Breaking My Neck for Breakfast

It is time for another confession: I love breakfast. I could make breakfast a constant meal. Of course I say that now, knowing that the Aries in me would kick in and I would tire of having it in an ongoing fashion all day long, everyday. But when weekends arrive, I can play nicely with my knife and fork over a plate of morning goodness. If you have been to any of the breakfast restaurants that I have visited, you would feel the same way, too. Recently, I went breakfast crazy in a fantastic way.

Last year I went to Marmalade at 1969 W. Montrose Avenue for my birthday breakfast. I did a repeat this year. Often you will hear a lot of people go on about certain cafes and restaurants that serve the best French toast ever. Having gone to Marmalade several times, their rants go in one ear and out the other because until you have had the Cuban French toast and couldn’t control your smile thereafter, you’ve only had toast soaked in milk and doused with syrup. I was overwhelmed with breakfast satisfaction while indulging the Cuban French toast again this year.

Cuban French Toast

Cuban French Toast


During the night of my birthday dinner where a great friend and I had our second visit of a French restaurant in Evanston, Illinois, we made plans to meet for breakfast the next morning. Where would we go? What time would we get there? How would we struggle with fighting sleep after four-course meals and flights of martinis and cocktails? Never fear! Food was involved. We opted for a German breakfast, one  well-balanced with pannenkoekens. Yep, we arrived at Pannenkoeken Cafe at 4757 N. Western Avenue in Lincoln Square. Nothing like perking up immediately after having a large apple, brie, and raisin pannenkoken and a chocolate banana pannenkoeken placed in front of you. To my breakfast savvy informants, crepes are no longer “the” pancake of choice for me. Gib mir pannenkoeken.

Apple Raisin Cinnamon Pannenkoeken

Apple, Brie, Raisin Cinnamon

Chocolate and Banana Pannenkoeken

Chocolate and Banana


The thing about living in one of the hottest neighbourhoods in America is the tendency to take everything about it for granted. Logan Square boasts boulevards, swanky boutiques, plenty of culture, hipsters who made single gear bicycles sexy, rising property taxes, and a plethora of restaurants. One restaurant that has been on the Logan Square landscape for several years is JAM, just off the roundabout at 3057 W. Logan Blvd. The time had come for me to see what the restaurant had for its offerings. A l’amuse bouche of a homemade fig newton, green apple juice, chicken and waffles, and coffee afterwards. Let me just say that a waffle prepared with coriander and rice flour in the recipe under pulled chicken drizzled with a fennel gastrique is NOT the same as a large Eggo waffle served with crispy fried chicken wings and “surp” — yes, I misspelled syrup intentionally.

Fruit Cookie

L’amuse: Fruit Cookie

Green Apple Juice

Green Apple Juice

Coffee and Cream

Coffee and Cream

Chicken and Waffles

Chicken and Waffles

At the rate I have been going, it is starting to look like I may wind up with a Top 10 list of breakfast eateries for 2014. Certainly after the visit to Pannenkoeken Cafe, I shall thrust myself into a search for more German restaurants that have pannenkoekens on their menus. And Logan Square has already proven to be a hub of growth. I may not have to go to Lincoln Park, Lincoln Square, Lakeview, Uptown, Bucktown, Wicker Park, and downtown for breakfast options. I will only need to walk a few blocks in any direction from my condo and find my feet under some table, tapping my toes while clinking my knife and fork on my plate of morning loving from the kitchen.

Jam on Urbanspoon

 

Sunday Brunch and Missing Lisbon

Sola Restaurant

Years ago New York City introduced the concept of the brunch. These Sunday affairs combined breakfast and lunch with a dash of some alcoholic concoction for an accessory. The brunch inception has grown so much that it is a Sunday staple in all metropolitan cities. In New York City, the upper middle class dandies sit and complain about all sorts of extemporaneous topics. In Los Angeles, those of the pretentious cabal flash plastic smiles in front of everyone in hopes that a producer or agent may catch their eye. In Miami, everyone stands around with their painted-on tan, their clothes disturbingly way too tight and bright. In Washington, DC, all the lawyers and politicians mess up their dining experiences by discussing work, as though not discussing work will result in a social-climbing apocalypse. In Chicago, everyone is natural and free-flowing at their brunch sets, although some may be seated outside in close proximity to a trash dumpster. As much as I love Chicago, I cannot get my thoughts around situating outdoor seating near an alley. At least Sola Restaurant at 3868 N. Lincoln Avenue got it correct.

