Bravo and Encore

Basil Leaf Cafe

One early evening during a summer day in 2012, I had the opportunity to go to a restaurant that was hosting a wine and food pairing. Being perhaps one of the individuals, if not the only one, who was not a sommelier, I thought that the event would be a bit out of my league. And then the food came to the table. Yes, the wine was splendid. However, the food was a major highlight for me and one that stayed with me since that participation in the wine and food pairing. With work gobbling up a great deal of my time and then my high school sweetheart and me taking an extended vacation to Calgary, Montreal, and Lisbon, scheduling a return to the restaurant of my culinary dreams had faded. A new year began in 2013 and I had finally entered a note in my cell phone to make a reservation for a dinner at Basil Leaf Cafe at 2465 N. Clark Street. It would be my luck that the cell phone went to sleep permanently on me and January was speeding by fast. There was no way that I was going to find myself well into 2013 before actually returning to the restaurant.

Olive Oil and BreadWith the New Year I had decided that I would focus on degustations more during my dining excursions. Too often I find myself scrambling to eat my appetizer and entrée before they are cold because at many restaurants both come to the table simultaneously. That is very much an epidemic at American style restaurants because there appears to be a need to rush patrons. Since Basil Leaf Cafe was the first restaurant that I was blogging for 2013, there was no better way to start my newfound appreciation of degustations than the present. A most inviting welcome on entry and my pick of seats because I had arrived before the dinner crowd, I handed the menu to my server, told her what I liked, and told her to surprise me. As a complimentary l’amuse, there was warm, homemade bread served with an olive oil that had various Italian herbs and spices in it. I would normally add Parmesan cheese and pepper, but that would have been a bit evil considering how flavourful the bread and olive oil were together. Oh, if I may add, bread is a source of weakness for me. I can’t deny it. I can’t refuse it. And if it is as good as what I had at Basil Leaf Cafe, then I tend to indulge to excess without any additional thought. And a note to myself is to find out the recipe for the olive oil so that I can try my hand at it at home.

Butternut Squash Soup

The first course to the table was a butternut squash soup. Let me start by saying that I have had my share of butternut squash soup and have loved it. This was the first time I had the soup and the first sip gave me pause. It was absolute heaven. I had a few more sips and then declared with certainty that I had just tasted the best butternut squash soup ever. There was no aftertaste. And the hint of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg or whatever spice was added left me with a rather wide smile. I guess my server thought that I was making up a story when I said that it was the best butternut squash soup that I had ever eaten. There was no lie and because I had to maintain decorum, I did not take any of the homemade bread and go around the edges and bottom of the bowl. Only the first course and it was evident that the rest of the meal was going to be progressively better.

Mixed Berry Salad

And then there was a mixed berry salad that came to the table for the second course. I had told the server that I was not a fan of nuts and not because of any allergies. The texture and taste do nothing to assist my appetite. The salad was one that usually comes with walnuts. However, they were omitted. Having been to restaurants where my mentioning of not liking nuts was treated as an omission and I had to pick around the nuts to keep from making my whole dining experience unsavoury, the fact that my server had explained that walnuts are usually an ingredient in the salad and they were left out at my request, that made each bite all the more worthy. The mark of an outstanding wait staff is when they listen to the customers. Raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries sat atop lettuce, drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette, and topped with crumbled gorgonzola cheese. The only other times I have had any kind of fruit in my salad were when I had apricot salads at one of my favourite Algerian restaurants. Berries on salad always looked a bit much, albeit quite appetizing. However, having the mixed berry salad and seeing that I had left only a smear of the vinaigrette afterwards was proof that it was not only visually stunning but it was incredible to the palate.

Linguine and SeafoodI was going to be daring initially and try two entrées — a vegetarian dish and a seafood dish. After being warned that the portions were large, I opted instead for the seafood platter. The third course was a seafood linguine. Plump shrimp, fresh salmon, well-seasoned mussels, tender scallops, and delectable clams rested on a bed of linguine and topped with a red sauce before I began working on the entrée. The pescatarian in me yelled, “Bravo!” and enjoyed the whole dish leisurely without a care in the world. Perhaps if I had a glass of wine to go with it, say a Merlot or a Malbec, I would have had a Food Network composition. But the dish was perfect with the glass of orange juice. One thing that I really liked most about the seafood linguine was that it had a spicy kick to it without me requiring glasses of water. And the seafood was nothing akin to the nibble size morsels that you find in most Italian seafood dishes. Not only was the portion of the entrée large but the seafood was not lacking in quantity and quality of freshness. I kept screaming, “Bravo.” Of course, it was to myself, though.

CappuccinoAfter the bread and olive oil, soup, salad, and seafood linguine, I required a bit of rest before entertaining a coffee and dolce. In keeping with letting everything be a surprise, I deferred to my server for the sweet. Whenever I go to an Italian restaurant, I always choose espresso or cappuccino. It probably would have been wiser for me to have ordered an espresso so that I could have avoided fighting sleep after such a wonderful meal. Instead, I had a cappuccino and my server brought an apple tartlet with a dollop of vanilla ice cream to the table. One bite and I could have hit a tenor aria to have brought the restaurant to its feet for a standing ovation. It was clear that the dessert was not something you find in the frozen section at the local market. No, there was no syrupy compost drowning chunks of overcooked apples. There was flaky crust enveloping thin, tart apples that had been cooked in their own juices. If it were not for the ice cream accompanying the apple tart, I would have dragged my dessert feast for a full hour. Being cognizant of the ice cream melting, I savoured the dessert and the cappuccino slowly and to completion. And let me just say that I did not need to add any sweetener to the cappuccino. The mark of a splendid cup of coffee is not having to add extra sweeteners to it to make it palatable. When you can enjoy your coffee the way I enjoyed the cappuccino at Basil Leaf Cafe, then you have had your coffee proper.

Apple Tartlet with Ice Cream

One thing I have not considered was coming up with a Top 10 list of restaurants in Chicago. What I can say with certainty is that as of me penning this blog entry, Basil Leaf Cafe holds the number 1 spot. That is a bold statement. Yes, others may scream that I am being unfair and that I need to come to their restaurants. Believe me when I say that as long as I am in Chicago, I will find my way to your dining haven. One thing to note is that when service, high quality of cuisine, and price come together to form an inviting request for a return, how can you possibly deny a bravo and an encore? You simply can’t. Only on a few occasions have I chosen to let my server make my dinner choices for me based on my likes and dislikes. What I experienced at Basil Leaf Cafe was a winning game of cuisine roulette. I was impressed thoroughly during the wine and food pairing at the restaurant that one summer evening in 2012. I was even more impressed during my second visit. I shall indeed return for an encore. I highly recommend that you visit Basil Leaf Cafe and see for yourself.

Italy Comes to Chicago

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

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

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

Amouse Bouche

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

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

Second Course

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

Third Course

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

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

Fourth Course

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

Dessert

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

Answer: A cab home.

Basil Leaf Cafe on Urbanspoon

On the Sunny Side

Salsa

The older I get, the more I take advantage of things without seeking permission and without hesitation. A great friend has recently taken on the same disposition and so she and I catch up every Friday after work to wash away the weeks’ ills with laughter while enjoying food and drink. Who needs to sit around pondering what the Joneses are doing when they can find satisfaction with their feet under a table — be it at a restaurant, cafe, picnic table, or under their own kitchen tables — when life does not pause the Joneses to wait for anyone to catch up? Lucky for me, I have the Williams blood in me and the Joneses spend a great deal of time gasping from trying to match my pace.

Tomatilla

Since my friend and I had been meeting in Oak Park every Friday to frequent any one of our many favourite haunts, this was going to be a finale, as I am no longer going to work in the West Suburbs. I will work in downtown Chicago and with me living just on the outskirts of downtown, public transportation, packed subways, standing-room-only buses, and congestion will become my comfort again. So, my friend and I met at Maya del Sol, located at 144 S. Oak Park Avenue. I had passed by the restaurant over the course of a year or so, but never felt compelled to see what was on their bill of fare. There were always limos and high-end cars pulling up with thin Hollywood tanned blond Barbie dolls and Miami oompa-loompa orange Ken action figures springing about stiffly before vanishing into a cacophony of pretty-pretty faces. Considering my friend and I are both so sexy that it hurts, there was nothing holding us back from going in and adding Maya del Sol to our list of fooderies — that’s my first new word for the year.

Our fantastic waitress told us that Maya del Sol has a policy of refunding anything that customers do not like. Hmm. That is the last thing an establishment should mention considering the world is full of people who are unscrupulous and may feel bold enough to order in abundance and then complain about everything ordered just to squeeze out a free meal. But with homemade tortillo, tomatilla salsa, and traditional salsa in front of us inducing smiles on our faces, we let that bit of information given to us go in one ear and out the other. Granted chips and salsa come standard in Latin American eateries, there is something awesome about warm, crunchy tortillas that do not taste as though they were poured from a Frito-Lays bag and served with a jar of Hunt’s picante sauce. Believe me when I say that the tortillas and salsas were worthy.

Mojito

My friend had a glass of red wine. It is clear that she and I have like tastes in red wines — full body, spicy, with a smoky hint. The wine had come per recommendation from the waitress and immediately upped her tip value; this being true and we had not ordered appetizers yet. I had a mojito and I will simply say that Latin American bartenders have the market in preparing mojitos correctly. There are some mojito snobs leaping about in disdain at my observation, I am sure, but there is something fantastic to be said about a mojito that does not have the whole mint bush in the drink and the alcohol is not loaded enough to make a wino scream, Damn! Give me life or give me a bitching mojito. Hmm. Actually, I think I will take both.

Traditional Cerviche

Where things really got pleasing was with the flight of cerviches. Let me give a disclaimer now. I have not been a fan of cerviche until I had tried it at a local Cuban restaurant in my neighbourhood. Those Cubans blew my mind pa-pow-pow style and so when I go to Latin American restaurants and I see cervice on the menu, my addiction kicks in and I want to see if the eatery will satisfy my palate like or better than the Cuban cafe. Maya del Sol provides a flight of three cerviches so that you can get a feel or rather a taste for which one makes you sweat the most. Now, let me clarify that the cerviches are not spicy enough to make you sweat but the flavours pop in a manner that will leave you with a randy twitch. There goes my addiction again.

Salmon Cerviche

The first cerviche was the traditional version. !Dios mios! Fresh raw fish marinated in lime juice and spiced with chilli peppers never tasted so good. Who would have thought that raw fish not prepared as sushi would be so tasty? Additional seasoning of onion, salt, cilantro, and pepper made it that much better. Thinking about the second cerviche — salmon cerviche — has me flustered. Fresh salmon, and I do not mean fishy in taste at all, sat atop avocado that had been prepared in the manner of guacamole, but not quite guacamole. In addition to the tortillas we had complementary with the salsas, we also had some flour tortillas that we used to scoop the cerviches. I made a mental note to never sit at a window seat again. Then again, I realized I would forget all about my window seat presentations as soon as I walk through the door of the next restaurant I plan to sample.

Shrimp Cerviche

Where things left my friend and me rumpled and out of sort was when we began working on the shrimp cerviche. Fat, plump shrimp bursting with vibrant flavour — as if you can describe flavour in terms of vibrancy — the only thing I could describe as being more beautiful or closer to heaven was watching the sun set from Signal Hill in Cape Town, South Africa. And here is where the cerviche snobs leap about in disdain of my statements of appreciation — and I imagine them landing between the sharp teeth of giant Venus fly traps. I have said as of late that cilantro goes great with everything. Well, not everything, but you get the gist. Add avocado to the list. Chunks of avocado sat perched on the wow shrimp that had been accented with cilantro. Heaven and my friend and me smacking the table.

Carne Asada

Although Maya del Sol fills up fast after work hours on Fridays, there was no rush. So, my friend and I watched the Hollywood and Miami types saunter about and strike poses before we summoned our waitress and ordered entrées. Keep in mind what I have written about the complementary chips and salsas, the drinks, and the flight of cerviches. I simply cannot do any justice to the carne asada. I tried to figure out what I would say about the plump tomatoes, my greatest rapture, my passion, my weakness. No, I do not mean just any tomatoes snatched from the shelf at the local market and doused with Lawry’s seasoning. Maya del Sol added love to those tomatoes and did not discriminate on the zucchini either. But it was the steak where the clouds scattered and the last beam of sunlight shined on the plate. It is shameful to admit that I cannot state approximately how many times my friend and I uttered, My God, while handling that steak. Talk about a restaurant getting “well done” correct: no burnt edges, no tree bark texturing, no hockey puck hardness, and no need for steak sauce. Just succulence sat on the plate before we delved in and showed the fashion model types how to appreciate good food without being embarrassing about it.

Shrimp, Vegetables, Rice

The reaction to the second entrée was no better. Shrimp with carrots, squash, and white rice. Not one bland bite did we have. Maya del Sol apparently gets only the best shrimp from market because again there were fleshy but not fishy shrimp that exploded when our teeth sank through them. As to the rice and vegetables, if you want to get your picky child into enjoying his or vegetables, I highly recommend exposing that obstinate child to a plate of shrimp with vegetables at Maya del Sol. Once more, there were chants of “My God!” and long stretches of silence. Amor en el plato. Love on a plate is all that I can say to describe the dish without making a mockery of the perfection the chef had sent to our table from the kitchen.

Mexican Hot Chocolate

By now we were pretty much done with any heavy dishes. We showed our appreciation by polishing off everything on the plates and I do mean everything except for lingering smears of gravy and gypsy rice kernels. No rush, no problem, as we sat for few minutes and then agreed that there was no way we were going to leave without experiencing something from the dessert menu. However, going overboard was not an option. So, we ordered Mexican hot chocolate. Pa-pow-pow! The Mexican hot chocolate was not necessarily spicy and that was fine. There were cloves, cinnamon, and a hint of allspice in it to give a bit of a kick but not enough to leave us with our eyes crossed. From the first intake of the aroma of the hot chocolate to the last sip, the entire moment was magical. Okay, that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but there was a sentiment of having bragging rights because I know I have accepted suggestions from some friends for where to go get Mexican hot chocolate only to receive a small cup of Hershey’s powder in hot water with an ancho chilli added for effect. I am wondering when the pox I wished on their homes will kick in. As if what we had already was not good enough, the chocolate tart with creme fraiche, strawberries, and mint was a perfect ending. Clearly the chocolate was not Jell-O. Sorry, Bill Cosby, I cannot give you props. The strawberries, although not served as a bushel of strawberries, were still bursting. My friend and I cut the mint leaf and indulged ourselves to a beautiful finish. Thinking about it all has me flustered all over again. I never thought I would find myself saying this again, but food as my lover is the greatest love ever.

Chocolate Tart

So, now that I will work from downtown, my friend and I will have to seek out other adventurous locales for our commiserating moments on Fridays after work. Maya del Sol was worthy of our first trip there and will be worthy of our many returns. It may have been that we took blind leaps of faith in the recommendations our waitress gave to us. It may have been that the food was simply outstanding on its on. What I will say is that you pay for what you get and I am not talking about emptying your savings account. Maya del Sol is loud, so be prepared to speak with upped volume to your friends, imaginary friends, or blow-up dolls. While I joke about the stiff Hollywood and Miami types, these are more genuine and fun to talk to than the candy stripers and saucy old men who frequent the Viagra Triangle immediately north of downtown. But, hell, who needs to people-watch when you can leave with a satisfying finish from comida buena?

Maya Del Sol on Urbanspoon

Vivo, Italian Style

Vivo

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

Black and Green

Black and Green

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

Cranberry Juice

Cranberry Juice

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

Insalata Caprese

Insalata Caprese

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

Gnocci

Gnocchi

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

Entrée d'Salmon, Ensalada y Papas

Entrée d’Salmon,
Ensalada y Papas

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

Lamb and Risotto

Lamb and Risotto

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

Italian Ice Cream

Italian Ice Cream

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

Vivo, Relaxation

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Algerian, Zebda

Zebda

It was a Saturday afternoon in Chicago and the temperatures had warmed up enough that going outside was mandatory — for the following day would come and the temperature would be frosty or the weather would be bleak and rainy. With such great weather to enjoy, what better way to round out a fantastic afternoon than to add a little spice. A little North African spice was perfect. After a break from going to various ethnic eateries in Chicago due to being abroad on personal holiday, I was looking forward to putting my feet under some table and getting fed. Destination: Zebda.

Harrira

Harrira

Located at 4344 N. Elston Avenue in Chicago’s Old Irving Park neighbourhood, Zebda looks like a minimalist deli that has nothing to offer except for an empty store-front. But looks can be surprising, as cliché as that sounds. I had ordered from Zebda before on GrubHub.com, so I knew that what was on the menu was a very small sample of what was on the entire bill of fare. The owner, who was a jolly yet reserved guy, greeted me a bit stiffly until I let some French slip during my greeting — proper French, not cuss words — and then it was on.

Zebda is primarily in the business for take-away orders and for delivery. There are only two tables in the deli, but that was okay. There was a true hole-in-the-wall feel to the place as a result of the limited seating. So it was off to one of the tables for business. I had ordered a harrira, which is a traditional soup that Moroccans and those influenced by Moroccan cuisine partake. The first time I ever had harrira was courtesy a friend’s sister when I was in Morocco many years ago. I had fallen in love with the soup then and, of course, have tasted a fair share of attempts from restaurants at it. Then I have some at Zebda and I am addicted fully. I was absolutely pleased after the first sip when it was apparent that the cook had not held back on the spices. I loved it, absolutely loved it.

Couscous Crusted Salmon

Couscous Crusted Salmon

Instead of rushing my main dish out after seeing that I had only finished half of the bowl of soup, the owner had conversation with me instead. He told me about how the deli has been in business for a few years and how they are accommodating the palates of those from Morocco, Algeria, the whole of the Mediterranean, and North Africans who have lived in France. Noticing the passing faces and the languages spoken in the area where the restaurant is, it was clear to see that there is a heavy concentration of North Africans in the Old Irving Park area, not along Broadway where there is a solid concentration of Western and Eastern Africans. The owner went on to give me the meaning behind the word zebda and how it is used among Algerians in France as a term of endearment. Sweet, I thought to myself, nothing like going into an establishment to spend your money and you get treatment like you are family. I loved it and coupled with the fact that the soup was a bowl of heaven, the ease of interaction with which the owner had with me made my decision to return that much easier for me.

But the catalyst that sealed my decision to go back to Zebda was the entrée that I had ordered. As I had mentioned earlier, I had ordered from Zebda on GrubHub.com, which meant I had an awareness that I was going to have something way past delicious delivered to my table. I was not prepared to be wowed the way that I was. Couscous crusted salmon served over julienne carrots and zucchini. After the first bite, I could have taken off running down the street with a stupid smile on my face for no reason other than I had tasted something so addictive that I can now put a physical description on the word addictive. There are restaurants that under-cook salmon until it is practically sushi with a quick flame set to it and there are some restaurants that cook salmon until you know it is indeed dead. Then you have Zebda who cooks the salmon enough that it has a crust but it is still tender, flaky, and juicy. Add to that julienne carrots and zucchini that have been flavoured just right and not such that you will need blood pressure medicine or an up in your current blood pressure medication. When the owner asked me if the food was okay, he had this smirk on his face as though he knew he had me by the nose after the second bite. I smiled and nodded my head to acknowledge my satisfaction. The owner responded with a wider smile and, ‘Thank you.”

After Meal Tea

After Meal Tea

When I finished the entree and sat for a while, the owner approached and offered me tea — on the house. More and more I am finding that it is not just me clicking away with any one of my high-end cameras that gets me something extra or an item coming up missing on my final tab. It has to be me engaging the owners and/or staff in conversation as well as enjoying the food and their service. A limitless palate and an open mind are necessary ingredients for a recipe in top customer satisfaction. But back to the tea. The tea was peppermint tea served with the mint leaves in it. And having a familiarity with North African culture, mint tea is not just merely for drinking, but it is a symbol of hospitality and tradition. Small things like the offering of tea makes my visits to restaurants and eateries like Zebda worth the trips. Even my British sentiments, that which loves tea, enjoyed every sip.

Zebda has a fantastic menu and for those whose palates delight in tastes from North Africa and the Mediterranean, you will find great pleasure in partaking in the wonders of Zebda’s kitchen. The brick and mortar establishment is small and it really does have only two tables — three chairs — so going with a large party is not an option. The service was top, the price was a sure invitation back, and the food was super. For those of you who are vegetarian, North African food will hit the spot. Let Zebda take care of that for you.

9 April 2011

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