California Pizza Kitchen, When Change Is Good

California Pizza Kitchen

Years ago when I worked on the Magnificent Mile, a colleague had a love for California Pizza Kitchen. It had become something of a palate cleanser for having too much pizza from Lou Malnati’s, Giordano’s, and other Chicago-style pizza eateries. For me, too much pizza, period, had made me lose interest in ever returning to any pizzeria, California Pizza Kitchen included. Imagine my surprise when I received an invitation for a review.

Complimentary Bread, Olive Oil

Bread with Olive Oil

My restaurant advisor, who had also worked with me in the Magnificent Mile, and I recently went to the location in Arlington Heights, Illinois, at 3 S. Evergreen Avenue. Not a considerable distance via commuter train, we arrived for dinner one evening after work. The restaurant was quite lively with families and friends. The front room service was top.

Flight of Sangria

Flight of Sangrias

While perusing the menu, we noticed that there was less focus on pizzas and the specialty pastas that our mutual colleague and we had indulged numerous times years past. Instead, there were appetizers and entrées that piqued our interests more than the usual fare that we remembered. Certainly thinking that it would be a better option to try something different, we told our server to make recommendations and send the dishes to the table. We did stipulate that we preferred to avoid pizza and pasta.

As we waited, we imbibed some rather refreshing cocktails. I ordered a flight of sangrias ranging from a white plum to peach to red raspberry. My restaurant advisor had a strawberry mojito. What we both noticed was that the cocktails did not have the watered recipe that one finds in drinks served at big box restaurants. These had the bracing snap of having been mixed by a mixologist.

Strawberry Mojito

Strawberry Mojito

We had a mini complimentary loaf of bread with herbed olive oil. Basil Leaf Cafe, which is one of my favourite Italian restaurants in Chicago proper, preps their olive oil in the same manner. A huge plus with the bread being fresh, the complimentary feature was great.

Tequeños

Tequeños

First to the table was a plate of tequeños. Very reminiscent of tequeños that I have had at a few Peruvian restaurants, the chicken and avocado in the ones at California Pizza Kitchen were mouth-watering. The added ingredient of bacon in the tequeños was unexpected. Then again, we didn’t order from the menu, but rather let our server handle the menu selections. Nevertheless, we were pleased.

The first entrée was a plate of herbed roasted chicken with vegetables. It was by the second bite that we wondered why the restaurant had not been highlighting such delectable dishes more in the past. The chicken was not only tender, but it was incredibly juicy. Add to that well seasoned cauliflower, squash, and potatoes, this dish actually rivaled chicken dishes that I have eaten at some restaurants in Chicago that people rant and rave about as if the meat had been marinated in gold.

Roasted Chicken and Vegetables

Herb Roasted Chicken with Vegetables

The second entrée was the final determinant that California Pizza Kitchen had decided to take a different approach with its menu offerings. The rib eye steak topped with a light garlic paste had been cooked to a perfect medium well that left the meat succulent. The salad in a light vinaigrette and the fingerling potatoes that had been seasoned with touches of basil comprised  a dish that my advisor and I agreed was better than some steak dinners we’ve had at a few noteworthy restaurants.We had not expected such a divine meal up to this point.

Ribeye Steak, Salad, Potatoes

Steak with Salad and Potatoes

Rather than order multiple desserts, we settled on a butter cake topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and garnished with whipped cream. As sated as we were from the complimentary bread, appetizer, and entrées, it still would have been a crime to have left any of the dessert. Although the cake was pedestrian in it’s presentation, it was anything but regular on the palate. With a cup of coffee each, we finalized the dessert and acknowledged that California Pizza Kitchen was a winner.

Butter Cake, Ice Cream

Butter Cake with Ice Cream

During a brief conversation with one of the staff members of the restaurant, there was mention that California Pizza Kitchen had started a move towards offering dishes that appeal to customers that preferred an expanded menu. It seemed that a certain age bracket preferred pizza and pasta, while an older age bracket had a taste for finer menu items. Without deviating from their core menu, the enhanced menu seems to have been influenced as a result of listening to their regular customer base. What they have done now was enriched their offerings for also enticing refined palates.

California Pizza Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pizza Capri, Hyde Park Haunt

Pizza Capri

When I lived in Hyde Park, several friends and I would block every Thursday to gather at any of the great restaurants in the neighbourhood. Given the multicultural environment in Hyde Park, there were restaurants representative accordingly. One of our favourites was Pizza Capri at 1501 E. 53rd Street. With so many Italian restaurants in Chicago having menus full of dishes with red sauces, Pizza Capri switched up a bit by adding cream sauces and other menu items that differ from the usual Italian restaurant fare.

Potato Soup, Bread, Olive Oil

Potato Soup, Bread, Olive Oil

Fast forward to 2015 and I had a craving for something to feast on from Pizza Capri. Opting to indulge a three course meal, I started with a cup of potato soup, along with the complimentary bread and olive oil accented with herbs. The potato soup popped with the flavour of potatoes and it was seasoned well enough that I didn’t miss any salt in the recipe. Instead of pasta, I ordered a small rosemary potato and chicken pizza. This was a complete deviation from a pizza with a tomato sauce, cheese, and toppings ranging from sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, olives, and other ingredients. This pizza was simply divine. And with it being thin crust, it was hearty, but not to the point of me not being able to finish all of it.

