Back to Africa Through Bolat

Bolat African Cuisine

The beautiful thing about Skype is that you can talk to friends and family, near and very far, free. Take for instance, I was having a video chat with an old graduate school friend. And what should he be doing while we were in conversation? He was eating. If you have only looked at some authentic Nigerian dishes, you may wince a little. Nothing is actually cute on the plate. But if you have had some Nigerian cuisine dancing around on your tongue, your mouth waters at the mention of it. Well, as much as I wanted to lick the monitor, I settled on going to Bolat African Cuisine at 3346 N. Clark Street later to sort out my craving.

Hibiscus Mojito

Hibiscus Mojito

Plantains and Peanut Sauce

Plantains and Peanut Sauce

During this visit, I was in my usual mood of not wanting to make any decisions about what to eat. I told the server, who I found out was also the owner, that I wanted two appetizers, two entrées, one dessert, and cocktails for pairing. See what my Skype experience had done to my appetite? For my first cocktail, I had a hibiscus mojito. I made a mental note to return in the future and request a flight of mojitos because the hibiscus mojito transported me mentally to a climate considerably warmer than the 40 degrees we had in Chicago. To add to the mojito, there were plantains with peanut sauce. What a combination. What a perfect start.

Meat Pie

Meat Pie

The next appetizer was a meat pie. This reminded me so much of Jamaican beef patties. The pastry casing was not as flaky, but it definitely was tempting enough that I ordered several for take-away. Served with a homemade hot sauce, I’m going to have to admit that I have a love affair with Nigerian meat patties. If you order ten to take home with you, there really is no other indication of an addiction that you need.

Peanut Soup with Fish

Peanut Soup with Fish

The first entrée was truly cultural on two fronts — Nigerian and Ghanaian. I had peanut soup and it was served with snapper. Because I wanted to enjoy the dish in a proper way, I had fufu with it. No fork. No spoon. There were fufu and my fingers. I have said on multiple occasions that I do not like peanuts, Sam I Am, but I can eat peanut soup until it hurts. My palate welcomes spicy food, so I had the peanut soup prepared mildly peppery. The fish was seasoned well with various herbs and prepared such that the outer texture was slightly crunchy while the meat was succulent. Truly my African half showed itself because I completed the dish with the fufu, not once using a utensil.

L'amuse

L’amuse

Queen Nefertiti

Queen Nefertiti

Surprisingly, I had room for another full entrée. In preparation for the next dish, I had a l’amuse of skirt steak, tomato, and grilled onion, served with peanuts crushed to a powder. Not dainty like the amuse-bouche that you may get a fancy restaurants, but definitely tastier, I could have had this as a full plate. And to make moving into the next entrée that more inviting, I had a cocktail of hibiscus, ginger liqueur, and champagne. I understand why the name of the drink is Queen Nefertiti.

Egusi with Fish

Egusi with Fish

The second main course was another authentic Nigerian dish called egusi. This was also served with snapper. My friend who I was on Skype with, who happens to be Yoruba, had prepared some egusi when he was visiting the latter part of 2014. The egusi at Bolat was reminiscent of the variety that my Igbo friends prepared during our “cultural” dinners. Not one to complain about too much seafood in my diet, the snapper was tender and light enough that the egusi was still the star. And rather than indulging myself with more fufu, I had a scoop of jollof rice that I needed the recipe for.

Salt and Pepper Highball

Salt and Pepper Highball

Ice Cream Covered in Coconut

Ice Cream Covered in Coconut

The final course was in keeping with not letting a customer leave without giving a rating of 15 out of 10 on the scale. I had a cocktail called the Salt and Pepper Highball. I initially thought the salt and pepper garnish around the rim of the glass was different, but the gin, grapefruit juice, fresh lemon juice, simply syrup in the glass made it worthwhile. Accompanying this dessert cocktail was a scoop of vanilla ice cream covered in coconut,, topped with an apricot slice, and drops of honey raspberry reduction. The marriage of the cocktail and the ice cream was a match made in heaven.

