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.

And Now for Our Regularly Scheduled Program

To the tune of “The Little Drummer Boy”

Eat, they told me
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
There’s so much food to eat
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
I made an ugly face
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
I had a foodgasm
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Chomp, cha, chomp, chomp

Baked Goat Cheese and Tomatoes with Toast

When my flight from Washington, DC, landed in Chicago, I was not a good ten paces in the terminal before I dropped to my knees and kissed the ground. If I had my way to describe things, I would say that God shows favour in Chicago because after several months in Washington, DC, the last people to turn their backs on that city are those who choose to live there. It is very humbling having someone scoff at your career in data management and statistics — that being a politician or a lawyer is viewed as worthy of sitting to the left of God, I guess. And of all things to lack, the food was so excessively bland that I wanted to bark. But the one guarantee that I knew with certainty was that I was returning to Chicago, to a world of culture and a variety of damn good food.

Shrimp Chipotle Fettuccini

I spent Saturday unpacking, washing, and packing again because I will be going away for the Christmas holiday. Happiness! On top of those personal chores, I was running all over the city test driving Volkswagen Jetta cars. Merry Christmas to me. By the end of the day and into the night, I was too tired to contemplate cooking and I did not want the smell of take-away in my new car. So I slept that night with a huge smile on my face and an agenda for the next day.

Mexican Hot Chocolate

It was off to Hyde Park in Chicago to a familiar restaurant of days past — Medici on 57th Street. Again, I say that I do believe God shows favour in Chicago. With good parking Karma, I found myself going into Medici and greeted with the most pleasant smile before taken to a seat where I could begin to overcompensate for the last few months in Washington, DC. Because the restaurants in Chicago have some allowance for a tweak to a menu item, I handed the menu back to the waitress and told her to surprise me. Out came a cup of baked goat cheese with chunky tomatoes and pesto, served with toast. Let me just say that you have not had a dip worthy of delighting yourself over until you have had the baked goat cheese at Medici on 57th. The waitress had said that it was her favourite and I played like it was marginally okay all while I did everything except run my finger around the inside of the bowl and lick it. Then came the shrimp chipotle fettuccine and broccoli. I have had fettuccine with shrimp, but spicing it up with chipotle added a twist that I had found surprisingly outstanding. The broccoli was crunchy, but not raw because it must have been steamed. It burst with flavour. And the shrimp were plentiful, considering they were large and plump.

Apple Pie ala Mode

The shrimp chipotle fettuccine was incredibly filling. But the waitress had said to me that I should have a dessert. So, I had the entrée boxed up so that I could take care of business with some dessert. She recommended the apple pie, which came with large slices of apple and caramel. This apple pie had a shortbread crust. Imagine that. Now imagine having that lovely bowl of bliss with vanilla ice cream. My eyes rolled about in my head and I stifled the moans and groans that would have escaped my lips had I been at my home eating the dessert. To wrap up the whole experience, I had Mexican hot chocolate. We are not talking about melted chocolate in hot water with cinnamon sprinkled on top. No, this was a cup of scalded milk and chocolate with cinnamon do correctly. I finally moaned, much to the laughter of those around me.

I will admit that family in DC did take me to some restaurants that were worthy of writing home about. Then again, those restaurants were in Maryland and in Virginia. It may be because of gentrification that Washington, DC, falls short of cultural diversity and that kind of absence hampers cultural norms like food selection. Chicago celebrates cultural diversity and even the gentrification that is filling in the Windy City still does not have enough influence to have the food pander to a single palate. If you are eating Stepford cuisine in Chicago, chances are it is because you are snacking on a frozen dinner.

I’m going to burn in hell
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
I ate too much to tell
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
I need elastic pants
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Another foodgasm
Cha, chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Chomp, cha, chomp, chomp
Chomp, cha, chomp, chomp

Medici on 57th

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