something from the entrée menu. Teriyaki chicken with vegetables and rice. Would think that was bland. However, the tender chicken that had been cooked in a light teriyaki sauce and served with a melange of broccoli, carrots, zucchini, green beans, shredded carrots, and another shredded vegetable that does not come to mind, as well as with rice, left me speechless. All this time I had been depriving myself of something new, Sam I Am, and the teriyaki chicken burst with each bite. Having polished off a bowl of the miso soup and then gobbling up the plate of soft shell crab with the shredded vegetables, I savoured each bite of the teriyaki chicken dish. There was no need to rush through the small feast with the weather being so pleasant outside and the food being so blooming delicious. In my mind, I heard a voice chanting “Yummmmm! Yummmmm! Yummmmm!” while imagining myself sitting in a yoga pose meditating so that I could find my chi. From now on, I shall balance out my Japanese feasting by having an occasional entrée other than sushi and maki rolls.

Teriyaki ChickenAfter having such a great time with my little personal feast at Sagano, it was necessary for me to walk off a bit of the stuffing. My destination was to go to the Marion Street end of Oak Park for some kind of dessert, something just a bit light instead of incredibly filling. Ice cream would be it, I said to myself. At 134 N. Marion Street is Cold Stone Creamery. It appears that Chicago has an anti sentiment against Cold Stone, as majority of them closed their doors to the frozen yogurt epidemic. Being a man who makes his own homemade ice cream, that whole chilly froth that is all the rage is not something I care for much. When it comes to ice cream, Cold Stone Creamy is where you go and I rank it higher than Baskin & Robbins. Nevertheless, I got to the location in time to order an Oreo Overload in a recently baked waffle cone. No sooner had I sat than some teenagers rumbled in. Nothing tests the nerves like five teenagers giggling and pontificating for fifteen minutes before ordering. Add to that, there was conversation that went along the following lines:

 I wanna like try that flavour.
(Giggle)
Did you like see Jillian’s blouse?
(Giggle)
Oooh, you’re like getting chocolate.
(Giggle)
Like I’m gonna take my ice cream outside and like people watch.
(Giggle)

Oreo OverloadGrowing up during the 80’s, I was very much accustomed to the whole Valley Girl and Surfer Dude scene. Add to that the ear-grating Valley-speak. It had a short shelf life, but listening to it while devouring a frozen treat was a notch or two more horrible than brain freeze from ice cream. Too much use of the word like and incessant giggling will make you want to run your fingers down a chalkboard to drown out the fray. When it was evident that well over 15 minutes had passed and others were staring as though watching someone shrinking, I got up and left the snickering villains to their own devices.

Such a perfect day it was to be out and about enjoying Japanese cuisine and more ice cream than my belly should have been forced to endure. But, hey, if I am going to have any kind of suffering, it shall have to be the sweetest pain and satisfying. Like, how often do you get to have Japanese food and then ice cream all in, like, the same day? (Giggle)

Sagano Sushi on Urbanspoon
Cold Stone Creamery on Urbanspoon

Gambling, No Win

The month of April has been a wonderful month for me. Having had a birthday on the fifth of April, I began a great deal of celebration. With many other friends having birthdays this month, that means I have been in feasting mode since the month began. Food. Desserts. Drinks. Reminiscing. All the good things. There has not been one day or evening that I have not been pleased from some type of food satisfaction. Even the night prior to me penning this journal entry I was at an Indian restaurant with a great friend having a fabulous time on some choley batura and four incredibly large shrimp. And to think that I woke with hunger again, ready for action, hankering to quiet the monster that growled endlessly. Being the puppet that I am, I figured that I would venture to the South Side down to Hyde Park to work my appetite on something at one of the many restaurants there. Through congestion and gauntlets of crazy drivers, I cursed and projected foul language the entire drive from my condo to Hyde Park. Shinju Sushi I arrived in Hyde Park and decided that I would start at 53rd Street and find something along that stretch. Thai. Italian. Barbecue. Japanese. Coffee. The selection was vast, but my hunger wanted me to be quick. So, I settled for Japanese at Shinju Sushi, located at 1535 E. 53rd Street. Upon entry, I had a bit of the welcoming feeling you receive when you go to saucy fast food joints but with a hostess who takes you to your seat. A rather cold welcome, a quick escort to my seat, and that was it. Not much of a problem, but while reviewing the short list of sushi options, one server came by and yanked the main menu. This was a red flag. Needless to say, I did not have a chance to see what was on that menu, just in case I may have had an interest ordering something from that bill of fare. Miso Soup Miso soup was one item I was going to order, but a server had brought out a bowl that I took for being complimentary. Enough to warm me up on the inside, considering it was brisk outside, I devoured the bowl of miso soup with a smile. By then, I had finished my order. I had a taste for gyosa, unagi maki, and shrimp tempura maki. No sooner had I handed the selection to the waitress than she returned with the gyosa. It was as though there was some telepathy involved. The chef knew that I wanted gyosa. Served with the accompanying sauce, this fried potsticker appetizer was tasty the way I have had other gyosa — albeit at room temperature. Gyosa After having the second of the five gyosas, the sushi came to the table. Again, the chef must have had some kind of telepathy because sushi does not come quickly unless it has been prepared in advance. And at the risk of sounding like a sushi snob, there was a hint of pre-packaging that I gathered based on the first bite. If you have bought any pre-made sushi or if you have ever had sushi or a maki and saved some for later, there is a certain texture that the sushi takes on. While not stale, each bite presents the feel of chewing gum that has been gnawed for half of an hour. This was the case with the unagi maki. In addition to the noticeable texture, the eel sauce on the maki was rather sweet. An indication of my gums experiencing a slight throb was hint enough that the unagi sauce on the maki was more saccharine than necessary. Little kids who thrive on sugary treats to perk their already-boosted energy would love the unagi maki. Unagi When it was time to consider having my way with the shrimp tempura, I had opted to leave a few pieces of the unagi maki alone. Yet again, there was the texture of pre-made sushi and at room temperature. Add to that the sugary sauce that had been used to douse the shrimp tempura maki. Oh were my teeth sensitive. Having a low sugar diet, and primarily avoiding anything with high fructose corn syrup and excessive quantities of sugar, my palate goes into overdrive, my gums come to life, and my teeth tingle like I have drowned them in ice water. I could only stomach a few pieces of the shrimp tempura maki. Honestly, the whole process was a case study in me forcing myself to eat and that is problematic considering I have an outrageous appetite that requires little coaxing for stuffing my jaws.Tempura Shrimp Shinju Sushi is one of those restaurants that I would have plugged shamelessly during my college days. The cheap prices — a buffet of $14.99 — and just the mention of sushi would have been enough for me to have stamped myself as sushi omnipotent, as though I had lived my whole life in Japanese going to the best sushi bars ever, and been a walking advertisement. After watching sushi chefs work their magic on fresh ingredients, it is easy to become a purist. Then you have sushi with questionable texture and excessively sweet taste. Well, you win some. And then you return to sushi bars where you have walked away teetering from having eaten so much fresh and tasty sushi and maki. Yes, you win some.

Shinju Sushi on Urbanspoon