The Best Coffee, the Ethiopian Way

Royal CoffeeI joke about the fact that I would not make a good celebrity. I have no want for doing drugs. Drinking is not something I indulge to embarrassing excess. In the current day and age, sleeping around is a dangerous game of roulette. And I am not one for opening up my mouth and speaking in a stream of consciousness. Ah, but I love to eat. Paparazzi would grow tired of waiting in front of restaurants to snap photos of me partaking of some delectable dish. Tabloids would say that Gino eats constantly but somehow manages to maintain his athletic physique. His life is boring. Doesn’t the man do anything worthy of tabloid fodder?

The answer is NO!!!

Iced Coffee

Iced Coffee

A month ago I had gone to an Ethiopian coffee-house in Chicago’s Rogers Park. Because I was only passing through then, I wanted to return for a proper sit-down. I remembered how outstanding the service was. I also recalled how mouth-watering the food was that I had ordered for take-away. The temperatures in Chicago had been chilly, so I had spent most of my days inside. But with a mild reprieve from the nippy temperatures, I wanted to pander to my vegetarian palate. There is no way that you can go wrong with Ethiopian food.

It was back to Royal Coffee at 6764 N. Sheridan Road for my moment of food reckoning. The manager recognized me when I returned. She was sitting with a friend, engaged in conversation before looking up and greeting me. There are countless restaurants where I have gone on ongoing basis only to be greeted as though it was my first visit or as if I had painted graffiti on the front door. But at Royal Coffee I got a “hello” that made my trip worth more than its weight in gold and I had not even placed my order.

Vegetarian Plate

Vegetarian Plate

With the weather being nice, I ordered an iced coffee with milk and a vegetarian plate. Ethiopian coffee is strong and having milk added only takes the bite out of it a little. Strong and good are the only two descriptions that I can use to describe the coffee as I am sure the spirit of Juan Valdez is not appreciative of my shameless plug for how much I enjoy Ethiopian coffee. After a few minutes of reminiscing about my old neighbourhood, the food came and I snapped back into reality. The spiced spinach, yellow lentils, red lentils, and the potatoes and peas served up with injera bread were outstanding. Each dish came in individual bowls and after I had unrolled the injera bread and spooned each on to the bread, I was ready for action. With each bite I had all I kept thinking was Wow! I have been to almost every Ethiopian restaurant in Chicago and find it hard to say which one I love the most. Now Royal Coffee makes it that much harder. Because I love spicy food, I ordered the vegetarian plate with kick and it was quite evident when I could feel heat rising from my scalp. Yes! Yes! Yes!

Napoleon

Napoleon

I had my usual out-of-control appetite because I finished the entire vegetarian plate. It was practically for two people, yet I polished it off solo. Now that would have been a tabloid feature — celebrity Gino ate a sizeable plate of an Ethiopian dish and then ordered something else. The something else was dessert. Most Ethiopian desserts are full of nuts and while I don’t have a nut allergy, I have no love for the taste of nuts. I do smile when I see chocolate, though. So I had a Napoleon. The flaky crust, cream filling, and chocolate topping were well worth filling the room I saved in my belly. Oh how I enjoyed forking that rectangle of goodness into my mouth.

Cafe au Lait and Butter Cookies

Cafe au Lait and Butter Cookies

My former roommate had mentioned that she was in the area, so I sat and waited for her. While waiting, I had a large cup of cafe au lait with some homemade butter cookies. I have gotten to the point where I take my coffee without sugar. I was almost certain that I would need some sugar because Ethiopian coffee is so strong. Still, I required no sugar. I am convinced that Ethiopian coffee is made from a superior bean or the roasting method at Royal Coffee is remarkable. As to the cookies, bakeries that bake butter cookies that turn out to be compact sugar should have a few of the lovelies from Royal Coffee and correct their recipes accordingly. The cafe au lait and cookies were a perfect match.

Royal Coffee is one of those modest cafes that has no flash and flare, but everything about it makes it a magnet that draws you back for repeat visits. The coffee was superb, the food was spectacular, and the service was outstanding. I love Logan Square — where I live — and the feel of community at all of the eateries and specialty cafes, but I will certainly give in to the pull of Royal Coffee that keeps me catching the train back to my old neighbourhood. And when my friends who live in Washington, DC, come to Chicago and want a restaurant to compare to the fantastic Ethiopian restaurants that DC has, I can now add Royal Coffee to the list. Add it to your list. The only regret you may have is not having added it to your list well in advance of now.

Royal Coffee on Urbanspoon

Exhaling Curry, Mughal India

Mughal India Restaurant

Shortly after I joined a company in the West Loop, my colleagues wanted to go to a nearby Indian restaurant. Let me just say that I love Indian food. So, I put my antisocial disposition aside — actually, I’m only antisocial until I’m not longer working with someone — and I joined the troop for lunch. Buffet and mild for the American palates that flooded the restaurant. Slow clap, twice. Well, one thing I have noticed about many of the Indian restaurants very close to the Chicago Loop is that the buffets are indeed for quick bites and incredibly mild. No Indian restaurant should serve its food mild. It MUST come to the table spicy. And I learned later that going back to any of those restaurants for dinner is when you get to see that they can shine with food so full of flavour that you continue to return.

Papadum

Papadum

Well, I returned to Mughal India Restaurant at 560 W. Van Buren Street for some non-work day delight. I had gone back recently for take-away. When I got home and started gobbling my purchases, I knew I had to return for a proper blog. I also made a note to myself that I was not going to indulge any more Indian buffets in the downtown area. It is necessary to go away from The Loop to get authenticity in my Indian buffets. Now, I’m not a stickler for decor since I’m more concerned about flavour than I am about whether the cushions are plush as opposed to crushed velvet. A few whiffs of the air and I was ready to work my fork on some curry dish.

