Oh, You’re So Coy

Koi Japanese Sushi Bar

Recently, a few visits to some high quality restaurants in Berwyn, Illinois, proved that the neighbouring suburbs are becoming a food force with which to reckon. It was always a given that Oak Park had a lot of talent, one of the main reasons why I spend so much time there with my feet under some table. But I had forgotten about Chicago’s suburban neighbour to the north: Evanston. And during a visit with a schoolmate from high school and college, we sauntered over to a Pan-Asian restaurant Koi at 624 Davis Street, in downtown Evanston.

Chopsticks and Warm Sake

As we got to the door, it had occurred to me that I think I had seen Koi listed as a sister restaurant to Sushi House in Oak Park, Illinois. Well, I think I have. After the fifteenth visit, I had stopped counting how many time I had gone to Sushi House, so I was certain that I would have an experience at Koi that would be memorable enough to have me come back. There was the formula lounge feel with dim lights, straight edges to the décor, painfully attractive hostesses, and faint Brazilian jazz playing in the background.

Edamame

Lucky for us, we had arrived before the theatre crowd. Forgetting that downtown Evanston is not like Mayberry, there is life after the sun goes down. There were several patrons who had come in a half hour after we had arrived and they were in a rush to have their meals before dashing off to see some show or cinema event. We had placed our orders and were snacking on the complementary edamame while imbibing wine and warm sake. Chilly outside, we were certain to be warm and toasty on the inside.

Volcano Maki

Now, with this restaurant catering to the palate that loves sushi and maki rolls, we had a balance of exciting, pedestrian, and commonplace. For the exciting maki roll, we had a volcano. The presentation alone was a work of art. What would have come out as a maki roll with imitation crab was one where we instead requested real crab. Sure there was a $2.00 additional charge, but there was no valid reason for us to deprive ourselves of the real thing. The spicy mayonnaise added a proper kick such that there was no need to put wasabi in the soy sauce. The misleading thing about the maki was that the leading meat in the recipe per the menu was crab. Instead, tuna was the stand-out meat. That was fine, but people who are sushi fanatics can flag such advertisement as false. However, we worked our chopsticks on the maki.

California Roll

For the pedestrian, we had a California roll. Another university schoolmate had joined us and was adventurous yet with more reserve than my grade school friend and I were. And unlike most California rolls, again we requested real crab meat. We had no desire to gnash on meat extracted from imitation crabs. Where do you find them? Are they some McDonald’s product, like McNuggets and McRib? Is there such a thing? If there is, we could not speak to its flavour on this particular evening. The basic ingredients of crab, avocado, and cucumber were no different than what you have in any California roll. The thing is the flavour in real crab stands out more than the smack of the fabricated crab. My grade school friend had a Riesling that she said was a perfect match for the maki rolls. Our mutual friend and I had warm sake that took our minds completely off the fact that it was frosty and raining outside in London fashion.

The commonplace maki roll was shrimp tempura maki. Tempura shrimp, lettuce, avocado, cucumber, and three individuals applying chopsticks a notch or two less than relentless would be the best way to describe things. Again, we had another maki roll that looked more aesthetically pleasing than one would think as far as flavour goes. We had our moments of brief silence while directing our attentions on the previous two maki rolls, but the tempura shrimp maki resulted in impregnated silences. To the average person, it would have been uncomfortable. To the three of us, it was our way of acknowledging the goodness of what sat before us without us being verbal about it.

Shrimp Tempura Maki

Then we entertained the Pan-Asian aspect of the restaurant. This was when I accepted the fact that Koi is not on a par with Sushi House, as the latter remains true to Japanese authenticity in its cuisine only. There was a plate of shrimp fried rice ordered. Filled with fresh, plump shrimp and bursting with flavour without any overcompensation, anyone could have seen that there were three very happy people at the table. I also have to admit when you can taste the egg in a dish, the real thing was used versus the out-of-the-carton what-not. This may be one of the very notable things that Koi should work without pause.

Shrimp Fried Rice

Where it really became evident that we were delighting ourselves a bit too much was when my schoolmate and I started speaking in Japanese while having shrimp lo mein. Neither one of us look anything relatively close to Asian, although my infectious smile results in a slant to my already-exotic eyes. Instead of lo mein sauce on the noodles, we had a Schezuan sauce. Again, plump shrimp sat under tasty noodles in sauce before we bit, chewed, and smiled.