Rosemary Potato and Chicken Pizza

Rosemary Potato and Chicken Pizza

Knowing that I was going to have a finale of coffee and dessert, I waited for about 15-20 minutes before having a cappuccino and a flourless chocolate cake. Just like I remember from my days past, the cappuccino was brewed well enough that I could take it without any sweeteners. As to the flourless chocolate cake, it was addictive. With the consistency of a mousse, atop a crème anglaise, topped with strawberries, and drizzled with chocolate syrup, it was the perfect companion to the cappuccino.

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

Flourless Chocolate Cake

Flourless Chocolate Cake

Since my first visit to Pizza Capri in the lat 90’s, the service and the high quality of the food have always been consistent. There are a few items on the menu that have classic red sauces and you can never fail by ordering any of the items. There are also specialty pizzas and other Italian dishes like alfredos and pasta in cream sauces that are also winners. But since my friends and I are now on different continents, whenever we have a reunion in Chicago, Pizza Capri is where we come together.

Pizza Capri Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Top 10 Jaunts for 2013

December has arrived and it is during this time that I always ponder whether there was something I had intended to do between January and the end of November, but somehow never got around to doing. I swear time went slower when I was a kid. The summers dragged on forever — and I didn’t complain. Christmas break felt like a whole month. School was the equivalent of endless punishment. Fast forward to age 45 and each year feels compressed from a full twelve months to about seven. However, I still get to partake of my favourite hobby second to photography: eating. And for the end of 2013, I decided that I would do something different — a list of Top 10 Jaunts for 2013. So, this post will be dedicated to the restaurant discoveries that tempted my palate. Since I have already written extensive blog postings for each, I will only present highlights.

10. Pasteur
I had spent a lot of time in the Edgewater neighbourhood during the summer. My favourite Indian restaurant is there. One day while walking down Broadway, I happened to see a building full of Chicago architecture with a menu in the window. Having passed the building many times, it looked too fancy to register as a restaurant, but I was glad to have been in a casual mood the one Saturday I stopped and took notice of it. The food was outstanding and the service was top. From the interior, one can easily get the sensation of being in Europe, but it’s the Vietnamese influence in the food that pops. With the menu items supposedly having a French and Vietnamese fusion, I didn’t detect a heavier French accent. It was the Vietnamese flavours that stood out more. In the future I shall return for more good food and great service, and hopefully see if there is more balance to the menu.

Pasteur, Collage
9. Freddy’s Pizzeria and Grocery
A great friend had sent a text message to me to prompt me about Freddy’s while I was at an Italian restaurant on the Far North Side. She had already enlightened me to a few cafes and restaurants in Berwyn, so I trusted her recommendation. She gave me the formal introduction to Freddy’s Pizzeria and Grocery. This is a small grocery store with an annex built on to the side of the market for those who wish to sit and eat without having to rush home to devour the food. There is authenticity to every dish that puts a lot of big box Italian restaurants to shame. It’s evident when you enter the door and see the long line that stretches from the door, to the back of the grocery store, all along the counter, and up to the cash register. I think the trip out to Cicero is worth it, but I advise you to be prepared because staring at the selection of delicious food behind the counter may throw you into a food frenzy.

Freddy's Pizza and Grocery

8. Silom 12
Grub Hub is a beautiful thing and a glorious thing during the winter when delivery is a viable option. I had tried Silom 12 numerous times as a take-away choice when I was too lazy to operate my own stove. Not once was I dissatisfied with what I had ordered. Well, while I was having my hallway bathroom remodelled this summer, I needed a moment to escape from the sound of drills, saws, and banging. Where should I find myself but at Silom 12 for a proper sit-down. And oh was I pleased beyond words. Logan Square is one of America’s hottest neighbourhoods and with the addition of restaurants like Silom 12, it’s easy to understand why. One would think that the price per dish may make the cha-ching sound. No, the price, service, and food make a harmonious sigh of satisfaction. Well, let me take that back and make it personal. I made a harmonious sigh of satisfaction with each bite of food I took and believe me when I say that I ate a lot.

Silom 12

7. Masouleh
When I first moved to Chicago, I spent a little over a year in Northbrook. There was only so much that I could take of the sound of crickets. New York City had spoiled me. So I moved into Chicago proper and my first Chicago apartment was in Rogers Park. At that time Rogers Park had a heavy Mexican influence. Fast forward to 2013 and there seems to be more diversity gracing the Rogers Park landscape. One addition to the neighbourhood is Masouleh. I had met up with some friends after work one Friday evening and had fallen in love with the place after only having some herbs, cheese, and radish put on the table. It was authentic and when I say authentic I mean the flavours popped the way I remember Iranian food tasting. I don’t mean plain hummus and pita bread either. I had to return for my very own adventure and by the time I had finished a parfait glass of Persian ice cream, I was typing my initial blog post from the moon.

