Indie Cafe, Japanese Style

Indie Cafe

While passing through Chicago’s Edgewater neighbourhood, I walked by a restaurant that I thought was a bar and grill. It turned out to be a Pan-Asian restaurant. I have slowly lost my interest in Pan-Asian cuisine. However, I will make a few exceptions. Indie Cafe at 5951 N. Broadway Street seemed like they were heavier on the Japanese menu. So, that was the option I went with.

Miso Soup

Miso Soup

Figuring that I would have a hearty lunch, I started with a miso soup, wishing that they had kabocha squash soup on the menu instead. After the soup, I had a flight of nigiri. Salmon, tuna, whitefish, octopus, shrimp, hamachi, and unagi, all fresh and all devoured slowly while enjoying jasmine tea.

Omakase

Omakase

Although I had several pieces of nigiri, the flight was still light. After a brief scan of the menu again, I ordered unagi don. This came as a bowl of barbecued eel over rice. This is a dish that I could probably eat daily and never complain about. The eel was not muddy, fishy, or questionable in taste. And unlike at a lot of Americanized Asian restaurants, the sauce was not heavy-handed with syrup.

India Cafe avoids cramming patrons close together. This minimizes the need to compete with others sitting immediately next to you, which means you can have conversation with others in your party without feeling like you are in a sports bar. I didn’t try any of the Thai cuisine since I am slowly working  myself back to indulging Thai at restaurants that prepare Thai food specifically. As to the Japanese fare at Indie Cafe, I must say that I enjoyed it.

Unagi Don

Unagi Don

The Uptown and Edgewater neighbourhoods boast numerous Asian restaurants where you can get a vast selection of Asian delights to fancy your palate. If you are in Edgewater and have a hankering yet you’re going back and forth over what you may find more interesting, give Indie Cafe a try. I recommend going for the Japanese fare on one visit and trying Thai on another one.

Indie Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thalia Spice, You Again

This is more of an update to a visit to Thalia Spice at 833 W. Chicago Avenue in 2013. It was a pleasant experience with one dish that missed the mark. After catching up with a few friends in West Town, I wandered East and made a pit stop here again to get my fill before going to another gathering of friends later.

Clay Pot Mussels

Clay Pot Mussels

Instead of ordering large plates, I opted for a round of appetizers. The first was clay pot mussels. This came as a soup very reminiscent of Thai tom kha. Instead of chicken being the meat, there were mussels and these were not the nibble size mussels that you find on most menus. These were plump and meaty. So, it was off to a good start.

Mango Seared Scallops

Mango Seared Scallops

The next appetizer I ordered was a platter of mango seared scallops. There was a Caribbean feel to this dish. There were mangos, avocado, and tomatoes atop leaves of lettuce that already made for a tasty salad. The scallops were tender to the point of not requiring any effort to cut. This appetizer was surprisingly hearty. Although there were three scallops, the accompanying fruit salad made the experience a little more substantial than expected. This was not a bad thing, by the way.

Thai Fried Chicken

Thai Fried Chicken

The third course came as a plate of Thai fried chicken wings with a spicy sauce. I am loving the concept of Thai fried chicken, as the chicken is crispy without seemingly being heavy with batter. There was a mild spice to the wings that worked well with the tamarind sauce.

Malaysian Roti Canai

Malaysian Roti Canai

The fourth appetizer was Malaysian roti canai. Although I have had this at the sister restaurant, Thalia Spice, there was more roti for enjoyment with the curry chicken. And in true cultural spirit, I devoured the dish using the roti as my eating utensil. One note to myself is to order the curry chicken with a little more kick to it.

The King & I

The King & I

I finished with a light, yet filling dessert. Called The King & I on the menu, this was fried banana with vanilla ice cream drizzled with honey and accompanied with chocolate, strawberry, and kiwi syrups. Given all the food I had indulged, this was actually perfect. And since the temperatures were nice, I decided that I would have something refreshing from the bar before leaving. I couldn’t pass up having a sangria, so sangria it was and satisfying it was also.

Thalia Sangria

Thalia Sangria

I am finding that several restaurants I have gone to in the past that I left still feeling hungry or like I a forgettable dining experience have since made changes that I find very appealing and appetizing — for a lack of a better term. Thalia Spice was not one that I did not enjoy, but there are some dishes that clearly are prepared for local palates. I constantly have to remember to request for my dishes to come prepared with all the cultural goodness from the “old country.” Going with appetizers only was a very good option and it certainly made Thalia Spice move up on my list. Pan-Asian isn’t bad when it’s done good.