Lo Mein Noodles with Shrimp

Koi is a fantastic Pan-Asian restaurant. But it is advisable to go before the crowd starts because the tide of hungry patrons seemed to introduce a bit of scrambling to the wait staff. Some people could misinterpret the vacant attention to uncaring customer service when it is simply a case of being overwhelmed with a sudden influx of people coming in with various requests for this, that, and the other. Expect to pay a pretty penny. And while the service could become taxed due to a quick rush of customers, they are still gracious. The next time I go I shall not be so coy with my appetite. I shall request my very own little degustation so that I can try more from the menu. Yes, that coming after I have already listed the serious dishes we had during this visit.

Koi Sushi & Chinese on Urbanspoon

¡Que Rico! ¡Que Bueno!

Que Rico

Chips and Salsa

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

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

Sopa de Tortillas

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

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

Camarones al Ajo

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

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

Pastel del Piña

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

Que rico. Que bueno. ¡Bomba!

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

Eurythmics Comes to Mind

Sweet dreams are made of this,
Who am I to disagree?
I travelled the world and the seven seas,
Everybody’s looking for something

Ah, I remember that song from the Eurythmics, way back when I was in high school and a huge fan of the 80’s British invasion. That song had been playing quite a bit recently, and I attribute part of it to serendipity in advance of me going to a boutique restaurant in Oak Park, Illinois, named Seven Ocean. While Annie Lennox provided her velvet voice over the words “seven seas,” Seven Ocean fit rather nicely and I was happy all the same, for I was going to have an adventure in fine dining.

Willamet Valley Vineyards RiselingLocated in downtown Oak Park at 122 N. Marion Street on a cobblestone stretch of small shops, restaurants, and independent cafes, is the neighbourhood’s most recent addition — Seven Ocean. Providing fine cuisine with an Asian influence, Seven Ocean is minimalist in its interior decoration. Not that ambience only defines a restaurant, that being the food here takes centre stage, there is a Stanley Kubrick sterile feel that I actually like. Then again, the man in me loves straight lines, simple colours, and lots of space. With nice jazz playing in the background, I was certain that the evening was going to be worth the visit. Given an intrepid and great waiter, he explained to me what I would receive in a seven-course tasting with wine pairing. Lucky for me I had skipped having a hearty lunch because seven courses with wine were certain to induce a state of bliss.

Tuna Tar Tar

For starting, I had tuna tar tar with a 2010 Riesling from Willamette Valley Vineyards. As far as white wines go, and I am not a wine snob, you simply cannot go wrong with a Riesling. On the dish, the only meat that I like raw is that in sushi. Even in Japan, I was okay delighting myself with several dishes of seafood that had not passed over any flame. Tar tar, on the other hand, is something I tend to avoid, mostly because it is some tar tar made from beef or another four-legged animal that I do not even eat cooked. However, the tuna tar tar at Seven Ocean receives exemption. Fresh tuna with Asian pear, avocado, aioli, raw wasabi tobileo, and chilli oil came on a plate with fried lotus root chips. So colourful, so appealing, and so appetizing, I slowly worked the tuna tar tar until there was only a faint smear of the chilli oil left. Not that I will indulge myself relentlessly on any other kind of tar tar after loving the tuna tar tar the way that I did, I will remember that Asian influence in food entertains exotic preparation. It was evident that Seven Ocean got it correct.

Fried Tiger Prawn

The second course was tiger prawn, lightly breaded and fried with a crust reminiscent of tempura. Served with beet root, wasabi sprout, and a tamarind caramel reduction, it had dawned on me that I was then in food heaven. Yes, the portions were small, as this was a taste, but the prawns were so plump that they practically popped shortly after my teeth sank past the tempura crust. Low-key jazz music playing in the background, each bite was hypnotic. Had there been a worry bothering me earlier, I had completely forgotten whatever the trouble was by the time I had finished the second course.