Masouleh

6. Kabul House
The first restaurant I went to when I started Chicago Alphabet Soup was Kabul House. It was at a different address. Months had passed and then a few years went by. When I had made plans to return, it was closed. Then there was a cloud of sadness because I remembered the food being so delicious. My friend and I were at the restaurant for hours, slowly taking care of the fine dining that came from the kitchen. Well, I was informed that Kabul House had opened at a new location. I had added it to my list and during Memorial Day, I was so glad that I went. Let’s just say that I rolled my eyes and I don’t mean as in disgust or to be cheeky. Oh, off with the person’s head who said that it’s never as good as the first time. It was better the second time around.

Kabul House

5. Pannenkoeken Cafe
If anyone ever starts rattling off the old adage that the best meal of the day is breakfast, tell them to put a footnote on that and immediately rush to Pannenkoeken Cafe. I am not one for eating lunch or dinner delights from Germany because they are heavy on the stomach. Not quite as sleep-inducing as Eastern European food, but you will drag afterwards. A German breakfast, on the other hand, causes the angels to sing. Pannenkoeken Cafe is a small cafe, so getting there early is advisable. Now, although the breakfast isn’t heavy on the belly, it is filling. So, you have to go on several visits. You have to. You must! Don’t even think about The Original Pancake House. Make your own pancakes at home, but go to Pannenkoeken Cafe for a proper breakfast that will give you a perpetual smile.

Pannenkoeken

4. Den Den Eritrean Restaurant
Rogers Park has developed a bit of magnetism to it thanks to the addition of a few ethnic eateries. There are several Ethiopian restaurants in Edgewater. While going to Masouleh one evening, my great friend who had recommended Freddy’s to me pointed Den Den Eritrean Restaurant out to me. I don’t think I had taken a few steps before I retrieved my smart phone and blocked some time for a visit. I had never thought of any Eritrean representation in Chicago’s culinary landscape. Everything about Den Den was top-notch. While I can’t say that Eritrean and Ethiopian are the same, the food preparation, serving, and method of eating the food are the same. However, Den Den takes the top spot among the Ethiopian restaurants I’ve been to in Chicago. And I’ve been to all — except one that I zipped pass while speeding up Ashland Avenue.

Den Den

3. De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine
Skokie has a small section in a business district that isn’t on a busy street. Had I not gone to Kabul House to renew my food vows, I never would have stumbled across a restaurant that has some cultural significance to me. When I saw the word “Jamaican” flash in front of my eyes, the return to the small stretch of Oakton Avenue was mandatory. The saltfish and ackee, callalou, rice and beans, beef patty, and june plum juice reminded me so much of my paternal grandmother’s kitchen that I spent almost every Saturday at De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine. And when I didn’t get back during a Saturday visit, there were occasional trips for take-away throughout the week. Certainly when you find something with a cultural attachment, it’s hard to detach.

De-Jred Fine Jamaican

2. Roka Akor
Earlier in the year, I wanted to try something new in the downtown vicinity. Most restaurants in downtown fall into the tourist trap or “big box” categories. You go and then tell your friends that you had gone to such-and-such restaurant because that’s where all of the Joneses had gone before you. But Roka Akor is where you go when you want to keep up with the Williamses. I was blown away on the first visit with the good fortune of having a server who had hit the mark on every menu choice offered as an option. There wasn’t one dish to be placed in front of me that I wasn’t raving about by the second bite. Getting to sit at the robata grill was a splendid option because I got to chat with the sous chef and the sashimi chef. You can’t do that at just any restaurant, and certainly not at a tourist trap or “big box” eatery.

Roka Akor

1. Basil Leaf Cafe (Tie)
Coming up with the number one spot was hard — and I’m not saying that just to have something to say. I started the year off with Basil Leaf Cafe being the first ethnic restaurant I was sampling. This was also the first time that I had decided to have a degustation without ordering from the menu. I trusted my server to make all recommendations and bring to the table a soup, a salad, two entrées, and a dessert. Basil Leaf Cafe had raised the bar up through the clouds and even on return visits, I was always in awe of how I could simply state that I liked seafood and vegetarian dishes, hand the menu back to the server, and let him or her bring to the table culinary choices that had indicated that they apparently listen to their dining patrons.

Basil Leaf Cafe

1. Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill (Tie)
I don’t know where to begin with Yuzu. This was another hard decision because I wanted there to be ten restaurants on my Top 10 list. It turned out to be eleven because Basil Leaf Cafe and Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill were deserving of the top position. My first visit to Yuzu had moved the expectation bar way up. No one disappears behind a door and comes back with a delectable dish. The sushi station and the robata grill are on full display, so you know exactly what you are getting. I was curious as to how a sushi bar could have a constant flow of patrons early in the day on a summer Saturday. It was after the first bite of some grilled eggplant from the robata grill that I understood why. Based on all of the robata grill items and sushi that my server had brought to the table, I honestly believe I could have won the lottery if I had asked her for the winning numbers. Everything was delicious.

Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill

I am hoping that 2014 will not be as busy and fast as 2013 has been. Yes, there is the saying that you should take time to smell the roses. But when there is the aroma of some inviting food wafting from the kitchen, put those roses in a vase and go see what the source of the aroma is. I know that I shall do just that in the New Year. I have to come up with ten more new restaurants for 2014. That means weight gain. Oh wait, no, that means I had better get started coming up with a list of eateries to sample throughout 2014.

