Las Vegas Vietnamese, Winning Gamble

Las Vegas Vietnamese Restaurant

While doing some freelance photography in the West Suburbs of Chicago, my restaurant adviser had sent a text message to me requesting that I meet her at a Vietnamese restaurant in Berwyn before continuing on home. With non-stop traffic congestion coupled with never-ending construction, a nice stop after being in third gear for a little over an hour was a welcomed recommendation.

Durian Smoothie

Durian Smoothie

Las Vegas Vietnamese Restaurant at 6723 Cermak Road has been in business since August, 2017, serving authentic Vietnamese flavors. It’s a spacious restaurant with a nice amount of light and without seating that introduces a feeling of being crowded. Add to that service that makes it feel like you are going to someone’s home instead of to an establishment, you have the making of a fantastic restaurant.

Without going overboard with all of the appetizing items on the menu, we started with durian smoothies while waiting for our dishes to come to the table. For those who have had durian, you are already aware of how much of a contradiction that fruit is. For those who have never had it, just get a durian smoothie in the meantime. The actual fruit smells like it would attract all sorts of creatures from the land and sky, but has a sweet taste that makes you wonder how something could smell so horrible yet taste so heavenly. Nevertheless, the smoothies were refreshing and sweet without being saccharine.

Còm Bò Tòm Nuòng

Còm Bò Tòm Nuòng

Easing into the meal, to whet the palates, we had spring rolls that came with a side of peanut sauce that had crushed peanuts. Even as a common staple, there was a freshness in each bite. They certainly did not have the “day old” texture that has become rather commonplace at a lot of Pan Asian restaurants that sell spring rolls.

Spring Rolls

Spring Rolls

The main dishes were where Las Vegas Vietnamese shines. There was a plate of grilled beef, shrimp, and rice, all served with a thin savory sauce that added a note of sweet and savory. This com bò tòm nuòng was seasoned well, and tender to each bite, this version of a surf and turf packed so much flavor that one may want larger portions of the dish. For our second landing, we indulged a large bowl of grilled beef called còm bò nuòng. Served with bean sprouts, crushed peanuts, and a small cup of the thin sweet and savory sauce, this will probably become a go-to dish on future visits. Adding the complimentary mint leaves and jalapeños to the dish made it pop that much more.

Còm Bò Nuòng

Còm Bò Nuòng

Rounding out the dishes, we had phò gà. While ramen may be a rather popular fad nationwide, phò is quite divine when prepared culturally versus appropriated. Brimming with a very faint aroma of autumn — cinnamon or cloves — the noodles were neither al dente nor mushy. The chicken was not simply dumped into the broth, which goes to why individual bites of the chicken burst with a notion of having been seasoned well. And being too filled from having enjoyed so much already, we opted for iced coffee sweetened with condensed milk. Brand name coffee shops would lose business if citizens at large were to get properly introduced to Vietnamese iced coffee.

Phò Gà

Phò Gà

Most who are in Chicago will recall that Broadway and Argyle in Uptown is where there is a cluster of authentic Vietnamese restaurants. It is nice finding a Vietnamese restaurant in the suburbs, as it provides an alternative to fast food eateries and family style restaurants that have cookie cutter menu options. Las Vegas Vietnamese was a gamble for this first visit, not really knowing what to expect. It was great discovering something with cultural appeal, top table service, and reasonable prices. If you want to take a chance on appetizing Vietnamese food while in or passing through the Near West Suburbs, make Las Vegas Vietnamese your stop.

Interior

Interior

Las Vegas Vietnamese Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Antico, Bucktown Delicious

Antico

We arrived at the very end of March and I realized that I had not posted since the very beginning of the month. This was a rather aggressive month, starting with me jumping out of information technology and plunging into photography seriously, albeit working on a website for a display of my portfolio still has me hooked into IT on a periphery. I added some real estate to my cache, became more engaged in community activism, and started an investment club along with some outstanding friends. My reviews thinned out, but my appetite didn’t.

Focaccia

Focaccia

For months, I had walked by a restaurant in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood that caught my eye after taking a peek at the menu. Antico at 1946 N. Leavitt Street is an Italian restaurant with the exposed brick interior that is rather popular throughout the Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Logan Square landscape. A nice setting without claustrophobia, an appetizing menu, and an impressive wine list, I was glad to have finally indulged this winner. And noting the influx of patrons starting immediately at 7:00 PM, it was clear that this was a delight for many.

