Praga/Bonton, Pan-European Suburban Style

During spring and the very beginning of summer, Chicago has had some angry weather. The heat and humidity have been extreme. And it seems that thunderstorms pass over the metropolitan area every other day during the afternoon rush hour. When we have had some nice days, they have been good enough to take advantage of some al fresco dining. I managed to squeeze in a day of some patio dining at Praga/Bonton in Lombard, Illinois, at 229 W. St. Charles Road to see how they tempt the palate.

Praga

Praga

Only wanting a sampling on the first visit, I settled on two courses. The first was a lobster ravioli. While I have had more than my share of lobster ravioli at various Italian restaurants, it is always a plus when you get a dish that leaves you wanting more. The cheese inside of the ravioli had a la tur texture, very creamy and rich. The lobster chunks were not mere hints, which was all the indication I needed to know that there was neither imitation nor essence stuffed between the pasta. Topped with a corn and bell pepper confetti, this moved up to the top spot as best lobster ravioli that I have had in Metro Chicago.

Lobster Ravioli

Lobster Ravioli

The second dish was a risotto with diver scallops on top. My favorite Italian osteria in Logan Square serves the absolute best diver scallops risotto that I have had to date, but the dish at Praga/Bonton is a very close second. Filled with mushroom, asparagus, and wild truffle sauce, I recommend this dish. It pops with flavor without being busy on the tongue. Get a bowl for yourself, as sharing may result in too much of it going fast and regrets for not being selfish.

Risotto with Pan Seared Diver Scallops

Risotto with Pan Seared Diver Scallops

For my second visit, I wanted to try a few other dishes that were more French. The offerings that I had the first time were very much couched in Italian and authentic in flavor, so I was curious to see if there was a proper amount of respect paid to the French menu items. They scored high marks in that space.

Cranberry Juice

Cranberry Juice

Veering away from escargot, since that is such a common item on menu items, I started with a bowl of forest mushroom soup, laced with sherry. Again, dining al fresco, it was rather hot outside, but the soup was not one that left me lethargic from being heavy combined with the outdoor heat. Packed with flavor from fresh mushrooms and a savory cream base, I polished it off and then used the complimentary bread to go around the inside and bottom of the bowl, sopping up as much of the rest of the soup as possible: Clean Bowl Society.

Creamed Mushroom

Creamed Mushroom

The second course was a crab cake atop an avocado papaya chutney and arugula salad with an avocado vinaigrette. The bliss factor for the crab cake was that there was very little breading used, more dusting than anything. The crab cake was another dish packed with flavor without having one wonder if the chef was trying too hard to season the dish. You could taste a bit of the sweetness in the crab meat since it was not masked by an unnecessary melange of herbs, seasoning, and other spices. The bed of vegetables reminded me of crudites, which is a small side dish of julienne vegetables (e.g., carrots, cucumbers, bell peppers) that many in France enjoy.

Crab Cake

Crab Cake

The third dish was a plate of beef medallions under frites. The chef erred on the side of preparing the beef tenderloins medium well and I was appreciative. The meat was neither runny nor was it charred to an unappetizing crisp. It was just right and whatever seasoning used to marinate the meat gave it enough smack without a need for any additional seasoning help. Add to that the Cognac flambe and the tenderloins having been sauteed in Bordelaise sauce with wild mushrooms, along with grilled asparagus spears, the marriage with the frites made it delectably French.

Beef Medallions with Frites

Beef Medallions with Frites

The finale was a duo of chocolate mousses, one white chocolate, the other dark chocolate. Served with a berry compote and looking like two scoops of ice cream, each scoop was heaven. The white chocolate was not sugary and the dark chocolate was not milk chocolate. This was a perfect ending to three prior courses that were already mouthwatering.

White and Dark Chocolate Mousse

White and Dark Chocolate Mousse

Needless to say, the output from the kitchen was absolutely winning. The table service is also outstanding. My server during the first visit was quite conversational and good about making recommendations. On the second visit, the server remembered me, minus my 6-inch beard that I had shaved, where I sat, what I ordered, and my preference for cranberry juice. Service is everything and Praga/Bonton sets the bar high for creating a welcoming environment. The menu is a mix of Italian, French, and German-Austrian, but still retains authenticity in each without compromising recipes. If you are ever passing through the downtown Lombard area and wondering about dining options, add Praga/Bonton to your list.