Red Dawn

Red Dawn

Since I go to early church service, I have most of my day available for doing things other than dreading going to work the next day. The thing is I can’t begin my activities on an empty stomach or only with a cup of coffee to carry me through. It is mandatory that I abide by the mantra that the most important meal of the day is indeed breakfast and proper fuelling before the day gets into full swing is a priority. I had found a restaurant on the Internet that had a Hawaiian theme to its menu. Unlike some people who think that Hawaii is a foreign country, not one of the 50 states — hence, their ongoing disappointment with Obama’s birth certificate — I could not flag it as an ethnicity from abroad for Chicago Alphabet Soup. There is a South Pacific influence to Hawaii, for sure, and one day I shall find a restaurant with authentic Hawaiian flair or return to Sola Restaurant for dinner to sample their Hawaiian menu.

In the meantime, I had what I could consider a traditional brunch. I started with red dawn to whet, or rather wet, my appetite. This was champagne and blood orange. Well, this libation picked me up, not that I was down or anything like that. With the muggy feeling from the Chicago humidity, it was refreshing. Then there were malasadas. These Portuguese style sugar-coated doughnuts came with a drizzle of hot fudge and raspberry coulis. I was in heaven. The last time I had doughnuts like this was when I lived in Washington, DC, feasting on some bofroat at an authentic Ghanaian restaurant. No, I take that back. I had gone to Lisbon with my high school crush last year and had some then, served with coffee sweetened with condensed milk. And I am so missing being there at this moment. Everyone may think that beignets are the best thing since colour television. Pschee! In the “Best Doughnuts in the World” pecking order, you have Ghanaian bofroat, Portuguese malasadas, Old Fashion Doughnuts on Chicago’s South Side, beignets, and then everything else shakes out where it may. For those of you in the Chicago metropolitan area or who will be visiting soon, leaving before having some malasadas would be the equivalent of clapping you mum across the cheek. It would be just that wrong.

Malasadas

Malasadas

Now I must admit defeat. (Collective gasp.) I ordered an upside down banana pancake. Usually, specialty dishes come in small to moderate size portions. I tend to underestimate the power of some restaurants’ capacity to exceed one’s expectations. The upside down banana pancake was not only wide enough to cover most of the plate, but it was also thick. Topped with a dollop of butter, that was all I needed — no syrup required. The consistency reminded me of a warm yellow cake filled with bananas. It was so delicious, so ridiculously delicious, so warm and tasty, melting on my tongue, leaving me speechless. I was floating on a cloud that hovered over a babbling brook. I tried to finish all of it, going slowly, pausing in between bites, and not drinking anything with the pancake, the works. When it got to be too much, I accepted the fact that next time I will not order anything else in conjunction with the pancake. I would have it and eat it to completion. But I had some extra to take home with me and I smiled while I left the restaurant with my take-away.

Upside Down Banana Pancake

Upside Down Banana Pancake

Sola Restaurant has a big-box look to it, yet without the big-box feel. The atmosphere is trendy, the service ranks high — from my first experience there, and the price is comparable to what you will find at a lot of breakfast spots where people wait what seems like forever to feast off of a limited menu. For the Sunday brunch, the doors open at 10:00 AM. By the time I had arrived at 10:15 AM, the restaurant was filling up inside and the patio was already full. I cannot speak to the Hawaiian menu. That will require a return visit for a regular lunch or dinner. I will admit that the brunch was worth it. Let’s face it. New York City may pioneer a lot of concepts and the rest of the States catch on late. Chicago is the first to make the experience worthy of blogging. So, until next time I see you, Sola Restaurant, Aloha!

