Praga/Bonton, Pan-European Suburban Style

During spring and the very beginning of summer, Chicago has had some angry weather. The heat and humidity have been extreme. And it seems that thunderstorms pass over the metropolitan area every other day during the afternoon rush hour. When we have had some nice days, they have been good enough to take advantage of some al fresco dining. I managed to squeeze in a day of some patio dining at Praga/Bonton in Lombard, Illinois, at 229 W. St. Charles Road to see how they tempt the palate.

Praga

Praga

Only wanting a sampling on the first visit, I settled on two courses. The first was a lobster ravioli. While I have had more than my share of lobster ravioli at various Italian restaurants, it is always a plus when you get a dish that leaves you wanting more. The cheese inside of the ravioli had a la tur texture, very creamy and rich. The lobster chunks were not mere hints, which was all the indication I needed to know that there was neither imitation nor essence stuffed between the pasta. Topped with a corn and bell pepper confetti, this moved up to the top spot as best lobster ravioli that I have had in Metro Chicago.

Lobster Ravioli

Lobster Ravioli

The second dish was a risotto with diver scallops on top. My favorite Italian osteria in Logan Square serves the absolute best diver scallops risotto that I have had to date, but the dish at Praga/Bonton is a very close second. Filled with mushroom, asparagus, and wild truffle sauce, I recommend this dish. It pops with flavor without being busy on the tongue. Get a bowl for yourself, as sharing may result in too much of it going fast and regrets for not being selfish.

Risotto with Pan Seared Diver Scallops

Risotto with Pan Seared Diver Scallops

For my second visit, I wanted to try a few other dishes that were more French. The offerings that I had the first time were very much couched in Italian and authentic in flavor, so I was curious to see if there was a proper amount of respect paid to the French menu items. They scored high marks in that space.

Cranberry Juice

Cranberry Juice

Veering away from escargot, since that is such a common item on menu items, I started with a bowl of forest mushroom soup, laced with sherry. Again, dining al fresco, it was rather hot outside, but the soup was not one that left me lethargic from being heavy combined with the outdoor heat. Packed with flavor from fresh mushrooms and a savory cream base, I polished it off and then used the complimentary bread to go around the inside and bottom of the bowl, sopping up as much of the rest of the soup as possible: Clean Bowl Society.

Creamed Mushroom

Creamed Mushroom

The second course was a crab cake atop an avocado papaya chutney and arugula salad with an avocado vinaigrette. The bliss factor for the crab cake was that there was very little breading used, more dusting than anything. The crab cake was another dish packed with flavor without having one wonder if the chef was trying too hard to season the dish. You could taste a bit of the sweetness in the crab meat since it was not masked by an unnecessary melange of herbs, seasoning, and other spices. The bed of vegetables reminded me of crudites, which is a small side dish of julienne vegetables (e.g., carrots, cucumbers, bell peppers) that many in France enjoy.

Crab Cake

Crab Cake

The third dish was a plate of beef medallions under frites. The chef erred on the side of preparing the beef tenderloins medium well and I was appreciative. The meat was neither runny nor was it charred to an unappetizing crisp. It was just right and whatever seasoning used to marinate the meat gave it enough smack without a need for any additional seasoning help. Add to that the Cognac flambe and the tenderloins having been sauteed in Bordelaise sauce with wild mushrooms, along with grilled asparagus spears, the marriage with the frites made it delectably French.

Beef Medallions with Frites

Beef Medallions with Frites

The finale was a duo of chocolate mousses, one white chocolate, the other dark chocolate. Served with a berry compote and looking like two scoops of ice cream, each scoop was heaven. The white chocolate was not sugary and the dark chocolate was not milk chocolate. This was a perfect ending to three prior courses that were already mouthwatering.

White and Dark Chocolate Mousse

White and Dark Chocolate Mousse

Needless to say, the output from the kitchen was absolutely winning. The table service is also outstanding. My server during the first visit was quite conversational and good about making recommendations. On the second visit, the server remembered me, minus my 6-inch beard that I had shaved, where I sat, what I ordered, and my preference for cranberry juice. Service is everything and Praga/Bonton sets the bar high for creating a welcoming environment. The menu is a mix of Italian, French, and German-Austrian, but still retains authenticity in each without compromising recipes. If you are ever passing through the downtown Lombard area and wondering about dining options, add Praga/Bonton to your list.

Praga Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Ristorante, Trattoria, Osteria Langhe

Osteria Langhe

A friend told me that all I post on my Facebook page are photos of food. If he were following me on Instagram, he would keep a constant appetite after looking at all of the photos of food that I post there. And speaking of Instagram, someone who is on my friends list on that social media outlet had been posting photos of food at a new restaurant that opened in Logan Square. After seeing way too many photos of appetizing compositions, I made a prompt reservation for a visit. Osteria Langhe, at 2824 W. Armitage, was where all the magic happened. Yes, this is where I made four courses disappear.

