California Pizza Kitchen, When Change Is Good

California Pizza Kitchen

Years ago when I worked on the Magnificent Mile, a colleague had a love for California Pizza Kitchen. It had become something of a palate cleanser for having too much pizza from Lou Malnati’s, Giordano’s, and other Chicago-style pizza eateries. For me, too much pizza, period, had made me lose interest in ever returning to any pizzeria, California Pizza Kitchen included. Imagine my surprise when I received an invitation for a review.

Complimentary Bread, Olive Oil

Bread with Olive Oil

My restaurant advisor, who had also worked with me in the Magnificent Mile, and I recently went to the location in Arlington Heights, Illinois, at 3 S. Evergreen Avenue. Not a considerable distance via commuter train, we arrived for dinner one evening after work. The restaurant was quite lively with families and friends. The front room service was top.

Flight of Sangria

Flight of Sangrias

While perusing the menu, we noticed that there was less focus on pizzas and the specialty pastas that our mutual colleague and we had indulged numerous times years past. Instead, there were appetizers and entrées that piqued our interests more than the usual fare that we remembered. Certainly thinking that it would be a better option to try something different, we told our server to make recommendations and send the dishes to the table. We did stipulate that we preferred to avoid pizza and pasta.

As we waited, we imbibed some rather refreshing cocktails. I ordered a flight of sangrias ranging from a white plum to peach to red raspberry. My restaurant advisor had a strawberry mojito. What we both noticed was that the cocktails did not have the watered recipe that one finds in drinks served at big box restaurants. These had the bracing snap of having been mixed by a mixologist.

Strawberry Mojito

Strawberry Mojito

We had a mini complimentary loaf of bread with herbed olive oil. Basil Leaf Cafe, which is one of my favourite Italian restaurants in Chicago proper, preps their olive oil in the same manner. A huge plus with the bread being fresh, the complimentary feature was great.

Tequeños

Tequeños

First to the table was a plate of tequeños. Very reminiscent of tequeños that I have had at a few Peruvian restaurants, the chicken and avocado in the ones at California Pizza Kitchen were mouth-watering. The added ingredient of bacon in the tequeños was unexpected. Then again, we didn’t order from the menu, but rather let our server handle the menu selections. Nevertheless, we were pleased.

The first entrée was a plate of herbed roasted chicken with vegetables. It was by the second bite that we wondered why the restaurant had not been highlighting such delectable dishes more in the past. The chicken was not only tender, but it was incredibly juicy. Add to that well seasoned cauliflower, squash, and potatoes, this dish actually rivaled chicken dishes that I have eaten at some restaurants in Chicago that people rant and rave about as if the meat had been marinated in gold.

Roasted Chicken and Vegetables

Herb Roasted Chicken with Vegetables

The second entrée was the final determinant that California Pizza Kitchen had decided to take a different approach with its menu offerings. The rib eye steak topped with a light garlic paste had been cooked to a perfect medium well that left the meat succulent. The salad in a light vinaigrette and the fingerling potatoes that had been seasoned with touches of basil comprised  a dish that my advisor and I agreed was better than some steak dinners we’ve had at a few noteworthy restaurants.We had not expected such a divine meal up to this point.

Ribeye Steak, Salad, Potatoes

Steak with Salad and Potatoes

Rather than order multiple desserts, we settled on a butter cake topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and garnished with whipped cream. As sated as we were from the complimentary bread, appetizer, and entrées, it still would have been a crime to have left any of the dessert. Although the cake was pedestrian in it’s presentation, it was anything but regular on the palate. With a cup of coffee each, we finalized the dessert and acknowledged that California Pizza Kitchen was a winner.

Butter Cake, Ice Cream

Butter Cake with Ice Cream

During a brief conversation with one of the staff members of the restaurant, there was mention that California Pizza Kitchen had started a move towards offering dishes that appeal to customers that preferred an expanded menu. It seemed that a certain age bracket preferred pizza and pasta, while an older age bracket had a taste for finer menu items. Without deviating from their core menu, the enhanced menu seems to have been influenced as a result of listening to their regular customer base. What they have done now was enriched their offerings for also enticing refined palates.