Praga Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Half Italian, Half French, 100% Satisfied

With Facebook being a constant in social media, I decided that it was time to establish a presence for Chicago Alphabet Soup via Facebook. I can’t say that I will ever entertain Twitter since the 140 character limitation is not enough for a good stream of consciousness. Tumblr seems to be the new “it” social media tool. Yes, another account to create and another password to have to manage. My short-term memory is already giving me warnings that I need to limit the number of social media outlets that I have signed up for. And my short-term memory works in concert with my ongoing appetite to prompt me when I should deal with things that really matter — like getting my keys and my wallet, and leaving my condo to get something to eat.

Latte

Latte

My neighbourhood of Logan Square is becoming a Wonderland. It seems that almost every month there is some new boutique, cafe, coffee shop, or eatery dotting the landscape. What was once viewed as a shooting gallery — to quote one friend who almost had a theatrical Scarlett O’Hara attack when I told her I was moving to Logan Square — has now become one of the most sought after neighbourhoods in Chicago. But what should I discover this past Sunday but a swanky grocery store and deli. In the stretch of Milwaukee Avenue that is undergoing a renaissance between the Traffic Circle of Doom and Diversey Avenue is Half Italian, at 4653 N. Milwaukee Avenue. Enter and embrace your inner hipster, but also be prepared for quality. Because I was going strictly for something to eat and drink, I did a quick glance of the grocery items just in case there was something that caught my fancy worthy enough for a future purchase. After all of a second, it was all about a latte and — clutch your pearls, your wig or toupee, and even your martini — a BLT. I didn’t just fall off the wagon; I did a proper tuck and roll. For starters, the latte was of the kind that I love, the kind where you can drink it without sugar. The bloke who prepared the cup of wow for me raised his eyebrows when I was outside at one of the tables photographing it. As for the BLT — cue the sound of a chorus dragging out “aaaahhhhhhh” — I don’t know if it was the smokey taste of bacon that made me smile like a dunce, the freshness of the lettuce and tomato, the spicy mayonnaise, the fact that the sandwich was on Italian bread rather than Sunbeam light bread, or the joke I was reading on a friend’s Facebook wall. Half Italian has a new customer and if I keep gaining weight, my jeans that fit comfortably now will become skinny jeans and I’ll fit the hipster mold. No! Reverse, rewind, scratch that.

BLT

BLT

Now, there was no need for me to saunter back to my condo because the day was several notches past ideal. No clouds, no humidity, no heat, a nice breeze, and me not wanting to show any more neighbours my remodeled Stanley Kubrick bathroom. So, I headed to Oak Park to my favourite dessert shop — Sugar-Fixé at 119 N. Marion Street. I had more coffee that required no sugar and a verine. Shall we stop and have a moment of reflection? (Pause) That parfait of chocolate mousse layered with moist brownies and topped with English toffee not only photographed well, but I had to minimize my scooping to smaller nibbles so that I could savour the whole thing slowly. And from somewhere in the background, Isabelle Antena was singing “LaPecheresse a la Ligne.” How fitting. Sitting outside having verine and taking coffee is so European. First, I was Italian (buona) and then I was French (bon). I know that it seems Chicago has decided to get out of the business of cupcake mills and become the land of the most addictive doughnuts, but a plethora of French patisseries in Chicago of the Sugar-Fixé kind would make this city the most populated city in the world. Now that I think of it, Sugar-Fixé has become my de facto landing spot for coffee and dessert that never fail — unless I am going to Julius Meinl for sweets, savouries, and live music.

