Pasteurized Foodist

More and more I am discovering a lot of restaurants in Chicago that have a bit of an experimental edge to them. It seems that these restaurants are popping up as a result of chefs who are of a certain ethnicity studying culinary arts in countries far away from their native lands. One such restaurant that comes to mind is Sushi Samba Rio. There is a blend of Brazilian and Japanese in the food, but I have a feeling a chef who grew up in São Paulo or who had been there is responsible for that creation. There is a very large Japanese population in São Paulo. Another restaurant with a blend of two very different cultures is Vermilion, which marries Latin and Indian flavours. A third restaurant to add to the list is Pasteur, at 5525 N. Broadway Street in Chicago’s Edgewater neighbourhood.

Pasteur

Pasteur is a Vietnamese restaurant that has a French influence in the recipes. While wandering around in Edgewater, my stomach was doing the usual growling. As it turns out, I was passing by a building that had a façade blending chi-chi and European. In the window – lo and behold – was a menu. That meant that there was food and I was standing in front of a restaurant. Imagine that. After a brief perusal of the bill of fare, I entered an amazing room that definitely had a rustic European feel to it. Having arrived shortly after the doors had opened for business, I had the pick of seats in the empty great room. I told the server that I was pescatarian, didn’t have any food allergies but HATE NUTS, requested two appetizers, a soup, and an entrée, and told him to surprise me. I pulled my camera from my camera bag, took my white balance, and exhaled as I waited. This is my routine. In addition to my little personal preamble, a group of four came in and sat at the table IMMEDIATELY NEXT TO ME. This whole “sit next to Gino when the restaurant is EMPTY” thing is starting to get tiring. Nevertheless, I injected myself into their conversation. (Sigh) They didn’t mind, but rather enjoyed it.

Spring Roll

Spring Roll

I started with a spring roll. This was not just your ordinary spring roll, but one with sugar cane for the main ingredient. When I was a kid, sugar cane was a delicacy that I enjoyed throughout the summer much the way kids nowadays gobble dangerous snacks of chips, cookies, and pop to excess. The spring roll was made with a ground shrimp paste wrapped around the sugar cane and then grilled. It was served with a plum sauce that I was glad did not come across as competitive with the spring roll. You would be surprised at how some chefs can make the accompaniments more appealing to the palate than the main dish. Where I frowned was with the sprinkles of peanuts on the dish. The good thing is that they made the dish photograph well. However, I shook them off without complaint and commenced to gnashing away on the spring rolls.

Egg Rolls

Egg Rolls

My second course was a plate of egg rolls that I had to eat in the traditional manner. The egg rolls were mixed salmon and dill within the rolled, crispy pastry. They came with lettuce, cilantro, cucumber, pickled carrots, and pickled radish. To eat the egg rolls, I had to roll them in the lettuce with the other vegetables and dip them in a fish sauce before having them suffer the chomp of my beautiful white teeth. I have dined at countless Vietnamese restaurants in Chicago’s Little Vietnam and this is certainly the way you eat some of the appetizers. As high-end as Pasteur projects itself, there is perhaps a clause in their mantra that says they WILL retain authenticity.

Coconut Soup

Coconut Soup

The third course was a curry shrimp soup. I know that this was not a traditional pho. And when I had asked the server if it was Thai, he assured me that it was Vietnamese. I guess there are similarities, but I won’t overgeneralise and say that the flavours of Thailand and Vietnam are synonymous. The soup reminded me of tom ka gai. I had shrimp in this curry soup rather than chicken and I was quite okay with that. When the server had inquired as to whether I was okay with my dishes being spicy, I had replied in the affirmative, so the soup had a bite to it that made the autumn nip outside bearable. By now, the party of four that had sat next to me had begun to eye me with suspicion. Not only was I snapping photos from every possible angle of everything that had arrived at my table, but I was eating all of it without a struggle.

Calamari in Pineapple

Calamari in Pineapple

The fourth course was calamari and vegetables in a carved pineapple. The calamari had been dipped in flour and cooked in a wok with a calamari soy vinaigrette along with mixed vegetables of red and green bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, and fresh lemon juice. The insides of the carved pineapple had been cut into chunks. There was a natural sweetness to the whole dish. When it had come to the table, I could hear my neighbours making remarks as quietly as they could. That looks so delicious. I couldn’t eat it because it looks like art that should be behind a red velvet rope. He didn’t eat all of that other food. I can’t stop looking. That’s a man who enjoys food. I assured them that I did indeed devour the previous courses, albeit slowly, thanks to the aid of hot ginger tea. Plus, this was nearing the two hour mark, so I had everything spaced out to allow my stomach to settle in between. That is what degustations are all about. And the pineapple with calamari and vegetables met a slow end along with the cup of rice that had accompanied the dish.