Grilled Octopus

Grilled Octopus

Salad

Salad

Osteria Langhe serves Italian cuisine that is more customary in the Piedmont region. With me being in one of my experimental moods, I didn’t bother looking at the menu. I gave the server my boilerplate disclaimer — I love seafood and while I have no food allergies, I hate nuts, and as to something to drink, simply tell the bartender whatever you plan to send to the table and have him or her mix something along the lines of a cocktail accordingly.

Libations

Libations

Paloma

Paloma

Amaro

Amaro

For my first course, I had polipo. This dish of grilled octopus, heirloom tomatoes, basil, capers, saffron oil, and grilled bread was a fantastic starter. The octopus did not have a rubbery texture to it. The tenderness of it made cutting into it feel almost like slicing through very tender chicken. Although the salad of tomatoes and mini greens came without much of a vinaigrette, there was enough to accompany the salad while letting the octopus have the stage as the star.

The bartender had mixed some libation that I never captured because I was engaged in lively conversation with the owner. However, it was quite refreshing and had a vodka base. Thanks to me not getting the name of the drink, I now have a reason to return, for sure, and to order the drink again. I will show a photo of the libation since that will be the only cue I will have as to what it was.

The second course was a salad of spicy mixed greens, kohlrabi, green peas, parmesan, and croutons of fried veal brains. Not having pork in my diet, I had forgotten to say that I am a pescatarian so that the fried veal brains would have been omitted, but the “sweetbread” croutons were actually flavourful. They were like fried cotton candy — if you can imagine that. Nevertheless, after waving my magic wand, that being my fork, I made the salad vanish.

Shrimp and Scallop Risotto

Shrimp and Scallop Risotto

Soft Shell Crab, Insalata Russa

Soft Shell Crab, Insalata Russa

The third course of risotto with shrimp and scallop was where I thought that I had reached the apex of my dining experience. The risotto comes as a different variety per day and I was fortunate that I got the seafood version. A very, very creamy base to it, the risotto reminded me of French cooking. This dish, however, was Italian cooking at its finest. I savoured the risotto at great length because such a dish should not be devoured as if rushing thereafter is a necessity.

With the third course, and as a continuation into the fourth course, I had a Paloma. This was another summer drink made with grapefruit, lime sugar, tequila, and Filbert’s grapefruit soda. Those in Chicago may have, or may not have, ventured down into the 3400 block of South Ashland Avenue and quenched your thirst on a Filbert’s soda. Their grapefruit soda in the Paloma was definitely a divine ingredient.

The fourth course was the dish that solidified my decision to become a regular at Osteria Langhe. This plate of soft shell crab and insalata russa is one that everyone should try, especially those who think that they know where the best Italian food is served. The soft shell crab had an egg batter that made it very light and there was so much meat in the crab that each bite was an explosion. The insalata russa, which is a combination of potato salad and tuna salad, was a dream. Not a salad that one finds on Italian menus, it was an ideal choice for this dish and a great introduction to something authentically Italian that is not served in America-side Italian eateries.

Panna Cotta

Panna Cotta

The fifth course was the finale. Nothing spectacular like a tiramisu, tartufo, biscotti, or cannoli, but creamy and outstanding for a wrap-up, I had a panna cotta served with mixed berries. Along with that came a small glass of Amaro liqueur. Having a dessert like this prepared at the restaurant means it comes without artificial ingredients. All you get is greatness in taste.

One may say that there is a such thing as too many Italian restaurants. However, there is never a bad thing when it comes to discovering more to Italian dining than pasta and pizza. The introduction to Piedmont cuisine was absolutely luscious and a draw for what will be a constant return for me. The service is out of this world, from the owner who is fully engaging in conversation the way restaurant owners are in Italy to servers who can offer tempting recommendations to the bar service that mixes liquid satisfaction without any disappointment. Osteria Langhe has a “Make yourself at home” feel to it and regular customers — like I have decided to become — will attest that another Italian restaurant on the Logan Square landscape is a dream come true.

Osteria Langhe on Urbanspoon

La Notte Cafe & Bar

La Notte Cafe & Bar

It dawned on me that although I have blogged a lot of restaurants in and around the metropolitan Chicago area, there are more that I have visited and not blogged. I don’t always have my camera with me and because I often leave my cellphone at home intentionally, I then don’t have anything to record spoken annotations of certain dining experiences. Fortunately, there are some restaurants that are still in business and their first visits were so memorable that I have since returned. La Notte Cafe & Bar at 6822 Windsor Avenue in Berwyn, Illinois, is an example of one of those restaurants where I went well over a year ago without a camera for capturing the impressions of all the good food.

Nottetini

Nottetini

Sidecar

Sidecar

A great friend and I returned for a second visit. Figuring that there would be a large dining crowd for the fantastic Saturday that it was, we arrive for a 4:00 PM seating. To make things even better, we sat outside on their patio and quenched our thirsts with a nottetini and a sidecar. The nottetini was truly a glass of Italy, a mixture of limoncello and vodka. James Bond would enjoy this one without having to mention wanting it shaken instead of stirred. I requested the sidecar with a slight modification. I wanted it mixed with whiskey for the base as opposed to a sour liqueur. Bravo!

Zuppe del Giorno

Zuppe del Giorno

We were in our usual mode of wanting a degustation. The beauty of going to small and family owned restaurants like La Notte is that you can order accordingly. And the menu may be adjusted to taste or ordering desires. This means nothing is thawed, popped into a microwave or conventional oven, arranged on a plate, and then brought to the table with a declaration of “Voila!” So, in keeping with our degustation, we started with the zuppe del giorno. This cup of love had a New England clam chowder base with smoked gouda cheese, shredded tilapia, fresh shrimp, a purée of shiitake mushroom, and finished with shallots, cognac, and a splash of tabasco sauce. Assolutamente deliziosa.

Soft Shell Crab Over Salad

Soft Shell Crab Over Salad

A lot of my recent restaurant outings have reintroduced chicken and some beef into my diet. The result of that, and I really shouldn’t put the blame on indulging meat, is that I have gained a few inches in my waistline. That is quite fine, except for me having a hard time zipping and buttoning some tailor-made pants that cost a mint. In addition to my new gym membership, I need to get back to a regimented pescatarian diet. The great thing about La Notte is that the seafood selection is splendid. So, we ordered soft shell crab. The soft shell crab came with a balsamic glaze and honey mustard over a mixed greens and cherry tomatoes. Very simple, yet savoury.

Risotto with Shrimp and Scallops

Risotto with Shrimp and Scallops

Italian dining does not always have to include pasta. And anyone who has had risotto worth using as a trump card in discussion about who has had the best dish ever will agree that Italian cuisine has some versatility that will make you forget about penne, spaghetti, fettuccine, and angel hair pasta. The risotto we ordered came with a cheese base blooming with great taste, giant shrimp, tender scallops, and chopped asparagus. Served family style, the dish was substantial. The chef left disappointment out of the recipe completely. Grazie a dio per questo.

Sea Bass and Vegetables

Sea Bass and Vegetables

With the platter of sea bass and mixed, grill vegetables of squash, zucchini, red onions, bell peppers, and cherry tomatoes, we got a tableside presentation in deboning the bass. Watching the owner work his magic with only a fork and spoon, and then applying a garlic drizzle to the dish, you have to appreciate the art involved in filleting the fish. But the burst of gusto in each bite had me almost forgetting about the side pasta that had come with the dish. And given that there is quite a bit of the sea bass and vegetables, the dish is still light.

Limoncello

Limoncello

Tulip

Tulip

There exists an atmosphere very much like that of the “old country.” There is no rush. My friend and I sat to let the soup, appetizer, and entrées settle. After some time, we decided that we would indulge dessert, which is another vice that I need to control. We had some homemade limoncello — my friend because she was not driving and me as a disclaimer to null the discomfort from a pulled muscle. The son at La Notte explained that his grandmother sends lemons from Phoenix, Arizona, and that is what they use to make the limoncello. Good on them because it is worthy of savouring from a sniffer.

Tartufo

Tartufo

There was a chocolate tulip, filled with chocolate sorbet and topped with chocolate. Be forewarned if you order the tulip, it is rich. And if the tulip isn’t enough, the tartufo is another option for catering to the monster. A small ball of vanilla ice cream encased in a bigger ball of chocolate ice cream and then dusted with cocoa powder and hazelnuts. Served with strawberries and whipped cream, all you have to do is add the clinking of a spoon on your plate and a scream afterwards.

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

For our finale, my friend had coffee with cream and I had a cappuccino. My indicator for good coffee is when you can take it without any sweeteners. The cappuccino surpassed the test and reminded me of the cups of cappuccino I had during visits to Milan.

Berwyn is slowly becoming a nearby Chicago suburb whose focus is primarily on authentic dining. What many will find are family owned and small restaurants that boast dishes that you will indeed find during visits abroad. La Notte Cafe & Bar is not simply an establishment borrowing Italian charm. The father and son not only retained the Italian customs in the recipes, but also make sure that the dishes that come to the table reflect the same quality that they enjoy in their own homes. The service during my first visit was well past the high mark of 10. The service during the second visit was even better. For what I would consider fine dining, the prices are extremely reasonable. If you want the feel of going to someone’s home and having a meal without being rushed, I highly recommend La Notte Cafe & Bar. I know it won’t take me a whole year for a return visit.