Sola on Urbanspoon Sola Restaurant on Foodio54

Forget Crepes, All About Pannenkoeken

Pannenkoeken

While perusing some photos of food on Foodspotting, I had come across a composition of a pancake that screamed for me to come and get it. I had made a note of the name of the restaurant where the photo was taken and had entered a reminder into my cell phone for a visit. Chicago winters make it impossible to extract yourself from your warm bed on Saturday mornings. And I have fleece sheets on my bed. For every Saturday in February my alarm went off, I hit the off button, and then promptly went back to bed. With a little bit of warming in the temperatures and going to bed early on a Friday evening, I finally got up and went to Pannenkoeken, the restaurant where the photo I saw on Foodspotting was captured. At 4757 N. Western Avenue in Chicago’s Lincoln Square, is one of the quaintest German cafes in the city. When I say quaint, it is very small, in the vein of cafes and eateries in Europe, where you indeed sit close to neighbouring patrons. It was just my style.

Eggs Scrambled Well with Mascarpone

Because I needed to wake up completely, not just merely functionally, I had a cup of coffee to start. The only sweetener I had in the coffee was whatever there was from the sweetness of the cream. I made a mental note that whatever roast they were using was not bad. Perusing the menu, I was quite happy to see that there was a retention of authenticity in the servings. Pannenkoeken evidently does not feel a need to accommodate breakfast cuisine not of the German kind. Yes, there were Belgian waffles on the menu, but Belgium is not far from the borders of Germany and I am sure Germany is not without having been influenced accordingly. There was French toast on the menu, yes. But there were options for pannenkoeken that really stood out most. Not an exhaustive menu, like you find at something as pedestrian as an Original Pancake House, but the flavourful options seemed daunting because after looking at the servings, temptation wants you to try everything. I was content with sampling at most three menu choices on this first visit.

French Toast with Mascarpone and Blueberry Compote

Switching into my vegetarian mode for breakfast, I started with a plate of eggs scrambled well with mascarpone cheese. I have such a great love for cream cheese in my scrambled eggs, but trying mascarpone cheese in my eggs really hit a resounding note with me. Now when I go to restaurants for breakfast or brunch, Italian restaurants for sure, I will request mascarpone cheese to be added to my scramble. Then there was the plate of French toast with mascarpone cheese and home-made blueberry compote. After eating the blueberry compote, the blueberries exploding with flavour that the tongue relished, I do not want any more of that syrupy brew that comes from the can. I could quickly devolve into a brat in a high chair throwing his plate against the wall if I get anything claiming to be home-made compote yet nothing more than fruit drowned in molasses. There was so much flavour in the compote at Pannenkoeken and the French toast not reminding me of cinnamon on an Eggo waffle. And then an apple ginger pannenkoeken arrived at the table. By the time I came up for air, and I mean every word of that, there had been a change of faces at several tables. Again, the apples were not from some can, apparent because they were not dripping with syrup. And the ginger in the pannenkoeken. You could taste the ginger in the pannenkoeken. The thin pancake looked as though it would be a feat to undertake, but I smiled as I worked my fork, knife, and teeth on it. I was satisfied thoroughly — and again, I mean every word of it.

Apple Ginger Pannenkoenen

One thing I should mention is that Pannenkoeken has a cash-only policy. It can become quite easy to find yourself delighting the taste buds without a care in the world and then extract a credit card from the wallet once the bill arrives. You will have to pay cash. That is a small inconvenience — and you cannot even call it that. After all that I had eaten, the bottomless cup of coffee while at the cafe, and the coffee that I bought to go, the tab was considerably lower than what I would have had to pay at any of the brand name big box restaurants. As I mentioned earlier, the cafe is very small and intimate, so I highly recommend that you arrive as soon as the doors open. I am not joking. Trust me. When you get there, you will understand. Hmmm. You may even find yourself saying, “Lecker,” and not even know where your impromptu use of German came from.

Pannenkoeken Cafe on Urbanspoon

A Trip to Little Vietnam — Tien Giang

Tien Giang

Here is the scenario. It was raining. And my stomach was growling. It’s autumn and with the wind blowing off of Lake Michigan, chilly temperatures were a given. I am a man of easy appetite, so I guess that’s a given also. I’m also adventurous and that meant trying another restaurant that had many of my friends staring at me in complete bewilderment. My friend, another friend of ours who is a fan of good eating and drink, and I went out for some Vietnamese food in Chicago’s Uptown. Tucked sniffing distance from the Argyle Red Line stop on 1104-06 W. Argyle Street, we got out of the chilly, rainy air and decided to do something about our constant growling bellies.

Spring Rolls Vietnamese Egg Rolls

We didn’t waste any time figuring out what we wanted. We’re not fashion models concerned about meeting some agent’s demands for size control. [Well, I was once a fashion model, but now I’m a man of easy appetite. Oh, I said the latter already.] Anyway, we started with goi cuon. These spring rolls were filled with pork, shrimp, vegetables and vermicelli rolled in thin rice paper. Served up with a sweet sauce, it was tasty enough to make you want to start doing the happy dance. We also had cha gio, which were Vietnamese egg rolls. I will never eat another Chinese egg roll ever, not after savouring the goodies. Oh, wait, I had sworn off restaurant Chinese food after my first room-mate post-college had his parents over and they cooked dinner. You haven’t had good Chinese food until you’ve had some Chinese ma and pop in your kitchen doing it right. But I digress.

Seafood Pancake Pho

There was room on the table and we couldn’t have that. We ordered a banh xeo, a Vietnamese pancake with bean sprouts, pork, shrimp, and apparently a lot of love. That thing was on the table all of a good five minutes. All we left on the plate was the knife we used to divide it among ourselves. With the weather being dreary and wet outside, we also figured that a big bowl of soup would really go over well. Chicken noodle soup? No. Campbell’s tomato soup? No. Progresso? Hell no! Vegetable soup from a can? No, no, no! We had authentic Vietnamese danger soup, not for the faint of heart. This was a mild yet spicy soup that had a thin broth, thin rice noodles, meat balls, chicken, and — clutch your pearls — tripe. You can’t go to a Vietnamese restaurant and not partake of a delicacy true to the land. No way! The waitress had warned us that Americans are not a fan of the soup. Now that I think of it, that may be the reason why we ordered it, because we didn’t want something tempered for the American palate. I still won’t eat anyone’s chitterlings, but I will go back to this restaurant and have some more of the soup.

Having finished off the appetizers and soup, it was then time for the entrées. Because the portions are so huge, we ordered two large dishes of ca hong chien nuoc mam and ga xao sa ot. The ca hong chien nuoc mam was a fried red snapper that was so meaty that I wanted to catch a flight back to Jamaica for some red snapper, rice and peas, plantain, and ginger beer. Um, um, good! The ga xao sa ot was sliced chicken with garlic, lemon grass, and chilli, served over steamed white rice. Rarely have I had any lemon chicken prepared to such perfection as to have the meat fall apart when you stick a fork in it. Tien Giang did an outstanding job in its preparation of the chicken dish.

Whole Fried Red Snapper Lemon Chicken

The Argyle/Broadway location on Chicago’s North Side is well-known for the many Vietnamese and Thai restaurants. You can find just about any one of the two on any corner and in between and you can also find them filled with other Vietnamese and Thai patrons, a true indication of the authenticity of the restaurants. We had no particular restaurant in mind for this dinner outing and because we picked Tien Giang on a whim, it made the dining experience that more enjoyable. The price of the entire meal was not one to have us chopping the tables in half. The service was absolutely great. [I could name numerous restaurants that could take notes.] And the food was outstanding. This was a winner in ever since of the word, says the man with an easy appetite.

Tien Giang on Urbanspoon