Mushrooms and Polenta

Mushrooms and Polenta

After skimming the menu, I launched into my “challenge” method of ordering since the restaurant was not busy when I sat. I ordered an appetizer, a pasta, and an entrée, or rather I let the server handle the ordering. And I also trusted the server with the wine pairing. Starting with the mushrooms over polenta, this was certainly a choice I would entertain on future visits. Void of syrup, the mushrooms were not from a can, definitely given from the freshness in each bite. Drizzled with olive oil, the polenta was loose yet not to a runny consistency. With a glass of Nebbiolo that had a hint of berry on the finish, the first course received a compliment to the chef and to the server for the wine pairing.

Lasagna

Lasagna

Given my intent was to indulge myself in a hearty fashion, there was a spacing in time before the pasta course arrived. This was a manageable-sized bowl of lasagna. Prepared with a Bolognese sauce, bechamel sauce, and parmesan cheese instead of mozzarella to give a rich and creamy texture on the palate, this has quickly become my favorite lasagna I’ve had at any Italian restaurant. First, it wasn’t stacked such that it was heavy. Second, there is a very faint touch of nutmeg in the Bolognese sauce that shows up without making an announcement. It felt — or tasted — like a clue. Paired with a glass of Rossi di Montalcino, pure sangiovese that is like a Chianti on the palate, this was another amazing pairing as it still allowed the lasagna to steal the show.

Pork Milanese

Pork Milanese

The pork Milanese topped with fresh, crispy arugula along with cherry tomatoes, parmigiano vegano cheese, and fresh lemon, came on a regular sized plate with the pork chop almost hanging off the sides. Simply amazing. The pork milanese was a thin slice but fleshy because the breading was light. The salad, drizzled with a citrus vinaigrette, was a perfect accompaniment considering a rice, potatoes, or pasta would have been a bit much with the dish. This was paired with a Langhe Rosso, which was a combination of Nebbiolo dolcetto and barbera. It was mildly drier than a lot of the red wines that I drink, but the wink of cherries and nuts tricked me into not recognizing that. Again, for this to have been a course that I entrusted my server to order, this was a success.

Nebbiolo

Nebbiolo

For dessert, I shied away from anything that I thought would be “usual” on the menu. Having been good about not having a dessert with every meal, I opted for whatever gelato was on the menu. What arrived at the table was a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream with nutmeg topped with raspberries and powdered sugar. A dream this was and I believe the chef has a love for nutmeg, evident in how it was “hinted” in the lasagna and how it was included in the ice cream.

I have been rather unfair with my love of Italian restaurants in Chicago. While I like many of them, there is only one that I loved — Osteria Langhe. Antico now becomes the second Italian restaurant in Metropolitan Chicago that I love. Exceptional food is always a key to having someone return based on a hankering. But service is everything. What I discovered at Osteria Langhe was a staff that clearly enjoyed offering recommendations and listening to the customers. That was the same feeling I experienced at Antico. Good customer service is a dying art and when it rears itself in a restaurant setting, married with superb dishes, you achieve perfection and a spot on any one of my “I love this place for whatever reason” lists.

Antico Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Lowcountry, High Quality Goodness

Lowcountry

Two years ago when I opted to have my birthday dinner at a seafood boil restaurant on the North Side of Chicago, little did I know then that I would develop an immediate hankering for the seafood goodness of days long gone when I was echoing distance from Louisiana. Since that birthday dinner, there have been several other seafood boil restaurants suggested to me that I’ve tried and given in to my addiction for shrimp, crab legs, and crawfish drowning in some spicy sauce in a plastic bag. And I found myself giving in to my craving while passing by Lowcountry at 3343 N. Clark Street.

Soft Shell Crab with Jalapenos

Soft Shell Crab with Jalapenos

Calamari with Jalapenos

Calamari with Jalapenos

Having eaten a lengthy brunch, I had enough room to indulge a few menu items from the Restaurant Week offerings. With a friend in tow, we grabbed a seat at one of the many benches in a dining area that was quite reminiscent of the holes in the wall throughout Louisiana. Given the name, Lowcountry, I imagine this is also the same dining layout one could expect in Lowcountry, South Carolina. But what we got screamed Louisiana, for sure.

Lowcountry Limeade

Lowcountry Limeade

We had something from the cocktail menu to whet the palate, neither remembering what exactly because the Super Bowl Game was playing and after pointing at whatever on the menu, we were cheering the Philadelphia Eagles to play like they wanted to win. While imbibing our drinks that we did later find out were made with gin as a base — how we managed to order something without really paying attention to the menu is a puzzle — we had a small order of soft shell crab and another small order of calamari. Topped with jalapenos, these were divine. The soft shell crab had been cooked thoroughly and was extremely meaty. The calamari was tender enough to cut with a plastic fork. Thankful that much of the seeds had been removed from the peppers, there was enough kick to the starters that there was flavor but no need to chase each bite with several gulps of water.