Bolat African Cuisine is more like a lounge. The atmosphere is so laid back that the dining experience is considerably more relaxed than what you would get at a regular restaurant. For those who have been to Iyanzé in Chicago’s Uptown, which I blogged in 2011, you will not be disappointed by the offerings from the kitchen. Part of this is because the owner of Bolat African Cuisine also owns Iyanzé. Good food should never be rushed, and nothing comes from the kitchen in a snap, as it is prepared to order. Go. Sit. Relax. Enjoy. As for me, I need to Skype with my friend again and not to have my food alarm go off but so I can get some ideas of what else I should try — perhaps something cultural that is not on the menu.

Bolat African Cuisine on Urbanspoon

In Chicago’s Second Tallest Building — Rebar

From the Terrace at Trump Tower

Lagoon

Lagoon

Chicago is my favourite city in North America — in the USA — second to Toronto, Ontario. Chicago is a bastion of culture, theatre, arts, restaurants, food, architecture, cafés, music, corrupt politicians, bizarre temperatures, and constant news about shooting gallery activities in small sections of the city. Well, the latter three do not make for splendid press. However, the abundance of food and great places where you can get your fill of satisfaction are main attractions that have kept me in this fair city for nineteen years. When I had moved to Chicago from New York City, I did not initially find the place fast enough, hip enough, or current enough. In some regions of the city, people had Jheri curls. Drivers stopped on green lights and went when the lights turned red — simply backwards. Pedestrians meandered as if they had been converted into zombies, of which I discovered were tourists in total awe of the city’s splendor. Fast forward to the present and Chicago has quickly risen to New York City standards as a hub of cultural activities. Downtown has expanded and seems to be continuing to grow by leaps and bounds. Nightlife is available until the wee hours of the morning and that also means being able to go to any restaurant at any time of night rather than rambling through an empty refrigerator for a late night snack. And with the reverse migration of those who had fled to the suburbs years ago, Chicago proper has indeed become a centre for a lot of entertainment despite eight month of winter.

Shrimp Tempura

Shrimp Tempura

With the growth spurt of Chicago taking off, the skyline is seeing the addition of more skyscrapers. One such skyscraper that has resulted in Chicago boasting three of the tallest buildings in North America is Trump Tower. Walking distance from Michigan Avenue and State Street, this Tower of Babel reaches high towards the blue, grey steel reflecting more blue which gives the building an ethereal look. To me, the things that make Trump Tower so appealing are the restaurants — Rebar and The Terrace. Several friends and I usually gather for a bit of communion after work at any local haunt. Having been to Rebar and loving it, we wanted to return to Trump Tower to go to the sixteenth floor to sample the bill of fare at The Terrace. The vista from The Terrace is magnificent with so much old architecture staring back at you while you ponder menu items that make you gasp. We all had drinks, which were the most reasonably priced items on the menu. The appetizers were Wow! and the entrées were on the up of triple digits in price. One friend had a glass of red wine because her husband told her to behave. Another had a beer since she is more of a connoisseur of ales. One other friend had water so that he would not teeter about on the bus ride home. A fourth had a mixed drink called a lagoon because she is experimental with mixed drinks. I had a Glenlivit scotch to maintain my snobbery. While all of the drinks are pretty much commonplace, the lagoon was a sight to behold. This green drink contained light rum, dark rum, grenadine, pineapple juice, some other flavoured liquor, and a sniffer full of smiles in it. We were all quite happy. We got to say that we went to The Terrace and had drinks.

Flight of Mojitos

Flight of Mojitos

Electric Lemonade

Electric Lemonade

Because we are not of the ilk that can compete with the average college jock and sorority girl in binge drinking, and making complete fools of ourselves is way beneath our station, we wanted some food so that we would not stagger about downtown like bumbling pratts. So it was down to the second floor we went to Rebar. Ah, happiness abounded as we ordered more drinks and our share of Japanese food. I can imagine some chef doing his thing with rice, eel, avocado, wasabi sauce, ginger, and his imagination. For drinks, we had more wine, an electric lemonade, beer, a flight of mojitos, and water. Okay, so the electric lemonade was not a concoction from a carton with garnish and a lemon wedge. It was a bit reminiscent of a cross between a mojito and Mike’s Hard Lemonade, ever so refreshing, oh so delightful, and oh so much of it. The winner was the flight of mojitos — cucumber, blackberry, vanilla, and strawberry basil.

