AraOn — Asia Takes Over France in Chicago

With Chicago’s ongoing renaissance, The Loop is filling in more with restaurants that remain open past happy hour. I was surprised to find AraOn in a rather inconspicuous location at 160 W. Adams Street tucked between W Hotel and US Bank. Noting the moniker of Asian French Cuisine, I figured it would behoove me to see what the menu had that would make me okay with delaying going home for the evening.

Ara On

There is a big box feel to AraOn and I expected that given it’s location downtown. Some people are rather Better Homes & Gardens with their thoughts about restaurants, so they will love the decor. I like the fact that seats are not on top of each other which means you don’t have to compete with your neighbours to be heard during conversation with members of your own party. What matters to me most is if the main thing I’m paying for was worth it: food and/or drink.

Miso Soup

Miso Soup

I am leery of fusion, especially when it comes to certain Asian cuisines blending with European or South American flavours where there was no influence per Asian migration. I must admit that AraOn gets it right. For my first course, I started with a miso soup. This was the traditional preparation and there was nothing amiss with it. The second course consisted of duck dumplings that came with braised mustard greens, shrimp, and maitake mushrooms in a consomme of seafood-duck broth. This was the one dish that I noticed had a blend of Asian preparation with the dumplings blended with French preparation of the consomme.

Duck Dumplings

Duck Dumplings

There was a brief l’amuse of sashimi salmon with roe atop a savoury gravy that I had not expected. Immediately after the first bite, I acknowledged that I could have indulged the dish as a regular course. The salmon was meaty without being oily and the “clean” flavour was an indication of having some of what was no doubt fresh catch seafood.

L'amuse

L’amuse

The third course was a clay bowl of sesame crusted salmon with bibimbap. Not only was the salmon bursting with flavour, but it was incredibly flaky while being succulent. I can’t state any French influence in this dish, but the bibimbap is my favourite Korean dish. Kimchee, bean sprouts, pickled shiitake mushroom, spinach, and braised beef short rib nicely sectioned off that I mixed with rice and a spicy pepper sauce made for a hearty dish that again reminded me of why bibimbap is indeed a favourite.

Salmon with Bibimbap

Salmon with Bibimbap

I saved room for a fourth course of dessert. That came as matcha ice cream atop lemon custard with meringue crisps — so reminiscent of lemon meringue pie — and matcha macarons. The matcha was prevalent in the dessert, but not overpowering, which gave me an hint that loose leaf tea was used in the preparation. Small indicators like this wink at an appreciation for culinary arts because a quick dessert would have lacked in flavour sorely.

Matcha Ice Cream

Matcha Ice Cream

The service at AraOn is winning. The food is also worthy of repeat visits. And for what tastes like fine dining, the prices are reasonable. I have to remember to switch into my British and Caribbean modes so that there is a stagger of 5-10 minutes between courses. There were overlaps during the courses. Add to that I paired wine with the dishes, there was a bit of a rush that resulted in me being sated too fast and buzzed. Understanding that it is not possible for restaurants in and around downtown to know when individuals prefer to dine with ease or with haste, I shall adjust my ordering technique accordingly in the future. I’ll order a course, hold the menu, finish dish, order next dish, and repeat for remaining courses. I shall return, so I’ll apply my method and again enjoy all the good things on the AraOn menu.

Ara On Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Start, Fin

Fin

Fin

When some of my university classmates who were from Chicago used to say that there are people who have lived here all of their lives and have not gone to all part of the city, I thought it was a far-reaching statement. After a few weekends of passing through several parts of the North Side where I live, I am often finding myself gasping at thinking I have discovered some unchartered section of Chicago.  Then a little later I drive through another section of the North Side that has quaint little boutiques and cafes, never thinking that I would find anything down a residential street aside from houses and apartments. And would you believe that a few blocks east of the my doctor’s office is a Japanese sushi bar that I never knew existed? I mean, I have only been going to that doctor’s location for over ten years.

Miso Yaki Soup

Miso Yaki Soup

House Salad

House Salad

Chicago’s Ravenswood neighbourhood boasts a lot of swanky boutique eateries. However, most of them are along Montrose, Irving Park, and Damen. However, if you find yourself going down side streets to avoid traffic congestion, you may wonder upon a cafe, coffee shop, bakery, or boutique that you would not otherwise see. This was the case with me going East instead of West from my doctor’s office and suddenly eyeing Fin Sushi Bar at 1742 W. Wilson Avenue.  What I had mistaken for a closed business was indeed a restaurant establishment that was open for business. Well, I had to try it out.

With plenty of windows, lots of light, and everything having straight lines throughout the restaurant, there is a spacious ambiance about it. There isn’t the Stanley Kubrick effect or Zen garden feel that you find in most sushi lounges. I went on a Sunday afternoon when the restaurant was practically empty. The host seemed politely dismissive and the server had a Stepford demeanor. Once the camera came out, that all changed, though.

Miso yaki soup. House salad. Thai iced tea. Dragon roll. Spider roll.

Thai Iced Tea

Thai Iced Tea

Dragon Roll

Dragon Roll

The miso yaki soup was nice, more for a milder palate than I had expected. The menu had listed the soup as being spicy. Even with jalapeno in it, the taste was lacking to the point of bland. With brocoli, carrots, and green beans in it, the soup seemed like an experiment than an experience. The house salad was visually stunning, blooming with vibrant reds, purples, and greens. The ginger dressing was more of a hint. You knew that it was there because the menu said so, but it wasn’t there.  The few slices of strawberry and the radish shreds reminded me of a salad I had at a sushi bar in Oak Park, Illinois. I reminisced. Where things started to make sense in terms of the flavours being so faint was with the inclusion of Thai dishes. Yes, I had a Thai iced tea, but I had an “Aha!” moment. Granted the iced tea was a major bonus, there was now the fact that I faced as it related to Fin Sushi Bar being a Pan-Asian restaurant more than a Japanese sushi bar only. There was a brief flash of what I thought were Thai dishes (e.g., pad thai, spicy basil, and pad see ew). I guess if other restaurants are pandering to a Pan-Asian want and you can’t beat them, then join them.

Spider Roll

Spider Roll

Where it really clicked that Fin Sushi Bar was more of a neighbourhood restaurant was with the sushi. Beautiful in presentation, no doubt about it, but everything was all sixes and nines with the taste. The dragon roll was excessively saccharine and the spider roll simply had me questioning what was wrong with my sense of  taste. The texture of both felt like the chewy sensation you get from pre-packaged sushi or from letting fresh sushi sit in the refrigerator overnight. With with the whole experience at Fin Sushi Bar, all I could do was hum.

For those with a milder palate, Fin Sushi Bar may be a great entry into trying sushi, maki rolls, and even dabbling in some Thai cuisine without going to any of the nearby Thai restaurants. The service was decent. Still I could not put my finger on the atmosphere of stiffness and distance. The lack of flavour in the dishes really left me quizzical. Then again, in that particular neighbourhood, I imagine those who have a tendency to put on a performance if anything spicy makes them red in the face are the more frequent customers. I doubt the restaurant wants to offend those patrons. Perhaps I will have to give them a chance in a year or two. In the meantime, I started at Fin Sushi Bar. I finished elsewhere.

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