Edamame Cream Soup

Black Rice Noodle Served Cold in Balsamic VinaigretteThen came another glass of a white wine, a 2011 stainless Chardonnay from Chamisal Vineyards. A bit dryer than the Riesling, it was still an excellent accompaniment to the edamame cream soup that came as the third course. Usually, you when you hear the word edamame, you think of the bowl of salted beans served at Japanese restaurants. Served as a soup with soy, fresh cream tobiko and truffle oil and bacon infusing, you have a winning delicacy. After the second course was a peak dish, I initially thought that the soup was going to be a trip down into the valley. Absolutely not. Given some light, tasty bread or some exotic wafers, I could eat that edamame soup endlessly while enjoying wine with it.

Next to the table was black rice noodle served cold in balsamic vinaigrette with crab meat and sweet pepper over an asparagus spear. There was a tremendous Japanese persuasion in this dish. Not really sold on the course when the waiter was first explaining the dish, I was completely wowed after twirling a bit of the noodle and spooning it with the crab meat onto my tongue. Far from elaborate in presentation, the flavour was a work of culinary art and I beheld the visual effect briefly before continuing to polish off the rest. Even the asparagus spear that looked to have been steamed only tasted better than some doctored-up asparagus that I have had at other eateries. The fourth course was another winner.

Fried Red Snapper

Up to the table with the fifth course was a glass of 2011 savignon blanc from Wither Hills Vineyard in Marlborough, New Zealand. Not a bad choice, it was an ideal selection for the fried red snapper. Pan seared with home made sweet and sour sauce, chopped apple, red onion, and dried chilli, I could have stopped, said that the five courses were top, requested the bill, paid, and left it at that. The West Indian in me loves red snapper, but having it at Seven Ocean really introduced a lust factor for the seafood that I had never experienced before. I thought the presentation was eye-catching, but nothing compared to the concert of ingredients making such a delectable recipe for love. And the savignon blanc was a remarkable partnering. Just to savour each bite, I was slow about engaging the dish to completion too fast and then having eater’s remorse. Love is to be cherished and that red snapper was the epitome of love.

Roast Duck Breast

When I thought that nothing could best what I had eaten already, there came as the sixth course a glass of 2009 cabernet savignon from La Linda Vineyards and roast duck breast in mild Thai red curry with saffron rice, crispy fried red onion, and langon. After the first bite, I forced myself to pause. Words could not describe how much I wanted to dance, sing, do something involving running for no apparent reason. Let me just say that the langon, which is an Asian tree fruit like lichee, tasted better than any plum or grape that I have ever had. Naturally sweet, this otherwise bland looking ball is so delicious that I would find it hard to believe that Asian children cringe whenever their parents try to get them to eat langon. As to the duck breast, this was not the oily duck that I have had at numerous restaurants before. Eaten with the companion saffron rice that was topped with the fried red onions, I was a man full of life and sated with great food.

Dinner is Served

Last to the table was dessert. Thankful that this was not heavy since I had been filled proper with six prior courses, I smiled at the presentation of a familiar dish — a plate of fresh sliced mango with sweet sticky rice, coconut cream with strawberry sauce drizzle, and chocolate sauce. Granted the dessert was not as fancy as the other dishes, and it was light so that one could finish all of it without feeling forced, the mango and sticky rice comprised a Thai delicacy that I have loved ever since I began eating Thai cuisine years ago. The chocolate sauce was more for effect, but the rest pandered to my constant appetite nicely.

La Linda Cabernet Savignon, 2009From the reservation to the confirmation of the reservation to the arrival and then to the whole dining experience, Seven Ocean is at the top of my list of restaurants. Not particularly a fan of fusion or Pan-Fill-in-the-Blank restaurants, when an establishment gets the concept correct, I will be the first to admit that I can become their greatest fan. The price is stiff, but nothing like restaurants that vie for or obtain top Michelin star ratings. I must say that I got more than what I paid for and the service was worthy of bottling, which is not something possible to do. Understanding that Seven Ocean just opened their doors, I hope that they receive more business. There are three factors working in their favour: delicious cuisine, fantastic service, and reasonable fare. Sweet dreams are made of these things. Fortunately for me, I travelled to Seven Ocean and found another awesome haunt for my culinary wants.