Seafood Boil in a Bag

Seafood Boil in a Bag

The coup de grace were the bags of shrimp, crab legs, sausage, corn, and potatoes in Lowcounty’s spicy garlic, lemon pepper, Cajun sauce. Lowcountry ranks on my list of seafood boil restaurants that clearly knows how to lure people back for more. I usually never get crab legs because I hadn’t mastered the art of plucking the meat, but I did a superb job this time and I am happy to report that the crab meat was fresh, flavorful, and had me hooked. To make it that more appetizing, the jalapeno cornbread that came with it was exactly what we needed for sopping up the sauce.

Jameson and Ginger Beer

Jameson and Ginger Beer

Rather than gobble the seafood up as if in a rush to leave the restaurant, we paced ourselves and enjoyed watching Philadelphia draining the New England Patriot’s morale. I ordered a Jameson with ginger beer while my friend had coffee. This was in preparation for the beignets that we ordered. They got it right. The beignets had a yeast texture to them, not a cake texture. And they actually tasted way better than some doughnuts at some of the boutique doughnut shops in Chicago.

Beignets

Beignets

This visit was the first time even hearing about Lowcountry. There is another location in Chicago’s South Loop at 1132 S. Wabash Avenue. Same “back home” look and feel with wood layout on the inside and the picnic table setup, these locations probably get a lot of patrons. Granted it was Super Bowl Sunday when my friend and I went, there were still lots of individuals coming in to get gravy on their fingers and across their jaws. I can’t say that seafood boils are a fad, considering it’s a normal thing in coastal South Carolina and along the Gulf of Mexico. But it’s certainly a part of my constant slide show.

Lowcountry Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

de Quay, Where Indonesia and Netherlands Come Together

de Quay

In late 2015, when I was looking for an Indonesian restaurant in the city, my restaurant advisor suggested that I should try de Quay 2470 N. Lincoln Avenue. Having forgotten my camera and not having a cellphone with the snazzy professional setting for the camera, the photos did not come out to my liking and there was no way that I was going to review such incredibly delicious food and associate the food with dark, orange, and blurry photos. Realizing that I still had not written a proper review, I returned recently and was very glad that I did.

Curry Chicken

Curry Chicken

For my first return visit, it was a brief passing and I sat at the bar. Vibrant and filled to capacity in the general seating area, the bar was a great option. I ordered the curried chicken and paired it with a glass of Pinot Noir. The breast of chicken had been marinated in buttermilk and Indonesian spices, and served with basmati rice that had toasted almonds, dried apricot seroendeng, and pea tendrils. For those who love a bloom to their dishes, the aromatic flavour of the dish will certainly scream winner. And the Pinot Noir was a splendid balance while letting the dish take main stage.

Spekkoek

Spekkoek

The dessert was an almond spekkoek, a very appetizing Dutch layer cake that came with a dollop of pandan ice cream. Extremely moist and not very sweet, this is a dessert that should be enjoyed slowly and all the better with a cup of coffee. Now, consider the ice cream accordingly when being slow about eating the dessert, but the nutty flavour of the pandan is a nice accompaniment to the spekkoek. It is a wonder that de Quay does not tout this as the most spectacular dessert you will find in Chicago.

Deerstalker

Deerstalker

The second visit involved more food, as my restaurant advisor accompanied me this time. We started with a deerstalker and an FP-45 for cocktails. Having recently gone to a gin bar, the deerstalker was a fitting starter of gin, vermouth, orange bitters, maple syrup, and fresh thyme. The Old Tom gin, Gran Classico bitters, vermouth, brown sugar, and Angostura bitters in the FP-45 were simply first-rate for an initial libation.

FP-45

FP-45

Indulging the first landing of pea soup, which was a part of the restaurant week offerings, set the mood for what we realized would be a fantastic evening of dining. Hearty more like a stew, the bowl of mirepoix, smoked rookworst, turnips, and crispy shallots with the peas made this a winter soup that works well for the nippy Chicago temperatures. The lovash crackers were a nice touch and the soft baguette that came with the dish was fine for sopping up the remaining remnants of the soup, along with the curry butter.

Pea Soup with Bread and Wafers

Pea Soup with Bread and Wafers

The second landing, also a menu item for restaurant week, was a goat Gouda Bavarian. Served with a spiced pecan seroendeng, raisins, butternut squash, and with a chestnut vinaigrette, it was nice that the goat cheese was not so overpowering so it did not usurp the taste of the other ingredients in the dish.

Goat Gouda Bavarian

Goat Gouda Bavarian

Curious as to the shrimp and mussels menu item and how such a dish could have been prepared to take advantage of an Indonesian influence, we had for our third landing of a bowl of plump shrimp, shelled mussels, roasted hot peppers, and snow peas in a coconut curry sauce with baguette slices for sopping. An absolute winner, the beauty of this dish was not having to fight with plucking the morsels from the shells. You only had to start delighting yourself on the best mussels dish in Chicago.

