Chara, Opa!

Two years ago a friend had told me about a Greek restaurant in Oak Park, Illinois, named Papaspiro’s. I went. I ate. I made a calendar notice to return. And the restaurant was closed. I have to take responsibility for procrastinating and not returning immediately after my first meal. Needless to say, Papispiro’s moved across the street, as a new restaurant named Chara moved in to take its place. I am making a calendar entry to return to the new location in a few days and I won’t put off for later this time.

Sesame Seed Bread

Sesame Seed Bread

The new restaurant, Chara, is a welcomed surprise on the Oak Park landscape. At 733 Lake Street, the restaurant boasts a large dining area, patio seating out front, and a menu full of authentic Greek delights. I arrived at Chara early to get a window seat so that I had enough natural light to photograph my dishes. With everyone taking advantage of the outdoor seating, I had an uninterrupted corner spot — until a couple came in and sat at the table immediately next to me. My sister, who joined me around the time I was indulging dessert, can attest to that.

Pita

Pita

Melitzanosalata

Melitzanosalata

In addition to the homemade, complimentary sesame seed bread, I started with a melitzanosalata. This spread of smoked eggplant, potatoes, garlic, and olive oil served with a black olive, slice of tomato, and slice of cucumber was a fantastic appetizer. Along with the melitzanosalata came pita slices that I used to scoop and devour the dip. The melitzanosalata is the kind of spread that I would serve at parties instead of the usual dips many purchase for gatherings.

Shrimp Saganaki with Feta

Shrimp Saganaki with Feta

For my second course, I ordered shrimp saganaki with feta. Plump shrimp served with roasted bell peppers and onions, and topped with feta, I was all done with it before I realized that it was not the same as regular saganaki — the cheese that is brought to the table and set aflame. Although the shrimp saganaki with feta was more like a salad, the portion was enough to be an entrée.

Bakalo

Bakalo

White Wine

White Wine

Because I was hankering for some seafood, I was quite happy to find bakalo on the menu. The pan-fried cod was mild in flavouring and the seasoning was faint. However, there was still enough pop in each forkful to make the dish appetizing. And not having a fishy taste to the cod made it that more enjoyable. Adding to that the side of skordalia and the rice pilaf covered in a tomato based gravy made this my favourite Greek entrée. The mashed potatoes of the skordalia was actually a nice spread for the fish. But the rice pilaf with potatoes, carrots, and zucchini balanced out the mildness in the cod.

With the seafood dish, I wanted a glass of wine. I had told my server that I wanted a white wine, which is fitting with seafood and poultry, and he mentioned that he would bring a nice wine for me. I had not given any specifics (e.g., a dry white wine or a sweeter white wine) and I was thoroughly satisfied after my first sip. There was a combination of fruity highlights and floral notes. As I am sure that there could have been any selection of wines to accompany the cod, the glass of nectar that I had simply could not be surpassed with any other choice.

Galaktoboureko

Galaktoboureko

By the time I had finished my entrée, my sister had sent a text message to me to say that she was nearby. So, I waited and let my food settle some. Once she arrived and ordered, I opted for a dessert. There was baklava on the menu and having had that to excess as of late, I inquired about a certain Greek dessert that I think would be a sin to miss having at a Greek restaurant. I was curious as to whether there was galaktoboureko on the menu. To me, galaktoboureko is truly a slice of heaven, not just custard with a phyllo crust drizzled with a honey glaze. I enjoyed it very, very slowly along with a pot of peppermint tea.

With change, there is not always the guarantee of improvement. I only had one dining experience at Chara’s predecessor, Papaspiro’s, so I never got the opportunity to develop an attachment to the restaurant. I will admit that after only this one meal at Chara, I have developed an attachment to their fare. Part of it was the friendly service, which actually sets the tone for how great one will enjoy a meal. It also helped that the food was superbly appetizing. It was a package that I could not deny spiked my appetite. And if I were of lesser scruples, I would have stood at the end of my experience, grabbed a plate, smashed it against the floor and yelled, Opa!!!!!

Chara on Urbanspoon

I Come From Another World

HarvestBerwyn, Illinois, is surprisingly becoming a suburb for those who have no compunction about indulging tasty food. A former colleague who lives in Berwyn has introduced me to a few restaurants that have shown themselves worthy of repeat visits. There supposedly was a feature on television for a restaurant that is out of this world. Autre Monde, translated as “another world,” and at 6727 Roosevelt Road, was touted as a must-go-to eatery for those whose palates enjoy cuisine with a Mediterranean flair. My former colleague had gone to the restaurant and had spoken to how you cannot describe the taste — you simply had to experience it. Well, that was all I needed to hear to know that I wanted to be transported to a another world where people relished at aromas that tickled the noses and flavours that danced about the tongue like lords a leaping.

Autre Monde has a look and feel that is rather common among a lot of lounges in the immediate West Loop and Near North Side sections of Chicago. The lighting is dim, giving a muted orange glow. Everyone is glamorous, almost to the point where you wonder if it hurts to be so beautiful. The atmosphere is intimate. It is always recommended that you make reservations well in advance for the assurance of a seat and you arrive for the time that you have made the reservations, lest you relinquish your seat. The restaurant fills quickly. Of course, the service is outstanding and they will accommodate you if you visit without a reservation. But once you are there, be prepared for one of the best dining experiences of your life and a recognition that Chicago suburbs are, per the current urban lingo, on and popping.

