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.

Ambassador Start at Noon O Kabob

Noon O KabobI have decided to consider quitting my day job and applying for the position of ambassador to so I can assist with peace efforts with Iran. I have yet to meet someone who would waste time arguing when there is delicious food within reach. That’s right. I will conduct all meetings and peace negotiations over a plate of zereshk polo — Persian sour berry rice with chicken — and plenty of laughter. Stuffed bellies. Greasy lips. Talk about harmony. Someone should have told Condoleezza Rice to sit her proper butt down to a table of good Iranian food and discuss peace relations in the Middle East the right way. [The FBI now taps Double Agent Williams’ PC for plotting.]

My good food adventurer friend and I indulged our hankering at a Persian restaurant. “But Persian starts with a P, Gino.” Yes, that is correct, but Persia is now Iran and a rose by any other colour is still a rose. Persian. Iranian. Damn good food is what we call it. This gem of a restaurant is at 4661 N. Kedzie Avenue on Chicago’s North Side. I am also the self-imposed ambassador at work who will take visiting Iranian scientists and engineers there. They will feel at home and they will terrorize my management to make sure I get promotions. Oops. I mean they will speak highly of me and recommend me for promotions. [If the FBI sees any variation of the word “terror” in my blog, they will come to get me.]

I had very little to eat earlier in the day, in anticipation for truly stuffing my jaws during dinner. Considering my appetite keeps a fire lit to it — weightlifting, kickboxing, and running three miles every morning — I am surprised I didn’t go into the restaurant and launch into a frenzy, biting chairs, tables, people running from my gnashing teeth, and munching on the curtains. Thankful that we arrived at the restaurant before the crowd began to pour in, we got a table immediately and the fun began.

The waiter was a cool guy, worthy of the “they must be rich” tip we gave him. We would have given him a very good inside investment tip, but we all know what happened to Martha Stewart when she went down that path. He filled us in on the Martini of the night — a pomegranate Martini. Yum! Seems that pomegranate is finding its way into a lot of beverages as an accent. Pomegranate tea. Pomegranate cider. Flavoured water with pomegranate. And now pomegranate Martinis. Instead, I opted for a glass of freshly squeeze orange juice. Delicious. They even left the pulp in, which is exactly the way it should be for those of us addicted to the naturally sweet, citrus juice. My friend had a bottomless glass of iced Persian tea.

Appetizers

Appetizers

The whole meal comes complementary with tandoori bread, onions, radishes, feta cheese, and parsley. For appetizers, we ordered kash-ke-bademjan, olovieh, and Caspian eggplant. All I have to say is that if the appetizers are hits on the menu, the entrees are certain to be winners. The kash-ke-bademjan was a mix of eggplant, mint and onion with Kashk (age dried yogurt), topped with fried onion and mint. The olovieh was a mix of chicken breast, potato, diced Persian pickles, mayonnaise, green peas, shredded carrot, and tomato, served with tandoori bread. Considering this appetizer had one of three things that I avoid religiously — small boats, small planes, and mayonnaise — I was pleasantly surprised that I had no allergic reaction other than a constant smile. The Caspian eggplant, which was sweet eggplant, tomato, onion, and garlic topped with moosir, was so delicious that I had a moment of indecisiveness. Should I buy a Honda Civic? Should I buy a Kawasaki danger bike? Do I take the Red Line all the way home or do I take a cab and demand that the driver play the music the cab incredibly loud?

Entrees

Entrees

The entrées were indeed big hits. I’m telling you, Condoleezza Rice really should have conducted peace meetings over plates of shirin polo and gheymeh bademjaan. Perhaps Hillary Clinton will, but I will save that for some other writer’s blog. Hahahaha. The manager had overheard my friend and me contemplating a seafood dish and he came by the table and recommended the salmon. I was leaning more toward the shrimp curry stew, but skipped it since the manager thought it was good, but not as good as the salmon. The shirin polo that we had was sweet and sour Persian rice — shredded almond and fine pistachio mixed with orange peel, shredded carrot, golden raisins, and Persian sour berry on top of Persian white rice. The rice was like candy. The gheymeh bademjaan was diced choice beef with split peas, prepared with Persian saffron and cinnamon in light tomato sauce with baby eggplant served with white Persian rice. The waiter was kind enough to serve the meal cultural style and threw in some dill rice since my friend and I seemed to have had such uber appetites. He thought that we were joking while we butchered the names of the items on the menu in the eye-raising quantities that we ordered. I do believe he was shocked — shocked I say — when he saw the plates cleaned with just a bit of gravy and a kernel of rice here and there. We’re not watching our weight, although I may need to start monitoring my weight gain if I get to 215 pounds well before this time next year.

Desserts

Desserts

As usual, we had to have dessert. With wide eyes, huge grins, and a little space in the bellies, we ordered a bomieh and a banana cheese cake. The bomieh reminded me of just about any Indian dessert — sweet enough to get the gums throbbing. This dessert was fried dough with saffron honey syrup. The banana cheesecake was a dessert to my heart — it was full of rum. I am not a man with a quick appetite for liquid treats, but that cheesecake had the right ingredient in it. I know at this minute some of my friends are asking about my special barbecue sauce, the spiked baked beans, the rigatoni Bolognese, the home made rum raisin ice cream, the apple cobbler I call “lovin’ from the oven,” and a few Ginoesque recipes. Okay, okay, I get the picture. [I recall a certain modified Christmas cake I baked several years ago for a party at work, one full of Kalua and rum. As soon as I had taken the lid off the cake and the alcoholic fumes wafted through the room, that cake was good as gone. All I got was a view of a cake plate with crumbs.] To wash this all down, my friend had another glass of bottomless Persian tea and I had a cup of hot Persian tea. Let me tell you, it was not Nestea or Lipton.

Forget about high gas prices. Forget about the weather. Forget about your wallet. Make your date pay. For the price of the entire meal, we could have ordered more. Then again, the scene after eating more food probably would have been rather embarrassing. This is yet another restaurant to add to my list of places to frequent during my long stay here in Chicago, which will be for the rest of my life. I could see myself in my old age keeling over at some restaurant. My epitaph would read “He Died a Happy Man, So Full of Life and So Full of Food and Beverage.” My younger brother said it should read “He Always Had a Smile and a Crumb on His Face.” Go to Noon O Kabab. Have the pomegranate Martini. Rally for peace in the Middle East by having people join you, as long as they pay their part of the dinner tab and tip accordingly.

Knock! Knock!

Rats! It’s the FBI coming to confiscate my laptop. I will just have to bribe them with an invitation to Noon O Kabab.

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