The bartender must be an oracle when it comes to making drinks because he or she did not prepare any of the mixed drinks such that the first skosh nipped at the back of the jaw. The alcohol was hidden well; that is until you stood to walk. With the complementary olives and spiced nuts, we had edamame, tempura shrimp, a garden roll with tempura asparagus, crunchy shrimp roll, and California roll. I am sure that if any of the others were like me when they got home, they went to bed promptly and slept like they had been anesthetized. I dreamed that teddy bears at their picnics cursed my name because I had so much fun at Trump Tower — but it was mostly because I was laughing at their empty picnic baskets.

Crunchy Shrimp

Crunchy Shrimp

Donald Trump may be a bit of a laughable individual, but good on him for Trump Tower — and his public quibbling with the mayor about the TRUMP sign being on display well above eye level. When I am in my chi-chi mood and want to perpetrate like I am more than just a statistician, I will ride the lift to the sixteenth floor and sit outside watching the beauty of downtown while sipping a scotch — keeping in mind that a scotch will no doubt be all I order. But when I want something of substance and within my budget, I shall retreat to Rebar and work my chopsticks on some sushi while delighting myself on some liquid love from the bar. Ambience, great service, and fantastic food, what more could one want? The answer would be a ridiculous wealth of money so that you could at least fake once like I have enough to pay for a $200 entrée at The Terrace. Okay, so I’ve paid more at a few restaurants and not whined.

Go to New York City if you want to see a play, have a truly good brunch, or live in what can feel like a prison cell with a lease price of no less than $2000. Go to Los Angeles if you want to rehearse how to be a plastic actor or actress. But come to Chicago if you want great real estate, arts, entertainment, and fine cuisine — brought to us thanks to the maneuvering of corrupt politicians. And if you are a manager and have to fire an employee — You’re fired! — you can make yourself feel good afterwards by going to Rebar and having some sushi, a lagoon, and wrapping up with a goblet of electric lemonade. Then you will know all the good things that make Chicago so wonderful.

Garden Roll

Garden Roll

Rebar on Urbanspoon

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

On the Sunny Side

Salsa

The older I get, the more I take advantage of things without seeking permission and without hesitation. A great friend has recently taken on the same disposition and so she and I catch up every Friday after work to wash away the weeks’ ills with laughter while enjoying food and drink. Who needs to sit around pondering what the Joneses are doing when they can find satisfaction with their feet under a table — be it at a restaurant, cafe, picnic table, or under their own kitchen tables — when life does not pause the Joneses to wait for anyone to catch up? Lucky for me, I have the Williams blood in me and the Joneses spend a great deal of time gasping from trying to match my pace.

Tomatilla

Since my friend and I had been meeting in Oak Park every Friday to frequent any one of our many favourite haunts, this was going to be a finale, as I am no longer going to work in the West Suburbs. I will work in downtown Chicago and with me living just on the outskirts of downtown, public transportation, packed subways, standing-room-only buses, and congestion will become my comfort again. So, my friend and I met at Maya del Sol, located at 144 S. Oak Park Avenue. I had passed by the restaurant over the course of a year or so, but never felt compelled to see what was on their bill of fare. There were always limos and high-end cars pulling up with thin Hollywood tanned blond Barbie dolls and Miami oompa-loompa orange Ken action figures springing about stiffly before vanishing into a cacophony of pretty-pretty faces. Considering my friend and I are both so sexy that it hurts, there was nothing holding us back from going in and adding Maya del Sol to our list of fooderies — that’s my first new word for the year.

Our fantastic waitress told us that Maya del Sol has a policy of refunding anything that customers do not like. Hmm. That is the last thing an establishment should mention considering the world is full of people who are unscrupulous and may feel bold enough to order in abundance and then complain about everything ordered just to squeeze out a free meal. But with homemade tortillo, tomatilla salsa, and traditional salsa in front of us inducing smiles on our faces, we let that bit of information given to us go in one ear and out the other. Granted chips and salsa come standard in Latin American eateries, there is something awesome about warm, crunchy tortillas that do not taste as though they were poured from a Frito-Lays bag and served with a jar of Hunt’s picante sauce. Believe me when I say that the tortillas and salsas were worthy.