With or Without Camera at Tamarind

Tamarind

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

Red Ginger Martini

Red Ginger Martini

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

Miso Soup

Miso Soup

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

Caterpillar Maki

Caterpillar Maki

Dragon Maki

Dragon Maki

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

Banana Won Ton

Banana Won Ton

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

Tamarind on Urbanspoon Tamarind Sushi on Foodio54

Tasty Comedy — Thalia Spice

Thalia Spice

As an amateur photographer, it would be nice to have someone who I could consider my muse. Alas, there is no one. But there is this whole thing with food that seems to drive me. I grab the camera and head out the door, along with my insatiable appetite. I don’t know if that is a case of a muse driving me or food being a rather strong incentive. With weather being nice outside for a weekend, I had decided that I would take my bicycle for a spin. I rode through Logan Square, down through Bucktown and Wicker Park, and even did a pass through West Town. Yes, I made the rounds through the hip sections of the city — sorry Lincoln Park, Lincoln Square, and Lakeview, but your popular days have passed. As I biked east away from West Town, I noticed the name of a muse on a restaurant. Lo and behold, there was Thalia Spice at 833 W. Chicago Avenue.

Lychee Juice

Lychee Juice

I had been to Simply Thalia in the pedestrian walkway between the Blue Line and the Red Line at Washington Street. I remembered having to go twice, the second time to give the restaurant another chance to wow me — which it eventually did. I recognized that Thalia Spice was the parent restaurant, so I wanted to see if the dishes were somewhat the same or better. Taking a seat outside and getting the white balance set for my photography, I was all ready. And then these two bronze dolls pulled up in their car, hopped out with their angry dogs, and eyed a table next to mine. It had to have been the expression on my face that made them settle on sitting on the far end of the outdoor seating area. I mean, I had come to eat food, not to watch them pet their dogs.

Ginger Chicken Soup

Ginger Chicken Soup

For a refreshment, I started with lychee juice. If you want to slowly break yourself from downing soda pop, I highly recommend lychee juice if you can get your hands on some. Whether the juice at Thalia Spice was concentrate or not, it was well worth it. After scanning the menu briefly, I recognized the whole Pan-Asian pizazz that the restaurant puts forth. They cover as many Asian ethnicities as possible: Indonesian, Burmese, Malaysian, Indian, Chinese, Thai, and Japanese, just to name a few. I keep thinking Jack of All Trades, Master of None, because something gets compromised. One dish that showed mastery was the ginger chicken soup, which was very reminiscent of tom yum soup. The ginger added the right amount of kick to the soup without the need for pepper, and I found it to be worthy of a very nice winter soup. Where there was a lacking in mastery was with the Indian makhani chicken. Visually appetizing, but absent in flavour. It may have been that the dish was not spicy, as Indian food is divine when served with a highlight of some spicy curry. Unfortunately, the chicken makhani fell prey to the Pan-Asian effect, resulting in a dish that was probably tempered based on one of the other Asian influences. Not all Asian cuisines are fitting for a mix-and-match menu. A milder palate would enjoy the offerings, as the flavours may be not be overwhelming the way the food may taste natively.

Indian Chicken Makhani

Indian Chicken Makhani

For the look and feel of a high-end restaurant, Thalia Spice does not have the price that makes you wonder if you need to take out a miniature loan. The service is absolutely wonderful, as the server was not only helpful, but she was also cognizant of me taking photos of my food and did not rush me. I imagine the restaurant fills up on weekends, more on Friday and Saturday nights. Going during the day on a Sunday allowed for a great seat outside — granted I got there in time to secure a great table before the two showed up with their dogs that growled. It may have been a comedy of error that things worked out the way they did. Then again, Thalia was the muse of comedy.

Thalia Spice on Urbanspoon

Gino in the Sky With Food

Lulu's

Lulu’s

The Beatles may have made the song “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” famous. The first phase of my birthday celebration had a case of “Gino in the Sky With Good Food.” I cannot even get around to saying that I would put that to any music, let alone script a full set of lyrics to sing to it. What I can say is that celebrating my birthday this year has been an absolute blast and as I can become drunk on food, there were a few moments of food bliss that had me in my mood for wanting to perform. It may be the stiff Brit in me that said, “Just revel in all the good food you’re eating this week. Don’t embarrass yourself, as you know you flush rather easily.