And at this time, I would like to thank all who have been following Chicago Alphabet Soup and who have been giving me encouragement. Enjoy the holiday and may the New Year bring you joy and continued peace. And if none of that, then may some server bring you a dish that makes you sing a happy song.

Midweek Escape to Italy

So, my cell phone rings while I am still at work and it is one of my great friends. There is the inquiry as to what I was doing after work, to which I answered that I was sitting at my desk — well past 5:00 PM — pondering what to eat. Food consumes — no pun intended — my free thoughts. What to eat? Where to eat? Do I drive there, walk, or take public transit to get the food source? Should it be quick or a dining experience where I can sit still and really enjoy my meal? My friend’s call snapped me out of my waffling at least such that I could think of a general location. There was a certain Italian restaurant where she and I had gone last summer. And talk about clarity, there was no case of introducing other options along with the Italian restaurant. It was off to 116 N. Oak Park Avenue in Oak Brook for a midweek escape to Il Vicolo.

Gnarly Head

Gnarly Head

The temperatures were moderate enough that we wondered if there would be seating available outside. Once we arrived and there was a bit more bite in the wind than before we left our respective job locations — she coming from Oak Brook Terrace and me coming from downtown Chicago — it dawned on us that temperatures are not consistently warm until the last week of June. Nevertheless, we had a window seat and imagined the warmth of the sun as we watched pedestrians’ pass by with clattering teeth.

Olive Oil, Parmesan Cheese, Pepper

Olive Oil, Parmesan Cheese, Pepper

Usually whenever my friend and I would catch up for dinner, we would never have wine or a “loaded” beverage during “school nights.” We reserve libations for weekends when we don’t have to worry about sleeping through the ringing of the morning alarm. However, I was in one of my “just bring it” moods and opted for some wine. In past posts I have mentioned that I have no wine snobbery. What I said to the server was that I’d relay what I like for possible dinner courses and she could surprise me with an accompanying wine accordingly. After my friend and I had given our requests, the server said that there would be a red wine that we both should try. And, so there was a bottle of Gnarly Head, a Pinot Noir, brought to the table. There was a quick pour, a swishing around in the glass, a tasting, and a nod of approval, and then the glasses were filled. Bravo.

Tortino Di Melanzane

Tortino Di Melanzane

With a basket of complimentary bread, fresh olive oil, parmesan cheese, and cracked black pepper, we enjoyed homemade Italian bread. One of the things about being serious with baking, I can tell when bread is fresh and when it has been purchased from a grocer or bakery. This bread came from the oven at Il Vicolo. That says something for authenticity and our devouring it was testament to our approval of not having perfectly prepared Sunbeam or Wonder bread put in front of us. For a salad, we started with a grilled calamari salad that left us not wanting fried calamari ever again. Don’t get me wrong, as there are some restaurants where the fried calamari has been the absolute best. However, tender grilled calamari and baby octopus in a very light lemon garlic and olive oil served over a mixed green salad were fantastic. Next time I return to Il Vicolo, I will inquire as to whether they use fresh vegetables because the salad had the kind of flavour that pops, much like what I have had any time I have gone to the country where pesticides and growth enhancers are not used on the crops.

Grilled Calamari and Salad

Grilled Calamari and Salad

The dining experience got into full swing with a tortino de melanzane. We all have had eggplant parmesan and have friends who swear that they, their mother, or their grandmother prepares the best eggplant parmesan ever. Whatever. You can have it. Give me tortino de melanzane. The baked eggplant was neither mushy nor crunchy. Goldilocks would even agree that it was just right. The mozzarella was not piled on so high that it introduced a choke factor. The tomato sauce was moderately chunky the way Ragu wished that jarred foolishness they sell was chunky. Again, full of flavour without the feel of salt on the tongue. And they included one of my all-time favourite highlights of cilantro. Now I was understanding fully why the Gnarly Head was the wine of choice per the server. The oak flavour was all the spice needed to complete the marriage with the meal. Listen to me sounding like a real food critic. Ha!

Penne Arrabbiata

Penne Arrabbiata

Italian cuisine may be known for a good mix of herbs and spices in the dishes, yet most dishes are not spicy. You don’t turn red in the cheeks after forking your meal into your mouth. Well, some people have mild constitutions and anything other than just salt has them screaming and putting on a show. I have been gaining weight slowly over the past few months, so I keep carbohydrates in my diet. Hence, I had pasta and this time I had a spicy penne arrabbiata. My first exposure to penne arrabbiata was with the purchase of a bag of it from Trader Joe’s. I was surprised that something frozen could taste so blooming delicious because food from the frozen section is saturated with ingredients that people use for trick words in spelling bees. Then after having penne arrabbiata at some Italian restaurants, it became a source of addiction. Well, the same can be said for the pasta dish at Il Vicolo. It was spicier than what I have had anywhere else, but that made it all the more appetizing to me because I love fire with my flavour. Each bite was bliss and rather than drowning the penne in the sauce, the sauce was more like an accent. Outstanding!