Verine

Verine

Many people go for long walks on Sunday. Some clog the roads with casual drives, the speed limit being too much for them. Others just keep up mess. I prefer scouting out all the good things to quiet the monster that is affectionately known as my belly. After being half Italian, half French, and 100% satisfied this past Sunday, I will try to continue a tradition of being Pan-ethnic with some other fooderies. Hmm. If people can do pub crawls — and, yes, most crawl literally after endless imbibing — then I can do a gluttony trek. I may be in pain after overindulging, though, but that’s par for the culinary course. And I will post the photos on Facebook, not the ones of me on the floor in tears because I’m too full to sleep and fighting food comatose at the same time.

Half Italian Grocer & Deli on Urbanspoon

My Dr. Seuss Moment

Emilio's Tapas

Will you eat them in the house?
Will you eat them with your spouse?
Will you eat them in the sun?
Will you eat them just for fun?
Will you even lick the plate?
Will you have your tapas very late?

Red Sangria

When my friends and I advance in our careers and in our social lives, we have a tendency to celebrate big. Dinner gatherings. Trips to beautiful and exotic places. Catching up at champagne and wine bars. Symphonies. Jazz sets. All the good things that other people who could enjoy but do not because they sit around damning those who live life to the fullest. In the like manner that I experienced when I left one place where I was working so that I could advance several notches up and most certainly during the entire month of April when I celebrated my birthday ad nauseam, a great friend recently accepted a position with a company where she moved up a few notches by leaps and bounds and celebrating was a must. There was absolutely no way that we were going to pass on throwing support and enjoying something worthy of culinary happiness.

With downtown Chicago taking on a more European feel in that dinner is starting later, we met at Emillio’s Tapas, at 215 E. Ohio Street in the Streeterville neighbourhood. We had passed by the restaurant several times when often we went to any one of the restaurants in the area for lunch. It looked swanky. There was always a crowd. It came across as a place to sample. We figured that instead of passing by and saying, “That looks like a nice place,” we would test our observation. A very nice Chicago summer evening with the sun slowly creeping over behind the skyscrapers and us sitting outside with the wind flicking across our cheeks, we were ready to see how the Spaniards entertain their appetites. And since we all had been to Spain before, we had a point of reference for how it’s done. Tapas we wanted, so tapas we were going to have.

Calamares Con Ajo Y Limon

A nice evening for us to enjoy, what better way to get started than with a refreshing beverage? Red sangria.

I’ll drink it on the phone.
I’ll drink it while at home.
I’ll drink it in the sun.
I’ll love it till I’m done.

The concoction of red wine, brandy, apples, lemons, and oranges was potent and smile-inducing. And it was not just one glass that we had, but it was a full carafe so that we could enjoy as much as we wanted without stopping our waitress to place another order. But, there was a second carafe, so touché. And with our first glass, we had calamaraes con ajo y limon. These baby octopuses were cooked to a texture that was not al dente but not quite yet splendidly tender. The buttery-lemony sauce that they swam in before jumping on our fork tines and then plopping on our tongues was slightly addictive. We dipped our bread in the sauce, sopped, and dealt the octopuses their fate. May they know that we appreciated how delectable they tasted.

Papas Bravas

Next to the table was a plate of papas bravas. Usually, this dish comes topped with melted cheddar cheese, which sometimes puts me in the mind of Velveeta doctored up in the microwave. Hmm. This time the papas bravas was sprinkled with grated cheese and served over a mild tomato sauce with red peppers. There was a contradictory note to the dish, as it was more lukewarm than it should have been yet flavourful. My friend remarked that the potatoes tasted old. My appetite, although discriminating, does not detect “old.” Nasty. Disgusting. Horrid. Worthy of throwing against the wall. Yes, those descriptions come to mind, but old is a new one on me. Then again, I ate what was left. I mean, people on the other side of the world are starving and although I have upper middle class means, I cannot let tasty food go to waste unless it is absolutely beastly.

Congrejo Concha Blanda

As the two earlier plates were a little better than fair to middling, another glass or two of the sangria and the order of congrejo concha blanda made it all right for the evening. Happiness was in the air. The congrejo concha blanda was a plate of soft shell crab served with white rice over another cream-based sauce. Anyone who loves crab would bow at the chef’s feet for preparing such a masterpiece in dining. We thought the rice was seasoned enough to raise our eyebrows in appreciation, so imagine the soft shell crab being cut and devoured by gleeful diners such as ourselves. Wow.