Mojito

My friend had a glass of red wine. It is clear that she and I have like tastes in red wines — full body, spicy, with a smoky hint. The wine had come per recommendation from the waitress and immediately upped her tip value; this being true and we had not ordered appetizers yet. I had a mojito and I will simply say that Latin American bartenders have the market in preparing mojitos correctly. There are some mojito snobs leaping about in disdain at my observation, I am sure, but there is something fantastic to be said about a mojito that does not have the whole mint bush in the drink and the alcohol is not loaded enough to make a wino scream, Damn! Give me life or give me a bitching mojito. Hmm. Actually, I think I will take both.

Traditional Cerviche

Where things really got pleasing was with the flight of cerviches. Let me give a disclaimer now. I have not been a fan of cerviche until I had tried it at a local Cuban restaurant in my neighbourhood. Those Cubans blew my mind pa-pow-pow style and so when I go to Latin American restaurants and I see cervice on the menu, my addiction kicks in and I want to see if the eatery will satisfy my palate like or better than the Cuban cafe. Maya del Sol provides a flight of three cerviches so that you can get a feel or rather a taste for which one makes you sweat the most. Now, let me clarify that the cerviches are not spicy enough to make you sweat but the flavours pop in a manner that will leave you with a randy twitch. There goes my addiction again.

Salmon Cerviche

The first cerviche was the traditional version. !Dios mios! Fresh raw fish marinated in lime juice and spiced with chilli peppers never tasted so good. Who would have thought that raw fish not prepared as sushi would be so tasty? Additional seasoning of onion, salt, cilantro, and pepper made it that much better. Thinking about the second cerviche — salmon cerviche — has me flustered. Fresh salmon, and I do not mean fishy in taste at all, sat atop avocado that had been prepared in the manner of guacamole, but not quite guacamole. In addition to the tortillas we had complementary with the salsas, we also had some flour tortillas that we used to scoop the cerviches. I made a mental note to never sit at a window seat again. Then again, I realized I would forget all about my window seat presentations as soon as I walk through the door of the next restaurant I plan to sample.

Shrimp Cerviche

Where things left my friend and me rumpled and out of sort was when we began working on the shrimp cerviche. Fat, plump shrimp bursting with vibrant flavour — as if you can describe flavour in terms of vibrancy — the only thing I could describe as being more beautiful or closer to heaven was watching the sun set from Signal Hill in Cape Town, South Africa. And here is where the cerviche snobs leap about in disdain of my statements of appreciation — and I imagine them landing between the sharp teeth of giant Venus fly traps. I have said as of late that cilantro goes great with everything. Well, not everything, but you get the gist. Add avocado to the list. Chunks of avocado sat perched on the wow shrimp that had been accented with cilantro. Heaven and my friend and me smacking the table.

Carne Asada

Although Maya del Sol fills up fast after work hours on Fridays, there was no rush. So, my friend and I watched the Hollywood and Miami types saunter about and strike poses before we summoned our waitress and ordered entrées. Keep in mind what I have written about the complementary chips and salsas, the drinks, and the flight of cerviches. I simply cannot do any justice to the carne asada. I tried to figure out what I would say about the plump tomatoes, my greatest rapture, my passion, my weakness. No, I do not mean just any tomatoes snatched from the shelf at the local market and doused with Lawry’s seasoning. Maya del Sol added love to those tomatoes and did not discriminate on the zucchini either. But it was the steak where the clouds scattered and the last beam of sunlight shined on the plate. It is shameful to admit that I cannot state approximately how many times my friend and I uttered, My God, while handling that steak. Talk about a restaurant getting “well done” correct: no burnt edges, no tree bark texturing, no hockey puck hardness, and no need for steak sauce. Just succulence sat on the plate before we delved in and showed the fashion model types how to appreciate good food without being embarrassing about it.

