La Petite Folie dans Hyde Park

White Wine

White Wine

When I was in my 20’s, I had the opportunity to travel and work abroad. While many of my classmates were starting families, getting divorces, stabbing voodoo dolls of those who were enjoying life, and wearing fake smiles, I was jetting across the skies to Tokyo, Singapore, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, London, Stuttgart, and Beijing. One splendid city I got to travel to was Chalon-sur-Saône in France. Nothing like the metropolis of Paris, it was quaint in its own right. And the food was more provincial than the rich, sleep-inducing cuisines of the Parisian flare. Remembering my days of youth, I recalled a certain French restaurant in Chicago’s Hyde Park. Having never gone to the restaurant when I lived in Hyde Park for several years, I made a reservation so that I no longer had an excuse for never putting my feet under a table there. I was off to 1504 E. 55th Street in Hyde Park to see what I had been missing.

Crutide Salad

Crutide Salad

Because I wanted to enjoy my meal like a degustation, I started with a crutide salad. Marinated beets, celery remoulade, and carrot threads with herbed mustard vinaigrette sat atop a bed of spinach. Usually, the French will have carrots and celery in a vinaigrette for a snack. But having the vegetables chopped into threads and served under a drizzle of vinaigrette was just as fine.

Puréed Asparagus Soup

Puréed Asparagus Soup

The soup was a winner without a lot of seasoning added. For this course, I had puréed asparagus with asparagus tips and scallions. The flavouring, albeit light, was rather mild due to the soup being vegan. So, there was no broth added. Since my diet is low in salt, I was rather happy to enjoy the bowl of soup without overpowering herbs, competing spices, or heavy on sodium.

Sturgeon, Spinach, Potatoes

Sturgeon, Spinach, Potatoes

When it came to the entrée, I had mixed feelings. The sturgeon was fantastic. One thing to note is that sturgeon has a silky texture to it, so that can become a deterrent to those who are accustomed to flaky fish. Again, there wasn’t an overpowering recipe to the fish. The spinach was also flavourful without excess. The potatoes, however, were rather tough — the texture you find when something has set for a while and then reheated immediately before served. Had it not been for the sturgeon and spinach, the dish would have been comme ci, comme ca.

Gelatos: White Peach, Chocolate, Hazelnut

Gelatos: White Peach, Chocolate, Hazelnut

Now that I reached my 46th birthday, which was when I said I would add desserts back to my diet, I opted for three scoops of ice cream. There were white peach, chocolate, and hazelnut. Those were perfect, as they were light and not heavy with sugar the way cakes, pies, and cookies are. Plus, the scoops were ideal with the cup of coffee that I took with only milk.

While La Petite Folie has all the trimmings of French ambience, one may struggle with the provincial menu. There are no creams and rich sauces, which are what you find in Parisian restaurants. Granted I did not indulge the dishes with beef or chicken in them, those may have been in a heavy sauce. Nevertheless, the salad, soup, and entrée were very much reminiscent of what I remembered from passing through Eastern France. For those who are conscious about their budget, La Petite Folie surprisingly is not taxing on the wallet. This could be an incentive for you to try several delights of their offerings. I shall certainly return to see what else they have for my appetite. In the meantime, Bon appetit!

La Petite Folie on Urbanspoon

Revisiting Caffe De Luca

Caffe de Luca

After a beautiful Saturday with a sky devoid of clouds and temperatures in the 70′s, Sunday began with overcast skies, temperatures in the 50′s, and a constant breeze. The only good thing about the rain is that it probably washed away a bit of the pollen that had been in the air. Nothing can be more aggravating than the feeling of having pepper in your eyes. But, hey, that does nothing to my insatiable appetite. In my blue Jetta that had a bit of a green colouring to it from a light powdering of pollen, I was on my way in search of food. And once I realized how irritating it is to find parking in Chicago proper, I drove out to the neighbouring suburb of Forest Park. Plenty of options available and me being decisive, I walked into Caffe De Luca at 7427 Madison Street.

Broccoli and Cheese Quiche and Fruit

Broccoli and Cheese Quiche and Fruit

I recalled Caffe De Luca when there was the location in Wicker Park. I had gone on my first visit one New Year’s Eve when I wanted to have dinner without entertaining a lot of friends being scrambled about where to dine, when to gather, what to wear in case we were going to a New Year’s Eve party afterwards, and why the restaurant had to be in Wicker Park. I went alone and was a hundred miles past the last exit to Overjoyed when all was said and done. The Forest Park location has the same rustic feel and layout, which were least of my culinary concerns. It were the flavours of Italy I was hoping to relive.

Grilled Shrimp and Asparagus Salad

Grilled Shrimp and Asparagus Salad

Now, because I went during brunch time, I knew I was not going to have spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna, pasta, or any of that. No, I started with a broccoli and cheddar quiche and a mixed fruit of honeydew melon, grapes, cantaloupe, and pineapples. The quiche was fluffy. Last time I had a quiche that fluffy was at Eastgate Cafe in Hyde Park, where the owner had explained that she preferred an airy quiche to a dense one. After finishing the quiche and fruit, I then had grilled shrimp and asparagus salad. This salad could be within the top 5 pescatarian delights. Worthy of each bite, I devoured it as reasonably slowly as possible to keep from looking like a man who hadn’t eaten in several days.

The brunch was very satisfying and the price was fantastic. I shall have to return for dinner one evening to see if I can recapture the sensation I experienced during my visit to Caffe De Luca in Wicker Park. Caffe De Luca in Wicker Park is no longer on the Wicker Park landscape, so I shall remove my first post. However, here are the compositions that I captured when I went. Sigh. I miss having Caffe De Luca so close to home.

Bread, Wafers, Chianti

Bread, Wafers, Chianti

Grilled Calamari

Grilled Calamari

Tortellechi Carbonara, Chianti

Tortellechi Carbonara, Chianti

Tortellechi Carbonara

Tortellechi Carbonara

Espresso with Honey

Espresso with Honey

Tiramisu, Coffee

Tiramisu, Coffee

Caffe de Luca on Urbanspoon

More Angry Pasta at Vapiano

Ginger Ale

Ginger Ale

Note: The Lincoln Park location at 2577 N. Clark Street closed in July, 2014. There is a new location in The Loop at 44 S. Wabash Avenue.

My appetite alarm had gone off an hour before it was time for the close of my day at work. Suffice it to say, that is problematic in ways that I can’t describe. All of my thoughts become scrambled and I get edgy to the point of being irritable. I keep saying to myself that I have to do something about my constant appetite, but that may require therapy. And I don’t have money to give to a therapist when I prefer forking it over to a restaurant. Needless to say, I wanted something with a kick to it because the weather outside was biting. To my wondering surprise, I had received a text message from a friend who had mentioned a restaurant in the Lincoln Park neighbourhood, at 2577 N. Clark Street called Vapiano. I recalled walking by the restaurant countless times and thinking, Oh, that looks like a cool lounge. Well, I had to put my thoughts of chi-chi ambience aside and do something about my growling belly. So, I was on the #22 Clark Street bus heading to Vapiano to show some love — or a display of usual hunger.

Strawberry Spinach Salad

Strawberry Spinach Salad

Not even through the door good, the hostess greeted me with a warm welcome. With the wave of her arm, I had my pick of seats. I had arrived before the crowd and it was fantastic being able to choose a seat without any children of the corn and negligent parents in sight. Having a clear view of the open kitchen, my food alarm was dictating that I really indulge. Indulged I did. It was off to the bar for a ginger ale — yes, a non-alcoholic drink since this was a “school night.” Then I was off to the salad bar for what I thought would be a side salad. I ordered a spinach and strawberry salad that was topped with goat cheese, pine nuts, and balsamic vinaigrette. This “thing” didn’t come on a small plate. It came in a huge, deep dish. If I could put a face on my appetite, let’s just say that it wore a huge smile. While I am not the greatest fan of goat cheese, when it is added to a salad as an accent, it makes everything splendid in the world.

Penne Arrabbiata

Penne Arrabbiata

My next order was penne arrabbiata. My pores exhale spices and I tend to love dishes that are heavy-handed with spices. While placing my order for the pasta dish, the chef asked me how spicy I wanted it, on a scale of 1 to 5. After he gave a jeering smile, I settled on a 4. He prepared the penne arrabbiata ANGRY the way that it should be, the way that I like it. The beauty of the dish was that this didn’t come from a bag, out of a can, or from some frozen tray. There was nothing fast about its preparation and the flavour, spicy and angry as it was, was a testament to Vapiano making sure not to fall into the category of “fast food.” Oh, and I used the homemade Italian bread to sop up the sauce. Bravo!!!

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

My New Year’s Absolution was to minimize the amount of sweets in my diet. So far, I have been off to a good start. However, I have willpower issues. I had a chat with my nutritionist, or rather a pleading session, about being able to treat myself every once in a while. She told me that instead of having a hunk of cake, fist size scoop of ice cream, eye-popping slice of ice cream, or slab of cheesecake, I could have an occasional scoop of sorbet, bowl of fruit, or a light cream dessert. Well, what should Vapiano have as a dessert option but a panna cota with strawberry sauce? It was light. It was creamy. It was dreamy. It was my allotment for the month of January. I ordered a cappuccino that I drank sans any sweetener. Either the coffee had been prepared with a quality bean or in a cappuccino machine that wasn’t caked with coffee mud. Wait. The coffee was Illy. Yep, for those who have gone to Intelligentia and are in the know about good coffee, Illy ranks up there on the “Never Disappointing” list. My appetite screamed, Molto bene!!!.

Panna Cota with Strawberry Sauce

Panna Cota with Strawberry Sauce

If you have been to Food Life in Water Tower, you will have some familiarity with the method for ordering and obtaining your food. You receive a card, after which you then go to which ever station you wish to order — salads, pasta, beverages, and desserts. When you give your order, you then “register” your order at the station. Once the orders have been fulfilled, you then pick them up, return to your table, and commence to devouring all the good eats. When all is done, you pay at the close by giving the cashier your card, who then cashes you out. It’s that simple. There are no servers who come to your table, takes your order, and brings your food to you. The atmosphere is spacious and great for a gathering of friends, especially in the bar area. While many may think that a restaurant void of a server providing table service is the equivalent of fast food, the output from the kitchen is anything but fast. And with me having had angry pasta that tasted the way I remember it tasting in Florence, I think I shall have to return to see if it was just my hunger that made the dish taste so blooming tasty, or if it was indeed heaven buried on red sauce.

Vapiano 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.

Ready, Freddy’s

Freddy's Pizza and Grocery

I have been on a serious Italian kick as of late, so a friend had recommended a certain Italian grocery store/restaurant in Cicero, Illinois. Since it is not on any main road where there is a long list of eateries from which to choose, it was one of those holes in the wall that I had missed whenever I passed down the road where it is located. I figured I would try it out since it was a small family owned place and you certainly get some of the best food from those kinds of establishments. After constant prefaces of the place not being chic-chic, it was apparent that after five years of knowing me, my friend doesn’t realize that Caribbean stock care far less about how a restaurant looks because we are strictly about whether the food warrants an applause.

Italian Bread

Italian Bread

Ready? Set? And off we went to Freddy’s at 1600 S. 61St Avenue in Cicero. On entry, you walk into a grocery store where you can purchase your share of Italian products for all of your Italian recipes. Then you approach the counter where you are greeted with cooked meats, pastas, antipastas, salads, and a very inviting staff. One thing that was noticeable was that there is apparently a constant set of regular customers who come in. That becomes evident when everyone at Freddy’s would greet certain customers by first name or simply start dishing up food without the customers having to say what it was they wanted. Despite the long lines — and believe me when I say that they get to be long — those who are behind the counter don’t rush you, as they answer all questions you have about what they have on their display. We of Caribbean makeup are accustomed to that kind of service.

Mediterranean Salad

Mediterranean Salad

My friend and I ordered Mediterranean salad. Most would consider it to be a house salad because of the lettuce and tomatoes. But there were black olives and feta cheese added, and topped with a vinaigrette. Sure it may be pedestrian to most, but once you bite into the lettuce and the tomatoes, you start to wonder if the produce had come from a local garden, not from a bag snatched off the shelf at the nearby market. With the complimentary loaf of Italian bread, I checked this off as a “Good Start.”

Cheese Ravioli in Vodka Sauce

Cheese Ravioli in Vodka Sauce

The homemade cheese ravioli with vodka sauce was the light to my fuse. It took me years to start indulging ravioli because having eaten Chef Boy-Ardee ravioli as a child, there was something in my early adult life that had told me ravioli was a work of the devil. After years of living in Chicago and divining myself on some real Italian food, ravioli had worked itself in to my diet. The cheese ravioli at Freddy’s was a prime example of why I love the menu item so much. The vodka sauce was neither bland, nor salty, nor acrid. Thinking that the substantial amount of ravioli piled up on the plate would feed into a noticeable cha-ching once things were rung up at the register, I was rather shocked to discovered that the price was way less than what I had expected. Full of flavour but not with a high charge accordingly, I was way past happy.

Chicken Piccata

Chicken Piccata

We went a notch up with a plate of chicken piccata. I like fish in a lemon base, but not my chicken per se. This dish changed it all. I think part of the problem with chicken piccata I have had in the past was that it seemed the chicken was cooked in pure lemon juice without any other herbs and spices. I was expecting to have my eyes scrunched and the bite of lemon nipping at the back of my jaw. That was not the case. The basil, the sauce, and bloom in each bite, I requested another loaf of bread and used it to sop the sauce. There was no reason to sit around like a charm school student when such a tender piece of chicken was as appetizing as it was. Defeat was nearing but not absolute, for we dealt a wonderful blow to the plate of chicken masala that was buried under fresh, plump mushrooms. I don’t know how they prepare the chicken at Freddy’s but it is ridiculously juicy and so tender you could liken slicing it to cutting a cloud. Again, I got more bread so that I could go around the plate to sop up the worthy gravy.

Chicken Marsala

Chicken Marsala

If you go to Freddy’s, I highly recommend finding out when they open. GO THEN. They are incredibly good at the service and the food that they prepare. The wait is worth it, but you may want to start indulging immediately rather than wait. Freddy’s has a cash-only policy, so keep that in mind. I did not get to survey the full lay of the small grocery store to see what all they had on their shelves. Much like a lot of small ethnic grocery stores, the products are of a quality to make your recipes pop more than they would if you were to buy the same products from a big box grocery store.  If I could force myself to get out of bed earlier on Saturdays, I would rush down to Cicero so that I am at Freddy’s when the door opens. At some point I will and I will lick my fingers like we Caribbean people do when we feast on food that we like.

Freddy's Pizzeria on Urbanspoon Freddy's Pizzeria on Foodio54

Italian Style at Mancini’s

Italian Bread

Italian Bread

My herbs and spice rack was running low on product. That meant it was time for some replenishment. With the temperatures getting chillier, there will be pumpkin soup, sweet potato soup, apple cobbler, blackberry cobbler, gingerbread loaves, and helpless gingerbread people who will never escape the vice of my pretty teeth. You simply cannot have any of that without some cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, ginger, allspice, and other spices. I know you’re saying, “So what?” Well, your inquiry is a good segue into my story. In Oak Park, Illinois, there is a spice shop by the name of Penzey’s. It’s the equivalent of a chef’s candy store. Unlike the products you will find on the spice aisles at your big box grocery store, the products at Penzey’s have pizzazz for your recipes. Everything pops when you add a bit of Penzey’s to your ingredients.

After spending almost an hour in Penzey’s and purchasing more than I had anticipated — why didn’t someone tell me that saffron was so blooming EXPENSIVE? — I did a little skippy-do-da across the street to Mancini’s for some Italian smile-inducing menu items. For years I had been intending to go to Mancini’s and there was a moment in time when it had closed. Then it opened again in a new location at 1111 Lake Street. There was no reason for me to have several more years pass before seeing if they were worthy.

THEY ARE WORTHY!!!

Fried Ravioli

Fried Ravioli

In usual metropolitan Chicago fashion, the temperatures had waffled towards being warmer. So, I sat outside and gobbled a loaf of homemade Italian bread with olive oil and parmesan cheese while scanning the menu. Ah, I had decided that I would mess up my diet briefly by indulging some fried cheese ravioli. I didn’t go wrong with the order. I haven’t had any fried ravioli that I have not fallen in love with and Mancini’s now ranks up there with restaurants that get it correct. Any time I think of fried menu items, I am reminded of the Texas State Fair and the murderous deep-fried what-not things they sell — fried Twinkies, fried Snickers, double fried turkey legs, fried shrimp and grits, fried spaghetti and meatballs, fried collard greens, fried Kool Aid, fried candy apples, fried cheese, fried macaroni and cheese, fried Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and countless other fried baddies that make you want to run through oncoming traffic. My cholesterol and blood pressure skyrocket thinking about it all. I am not making this up either.

Salad with Raspberry Vinaigrette

Salad with Raspberry Vinaigrette

To balance out indulging eight, small fried ravioli with some incredibly flavourful marinara sauce — didn’t taste like it came out of a jar, and the tomatoes were much too chunky to convince me otherwise — I had a green salad. No Thousand Island dressing. No ranch. No Caesar dressing. I had a raspberry vinaigrette. I had a stupid smile on my face afterwards. I had told my server that I did not want any nuts on the salad because that is a sure way of having my salad tossed on the ground. (Pause) Okay, I’m not that petty. But the salad sans the nuts and with the raspberry vinaigrette would have been enough to convince me that feasting on rabbit food is an option that would appeal to my discriminating palate. Rabbit food is like ambrosia when served with a raspberry vinaigrette.

Shrimp Fra Diavalo

Shrimp Fra Diavalo

It was clear that Mancini’s was not a rustic Italian eatery. Most of the pasta dishes had a red sauce base to them. And considering they are popular for their pizza, I guess tomato based sauces would be more popular as well. There was nothing wrong with that. It was quite evident that they do best with tomato bases because the shrimp fra diavolo reminded me of the “I need a cigarette STAT” arrabbiata dishes I have had. There was a spicy punch to the shrimp fra diavolo that made it more than worth the order. The abundant shrimp burst as I bit through the plump figures. A few words to describe the shrimp fra diavolo: angry, fresh, mandatory, much-needed, blissful, and Oh my God, I must have some more of this.

Homemade Gelato

Homemade Gelato

By the time I had finished all of the food that had been set in front of me, I needed about fifteen minutes of sitting still to let it all go down. There was dessert to be had. I wasn’t leaving without having any. No way. No how. No tiramisu. No canolli. I had homemade gelato. My eyes rolled, and I don’t mean that in a bad way either. Scooping stracciatella, nocciola, dark chocolate sorbet, and banana with the miniature spatula, there was a brief blanking out as I think I had leapt out of my seat and performed some kind of dance without knowing I was out of my head. That had to have been it because people were looking at me and clapping. I keep saying that I need to seek therapy for the blackout moments, but I often find myself making plans to go to some other eatery rather than finding a proper therapist.

The visit to Mancini’s was long overdue. I think part of my delay had been due to the fact that it’s known for being a popular pizzeria. I am not big on having pizza from any place that isn’t a hole in the wall. Chicago has some big box style restaurants that sell pizza and I find myself smiling a plastic smile when gnawing endlessly on cheese in the like manner of chewing a huge wad of gum. You don’t suffer through your pizza dining experience like that at the suspicious pizza shacks. I am glad that I ordered from the pasta offerings. My server was outstanding with recommendations and being able to say absolutely that the shrimp fra diavolo was their best pasta dish. There was no waffling and remarks of, “Well, I like everything.” That kind of decisiveness is very Italian and I like that. She was just as direct with convincing me that I wanted some gelato and suggesting flavours that would go over well. Having bought a season’s worth of spices, I don’t know when I will get back to Penzey’s, but I will be going to Mancini’s again in the a few days.

Mancini's Pizza Pasta Cafe on Urbanspoon Mancini's on Foodio54

Bismillah, Let Him Go

Bismillah

Every time I go back to London, I return to America with my pores exhaling curry, cumin, and other spices found in Indian food. London has a large Indian population and with that comes the best Indian food outside of India. Chicago doesn’t fall too far behind in having a plethora of restaurants representative of the flavours of India. I exude curry since I am constantly in any one of the Indian cafes on Devon Street. If you are a diligent foodist like me, you will manage to discover some fooderies that are not on any main stretch or within sniffing distance. For example, with traffic being incredibly congested in a section of the North Side — in Edgewater to be exact — I had to snake my way down a side street to avoid sitting still. And what to my surprise should I spy at 6301 N. Ridge Avenue but a hole-in-the-wall by the name of Bismillah. It had to have been serendipity because I was listening to “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen at the very same time I spotted the restaurant. Imagine that.

Vegetable Samosas

Vegetable Samosas

In true hole-in-the-wall fashion, Bismillah will not win any awards for interior decoration. And if you go to the restaurant for aesthetics, you may be too caught up in cosmetics to enjoy the good food that Bismillah serves. While at the counter, I scanned the one menu that was available and placed my order. I was not going to waste my time playing like a curious eater while fighting the temptation to jump behind the counter and start attacking the tasty food that I could see being cooked in the open kitchen. I ordered two vegetable samosas and chicken boti. The two fist-size samosas came with a mint sauce. I mashed up the samosa, poured a nice amount of the mint sauce on them, and handled my business. I smiled. When the skewered, boneless pieces of chicken that looked and tasted like tandoori chicken arrived at the table with basmati rice and a small salad, I was then ready for devouring my main dish. The chicken popped with each bite, an explosion of flavour, a revelation of having something several notches past delectable. It was so good that I exclaimed, “In the name of God,” or bismillah for those in the know. If I continue to eat at all these ethnic eateries, I will become fluent in more than the short list of languages that I speak. When I was done, I had a chai in the traditional manner of an after-supper drink.

Chicken Boti

Chicken Boti

Bismillah is a cash-only restaurant. Yes, many restaurants accept MasterCard, Visa, Discover, and American Express. The prices are incredibly reasonable for the quality and the quantity that you receive. I should warn you that the portions are substantial. And if you are accustomed to going to restaurants that deliver your order in the speed that you get your food when you go to fast food restaurants, every order is prepared on-demand. Nothing is sitting in pots and pans or under heat lamps, so you get everything fresh. Devon Street where? This off-the-path find was worthy of the discovery. There is something to be said for traffic congestion in Chicago and things that you stumble upon when you are trying to circumvent sitting behind the wheel without moving. Bismillah is one of those discoveries that pleases the appetite. And in “Bohemian Rhapsody” when Queen asks the question, “Bismillah, will you let him go,” picture me smashing the record and declaring, “Bismillah, never let me go! Bring me some more chai.”

Bismillah Restaurant on Urbanspoon Bismillah Restaurant on Foodio54

Armenian, Siunik and Oberweis — Oh, Be Wise

Note: Suinik Armenian Grill has moved to 1707 Chestnut Avenue in Glenview, Illinois.

Last year there were some weekends that had such great weather that I took advantage of riding my bicycle through several neighbourhoods without succumbing to dehydration. The fun thing with the bike rides was going down side streets and happening upon various little hidden coves of cafés and boutiques. When driving and when riding public transit, you see everything from the main road. Hidden gems down residential streets and around corners never pass the eyes such that you register their presence. I missed those discoveries. And earlier this year, I found Skokie, Illinois, to have several points of interest that no one brings to life in discussion. One spot that jumped out at me when I had gone to Skokie for Afghani and then again for Jamaican food was a certain Armenian grill.

Siunik

Siunik Armenian Grill has a bit of that Chipotle “thing” going. But the authenticity in the flavouring of the food will soon make you forget that Chipotle exists. At 4639 Oakton Street in Skokie, Siunik Armenian Grill serves up some “real” Armenian tastes. All the other Armenians who continuously poured in will co-sign on that observation. I had a chicken kebab plate. The spiced chicken looked as though it could have been dry but when you bit down into each piece and it exploded with juice, I gave up on judging books by their covers. And the couscous with mushrooms puts the generic couscous that Middle Eastern fast food eateries serve to shame. There must be a marinade to the mushrooms because it was not merely a case of biting into something with texture. It was all about sinking teeth into a recipe that had been prepared to tradition. The two pedestrian items that I had were cabbage salad and bread. The cabbage salad reminded me of slaw without the mayonnaise – and I was happy all the same without it. But then there was the hummus. Again, this was not a menu item that was simply added to the bill of fare because everyone is serving hummus. Even after having skimmed the paprika and cilantro off the top with a scoop of the bread, there was so much bloom in the recipe that I ordered some to go.

Armenian Chicken Plate

Armenian Chicken Plate

When I was all done, I headed North into Skokie in search of some ice cream. In the Chicago metropolitan area, ice cream parlours are generally taken over by teenagers and tweens who giggle and embed the word “like” between every other word they use in sentences. And that’s before, during, and after ordering their ice cream. Yet I still burn for some creamy treats on occasion and I endure the torture of giggling, indecisiveness, and excessive use of “like.” What should be nearby but an Oberweis creamery at 4811 Dempster Street. It had to have been divine because the ice cream parlour was absent of the giggle-like nightmare. I ordered a fudge sundae with cookies and cream and espresso cappuccino for my two scoops. I was so very, very, incredibly, magnificently, stupendously happy. I guess it goes without saying that I was also bordering on food comatose.

Double Scoop Sundae

Double Scoop Sundae

Much like sections of Chicago proper, immediate neighbouring suburbs also have a few locations that go unnoticed. It takes a casual drive or a long stroll through some areas to find these areas where tradition meets culinary delights. It very well could be that tourism is not the target import and so there is no advertisement to draw larger crowds to these gems. However, you do find those representative of the ethnicities present and that is always an indication that the restaurants reflect the “old country” proper. I have passed by several locations that flashed by my peripheral and have considered returning for longer gazes to see what would tempt the palate. Had I not done just that this past weekend, I never would have had some of the most delicious Armenian.

Siunik Armenian Grill on Urbanspoon Siunik Armenian Grill on Foodio54

WOW — Eat Like an Egyptian

WOW Egyptian Fast Food

The thing about being a xenophile is that you tend to become a curiosity seeker when it comes to food. A few years ago when I worked in the suburbs, there was a stretch through Addison, Glen Ellyn, Bloomingdale, and Carol Stream where you could find a plethora of fast food eateries (i.e., McDonald’s, Burger King, Five Guys, KFC, etc.) and stock big box restaurants (i.e., Red Lobster, Olive Garden, TGIFridays, and the like). All of the Indian restaurants on and off the main stretch of Army Trail Road have since closed and any other ethnic restaurants, outside of the Chop Suey style Chinese restaurant, were usually found by happenstance. There was, however, one restaurant that had a very slow opening — WOW Egyptian Fast Food at 105 Stark Drive in Carol Stream. Tucked off the western end of Gary Road once you turn from Army Trail Road to go south, you may miss it. What you will definitely miss is some very good Egyptian food, albeit fast food.

Ice Karkade

Ice Karkade

On entry, the jovial Egyptian behind the counter was, in a word, cool. Go to any American fast food restaurant and you get an obligatory, “Hello, welcome to [fill in the blank]. How may I help you?” It’s almost like asking someone if they want to walk across a pit of burning coals. What I got was, “Is this your first time?” to which I responded, “No.” With bright eyes, he gave me a hearty welcome. After I thanked him in Arabic, that was it. It was as though I was a long, lost friend who had returned from abroad. Perhaps he thought there was a bit of Sudanese in me and with Arabic being the mother tongue in Sudan, it was fair game to assume that I spoke the language fluently. My cultural makeup was even more interest for conversation. So the customer service went full tilt past 10 on a rating board and stayed up there even after I had mentioned that my Arabic was slightly conversational only.

Kufta Chicken

Kufta Chicken

It was not necessarily a hot day, but it was moderately humid. That meant that a refreshing drink was in order. So, I ordered an iced karkade. I had to try this traditional tea so that I could see if it reminded me of the hibiscus tea I had thanks to a cab drive in Alexandria, Egypt, many years ago. Hibiscus tea in the bag that you get from your local market and even the loose leaf version that you buy in some tea shops don’t compare to what you get in Egypt. And having drank the iced karkade sans sugar, these Egyptians were true to tradition. For the meal, I had a plate of kufta chicken with Jerusalem salad and turmeric rice. Think of chicken sausage, although there is no sausage involved, only that the chicken is prepared in such a manner that it looks like a sausage concoction. With yogurt and hot sauce, and I don’t mean the kind of hot sauce that you buy at your local market, the flavours explode. The rice is not a bland accompaniment to the dish thanks to the turmeric accent. And the Jerusalem salad contained two of my favourite ingredients — tomatoes and cilantro. With complimentary pita bread, I ate everything to a satisfying ending.

Kufta Chicken

Kufta Chicken

When the cashier had said to me that I would tell all of my friends that this was the best Egyptian food in the whole of Illinois, I thought that was a bit presumptuous of him. He apparently had sipped some truth serum before coming to work and it had not worn off. Sure, WOW Egyptian Fast Food is the only Egyptian restaurant in the Chicago metropolitan area, but the food is worth the trek out to the suburbs. Well, it is for me, as getting to good food is not an inconvenience at all. Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and North African cuisine have forced Italian and Mexican food into second and third place here in the Chicago area. The good thing about WOW Egyptian Fast Food is that unlike the long list of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean fast food restaurants that have been indoctrinated with the Chipotle assembly line method of food preparation, you don’t get that at WOW. You get hot food from the kitchen, unless you order salad, hummus, and babaganoush. And what of price you may ask? Ah, I got what I paid for and it may be fair to say that the quality bested the cost. Nevertheless, I will walk like an Egyptian, drive like an Egyptian, and eat like an Egyptian whenever the desire to return to WOW Egyptian Fast Food comes again.

Wow Egyptian Fast Food on Urbanspoon

Return to Persia — Masouleh

Masouleh Restaurant

Several week ago a former colleague — who I catch up with weekly — had sent a text message to me about a cluster of restaurants in the 6600 block of N. Clark Street in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighbourhood. I was shocked to find out that Rogers Park was blossoming into such a hub of great culinary delights. As I had mentioned in a previous post, it was mostly Mexican restaurants in the eastern part of Rogers Park, which is where I had lived for a few years. As the city is starting to fill in more with other ethnicities, the restaurants are starting to become more reflective of the new faces. And the very good thing about it is that the restaurants are more culturally grounded than what you get the closer you get to downtown. The restaurants put forth authenticity, not tourist trappings, and that means you are getting something very reminiscent of the “old country.”

Having gone to one of the restaurants the evening of the day that I had received the text, I did not have a camera to photograph the food properly. That meant I had to return. So, I had a break in my schedule — from cleaning my condo — and I dashed to Masouleh Persian Restaurant at 6653 N. Clark Street to recapture the taste and to capture the impressions of the good things that came from their Persian kitchen. I will first start by saying that it is apparent — to me — that the service is consistently top. Although the server was rather soft-spoken, and that may be due to conversational comfort with English, there was the welcoming atmosphere my colleague, two other friends, and I received on our first visit. It may have also helped that my conversational Arabic and attempt at Kurdish eased things a little more. But I had my camera, appetite, and a window seat. I was ready.

Herbs, Cheese, Radish

Herbs, Cheese, Radish

Borani Badamjan

Borani Badamjan

I had complimentary herbs, radish, and cheese along with pita bread. I cannot stress it enough, but you can never go wrong with cilantro. As for anyone who thinks otherwise, the sun may rise from the west in their world. I love radish, so that was a plus. And the “stinky” cheese, although it really does not stink, went well for a palate preparatory and cleanser. The pita bread was not reheated and quite evident to the consistent soft touch right down to the very last piece.

For starters, I had borani badamjan, which was a cup of smoked eggplant in yogurt. It has become increasingly clear to me that eggplant prepared at Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurants warrants a shout of bravo. I had gone to an Afghani restaurant several months past and fell in love with the eggplant dish served there. Granted the borani badamjan is chilled, the warmth of the pita balanced out things just nicely. However, the smoked flavouring in the borani badamjan screamed wow. Next was olivieh. This salad of eggs and chicken with a few English peas added was one of the highlights that I was actually hankering for. Hence, part of my reason for returning. I am not one for eating just anyone’s dish prepared in the manner of egg salad. Trust me when I say that Masouleh is the exception to the rule.

Olivieh

Olivieh

Lentil Soup

Lentil Soup

With the main dish that I had ordered, there came lentil soup. Again, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurants shine when putting cups and bowls of lentil soup in front of you. This soup came with a dollop of yogurt and accented further with olive oil and herbs. I honestly believe that the farther away you go from downtown, the more genuine recipes are. Because any lentil soup I have had closer to downtown, the more I am inclined to believe they use some variety of Campbell’s soup because the “common palates” that indulges those eateries don’t know any better. They need to go to Masouleh and quickly.

Just to have two choices of meats, I ordered chenjeh, joujeh, and rice. The chenjeh — spiced beef — looked as though it could have been dry. The looks were deceiving because the beef was so tender and juicy that it burst with each bit. There was the same with the joujeh, which was spiced chicken. Each bite was love and with me sitting at the window, it was a presentation in appreciation. As if the beef and the chicken were the only highlights, the rice reminded me of Indian basmati rice. No sticky mess, and no over-cooked fluff, this rice was an idyllic complement to the chenjeh and joujeh, apparent from me polishing off all of it and taking some of the pita bread and going around the plate to get the last of it all.

Chenjeh, Joujeh, and Rice

Chenjeh, Joujeh, and Rice

Persian Ice Cream

Persian Ice Cream

I sat for a while to let things settle and to fend off food comatose. After a few minutes, I inquired about the dessert fare. There were baklava and Persian ice cream. You can get baklava from anywhere. I wouldn’t be surprise if Dunkin Donuts doesn’t have a baklava doughnut. But you can’t get Persian ice cream from just anywhere. Guess what I had. Yes, I had the Persian ice cream, flavoured with rose-water and saffron, and topped with crushed pistachios. You have not had ice cream until you have had Persian ice cream. Think Haagen Daas is all that? Baskin Robbins gets you doing a skippy-do-da when ice cream comes to mind? Oberweis screams, “Come and get some”? You can’t get enough of Breyers? Is your relationship or marriage about to come undone? Make an appointment to go to Masouleh and have some of that Persian ice cream. It will make everything alright.

After spooning as much of the ice cream out of the glass as I could, I had Persian tea. No, we’re not talking Lipton or Nestea. We’re not even talking tea brewed from a tea bag. This was authentic Persian tea and a mark of really Persian tea prepared well is that you can drink it without any sugar. I simply sat at the window, sipping tea and smiling. Well, that was after I clicked some photos to post on the blog. But, nevertheless, I had enjoyed my Saturday lunch and thought briefly of those who sit at home — in Chicago, of all places — wondering what to do and where to go. (Pause) No, I won’t tell that lie. I was too well fed to think of any other self-martyrs.

Persian  Tea

Persian Tea

Masouleh is not a big box restaurant. While there are more than four tables, the restaurant has an ambience of closeness. It’s the kind of restaurant where you go with family and friends so that you dine communally. I remember the first night going, seeing several tables with Iranians. If there was no other indication of authenticity to the food, seeing other Iranians in the establishment was all that I needed. And at the rate Rogers Park is filling in with a lot of cultural variety, Masouleh will quickly become one of many options that I highly recommend. In the meantime, Masouleh is destined to be on my Top 10 list for 2013.

Masouleh on Urbanspoon Masouleh on Foodio54