Nocciola

Nocciola

By now my camera was starting to do its own thing. Buttons were inoperable, which really made it horrible for me being able to set the focus point for my compositions. Even resetting the white balance to account for the sunlight gone down was impossible. Sure, I should have been in the moment rather than photographing my food. But how else can I present impressions of my dining experiences to make you want to dash out to the restaurant? It would have been so unfair for me to leave out such appetizing photos. Alas, I could only muster so much and I put the camera away and made a note to myself to trash it when I got home. I have three other digital cameras that work without giving me grief. The cheap one I used for these shots was disposable. My friend had ordered pappardelle gamberi e funghi. I don’t particularly like to have my friends wait for me to finish snapping away with my camera because ticking off close to a hundred shots per dish could mean having fork up lukewarm food. So, I missed capturing her dish of tasty homemade flat pasta with shrimp and mushrooms in a fresh tomato and basil sauce. This is one dish that I have yet to have all to myself and I must return to for that very purpose, per my friend’s recommendation.

Chocolate Lava Cake

Chocolate Lava Cake

We wrapped up with coffee and dessert. The coffee had a robust flavour, yet it required very little sweetener. And there were the desserts. Instead of the ubiquitous plate of tiramisu or cannoli, my friend had chocolate lava cake and I had nocciola. The chocolate lava cake, which had a preparation time of eight minutes, apparently was a big hit with my friend. Then again, the last time she had cake was earlier in April for her birthday, thankful that Easter had passed and sampling a dolce was not a frowned-upon option. I had it before and agreed with her expressions that indicated it was a worthy dessert. The nocciola was certainly real gelato. You can’t buy that flavour in the frozen dairy section of your local market. You just can’t.

On weekends, Il Vicolo has a tendency to fill up quickly. Once you have had any of their dishes or interacted with the wait staff, you understand why. The prices of the dishes are far from exorbitant. Of all the times going, I have not had a dining experience that resulted in me leaving dissatisfied. If anything, I always make plans for a return visit. If you go on the weekends and for the evening courses, make a reservation. Trust me when I say that you will not want to stand around watching plates boasting flavours and aromas that cause drooling. You will want to work your knife and fork on some morsel without delay. As for me, I do believe a midweek escape to Il Vicolo is in order for the near future.

Bravo and Encore

Basil Leaf Cafe

One early evening during a summer day in 2012, I had the opportunity to go to a restaurant that was hosting a wine and food pairing. Being perhaps one of the individuals, if not the only one, who was not a sommelier, I thought that the event would be a bit out of my league. And then the food came to the table. Yes, the wine was splendid. However, the food was a major highlight for me and one that stayed with me since that participation in the wine and food pairing. With work gobbling up a great deal of my time and then my high school sweetheart and me taking an extended vacation to Calgary, Montreal, and Lisbon, scheduling a return to the restaurant of my culinary dreams had faded. A new year began in 2013 and I had finally entered a note in my cell phone to make a reservation for a dinner at Basil Leaf Cafe at 2465 N. Clark Street. It would be my luck that the cell phone went to sleep permanently on me and January was speeding by fast. There was no way that I was going to find myself well into 2013 before actually returning to the restaurant.

Olive Oil and BreadWith the New Year I had decided that I would focus on degustations more during my dining excursions. Too often I find myself scrambling to eat my appetizer and entrée before they are cold because at many restaurants both come to the table simultaneously. That is very much an epidemic at American style restaurants because there appears to be a need to rush patrons. Since Basil Leaf Cafe was the first restaurant that I was blogging for 2013, there was no better way to start my newfound appreciation of degustations than the present. A most inviting welcome on entry and my pick of seats because I had arrived before the dinner crowd, I handed the menu to my server, told her what I liked, and told her to surprise me. As a complimentary l’amuse, there was warm, homemade bread served with an olive oil that had various Italian herbs and spices in it. I would normally add Parmesan cheese and pepper, but that would have been a bit evil considering how flavourful the bread and olive oil were together. Oh, if I may add, bread is a source of weakness for me. I can’t deny it. I can’t refuse it. And if it is as good as what I had at Basil Leaf Cafe, then I tend to indulge to excess without any additional thought. And a note to myself is to find out the recipe for the olive oil so that I can try my hand at it at home.

Butternut Squash Soup

The first course to the table was a butternut squash soup. Let me start by saying that I have had my share of butternut squash soup and have loved it. This was the first time I had the soup and the first sip gave me pause. It was absolute heaven. I had a few more sips and then declared with certainty that I had just tasted the best butternut squash soup ever. There was no aftertaste. And the hint of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg or whatever spice was added left me with a rather wide smile. I guess my server thought that I was making up a story when I said that it was the best butternut squash soup that I had ever eaten. There was no lie and because I had to maintain decorum, I did not take any of the homemade bread and go around the edges and bottom of the bowl. Only the first course and it was evident that the rest of the meal was going to be progressively better.

Mixed Berry Salad

And then there was a mixed berry salad that came to the table for the second course. I had told the server that I was not a fan of nuts and not because of any allergies. The texture and taste do nothing to assist my appetite. The salad was one that usually comes with walnuts. However, they were omitted. Having been to restaurants where my mentioning of not liking nuts was treated as an omission and I had to pick around the nuts to keep from making my whole dining experience unsavoury, the fact that my server had explained that walnuts are usually an ingredient in the salad and they were left out at my request, that made each bite all the more worthy. The mark of an outstanding wait staff is when they listen to the customers. Raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries sat atop lettuce, drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette, and topped with crumbled gorgonzola cheese. The only other times I have had any kind of fruit in my salad were when I had apricot salads at one of my favourite Algerian restaurants. Berries on salad always looked a bit much, albeit quite appetizing. However, having the mixed berry salad and seeing that I had left only a smear of the vinaigrette afterwards was proof that it was not only visually stunning but it was incredible to the palate.