Shrimp and Mussels

Shrimp and Mussels

The fourth landing was a plate of sate glazed, grilled salmon. The Indonesia fried rice nasi goreng played well with the salmon and a medley of green beans and cauliflower along with wafers and shrimp crisps made for a dish that is well worth repeat visits for samplings. Not the usual searing done to the salmon, it was flaky and succulent, which made the dish that more delightful.

Sate Glazed Grilled Sea Salmon

Sate Glazed Grilled Sea Salmon

The fifth landing came as baked chicken breast in coconut milk and aromatic spices with pea tendrils over a mango and Thai basil emulsion. An added touch was a coconut Gouda croquette. The chicken had been prepared such that it was easy to cut through it with a fork. And it was quite noticeable that the seasoning had worked its way throughout the chicken during cooking.

Baked Chicken with Gouda Croquette

Baked Chicken with Gouda Croquette

The finale was an apple tart that came with an accompaniment of dried currants in a crème fraîche. I had not been eating sweets for several weeks and felt like I had a bit of heaven with each bite. Very much like the spekkoek during my first visit, this was not as sweet as most tarts are, given the apples were not in a compote, and that probably explains why the apples tasted like they had been just plucked from a tree.

Apple Tart

Apple Tart

The one word I use to describe restaurants that have top service and inviting food is outstanding. That certainly applies to de Quay. The restaurant is not large and seating may be close. Reservations are highly recommended, as a lot of diners coming through who clearly appreciate the rich savoury dishes. There may be some poetic licensing with the dishes, but that’s okay. If you were to close your eyes, you would undoubtedly agree that the smells and aromas of Indonesia were not compromised.

De Quay Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Scofflaw, Gin Bar

When I moved to Logan Square in late 2017, Armitage Avenue was very must desolated. For several miles, there were buildings plastered with boards, vacant lots, and blight. Over the past few years, Logan Square has maintained a slow rejuvenation that has resulted in what is becoming a very attractive neighbourhood. One restaurant that now has residence on the landscape as a replacement for what was once a local bar is Scofflaw at 3201 W. Armitage Avenue.

Devil Egg, Cathead Biscuit, Simple Breakfast, Hong Kong Style French Toast

Devil Egg, Cathead Biscuit, Simple Breakfast, Hong Kong Style French Toast

Touted as a gin bar, it’s definitely a great gin bar also with brunch, dinner, and other cocktail offerings. Having tried to go one Friday evening only to walk into a room with not much navigation space, I opted for an early Sunday brunch for my return visit. Enjoying the cozy atmosphere, instead of enjoying a seat at one of the booths or small tables, the bar was where I parked myself.

The brunch menu had a few items that caught my eye and after a brief acknowledgement that I was going to turn brunch in “drunch,” I spied a few items that I figured I would enjoy slowly while indulging a flight of gin cocktails. The first landing was a devilled egg topped with crispy chicken skin, smoked buttermilk, and fermented celery. Another menu item was a plate of cathead biscuits, topped with cream cheese, trout roe, and chives. The third landing was Hong Kong style French toast that came with cashew butter and honey chamomile whipped cream. This is the best French toast ever! And the last landing was a simple breakfast of toast, sausage, and eggs scrambled with eggs. Not a smear or crumb was left afterwards.

Gimlet and Jasmine

Gimlet and Jasmine

Now, the question now may be, “What exactly did you have to drink?” Wanting to partake of a few gin cocktails, I requested a flight of four different selections, not necessarily exact to the cocktail recipe. The first two were a gimlet and a jasmine, both made with Scofflaw Old Tom Gin. The gimlet was prepared with gin, lime juice and a little bit of sugar. The jasmine was prepared with lemon juice, orange Combier, Compari, and a touch of simple sugar.

Martini and Negroni

Martini and Negroni

The second part of the flight consisted of a classic martini and a negroni. These were made with St. George Terroir, based out of California. The Douglas fir in both helped to bring out a woody note in the sips. The martini had gin, dry vermouth, and a hint of orange bitters, topped with lemon zest.  The negroni had gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth in it. Being one who prefers darker alcohol, these four gin cocktails are now on my immediate go-to list.

The final cocktails were hot to warm things up before going outside into frigid temperatures. The was a wassail, that was made with gin instead of with bourbon. There was also a rum toddy just to introduce a darker spirit into the imbibing equation. Quite possibly not a part of the regular menu, these certainly are good for hastening warmth after coming inside from frosty temperatures and enough to make you not ever want to go back outside afterwards.