Seven Ocean on Urbanspoon

Cumin to a Neighbourhood Near You

Cumin

Chutneys

Chutneys

It was Friday mid afternoon and we were allowed to leave work early. It was the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend and many companies downtown were rather anxious to start the weekend. Everyone wanted to leave work in a rush to avoid being stuck in traffic or crammed on public transportation en route to home — or wherever they were going. As for me, I opted for a casual subway ride from downtown to Wicker Park with intentions of going to a Nepalese-Indian restaurant. It was late enough that the lunch crowd would have thinned and the after-five crowd would have considered an early dinner an affront to their evening drinking agenda. I arrived at the door and saw that it was dark. Ras! The hours off business are 10:00 AM to 2:30 PM and 5:00 PM to 11:00 PM. Nevertheless, Wicker Park is only the neighbourhood south of Logan Square, where I live. So I went home and dropped off my attaché case, sat for a spell, and then headed back out for the 5:00 PM opening.

Aaluko Achar

Aaluko Achar

Found on the stretch of hip Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park at 1414 N. Milwaukee Avenue is Cumin, one of Chicago’s few Nepalese restaurants that is not tucked in between a host of Indian restaurants on Devon Avenue in Chicago’s Rogers Park. Restaurant atmosphere with a lounge kind of feel to it, I arrived at the restaurant while there were only two tables of diners. I had my pick of seats. Having received a recommendation from a colleague about how outstanding the food was at Cumin, I had slightly high hopes, but I moderated them just a bit. I have found that Indian, Pakistani, and Nepalese restaurants that are not on Devon Avenue tend to appease the American palate more — that is, the food is rather absent of spices, especially the spices that burn the tongue.

Aalu Tikka

Aalu Tikka

During review of the menu, I noticed that the Nepalese bill of fare was considerably smaller than the Indian menu. The vegetarian options were also limited, surprisingly. Indian restaurants are quite dominant in the city, so I decided that I would focus on the Nepalese menu, specifically, perhaps with one exception. I saw a few vegetarian items on the menu. However, I deferred to the waitress for recommendations. I told her that I was primarily vegetarian and wanted something that was authentically Nepalese. Staying away from the usual menu items like samosas, pakoras, and curries, I simply handed the menu to her and told her that I wanted two appetizers and two entrées. With the vegetarian fare being lighter, I entertained one Nepalese appetizer and one Indian vegetarian appetizer. The entrées were Nepalese proper. Seeing that I was pulling my cameras from my bag, the waitress asked me if I wanted my food all at once or if I wanted it linearly so that I could photograph each dish without having the shuffle plates around on the table. I agreed to have each plate come individually.

Basmati Rice

Basmati Rice

The Nepalese appetizer to come to the table was the aaluka achar. Visually, this is every food photographers’ dream, stunning in presentation and well placed for your viewing pleasure. Taste-wise, these baby potatoes and cucumbers, diced and picked with sesame-lemon paste, tempered with fenugreek seed, red chillies, and tumeric powder were heaven served with the restaurant’s signature crispy flattened rice. This dish was so fantastic to the palate that I just knew the rest of the food I had ordered was going to be highly disappointing. And then the Indian appetizer of aalo tikki chaat came to the table. Not only was this appealing to the visual senses, but my taste buds had a party with every bite. This was a mashed potato cake under a cornucopia of boiled chickpeas, chopped onions, yogurt, chaat masala, and tamarind-mint chutney. My mouth went Wow with each taste and understandably so. What made this appetizer even more delectable was the fact that the tartness of the yogurt was balanced out nicely by the sweetness of the tamarind-mint chutney. The aaluka achar and aalo tikka chaat were so expressive in my mouth that I was then certain the appetizers were the best on the menu and the entrees were going to be the complete antithesis.

Palungoko Saag

Palungoko Saag

And when the first entrée came to the table, it was quite evident that I am neither a gambling man nor one who operates on first impressions setting the expectations bar. The baalungoku saag that I had is a traditional Nepalese dish that I can understand why it is favoured so well. In the bowl were fresh spinach leaves sautéed in cumin seed, mustard seed, fenugreek seed, dry red chillies, and fresh garlic cloves. Pa-pow-pow went the insides of my cheeks with each forkful that I placed on my tongue. The spinach had been cooked such that it was not bitter and spiced just right with the red chillies that there was a kick without a need for several swallows of water thereafter. The second entrée was parvate aalu tama ra bodi. Yet again, this was an amazing dish of potatoes, bamboo shoots, and black eyed peas cooked in delectable Nepalese spices. Recommended per the waitress as a traditional vegetarian dish in Nepal, I can say with brutal honesty that I do not want black eyed peas in another fashion than as a dish of parvate aalu tama ra bodi. Not to omit any items, but the basmati rice and roti that came with the entrées rounded out my meal very nicely. The nods of appreciation, the smiles of rapture, and the silence of my growling belly were all evidence that Cumin had done a fantastic job.