I had to go to Evanston to get a camera from a friend. I had let him borrow it so that he could photograph a pretty-pretty for a portfolio. While in the neighbourhood, a few other friends had told me that I should meet them at Lulu’s. At 804 Davis Street in the middle of downtown Evanston, we got a table and was ready for action.

Ginger Ale Lemonade

Ginger Ale Lemonade

Lulu’s is one of those restaurants that presents itself as an Asian-fusion eatery. You peruse the menu and start to think that perhaps it falls more in line with Pan-Asian. There is also the mention of dim sum, so one could think that maybe there is all Chinese fare. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s food. I am all for cultural blending, but please let the culinary part of that marriage not suffer. Lulu’s obliged by not being an agent of “horror” dining.

I started with a ginger ale lemonade. From the menu, it looked like a drink I would be okay with. The server said that it was intense and she accentuated the word “intense” with a pithy growl. There was no way I was going to turn down something that brings about that much expression. After the first sip, I understood why. Wow! You could taste the ginger. I’m not talking the fizzy, bubbly stuff that makes you belch when you turn up a can of Schwepp’s ginger ale. A blend of ginger ale and lemonade sounds almost “too experimental,” but it works incredibly well as a mixed drink here. There is no alcohol in it and that was fine. However, this drink should be mandatory serving when the temperatures in Chicago reach the point of equatorial.

Curried Squash Soup

Curried Squash Soup

In the like manner that I exhibit when I go to restaurants now, I was in the mood for a degustation. The premise of the restaurant was dim sum, so there would be a little of something, not the American style dining where you practically beg for a pillow after dinner so that you can lie down. For my first course, I had the curried squash soup.

Mama’s little baby loves curry, curry
Mama’s little baby loves curry squash soup

Let me start by saying that anyone who has a complaint about Lulu’s, for any reason, should have a bowl of that soup and take a breath. Each sip, or slurp as it concerned me, brought about the dumb smile I wear when I’m experiencing food rapture. You could taste a hint of the curry without feeling as though the chef had poured a tablespoon of it on your tongue. It may have been cinnamon, allspice, or nutmeg that made the whole bowl burst with flavour. One thing I will say is that none of it was disappointing. None of it, I say.

Potato Croquettes

Potato Croquettes

When my second course came, which were four potato croquettes, I was feeling a bit excited by the third bite. I remembered having potatoes smothered in melted cheddar cheese at a Spanish tapas restaurant several years ago. That was actually the first time I really did have a cigarette after dinner. If it weren’t so frosty this evening and if I were indeed a smoker, I would have paused for a moment to go outside and puff away on a Marlboro. Not drowned in cheddar cheese, but rather topped with a spicy mayonnaise, I simply could not force myself to take itsy-bitsy bites and be okay with it. Partaking of those potato croquettes was nothing more than an experiment in trying to maintain your composure. I moaned out loud and then covered it up by coughing. Yes, I need therapy; I know that. But you don’t understand. Potatoes are supposed to be bland, salted at most. Those croquettes were wicked delicious.

Coconut Shrimp and Cole Slaw

Coconut Shrimp and Cole Slaw

A few months ago, I was visiting a friend who let me bake a cake in her kitchen. Well, the cake was for her anyway. Anyway, she ordered delivery from Lulu’s. One of the dishes that I had requested was coconut shrimp because I wanted to be in a tropical mood to take my mind off the fact that snow and sleet were falling fast outside. I was nonplussed, disappointed, horrified, petrified, and morbidly bitter. Okay, so that is a bit exaggerated, but I was almost in tears because the delivery was a mess. Fast forward to my latest in-house dining experience and there sitting before me is a plate of coconut shrimp and a dollop of cole slaw. Note to readers: Do not get the coconut shrimp as delivery. Get a table and order it for in-house dining. You will shoot straight to the moon. The coconut shrimp were plump, exploding with flavour. The batter was nothing like the saccharine B-chef gotcha that I had as a delivery item. It was all about joy on a plate. I was so in love.