Fried Banana, Green Tea Ice Cream

Fried Banana, Green Tea Ice Cream

The fifth course was a plate of fried bananas drizzled with chocolate syrup and strawberry syrup and served with a scoop of green tea ice cream. I have had this particular dessert at numerous Thai restaurants and while I cannot say that it is specific to Thai cuisine, I will acknowledge that it may be influenced by the palates of Asia. The bananas were sweet without the addition of sugar. The texture from having been fried was not such that you’d think the chef was thinking about frying chicken. It was crispy without being crusty. I loved the green tea ice cream, so rich, so creamy, so screaming “This was made with loose leaf green tea.” It may have been bought from a local Asian grocer and I don’t care. It was good. DO YOU HEAR ME?

Ginger Tea

Ginger Tea

Because I was in a mood for food roulette, I may not have gotten anything with a true French influence. Then again, it may be that the chef is French and he or she has a great love for the flavours of Vietnam. Instead of applying a fusion, the French aspect may be faint so that there are no competing ingredients in the recipes. My appetite didn’t complain. For the ambience, those who go ga-ga for aesthetics would love Pasteur. The price was so much less than what I had anticipated. The service was outstanding and I say this after my server had hit the right mark with every dish that came to my table. Remember, I simply gave my interests and let him come up with the courses. By the time I was ready to stumble out into the chilly temperatures of the autumn weather, the restaurant had filled with several patrons who were making their growling bellies shut up. And before the party that sat next to me left, I took a picture of them. I used their camera, of course.

Pasteur on Urbanspoon Pasteur on Foodio54

Lights, Camera, Eat

I have often wondered what it would be like to have camera appeal such that I could do interviews of chefs, cooks, managers, and owners of restaurants. Alas, I don’t. But I do have a bit of creativity and I think I may start to bring a bit of that to Chicago Alphabet Soup. While I am abroad for the month of September, I may ponder some ideas to put into video. The whole photography aspect of the food journal works well and it’s actually better since I really, really needed to learn how to use the expensive cameras that I had bought. There was absolutely no reason to have paid thousands of dollars for equipment that I used in automatic mode only. I may not be a “Food Magazine” photographer, but I am not the point-and-click smiley face that I was when I first started penning Chicago Alphabet Soup.

Well, the video below is one that I did at home. This is me pretending to have no idea what I want to eat for dinner and having such a magical touch, I create a dish on the fly. If only that could happen in real life. Wishful thinking will get me nowhere. However, a camera with video features and editing software will get me a humorous clip or two to post of my food adventures. The dish that I create in this video is an Algerian dish of chicken kabob over potatoes, mushrooms, and onions.

One other thing I did recently was try my hand at making a pineapple sorbet. Ice cream, gelato, and frozen custard have desserts that I have had much success making — aside from baking cakes and cookies. A friend, who is starting to introduce more vegan recipes into her diet, had cooked a spaghetti squash arrabbiata and I brought an almond vegan cake and pineapple sorbet. Now, the first time baking or making a dessert always gives me the willies, so imagine my surprise when the cake and the sorbet had come out better than expected. If it were not for me getting ready to go away for holiday, I would have made more sorbet. I had pondered a ginger mango, lemon, or pineapple again. I will have to save up those ideas for my return.

Pineapple Sorbet

Pineapple Sorbet

In the meantime, enjoy my teaser video and photo of frozen experimentation from my freezer. And if you start hearing voices in your head, it may not be voices, but your growling belly. Make a reservation at one of the restaurants I’ve posted and take your appetite to indulge something from someone’s kitchen.

Degustation Japanese Style

Roka Akor

SakeDuring the week of 3 February 2013 through 10 February 2013, many restaurants were participating in Chicago Restaurant Week. I had received an email about some of the restaurants and their menus, several that piqueing my interest. One restaurant that stood out on the list was Roka Akor, at 456 N Clark Street.  The River North section of Chicago is already filled with notable high-end restaurants that have reasonable prices for those who appreciate good food and who also do not want to worry that the final bill will leave them gasping in shock. Having gone to Bombay Spice Grill immediately next door, I had made a mental note to visit Roka Akor to see if the menu had items that would be a good fit for Chicago Alphabet Soup. Looking at the menu display outside the restaurant is one thing. Sitting still and looking at the menu online is another and it was reviewing what Roka Akor had for the appetite that made my decision to go for a seating that more easy. One thing that stood out more was the Robatayaki style cooking that the restaurant employs. I had experienced Robatayaki style cooking in Japan, but not in America.  I made a reservation so that I could arrive early for dinner, well before the serious dinner crowd started to file in. I had plans to do some serious photography and while making the reservation, I was clear about that so that I could get a seat where I would not be in the way of the staff or other dining patrons. Plenty of seating and romantic ambience, I was ready for my food adventure. Much to my surprise, I got a seat right in front of the Robatayaki bar and sashimi bar. Yes, I was ready for action.