Linguine and SeafoodI was going to be daring initially and try two entrées — a vegetarian dish and a seafood dish. After being warned that the portions were large, I opted instead for the seafood platter. The third course was a seafood linguine. Plump shrimp, fresh salmon, well-seasoned mussels, tender scallops, and delectable clams rested on a bed of linguine and topped with a red sauce before I began working on the entrée. The pescatarian in me yelled, “Bravo!” and enjoyed the whole dish leisurely without a care in the world. Perhaps if I had a glass of wine to go with it, say a Merlot or a Malbec, I would have had a Food Network composition. But the dish was perfect with the glass of orange juice. One thing that I really liked most about the seafood linguine was that it had a spicy kick to it without me requiring glasses of water. And the seafood was nothing akin to the nibble size morsels that you find in most Italian seafood dishes. Not only was the portion of the entrée large but the seafood was not lacking in quantity and quality of freshness. I kept screaming, “Bravo.” Of course, it was to myself, though.

CappuccinoAfter the bread and olive oil, soup, salad, and seafood linguine, I required a bit of rest before entertaining a coffee and dolce. In keeping with letting everything be a surprise, I deferred to my server for the sweet. Whenever I go to an Italian restaurant, I always choose espresso or cappuccino. It probably would have been wiser for me to have ordered an espresso so that I could have avoided fighting sleep after such a wonderful meal. Instead, I had a cappuccino and my server brought an apple tartlet with a dollop of vanilla ice cream to the table. One bite and I could have hit a tenor aria to have brought the restaurant to its feet for a standing ovation. It was clear that the dessert was not something you find in the frozen section at the local market. No, there was no syrupy compost drowning chunks of overcooked apples. There was flaky crust enveloping thin, tart apples that had been cooked in their own juices. If it were not for the ice cream accompanying the apple tart, I would have dragged my dessert feast for a full hour. Being cognizant of the ice cream melting, I savoured the dessert and the cappuccino slowly and to completion. And let me just say that I did not need to add any sweetener to the cappuccino. The mark of a splendid cup of coffee is not having to add extra sweeteners to it to make it palatable. When you can enjoy your coffee the way I enjoyed the cappuccino at Basil Leaf Cafe, then you have had your coffee proper.

Apple Tartlet with Ice Cream

One thing I have not considered was coming up with a Top 10 list of restaurants in Chicago. What I can say with certainty is that as of me penning this blog entry, Basil Leaf Cafe holds the number 1 spot. That is a bold statement. Yes, others may scream that I am being unfair and that I need to come to their restaurants. Believe me when I say that as long as I am in Chicago, I will find my way to your dining haven. One thing to note is that when service, high quality of cuisine, and price come together to form an inviting request for a return, how can you possibly deny a bravo and an encore? You simply can’t. Only on a few occasions have I chosen to let my server make my dinner choices for me based on my likes and dislikes. What I experienced at Basil Leaf Cafe was a winning game of cuisine roulette. I was impressed thoroughly during the wine and food pairing at the restaurant that one summer evening in 2012. I was even more impressed during my second visit. I shall indeed return for an encore. I highly recommend that you visit Basil Leaf Cafe and see for yourself.

A Season of Flavours

Trattoria 225

As a food enthusiast, I often find myself retracing my visits to certain restaurants. There is always something during that initial visit that becomes a draw to pull me back. The food was outstanding. The service was top. The price was reasonable. Any one of the three may have applied, but when you get an authentic invitation to return, that somehow trumps it all. When a great friend and I had gone to Trattoria 225 in February, not only did I find every aspect of the visit worthy, but the comfort the staff had engaging us in conversation spoke volumes. At many restaurants, taking customers to their seats, getting their orders, bringing their food and beverage to their tables, an occasional “Is everything all right?” and a plastic smile is “doing the job.” At Trattoria 225, making you feel that you have gone to a short stay with family is their job.

Peach BelliniLocated at 225 Harrison Street in the Arts District of Oak Park, Illinois, Trattoria 225 is one of my favourite Italian restaurants in the metropolitan Chicago area. When my friend and I had gone earlier in the year, I had a chance to talk to the manager about photographing the food — my food — and when a good time would be to come in for my own personal assignment. At that time, I did not have my camera, which was just wrong per the Foodie Mantra. As we sat at the table and worked our knives, forks, and spoons, on some of the most appetizing Italian dining this side of the Atlantic Ocean, I knew I had to return with my camera to capture the impressions that made us smile. But at age 44, time has a way of flying by, as if whole days or weeks are being devoured by a time monster. Fast forward to August and I finally return and upon being greeted, I knew that I would be quite thankful for what I was going to receive in terms of service and quality of taste.

Bread and Olive OilI started with a peach bellini. Now, I usually view peach bellinis as brunch drinks — ala cosmopolitan, mimosa, and the like. Yet again, it seems that bartenders at Italian restaurants have a mantra of showcasing their best talents only. The peach bellini was fruity and spiked nicely, but not to the point where I was hovering above the tree tops. The peach flavouring tasted more like a liqueur on the palate as opposed to a nectar. That was not bad at all. Not to quench my thirst too quickly, I indulged some warm Italian bread and olive oil with Parmesan cheese. Wow! I have had Italian bread that I had to struggle with in terms of tearing or cutting. Even then, I had to gnash at it — thankful that I still have my own teeth, not dentures. The bread at Trattoria 225 was nothing like that. Warm, crusty on the outside, and fresh on the inside, I had all of it with olive oil that did not taste like it had been purchased from a chain grocer. There is something to be said about olive oil that has flavour, not just oil in a bottle with a label saying that it is olive oil. As the wind blew about and I watched the sun set, I wondered what I would have to leave me with my saying: Who says that the first time sets the standard for how good “it” is?

Butternut Squash Ravioli

For an appetizer, I ordered butternut squash ravioli. The combination of brown butter, roasted walnuts, and fresh sage over the ravioli made for a wise decision for an appetizer. Neither heavy-handed nor laissez faire with the spices, I enjoyed each of the mini ravioli without complaint. Butternut squash soup is nothing new to me, but adding it to ravioli that had been baked to a moderate crisp had left me pondering a future menu of homemade butternut squash ravioli and butternut soup served with some meaty fish — tilapia, red fish, or trout. It may have been that the ravioli prepared in a fashion other than stuffed with meat, cheese, or spinach, that the plate was such a highlight. In true Oak Park fashion, a couple sitting at the table next to me engaged me in conversation about restaurants in the Chicago and surrounding areas. To quote the wife, it felt like we were abroad, because people usually if not ever strike up conversation with random strangers. Oh what niceties there are to learn from others. For example — recommended pasta dishes like linguine ai frutti di mare.

Linguine ai Frutti Di MareIt has been over a decade since I have partaken of spaghetti and meatballs. I love Italian dishes that have a tomato sauce base. But having been exposed to more rustic Italian dining, red sauces had seemingly disappeared from my radar — with the exception of eggplant Parmesan and an occasional dish of rigatoni. So when the couple had recommended the linguine ai frutti di mare, I was ridiculously appreciative when the waiter brought a colossal plate of the entrée to the table. Linguine, mussels, shrimp, and calamari in a slightly spicy tomato sauce had left me in a twilight daze before I was three-fourths of the way done. Italian dishes with a tomato base tend to be heavier, but the portions of the linguine ai frutti di mare were rather substantial. As much as I wanted to eat all of it, I also wanted to leave a little for lunch the following day. So I behaved.

Coffee and Cream

For dessert, I settled for something light — coffee hazelnut gelato. Only the size of a dollop, it still was satisfying. Rich and creamy, I would find it hard to believe someone if they had said that it came from the ice cream section at the local market. It was definitely good gelato, not ice cream. As for the coffee, I had spoken too fast and said that I wanted regular coffee. Cappuccino is usually my drink of choice after fine Italian dining. Honestly, I was rather glad that I had ordered the regular coffee along with cream. The mark of good coffee may be noted by one of two possibilities: the coffee machine is in top working order or the brand of coffee is of Top 5 quality. I drank the coffee sans sugar and that was truly an indication that I was not imbibing Folger’s or Maxwell House.

Coffee Hazelnut Gelato

Once again, I got a chance to talk to the manager when he had stepped outside to welcome the customers who had opted to have their meals outside. Although the byline on the restaurant’s awning says “rustic Italian dining,” he explained that the restaurant is more of a community eatery that serves Italian cuisine. If I have not learned anything about Oak Park, one thing I will say that I have latched on to is the notion that community is a major factor in the Oak Park meme. Any time I have gone to a cafe, restaurant, diner, or any establishment in Oak Park, there is a very strong sentiment of family and neighbours. You will always see families communing together. The same applies to neighbours who apparently gather for fellowship. Clearly, Trattoria 225 is one of the community hubs in the southern end of Oak Park. Then again, when you have an establishment with a manager who takes the time to talk to the patrons rather than observing business from a distance, you understand the allure. It was winter when I went to Trattoria 225 the first time. Although I missed spring and finally got to place my feet under a table during summer, I can say with certainty that it has indeed become one of my top eateries for all seasons.

Trattoria 225 on Urbanspoon

Foodie Mantra No-No

A few nights ago I met a great friend for dinner in Wheaton, Illinois. With me working in the West Suburbs of Chicago and he living even farther off the map, we decided that we would meet in a central spot and decide where we would work our teeth on something worthy. Before I left work, it had dawned on me that I had left home earlier without any one of my high-end cameras. Not that I had to have one of my Canons or one of my Nikons, but not having a camera is a cardinal no-no in the foodie mantra. See excerpt from Section 5.2 in the Foodie Bylaws.

Section 5.2: Must Have Camera at All Times
All foodies must have in their possession a camera that they shall use to capture the impressions of food and beverage. The cameras are not limited to professional cameras, prosumer cameras, point-and-click, and cameras on cell phones. Acknowledgement as a foodie shall be revoked if a foodie does not have proper equipment for photographing food or beverage.

When I finally realized that all I had with me was my cell phone, I cursed under my breath just before I sent a text message to my friend to tell him to bring his Canon. As a photographer, cell phone cameras are wicked devices that are better used for texting, setting calendar events, sending email on-demand, and posting ad hoc posts on Facebook. Needless to say, my friend had left home well in advance of my text message. More cursing and then me dropping my purist photography air and settling on using the camera on my cell phone. It takes great photos anyway.

Lobster Fra Diavolo

Lobster Fra Diavolo

Once in the quaint downtown of Wheaton, my friend and I looked at the menu at the restaurant we initially said we would try. Then we opted to review the menu at another Italian restaurant he had said received great reviews. At first glance, we settled on the second restaurant, Il Sogno, at 100 N. Hale Street. Up the stairs we went where we entered a dimly lit room with aromas all in the air. We knew that we had made the right choice.

With a server who was very much knowledgeable of the menu without having to refer to it when we asked for recommendations and very much in tune with the specials for the evening, my friend settled on chicken parmesan and I ordered lobster da fravolo. But before the entrées, we accepted the suggestion from the server for stuffed calamari. Let me just say that instead of getting a plate of well-seasoned rings of calamari, we got whole calamari stuffed with a cream sauce that deserves an encore. This appetizer was so delectable that if I get any more fried or plain calamari rings in the future, I may toss the plate on the floor and bark an obscenity in Italian.

If you think that my description of the stuffed calamari was a highlight, that was nothing compared to the entrées. The chicken parmesan that my friend ordered had come with a tomato sauce that was lightly spicy and with a hint of ginger. Hello! I have had a tomato sauce flavoured with ginger to the point where it was pungent. The faint taste of it at Il Sogno added an accent to the dish that made every bite a gala. As to the lobster da fravolo, there is a certain Italian restaurant in Chicago proper where I have been — that will remain nameless — that could take notes. Spicy like an arrabbiata, the well-seasoned lobster, mussels, and clams sat atop a bed of linguine under a lip-smacking tomato sauce. I drooled. My eyes went to slits from food comatose. I smacked the table. I hummed. My friend and I indulged ourselves to the point where we completed our entrées and had no room for any desserts. The only thing that we could muster was cappuccino and that was absolute top.

Butternut Squash Risotto

Butternut Squash Risotto

Because I could not get the thought of Il Sogno out of my mind or the wonderful taste of the calamari and lobster da fravolo out of my mouth — okay, an exaggeration — I was in Italian mode for much the remaining week. Having gone to Korean barbecue with another friend earlier in the week and then to Il Sogno the next evening, I decided that I would complete the weekend in my kitchen rather than dining out again. How about that? There has to be a special section in the Foodie Bylaws for indulging yourself in your own kitchen, as long as you abide by Section 5.2. Well, that was no problem. Being a lover of bread, I baked a loaf of Italian bread. And no loaf of Italian bread is complete without some fresh parmesan cheese, olive oil, and black pepper. How do you say, Yummy, in Italian? Warm from the oven and me sopping the olive oil, parmesan cheese, and black pepper while drinking pineapple juice from a mason jar, this complement was ideal with the butternut squash risotto that I prepared. Not to toot my horn, but when your neighbours knock on your door inquiring about whether they can borrow some ingredient only to sit at your counter, you are doing something correct. The butternut squash base took some careful preparation and I finally cooked the risotto so that it was al dente — not mushy like I have done before. Satisfaction.

Olive Oil Ice Cream with Raspberries

Olive Oil Ice Cream with Raspberries

Now, as of late I have become rather eclectic with the desserts that I have been preparing at home. Devils food cake baked with ancho and chipotle chillies. Chocolate gelato made with sweet curry. Vanilla ice cream made with strawberries macerated in balsamic vinegar and brown sugar. This evening was no exception. I had prepared a custard with olive oil and frozen it. Olive oil ice cream with raspberries. Who would have thought? Yes, there are some who are cringing, wincing, spitting, and rolling on the floor. But the olive oil adds a fruity hint to the ice cream, unlike what you experience when you are dipping Italian bread in olive oil mixed with parmesan cheese and black pepper. I get excited thinking about how refreshing and tasty the dessert was. And just to be even more eccentric, I drizzled a sweet olive oil syrup over the ice cream. I do not know what to do with myself.

Well, I abided by the Foodie Bylaws and captured the main courses for your visual delight. At Il Sogno I used the camera on my cell phone and was rather surprised to see how well it captured the lobster da fravolo. With me having professional cameras, the cell phone is giving them competition. At home, I used one of my Nikon cameras. The risotto almost never made it because the smells were so powerful that my growling belly had kept telling me to hurry and get to gnashing on the dish. I complied. For the ice cream, I shall enjoy this special dessert for the upcoming week while I ponder the next exotic ice cream concoction I plan to try. Regardless of what it will be, rest assure that I will have a camera ready to capture the impressions. I simply cannot shirk my foodie responsibilities by not having a camera ready. For shame.

Il Sogno di Barrella on Urbanspoon