Hummus and Fava Beans SpreadHaving the Christmas season upon us, my former colleague and I were in a festive mood. This was going to be a gathering before I departed to spend Christmas with my family and she to spend it with hers. With the restaurant filled, bearing others who came with co-workers and other friends dancing and doing things a notch short of embarrassing, we figured we would really get started with something from the drink menu. There is a drink called Harvest that is nothing short of autumn in a glass. I never would have imagined that whiskey and cider would be a great combination. Add a dash of cinnamon and you have a winning drink. Because we had saved our appetites for Autre Monde, we were careful not to imbibe the Harvest as though we had been crawling across the desert and were ridiculously thirsty. We tempered ourselves and placed our orders to cater to our degustation wants.

The first course we opted to sample was a plate of hummus and fava beans. There is no reason to ever go to a Mediterranean restaurant and not order any hummus. It is a staple in the Mediterranean diet and with some pita bread, you can fall in love with those creamed chickpeas, olive oil, and spices. Now, add fava beans to the mix and this was nothing short of Silence of the Gino, Mediterranean style. I have had fava beans with fish, chicken, pork, and in a complete vegetarian meal. I have even had them with a Chianti. Having it prepared as a spread was a new experience and one that I enjoyed more than I can put into words. It may be that it was something completely different to my palate. It may be that it was really that delicious. We’re not talking a dish that was heavy-handed with spices enough to be the glaring complete antithesis of a boring plate. It was a perfect start.

Mussels au Sete
Then we moved on to Mussels au Sete. I wanted muscles. I got some now. My arms are noticeably larger than they were several months ago. But I wanted mussels that tasted award winning in a savoury gravy. Lucky for me, I was already at Autre Monde and was happily obliged. It had to be the light gravy that made the mussels have an unforgettable taste. Heavy enough on the garlic but not enough to send a vampire running back to his coffin, my former colleague and I dipped the complementary toast in the sauce and devoured the delicate mussels with a tempered hunger. After all, we had more in mind to sample.

Moroccan Chicken WingsThe third menu item was one we saw going to other tables. The patrons were baring their teeth, frowning, and gnashing away with an animal intensity that made Sally in “When Harry Met Sally” come across rather tame in her mockery during the famous restaurant scene. Moroccan chicken wings landed on our plates and we topped them with cucumber yoghurt and a light pepper syrup. The combination of cool and hot was not something that my dining companion and I were going for but mixing the cucumber yoghurt and the pepper syrup really made the chicken wings scream. Even without adding the yoghurt and syrup, the wings had a flavour that held its own. The crust on the wings was delicate, nothing like the harsh crunch that you get on most fried chicken and definitely not a case of the Kentucky Fried Chicken sort, where the batter is almost feathery. We were contemplating ordering more of the wings, but that would have taken away from the degustation sampling we had planned. We were happy to have bared our teeth, frowned, and gnashed away on the wings that we had the way everyone else had.

Fontina and Wild Mushroom FlatbreadWe then graduated to fontina and wild mushroom flatbread. The whole concept of flatbread is all the rage in Chicago and has been for years. There are restaurants that make sandwiches with flatbread. Some pizzerias use flatbread as crust. There are even a few speciality cafés that serve it with dips and spreads. But when it is done right, it is an absolute showcase of talent. Looking at the fontina and wild mushroom flatbread, one would think it was pedestrian fare. It is anything but plain. The recipe apparently was well-balanced enough that the herbs and spices were present without overpowering the fontina cheese and the mushrooms. And let me not miss expressing the fact that you could taste the mushrooms, not simply chew them and know that they were on the flatbread.

Because the fontina and mushroom flatbread was so amazing, we wanted one more flatbread. An option was the spicy duck sausage flatbread. We immediately flagged this flatbread as a mandatory reason for a future repeat visit. Sun-dried tomatoes and seasoned duck sausage on flavourful cheese. It also found its way between our fingers, rising up from the plate, up towards our mouths where it entered and our teeth went to work. Smiles. Smiles as though we were on Fantasy Island. But it was no fantasy. If I had to choose between Chicago style pizza, Brooklyn style pizza, and the spicy duck sausage flatbread, Autre Monde would be happy to know that their little belly happy menu item would win.

Spicy Duck Sausage FlatbreadFor the finishing touch, we had pot de crème. Many people seek a pot of gold. If I want happiness, I only need the chocolatety hazelnut flavour of pot de crème to paint my face with a smile. So delicious it was that we intentionally took almost half an hour to eat all of it. There was no reason for us to rush through such a perfect dessert. The hazelnut influence in the chocolate custard had the right ratio to let you know that there was the presence of hazelnut but not such that it competed with the chocolate. After all, there were shavings of hazelnut on top with the homemade whipped cream. There could not have been a more fitting sweet.

Pot de CremeAutre Monde is, to put it succinctly, out of this world. For Berwyn to be such a homey suburb, you would never think that a restaurant with high-end atmosphere and top billing cuisine would be there. A few years ago, Berwyn was primarily a walk-up café haven where you were guaranteed some authenticity in the food you ate. The addition of Autre Monde and a few other restaurants will eventually have Berwyn filled with foodies seeking their Holy Grails of dining experiences. The price is commensurate with the quality of the output. The first time I went to Autre Monde, I did not have my camera and wished that I did. There was no way I was leaving home the second time around sans my toy to capture the culinary impressions. Actually, I wished that I had a camcorder to record my thousand faces of happiness as I ate. While I was able to capture the menu items that my former colleague and I had, and a picture is worth a thousand words, you will find that there are a thousand ways to express bliss for something delicious from another world.

Autre Monde Cafe on Urbanspoon