Shrimp, Vegetables, Rice

The reaction to the second entrée was no better. Shrimp with carrots, squash, and white rice. Not one bland bite did we have. Maya del Sol apparently gets only the best shrimp from market because again there were fleshy but not fishy shrimp that exploded when our teeth sank through them. As to the rice and vegetables, if you want to get your picky child into enjoying his or vegetables, I highly recommend exposing that obstinate child to a plate of shrimp with vegetables at Maya del Sol. Once more, there were chants of “My God!” and long stretches of silence. Amor en el plato. Love on a plate is all that I can say to describe the dish without making a mockery of the perfection the chef had sent to our table from the kitchen.

Mexican Hot Chocolate

By now we were pretty much done with any heavy dishes. We showed our appreciation by polishing off everything on the plates and I do mean everything except for lingering smears of gravy and gypsy rice kernels. No rush, no problem, as we sat for few minutes and then agreed that there was no way we were going to leave without experiencing something from the dessert menu. However, going overboard was not an option. So, we ordered Mexican hot chocolate. Pa-pow-pow! The Mexican hot chocolate was not necessarily spicy and that was fine. There were cloves, cinnamon, and a hint of allspice in it to give a bit of a kick but not enough to leave us with our eyes crossed. From the first intake of the aroma of the hot chocolate to the last sip, the entire moment was magical. Okay, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but there was a sentiment of having bragging rights because I know I have accepted suggestions from some friends for where to go get Mexican hot chocolate only to receive a small cup of Hershey’s powder in hot water with an ancho chilli added for effect. I am wondering when the pox I wished on their homes will kick in. As if what we had already was not good enough, the chocolate tart with creme fraiche, strawberries, and mint was a perfect ending. Clearly the chocolate was not Jell-O. Sorry, Bill Cosby, I cannot give you props. The strawberries, although not served as a bushel of strawberries, were still bursting. My friend and I cut the mint leaf and indulged ourselves to a beautiful finish. Thinking about it all has me flustered all over again. I never thought I would find myself saying this again, but food as my lover is the greatest love ever.

Chocolate Tart

So, now that I will work from downtown, my friend and I will have to seek out other adventurous locales for our commiserating moments on Fridays after work. Maya del Sol was worthy of our first trip there and will be worthy of our many returns. It may have been that we took blind leaps of faith in the recommendations our waitress gave to us. It may have been that the food was simply outstanding on its on. What I will say is that you pay for what you get and I am not talking about emptying your savings account. Maya del Sol is loud, so be prepared to speak with upped volume to your friends, imaginary friends, or blow-up dolls. While I joke about the stiff Hollywood and Miami types, these are more genuine and fun to talk to than the candy stripers and saucy old men who frequent the Viagra Triangle immediately north of downtown. But, hell, who needs to people-watch when you can leave with a satisfying finish from comida buena?

Maya Del Sol on Urbanspoon

When You Wish Upon a Star

Wishbone RestaurantMakes no difference where you are. Hmm. I think it all depends on where you are.

When I was in undergraduate, a bored applied mathematics major who picked up a second major in computer science — and was even more deadpan with nothing to do but sit through tiresome study sessions and ace every test — I often extended a few weekends with trips to the Big Easy. New Orleans with all of its grit, grime, establishments that stayed open and indulged those of us who were eighteen years old or older, and two or more weird characters stumbling through some door and falling flat on their faces in front of you, it was a nice escape from calculus equations and programming code. Then I graduated and moved to Berkeley for graduate school where hugging trees, being awakened at night by tremors, and eating brownies with special ingredients mixed in ruled.

Mojito MojoLong gone are my days of being so footloose and fancy free. I have a job that pays me enough to keep Uncle Sam smiling, a mortgage that beats letting an apartment, property taxes that make me bark like a dog, an appetite that has me struggling with the zipper in my pants, and a love of photography that keeps me in some place clicking away with any one of my cameras. I lost count after the fourth digital camera. On the photography front, I am taking another photography class: this one in photojournalism. Granted the extortion I used to do years ago would have looked great on some walls instead of in specially packaged envelopes — the statutes of limitation have long passed, it was that long — it is not a bad idea for me to polish my skill.