California Pizza Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Azucar, 9 Years of Tapas

Azucar

When I moved to Logan Square, there were several restaurants on the landscape that looked inviting. I made plans to go to the restaurants and then I realized one day that eight years had passed … and I had not gone to several of the restaurants. Azucar Tapas & Cocktail Bar at 2647 N. Kedzie Avenue was one of the many eateries that I passed and never stopped in for a sampling. I corrected that recently.

Olivos Machacadas en Casa

Olivos Machacadas en Casa

Having had a spell of hot and humid weather recently, Chicago experienced a reprieve from feeling tropical. During my visit to Azucar, I sat outside to enjoy the nice breeze and a degustation of a few tapas items. For a refresher, I started with a white peach sangria that was quite refreshing. While the alcohol was not heavy-handed, it was indeed there. To go with the sangria was olivos machacadas en casa, which was a selection of olives and baby pickles.

Empanadas Pollos

Empanadas Pollos

The next course to arrive was a plate of empanadas pollos. These were tapas size empanadas, but they packed a huge flavour profile. They were not merely stuffed with shredded chicken, but they were stuffed with well-seasoned shredded chicken. Served atop a tomato sauce and accented with basil, these were ideal with the finishing of the sangria.

White Peach Sangria

White Peach Sangria

Red Raspberry Sangria

Red Raspberry Sangria

I then moved into a seafood option that was extremely tasty. The gambas a pil-pil came as shrimp sautéed in spices and served in a dish that had a creamy garlic butter sauce. The perfect accompaniment with this dish was a mini loaf of bread that was ideal for sopping up the garlic butter sauce. Also, with this dish, I had opted for a red raspberry sangria that was as refreshing as the white peach sangria and also mixed nicely to hide the alcohol.

Gambas a Pil-Pil

Gambas a Pil-Pil

The final tapas I ordered was piquillos al fuego. Even as a vegetarian option, this was absolutely divine. These piquillos peppers were stuffed with a blend of cheeses and chopped portobello mushrooms, lemon, and chickpeas. As an accent, they were topped with fennel and a roasted garlic cream sauce. I had thought the bread with gambas a pil-pil was filling. The piquillos al fuego helped induce a desire for sleep and I was okay with that.

Piquillos al Fuego

Piquillos al Fuego

Per my server’s recommendation, I ordered pastel de chocolate for a postre. Being a few notches close to sated, this decadent cake put me over the top. Served with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream, I didn’t think that something so small could be so incredibly rich. And when I say that it took me over 30 minutes to finish it, it was because I didn’t want to have any regrets about leaving any before departing the restaurant.

Pastel de Chocolate con Helado

Pastel de Chocolate

Azucar recently celebrated nine years in spring, 2016. Just across the street from the Logan Square Blue Line and between El Cid immediately next door and a very short walking distance from Longman & Eagle, it’s in a prime location where there is plenty foot traffic. The menu is not extensive, which is very good for narrowing down selections, and the food is full of flavour. It took me eight years to walk the few short blocks from my condo to Azucar. It won’t take eight more years. That’s a guarantee.

Azucar! Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thalia Spice, You Again

This is more of an update to a visit to Thalia Spice at 833 W. Chicago Avenue in 2013. It was a pleasant experience with one dish that missed the mark. After catching up with a few friends in West Town, I wandered East and made a pit stop here again to get my fill before going to another gathering of friends later.

Clay Pot Mussels

Clay Pot Mussels

Instead of ordering large plates, I opted for a round of appetizers. The first was clay pot mussels. This came as a soup very reminiscent of Thai tom kha. Instead of chicken being the meat, there were mussels and these were not the nibble size mussels that you find on most menus. These were plump and meaty. So, it was off to a good start.

Mango Seared Scallops

Mango Seared Scallops

The next appetizer I ordered was a platter of mango seared scallops. There was a Caribbean feel to this dish. There were mangos, avocado, and tomatoes atop leaves of lettuce that already made for a tasty salad. The scallops were tender to the point of not requiring any effort to cut. This appetizer was surprisingly hearty. Although there were three scallops, the accompanying fruit salad made the experience a little more substantial than expected. This was not a bad thing, by the way.

Thai Fried Chicken

Thai Fried Chicken

The third course came as a plate of Thai fried chicken wings with a spicy sauce. I am loving the concept of Thai fried chicken, as the chicken is crispy without seemingly being heavy with batter. There was a mild spice to the wings that worked well with the tamarind sauce.

Malaysian Roti Canai

Malaysian Roti Canai

The fourth appetizer was Malaysian roti canai. Although I have had this at the sister restaurant, Thalia Spice, there was more roti for enjoyment with the curry chicken. And in true cultural spirit, I devoured the dish using the roti as my eating utensil. One note to myself is to order the curry chicken with a little more kick to it.

The King & I

The King & I

I finished with a light, yet filling dessert. Called The King & I on the menu, this was fried banana with vanilla ice cream drizzled with honey and accompanied with chocolate, strawberry, and kiwi syrups. Given all the food I had indulged, this was actually perfect. And since the temperatures were nice, I decided that I would have something refreshing from the bar before leaving. I couldn’t pass up having a sangria, so sangria it was and satisfying it was also.

Thalia Sangria

Thalia Sangria

I am finding that several restaurants I have gone to in the past that I left still feeling hungry or like I a forgettable dining experience have since made changes that I find very appealing and appetizing — for a lack of a better term. Thalia Spice was not one that I did not enjoy, but there are some dishes that clearly are prepared for local palates. I constantly have to remember to request for my dishes to come prepared with all the cultural goodness from the “old country.” Going with appetizers only was a very good option and it certainly made Thalia Spice move up on my list. Pan-Asian isn’t bad when it’s done good.

Nando’s Peri-Peri, More Delicious Comes to Lakeview

Nando's Peri-Peri

After having a good bit of my weekend usurped with my day job and juggling several photography assignments, I needed a moment to replenish myself. I sent a text message to a great friend mentioning a certain restaurant we had passed by a few weeks ago and when the response came back saying, “Let’s do it,” I grabbed my camera and headed to Nando’s Peri-Peri at 670 W. Diversey Parkway.

Sangria

Sangria

With the temperatures still being humid, I opted for something to cool me off. I can’t say that the red wine sangria I ordered was the best option for taking the sting out of the heat that we were experiencing, but I was quite okay, nevertheless, by the second glass. And it was certainly enough to make me forget about work for a moment.

Corn, Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Corn, Garlic Mashed Potatoes

When temperatures are in the 90’s and muggy, I usually try not to eat too much food. Well, I must be honest and admit that I don’t try that hard. I ordered a half chicken spicy, a side of Portuguese rice, mashed potatoes, and garlic bread. Just when the cashier was about to ring up my order, I interrupted with an order for grilled corn on the cob. Every bit of it was delicious. Succulent chicken, mashed potatoes that didn’t taste like they had been prepared from powdered mix, rice that wasn’t sticky, sweet corn on the cob, and garlic bread that was not toast, I was one satisfied customer. And I earned my extra stripes for being an active member of the Clean Plate Society.

Half Chicken, Portuguese Rice, Garlic Bread

Half Chicken, Portuguese Rice, Garlic Bread

Nando’s Peri-Peri has somewhat of a big box feel to it, as far as size of the interior. But there is something more homey about the experience. Much like the Nando’s Peri-Peri that I first experienced in Washington, DC, the food is consistently great. I shall definitely return several more times over the next few months to sample some other items from the menu. For those who are in the Lakeview neighbourhood or passing through, stop in, put your feet under a table, and let your taste buds know that Nando’s Peri-Peri can bring about a smile to your face, or at least a smear of gravy to the corner of your mouth.

Click to add a blog post for Nando's Peri-Peri on Zomato

My Dr. Seuss Moment

Emilio's Tapas

Will you eat them in the house?
Will you eat them with your spouse?
Will you eat them in the sun?
Will you eat them just for fun?
Will you even lick the plate?
Will you have your tapas very late?

Red Sangria

When my friends and I advance in our careers and in our social lives, we have a tendency to celebrate big. Dinner gatherings. Trips to beautiful and exotic places. Catching up at champagne and wine bars. Symphonies. Jazz sets. All the good things that other people who could enjoy but do not because they sit around damning those who live life to the fullest. In the like manner that I experienced when I left one place where I was working so that I could advance several notches up and most certainly during the entire month of April when I celebrated my birthday ad nauseam, a great friend recently accepted a position with a company where she moved up a few notches by leaps and bounds and celebrating was a must. There was absolutely no way that we were going to pass on throwing support and enjoying something worthy of culinary happiness.

With downtown Chicago taking on a more European feel in that dinner is starting later, we met at Emillio’s Tapas, at 215 E. Ohio Street in the Streeterville neighbourhood. We had passed by the restaurant several times when often we went to any one of the restaurants in the area for lunch. It looked swanky. There was always a crowd. It came across as a place to sample. We figured that instead of passing by and saying, “That looks like a nice place,” we would test our observation. A very nice Chicago summer evening with the sun slowly creeping over behind the skyscrapers and us sitting outside with the wind flicking across our cheeks, we were ready to see how the Spaniards entertain their appetites. And since we all had been to Spain before, we had a point of reference for how it’s done. Tapas we wanted, so tapas we were going to have.

Calamares Con Ajo Y Limon

A nice evening for us to enjoy, what better way to get started than with a refreshing beverage? Red sangria.

I’ll drink it on the phone.
I’ll drink it while at home.
I’ll drink it in the sun.
I’ll love it till I’m done.

The concoction of red wine, brandy, apples, lemons, and oranges was potent and smile-inducing. And it was not just one glass that we had, but it was a full carafe so that we could enjoy as much as we wanted without stopping our waitress to place another order. But, there was a second carafe, so touché. And with our first glass, we had calamaraes con ajo y limon. These baby octopuses were cooked to a texture that was not al dente but not quite yet splendidly tender. The buttery-lemony sauce that they swam in before jumping on our fork tines and then plopping on our tongues was slightly addictive. We dipped our bread in the sauce, sopped, and dealt the octopuses their fate. May they know that we appreciated how delectable they tasted.

Papas Bravas

Next to the table was a plate of papas bravas. Usually, this dish comes topped with melted cheddar cheese, which sometimes puts me in the mind of Velveeta doctored up in the microwave. Hmm. This time the papas bravas was sprinkled with grated cheese and served over a mild tomato sauce with red peppers. There was a contradictory note to the dish, as it was more lukewarm than it should have been yet flavourful. My friend remarked that the potatoes tasted old. My appetite, although discriminating, does not detect “old.” Nasty. Disgusting. Horrid. Worthy of throwing against the wall. Yes, those descriptions come to mind, but old is a new one on me. Then again, I ate what was left. I mean, people on the other side of the world are starving and although I have upper middle class means, I cannot let tasty food go to waste unless it is absolutely beastly.

Congrejo Concha Blanda

As the two earlier plates were a little better than fair to middling, another glass or two of the sangria and the order of congrejo concha blanda made it all right for the evening. Happiness was in the air. The congrejo concha blanda was a plate of soft shell crab served with white rice over another cream-based sauce. Anyone who loves crab would bow at the chef’s feet for preparing such a masterpiece in dining. We thought the rice was seasoned enough to raise our eyebrows in appreciation, so imagine the soft shell crab being cut and devoured by gleeful diners such as ourselves. Wow.

I’ll lick my fingers clean.
I’ll start being nice and stop being mean.
I’ll love it, Sam I Am.
But I still won’t eat green eggs and ham.

We shall just say that when you take the last few substantial morsels of the soft shell crab and start going around the plate to get the gravy, you are in heaven. Being dainty, prudish, or prim would be unacceptable. Perhaps if I were a country Jasper from the hills, I would have lifted the plate to my face and licked it lovingly.

Falda de Cebon al la Parrilla

By now, we had completed one carafe of sangria and were mildly knackered. Thankful that we had a good amount of complementary bread and all of the other hearty dishes, much of the alcohol had been soaked up. So we were ready for more refreshing liquid bliss. What better way to enjoy each glass full of happiness than with falda de cebon ala parrilla? As a pescatarian, vegetables and seafood are what I will entertain in my diet primarily. But this was not my celebratory dinner, so when the guest of honour wanted skirt steak, there were no complaints. When we started cutting in to the steak and forking it into our mouths, we would have started a petition for the swift public flogging of anyone who moaned about having something so lip-smackingly divine placed before them. I am sure that God looked down at us and said to Himself that we will meet fire for smiling so raptly through the deadly sin of gluttony. Yes, I will burn in hell for such relish and I shall dress accordingly. The guest of honour was passing the steak knife to me to cut the meat, to which I replied, “Woman, I’m handling this with a butter knife. Can’t you see?” And by now, we were a bit squiffy from so much drink that everything was funny — the parent pushing what looked like a six-year-old child in a buggy; the man with the exploding soda pop all over the back of some stranger’s shirt; the bitter woman who dropped the scoop of strawberry ice cream on her shoe, making it look like a saucy pom-pom; and me being too quick with the cava sauce and almost pushing it off the plate with a forkful of steak.

Chocolate Cake with White Chocolate and Caramel Mousse

Having loved what we had, it was time to indulge some dessert. Too much food already and sangria surplus, we opted for lighter desserts. At the risk of blasphemy and apologies to all of the Pharisees, the chocolate cake with white chocolate mousse and caramel mousse once again had God shaking His head. Garnished with a sprig of mint and a strawberry, this was clearly a work of the devil. And maybe God viewed our enjoyment as a part of His plan. Some southern Baptist preacher may have been screaming from the pulpit that we were going to burn in hell, though, which is usually the case if you find satisfaction in anything. Nothing close to syrupy or to the point of having our teeth feel as though we had set them on ice because of too much sugar, this dessert was indeed perfection. Light in texture, heavy on the bliss factor, it also went well with the sangria. Do not ask. And as if the chocolate cake with the wonder mousse were not enough, we finalized our dessert with profiterole del pirineo. You would never think that something as pedestrian as puff pastries filled with ice cream and topped with chocolate sauce would be better than a sunny day at the park. Oh, but when the chocolate is dark chocolate, you may discover the secrets of love, the 12 rabbits and the cheesecake, how to make incompetent politicians disappear, and all sorts of good things. As I polished off the last of my glass of sangria, and I had the bottom of the carafe, I was all sixes and sevens — a complete mess, I say. It had occurred to me perhaps two hours after we had left that I made a rather loud declaration of, “Oh my God!” on the outdoor patio in the presence of patrols and wait staff while eating that dessert. Well, there was no denying that all we had eaten was worthy of any kind of smashing reaction, regardless of how embarrassing it may have been afterwards.

Profiterol del Pirineo

So, this was yet another case of outstanding food, super great service, and me fighting sleep on the subway while going home well after 11:00 at night. The prices were not as steep as I thought they would have been, but the allure and outdoor ambiance made Emilio’s Tapas a place that I shall visit again. I have some great eating experiences in Chicago, but there are times when it is so good that I have my Dr. Seuss moments. This was one of them.

I will eat them in my house
I will eat them with my spouse.
I will eat them in the sun.
I will eat them just for fun.
I will have my tapas very late.
I will even lick the plate.
I will eat them, Sam I Am.
Now, go away so that I can.

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