Parvate Aalu Tama Ra Bodi

Parvate Aalu Tama Ra Bodi

I knew that I would be able to finish the appetizers without incident. As to the entrées, I ate enough so that I could engage the waitress about the dishes, their preparations, and their cultural significances in Nepal. While getting the remaining entrées prepared for take-away, I had a chai. Naturally sweet and certainly not prepared like that sugary madness you get at Starbucks and other coffee houses, this chai reminded me of that which I partook of in Bangalore, Delhi, and Bombay, just not as peppery. I was quite satisfied and was thrown for a bit of a quandary when I saw the bill. I was quite certain that the waitress had left something off — something that happens often at restaurants where I go. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that all of the appetizers, entrées, and chai that I had ordered were present and accounted for. It was just that the prices were not so above the clouds that the cash register sounded off in stereo with “cha-ching” when the waitress cashed me out.

Masala Chai

Masala Chai

For a first visit, I found Cumin to be a restaurant that I would recommend highly. From the inviting welcome, to the delicious factor of the food, to the price, Cumin is a package that is hard to shirk. As mentioned earlier, the Nepalese menu is small in comparison the Indian menu, and I will have to return in the future to sample what the Indian portion has to offer. With Cumin also being a few stops away from where I live or a bus ride away, I will not have to venture north of where I live to Devon Avenue for some Nepalese food fascination. In the meantime, I will polish off the remaining baalungoku saag and parvate aalu tama ra bodi while reminiscing of how great my experience was on this particular early Friday evening.

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Ambassador Start at Noon O Kabob

Noon O KabobI have decided to consider quitting my day job and applying for the position of ambassador to so I can assist with peace efforts with Iran. I have yet to meet someone who would waste time arguing when there is delicious food within reach. That’s right. I will conduct all meetings and peace negotiations over a plate of zereshk polo — Persian sour berry rice with chicken — and plenty of laughter. Stuffed bellies. Greasy lips. Talk about harmony. Someone should have told Condoleezza Rice to sit her proper butt down to a table of good Iranian food and discuss peace relations in the Middle East the right way. [The FBI now taps Double Agent Williams’ PC for plotting.]

My good food adventurer friend and I indulged our hankering at a Persian restaurant. “But Persian starts with a P, Gino.” Yes, that is correct, but Persia is now Iran and a rose by any other colour is still a rose. Persian. Iranian. Damn good food is what we call it. This gem of a restaurant is at 4661 N. Kedzie Avenue on Chicago’s North Side. I am also the self-imposed ambassador at work who will take visiting Iranian scientists and engineers there. They will feel at home and they will terrorize my management to make sure I get promotions. Oops. I mean they will speak highly of me and recommend me for promotions. [If the FBI sees any variation of the word “terror” in my blog, they will come to get me.]

I had very little to eat earlier in the day, in anticipation for truly stuffing my jaws during dinner. Considering my appetite keeps a fire lit to it — weightlifting, kickboxing, and running three miles every morning — I am surprised I didn’t go into the restaurant and launch into a frenzy, biting chairs, tables, people running from my gnashing teeth, and munching on the curtains. Thankful that we arrived at the restaurant before the crowd began to pour in, we got a table immediately and the fun began.

The waiter was a cool guy, worthy of the “they must be rich” tip we gave him. We would have given him a very good inside investment tip, but we all know what happened to Martha Stewart when she went down that path. He filled us in on the Martini of the night — a pomegranate Martini. Yum! Seems that pomegranate is finding its way into a lot of beverages as an accent. Pomegranate tea. Pomegranate cider. Flavoured water with pomegranate. And now pomegranate Martinis. Instead, I opted for a glass of freshly squeeze orange juice. Delicious. They even left the pulp in, which is exactly the way it should be for those of us addicted to the naturally sweet, citrus juice. My friend had a bottomless glass of iced Persian tea.