Wonton Wonton Sundae

Wonton Wonton Sundae

This was a pre-celebratory birthday dinner for me, which meant that there would be dessert. I am well past the age of being okay with someone singing “Happy Birthday” to me at a restaurant because it always smacks of a free dessert after the meal. Again, I get embarrassed very easily and part of that is because my parents were not advocates of free meals, soup kitchen mentality as Ma Williams called it. I must admit that I can be selective if I think the free meal is worthy and I have indulged some without my conscience beating me up over it. As to the pre-birthday dessert at Lulu’s, an Instagram photo I posted to my Facebook wall sent one of my friends into a tailspin. Three fist-sized scoops of ice cream — vanilla, coconut, and banana chocolate chip — sat atop a fried wonton that had been coated with sugar and cinnamon. Another large fried wonton doctored up like the one under the ice cream towered on the plate. All of it was drizzled with chocolate, caramel, and confectioner’s sugar, and my friend was out in orbit. The people at the table across from where we were sitting told me to stop heaving such heavy sighs. When I told them to get their own, it was our turn to tell them to keep it quiet. Oh my God!!!

Lulu’s is a quaint little restaurant and seems to fill up rapidly, especially immediately after work. The service can be slightly off-putting, as you could find yourself waiting a while before any of the servers get untangled from running rampant through the restaurant. When a server does approach your table, you get an attentive member of the wait staff. If it is a rather busy evening, it may be a good idea to be concise with your order. The scene in “When Harry Met Sally” may be hilarious when watching that movie, but applying that technique of complexity to your ordering at Lulu’s could result in a botched order and you’re then penning an unsavoury review on Yelp. But if you are like me, you will get your Pan-Asian/fusion/dim sum/élan and everything will be quite okay in the land. Hmm. I think I need to return for the third phase of my month-long birthday celebration. Lulu’s now!!!

Lulu's on Urbanspoon

I Am 45

The Williams Smile

The Williams Smile

On 5 April 2013, at 1:15 PM, I officially turned 45. As a mathematician I tend to be more exact with things than necessary. When I turned 30, I was too busy planning the celebratory birthday party to realize that I had reached a third decade in my life. By the time I turned 40, family had a huge birthday party for me and it was just another day. Now that I am 45, it occurred to me that the next big birthday for me will be 46, not 50 as some would say. Truth be told, I look forward to each year with more excitement than the previous years.

As I get older I am aware of more things that are pertinent in my Disney.

  • There are things I am not supposed to have. And I’m okay with that.
  • There are places I am not supposed to go. And I’m okay with that.
  • There are people I am not supposed to have messing up my happiness. I am ecstatic over that.
  • Time goes by faster now than it did when I was a kid. Summer break used to last forever.
  • I am with the person who makes me happy. Note the strikethrough. That alone shaves 20 years off my face.
  • Smiling removes wrinkles naturally. To think that people pay for Botox injections and nip-tucks.
  • I am aware of the passage of time, as there isn’t enough time to eat all that I’d like to eat.
  • Food is my lover and anyone who thinks otherwise should be fitted for a straight jacket. (Being careful so my high school crush doesn’t read this statement.)

Instead of a huge party with dozens of people milling around and me not getting a chance to sit and talk with any of them at great length, I opted for more personal celebratory gatherings with friends, family, and my high school crush who kept teasing me with the promise of baking me an Italian cream cake. I started the morning meeting some friends for breakfast. With it being my birthday, they wanted me to be “in the moment,” which meant we were not doing anything with an ethnic leaning to have me switch into blogger mode. That didn’t mean I should leave my camera at home. So, into the bag went the camera and out the door I dashed to Marmalade at 1969 W. Montrose Avenue in the Ravenswood neighbourhood of Chicago. I was in blogger mode and that was inevitable. Super service, contrary to some disturbing reviews I’ve come across, and I will chalk that up to us getting to the restaurant at 7:00 in the morning when everything was new and patrons with bitterness, indecisiveness, and wants for vicious reviews had not poured in.

Cafe au lait. Eggs scrambled well with cream cheese. Cubano French toast.

Cafe Au Lait

Cafe Au Lait

The cafe au lait was not bitter, not in the least. I drank it without any sugar and said silently, “Intelligentia, you have competition.” By the second cup, I was saying, “Intelligentia what?” Nothing spectacular about cream cheese in my eggs, as that is a staple for my desired preparation of eggs. Where I wanted to stand up and sing “Gino Marmalade,” was with the Cubano French toast. I would gladly have enjoyed a petite mort after the first bite of the French toast in guava marmalade with a cream anglaise, topped with strawberries, guava, and granola. The lyrics would have been something like:

Gitchi, gitchi, ya ya da da da
Gitchi, gitchi, ya ya here
Mocha chocolata ya ya
Hungry Gino Marmalade

Scrambled Eggs

Scrambled Eggs

The prices for the menu items are reasonable. The service was outstanding. The food was so yum-inspiring that I could have sung an aria. Whatever gripes reviewers on Yelp have with Marmalade, I will return and I will have to make it a point to fight the urge to stand up and launch into the following lyrics:

Voulez-vous manger avec moi ce jour?
Voulez-vous manger avec moi?
Voulez-vouz manger avec moi cest jour?
Voulez-vous manger avec moi?