Wassail and Rum Toddy

Wassail and Rum Toddy

The brunch crowd filled in quickly, an indication that service is great and quality of food and beverage are top. Having sat at the bar and engaged the bartenders in conversation, it was apparent that they are dynamic in their craft. The weekend evenings indeed see a packed restaurant, for sure. I have not gone during the middle of the week, but it’s a safe bet that this is a neighbourhood favourite for good reason. Chicago has plenty bars, but none specific to be a gin bar. Scofflaw is certainly one I would recommend if you are wondering which one to try.

Scofflaw Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Breakfast Anyone? Kingsbury Street Cafe

Kingsbury Street CafeHello, 2018, you’ve made it. And it’s a very good thing that I did not leave my appetite in 2017. I brought it with me. I must admit that spending a few weeks in Morocco towards the latter part of 2017 left me with a bit of depression. Imagine going to country with so much beauty, culinary delights, and warm weather, only to return to Chicago experiencing an early freeze and a refrigerator that I had emptied before my vacation. Thankful, I had a memo for Kingsbury Street Cafe at 1523 N. Kingsbury Street.

Millionaire Coffee

Millionaire Coffee

My first visit to Kingsbury Street Cafe was a few days after my return to Chicago. Temperatures were not all that bad, so I didn’t complain. When I arrived at the restaurant, there wasn’t the usual long line outside or any kind of wait inside like what you experience at lot of breakfast spots in the city. Spacious and full of light, I was in for what I expected would be a pleasant experience.

I started with a millionaire coffee, which was a nice winter recipe of house coffee, rumchata, kahlua, and frangelico topped with whipped cream. I call this my festive beverage. First to the table was a cup of egg and carrot soup. This reminded me a bit of Chinese egg drop soup in texture, but of a rather light autumn soup thanks to the presence of carrots. If it is still on the menu, I highly recommend having it, especially during the chilly months.

Egg and Carrot Soup

Egg and Carrot Soup

The finale was a plate of shrimp and spinach frittata with stewed tomatoes. The shrimp were plump and nothing close to popcorn size. It was also evident that they were fresh from the absence of a fishy aftertaste. Tomatoes are a vice for me, so I was well past satisfied while devouring the ones in the dish. Everything in the dish worked well and I must say that this was a nice deviation from the usual pancake, waffle, and omelette offerings.

Shrimp and Spinach Frittata with Tomatoes

Shrimp and Spinach Frittata with Tomatoes

During my second visit, which was at the beginning of the New Year, I went a little later in the morning and it was full of quite a few patrons. Granted it was the weekend instead of in the middle of the week like I had gone the first time, there still was no wait. I was fortunate to have the server who was my server during the first visit. After a few pleasantries about the Christmas holiday, I had a mimosa and a parfait of yogurt, granola, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries. Simply divine as a healthy starter.

Mimosa

Mimosa

Parfait

Parfait

The finish was a plate of angel food cake French toast with orange slices and lemon zest topped with whipped cream. Sitting atop a crème anglaise, this weekend French toast was a winner. The concept in French toast preparation was different that what I’ve had before, that being light and fluffy like angel food cake, so that made it the more appetizing. Without any syrup, this can be enjoyed to completion without recognizing that no additional sweetener was needed.

Angel Food French Toast

Angel Food French Toast

Kingsbury Street Cafe scores high points with the great service. It’s clear that the output from the kitchen is consistently good. The amount of navigation space and elbow room is also a high mark, especially when so many restaurants in Chicago entertain crowding diners into the dining area. It may be that Kingsbury Street Cafe is not on a “Best Brunch Spot in Chicago” list, which explains why seating is fast. Nevertheless, if you are seeking a breakfast or brunch — or dinner on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday — spot where you don’t find yourself wondering if you’ll ever get a seat, add Kingsbury Street Cafe to your destination.

Kingsbury Street Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bia’s Café Marinao, Cuban Style

Bia's Cafe Marinao

Every once in a while I like to deviate from the usual proper sit-down restaurant and delve into something that requires me to pick up food with my hands. Having had a craving for a really good sandwich, I knew that I could not go wrong with a Cuban sandwich. And rather than going to the usual Cuban sandwich shops that I have logged in my smart phone, I looked for a place where I had not been. Bia’s Café Marinao at the new location of 4323 W. Addison Street in Chicago’s Old Irving neighborhood seemed like it was a good spot on reading the menu. It was an outstanding café on going for the first visit.