Appetizers

Appetizers

The whole meal comes complementary with tandoori bread, onions, radishes, feta cheese, and parsley. For appetizers, we ordered kash-ke-bademjan, olovieh, and Caspian eggplant. All I have to say is that if the appetizers are hits on the menu, the entrees are certain to be winners. The kash-ke-bademjan was a mix of eggplant, mint and onion with Kashk (age dried yogurt), topped with fried onion and mint. The olovieh was a mix of chicken breast, potato, diced Persian pickles, mayonnaise, green peas, shredded carrot, and tomato, served with tandoori bread. Considering this appetizer had one of three things that I avoid religiously — small boats, small planes, and mayonnaise — I was pleasantly surprised that I had no allergic reaction other than a constant smile. The Caspian eggplant, which was sweet eggplant, tomato, onion, and garlic topped with moosir, was so delicious that I had a moment of indecisiveness. Should I buy a Honda Civic? Should I buy a Kawasaki danger bike? Do I take the Red Line all the way home or do I take a cab and demand that the driver play the music the cab incredibly loud?

Entrees

Entrees

The entrées were indeed big hits. I’m telling you, Condoleezza Rice really should have conducted peace meetings over plates of shirin polo and gheymeh bademjaan. Perhaps Hillary Clinton will, but I will save that for some other writer’s blog. Hahahaha. The manager had overheard my friend and me contemplating a seafood dish and he came by the table and recommended the salmon. I was leaning more toward the shrimp curry stew, but skipped it since the manager thought it was good, but not as good as the salmon. The shirin polo that we had was sweet and sour Persian rice — shredded almond and fine pistachio mixed with orange peel, shredded carrot, golden raisins, and Persian sour berry on top of Persian white rice. The rice was like candy. The gheymeh bademjaan was diced choice beef with split peas, prepared with Persian saffron and cinnamon in light tomato sauce with baby eggplant served with white Persian rice. The waiter was kind enough to serve the meal cultural style and threw in some dill rice since my friend and I seemed to have had such uber appetites. He thought that we were joking while we butchered the names of the items on the menu in the eye-raising quantities that we ordered. I do believe he was shocked — shocked I say — when he saw the plates cleaned with just a bit of gravy and a kernel of rice here and there. We’re not watching our weight, although I may need to start monitoring my weight gain if I get to 215 pounds well before this time next year.

Desserts

Desserts

As usual, we had to have dessert. With wide eyes, huge grins, and a little space in the bellies, we ordered a bomieh and a banana cheese cake. The bomieh reminded me of just about any Indian dessert — sweet enough to get the gums throbbing. This dessert was fried dough with saffron honey syrup. The banana cheesecake was a dessert to my heart — it was full of rum. I am not a man with a quick appetite for liquid treats, but that cheesecake had the right ingredient in it. I know at this minute some of my friends are asking about my special barbecue sauce, the spiked baked beans, the rigatoni Bolognese, the home made rum raisin ice cream, the apple cobbler I call “lovin’ from the oven,” and a few Ginoesque recipes. Okay, okay, I get the picture. [I recall a certain modified Christmas cake I baked several years ago for a party at work, one full of Kalua and rum. As soon as I had taken the lid off the cake and the alcoholic fumes wafted through the room, that cake was good as gone. All I got was a view of a cake plate with crumbs.] To wash this all down, my friend had another glass of bottomless Persian tea and I had a cup of hot Persian tea. Let me tell you, it was not Nestea or Lipton.

Forget about high gas prices. Forget about the weather. Forget about your wallet. Make your date pay. For the price of the entire meal, we could have ordered more. Then again, the scene after eating more food probably would have been rather embarrassing. This is yet another restaurant to add to my list of places to frequent during my long stay here in Chicago, which will be for the rest of my life. I could see myself in my old age keeling over at some restaurant. My epitaph would read “He Died a Happy Man, So Full of Life and So Full of Food and Beverage.” My younger brother said it should read “He Always Had a Smile and a Crumb on His Face.” Go to Noon O Kabab. Have the pomegranate Martini. Rally for peace in the Middle East by having people join you, as long as they pay their part of the dinner tab and tip accordingly.

Knock! Knock!

Rats! It’s the FBI coming to confiscate my laptop. I will just have to bribe them with an invitation to Noon O Kabab.

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