Jeera Aloo

Jeera Aloo

Because Indian food can be heavy, I skipped having an appetizer and decided that I would have two entrée selections. I ordered jeera aloo and fish tikka masala with basmati rice and poori. Ordering the entrées spicy made the dishes that more appetizing. The jeera aloo was bursting with whole cumin seeds and other various spices — no bland potatoes for me.  This was what I considered my “dry” dish since it was not in a gravy. The spices compensated for the absence of sauce. The fish tikka masala was incredible. Boneless fish marinated in yogurt and spices, and then served in a spicy masala gravy. If I was not a seafood lover already, I would have been after indulging this entrée. The rice was good for taming the flame of the spices and the poori, which is my favourite Indian bread along with bhatura, was my eating utensil. Yes, I eat Indian food using bread for my utensils, which may explain why my hands have an everlasting curry smell to them.

Fish Tikka Masala

Fish Tikka Masala

After I had finished the meal, the server did not rush me. So, I took a little time to let the food digest before requesting a masala chai. The beauty of having a masala chai at an Indian restaurant is that you are guaranteed not to have them serve you that concoction from a carton that is all the rage at coffee houses. What murder. What horror. What crime. Oh, and if the masala chai is really good, you won’t require any sweeteners. Such was the case with the masala chai at Mughal India. For all those international coffee commercials that used to come on with the women taking a sip and whimsically imagining all being good and well in the land, imagine someone smacking their cups from their hands and offering them some masala chai. Those women would skyrocket straight to the stars.

Poori

Poori

Now, I can’t say that I will ever return to Mughal India Restaurant for their lunch buffet. They raised the bar with their dinner and Saturday lunches. Oh, let me not forget this. My in-house dining bonanza was on a Saturday afternoon and they served from the menu only. Let’s just say that they curried favour with me in a way that has moved them high up on my list of recommended Indian restaurants. Considering I get to see the Indians in the open kitchen preparing love for the plates, it is authentic in a major way. Mughal India Restaurant will be one of the main reasons why my pores, according to my highschool sweetheart, seems to exhale curry. And I smile.

Masala Chai

Masala Chai

Mughal India on Urbanspoon

Seafood Bonanza, Shaw’s Crab House

Cranberry Juice

Cranberry Juice

For those of you reading this, I hope that you are at home or at some location where the temperatures are not as hateful as the temperatures in Chicago. As much as 2014 promised to be a good year, the Arctic temperatures have been prohibitive for going outside. By now, I would have gone to at least four restaurants and blogged them, but by the time I pack up to leave work during the week, my focus is on going home to get into my sweats and fuzzy bear claws. Yes, I have a pair of those. And the weekends seem to be candidates for sub-zero temperatures and mini blizzards. However, I simply cannot sit inside all the time. During one of my “escape from the cabin” moments, I went to a nearby coffeehouse to edit some photos. After a few hours of productivity, I received a text from a great friend who asked if I was interested in partaking of Chicago’s Restaurant Week at one of my favourite seafood restaurants. Well, with food being a factor, my text response was YES — I typed it in all caps. Knowing that there would be a crowd the closer it got to 7:00 PM, we made reservations for 5:15 at Shaw’s Crab House at 21 E. Hubbard Street in the River North section of downtown.

Bread and Wafers

Bread and Wafers

While perusing the menu for any ala carte options, we gnashed away on cheddar rolls and wafers. Um, um, good. Sure, this comes complimentary with the meal, but is still worth mentioning because the bread must be baked on the premises. You cannot find cheddar rolls like these in the market in the bakery section, on the aisles with aging loaves of bread, or in the frozen food section. Our server gave use a grand explanation of the restaurant week menu. Let’s just say that Shaw’s Crab House knows how to lure its customers back for repeat visits. There was clam chowder for the soup. For the entrées, the choices were king crab legs and Maine lobster. Dessert options were key lime pie, which you can never go wrong with, and a raspberry walnut cobbler. Far be it from us to be dining prudes, we ordered a dungeness crab claw for an appetizer. We also added potatoes au gratin and creamed spinach to our entrée orders.

Crab Claw

Crab Claw

Clam Chowder

Clam Chowder

The crab claw came to the table pre-cracked. It would have been a chore, quite possibly with things flying about the table. The claw was full of meat, bursting with flavour. Now, granted it wasn’t a substantial appetizer, it was certainly worth the order. For when the clam chowder arrived at the table, it was evident that the remainder of the evening would be based on complete culinary satisfaction. Thank God for restaurants that don’t feel the need to accentuate clam chowder with pork. There must have been complaints from some pork eaters about a few seafood restaurants that left the oink factor out of their clam chowder recipe because, sure enough, it shows up in the bowl at some eateries. Shaw’s Crab House has not fallen victim to that recipe blackmail.

Crab Legs

Crab Legs

Potatoes Au Gratin

Potatoes Au Gratin

Maine Lobster

Maine Lobster

Creamed Spinach

Creamed Spinach

The entrées were divine. The crab legs were full of meat. With melted butter for dipping, that was all we needed to forget that the temperatures in Chicago were in the single digits. It was all about concentrating on cracking the legs, digging out the succulent meat, and devouring it like seafood lovers. The Maine lobster came to the table steamed. Each bite exploded. No tough texture, no unsavoury aftertaste, only bliss. And not being one to let lobster go to waste, when I got to the head, there was a voice in my head that screamed, FINISH HIM!!! I complied. The mushy texture from the head is not something that appeals to a lot of people. It’s a bit reminiscent of marrow, for those of you who have chewed chicken bones to splinters and partaken of the tasty insides of the bones. It may be better used to season some soups or other recipes. For me, if I paid for it, it’s good as gone — unless I become so bitter that I feel the need to throw the plate against the wall. The potatoes au gratin were delicious beyond words. They did not come from a Betty Crocker box. And the creamed spinach reminded me of the spinach artichoke dip that a restaurant named Houston’s used to prepare — before that restaurant closed permanently for business.

Coffee

Coffee

As part of the Restaurant Week menu option for desserts, there were key lime pie and raspberry walnut cobbler. My main New Year’s Absolution was to remove desserts from my diet except for my birthday. So far I have been faithful, with the exception of having a panna cotta at one restaurant. My nutritionist and doctor said that I could indulge sorbet, fruit, and light cream desserts. To keep from possibly getting out of hand, I passed on the dessert and let my great friend take mine home with her. So, she had the pie and the cobbler. I settled on coffee laced with Bailey’s Irish creme. My friend had a regular coffee with cream. Talk about a great wrap-up to a fantastic meal.

Coffee with Bailey's Irish Creme

Coffee with Bailey’s Irish Creme

For years I had gone to Shaw’s during lunch when I worked about two blocks way from the restaurant. Even when I changed jobs, I was always confident that my palate would find satisfaction in all that the menu had to offer. Because Shaw’s is not ethnic, per se, I never blogged it. This time I felt that it was worthy of inclusion on Chicago Alphabet Soup. Now that I am being more serious about sticking to a strict seafood and vegetarian diet, there may be more seafood restaurants showing up on the blog. The service at Shaw’s Crab House was way past outstanding. Any time a server takes time to explain things in a great detail and offer recommendations without a scowl or a need to rush away from the table, the experience is usually a hit thereafter. Not once have I had a meal that I was not pleased with and the most recent dining experience was such a highlight that I was talking to my food and singing. And looking back on all of this, going out in the cold wasn’t such a bad idea. I got my usual food bonanza in the process.

Shaw's Crab House on Urbanspoon Shaw's Crab House 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.

Pecking Order, Filipino Goodness

Pecking Order

One of my biggest peeves about Chicago is the cellular phone reception that I receive — or rather not receive. Add to that the whole clown fiasco involving battery life on cell phones these days. A friend was trying to reach me several weeks to ago to let me know that he and another former co-worker were meeting at a Filipino restaurant to grin over a few plates of food. Thanks to a cell phone from a wireless provider whose coverage in Chicago is worse than what I have ever had in rural Mississippi, the calls to me kept dropping. By the time we resorted to texting, the battery had died a quick death shortly thereafter. When I got home, charged the battery fully, and saw that some photos had come through of some appetizing food, I was ready to call AT&t and give a customer service representative my permission to end my relationship with them.

But that was okay. I made sure to keep my cell phone on a charger constantly because missing out on food is a bit of a problem that I refuse to entertain on an ongoing basis. The next time my friends were planning to go to the Filipino restaurant, I was going to be ready for action along with them. Pecking Order at 4416 N. Clark Street in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighbourhood was the spot my friends had been taunting me about. I had been searching for some Filipino restaurants in the Chicago metropolitan area, only to find one or two, and was pleasantly surprised to note that Pecking Order is not far from home. So, having arrived — after creeping in rush hour traffic — we sat, scanned the menus, and my friends commenced to order since they were already regulars there.

Corn

Corn

Sweet Plantains with Jackfruit Chutney

Sweet Plantains with Jackfruit Chutney

There was special corn, not literally, though. This was sweet corn from the cob that had been accented with spicy mayonnaise and cheese. For some bizarre reason, mayonnaise seems to be popping up a lot in menu items I have been ordering. Not that it’s a bad thing, but mayonnaise is slowly working itself off of my Top 3 things I fear — small planes and small boats occupying the top two positions.

Being of West Indian stock, I am never one to turn down a plate of plantains. And if they are as deliciously prepared as the ones at Pecking Order are, then you will understand me without incident. They weren’t dry. They weren’t fried to a horrible crisp. They burst with each bite and the jackfruit chutney that came with them were a beautiful accompaniment. I am going out on a limb with this observation, but no one can deny that these plantains are the best that you will find in Chicago — no one.

Then came the potatoes and Lola’s Gravy with cheese. Whoever Lola is, someone needs to do an excerpt on her and really advertise her loving from the kitchen. One may think that it was just a bowl of potatoes. No, it was a bowl of potatoes that popped with flavour. Thankful that the cheese was not Velveeta lava, but rather shredded cheese, you indeed get to taste the ingredients rather than simply acknowledging that you had some potatoes that looked doctored up.

Potatoes & Lola's Gravy with Cheese

Potatoes & Lola’s Gravy with Cheese

Greens in Coconut Milk

Greens in Coconut Milk

If you have friends like some of mine, then you often hear them making statements like, “No one prepares greens like I do.” Right, and the greatest riddle of all times is the one about the twelve rabbits and the cheesecake. My friend who had organized the evening excursion to Pecking Order had kept talking about the greens.  Oh how he wore it out.  And after the first forkfuls of the greens, I understood fully why he raved about them. Apologies to those of staunch religious leanings, but when Jesus Christ returns, it will be for the greens at Pecking Order, not to save souls. We’re talking collard greens and mustard greens cooked in coconut milk with ginger, apple wood smoked bacon, and accented with crispy onions. I smile just thinking about them.

Whenever you think of fried rice, it is usually of the Chinese variety — shrimp fried rice, chicken fried rice, vegetable fried rice and beef fried rice. Thanks to sauces and ingredients, the dish comes out brown. Well, skip Chinese fried rice from now on and go get yourself some Filipino garlic fried rice. Oh what a beautiful day.  Still fluffy, but riding the event horizon to sticky rice, this dish is a must for anyone who has an appreciation for rice with their meals. I swear I could have garlic fried rice as a side to every meal and never tire of it. And if you have to ask, yes, it was just that good.

Garlic Fried Rice

Garlic Fried Rice

Chicken Wings

Chicken Wings

The chicken comes prepared three different ways: grilled, fried, or roasted. Because we opted for wings, the fried method was what we had. Now, I had heard that Filipino chicken is delicately fried such that the crust is very crispy. I was thinking it would be like Moroccan chicken. Much to my surprise, it was like Southern fried chicken without having been fried in an egg batter. That was fine. Although I devoured the pound of wings without complaint, there was a hint of some herbs and spices that I could not place. They worked well, but I could not pick up on the kick that danced about on my palate.

Pecking Order may present the look of a small cafe when looking at it from the outside. Once you get inside, it comes off like entering Dr. Who’s tardis. It is large and extends quite a bit. The service is outstanding and helpful. No way for anyone to go there and find fault in their lively dispositions and fantastic assistance. When it comes to price, be prepared to be floored. For all of the food that we had ordered, it was super being able to drop cash on the table and not worry about whether the wallets were empty after paying. Great service, outstanding food, and reasonable prices: the makings of a necessary calendar reminder to return in the near future to try a few more things from the menu.
Pecking Order on Urbanspoon

Wrap It Up, I’ll Take It

Bombay Wraps

The Chicago Blackhawks hockey team won the Stanley Cup. That meant Chicago was in the throes of a huge celebration and downtown was teeming with red jerseys, drunken presentations, and suburbanites who were acting as though they had never seen skyscrapers before.

“Wow, look at those buildings. They’re so tall. They go way up into the sky.”

Mango Lassi

Mango Lassi

And since the weather was nice outside and majority of the parade spectators were lingering around until the after-work rush hour, that meant public transportation was going to be a wild and packed ride for the few stops I take to get home. So, I lingered around downtown a little longer and wandered over to a certain Indian café that really gets me going with a smile.

Bombay Wraps at 122 N. Well Street in the Loop is a sparkling hole in the wall that server some really, really tasty street food. There are seats inside, but mostly when I’ve gone, which was during noon, the place has been filled such that you get your food to go. They close around 6:00 PM through the week, but stay open late on Fridays. Well, since people who work downtown go home or as far away from their job locations as possible, I figured I would get something quick from Bombay Wraps and call it a wrap.

Samosas and Cilantro Chutney

Samosas and Cilantro Chutney

Samosas with cilantro chutney. Potato tava wrap. Chicken tikka wrap. Mango lassi.

I sat outside and worked those samosas over with the casualness of a dignified brute. I love that the samosas are bite size rather than the size of a fist. Don’t get me wrong, as I smile with rapture any time I get a delicious samosa, be it large or small. But these, for some reason, are perfect. So flaky and bursting with potatoes and peas, it would be hard to even pretend like they do nothing for me.

Potato Tava

Potato Tava

The potato tava that came with curried mashed and chunky potatoes in a chapati wrap starts my rocket every time. I get it with spicy cilantro chutney and red onions – the latter to fend off pests, but me brushing my teeth and negates the effects of the onions. My rocket shoots straight for the stars with the chicken tikka wrap every time. The spicy sauce and red onions on the chicken tikka wrap really accents the dish with a kick that keeps me coming back to Bombay Wraps. And the pre-made mango lassi works beautifully as an all-natural drink. No high fructose corn syrup in my drink, please. I guess you could say that I am as fascinated with Bombay Wraps as the suburbanites are with wringing their necks looking up at the buildings on the downtown skyline.

Chicken Tikka

Chicken Tikka

I love going to full service Indian restaurants because it is a guarantee that the food is worthy of the visit. This whole concept of Indian street food is nothing new to me, having had it in surplus while visiting in Bangalore, Delhi, and Sri Lanka. I would make a wild statement about there needing to be more, but with the proliferation of Middle Eastern restaurants and all of them having the Chipotle assembly line technique to food preparation – and food quality a few notches below okay – I shall bite down hard and accept Bombay Wraps as “the” place to go for worthwhile street goodies.

To quote the Fabulous Thunderbirds from years ago: Wrap it up, I’ll take it.

Bombay Wraps on Urbanspoon

Ride of the Foodies, Scandinavian Style

Svea Restaurant

With the weather warming up a bit, albeit a tease, getting out of bed earlier on the weekends has become easier. That means I have been able to start indulging the most important meal of the day — breakfast. It often starts off with a slice of cake and a tall glass of milk. If not cake, then there is some kind of croissant filled with apples, cream cheese, or chocolate, and milk to wash it all down. I guess I should provide a little more context and state that I have those lovely treats for my weekday breakfast delights while packed on the subway heading into downtown for work. But Saturdays come and I get to enjoy breakfast the right way — at some restaurant with my feet planted under a table, a plate of happiness in front of me, and a book in the hand that is not wielding a fork or spoon.

Coffee

Coffee

For a few weeks, I had been to Pannenkoeken Cafe for some of the best German breakfasts I have had on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Today I wanted to expand my European repertoire. While browsing the web, I had found a Scandinavian restaurant in the Andersonville neighbourhood of Chicago. I was aware of a small Swedish concentration in the area and a little west of Andersonville, but to find something Scandinavian-specific was a bonus. Queue soundbite of “Ride of the Valkyries,” and me driving down Clark Street in my Volkswagen Jetta, windows down, sun roof back, slow motion, wind blowing through my hair. Now queue sound of needle being taken off the record a bit too hastily. It’s too cold to have windows down in the car and I have not even a bit of fuzz on my head, as I shaved it all off. However, I did drive to 5236 N. Clark Street to Svea Restaurant for some proper food action.

Eggs, Hashbrows, Sausage

Eggs, Hashbrows, Sausage

Because really good ethnic restaurants and cafes fill with patrons quickly, I was at the restaurant as soon as the doors opened at 7:00 AM. With a warm welcome from the waitress/cashier and from the cook, I got a seat at the window and checked the options. A cup of hot coffee warmed up the body a little, not that I was completely frozen, since I had parked across the street. After some discussion about the way the weather and temperatures had been waffling, I ordered a Viking breakfast. On one plate came scrambled eggs that I got with cream cheese, Swedish hashbrowns, rye toast, and sausage. At the table was a happy me. I could have had a plate of the scrambled eggs with cream cheese alone. There may have been some salt in it, but not of the dosage my tongue detects at places like International House of Pancakes, Golden Nugget, or Original Pancake House. The hashbrowns were not the crunchy, shredded horror bites that many breakfast shops serve. These seasoned potato cubes screamed, “Keep eating me.” I keep forgetting that Europeans are not big on frying everything imaginable, so I snapped back to reality when I noticed the sausages were boiled. They reminded me of large Vienna sausages — without salt and the aftertaste. Then there were thin Swedish pancakes with lingonberry jam. These were not the substantial American style pancakes that put you to sleep after devouring half of the stack. Think of crepes that had been cooked on a griddle. I worked my knife and fork on the two pancakes to completion and did not experience food comatose immediately afterwards. And truth be told, the lingonberry jam was perfect to the point where there really was no need for syrup. After I was done, I commented to the waitress that all I needed was a red beard, for I had gobbled all of that food like a true Viking warrior. She responded that I had indeed enjoyed my little feast like a Viking that was celebrating from having performed well in battle.

Swedish Pancakes

Swedish Pancakes

Truly Svea Restaurant is an outstanding cafe for some authentic Scandinavian and Swedish food. I noted that there were lunch items and dinner items. Being only able to speak to the breakfast options, I would recommend it highly, especially for those who like hearty breakfasts during Chicago’s cold months. Svea Restaurant has a cash-only policy, so go to the ATM in advance, get some cash, and drive over to 5236 N. Clark Street for a brekkie fit for a Viking. If you have a CD player or even an MP3 player, be sure to queue “Ride of the Valkyries” while on your way to the restaurant. Trust me, you will understand.

Svea on Urbanspoon

Hello, Chicago, Long Time

Eyrie Restaurant

L'amuse Bouche, BruschettaLast year around this time, I was in a fit of frenzy rushing off to Washington, DC, for a work-related project, one that quickly became a defining moment for me to leave the company in advance of a coming exodus. Fast forward to 2012, same month, and I was gallivanting from Calgary, Alberta, to Montreal, Quebec, to Lisbon, Portugal, with my high school sweetheart. What a difference a day makes? What a difference a year makes. It was December of 2011 when I gave my resignation with a sigh of relief and moved to a bigger project and then later in 2012 to an even more lucrative position, but it feels as though I have been gone for at least three years. And much like Europeans, me still retaining my British leaning, my high school sweetheart and I were gone for a stretch of three weeks unlike the American vacation dynamic where you take a Friday here and there only to have co-dependence at the office require you to stop whatever you are doing, even if you are on the other side of the world. So, 717,384 photos, eleven additional pounds and jeans that I have had to retire, and what I shall call a random case of jet lag later, I am back in Chicago pandering to my addiction to food.

Before I had left for the first leg of my rendezvous with my international travelling companion, since she and I have made a pact to travel abroad together for the rest of our lives, I had passed a restaurant at 128 N. Oak Park Avenue in Oak Park, Illinois, named Eyrie. With me working in downtown Chicago, I could never accommodate the lunch hours. And their weekend hours are every first and third Saturdays starting at 7:00 PM. What grabbed my attention most was that the restaurant is a part of the culinary arts program at Robert Morris University in Chicago. Thinking that this is a good way for the students to obtain great training and showcase their kitchen talents, I made a reservation in advance of my holiday trip to sample their autumn menu and, along with my constant appetite, was ready for action after my return to Chicago and trying to readjust to being back on Central Standard Time.

Pumpkin Soup with Pistachio OilOn entry, the young hostess was very accommodating with my request for photography. Noting the lighting on the inside, I was going to have to use a flash on my camera and so that the flash would not scare any other patrons — as it is bright enough to kill a vampire — I used a soft box to soften the bursts. They had set my table so that I was facing into the restaurant and after I had explained that I was going to do photography, the set-up was changed so that I faced away and could light up my section as much as I pleased. No cringing, no wincing, no exaggerated sighing, just customer service and that set the tone for what had morphed into one of the Top 5 dining experiences I have had this year in the Chicago metropolitan area.

Because I had opted to drive to the restaurant, I chose tea instead of wine. You bring your own beverage anyway and not being a wine sommelier or snob, I could not think of a wine to pair with the meal. And having been in warm Lisbon only to return to frosty Chicago, something warm would be good enough. The loose leaf raspberry tea was just that. Now, the Brit in me smiles when served loose leaf tea instead of tea in the bag. I think it has something to do with the feeling of putting care into your drink rather than the instant-just-add-water directive. Happiness and a dark purple tongue, I smiled while partaking of a l’amuse, a bruschetta with spiced apple and bacon. Not a fan of pork, but not an agent of making a scene, I gobbled the l’amuse and was quite pleased at how the combination of apple and bacon played well together. Nothing fancy in presentation, but the palate begged to differ with the pop in the taste. And along the same lines of limited presentation, the bowl of pumpkin soup with pistachio oil looked pedestrian. First scoop, and I had forgotten that there was no creme fraiche or a sprig of some green leaf thrown in for garnish. Thankful that there was not the usual pungent after-taste from pumpkin, there was only a festive celebration of flavour bandied about in my cheeks. Eaten with a warm dinner roll, it was clear that less visual stimulation could result in more taste sensation and me saying, “Wow,” like a scratched record.

SaladWhen I had made my reservation, I had specified that I did not want any nuts in my dishes. I think it may be the whole thing with texture that paints my face with a dour expression because I have no food allergies, just an extreme distaste for certain things. Nuts fit the loathe bin. The salad comprised arugula, apple, celery root, and blue cheese with a champagne vinaigrette. Had I been a fan of walnuts, there would have been candied walnuts included. But the salad came sans the nuts, and if I had to spend my life eating rabbit food until I can no longer pry my mouth open, I could be content on the salad from Eyrie. I have gone to some restaurants where the salads were so bland that there was a question of whether the course was added for effect or padding, quite evident when most of the salad is returned after eating a fork’s worth and pushing the rest around on the plate. I had to be prim at Eyrie, so I did not pick up the plate and complete the task of cleaning it with a tongue bath.

Tuscan Chicken

There was a moment of time, perhaps fifteen minutes, before the entrée came to the table. Remembering the meals that we had during our stint in Portugal, starting at 9:00 PM and having multiple courses that did not come to the table dumped all in one walk from the kitchen, it was nice letting the dinner roll, soup, and salad settle before having to wield a knife and fork on a main dish. Then the main course arrived. (Pause) Tuscan roasted chicken breast with cherry tomatoes, baby red bliss potatoes, and root vegetable gratin sat before me, ever so much a masterpiece in food bliss. How did they make the chicken so moist and juicy, yet cooked thoroughly at the same time? I have had juicy chicken that was as red as my eyes are after rubbing them and I have had chicken cooked so well that it was dry as tree bark. Of course, there was enough presentation to overshadow the fact that the outcome of the chicken could leave you shaking your head. Whatever balance the chef and cooks added to the Tuscan chicken at Eyrie should be packaged and presented at food conferences. Along the same lines of flat presentation, the potatoes looked seasoned only, but the flavour seemed to indicate that they had been marinated in herbs. There was too much taste to dispel the bland look they had as they waited for me to deal them their swift blow. The root vegetable, which I think was turnip, looked like it was a pastry puff. But, no, the vegetable with the light au gratin left me nodding in appreciation, my head going up and down like a bobble head. I was amazed at how I carved the chicken off the bone, the tenderness being a huge help as the meat just fell off. Swirling each piece through the pan sauce, I derived complete food satisfaction at my window seat and I am sure the passers-by could see the plastered smile and gravy on my face, before I wiped it away.

Ice Cream and CoffeeAfter a final cleansing of the palate with the tea, the hostess had come over to inquire as to whether I had a nut allergy. The dessert was to be a cinnamon roll profiterole with vanilla ice cream and sea salt caramel sauce. The cinnamon rolls are baked with pecans in them, so she wanted to be certain that I would not fall on the floor and flap about in agony. I explained that I simply had no fascination with nuts and she offered vanilla ice cream with the caramel sauce and coffee as a dessert option. I accepted and was incredibly pleased that something — yet again — so plain could have so much pizazz  The dessert was a perfect ending to an outstanding evening of fine dining and superb table service. The mark of good service is when you receive options given there are certain items that you cannot eat or simply prefer not to eat. There was no, “Oh, well, you are on your own,” “We can only offer you coffee,” or “Hmph,” as an option per the hostess. A genuine concern and an alternative, and I was pleased all the more with a sweet and coffee wrap-up. Eyrie gets it  correct.

Eyrie does not request tips, but asks that patrons make contributions towards the culinary arts department at Robert Morris University. There was something about that request that made the whole experience that more inviting. A culinary arts program is not a fixture at colleges or universities and seeing students get training with a chef who is far from a novice left me walking out of the restaurant with plans for a return and recommendations to friends in the area for an outstanding dining establishment. At a prix fixe of $40, I recall some high-end restaurants in Chicago that receive constant positive editorials because of the name while the food is as good as I would prepare in my kitchen. I am far from having noteworthy kitchen talents. However, I hope that Eyrie or some of the students find themselves in the newspaper or in a magazine editorial receiving proper press for fine dining. The return to Chicago from my holiday to get a seat at Eyrie was worthwhile. My compliments to the chef and to the future chefs.

My Dr. Seuss Moment

Emilio's Tapas

Will you eat them in the house?
Will you eat them with your spouse?
Will you eat them in the sun?
Will you eat them just for fun?
Will you even lick the plate?
Will you have your tapas very late?

Red Sangria

When my friends and I advance in our careers and in our social lives, we have a tendency to celebrate big. Dinner gatherings. Trips to beautiful and exotic places. Catching up at champagne and wine bars. Symphonies. Jazz sets. All the good things that other people who could enjoy but do not because they sit around damning those who live life to the fullest. In the like manner that I experienced when I left one place where I was working so that I could advance several notches up and most certainly during the entire month of April when I celebrated my birthday ad nauseam, a great friend recently accepted a position with a company where she moved up a few notches by leaps and bounds and celebrating was a must. There was absolutely no way that we were going to pass on throwing support and enjoying something worthy of culinary happiness.

With downtown Chicago taking on a more European feel in that dinner is starting later, we met at Emillio’s Tapas, at 215 E. Ohio Street in the Streeterville neighbourhood. We had passed by the restaurant several times when often we went to any one of the restaurants in the area for lunch. It looked swanky. There was always a crowd. It came across as a place to sample. We figured that instead of passing by and saying, “That looks like a nice place,” we would test our observation. A very nice Chicago summer evening with the sun slowly creeping over behind the skyscrapers and us sitting outside with the wind flicking across our cheeks, we were ready to see how the Spaniards entertain their appetites. And since we all had been to Spain before, we had a point of reference for how it’s done. Tapas we wanted, so tapas we were going to have.

Calamares Con Ajo Y Limon

A nice evening for us to enjoy, what better way to get started than with a refreshing beverage? Red sangria.

I’ll drink it on the phone.
I’ll drink it while at home.
I’ll drink it in the sun.
I’ll love it till I’m done.

The concoction of red wine, brandy, apples, lemons, and oranges was potent and smile-inducing. And it was not just one glass that we had, but it was a full carafe so that we could enjoy as much as we wanted without stopping our waitress to place another order. But, there was a second carafe, so touché. And with our first glass, we had calamaraes con ajo y limon. These baby octopuses were cooked to a texture that was not al dente but not quite yet splendidly tender. The buttery-lemony sauce that they swam in before jumping on our fork tines and then plopping on our tongues was slightly addictive. We dipped our bread in the sauce, sopped, and dealt the octopuses their fate. May they know that we appreciated how delectable they tasted.