Chicken Empanadas

Chicken Empanadas

Not large and rather popular, given the constant flow of patrons coming for pick-up and dining in, I had a seat at the counter against the wall and indulged a chicken empanada that came with a guava barbecue sauce and a cubano. The empanada was fresh, quite evident from the flaky crust. And I liked that the chicken was seasoned nicely, which really lent itself to going well with the guava barbecue sauce. Ropa viejas have always been my go-to Cuban sandwich and switching it up a bit this time was an excellent idea. Thinly sliced ham, roasted pork, topped with a mustard jam and pickles, I quickly decided that I will retire my love affair with ropa viejas.

Cubano

Cubano

During my second visit, I wanted to sample another sandwich. This time I ordered a medianoche. This sandwich is very much like a cubano, except the bread has a bit of a sweetness to it and without the mustard jam. Hearty, flavorful, and with a bloom of flavor from each bite, I was conflicted because I had sworn the cubano to be my now-favorite Cuban sandwich during my first visit. While finishing the medianoche and downing a cup of café con leche, I knew that this meant I had to return at a later date to see if I could conflict my interest more.

Medianoche

Medianoche

During the third time, I had one beef and one chicken empanada, this time with a spicy sauce for dipping. Again, trying a different sandwich, I ordered a steak and cheese that came with thinly sliced tomatoes and Swiss cheese, drizzled with a mild citrus oil. While not overloaded, there was enough flavor packed into the sandwich to make me punt a Philly cheesesteak if it were put in front of me. Not only that, I simply had to accept the fact that there isn’t one sandwich at Bia’s Café Marinao that I can’t honestly call my favorite because all of them are.

Steak and Cheese

Steak and Cheese

As mentioned earlier, there is a steady stream of customers that come in to order for take-away and for dining in. Noticing the service the three different times that I have gone, they are consistently friendly and attentive. The café is not in an area with lots of foot traffic, so the fact that they get a lot of constant business speaks to how fantastic the sandwiches are and how welcoming the service is. I have never been one to say that I am a fan of sandwiches, but Bia’s Café Marinao changed that for me. This is my favorite sandwich shop in Chicago.

Cafeteria Marianao Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Cafe Des Architectes, Un Peu de Français

Recently, I have been in a bit of a French mood. For the longest I had been searching for restaurants that had a basque feel, and without the churn of a crowd. Like in France, one can enjoy a meal alone or in small company in some bistros and cafes without an excess of ambient noise and people crowding your space. My restaurant adviser and I had culled together a list of restaurants that we thought would be good samplers.

Bread Service, Trout Croquette, Lump Crab, Heart of Palm, Summer Squash Soup

Bread Service, Trout Croquette, Lump Crab, Heart of Palm, Summer Squash Soup

First on our list was Cafe Des Architectes in the Gold Coast Sofitel Hotel at 20 E. Chestnut Street. Just west of the Magnificent Mile is this fantastic restaurant that’s surrounded by swanky clothing boutiques and other very appealing restaurants. Located off to the side of the lobby is this very spacious, airy, and well-lit restaurant that also has a large outdoor seating area. With weather being extremely nice for October, we sat outside during our first visit to enjoy the moderate temperatures and to watch people in their comings and goings.

Chardonnay, Champagne, Pinot Noir

Chardonnay, Champagne, Pinot Noir

Opting for small plates, we ordered from the appetizer section with a pescatarian focus. Starting off was a l’amuse of trout croquette atop an aioli and the first of three pairings, a champagne that neither nipped at the back of the jaw nor left a pucker on the front-end of the sip. Seasoned well and void of an excessive amount of breading, the bite size trout was still meaty and the aioli was not the least bit overpowering. The Maryland style crab cakes were a reminder of why those are a favorite. Served with a chipotle aioli, citrus segments, and an avocado purée, there was not a crumb of breading on the crab cakes, which meant we got to enjoy seasoned, fresh crab to the fullest. Following with the hearts of palm, which came with a cauliflower custard, radicchio, and caviar, it was evident that the restaurant was going for full flavor even with small plates. And then we had the chilled summer squash soup with a nice smear of mint yogurt, curry oil, and granola. While most may be accustomed to a hot soup, this is the epitome of a summer soup, best served when it’s very hot outside, enjoyed regardless of when the temperatures are warm enough for patio dining.

Escargot Pappardelle, Butternut Squash Ravioli with Shrimp

Escargot Pappardelle, Butternut Squash Ravioli with Shrimp

Getting more into pasta, we had escargot pappardelle. Accented with a garlic cream, parsley, and parmesan, the plump escargot popped with each bite in this light pasta dish. Unlike when escargot is served in a bubbling pesto, there still was enough of the garlic cream in the dish to remind you of how delicious the delicacy is. Wrapping up the many landings with black truffle and corn ravioli with rock shrimp, pancetta, and parmesan, we acknowledged that we had no room for a cheese board as a dessert. The ravioli was also light, but still it was filling without leaving us overly stuffed. Paired with a pinot noir, this was perfection on the palate.

