H. Forman & Son, Smoked Salmon From Heaven

H. Forman & Son, the oldest smoked salmon factory in the world and based out of London, UK, with a location in Northbook, IL, hosted an event recently at 3 Greens Market in River North at 354 W. Hubbard Street, where bloggers and tastemakers met for a sampling of several salmon. All were treated to offerings of London Cure smoked Scottish salmon — cream cheese maki, Sashimi Grade salmon prime loin, and salmon crostini. For the gravadlax offerings, there were Dill cured salmon, Thai cured salmon, and gin and tonic cured salmon.

Smoked Salmon Seafood Selection

Although H. Forman & Son has some of the freshest and most flavourful salmon, they also have a fish collection ranging from smoked Dutch eel to smoked yellowfin tuna to keta trout caviar. Those at the event also got the chance to sample two items from the H. Forman & Son restaurant collection — a paupiette of hot smoked wild salmon mousse as well as a paupiette of blue crab and lobster.

Seafood Flight

Not only were the food bloggers and tastemakers treated to a delightful selection of smoked salmon and seafood, but they were also enlightened to the processing involved in preparation of the seafood. Noting that neither sugar, nor nitrates, nor colouring, nor brining is introduced into processing, what comes out is delectable salmon with a hint of oak wood smoke that enhances the natural flavour.

Preparation Salmon and Roe Salmon Brunch

Those who love fresh seafood and especially smoked salmon, purchasing options are available via the Formans USA website. Additional menu options for purchases may be accessed via Shop All Collections from the main page. If you are purchasing online, use promo code alphabet20 for a 20% discount during checkout.

Smoked Salmon, Choice Selection

AraOn — Asia Takes Over France in Chicago

With Chicago’s ongoing renaissance, The Loop is filling in more with restaurants that remain open past happy hour. I was surprised to find AraOn in a rather inconspicuous location at 160 W. Adams Street tucked between W Hotel and US Bank. Noting the moniker of Asian French Cuisine, I figured it would behoove me to see what the menu had that would make me okay with delaying going home for the evening.

Ara On

There is a big box feel to AraOn and I expected that given it’s location downtown. Some people are rather Better Homes & Gardens with their thoughts about restaurants, so they will love the decor. I like the fact that seats are not on top of each other which means you don’t have to compete with your neighbours to be heard during conversation with members of your own party. What matters to me most is if the main thing I’m paying for was worth it: food and/or drink.

Miso Soup

Miso Soup

I am leery of fusion, especially when it comes to certain Asian cuisines blending with European or South American flavours where there was no influence per Asian migration. I must admit that AraOn gets it right. For my first course, I started with a miso soup. This was the traditional preparation and there was nothing amiss with it. The second course consisted of duck dumplings that came with braised mustard greens, shrimp, and maitake mushrooms in a consomme of seafood-duck broth. This was the one dish that I noticed had a blend of Asian preparation with the dumplings blended with French preparation of the consomme.

Duck Dumplings

Duck Dumplings

There was a brief l’amuse of sashimi salmon with roe atop a savoury gravy that I had not expected. Immediately after the first bite, I acknowledged that I could have indulged the dish as a regular course. The salmon was meaty without being oily and the “clean” flavour was an indication of having some of what was no doubt fresh catch seafood.

L'amuse

L’amuse

The third course was a clay bowl of sesame crusted salmon with bibimbap. Not only was the salmon bursting with flavour, but it was incredibly flaky while being succulent. I can’t state any French influence in this dish, but the bibimbap is my favourite Korean dish. Kimchee, bean sprouts, pickled shiitake mushroom, spinach, and braised beef short rib nicely sectioned off that I mixed with rice and a spicy pepper sauce made for a hearty dish that again reminded me of why bibimbap is indeed a favourite.

Salmon with Bibimbap

Salmon with Bibimbap

I saved room for a fourth course of dessert. That came as matcha ice cream atop lemon custard with meringue crisps — so reminiscent of lemon meringue pie — and matcha macarons. The matcha was prevalent in the dessert, but not overpowering, which gave me an hint that loose leaf tea was used in the preparation. Small indicators like this wink at an appreciation for culinary arts because a quick dessert would have lacked in flavour sorely.

Matcha Ice Cream

Matcha Ice Cream

The service at AraOn is winning. The food is also worthy of repeat visits. And for what tastes like fine dining, the prices are reasonable. I have to remember to switch into my British and Caribbean modes so that there is a stagger of 5-10 minutes between courses. There were overlaps during the courses. Add to that I paired wine with the dishes, there was a bit of a rush that resulted in me being sated too fast and buzzed. Understanding that it is not possible for restaurants in and around downtown to know when individuals prefer to dine with ease or with haste, I shall adjust my ordering technique accordingly in the future. I’ll order a course, hold the menu, finish dish, order next dish, and repeat for remaining courses. I shall return, so I’ll apply my method and again enjoy all the good things on the AraOn menu.

Ara On Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tanoshii West Loop, One Is Not Enough

Tanoshii West LoopSeveral years ago, I went to Tanoshii in Andersonville on a whim. What I initially thought was going to be a brief moment at just any sushi restaurant turned out to be one of the more memorable sushi experiences in Chicago. While going to meet a friend for dinner in West Loop a few weeks ago, I saw a sign for Tanoshii at 720 W. Randolph Street. Wondering if the Andersonville location had relocated, I made a note to visit the West Loop location for a proper update. Upon arrival during my visit at the Randolph Street spot, there were the usual greetings and clarification that the Andersonville location was still intact. I imagine the Tanoshii at 5547 N. Clark Street got a lot of business, which may very well have been the impetus for opening a location in another popular area of Chicago.

Kabocha Soup with Crab

Kabocha Soup with Crab

With Chicago having suddenly gone from mild winter to frigid in a matter of days, I ordered a warm sake for a starter. I had devoured a good amount of food the prior evening with friends I had gone to graduate school with and had snacks all day long, so I was not really in a frame of mind for having to be decisive. When the server said that there was a chef’s choice option to ordering, I agreed to that. But to warm me up further, I requested a cup of kabocha soup with crab in it. The soup has a flavour akin to squash soup. You cannot go wrong with that during cold months and you’re well within heaven’s reach when there is fresh, real crab in it.

Tuna Tartar

Tuna Tartar

The chef’s choice came on a wooden board, full of presentation, and considerably more satisfying than I could describe with any kind of justice. The first item on the board was tuna tartar on a tortilla chip. As much as I like raw seafood, I have never been a fan of raw tuna. On the occasions that I have had it at the request of my servers, I’ve been rather impressed. This was one of those times. The chip balanced out the texture of the tuna, but it was the pop in the flavour that added the wow that made it an incredible preamble to chef’s choice.

Tuna Sashimi

Tuna Sashimi

The tuna sashimi was the second item that fell into the category “don’t order much” because of the texture. And again, Tanoshii West Loop somehow managed to change my mind. I didn’t get the list of ingredients used in the tuna sashimi, but it was a good thing that I got a photography for this blog post. I shall order this again when I return and I will have the photo for use during the delivery of the order. The tuna was neither fishy nor rubbery. I think that it were the freshness, the silky texture, and the accents atop of it that made it addictive.

Yellowtail and Salmon

Yellowtail and Salmon

There were yellowtail and smoked salmon sashimi. I have always enjoyed both in maki rolls. However, I have ventured into sashimi dining at Japanese restaurants as of late and find that I want those delectable pieces without them being shared with other ingredients in a roll. The yellowtail and salmon were meaty and so full of bloom that it was after I had finished both that I realized I had eaten them, as well as the tuna sashimi, without any soy sauce. That is the mark of an outstanding sushi chef.

First Makiroll

First Makiroll

Second Maki Roll

Second Maki Roll

I finished the chef’s choice board with a maki roll that reminded me of a rainbow roll. There were tuna and avocado on the roll and enough sauce that this was easily devoured sans any soy sauce, like the sashimi. As much as I wanted a repeat of the chef’s choice board in total, I did opt for another sushi roll. Now I am in love with their truffle honey roll with salmon over a peach balsamic sauce topped off with chili paste and a honey truffle glaze. This was the Mona Lisa of sushi rolls. And would you believe me if I told you that I waddled over to Bombo Bar at 832 W. Randolph Street and had cappuccino and bombolonis, one filled with vanilla custard and one fill with salted caramel?

Bombolonis

Bombolonis

Those who are familiar with Chicago’s West Loop District know that the restaurants fill up quickly. West Loop is a high volume area with plenty of foot traffic and establishments that do a fantastic job luring in customers. Tanoshii West Loop does the same. Unless you tend to sit in the bar area, make reservations, especially during the weekends. From my first visit, I’m certain the after 5:00 PM crowd throughout the week loves to go for sushi and I understand fully. I cannot say if there is a list of “Best Sushi in Chicago” floating around, but I’d be highly disappointed if either Tanoshii location is not on the list.

Tanoshii Sushi Mike's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Bistronomic, Bon Français en Chicago

Not long ago I went to a French bistro in Bucktown named Le Bouchon. I fell in love with the bistro. Shortly after that, I went to Mexique, a Mexican restaurant that has a French influence. I fell in love with that restaurant also. Since I was on a French kick, Bistronomic at 840 N. Wabash Avenue became the third restaurant I added for my “Third Time is a Charm” dining experience. I was blown away just like I had been at Le Bouchon and Mexique.

Pumpkin Soup

Pumpkin Soup

With this being the last restaurant that I figured I would blog for 2015, I wanted a memorable dining experience. I opted for a variety of plates, starting with a cup of pumpkin soup. This was a fantastic autumn soup, filled with puréed pumpkin, highlighted nicely with cinnamon, croutons, and a liberal scoop of crème fraîche. This soup I had paired with a white wine that I left to the server’s selection. Not quite sweet yet not too dry, the marriage of the soup and wine made for an outstanding starter.

Salmon Linguine

Salmon Linguine

The salmon linguine was a dream. The linguine sauce was creamy without being milky and the salad came with a hint of a vinaigrette that still allowed the freshness of the salmon to come through. Where the salmon has been dry in the recipe at many other restaurants that have attempted the dish, Bistronomic should take a bow for having flaky, succulent salmon in the recipe. And this I had paired with another white wine that was closer to sweet to cut down on any acidity of the dish from the vinaigrette.

Braised Rabbit

Braised Rabbit

Apologies to my favourite Loony Tunes character, Bugs Bunny. Because the braised rabbit with root vegetables over what tasted like an autumn purée was met with complete satisfaction. The few smears of gravy from having devoured the tender meat that I struggled to keep on the fork showed my initiation into the Clean Plate Society, as though I have not been inducted already. This paired well with a Merlot, a recommendation that the server thought would be better not quite full-bodied because the dish was rich.

Apple Banana Crumble with Ice Cream

Apple Banana Crumble with Ice Cream

Dessert was heaven. The apple banana crumble came with toasted walnuts, macadamia nuts, and white raisins, all topped with a generous scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. The apples still had enough crisp to them and a complete absence of syrup to indicate that this dessert was prepared on the premises without anything from a can. Talk about playing up tasty autumn treats.

Lemon Tart

Lemon Tart

And if the lemon tart tasted like what the Queen of Hearts baked in “Alice in Wonderland,” I could understand her wanting someone’s head for stealing them. Although not served as a mini pie, the tart was mouth-watering without being tart or excessively sweet. The meringue pillow reminded me of lemon meringue pies of my youth. The raspberry sauce and vanilla cream were the perfect accents.

Coffee

Coffee

Bistronomic has a quiet setting. It looks as though there may be more to the restaurant as far as seating goes. Nevertheless, the lighting and seating in the immediate area provide an intimate atmosphere and patrons tend to be more cognizant of others in the dining area by keeping their voices down. It doesn’t feel like a chic-chic restaurant with sports bar ambiance. The food tastes authentically French, so be forewarned if you expect Americanize comfort food prices. I know that it may be early to end my restaurant jaunts for 2015, but it is hard to come up with other options between now and 31 December 2015. Besides, I have to compile my list of Top 10 Jaunts for 2015. I will save something for 2016. I only wish I had followed that advice while I was overindulging myself with such great cuisine at Bistronomic. I had to walk a mile before I could sit in a cab or on the subway home.

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

See Gino, See Gino Eat, C Chicago

C Chicago

Earlier this year a great friend and I went to a popular seafood restaurant in Chicago’s River North neighbourhood. The name showed up in countless reviews as being one of the best in the city. My friend and I enjoyed the presentation and the atmosphere. The food was comme ci, comme ça. When my friend mentioned a seafood restaurant that opened recently in River North I thought of our experience at the “hyped up” restaurant. Well, C Chicago at 20 W. Kinzie Street did not fail us.

Lobsterscargot

Lobsterscargot

We started with a dish that you can share — lobstercargot. This was C Chicago’s take on escargot, but with lobster instead. It had been prepared lumache style. Brought to the table and polated atop crostinis, you could smell the garlic. There were six morsels that set the tone for the rest of the evening.

King Crab Bisque

King Crab Bisque

My friend and I are fans of bisques at seafood restaurants. Much like me, she loves it more when there is no bacon in the recipe. C Chicago again excels by not going below the Mason-Dixon Line with the king crab bisque. The servers bring a bowl to the table with charred corn, peppers, and croutons in the shape of cut calamari. And there at the table, they pour the bisque. The presentation pales in comparison to the delicious flavour.

King Crab Claw

King Crab Claw

My friend loves king crab. With it being in season, she ordered a claw. Much of the claw had been cracked while there was still a little work to be done at the table. From what I could see, there was quite a bit of meat inside. My friend’s expressions of food bliss were all I needed to know that this was a splendid culinary option.

Dover Sole

As to the main dishes, C Chicago tilts the scale well beyond a 10 out of 10. The dover sole is filleted at the table, leaving you with some extremely meaty fish that is then accented with a brown butter drizzle. The saucepan of brown butter is left in case you wish to add more. Honestly, the fish was delectable without the brown butter.

Salmon

The salmon, which is usually prepared rare, but medium well during our visit, was indescribably mouth-watering. Accompanied with salmon roe and a verjus vinaigrette, the only thing missing was a slice of bread to go around the plate afterwards. From the seafood options that we had, it was evident that C Chicago is vying to have its name on the list of top seafood restaurants in Chicago.

Key Lime Pie

Key Lime Pie

Chocolate Ganache Cake

Chocolate Ganache Cake

With there being no rush, we waited before having dessert. There was key lime pie, which came as a dome atop a graham cracker crust. There was no “surprise bite” at the back of the jaw and the pie was not sweet in the excessive sense. There was a proper balance that actually made it possible to taste lime, not lime flavouring. The decadent dessert for the evening was a chocolate ganache cake. This looked like the dainty chocolate cakes I’ve had at several bakeries, cakes with cornbread texture. The chocolate ganache cake at C Chicago was “moyse” — yes, I spelled that incorrectly. Served with strawberries, a raspberry sauce, and a white chocolate sauce, we enjoyed this thoroughly with coffee.

Those who have been in Chicago for many years may remember Keefer’s Steakhouse that was at the corner of Kinzie Street and Dearborn Street. Well, Keefer’s had closed in 2014 and C Chicago since replaced the restaurant. I cannot speak for the menu offerings that the predecessor had, but I can attest that the successor was a thoroughly satisfying experience. I have a witness, my great friend, who can also tell you how the food at that certain restaurant I mentioned earlier had made us start questioning seafood restaurants in the River North area that received way too much press on atmosphere and not necessarily on the food.

C Chicago Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Izakaya Mita, Sashimi and Robata

During my last restaurant outing, I was in Bucktown enjoying some French food. Next to the French restaurant is a Japanese restaurant named Izakaya Mita at 1960 N. Damen Avenue. Looking in from the outside, there was an intimate feeling about the restaurant that I thought would make it ideal for checking out, that being there would be no extreme crowds. Well, leave it up to me to go on a Friday night and experience a crowd. Anyone who has gone will agree that there is a good reason for the congestion.

Sake

Sake

Seaweed

Seaweed

On the evening that I went, I had come off of a ridiculously nerve-grating day at work. The best way I figured I could null the desire to scream at the top of my lungs was to imbibe a flight of sake. My server was grandtastic — new word of the day — coming up with recommendations and explaining where they were produced, the ingredients in the liquid recipe, what made them spectacular, and pairing them with the dishes I ordered. For example, I had a refreshing sake that went very well with a small bowl of spicy seaweed.

Tuna Sashimi

Tuna Sashimi

There was an inquiry of whether I would like to sample some raw seafood. This gave me the indication that sashimi was perhaps on the offering. It was. I had some meaty tuna sashimi with another glass of sake. For those who may want to indulge this full coloured, mouth-watering lovely should note that it is a small plate with four succulent slices of resh tuna. It is still a splendid order as a small plate.

Salmon Sashimi

Salmon Sashimi

The same can be said of the salmon, which I had with my third sake option. Salmon is one dish that I never tire of eating. When it is cooked such that it is tender and flaky, complaining is never an option. Having it sashimi style has now gotten me addicted to enjoying it before being seared by a flame. There was nothing stringy, fishy, tough, or chewy about the salmon. If it had come on a larger plate as a larger portion, I would have been even happier than I was with it as a small plate option.

Mushrooms

Mushrooms

By the time I was finishing the salmon sashimi, my sister had arrived. That meant more food. It did not mean more sake. While she ordered some dishes and cocktails, the latter to take her mind off having had a mad week at work, I ordered some mushrooms for sharing. Grilled to tenderness and accented with a light sauce, we devoured these fresh mushrooms and noticed that they had the flavour of the garden variety that had not been rushed in growing. There was a reminiscent moment of when we had tasted mushrooms at a favourite sushi and robata grill restaurant named Yuzu in Chicago’s West Town neighbourhood.

Beef Tenderloin, Salad

Beef Tenderloin, Salad

Another shared dish was beef tenderloin over small salad. Neither one of us is a fan of rare or medium rare meat. Imagine both of our surprises when we had gobbled these rare morsels to completion. There were no overpowering herbs and spices in the recipe, so there was enough taste in whatever marinade the chef used to prepare the meat. Nothing was overcompensated and that may have been why it was easier for us to navigate the raw meat without thinking much about it, until we had gone around the plate sopping up the last bit of juice with the lettuce.

Green Tea Mochi Balls

We sat and caught up with other about the week for several minutes before ordering light sweets and green tea. My sister had green tea cheesecake while I had three green tea mochi balls. Not only are mochi balls a swell palate cleanser, but they are also light on the stomach after a hearty meal. The green tea was definitely good for digestion after all we had eaten. This was loose leaf green tea, too, so I was thoroughly content.

Green Tea

Green Tea

Izakaya Mita is not a large sushi bar, but it is most definitely a fan favourite for a lot of individuals. It may be that the Wednesday I went to the French restaurant was indicative of a lighter night. Fridays may be the beginning day of the weekend when everyone wants to enjoy fun, excitement, fellowship, and good food way from home. With this being my first visit, the one server who gave us recommendations was the only indication I have for superb service. I don’t have to be redundant and say ad nauseam that the food is worthy. What I will say is that one may find plenty pretentious Japanese sushi, yakitori, and robata restaurants in the metropolitan Chicago area. Izakaya Mita doesn’t pretend. They’re just damn good.

Izakaya Mita Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

El Cid, Nobleman, Logan Square Restaurant

El  Cid

When summer arrives, I usually like to bike to other neighbourhoods in Chicago and have a brief walkabout. There is usually some new discovery or me finding something that I missed during my first visit. With Logan Square going through so many changes, I decided to take a stroll through my neighbourhood to see what was new and to also check out something old. This past Sunday, I finally went to what I imagine has been a staple in Logan Square — El Cid at 2645 N Kedzie Avenue.

Chips and Salsa

Chips and Salsa

With nice weather, mildly humid from passing rain storms earlier in the day, I took advantage of the outdoor seating. I had a taste for a flight of mojitos, but the server recommended a margarita instead. His recommendation was a winner, and I paced myself downing it while devouring a basket of chips with a side of tomatilla salsa and another side of pica de gallo. The tomatilla salsa had a bite to it, a strong indicator that it may not have come from a jar. The pica de gallo was a winner. I swear it was doctored up with a mole and much like cilantro, mole goes great with everything.

Margarita

Margarita

There was so much on the menu that I had found appetizing. Being quick, I ordered vegetarian chimichangas. Served with dollops of sour cream and guacamole, these rolled tortillas stuffed with black beans, tomatoes, onions, rice, and cheese were fantastic street food snacks for my outdoor sit-down. By the time I had finished the basket of chips with salsa and the chimichangas, I was completing my margarita. I ordered another one.

Vegetarian Chimichangas

Vegetarian Chimichangas

Another appetizer I tried was a tamale. Delicious! There was nothing store-bought about the tamale. Not only did it come wrapped in a corn husk, but it was packed full of taste. My server had warned me about the red sauce. He mentioned that a dab will do you. The sauce was of the variety that people trying to prove a point will try. It has been loaded with habanero peppers. Nevertheless, I recommend the tamale. The red sauce looks good on the side only.

Tamale Con Salsa

Tamale Con Salsa

For an entrée, I settled for a seafood option. There was a salmon plate that came with Spanish rice and frijoles. Topped with a garlic salsa, the salmon was juicy and tender. The food smelled so good that I didn’t photograph as many shots as I normally do. And once I had my first fork of salmon along with some rice and the frijoles, I had declared the dish a winner, definitely not the usual enchiladas, tacos, and the like.

Salmon a la Parrilla

Salmon a la Parrilla

I went with a traditional Latin American dessert option: flan. This flan had coconut in it. And given the additional ingredient, one would think the texture would be coarse. No, the flan was smooth as a quesillo. It felt like slicing through melted butter and it tasted like bliss. I made a note to myself to be more aggressive in the gym this week. Flans are not necessarily friendly to the cholesterol and a third margarita isn’t particularly helpful when you’re trying to flatten your tummy.

Flan de Coco

Flan de Coco

El Cid has been on the Logan Square landscape since I moved to the neighbourhood several years ago. I was always under the impression that their doors opened at 5:00 PM, so I passed by it during the day on weekends and thought nothing of it. Yelp should update its page to reflect the proper time. At any rate, the service was top, the food was worth several more visits, and the price was extremely reasonable. I’ll have to remember El Cid, the idol of Spain, for the next time I return to the namesake on N. Kedzie Avenue. I’m sure he’ll pass my mind briefly before my third margarita.

Click to add a blog post for El Cid on Zomato

Little Bucharest Bistro

Little Bucharest Bistro

Several years ago, an individual who had done some photography and web development for some restaurants had given me two recommendations. One was for an Italian restaurant — Pasta D’Arte — and the other was for a Romanian restaurant. I went to Pasta D’Arte during the late summer of 2013 and decided that I should also follow up on the second recommendation. So, not far from Logan Square is Little Bucharest Bistro at 3661 N. Elston Avenue in Chicago’s Irving Park neighbourhood. It was a nice Saturday afternoon and my appetite was absolute wildly, now more than ever because I had been doing a few sessions of CrossFit training.

Little Bucharest Bistro has an airy, spacious interior and thanks to plenty of large windows, the setting isn’t dim. For those who wish to sit outside, there is outside seating, but having arrived early, indoor seating next to a window worked perfectly for me. Although Eastern European food is something that I prefer mostly when the temperatures are chilly, I asked my server for recommendations, while informing her that vegetarian is my first preference and seafood is my second. The offerings that I got had exceeded my expectations.

Little Bucharest Bistro Collage

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album

For a starter, I had borscht. At most Eastern European restaurants, the borscht tasted like it had been prepared with pickled beets from a jar. The taste was alway too sharp. At Little Bucharest Bistro, there was definitely a flavouring of cooked beets from a garden that didn’t leave an overpowering taste. It was also nice that the soup was full of beets and not just beet juice. Second to the table was the village salad, which consisted of red bell peppers, green bell peppers, red onions, cucumber, feta cheese, tomatoes, and olives. Drizzled with a nice balsamic vinaigrette, this was rabbit food I would welcome anytime. With the complementary, homemade bread, my taste for Eastern European food had a bit of a renaissance.

A light appetizer that I got next was a plate of eggplant, prepared much like baba ganoush, that was served with pita bread, a small salad, and a melange of pickles, crepes with cream cheese, and salmon. What an offering and this small platter still packed a flavourful punch that I would gladly indulge on future visits. And in keeping with vegetarian dishes, there was the vegetarian goulash. This was a hearty dish of grilled eggplant, cabbage, peppers, spinach, and garlic couscous in a tomato sauce. I was expecting something along the lines of a spaetzle, but the goulash was a classic example of different being outstanding.

There is the feel of family-owned and small restaurants that you get as soon as you enter Little Bucharest Bistro. From the owner greeting you at the door — you never get that kind of welcome at downtown eateries — to the wait staff that is attentive and engaging to the food that leaves you wanting more, this is certainly a restaurant that should be on your list of places you must sample in Chicago. Aside from my usual running around, travelling, and getting into other things, it should not have taken me years to follow up on the recommendation to go to Little Bucharest Bistro. This first experience is definitely all the more reason I shall have to return again very, very soon to see what other delights they have on their menus to convert me into a regular customer. And with autumn and winter coming, Eastern European food will do well for my appetite.

After Dinner Drink

After Dinner Drink

Little Bucharest Bistro on Urbanspoon

All on Cue, Japanese Barbecue

Gyu-Kaku

My New Year’s Resolution for 2013 has been rather simplistic — get my weight up to 230 pounds. That may seem like a piece of cake for some people. But in my Disney show, my high metabolism does not allow for me to balloon that fast. The good thing is that my appetite from having started working out last year got me up to 215 pounds. My height has been a blessing in terms of distributing my weight gain, so I don’t look as though I weigh over 200 punds. The weight training I have been doing so far in 2013 is blowing up everything to the point where my wardrobe is fitting snug and the protein powders keep me in the refrigerator — even in the middle of the night — when I’m not at a restaurant ordering from a menu. I will be at my target weight in no time and then probably find myself wondering what a few additional pounds on top of 230 would look like. Needless to say, in my Disney show, I will enjoy getting there.

Miso Soup

In keeping with my constant appetite frenzy, I had met with a friend at a Japanese barbecue restaurant that she and I had gone to a few times during the summer. To the casual pedestrian, Gyu-Kaku at 210 E. Ohio Street in the Streeterville neighbourhood may look like a tourist trap. Only once you go in and hear all the Japanese being spoken do you realize that this restaurant is a haven of authenticity. For me, it also means a lot of food and me diligently working towards fulfilling my New Year’s Resolution quite possibly well in advance of the year ending. As frosty as it was outside and being only a few blocks away from Lake Michigan where the wind was whipping back and forth between the skyscrapers, sitting down at a table with a hot barbecue grill in the middle was a splendid option.

Salad

We started with drinks, one thing that bartenders at Asian restaurants do to complete satisfaction. My friend had an Asian pear martini. I had a lychee mojito. Martinis and mojitos are as popular as or more popular than beer in Chicago. And bartenders get martinis and mojitos right. Along with our drinks came miso soup. Noting from an off-the-shelf carton, I can attest. There was no salt in it. Any time a dish comes heavy with salt, that is a huge indication of something not being homemade. All you get with the miso soup at Gyu-Kaku is flavour, not the risk of high blood pressure. I turned my cup up and slurped it true Japanese style. The soup was delicious and it warmed me up on the inside. There was no need to be a prude about it. After we had finished our cups of happiness then came a cup of pure bliss. If you have ever had salad at a Japanese restaurant, then you know what it is like to be in good favour. Cucumber, cherry tomatoes, fresh lettuce, eggs, cheese, ginger dressing, and smiles are all you get. It was exactly what we wanted, as we had anticipated devouring some of the salad ever since we had decided to meet at Gyu-Kaku for dinner.

Salmon

We had ordered the Geisha course, which was enough for two people. Just as the first round of meat and vegetables arrived for us to put on the barbecue, there was some sashimi salmon brought to the table. Served raw, we employed our chopsticks and worked them on the salmon without dropping anything. Well, whatever we did drop ended up on our tongues where it eventually disappeared down our throats. The sashimi salmon was the last bit of raw meat that we had. It was then time for us to begin grilling our own meat and continuing with our moment of food happiness.

On the Grill

With the Geisha course, my friend and I were presented with a few marinated meats that we  had to grill ourselves. Prime rib eye stead. Bara kalbi. Chuck kalbi. Bistro harami. Shrimp. Vegetables consisting of corn, onions, bell peppers, zucchini, and mushrooms. Smiles. Since we are regulars at Gyu-Kaku, we knew the routine as far as how long each meat was to remain on the grill and whether to place the items in the middle or on the sides. We were quite efficient and even slick enough to pluck some of the meat from the grill with our chopsticks. With amazing agility, we grilled, ate, had conversation, and nodded with appreciation for all the good things that had been seasoned well, cooked to our satisfaction, and gobbled to completion. Move over Korean barbecue. Hello, Gyu-Kaku.

Bibimbap

Now, of all the menu items to come with the Geisha course, the one that I love the most is the bibimbap. Queue scene with me walking like the Frankenstein monster, arms outstretched, and moaning. What do you want? Bibimbap. What do you like to eat? Bibimbap. What can you not get enough of? Bibimbap. You’re a zombie, so now what do you want? Bibimbap. Prepared tableside in a hot concrete bowl, my friend and I requested to have our bibimbap spicy. We are not adverse to having the flavour of our food pop by the addition of peppers. Bibimbap is not meant to be served like baby food. It is meant to make the scalp exhale heat. And on what was very much a frosty Friday night, we were zombies that groaned, grunted, and applied our chopsticks to our bowls of bibimbap. Have you ever known the Frankenstein monster to derive any pleasure before the townspeople torched to tower to which he fled? He should have been granted a taste of bibimbap. He may have become a welcomed part of the community.

S'mores

After polishing off all the delectable meats, vegetables, and further making ourselves bibimbap-satisfied zombies, we sat for a moment before indulging a sweet. We were always accustomed to sitting downstairs and had never paid attention to the area beyond the upstairs bar where we often wait before getting our table. Well, this evening, we sat in the upstairs part of the restaurant, which is past the upstairs bar. Same cozy ambience and still filled with other Japanese who were no doubt happy to have a restaurant in the city reminiscent of what they had in Japan, we took it all in as we let our stomachs settle. And then came the dessert option. Marshmallows, dark chocolate, and Graham crackers sat on a plate before my friend and I got our skewers and sang our own brand of a campfire song while roasting our marshmallows. Nothing spectacular and no presentation with a wow factor, as it was just us preparing our own dessert. If you ever engage the notion of making samores in the future, I highly recommend dark chocolate and if it is bittersweet chocolate, all the better. For an after-dinner drink, it was loose leaf green tea for us. None of that what-not in the bag, especially with us being tea snobs. And we drank it without any sugar, which was an indication that it was a very, very good leaf. When we were done, we banged our glasses on the table and yelled “arigato” to our server. Well done.

Green Tea

Gyu-Kaku is whistling distance from the Magnificent Mile. For those with milder palates, there are numerous restaurant options to satisfy your appetite. But for those who love a good adventure, Gyu-Kaku is certainly an option I would entertain every time the chance comes up. It is a great place to go with friends who don’t mind rolling up their sleeves and taking part in the cooking process of the food. Everything is marinated to perfection, if not beyond idyllic. All you have to do is engage, enjoy, and appreciate the package. Perhaps in your very own Disney, you too will walk around like the Frankenstein monster, grunting, growling, and gobbling all good things Gyu-Kaku can put in front of you. And would you look at that. I am now a little over 215 pounds, per the scale. I’m well on my way.

Gyu-Kaku Chicago on Urbanspoon

Degustation Japanese Style

Roka Akor

SakeDuring the week of 3 February 2013 through 10 February 2013, many restaurants were participating in Chicago Restaurant Week. I had received an email about some of the restaurants and their menus, several that piqueing my interest. One restaurant that stood out on the list was Roka Akor, at 456 N Clark Street.  The River North section of Chicago is already filled with notable high-end restaurants that have reasonable prices for those who appreciate good food and who also do not want to worry that the final bill will leave them gasping in shock. Having gone to Bombay Spice Grill immediately next door, I had made a mental note to visit Roka Akor to see if the menu had items that would be a good fit for Chicago Alphabet Soup. Looking at the menu display outside the restaurant is one thing. Sitting still and looking at the menu online is another and it was reviewing what Roka Akor had for the appetite that made my decision to go for a seating that more easy. One thing that stood out more was the Robatayaki style cooking that the restaurant employs. I had experienced Robatayaki style cooking in Japan, but not in America.  I made a reservation so that I could arrive early for dinner, well before the serious dinner crowd started to file in. I had plans to do some serious photography and while making the reservation, I was clear about that so that I could get a seat where I would not be in the way of the staff or other dining patrons. Plenty of seating and romantic ambience, I was ready for my food adventure. Much to my surprise, I got a seat right in front of the Robatayaki bar and sashimi bar. Yes, I was ready for action.

Seared ScallopIn keeping with indulging degustations in my dining excursions, I scanned the menu and when the server came by to ask if I was ready, I gave my response. I had been waffling between going with the Restaurant Week menu, picking random items from the different sections of the menu, or letting the server have carte blanche with the selection. The menu for Restaurant Week had items on it that I have eaten countless times, so that option was thrown out. Picking items from the menu at random was another idea that I took a pass on because I would have selected comfort items. So, it was putting the selection into the capable hands of the server that I went for. An indication that I was in good hands was the glass of sake that he had recommended, and I am kicking myself for not remembering it. I remember my server’s name and his face, though, which means I can always go back and request that very sake. But, it was a sake that was smooth going down and with a hint of a floral note.  Now, I will be the first to admit that I have not come close to achieving wine, spirits, or sake snobbery. However, I could find myself navigating a room with a glass of the sake that I had and pretending to be higher above my station than I am already. I thank my server for opening my repertoire more.

SashimiFirst to the table was a grilled diver scallop. This was not just the usual morsel that comes with some seafood dishes. Seasoned with lemon sweet soy, crushed wasabi pea, yuso mayonnaise, and purple shiso crust, my fork sank through it without any effort and I smiled a wide smile as my teeth sank through each bite. Of course, the scallop was more of a starter than anything else, the initial presentation had me wondering if I was going to be in store for aesthetically pleasing dishes to the visual senses while compromising flavour. Oh was I wrong. Not only was the scallop anything but tough but you could taste the flavours, none competing with the other. The sushi chef had mentioned that this particular dish was one of his favourites and it was really nice to know because there was thought put into presenting something for me that the chef actually preferred. I doubt that it was because he had prepared it that he viewed the dish highly. It was just delicious. The same was to be said for the butterfish and tuna tataki that the sashimi chef had prepared. Yet again, there was a small dish of what looked more artistic than culinary. There was no rush, so I took small bites and enjoyed each with the accompanying sake. By the time I had completed two of the pieces, I had acknowledged that Roka Akor was not just a restaurant of visually stunning dishes but it was a fine dining establishment with a sushi chef, sashimi chef, and cooking staff that give attention to making sure each taste a dining customer has guarantees a return visit. In the same fashion that the sushi chef had explained the dish, since I was sitting at the counter, the sashimi chef did the same. And, thus, began conversation about Roka Akor in Scottsdale, Arizona, and in London, United Kingdom. And there was dialogue such that the chefs inquired of how I had become interested in blogging ethnic restaurants. It was not just me taking photos and scribbling dishes, but there was suddenly a feeling that I had gone to friends’ homes and told to make myself comfortable.

Sashimi Platter

The next dish was one I saw being prepared that I thought was going to another dining patron. There was no tossing items on the plate or rearranging anything haphazardly. There was an attention to detail and a display of care that had I caught on videotape, you would be able to see a bit of love going into the preparation. I had to ask if I could photograph the process, only to find out that the platter was for me. For a noticeable moment, I was rather speechless.  Here was a dish that you see in magazines and on television shows, a product after styling and polishing. I was watching magic. I was anticipating bliss. When all was done, a sashimi platter on ice was placed before me and all eyes were on me as my server explained what the treat entailed. Bluefin tuna, stripe jack, amber jack, oyster with ponzu sauce and fresh lime, shrimp, head of shrimp, salmon with truffle butter, super white tuna, yellowtail, red snapper, and Japanese seaweed salad with ponzu sauce. It is rhetorical to mention that the only thing I could mouth was, “Wow!” At my age of 44, I have been to restaurants on the high-end that have presented dishes that were fitting for pedestals while fitting for throwing against the wall. Restaurants that were all the rage, touted as bigger than life, and Roka Akor places a sashimi platter in front of me that deserves more high praise than I can type. Every morsel of seafood on the platter was fresh, obvious from the lack of fishy smell and absent of any questionable taste. And still, the sake that I polished off with the platter was an ideal pairing.

Seafood PlatterMore conversation was had while the next course was being prepared. The idea was to give me an idea of all the offerings that Roka Akor has without having me sample every item that there was on the menu. Since the sashimi chef had wowed me with the cold platter of delectable sashimi, the sushi chef was composing a platter of cooked seafood. And again, I was blown away with a selection of the absolute best, freshest seafood. Grilled Pacific lobster, Alaskan king crab, roasted Fanny Bay oyster, and tempura huma huma were all I needed to state with clarity that I had been to heaven. I shall start by saying that the texture of oysters never curried favour with me. However, the grilling of the oyster yielded the texture found in mussels. The seasoning of the oyster painted another smile on my face that stretched with each bite of the flavourful lobster, crab, and huma huma. Another thing to note is that while the plate looked substantial, I was not stuffed to capacity after I had completed the dish, licked my fingers, and raised my arms in the air as though I had defeated an aggressive boxer. I have enjoyed seafood this flavourful and fresh on the West Coast, East Coast, and along coastal countries abroad. As far inland as Chicago is, the seafood much be imported fresh, daily in order for the dishes to be so exquisite while remaining void of muddy flavouring. And my taste buds were appreciative of the seasoning to the seafood not being overpowering or overcompensation in any manner. The mark of an outstanding chef is knowing the right balance or ratio to make a dish pop. I will be the first to say that no one can argue that the chefs at Roka Akor do anything less than produce the best dishes for the palate.

Dessert Platter
By the time I had finished the cooked seafood platter, I requested some time before the dessert came. In Asian dining, desserts are not heavy, so I had a bit of confidence that I would be able to handle whatever was in store. I had completed a second glass of sake and my server brought a Riesling that was almost sweet enough to be a dessert wine. When the dessert had finally arrive, I understood why there was a tempering of the wine that was accompanying the work of art that I stared at in amazement. There was a medley of fresh fruit: watermelon, honey-dew melon, raspberries, blackberries, oranges, pineapple, and pomegranate. Included was a scoop of raspberry sorbet that I swear had been made fresh in the back with crushed raspberries. I have not had any sorbet from the market with such flavour that pops. And if all of that was not enough to make the most cantankerous food critic stand up and dance, there was a ginger crème brûlée topped with a few kernels from a pomegranate that puts crème brûlées at other restaurants to shame. This I am not making up for effect. After you have had crème brûlée regular style, tasting a hint of ginger in it somehow makes everything okay in the land. Ginger, like cilantro, goes great with many dishes. And as to the dessert at Roka Akor, I now find it hard to debate anyone about fruit not being the perfect wrap-up for a meal.

Preparing Sashimi Platter

Having recently entertained a degustation where I had given the server free rein to come up with the courses for me and having enjoyed the whole experience more than I could say, I was impressed even more with the culinary options I had at Roka Akor. The server said that they all are basically experts in the restaurant’s menu. Yet and still, recommending dishes for someone who is a stranger and every recommendation coming out a success means that something else is working right. The next time a list of top restaurants gets published, Roka Akor should be on that list.

Roka Akor on Urbanspoon