Seared ScallopIn keeping with indulging degustations in my dining excursions, I scanned the menu and when the server came by to ask if I was ready, I gave my response. I had been waffling between going with the Restaurant Week menu, picking random items from the different sections of the menu, or letting the server have carte blanche with the selection. The menu for Restaurant Week had items on it that I have eaten countless times, so that option was thrown out. Picking items from the menu at random was another idea that I took a pass on because I would have selected comfort items. So, it was putting the selection into the capable hands of the server that I went for. An indication that I was in good hands was the glass of sake that he had recommended, and I am kicking myself for not remembering it. I remember my server’s name and his face, though, which means I can always go back and request that very sake. But, it was a sake that was smooth going down and with a hint of a floral note.  Now, I will be the first to admit that I have not come close to achieving wine, spirits, or sake snobbery. However, I could find myself navigating a room with a glass of the sake that I had and pretending to be higher above my station than I am already. I thank my server for opening my repertoire more.

SashimiFirst to the table was a grilled diver scallop. This was not just the usual morsel that comes with some seafood dishes. Seasoned with lemon sweet soy, crushed wasabi pea, yuso mayonnaise, and purple shiso crust, my fork sank through it without any effort and I smiled a wide smile as my teeth sank through each bite. Of course, the scallop was more of a starter than anything else, the initial presentation had me wondering if I was going to be in store for aesthetically pleasing dishes to the visual senses while compromising flavour. Oh was I wrong. Not only was the scallop anything but tough but you could taste the flavours, none competing with the other. The sushi chef had mentioned that this particular dish was one of his favourites and it was really nice to know because there was thought put into presenting something for me that the chef actually preferred. I doubt that it was because he had prepared it that he viewed the dish highly. It was just delicious. The same was to be said for the butterfish and tuna tataki that the sashimi chef had prepared. Yet again, there was a small dish of what looked more artistic than culinary. There was no rush, so I took small bites and enjoyed each with the accompanying sake. By the time I had completed two of the pieces, I had acknowledged that Roka Akor was not just a restaurant of visually stunning dishes but it was a fine dining establishment with a sushi chef, sashimi chef, and cooking staff that give attention to making sure each taste a dining customer has guarantees a return visit. In the same fashion that the sushi chef had explained the dish, since I was sitting at the counter, the sashimi chef did the same. And, thus, began conversation about Roka Akor in Scottsdale, Arizona, and in London, United Kingdom. And there was dialogue such that the chefs inquired of how I had become interested in blogging ethnic restaurants. It was not just me taking photos and scribbling dishes, but there was suddenly a feeling that I had gone to friends’ homes and told to make myself comfortable.

Sashimi Platter

The next dish was one I saw being prepared that I thought was going to another dining patron. There was no tossing items on the plate or rearranging anything haphazardly. There was an attention to detail and a display of care that had I caught on videotape, you would be able to see a bit of love going into the preparation. I had to ask if I could photograph the process, only to find out that the platter was for me. For a noticeable moment, I was rather speechless.  Here was a dish that you see in magazines and on television shows, a product after styling and polishing. I was watching magic. I was anticipating bliss. When all was done, a sashimi platter on ice was placed before me and all eyes were on me as my server explained what the treat entailed. Bluefin tuna, stripe jack, amber jack, oyster with ponzu sauce and fresh lime, shrimp, head of shrimp, salmon with truffle butter, super white tuna, yellowtail, red snapper, and Japanese seaweed salad with ponzu sauce. It is rhetorical to mention that the only thing I could mouth was, “Wow!” At my age of 44, I have been to restaurants on the high-end that have presented dishes that were fitting for pedestals while fitting for throwing against the wall. Restaurants that were all the rage, touted as bigger than life, and Roka Akor places a sashimi platter in front of me that deserves more high praise than I can type. Every morsel of seafood on the platter was fresh, obvious from the lack of fishy smell and absent of any questionable taste. And still, the sake that I polished off with the platter was an ideal pairing.

Seafood PlatterMore conversation was had while the next course was being prepared. The idea was to give me an idea of all the offerings that Roka Akor has without having me sample every item that there was on the menu. Since the sashimi chef had wowed me with the cold platter of delectable sashimi, the sushi chef was composing a platter of cooked seafood. And again, I was blown away with a selection of the absolute best, freshest seafood. Grilled Pacific lobster, Alaskan king crab, roasted Fanny Bay oyster, and tempura huma huma were all I needed to state with clarity that I had been to heaven. I shall start by saying that the texture of oysters never curried favour with me. However, the grilling of the oyster yielded the texture found in mussels. The seasoning of the oyster painted another smile on my face that stretched with each bite of the flavourful lobster, crab, and huma huma. Another thing to note is that while the plate looked substantial, I was not stuffed to capacity after I had completed the dish, licked my fingers, and raised my arms in the air as though I had defeated an aggressive boxer. I have enjoyed seafood this flavourful and fresh on the West Coast, East Coast, and along coastal countries abroad. As far inland as Chicago is, the seafood much be imported fresh, daily in order for the dishes to be so exquisite while remaining void of muddy flavouring. And my taste buds were appreciative of the seasoning to the seafood not being overpowering or overcompensation in any manner. The mark of an outstanding chef is knowing the right balance or ratio to make a dish pop. I will be the first to say that no one can argue that the chefs at Roka Akor do anything less than produce the best dishes for the palate.