La Notte Cafe on Urbanspoon

Top 10 Jaunts for 2013

December has arrived and it is during this time that I always ponder whether there was something I had intended to do between January and the end of November, but somehow never got around to doing. I swear time went slower when I was a kid. The summers dragged on forever — and I didn’t complain. Christmas break felt like a whole month. School was the equivalent of endless punishment. Fast forward to age 45 and each year feels compressed from a full twelve months to about seven. However, I still get to partake of my favourite hobby second to photography: eating. And for the end of 2013, I decided that I would do something different — a list of Top 10 Jaunts for 2013. So, this post will be dedicated to the restaurant discoveries that tempted my palate. Since I have already written extensive blog postings for each, I will only present highlights.

10. Pasteur
I had spent a lot of time in the Edgewater neighbourhood during the summer. My favourite Indian restaurant is there. One day while walking down Broadway, I happened to see a building full of Chicago architecture with a menu in the window. Having passed the building many times, it looked too fancy to register as a restaurant, but I was glad to have been in a casual mood the one Saturday I stopped and took notice of it. The food was outstanding and the service was top. From the interior, one can easily get the sensation of being in Europe, but it’s the Vietnamese influence in the food that pops. With the menu items supposedly having a French and Vietnamese fusion, I didn’t detect a heavier French accent. It was the Vietnamese flavours that stood out more. In the future I shall return for more good food and great service, and hopefully see if there is more balance to the menu.

Pasteur, Collage
9. Freddy’s Pizzeria and Grocery
A great friend had sent a text message to me to prompt me about Freddy’s while I was at an Italian restaurant on the Far North Side. She had already enlightened me to a few cafes and restaurants in Berwyn, so I trusted her recommendation. She gave me the formal introduction to Freddy’s Pizzeria and Grocery. This is a small grocery store with an annex built on to the side of the market for those who wish to sit and eat without having to rush home to devour the food. There is authenticity to every dish that puts a lot of big box Italian restaurants to shame. It’s evident when you enter the door and see the long line that stretches from the door, to the back of the grocery store, all along the counter, and up to the cash register. I think the trip out to Cicero is worth it, but I advise you to be prepared because staring at the selection of delicious food behind the counter may throw you into a food frenzy.

Freddy's Pizza and Grocery

8. Silom 12
Grub Hub is a beautiful thing and a glorious thing during the winter when delivery is a viable option. I had tried Silom 12 numerous times as a take-away choice when I was too lazy to operate my own stove. Not once was I dissatisfied with what I had ordered. Well, while I was having my hallway bathroom remodelled this summer, I needed a moment to escape from the sound of drills, saws, and banging. Where should I find myself but at Silom 12 for a proper sit-down. And oh was I pleased beyond words. Logan Square is one of America’s hottest neighbourhoods and with the addition of restaurants like Silom 12, it’s easy to understand why. One would think that the price per dish may make the cha-ching sound. No, the price, service, and food make a harmonious sigh of satisfaction. Well, let me take that back and make it personal. I made a harmonious sigh of satisfaction with each bite of food I took and believe me when I say that I ate a lot.

Silom 12

7. Masouleh
When I first moved to Chicago, I spent a little over a year in Northbrook. There was only so much that I could take of the sound of crickets. New York City had spoiled me. So I moved into Chicago proper and my first Chicago apartment was in Rogers Park. At that time Rogers Park had a heavy Mexican influence. Fast forward to 2013 and there seems to be more diversity gracing the Rogers Park landscape. One addition to the neighbourhood is Masouleh. I had met up with some friends after work one Friday evening and had fallen in love with the place after only having some herbs, cheese, and radish put on the table. It was authentic and when I say authentic I mean the flavours popped the way I remember Iranian food tasting. I don’t mean plain hummus and pita bread either. I had to return for my very own adventure and by the time I had finished a parfait glass of Persian ice cream, I was typing my initial blog post from the moon.

Masouleh

6. Kabul House
The first restaurant I went to when I started Chicago Alphabet Soup was Kabul House. It was at a different address. Months had passed and then a few years went by. When I had made plans to return, it was closed. Then there was a cloud of sadness because I remembered the food being so delicious. My friend and I were at the restaurant for hours, slowly taking care of the fine dining that came from the kitchen. Well, I was informed that Kabul House had opened at a new location. I had added it to my list and during Memorial Day, I was so glad that I went. Let’s just say that I rolled my eyes and I don’t mean as in disgust or to be cheeky. Oh, off with the person’s head who said that it’s never as good as the first time. It was better the second time around.

Kabul House

5. Pannenkoeken Cafe
If anyone ever starts rattling off the old adage that the best meal of the day is breakfast, tell them to put a footnote on that and immediately rush to Pannenkoeken Cafe. I am not one for eating lunch or dinner delights from Germany because they are heavy on the stomach. Not quite as sleep-inducing as Eastern European food, but you will drag afterwards. A German breakfast, on the other hand, causes the angels to sing. Pannenkoeken Cafe is a small cafe, so getting there early is advisable. Now, although the breakfast isn’t heavy on the belly, it is filling. So, you have to go on several visits. You have to. You must! Don’t even think about The Original Pancake House. Make your own pancakes at home, but go to Pannenkoeken Cafe for a proper breakfast that will give you a perpetual smile.

Pannenkoeken

4. Den Den Eritrean Restaurant
Rogers Park has developed a bit of magnetism to it thanks to the addition of a few ethnic eateries. There are several Ethiopian restaurants in Edgewater. While going to Masouleh one evening, my great friend who had recommended Freddy’s to me pointed Den Den Eritrean Restaurant out to me. I don’t think I had taken a few steps before I retrieved my smart phone and blocked some time for a visit. I had never thought of any Eritrean representation in Chicago’s culinary landscape. Everything about Den Den was top-notch. While I can’t say that Eritrean and Ethiopian are the same, the food preparation, serving, and method of eating the food are the same. However, Den Den takes the top spot among the Ethiopian restaurants I’ve been to in Chicago. And I’ve been to all — except one that I zipped pass while speeding up Ashland Avenue.

Den Den

3. De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine
Skokie has a small section in a business district that isn’t on a busy street. Had I not gone to Kabul House to renew my food vows, I never would have stumbled across a restaurant that has some cultural significance to me. When I saw the word “Jamaican” flash in front of my eyes, the return to the small stretch of Oakton Avenue was mandatory. The saltfish and ackee, callalou, rice and beans, beef patty, and june plum juice reminded me so much of my paternal grandmother’s kitchen that I spent almost every Saturday at De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine. And when I didn’t get back during a Saturday visit, there were occasional trips for take-away throughout the week. Certainly when you find something with a cultural attachment, it’s hard to detach.

De-Jred Fine Jamaican

2. Roka Akor
Earlier in the year, I wanted to try something new in the downtown vicinity. Most restaurants in downtown fall into the tourist trap or “big box” categories. You go and then tell your friends that you had gone to such-and-such restaurant because that’s where all of the Joneses had gone before you. But Roka Akor is where you go when you want to keep up with the Williamses. I was blown away on the first visit with the good fortune of having a server who had hit the mark on every menu choice offered as an option. There wasn’t one dish to be placed in front of me that I wasn’t raving about by the second bite. Getting to sit at the robata grill was a splendid option because I got to chat with the sous chef and the sashimi chef. You can’t do that at just any restaurant, and certainly not at a tourist trap or “big box” eatery.

Roka Akor

1. Basil Leaf Cafe (Tie)
Coming up with the number one spot was hard — and I’m not saying that just to have something to say. I started the year off with Basil Leaf Cafe being the first ethnic restaurant I was sampling. This was also the first time that I had decided to have a degustation without ordering from the menu. I trusted my server to make all recommendations and bring to the table a soup, a salad, two entrées, and a dessert. Basil Leaf Cafe had raised the bar up through the clouds and even on return visits, I was always in awe of how I could simply state that I liked seafood and vegetarian dishes, hand the menu back to the server, and let him or her bring to the table culinary choices that had indicated that they apparently listen to their dining patrons.

Basil Leaf Cafe

1. Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill (Tie)
I don’t know where to begin with Yuzu. This was another hard decision because I wanted there to be ten restaurants on my Top 10 list. It turned out to be eleven because Basil Leaf Cafe and Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill were deserving of the top position. My first visit to Yuzu had moved the expectation bar way up. No one disappears behind a door and comes back with a delectable dish. The sushi station and the robata grill are on full display, so you know exactly what you are getting. I was curious as to how a sushi bar could have a constant flow of patrons early in the day on a summer Saturday. It was after the first bite of some grilled eggplant from the robata grill that I understood why. Based on all of the robata grill items and sushi that my server had brought to the table, I honestly believe I could have won the lottery if I had asked her for the winning numbers. Everything was delicious.

Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill

I am hoping that 2014 will not be as busy and fast as 2013 has been. Yes, there is the saying that you should take time to smell the roses. But when there is the aroma of some inviting food wafting from the kitchen, put those roses in a vase and go see what the source of the aroma is. I know that I shall do just that in the New Year. I have to come up with ten more new restaurants for 2014. That means weight gain. Oh wait, no, that means I had better get started coming up with a list of eateries to sample throughout 2014.

And at this time, I would like to thank all who have been following Chicago Alphabet Soup and who have been giving me encouragement. Enjoy the holiday and may the New Year bring you joy and continued peace. And if none of that, then may some server bring you a dish that makes you sing a happy song.

Italy Comes to Chicago

Castello del Poggio BrachettoLiving in Chicago and being a food blogger for fun has way more excitement to the food adventures than I can say. There are new discoveries that the palate may delight. There are existing eateries that serve as magnets for returning culinary lovers. Many restaurants provide an atmosphere of community for large parties consisting of friends or family members. We shall not discount any of the boutique restaurants that provide intimate settings and swell background jazz music. And with Chicago having one of the world’s largest global communities, ethnic dining awaits you at practically every corner. The reasons for loving dining at Chicago’s restaurants are endless. But what is more fantastic is that even with staple cuisines like Chinese, Mexican, and Italian, there are twists that make such restaurants seem like a first-time find. Such was the case during a recent excursion to Basil Leaf Cafe at 2465 N. Clark Street in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighbourhood.

When I began Chicago Alphabet Soup, I had been adamant about avoiding Chinese, Mexican, and Italian restaurants — Chinese restaurants because I will scream if someone offers beef with brocolli, general chicken, or sweet and sour what-not ever again; Mexican because you can have enchiladas, frijoles, and Tex-Mex tacos only so much; and Italian because spaghetti and meatballs — me being pescatarian — and ravioli are as exhaustive as any can of Chef Boy-Ardee. But I received an invitation to meet with several other food bloggers and sommeliers for a food and wine pairing at Basil Leaf Cafe. Seeing that the restaurant’s menu online was more rustic, an indication that we would not have our fair share of red sauce splashing about our plates, I agreed to the dinner gathering and replied with my appetite as a guest.

As it turned out, the dinner and wine pairing was with Francesco Zonin of Casa Vinicola Zonin USA. Imagine an evening of fine wine and delicious food with the president of Zonin USA. Humourous and looking more like a fashion model, after providing a bit of history on the company, he explained that the dinner would feature Casa Vinicola Zonin’s Tenuta Ca’ Bolani Estate wines. Now, Tenuta Ca’ Bolani grows internationally known wines such as Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Also, there are well indigenous varieties, such as Traminer, Muller Thurgau, Tocai Friulano, Pinot Bianco, and Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso. Not that my wine snobbery is polished, I have yet to drink an Italian wine — white or red — that I found not to my liking. And, honestly, not being chic-chic enough to pair the right wines with my food, this evening was certain to be one worthy of documenting.

Amouse Bouche

For our amouse bouche, we started with baked, fresh figs topped with gorgonzola and mascarpone cheese and drizzled with a balsamic redux. Let me just say that I have baked cookies with figs in them and my grandmother had a way of making wine with figs and muscadines. Never have I dined on figs prepared the way they were this evening. My palate is refined, so hearing the appetizer, I figured that it would be an interesting festival on the tongue. Well, interesting is not the right word to describe how addictive the amouse bouche was. The figs were sweet, of course, but the mixture of cheeses and balsamic redux turned this into a rather tasty dessert. With this course, there was a Zonin Prosecco. This white wine was closer in sweetness to a dessert wine without the sweetness that you get in an ice wine. As an entry into the evening’s dining, the combination of the fig appetizer and the Prosecco was superb.

First CourseThe first course was the initial indication that things were going to be quite splendid for the rest of the evening. There were porcini dusted sea scallops, sweet pea puree, and micro green salad. Although I am a pescatarian, scallops are one seafood item I have tended to shy away from because some restaurants embrace cooking scallops al dente. What that translates to is a tough  texture, the equivalent of chewing a rubber ball. The master chef, sous chef, or head cook at Basil Leaf Cafe must have decided that he or she was not going to serve a scafezza — disaster — to a room full of food lovers. This was the first time I have had scallops so tender that the knife glided through the meat instead of me needing to slice through it. The seasoning, while it could have been heavy-handed and overpowering, was there but faint enough to let the flavour of the scallops come through. The sweet pea puree was a nice complement to the dish and it too was seasoned well enough that the tongue did not scream from too much seasoning. And served with the first course was a Tenuta Ca’Bolani Pinot Grigio. As with any Pinot Grigio, the flavour was light and had a distant fruity tone, ideal on the tongue and accommodating enough to let the dish have the spotlight.

Second Course

For the second course, the vegetarian in me stood on the table and danced. Hmmm. No, not exactly. I shall simply say that I nodded — excessively — in appreciation. This dish consisted of poached pear in Castello del Poggio Moscato D’Asti over baby arugula, topped with gorgonzola cheese, glazed pecans and honey balsamic. The pear was not merely sliced and poached. There had to have been some additional seasoning added because had there been crust, I would have foresaken eating apple pie or peach pie ever again. And because the glaze was not thick like molasses, I smiled even more knowing that this tasty treat did not come from a can. The salad was a nice companion to the pear, green, fresh, and lightly touched with the honey balsamic instead of drowned in it. The wine served with the second course was a Tenuta Ca’ Bolani Sauvignon Blanc, only a notch sweeter than the Pinot Grigio, ideal enough to take a backseat to the pear — that would have made an awesome pie — and the delectable salad.

Third Course

As if the amouse bouche and the first two courses were not splendid enough, the third course was where the chef let it be known that he really shines. Wild mushroom risotto cooked in Tenuta Ca’ Bolani Sauvignon with fennel dusted shrimp sat on plates like works of art that should not be touched. The risotto had been cooked maybe a few seconds past al dente, not the point where it was mushy and thankful that it was not gummy. The plump shrimp exploded with each bite. I imagined them popping as I slowly gnashed away at them while having at the wild mushroom risotto. I know several individuals who swear that they make the best risotto and I made mental notes of them all being liars because the risotto at Basil Leaf Cafe is indeed the best that I have had at Chicago Italian restaurants. Then again, it may have been the combination of seafood with the risotto instead of beef or chicken. Switching up the dish in terms of the meat accompaniment may have been what made the dish that more pleasing to the palate. Add to that a glass of Tunuta Ca’ Bolani Refosco. Granted this wine is served mostly with red meat, the strong currants, wild berry, and plum flavours make this a de rigeour request for me with seafood. Unless the seafood is in a rich, creamy sauce, a full bodied wine like a Refosco will redefine love.

Tenuta Ca' Bolani Refosco.One thing I have discovered with multiple food courses at Italian restaurants is that when the chefs start pulling you in with their addictive dishes, they keep going up in notches until you quiver with an addiction. The fourth course consisted of grilled salmon topped in a balsamic and berry reduction with fingerling potatoes and brussel sprouts. I shall start by saying that I never had an aversion to brussel sprouts as a child, surprisingly never getting enough of them. The brussel sprouts at Basil Leaf Cafe were al dente, but I completed them all the same. As to the grilled salmon, I had a brief vision of me on a psychologist’s couch whining about how I could not live without the dish and how I would make all sorts of promises — none that I would keep — so that I could have more. I tend to prefer my fish seasoned well, barring tartar sauce or even ketchup. Anything sweet on fish has a tendency to detract from the flavour. Then I showed up at Basil Leaf Cafe and that changed with the balsamic and berry reduction. It may have been because the sauce was more of a glaze and not a drenching. And with this feast of bliss was a glass of Feudo Principi Di Butera Nero D’Avola. This lush and impressive red is resplendent with a cherry fragrance and a hint of spice. The texture is smooth and velvety. I mean, it is easy to be lured into thinking you are downing a pricey bottle off wine, but for its complexity in taste, the price is reasonable enough for me to restock my wine cache with some of it.

Fourth Course

Of course by now, everyone at the table has a dreamy, hazy feeling from so much good food and even more fabulous wine. But what meal is complete without a dessert? None, I say. The dessert at Basil Leaf Cafe was indeed a new one to me. Crispy gnocchi with vanilla bean ice cream, topped with chocolate and pistachio came out in a substantial bowl. The ice cream with the chocolate shavings and pistachio was fine all by itself. However, the crispy gnocchi was a surprise and one that I welcomed. Now, I may add that the gnocchi was not crispy like a rice crispy bar and it was not deep-fried, but rather toasted. Not seasoned with anything other than perhaps a faint coat of sugar, what initially looked to be a heavy dessert turned out to be light. With this dessert finale was a dessert wine: a Castello del Poggio Brachetto. This reminded me of an ice wine that I had tried in the Finger Lakes region of New York State — a wine that was incredible and costly to match. And now that I think of it, the dessert was not overly sweet, and perhaps for good reason so that the sweetness of the wine would not create a saccharine crisis for all at the table.

Dessert

This was the second food and wine pairing that I have had within the past few weeks, the first at an exotic Asian boutique restaurant and now this addiction-filled dinner experience at Basil Leaf Cafe. Having partaken of food and wine pairings in the past, there were always dishes where clearly the chefs were trying too hard and they stumbled. What was apparent at Basil Leaf Cafe was that the chef knew the right mixture of ingredients for the dishes and how to present the star and supporting dishes so that nothing competed on the tongue. The wine pairings were worthy, each on the mark. With the photography that I do at all of the restaurants where I visit for journaling, it was also quite nice seeing others engage their food from the taste point of view and from the artistic standpoint. And how often do you get to say you dined with the president of an Italian winery that produces and sells some of the top wines in the world? New friends, new beginnings, wonderful service, and a memorable night of food and wine at one of Chicago’s spectacular Italian eateries. What more could I have asked for?

Answer: A cab home.

Basil Leaf Cafe on Urbanspoon

Vivo, Italian Style

Vivo

One of the great things about having a food blog is you often receive a lot of recommendations for restaurants to sample. There are some ethnicities that I do not have represented on Chicago Alphabet Soup and some that I do not have represented as thoroughly as possible. There is one community in Chicago that has a large presence and surprisingly, I had only two restaurants reflective of said community — Italian. A flurry of email notes had come to me lately and one that stood out more was with a suggestion that I try a certain Italian restaurant in Chicago’s Near West Loop. Having ventured into the West Loop neighbourhood on occasion to meet with friends at any of the few coffee shops, I was familiar with a lot of growth in the area and I also had the chance to dine at a few of the establishments there. But after following a cue from one individual who had recommended the Italian restaurant I mentioned, I have a feeling when I return from my assignment in Washington, DC, I shall venture to the West Loop more.

Black and Green

Black and Green

Vivo, at 838 W. Randolph Street, opened its doors twenty years ago and this fall marked its anniversary. Very large, mood lighting set, and filled with patrons whose palates appreciate fine dining, Vivo is a top restaurant that I am surprised I had never heard of prior to the prompting sent to me in an email note. While there are plenty of seats in the main dining area for small and large parties of diners, outdoor seating, and a very appealing full bar, there is also a relaxing lounge upstairs. But this adventure was about food, more than about leisure. A colleague and I met at the restaurant to treat our taste senses to the culinary delight of the Vivo kitchen, and so that I could now say that I have at least three Italian restaurants I can recommend without hesitation.

Cranberry Juice

Cranberry Juice

My friend and I had decided that we would not order from the menu, instead opting to accept advice from the server and have what came to the table. While we waited for the experience to begin, we partook of a whole loaf of bread with a saucer of grated parmesan and pepper in olive oil. The flavour of the bread and oil combination was a clear indication that the rest of the evening was going to be a winner. Because I had intentions of writing a journal of the evening, we had each dish come to the table individually. We started with a caprese, which is a simple antipasto that is very common in the Italian region of Campania. Four grilled tomatoes and mozzarella cheese seasoned with salt, ground pepper, basil leaves, and olive oil were served and our palates screamed with appreciation for the flavour that burst forth with each bit.

Insalata Caprese

Insalata Caprese

Next we had Gnocchi Gratinati. These handmade Italian potato dumplings with parmesan cream and black truffle essence usually come as an entrée. However, we were treated to the inviting dish as an appetizer. Having had Gnocci in the past that ranged dramatically between rubbery to mushy, it was a delight having it prepared in a manner such that it melted on the tongue. The cream gravy was perfect, that being it did not dominate the dish, and it was not so minimum that the dumplings were too much. There was a perfect marriage of ingredients, spices, and flavour.

Gnocci

Gnocchi

We had decided that we would have two entrées. Vivo entertains a rustic influence in the preparation of its food, so we opted for something with less of the traditional pasta and red sauce. The first entrée was a plate of salmon, potatoes, and salad. The starters were already top and having the salmon dish made us aware fully of just how splendid Vivo is with its dishes. The salmon was lightly seared, but not to the point where the salmon was dry. No, the salmon was tender, flaky, and full of flavour. Coupled with the rustic potatoes and salad that also tasted like the ingredients had been picked from a nearby garden, we received each bite with anticipation of what our next entrée would be like.

Entrée d'Salmon, Ensalada y Papas

Entrée d’Salmon,
Ensalada y Papas

And when the next entrée arrived at the table, we were treated with something that really sets Vivo apart from any other Italian restaurant I have dined at in Chicago. We had succulent lamb in a rich brown gravy served with risotto. Of course, by now, we were moving in slow motion, but we were very much happy with the dish. The lamb must have been cooked very slow for several hours because it pulled back from the bone without any assistance from us and there was very little chewing to be done, as the lamb could have been likened to the effect that you get when you eat cotton candy. As to the risotto, I will not try to cook it at home ever again. I shall go to Vivo any time I want risotto that leaves me with a smile and a longing for more. This risotto must be flagged in some critic’s write-up as the best in any Chicago restaurant. That is not exaggeration.

Lamb and Risotto

Lamb and Risotto

We sat for a while so that we could digest a bit of the food we had been eating — for what was about two hours with ten-minute breaks in between. After some time had passed, we decided that we would have a dolce or two. However, we opted for something light. First to the table was a plate of lemon sorbet, raspberry sorbet, and a mixture of fruit. Usually I would have gelato, but the sorbet was a very nice touch and an addictive choice. The lemon sorbet tasted as fresh as a freshly squeezed lemon. The raspberry sorbet had to have been prepared with fresh raspberries, much like the ones served along with sweet strawberries, and plump grapes. Next to the table was a slice of heaven. Pistachio ice cream under meringue and served with raspberries and strawberries under hot fudge was just the dessert that could salvage any broken relationship. These desserts were so delicious that it was wrong for them to be so blooming outstanding. This was the perfect end to a fabulous meal, although we left walking in slow motion because of so much food, so much delicious and inviting food.

Italian Ice Cream

Italian Ice Cream

Vivo is not a run-of-the-mill eatery and while most restaurants that have great ambience do not have the balance of great food from the kitchen, Vivo does a fantastic job in both atmosphere and dining. It is apparent that on weekends, there is an influx of patrons and the restaurant is in constant motion. However, the service was fabulous and top in a way that should be bottled and marketed to several eateries in Chicago and outside of Chicago. If you happen to be in Chicago’s Near West Loop neighbourhood, there are several options from which you can choose for your dining pleasure. If you want a dining experience that is a guarantee not to disappoint, make Vivo at 838 W. Randolph Street your destination. It took me a long time to get there, but it will not take me a long time to return.

Vivo, Relaxation

Vivo on Urbanspoon Vivo Restaurant on Foodio54