Espresso, Macaron, Chocolate

Espresso, Macaron, Chocolate

The finale was espresso that was clearly made from a fine bean. While my restaurant adviser was sharing a few chocolates from Veruca Chocolates, we received complimentary sweets of mango macarons and key lime wrapped in chocolate. Enjoying this with the coffee was superb, as the macaron was fresh and the chocolate was nothing like the blocks of chocolate you get from anchor stores at the mall. The key lime was creamy, the white chocolate, which had been decorated to look almost like a precious stone, was outstanding, and it all went well with the espresso. The first visit was noteworthy given the appreciation for the quality of the food and the attentiveness of the service. So, we indeed had a return visit.

Cheese Flight, Sparkling Flight, Espresso, Chardonnay

Cheese Flight, Sparkling Flight, Espresso, Chardonnay

Having enjoyed a nice selection of small plates during the première visite, we settled specifically for wine and cheese, champagne and cheese for my adviser. Yet another day with perfect weather, we had an outdoor seat and settled on a selection of soft mild, semi-firm, and one firm cheese. The creamy and buttery fromages of Edel de Claron, Tallegio, and Brie St. Rocco worked well on sourdough. The Fourme d’Ambert, Morbier, and Tomme were semi-firm enough to enjoy on the olive bread that came with the cheeses. The Cantalet was just right for enjoying with the multigrain bread. And for even more enjoyment, the summer berries and miniature madeleines were exactly what we needed to mentally go back to France. Of course, there was no way of departing without taking an espresso.

Cafe Des Architectes has a very laid back feel. There was no rush, which is a rather appealing touch to a restaurant because good food should be savored. Cafe Des Architectes does a fabulous job making your visit the first of many. The closest I will get to France this year will be via a rendezvous in Paris en route to Morocco. In the meantime, I am enjoying this bit of France in Chicago.

Cafe Des Architectes Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Farm to Table, Donkey and Stick

Table, Donkey & Stick

After some time off, I have returned with my usual appetite. With the combination of the day job, personal travels, and getting control of weight gain that has resulted in me having to spend a good bit of money buying clothes that I can fit into now, yes, I had been absent. And when you live in a city like Chicago where you can’t walk too far without facing some inviting restaurant, you cave in a little, or a lot as I had been doing.

Dirty Chi

Dirty Chi

The term “farm to table” has been used for many restaurants that have had debuts on Chicago’s landscape.  Being mostly enticed by cuisines from North Africa, West Africa, East Africa, Mediterranean, Italy, Asia, South America, and Central America, the farm to table theme seemed more like a phase, like the red velvet cake frenzy and the current doughnut bliss movement. So, while having a casual walk through the eastern end of Logan Square, I passed by Table, Donkey and Stick at 2728 W. Armitage Avenue and decided that it was time to see what made this particular farm to table restaurant so appealing.

Arriving a little after 6:00 PM, I figured there would be the after-work crowd in the main dining area, so I opted to sit out front to enjoy the nice weather and to take advantage of the last remaining natural light of the sunset for photos. With menu in one hand, a Dirty Chi cocktail in the other hand, I found a few items that piqued my appetite and sat back in anticipation for an enjoyable evening.

Gorgonzola Dolce, Candied Walnuts, Jam, and Baguette

Gorgonzola, Candied Walnuts, Honey, Baguette and Butter

Starting with a cheese platter was a fantastic option. As a huge lover of creamy cheese, I was pleased with creamy gorgonzola dolce, honey, candied walnuts, butter, and a baguette. Put a footnote here. I hate nuts. Hate them. Absolutely, totally, completely hate them. And then I had a bit of the candied walnuts. Oh how I have been missing out. I love candied walnuts, or at least the ones at Table, Donkey and Stick. But spreading a bit of the cheese on the homemade baguette and dabbing it with the raw honey really made this small platter a winner.

Potato Latkes with Garlic Aioli

Potato Latkes with Garlic Aioli

The second small plate I ordered was one of potato latkes with garlic aioli. These latkes were not of the large variety that one finds at Polish, Ukrainian, and other Eastern European restaurants. Noting the legend next to the menu item, this dish is vegetarian and free of gluten. Given dietary restrictions and discipline, those who are vegetarian will love the kick in this small plate and those who are sensitive to gluten or who simply want to remove gluten from their diets will also enjoy each bite without worry, except that you may not feel you have had enough when you find yourself contemplating the last piece. And the house cultured butter made each bite that more tasty.