Cubano French Toast

Cubano French Toast

For lunch, I met with two friends I had worked with when I was driving off the map to the wonderful West Suburbs. We met at Wok’n Fire at 1576 W. Lake Street in Addison, Illinois. It’s the usual big-box atmosphere like what you get at Pei Wei Asian Diner and at PF Chang. But the aromas made the restaurant smell less of a buffet cafeteria and more like some good food was being prepared in the kitchen. After laughter about how the company had become a revolving door and joking about how some people manage to get promotions although they take vacation time in impromptu, unscheduled fashion, it was time for food. Per recommendation from one of my friends, I ordered Schezuan tilapia. Served with brown rice, spinach, and in a Schezuan sauce with red peppers, onions, broccoli, and mushrooms, lunch had a wow factor that left me weak in the knees. I had to drive back into the city and doing it behind the wheel of a manual shift after such a fantastic lunch, I was glad to get home and take a nap in advance of dinner. But before my siesta, I had a long chat with Ma Williams who boasted about how proud she was of me and how she’s glad I have been taking care of myself and some other mushy stuff that indicates I was never a disappointment. Not many mothers can say that and we Williams offsprings became high-end. And then she asked me if I had made use of the cake pans she sent to me for my birthday gift. Ma Williams always gets me the birthday gifts that make me smile.

Schezuan Tilapia

Schezuan Tilapia

Now, let me just say that I slept so good during the afternoon that I had thought I slept a bit too long. There was no way that I wanted to miss my birthday dinner. Sure, I can go to Marion Street Cheese Market at 100 S. Marion Street in Oak Park, Illinois, at any time. But for a proper celebration, and I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed, it was necessary for me to get up and be ready to head out for a worthwhile meal.

Flight of cheeses — Dante, l’amuse gouda, and sharp cheddar. Sunchoke arancini. Quiche. Salad. Flight of wine. Pot de creme.

Quiche and Salad

Quiche and Salad

Sunchoke Arancini

Sunchoke Arancini

The flight of cheeses came with candied walnuts, toasted almonds, a flavourful jam, wafers, and bread. So perfect and we worked our teeth on the items that begged for us to continue. Yep, we even paused conversation so we could concentrate. The sunchoke arancini was several stops past the last exit to wonderful. Ingredients of hazelnut chimichurri, sunchoke puree, sunflower sprouts, and lemon made for a vegetarian’s plate of happiness. We smiled through each bite. The quiche was of the kind that the meekest person would clobber a corn-fed Indiana football player senselessly if the football player were to mess with the mild person’s quiche. We’re talking about a quiche with Sarvecchio parmesan, caramelized onions, and parsnip puree served with braised spinach. You simply will not stop making comment about how delicious it is after each bite. Oh, and let me not forget to add that we each had flights of wine. Liquid bliss! For me, I told the server to bring a flight, any flight. It didn’t matter. I didn’t care. It was my birthday and he did not disappoint — three reds, two from France and one from Chile. The flight paired well with everything. The dessert was a pot de creme — chocolate hazelnut pudding topped with a baked meringue. There is a special corner in hell for me after working that pot de creme with exaggerated facial expressions, the homemade butter cookies, and a cup of coffee that was made from a fine bean. As we teetered out of the restaurant, it was rather apparent why we all return there so much. And people who don’t like that assessment are sitting back saying, “I know better places.” I can only shake my head and say, “Umpf, umpf, umpf. Tell me anything.”

Pot de Creme and Butter Cookies

Pot de Creme and Butter Cookies

As a kid, I used to think that people in their 40’s were old. I am quite amazed at how my perspective has changed since, rather considerable if I may add. When I look in the mirror and the only things that can possibly give my age away are my balding head and the grey in my beard, I realize that I can shave and those indicators go away as well. When I think about how I had furrows in my brow and pessimism in my eyes during my twenties, none to be seen in my physical appearance now, it feels nice announcing my age. Because then I can watch the show when people start to actively debate me and call me a liar who wants to be older than he really is. And I smile, yet again removing any potential wrinkles.

Hello, my name is Gino Williams and I am 45 years old. Oh, and I am a food addict.

Marmalade on Urbanspoon Wok'n Fire on Urbanspoon

Oh, You’re So Coy

Koi Japanese Sushi Bar

Recently, a few visits to some high quality restaurants in Berwyn, Illinois, proved that the neighbouring suburbs are becoming a food force with which to reckon. It was always a given that Oak Park had a lot of talent, one of the main reasons why I spend so much time there with my feet under some table. But I had forgotten about Chicago’s suburban neighbour to the north: Evanston. And during a visit with a schoolmate from high school and college, we sauntered over to a Pan-Asian restaurant Koi at 624 Davis Street, in downtown Evanston.

Chopsticks and Warm Sake

As we got to the door, it had occurred to me that I think I had seen Koi listed as a sister restaurant to Sushi House in Oak Park, Illinois. Well, I think I have. After the fifteenth visit, I had stopped counting how many time I had gone to Sushi House, so I was certain that I would have an experience at Koi that would be memorable enough to have me come back. There was the formula lounge feel with dim lights, straight edges to the décor, painfully attractive hostesses, and faint Brazilian jazz playing in the background.

Edamame

Lucky for us, we had arrived before the theatre crowd. Forgetting that downtown Evanston is not like Mayberry, there is life after the sun goes down. There were several patrons who had come in a half hour after we had arrived and they were in a rush to have their meals before dashing off to see some show or cinema event. We had placed our orders and were snacking on the complementary edamame while imbibing wine and warm sake. Chilly outside, we were certain to be warm and toasty on the inside.

Volcano Maki

Now, with this restaurant catering to the palate that loves sushi and maki rolls, we had a balance of exciting, pedestrian, and commonplace. For the exciting maki roll, we had a volcano. The presentation alone was a work of art. What would have come out as a maki roll with imitation crab was one where we instead requested real crab. Sure there was a $2.00 additional charge, but there was no valid reason for us to deprive ourselves of the real thing. The spicy mayonnaise added a proper kick such that there was no need to put wasabi in the soy sauce. The misleading thing about the maki was that the leading meat in the recipe per the menu was crab. Instead, tuna was the stand-out meat. That was fine, but people who are sushi fanatics can flag such advertisement as false. However, we worked our chopsticks on the maki.

California Roll

For the pedestrian, we had a California roll. Another university schoolmate had joined us and was adventurous yet with more reserve than my grade school friend and I were. And unlike most California rolls, again we requested real crab meat. We had no desire to gnash on meat extracted from imitation crabs. Where do you find them? Are they some McDonald’s product, like McNuggets and McRib? Is there such a thing? If there is, we could not speak to its flavour on this particular evening. The basic ingredients of crab, avocado, and cucumber were no different than what you have in any California roll. The thing is the flavour in real crab stands out more than the smack of the fabricated crab. My grade school friend had a Riesling that she said was a perfect match for the maki rolls. Our mutual friend and I had warm sake that took our minds completely off the fact that it was frosty and raining outside in London fashion.

The commonplace maki roll was shrimp tempura maki. Tempura shrimp, lettuce, avocado, cucumber, and three individuals applying chopsticks a notch or two less than relentless would be the best way to describe things. Again, we had another maki roll that looked more aesthetically pleasing than one would think as far as flavour goes. We had our moments of brief silence while directing our attentions on the previous two maki rolls, but the tempura shrimp maki resulted in impregnated silences. To the average person, it would have been uncomfortable. To the three of us, it was our way of acknowledging the goodness of what sat before us without us being verbal about it.

Shrimp Tempura Maki

Then we entertained the Pan-Asian aspect of the restaurant. This was when I accepted the fact that Koi is not on a par with Sushi House, as the latter remains true to Japanese authenticity in its cuisine only. There was a plate of shrimp fried rice ordered. Filled with fresh, plump shrimp and bursting with flavour without any overcompensation, anyone could have seen that there were three very happy people at the table. I also have to admit when you can taste the egg in a dish, the real thing was used versus the out-of-the-carton what-not. This may be one of the very notable things that Koi should work without pause.

Shrimp Fried Rice

Where it really became evident that we were delighting ourselves a bit too much was when my schoolmate and I started speaking in Japanese while having shrimp lo mein. Neither one of us look anything relatively close to Asian, although my infectious smile results in a slant to my already-exotic eyes. Instead of lo mein sauce on the noodles, we had a Schezuan sauce. Again, plump shrimp sat under tasty noodles in sauce before we bit, chewed, and smiled.

Lo Mein Noodles with Shrimp

Koi is a fantastic Pan-Asian restaurant. But it is advisable to go before the crowd starts because the tide of hungry patrons seemed to introduce a bit of scrambling to the wait staff. Some people could misinterpret the vacant attention to uncaring customer service when it is simply a case of being overwhelmed with a sudden influx of people coming in with various requests for this, that, and the other. Expect to pay a pretty penny. And while the service could become taxed due to a quick rush of customers, they are still gracious. The next time I go I shall not be so coy with my appetite. I shall request my very own little degustation so that I can try more from the menu. Yes, that coming after I have already listed the serious dishes we had during this visit.

Koi Sushi & Chinese on Urbanspoon

Food Pandemic

A beautiful and warm Saturday for the month of February and my appetite had been reminding me that the bagel and tea that I had earlier in the day was not enough to carry me through until dinner. I was on the Northwest Side of Chicago and wondered what I would eat to please the monster — my hunger, that is. I pulled out my trusty cell phone and accessed Yelp to get recommendations for some eateries in the nearby area. One listing that showed up was for a Singaporean restaurant. Hmmm. I did not know that Chicago had a Singaporean community, but I have managed to find a lot of ethnicities all over the great city of Chicago. The restaurant, Jess Cafe at 5819 W. Belmont Avenue, is actually Pan-Asian. I heaved a heavy sigh, as Pan-Asian restaurants tend to be more about quantity than quality per se. They will cover everything from Japanese to Chinese to Vietnamese to Thai to Malaysian to Indonesian to Cambodian to Mexican and Italian. Unless the cuisine is explicitly listed in its own section, you could be mislead into thinking you are eating something authentically representative of any of the Asian ethnicities when it could be a concoction instead of a dish from “the old country.” And I thought again about how I would label Jess Cafe on Chicago Alphabet Soup. This left me wondering if I should consider Pan-Asian as an ethnic listing for some restaurants.

Tempura Shrimp

On initial entry into Jess Cafe, I was certain that the whole experience was going to be a complete racket. While not bustling with patrons, there appeared to be the entire kitchen staff at a table having an afternoon meal and siesta. The wait staff was all over the place. And the individual at the front counter was having a rather casual yet engaging conversation on the phone. Remember the saying “You never get a second chance to make a first impression”? After standing for a couple of minutes — not knowing whether I was to seat myself or not — I took the initiative to secure a nearby booth. I sat for a while before someone brought me water and after sitting some more looking through the colossal menu, I managed to get the eye of someone so that I could place my order. Let me just add that the menu was extensive to the point where I think the restaurant covers every recipe known in Asian cuisine. I eyed shrimp tempura and another dish of salt and pepper soft shell crab.

The shrimp tempura reminded me more of coconut crusted shrimp rather than thinly battered tempura shrimp. One thing I must say is that I was glad the shrimp was plump and succulent in the batter. And the shrimp seemed to have been seasoned well, as it was not just merely shrimp in a crispy batter. There was some pop to the dish. Perhaps their take on tempura was different than what you get in Japanese cuisine. The salt and pepper soft shell crab was outstanding. This came with steamed rice and a vinegar-based dipping sauce that reminded me of a salt and pepper chicken dish that I had eaten at a Vietnamese restaurant in Chicago’s Edgewater neighbourhood several years ago. What I will add is that I have yet to have any soft shell crab that I did no like. One would think that salt and pepper only would not be enough to season anything such that it would be flavourful. That was not the case with the soft shell crab. That was all the seasoning that was needed and my empty plate was testament to that.

Soft Shell Crab

Surprisingly, Jess Cafe was worth the trip. The reviews that I had read were mixed, waffling between devoted love of the restaurant and utter disgust. Minus the sketchy service, the food and the price make Jess Cafe an eatery worthy of a return. In the reviews, there were a lot of plugs for how awesome the bubble tea and the smoothies are. Well, on my next visit, I shall have to see if there is truth to those assertions. And at the end of the day, I returned home to make plans for my next food adventure. Hahaha. Insert sound byte of me saying, “Yum,” with exaggeration.

Arigato. She-she nee. Gam si hapni da. Thank you.

Jess Cafe on Urbanspoon

Pan-Asian Sampling Delight

Simply Thalia

When weekends arrive in Chicago, I tend to smile a little wider. I can sleep later in the mornings. I get a reprieve from hand-holding fellow colleagues at work. And I can eat until my heart is content, my belly is filled, and I can take a nap without anyone running into my space and disrupting it. Saturday morning arrives, it is sunny outside, I am on my way to some eatery, and then there is this thing called cloud coverage — always followed by cloud bursts of torrential downpours — that messes up the merry work for any outdoor activity. This has been a weekend phenomenon almost wears me down to spiritual defeat. But my appetite remains in tact, though.

After work a few days ago, I went by a Pan-Asian eatery that is in the concourse between the Red Line at Lake Street and the Blue Line at Washington Street. In the lower level of the new mall at 108 N. State Street is Simply Thalia, which is simply an Asian cafe of all good things. When I had gone the other day, my appetite was way off the scale because I had recently increased my workout routine and I had a hankering that was driving me sideways the wall. Having gone to the restaurant several months past and had a panang dish, I was not necessarily thrilled with the diligence done to their Thai curry dishes — more watery than hearty — but I was hungry and there are other items on their bill of fare. Today I wanted to try a different approach and I had decided that I would keep with my Snacking on Saturday [convenient] tradition. I was only going to have appetizers and, by George, I was going to like it. That was me psyching myself up for the edibles.

Saigon Shrimp Rolls

Saigon Shrimp Rolls

There was very little convincing that I had to do. Focusing on the appetizers, which were priced very low, I eyed three items that I wanted to delight myself with. I started with Saigon shrimp rolls. Who would have thought that rice paper rolled with shrimp, cucumber, carrots, lettuce, cilantro, bean sprouts, rice noodles, and mint could be so blooming satisfying? The Vietnamese apparently figured it out and the shrimp rolls that I feasted myself on with the complementary dipping sauce, consisting of a plum sauce and a hint of teriyaki sauce, really made an impression on me. This was the first time I have had Saigon shrimp rolls and loved them. My hat goes off the chef, cook, or frozen food merchant who dealt me this treat.

The next appetizer I had was Burmese samosa. Flaky to perfection and stuffed with sweet curried potatoes and spiced chicken, my mouth burst with flavours of Burma. One ethnicity lacking in the Chicago multi-cultural restaurant spectrum is Burmese. Albeit a small items on the larger menu, I was reminded of the fine eating experiences in many Burmese restaurants in Toronto, Ontario, and in Washington, DC. Served with a sweet mustard accented with a hint of cilantro, I know now that it is time for me to visit old friends in Toronto and in DC — to catch up with my friends, of course — for some loving from the kitchen courtesy some Burmese.

Burmese Samosas

Burmese Samosas

The final appetizer was Malaysian roti canai. Malaysian home-made naan served up with curry chicken dipping sauce was an absolute taste of heaven. It is quite evident that Simply Thalia does not concoct thick curry gravies, a case with the thin base for the curry chicken sauce. However, this curry was only thin, not watery, and it worked very well with the roti. I could eat the Malaysian roti canai everyday for the rest of my life and never grow tired of it. Hmm. Wait. I have a threshold and everyday would be too much; I would not want to risk tiring myself of such a dish full of love. But I found the roti alone to be a welcome to the palate and the curry sauce made it that more appetizing.

I cannot place Simply Thalia in any one ethnic bucket as there are many Asian cultures represented in the food — Japanese, Chinese, Malaysian, Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, and Indian just to name a few. What I will add is that for there to be a plethora of Asian cultures present in the food at any one restaurant, there is a splendid job done keeping each ethnic dish specific to the culture which it represents, rather than introducing fusion and competing flavours.

Malaysian Roti Canai

Malaysian Roti Canai

For the three appetizers and some organic tea, the tab for my moment of food bliss was under $20. Small and rather close, Simply Thalia has a feel of a lounge — minus super tan blond Rachels in high heels and mini skirts and Oompa Loompa orange Barts in clothes way too tight. Granted servers do not perform acrobats to please your sensibilities, I was appreciative of the fact that when I had said I wanted each appetizer one at a time and spaced out between delivery, the individual who took my order honoured my request. So my three factors that keep me returning were there: great service, low price, and outstanding food. What am I going to do when I increase my workout routine again? That was a rhetorical question.

Also, Simply Thalia has a parent restaurant named Thalia Spice, which is at 833 W. Chicago Avenue. I am almost certain that the food is worthy of a visit. And even if you still want a sample of their tasty menu items, you can order online from your desktop or from your smart phone. I think I am outside of the delivery area, but I will go and have a seat at one of the tables and see what delight I can derive from some Pan-Asian sampling.

Simply Thalia on Urbanspoon