Dessert Platter
By the time I had finished the cooked seafood platter, I requested some time before the dessert came. In Asian dining, desserts are not heavy, so I had a bit of confidence that I would be able to handle whatever was in store. I had completed a second glass of sake and my server brought a Riesling that was almost sweet enough to be a dessert wine. When the dessert had finally arrive, I understood why there was a tempering of the wine that was accompanying the work of art that I stared at in amazement. There was a medley of fresh fruit: watermelon, honey-dew melon, raspberries, blackberries, oranges, pineapple, and pomegranate. Included was a scoop of raspberry sorbet that I swear had been made fresh in the back with crushed raspberries. I have not had any sorbet from the market with such flavour that pops. And if all of that was not enough to make the most cantankerous food critic stand up and dance, there was a ginger crème brûlée topped with a few kernels from a pomegranate that puts crème brûlées at other restaurants to shame. This I am not making up for effect. After you have had crème brûlée regular style, tasting a hint of ginger in it somehow makes everything okay in the land. Ginger, like cilantro, goes great with many dishes. And as to the dessert at Roka Akor, I now find it hard to debate anyone about fruit not being the perfect wrap-up for a meal.

Preparing Sashimi Platter

Having recently entertained a degustation where I had given the server free rein to come up with the courses for me and having enjoyed the whole experience more than I could say, I was impressed even more with the culinary options I had at Roka Akor. The server said that they all are basically experts in the restaurant’s menu. Yet and still, recommending dishes for someone who is a stranger and every recommendation coming out a success means that something else is working right. The next time a list of top restaurants gets published, Roka Akor should be on that list.

Roka Akor on Urbanspoon

Most Important Meal of the Day

Blue Max

From most of my posts, you already know that I have a love affair with the fooderies — there’s my made-up word — in Oak Park, Illinois. As of late, when I have had coffee after dinner at Oak Park restaurants, it occurred to me that it was not Folgers, Maxwell House, imported Starbucks, or some variation of an attempt on coffee. My coffee snobbery is rather limited, but I know that when I can drink a cup of coffee with cream and not add any sugar, something is quite right with how the coffee is brewed. Or, like Ethiopian coffee, the beans are of a greater quality. It was after one of my dining excursions that I inquired what brand of coffee they were serving. Blue Max was the response. And having had a friend tell me about Blue Max Coffee in Forest Park, Illinois, at 26 Lathrop Avenue, it was time for me to go to the source.

LatteA beautiful Saturday morning with a clear sky, a mild breeze, and trees so vibrant with colours that they looked like they were on fire, I found a parking space in front of Blue Max Coffee and was ready to enjoy some of the best coffee that I have had in the Chicago metropolitan area. And I was going to have some breakfast while I was at it. But let me set the stage. Blue Max Coffee is inside of a house. You do not enter a restaurant. No, you enter a house that has been converted into what some would liken to a bed and breakfast. I sat in the family room across from Paul Bunyan and Professor Pete on one end and Mr. and Mrs. Loving on the other end. Much like pubs and small cafes in Europe, there is a bit of a familiarity among the customers and a lot of comfort, as the patrons who were at Blue Max when I went engaged me in conversation once my camera came out the bag. You would have thought we all lived on the same street, seeing that conversation flowed with such ease.

BreakfastFor my breakfast option, I ordered a Belgian waffle with a side of summer fruit — orange slice, honey-dew melon, and cantaloupe — and eggs scrambled with cream cheese. I was a bit surprised to see the scramble egg sitting atop the waffle, thinking perhaps I was supposed to cut into both at the same time and commence my devouring act. I gobbled the summer fruit and then placed the scrambled eggs on the side so that I could mix in the cream cheese and add pepper. Happiness. Rapture. Bliss. Love. Fresh eggs with my chosen cheese and a waffle that didn’t have that “box” taste to it, I was a rather pleased man. But the winner was the cup of latte. Hello, lover! Where have you been all my life? Several months ago I had a latte from one of those “big box,” staple coffee houses that may be found on every corner in downtown Chicago — hint, hint — and it was both burnt and bitter. How do you mess up a latte like that? There was not enough sugar that I could add to murder the burnt and acrid taste. In the same vein of my last experience with McDonald’s, Burger King, and the plethora of fast food thingies, it may be that my body craves for finer things and it was time for me to upgrade my taste in coffee to something that is neither quick nor excessively surplus. The latte at Blue Max Coffee was the complete antithesis of that cup of horror I had several months pass. The mark of a good cup of coffee is when you can drink it without any sweetener. I was beside myself with satisfaction. And it was then that I understood why so many of the local restaurants and cafes in Oak Park support Blue Max Coffee. It is a guarantee to keep customers returning, such was the case watching the constant line of customers who were coming for dining in and for take-away.

MochaGranted my first visit was a rather surreal experience with the comfort of the staff and other patrons being so welcoming and conversational, I made plans to return for another visit. The saying goes, “It’s never as good as the first time,” but that does not mean you should not try to see if any subsequent time is indeed better. So that was exactly what I decided to do. The next Saturday, I had my alarm clock set so that I could awake early enough to get dressed and out of the condo in time to return to Blue Max for a second round of breakfast. Remembering how the restaurant filled up quickly and had a continuous tide of patrons, I recognized that if I wanted to get a seat, it would be in my best interest to arrive shortly after the doors open. Again, there were Paul Bunyon and Professor Pete sitting in what I assume to be their usual area engaged in animated, sitcom-style discussions about politics and economics.

Switching things up a bit, but not that much, I had a cafe mocha. Much like the latte that I had ordered the previous weekend, there was no need for any sweetener. Not that I will ever order a regular coffee to see if it will bite me at the jaw line, I must admit that specialty coffees at Blue Max seem to be dandy sans sugar. Thanks to Blue Max Coffee, I can get my hands around several cups of coffee that satisfy my palate the way the latte and the cafe mocha did.

Scrambled Eggs with Cream Cheese

My breakfast option on my second visit was also not that much different, as I ordered pancakes. They were chocolate chip pancakes and while I think the chocolate chips would be better on or in a crispy Belgian waffle, I did not have to put any syrup on the pancakes, as I smeared the melted chocolate chips across the three pancakes in the stack that I had. Not appetizer size and not substantial, three pancakes in the morning along with a cup of coffee can be more filling than one may want to admit. It may also have been the scrambled eggs with cream cheese that had me stuffed a little more quickly than I had anticipated. The waitress had a quizzical look on her face when I had said I wanted the cream cheese mixed with the scrambled eggs. Many are so accustomed to cheddar cheese or American cheese that something different sounds a bit “out in space.” In addition to the plate of scrambled eggs with cream cheese, she brought a smile because my unique order had given her a cheese option for her scrambled eggs.

Pancakes and FruitWith a few words of banter with Paul and Pete, a satisfying cup of mocha, and a filling breakfast, the second Saturday was off to a good start. I cannot say that I will photograph coffee and food every Saturday at Blue Max Coffee, but I will become a regular, if only for the coffee. There are pastry options that I eyed briefly, but had not thought to entertain because I wanted to sample their breakfast fare. One thing I can admit with certainty is that the only coffee I can say I enjoy aside from Ethiopian coffee at one of my favourite, local haunts and what I also brew at my condo, you are guaranteed to smile with each sip of liquid love from Blue Max Coffee. Inexpensive. Fabulous service. Good food. Yes, I have already made a date for a third visit. I wonder if Paul Bunyon and Professor Pete will be there when I return for my next round.

Blue Max Coffee Incorporated on Urbanspoon

¡Que Rico! ¡Que Bueno!

Que Rico

Chips and Salsa

What do you do on a sunny Saturday afternoon when the sky is blue, the few clouds that are fluttering about are wispy feathers that look dreamy, and the leaves on the trees remind you of pumpkin pie and crayons the colours of red, yellow, brown, and orange? You rake leaves? You jump in the leaves? You walk hand-in-hand with your lover down the lane? You sit about and be thankful that the temperatures are still in the mid 60′s? Well, if you are me, you are probably out and about hunting for some food. I had made a bet with my international traveling wife during our last international jaunt. I had agreed that for every pound she takes off, I will add a pound. Last report, she had taken off a few pounds, which meant that my current bout of weight gain that has me struggling to get into some of my pants needs to step up. So, when I found myself in front of a certain Mexican restaurant that had the earth tones of the autumn colours, imagine my surprise when I had found an option for adding a pound or two for this particular day.

On the corner of Oakley and Roscoe at 2301 West Roscoe Street is ¡Que Rico! Talk about getting the whole decor of a Mexican establishment right. And with Halloween approaching, there was the whole setup of ghosts, ghouls, witches, skeletons, and pumpkins placed strategically throughout the restaurant. Upon entry, and it was during the middle of the afternoon, I was rather shocked to see that the place was empty. Many restaurants seem to open at 4:00 or 5:00 PM on Saturdays, so I had initially thought they were airing out the place in preparation for the evening seating. But, no, there just were no patrons yet and perhaps most were on the east end of the Roscoe Avenue stretch that attracts a lot of pedestrian traffic. The server had stated that they were indeed open for business and gave me my pick of tables. I chose a window seat.

Sopa de Tortillas

To the table came chips and salsa. The chips were not the neat, flat tortilla corn chips that you get in Frito Lay’s bags. Many were folded, some had been contorted, and all of them were warm. You can’t pour a bag of chips into a bowl, warm them up, and not expect some weird texture after they start cooling off. The chips remained crispy from the time they reached the table until I had finished all but crumbs. The salsa had raised some suspicion at first. I was thinking salsa from the jar and then the peppers slowly started creeping about on my tongue. I have had the “spicy” brand of salsa from the jar and it was still mild, so the complimentary salsa I had this day was either doctored or homemade. I would like to think the latter was the case because there was the authentic flavour that I could taste, much like the homemade salsa I have had at several of my friends’ homes.

I started with a sopa de tortilla. I have never ordered sopa de tortilla — tortilla soup — before and was pleasantly surprised that chicken broth with a tomato base, caramelized onions, chihuahua cheese, peppers, and corn tortillas could be so blooming delicious. We’re talking a fiesta. By the time I had gotten down to the last few slurps, I had dubbed the soup as my autumn Latin soup. It could be the colours of autumn that gave me the hint. Then again, it could have been the mildly spicy flavours that would be perfect for preventing a cold or keeping the body heated during the chillier times of fall and winter that will keep me hankering for cups and bowls of this delight.

Camarones al Ajo

One Latin American dish that has never failed is camarones al ajo. This plate of plump shrimp in a tomato-based sauce over melted cheese with Spanish rice, refried beans, and salad left me smiling and bumbling. The one time I probably could have gotten away babbling twaddle in English and I was instead giving commentary rather fluently in Spanish. Oh how the waiter got a laugh out of that before he was a bit inquisitive as to how my Spanish had such polish. It’s like those people who had surgeries and then awakened with accents so very different from what they had before going under anesthesia. While I am moderately conversational with Spanish, I apparently had not only correctness with words but also an accent. Food is not supposed to do that to me. I am finding it increasingly hard to fight, though.

Now, only an hour had passed and I was a bit full from having engaged the soup and the entrée with a pause of fifteen minutes after each. It was time for a postre. No flan para mi. Favor, no churros. Instead, I had pastel de piña. To have ordered that without first thinking about how I would say pineapple cake in Spanish first was an indication of how fast I tend to switch into languages. The pastel de piña came with a light caramel sauce, baked pineapples, and a fist size scoop of vanilla ice cream over a slice of yellow cake. Along with the cake, I had a cup of Colombian coffee. Gracias, Juan Valdez. It probably would have been nice to have had some Mexican hot chocolate to stay with the whole Mexican theme. Sigh. Sometimes there are modifications made and the ideal gets smashed. And if the food is really great at the restaurant, you eat enough that you are smashed also, such was the case with me.

Pastel del Piña

For a restaurant that has all the trimming of ambience, great service, and pretty good food, it is very bizarre to note how empty the place is. It very well may be the timing of day, as big box restaurants have a tendency to fill up later in the afternoon and early evening hours. It may also be that most of the restaurants that cater to pedestrian movement are a few blocks east of where ¡Que Rico! is. Several reviews I have read hint at the price being more than what is expected for the output and having a disposable income puts me at a disadvantage for moaning about cost. ¡Que Rico! is neither a corner taqueria nor is it Charlie Trotter’s. You have to experience the restaurant for what it is worth. I walked, or rather waddled, away a stuffed man and still had enough cash to get cheese on my Burger King whopper afterwards. Wait! I don’t each burgers. Scratch that last thought.

Que rico. Que bueno. ¡Bomba!

Hello, Nice to Meet You

East Gate Cafe

This past weekend was a rather busy one in a productive kind of way. I had agreed to bake cookies for my catering partner’s high school class reunion. Forgetting exactly how much effort is involved in baking a bulk, I spent all Friday night almost until sunrise Saturday and all day and night Saturday baking — ten dozen peanut butter cookies, ten dozen butter cookies, ten dozen macadamia white chocolate cookies, ten dozen oatmeal cranberry cookies, and ten dozen bittersweet chocolate chip coconut cookies. Sigh. Needless to say, I was like one of those medical interns who had finished medical school and had to pull a 36-hour shift. Add to that me entertaining guests who were visiting from out-of-state. I was reminded this past weekend that the body has an aggressive way of shutting down after sleep deprivation. But there was a necessary reward before my physiology started turning off the motor.

Iced Coffee

After dropping off the cookies at the reunion picnic, I had a little time to myself before going to collect my friends from their individual outing sans me. Not too far from where the drop-off point was for the reunion is a small stretch of shops and boutique restaurants in the Oak Park, Illinois, neighbourhood. Along Harrison Street, there is a quaint block of some of the most inviting establishments. Earlier this year, a past co-worker and I had gone into this East European coffee-house after we’d had dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant. Eastgate Cafe, owned by a couple, at 102 Harrison Street is a magnet with appeal. The atmosphere was one akin to going into someone’s home and mostly because it was an apartment that had been converted into a coffee-house. Not only is the ambience welcoming, but also the disposition of the owners who interact with you as though they have known you for a great number of years. If I had to give an essence statement, I would say that the whole experience is like going to one of your favourite family member’s home.

Upon entry, the husband, who is Irish, said very casually, “I sense that you want an iced coffee.” With the heat and humidity playing in concert, an iced coffee was a great option. I responded that, yes, I would like an ice coffee and a sandwich along the seafood line. And so there was tuna salad on Italian bread with crisp lettuce, red delicious tomato, and a slightly spicy mayonnaise. Served with a potato salad that I will say is the best that I have had since I had last eaten any prepared by Ma Williams, I was a pleased man. Now, people will always say that no one prepares [fill in the blank] as good as their mothers, and I am one to convince myself of that same statement. However, the potato salad was mustard potato salad rather than mayonnaise potato salad. There is a bit of an accent added when mustard is used. And when there are not so many raw vegetable added in excess because the recipe lists them, there is no crunch factor to entertain while eating the dish. This was the case at Eastgate Cafe. Having taken a seat outside so that I could photograph the delights in natural light, the husband had stepped outside for a moment and inquired as to whether I was enjoying the tuna salad and potato salad, and if I wanted to have my photo taken. Oh, but I am too modest to be on the other end of the camera being caught with my mouth stuffed and eyes rolling around in my head.

Tuna Salad

The waitress who had brought my order to the table, had mentioned that there was live music on Friday nights and she also spoke of several dishes that Eastgate Cafe has on the menu. So not only is the cafe just one for coffee, desserts, and small dishes, but they also have substantial dishes. The wife, the other owner, is Serbian and introduces a bit of the old country into the experience. Aside from one other past co-worker and her twin sister, I have not had any exposure to Serbians in the metropolitan Chicago area. So finding Eastgate Cafe with some Serbian influence in it was perfect. And one dish that was not specifically Serbian, but a creation of the wife, was introduced to me and since I had a bit of room, I welcomed the recommendation. I had a Quiche that was made with feta cheese, roasted red peppers, and was light on spinach. Served with it were two small potato pancakes and a cup of fruit, consisting of watermelon, cantaloupe, honey-dew melon, pineapples, and grapes. When establishments say they are serving fresh fruit, they need to take a cue from Eastgate Cafe where the fruit is not only fresh, but it is also ripe enough that it does not crunch like celery. The potato pancakes, although not accommodated with a dollop of sour cream, were absolutely worthy. Where Eastgate Cafe really shines is with the Quiche. The feta cheese made the Quiche light and fluffy, not the usual dense Quiche you get when made with other cheeses. From looking at it, you could easily mistake it for a slice of homemade cheesecake. The Serbian owner had said that the Quiche was her creation, not a dish customary to Serbia. I loved her remark that people create with writing, painting, fine arts, and photography, as she pointed at my camera. She loves to create and express herself through food. That was the most enriching and enlightening commentary I have heard about food and it spoke highly of a passion she has. Outside of America, food is a reflection of culture, beliefs, customs, and community. The wife had captured that perfectly. It also explains why the cafe has such a draw.

Quiche, Fruit, Happiness

Before I left, the owners extended an invitation for a return to listen to some live music on Friday nights. There was no smug thank you for coming. There was no rushed antics to check on other customers. On request, I showed the photos that I had taken and we talked about the feel of Oak Park. When I had mentioned my past co-worker, the Serbian owner told me to bring her so that she could meet someone from “back home.” There is usually a sentiment, as an African-American or Black for those of us who fall in the Caribbean or African bailiwick that we are watched or discounted when we go to certain establishments. That is true and a hurtful thing that occurs more often than not. But there are countless moments like my visit to Eastgate Cafe where great food and outstanding service overshadows any possible wickedness for lack of embracing diversity. In Ma Williams’ home, I know that I am welcomed. And when the owners felt at ease enough to talk to me as an individual who they appreciated for walking into their place of business and then extended a genuine invitation for return visits, there is another place I will gladly go since I know I will be welcomed. Hello, Eastgate Cafe, it has been a pleasure making your acquaintance.

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Lessons Learned: Reality and Food

There are a few things that I have come to recognize:

  • Chicago temperatures waffle in extremes — blusteringly cold or blisteringly hot.
  • Men serve women food in large portions.
  • Women serve men food in large portions.
  • Never stand in line behind a group of women who are ordering ice cream.
  • My appetite is out of control — rhetorical.

I had ventured out several weeks ago when the temperatures were not so blooming tropical, and I entertained what I termed Snacking on Saturday. The temperatures were a bit murderous today with the mercury rising into the 90’s and the humidity coating the city like a blanket. There was no need to stay in the condo and brood over the heat — we have had a whole month of uncomfortable temperatures — so I dressed lightly and decided to be about business of finding some food satisfaction.