Cornbread and Roll

But I digress. During my most recent photography class, we all got to go to Wishbone at 3300 N. Lincoln Avenue in Chicago’s Lakeview to photograph a jazz band. What a nice way to hone some photography talents by capturing some freeze frames of a band sending notes into the air while dining patrons work their teeth on some Cajun style loving from the oven. This was a brilliant idea. Going anywhere that serves delicious food is a magnet that draws me near. It begs me, taunts me, and tell me that I am a the most important person in the world. Addictions are something else, I must say, and with it being food I have no problem submitting to the flavours. Even this cup of Ethiopian coffee I am drinking while composing this journal entry is telling me to stop being so modest with my cupfuls.

Hopping Jack

Spacious, nice, and dim on the inside of Wishbone, I secured a seat at the bar while the band was playing something true to traditional jazz — and I do not mean the sexy saxophone kind of jazz that you hear on soap operas just as the pretty-pretty walks from the powder room wearing her frilly baby doll nighty. The bass guitarist played his chords on the upright bass. The pianist tickled the ebony and ivory. And the rat-a-tat-tat-pscheeee of the drums and symbol made the visit worthwhile. Now, one could complain that they were not playing any zydeco, but New Orleans is probably the most jazz-authentic city I have been to the America. You want to ease into good food, not get up and dance to some zydeco — unless it is just that good. And the band played on.

Base Guitarist at WishboneI started with a mojito. A hurricane would have been more fitting, but I did have to go back to class after we finished photographing the band. Lip-smacking good, but a wee bit heavy on the alcohol, this Cuban highball went down smoothly after the first two sips and with the complementary mini cornbread muffins and roll. The server joked that she spiked the mojito, of which I pretended to be an unknowing victim. But it was sweet torture, nevertheless. With Wishbone serving Cajun food, I ordered Hopping Jack. Black beans prepared like red beans and served over rice, garnished with tomatoes, chives, and cheese, it was rather good. Far be it for me to switch into purist mode and compare it to the Hopping Jack that I have had in New Orleans, loaded with Andouille sausage and who knows what else, and well before my jump into vegetarianism, but I am going to say that I was very satisfied and a tad bit slow towards the end. One could blame the alcohol in the mojito but, no, I have a tendency to get a drunken sensation when I eat way too much food. That may explain why I do not drive. Imagine being the poster child for Do no eat to excess and drive.

While getting natural on the Hopping Jack and chasing it with the mojito, the manager stood and chatted with me for a few minutes. I had inquired about the band playing, recalling that there were no bands that entertained the guests in the past. This has become quite a phenomenon in many independent coffee houses, restaurants, and Potbelly sandwich shops, the latter mostly accommodating any disheveled hipster with an acoustic guitar. The manager explained about how there is usually a dedicated band that plays every Wednesday night for a whole month, a band rotating each month. What a novel idea, a brilliant way for local talent to get noticed, and as for jazz bands, a better selection of music to listen to rather than bubblegum music from the satellite radio. The manager and I also talked about ethnic cuisine in Chicago proper, recommended locations for some eateries, and travels domestic and abroad. We also noted how restaurants with close proximity to Chicago’s Loop and downtown tourist haunts tend to pander to the milder palate while those farther away add complete authenticity, that being spices, to the recipes. Regardless, if the jazz bands that they have come to play are as good as the trio that played this night, I shall have to make a few more trips to Wishbone on Wednesday nights before class.

Percussionist at Wishbone

Having gone to Wishbone for brunch primarily, going for dinner was a welcomed change. I will admit that I am still partial towards the breakfast and brunches that they serve. Love the price. Love the food. Could not have asked for better service. Add to all that a talented jazz trio that did not disappoint, this was a moment well spent. Ah, and I shall not forget to add that I ordered a slice of keylime pie, but for take-away. I give in to being a puppet of gluttony enough. I went back to my photography class with a tune in my head, food in my belly, drink putting me in a calm mood, and a note to myself to make a reservation to go to New Orleans soon. That is one city where I am sure to get some photojournalism done before, during, and after I get fed.

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