Papas Bravas

Next to the table was a plate of papas bravas. Usually, this dish comes topped with melted cheddar cheese, which sometimes puts me in the mind of Velveeta doctored up in the microwave. Hmm. This time the papas bravas was sprinkled with grated cheese and served over a mild tomato sauce with red peppers. There was a contradictory note to the dish, as it was more lukewarm than it should have been yet flavourful. My friend remarked that the potatoes tasted old. My appetite, although discriminating, does not detect “old.” Nasty. Disgusting. Horrid. Worthy of throwing against the wall. Yes, those descriptions come to mind, but old is a new one on me. Then again, I ate what was left. I mean, people on the other side of the world are starving and although I have upper middle class means, I cannot let tasty food go to waste unless it is absolutely beastly.

Congrejo Concha Blanda

As the two earlier plates were a little better than fair to middling, another glass or two of the sangria and the order of congrejo concha blanda made it all right for the evening. Happiness was in the air. The congrejo concha blanda was a plate of soft shell crab served with white rice over another cream-based sauce. Anyone who loves crab would bow at the chef’s feet for preparing such a masterpiece in dining. We thought the rice was seasoned enough to raise our eyebrows in appreciation, so imagine the soft shell crab being cut and devoured by gleeful diners such as ourselves. Wow.

I’ll lick my fingers clean.
I’ll start being nice and stop being mean.
I’ll love it, Sam I Am.
But I still won’t eat green eggs and ham.

We shall just say that when you take the last few substantial morsels of the soft shell crab and start going around the plate to get the gravy, you are in heaven. Being dainty, prudish, or prim would be unacceptable. Perhaps if I were a country Jasper from the hills, I would have lifted the plate to my face and licked it lovingly.

Falda de Cebon al la Parrilla

By now, we had completed one carafe of sangria and were mildly knackered. Thankful that we had a good amount of complementary bread and all of the other hearty dishes, much of the alcohol had been soaked up. So we were ready for more refreshing liquid bliss. What better way to enjoy each glass full of happiness than with falda de cebon ala parrilla? As a pescatarian, vegetables and seafood are what I will entertain in my diet primarily. But this was not my celebratory dinner, so when the guest of honour wanted skirt steak, there were no complaints. When we started cutting in to the steak and forking it into our mouths, we would have started a petition for the swift public flogging of anyone who moaned about having something so lip-smackingly divine placed before them. I am sure that God looked down at us and said to Himself that we will meet fire for smiling so raptly through the deadly sin of gluttony. Yes, I will burn in hell for such relish and I shall dress accordingly. The guest of honour was passing the steak knife to me to cut the meat, to which I replied, “Woman, I’m handling this with a butter knife. Can’t you see?” And by now, we were a bit squiffy from so much drink that everything was funny — the parent pushing what looked like a six-year-old child in a buggy; the man with the exploding soda pop all over the back of some stranger’s shirt; the bitter woman who dropped the scoop of strawberry ice cream on her shoe, making it look like a saucy pom-pom; and me being too quick with the cava sauce and almost pushing it off the plate with a forkful of steak.

Chocolate Cake with White Chocolate and Caramel Mousse

Having loved what we had, it was time to indulge some dessert. Too much food already and sangria surplus, we opted for lighter desserts. At the risk of blasphemy and apologies to all of the Pharisees, the chocolate cake with white chocolate mousse and caramel mousse once again had God shaking His head. Garnished with a sprig of mint and a strawberry, this was clearly a work of the devil. And maybe God viewed our enjoyment as a part of His plan. Some southern Baptist preacher may have been screaming from the pulpit that we were going to burn in hell, though, which is usually the case if you find satisfaction in anything. Nothing close to syrupy or to the point of having our teeth feel as though we had set them on ice because of too much sugar, this dessert was indeed perfection. Light in texture, heavy on the bliss factor, it also went well with the sangria. Do not ask. And as if the chocolate cake with the wonder mousse were not enough, we finalized our dessert with profiterole del pirineo. You would never think that something as pedestrian as puff pastries filled with ice cream and topped with chocolate sauce would be better than a sunny day at the park. Oh, but when the chocolate is dark chocolate, you may discover the secrets of love, the 12 rabbits and the cheesecake, how to make incompetent politicians disappear, and all sorts of good things. As I polished off the last of my glass of sangria, and I had the bottom of the carafe, I was all sixes and sevens — a complete mess, I say. It had occurred to me perhaps two hours after we had left that I made a rather loud declaration of, “Oh my God!” on the outdoor patio in the presence of patrols and wait staff while eating that dessert. Well, there was no denying that all we had eaten was worthy of any kind of smashing reaction, regardless of how embarrassing it may have been afterwards.

Profiterol del Pirineo

So, this was yet another case of outstanding food, super great service, and me fighting sleep on the subway while going home well after 11:00 at night. The prices were not as steep as I thought they would have been, but the allure and outdoor ambiance made Emilio’s Tapas a place that I shall visit again. I have some great eating experiences in Chicago, but there are times when it is so good that I have my Dr. Seuss moments. This was one of them.

I will eat them in my house
I will eat them with my spouse.
I will eat them in the sun.
I will eat them just for fun.
I will have my tapas very late.
I will even lick the plate.
I will eat them, Sam I Am.
Now, go away so that I can.

Emilio's Sol Y Nieve on Urbanspoon

Curry With Chopsticks

Bombay Chopsticks

One of the things about being a part of the global community is that friends from other countries are constantly giving me suggestions for restaurants. At dinner a few weeks ago, I had discussion with a friend about a high-end restaurant in Chicago proper that does an outstanding job blending Indian and Latin flavours. She had then told me about a restaurant that had recently opened in Hoffman Estate, Illinois, named Bombay Chopsticks at 721 W. Golf Road. The name had given me an idea of what one could expect if going to the restaurant for some food happiness. I immediately associated Bombay with India and chopsticks with Japan. No sooner had she mentioned the restaurant than I entered a date into my calendar so that I could see what Bombay Chopsticks has on its menu.

Spices

It was out to the Northwest Suburbs on a beautiful yet brisk Saturday morning so that I could be certain of beating the crowd. Upon entering Bombay Chopsticks, I felt as though I was at a lounge. There is a full bar at the entrance. When you go past the bar and around the corner, there is a large area for seating and the decor is definitely inviting. There are comfy booths, which are perfect for dates. There are enough table seats for parties of four or more. The lighting inside was ideal in that going as a single person does not make you feel as though you are in an intimate setting; there was no mood lighting giving that effect. Led to a table by an accommodating hostess who was okay with me having my pick of seats because I was going to photograph my food — par for the course — I had a feeling that everything was going to be just fine this afternoon.

As usual in Pan-Asian cuisine, this time there being Indian and East Asian, the menu is extensive. The pescatarian in me scanned the menu for vegetarian and seafood options, so I had narrowed down my choices. Now, not that I was difficult, but I was rather eccentric with my order. There were three entrées that I wanted. That being the case, appetizers were not an option. There were two vegetarian dishes and one seafood dish that turned my food alarm on. When placing my order, I told the waitress that I wanted three entrées, each to be served as small tastes, with the rest packed for me to take home. She had recommended salt and pepper okra, shrimp in chilli garlic tomato sauce, and baby potatoes Thai style. I complied and while I waited for the experience to begin, I sipped some rather refreshing mango juice.

Salt and Pepper Okra

The waitress had placed the order linearly. Instead of having everything come to the table at once only to get cold, the first entrée arrive at the table was the salt and pepper okra. As a lover of gumbo, which is full of okra of the slimy nature, I was anxious to see how fried okra would taste in a salt and pepper batter. Much like some salt and pepper chicken I have had at a Vietnamese restaurant and salt and pepper soft shell crab I have had at a Pan-Asian restaurant recently, this fried okra dish reminded me of both in a “precious memories” kind of way. Spicy the way I like peppery food and served with crispy noodles and steamed rice, I was grateful that the first recommendation had won me over.

Shrimp in Chili Garlic Tomato Sauce

There was a bit of timing between the first entrée and the second one. This was to allow a moment of rest before the second course. Next to the table was a bowl of shrimp in a chilli garlic tomato sauce. This dish was closer to Indian and what I recalled during a visit to Bombay several years ago — although the dish I had eaten in Bombay was filled with fish rather than shrimp. At any rate, the shrimp in this bowl of satisfaction were plump to the point where they really did burst in my mouth when I bit into them. The sauce was spicy in a divine way. I cannot say that most people would be okay with the pepper dancing around their tongue and jaws, but it was outstanding to me. Eaten with rice to minimize some of the pepper, this was yet another suggestion that was a winner.

Baby Potatoes Thai Style

We allowed for more time between the second entrée and the third entrée. Granted the portions were small, as I was taking the remaining portion of the entrées home, they were still filling. Once I gave the signal, the order was placed and the third dish came to the table in the form of baby potatoes prepared Thai style. This was another spicy dish that was prepared in a gravy that had peanuts and a bit of a kick to it. Not really being a fan of any kind of nuts — except for almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, and pine nuts — I made no fuss about the peanuts in the dish and I ate it with the steam rice that came with it. There was a moment of complete satisfaction to be acknowledged as I worked my fork and spoon on the rice and the baby potatoes in the Thai gravy. By the time I had completed this dish, I was incredibly grateful that the waitress had given three fantastic recommendations because, as I had mentioned, the menu was filled with a large selection of choices.

Vanilla Ice Cream, Crispy Noodles with Honey and Sesame Seeds

Customary but not necessary was dessert. There was a bit of time that I let pass before I had decided to indulge something sweet to the palate. I ordered crispy noodles drizzled with honey and accented with sesame seeds and two scoops of vanilla ice cream. I put honey in my tea, in my yogurt, and in my honey chocolate cake, but having it served over crispy noodles and ice cream was new. And let me just say that this was a new experience that I enjoyed to the point of rapture. And now that I think of it, the only other time I have had a dessert with similar ingredients was an Ethiopian restaurant where they drizzled chocolate instead of honey over the ice cream and crispy noodles. However, having it today really made me that more appreciative of having an experimental palate.

Ready for Action

Usually I have a tendency to avoid restaurants that receive too many negative reviews. The experience actually comes in three parts: what you put into it by being open to trying something different, your positive interaction with your server, and what you want to get out of it different from what you have already had before. On entrance into Bombay Chopsticks, I was greeted with a welcome. My server was the epitome of outstanding customer service and attentiveness, as well as knowledgeable enough to recommend three dishes to a stranger, which is what I was when I sat at the table. Be forewarned that the prices range from $12 to $15 for the entrées. Also be aware that the flavours can be overpowering if your palate is accustomed to milder dishes. Yes, you can order the food milder, but there is more pop when the spices are added as they are in the dishes natively. As I had initially thought of India and Japan, I found that there is a bit of East Asia with hints of Indian preparations added. There are no duelling spices, so whichever ethnicity is represented in the recipe is allowed to shine. Before I departed Bombay Chopsticks with the remainder of my entrées, I sent a text message to my friend to thank her for prompting me about the restaurant and I made a mental note to myself that I shall find my way back out to Hoffman Estates in the near future for another restaurant jaunt at Bombay Chopsticks. This was a positive experience.

Sukriyā.

Bombay Chopsticks on Urbanspoon