I’ll lick my fingers clean.
I’ll start being nice and stop being mean.
I’ll love it, Sam I Am.
But I still won’t eat green eggs and ham.

We shall just say that when you take the last few substantial morsels of the soft shell crab and start going around the plate to get the gravy, you are in heaven. Being dainty, prudish, or prim would be unacceptable. Perhaps if I were a country Jasper from the hills, I would have lifted the plate to my face and licked it lovingly.

Falda de Cebon al la Parrilla

By now, we had completed one carafe of sangria and were mildly knackered. Thankful that we had a good amount of complementary bread and all of the other hearty dishes, much of the alcohol had been soaked up. So we were ready for more refreshing liquid bliss. What better way to enjoy each glass full of happiness than with falda de cebon ala parrilla? As a pescatarian, vegetables and seafood are what I will entertain in my diet primarily. But this was not my celebratory dinner, so when the guest of honour wanted skirt steak, there were no complaints. When we started cutting in to the steak and forking it into our mouths, we would have started a petition for the swift public flogging of anyone who moaned about having something so lip-smackingly divine placed before them. I am sure that God looked down at us and said to Himself that we will meet fire for smiling so raptly through the deadly sin of gluttony. Yes, I will burn in hell for such relish and I shall dress accordingly. The guest of honour was passing the steak knife to me to cut the meat, to which I replied, “Woman, I’m handling this with a butter knife. Can’t you see?” And by now, we were a bit squiffy from so much drink that everything was funny — the parent pushing what looked like a six-year-old child in a buggy; the man with the exploding soda pop all over the back of some stranger’s shirt; the bitter woman who dropped the scoop of strawberry ice cream on her shoe, making it look like a saucy pom-pom; and me being too quick with the cava sauce and almost pushing it off the plate with a forkful of steak.

Chocolate Cake with White Chocolate and Caramel Mousse

Having loved what we had, it was time to indulge some dessert. Too much food already and sangria surplus, we opted for lighter desserts. At the risk of blasphemy and apologies to all of the Pharisees, the chocolate cake with white chocolate mousse and caramel mousse once again had God shaking His head. Garnished with a sprig of mint and a strawberry, this was clearly a work of the devil. And maybe God viewed our enjoyment as a part of His plan. Some southern Baptist preacher may have been screaming from the pulpit that we were going to burn in hell, though, which is usually the case if you find satisfaction in anything. Nothing close to syrupy or to the point of having our teeth feel as though we had set them on ice because of too much sugar, this dessert was indeed perfection. Light in texture, heavy on the bliss factor, it also went well with the sangria. Do not ask. And as if the chocolate cake with the wonder mousse were not enough, we finalized our dessert with profiterole del pirineo. You would never think that something as pedestrian as puff pastries filled with ice cream and topped with chocolate sauce would be better than a sunny day at the park. Oh, but when the chocolate is dark chocolate, you may discover the secrets of love, the 12 rabbits and the cheesecake, how to make incompetent politicians disappear, and all sorts of good things. As I polished off the last of my glass of sangria, and I had the bottom of the carafe, I was all sixes and sevens — a complete mess, I say. It had occurred to me perhaps two hours after we had left that I made a rather loud declaration of, “Oh my God!” on the outdoor patio in the presence of patrols and wait staff while eating that dessert. Well, there was no denying that all we had eaten was worthy of any kind of smashing reaction, regardless of how embarrassing it may have been afterwards.

Profiterol del Pirineo

So, this was yet another case of outstanding food, super great service, and me fighting sleep on the subway while going home well after 11:00 at night. The prices were not as steep as I thought they would have been, but the allure and outdoor ambiance made Emilio’s Tapas a place that I shall visit again. I have some great eating experiences in Chicago, but there are times when it is so good that I have my Dr. Seuss moments. This was one of them.

I will eat them in my house
I will eat them with my spouse.
I will eat them in the sun.
I will eat them just for fun.
I will have my tapas very late.
I will even lick the plate.
I will eat them, Sam I Am.
Now, go away so that I can.

Emilio's Sol Y Nieve 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.