I met with a friend early in the morning for breakfast at an Austrian cafe — Julius Meinl — that is east of where I live. The decision was an impromptu one so I had rushed out of the condo and left my camera. This marks the second time I have done something foolish like that when I know I will end up chastising myself. I had a great time slicing through crispy waffles and forking up tasty scrambled eggs. My lips curled up. My eyelids grew heavy — and it was 9:30 AM when we were busy indulging ourselves in breakfast.

Croissant, Petit Rum and Vanilla Bundt Cake

A little later in the morning I wanted something else yet light. By now, I had one of my many cameras. And in my neighbourhood is La Boulangerie at 2569 North Milwaukee Avenue. What a lovely little French bakery this is and satisfying as well, if I may add. The selection is rather small and I was quite okay with that after I had bitten into my croissant. It was apparent the thing had been baked early in the morning. Given it was not hot, as if right from the oven, it was so soft and airy on the inside, flaky and smile-inducing on the outside. I had also ordered a small rum and vanilla bundt cake. Oh happy day! La Boulangerie does not sell coffee, so I had gone next door to New Wave Cafe where all of the local and imported hippies congregate to discuss things that matter to them — and no one else can understand. The cappuccino there really had an effect on me that left me with a lasting impression that will, of course, mean I will return for cappuccino from there several more times.

After relaxing at home for a few hours, I had begun to get cabin fever. It was time to seek something else into which to sink my teeth. I remembered a certain Middle Eastern eatery I had stumbled upon in Chicago’s Near West Loop neighbourhood. I Dream of Falafel at 555 W. Monroe Avenue was it. For me, it was a reality, as I headed for the subway and went into downtown to put my feet under a table at the cafe. And here is where I came to the realization that women give men way more food than men give each other. I had a hankering from some sweet potato falafel and perhaps something else on the menu. I ordered a chicken schwerma — so not vegetarian of me — with peppers, lettuce, onions, and tahini sauce. The thing was so tasty that I was sprung like you will not believe. And because the sweet potato falafels are prepared on-demand, I had to wait. For my wait, the cashier — a very appealing young woman — gave me extra. Recognizing that this has been commonplace, in the future I shall let others go ahead of me whenever men are taking orders.

Chicken Schwerma

Roaming around downtown for a few hours, the humidity had begun to wear me down to almost spiritual defeat. I could have had soda, which would be full of aspartame or high fructose corn syrup, so I took a pass on that. Water would have worked, but I wanted flavour. Aha! I headed for the subway and went out to Oak Park to Taste of Brasil, my favourite Brazilian cafe, for some lemonade. But, Gino, to go all the way to Oak Park for some lemonade is ridiculous. You have to have some of it to understand. Absolutely refreshing and prepared with real lemons — none of that artificial mess laced with aspartame or high fructose corn syrup — and condensed milk. The lemonade was enough to make the heat unnoticeable. Well, not quite, but good enough to cool me off a little.

Towards the end of the day, I figured that I would wrap up my snacking expedition by having a small dinner, something akin to snack food. I was in Oak Park anyway, so I went to the downtown mall area to the best Venezuelan cafe outside of Venezuela and met up with some friends. Aripo’s Arepa House at 118 N. Marion Street was my destination. I ordered what is called a domino — an empanada stuffed with black beans and shredded white cheese, and served with a spicy dipping sauce that makes all of your worries disappear. It had never dawned on me to inquire what a domino really was. However, I was glad that I took a chance on the order because I will make a few more trips back just to buy some of those tasty wonder treats for snack food at home.

After joshing around with my friends for a while, we retired to a French pastry shop across the street from Apripo’s. Sugar Fixe at 119 N. Marion Street captures the essence of coffee and dessert as the French does. There were two desserts that stood out most: a chocolate mousse and a mango mousse with pineapple and coconut. I had recently baked a devil food cake with a Mexican hot chocolate ganache for the icing, so I opted for the citrus mousse. Satisfaction in a thousand languages or in the stupid smile that I usually wear after eating too much food is all that I say to describe the mousse. The cappuccino I had tasted like the cappuccino I have had abroad, all prepared with meticulous care. Again, Sugar Fixe is one of those pastry shops that prepares its desserts in small batches so that they do not get old or simply become display items because no one wants anything that has been sitting out for days and weeks on end.

Austrian Mango Mousse with Pineapple and Coconut

I did not make the promise to myself that I would not overeat. When it comes to food, the promise of behaving when it comes to the quantity that I indulge is not mandatory. I simply comply with my want. One thing I must say is that I will be glad when the temperatures return to a point where walking one to two blocks do not result in feeling like you have stood under a waterfall. There are some other locations in the city that I shall journal and I will simply have to be ready with camera in hand and appetite on hand.