Runner Up

Runner Up

Because I have been a bit restrictive with my diet while trying to get my waist size down to at least a size 34 — you  never notice weight gain by looking at yourself daily, only that you can’t fit pants from the back of your closet with a size 30 waist, period — I have not partaken of my usual dosage of refreshing cocktails. And the Runner Up at Table, Donkey and Stick almost made me yell, “Compliments to the bartender,” from my outdoor seat. I saw that it had mezcal in it and that was all I needed to know that I would love it, but all the other ingredients in it made me all the more happier.

Sticking with small plates, I had new smashed potatoes with farm beans and snails in a pesto. Wow! Wow! Wow! This should be the signature dish, and I’m saying that having been to the restaurant only once. No competing flavors on the palate, no complex flavors overpowering any of the ingredients in the recipe, no rubbery or mushy snails, and not a single crumb or smear of gravy left in the bowl after I had gone over every inch of it with the last bit of baguette. If you go for a proper sit-down, order the “signature dish” and let the server figure out what it is. This dish should never be removed from the menu.

New Smashed Potatoes with Farm Beans and Snails in Pesto

New Smashed Potatoes with Farm Beans and Snails in Pesto

The finale was a case study in sweet and savory and how a check can present both in a dish that works well together. There was a scoop of blood orange sorbet that was my intended “light item” after having eaten so much food prior to dessert. And there were fried chicharronés. Often when restaurants try to marry sweet and savory, they do so in a single item that becomes a bit too busy on the palate. The beauty of the sorbet and chicharronés here is that you could enjoy them solo or together without disappointment. Like all of the prior small courses, this one ended on a good note.

Blood Orange Sorbet with Fried Chicharrones

Blood Orange Sorbet with Fried Chicharrones

Since I moved to Logan Square in 2007, it has become a landing spot for some of the most popular and most recommended restaurants in Chicago. For a neighborhood that had been plagued with a bad reputation, the presence of restaurants that receive high recommendations and notoriety is something that residents of Logan Square can brag about. Table, Donkey and Stick is a very unassuming restaurant from the street, no flash, no flare, no “look at me,” but when you do notice it and put your feet under one of the tables for enjoyment, you really do come to realize that restaurants with no fancy airs are the best. Three things I discovered: I can indulge farm to table, I love candied walnuts, and Logan Square does indeed have the best unpretentious restaurants in the city.

Table, Donkey And Stick Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bisi African Restaurant — Nigerian Flavour

Bisi African Restaurant

One thing I like about Instagram is that I get a lot of recommendations and prompts for different restaurants throughout the metropolitan Chicago area. I am aware that Chicago proper is considerably more culturally diverse than presented via media, but a lot of cultural representation extends to the far suburbs as well. One Nigerian restaurant I have seen posting on Instagram is Bisi African Restaurant. With a location in Schaumburg at 853 S. Roselle Road, I felt I needed to sample from them considering two of my favourite Nigerian restaurants on Chicago’s North Side recently closed their doors.

Suya

Suya

The inside has an open floor plan that eliminates any feeling of being cramped. There are several tables to accommodate parties of four or more and booths that will accommodate up to four in a party. But it’s the food that draws your attention. Since I was going to try two entrées, I started with a suya to whet the palate. This was a platter of skewered steak served with onions, a favourite street food item, all authentic. In addition to the suya, I had moi moi, a rather tasty bean pudding prepared with black-eyed peas, onions, and fresh ground peppers, again all authentic. I have a tickler to myself to have meat pies the next time I return.

Egusi with Fish

Egusi with Fish

The server had told me that preparation for the entrées was going to take half an hour and I was okay with that, knowing that nothing was going to be microwaved or warmed up and then sent from the kitchen. True enough, everything was cooked to order. The egusi with fish screamed “just like they eat it in Nigeria.” The melon seeds had been ground up nicely and spiced nicely. The whiting was quite fleshy, yet still had bones in. With fufu in hand, I ate all of it without use of table utensils, and I do mean all of it. The second entrée was a plate of ayamase, my favourite and most addictive Nigerian dish ever. Also referred to as ofada stew, Bisi African Restaurant cooked it spicy, which means they serve it “just like they eat it in Nigeria.” In keeping with being true to the recipe, there were beef, tripe, dry fish, and stock fish in the dish. I recommend this highly.

Ayamase

Ayamase

Bisi African Restaurant is a bit of a drive from Chicago. It is worth the trip out to the Northwest Suburbs, though. I can vouch for the food being absolutely lip-smacking, although there are several more menu items that I would love to try. One thing I also like is that the service is outstanding. Granted there was one server working the floor, every table in the restaurant received attention. Good service seems to be a dying trait in the restaurant industry and when you receive top service and see it delivered wholesale to all customers, that makes the dining experience that more enjoyable. I may not make the hour-long drive outside of Chicago, but when I do, it will be back to Bisi African Restaurant.

Bisi African Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato