Moroccan, Hairpin Arts Centre, Logan Square

Recently, while making some updates to Chicago Alphabet Soup, I crossed one of my earlier write-ups, one that I had done on a Moroccan restaurant named Andalous. It has since closed and not to sound gloomy in an exaggerated fashion, there was a pang of disappointment in the discovery. Andalous was the only Moroccan restaurant that I had found in Chicago — and I am sure there are many more since the first outing to the restaurant — but the food was outstanding and considering the owner took time out to explain a lot dishes to my friend and me, I was sold on the restaurant being a top recommendation to those near and who would visit from afar. I had visited Rabat, Marrakech, and Agadir, so I had a point of reference for authenticity for the dishes. Andalous did not disappoint on the first visit, but it’s closing was a shock.

Black and Green Olives

Black and Green Olives

So after continuing to refine posts on Chicago Alphabet Soup and reminiscing about Andalous, there arrived an email invitation in my inbox. It was for a dinner at the Hairpin Arts Centre at 2800 N. Milwaukee Avenue. Having lived in Logan Square since late 1995, I was not aware of any art centres in the area. Then again, work had required a lot of travel, which kept me jetting across the skies, across the oceans, and to destinations fun and exciting. Even when in Chicago, I was constantly in motion meeting with friends, dining at various restaurants, and relaxing so that I was not living my life in one day. Other than my condo and a few watering holes, I never paid much attention to any other locations in the neighbourhood. I figured the invitation would give me the opportunity to see the arts centre and indulge one of my favourite engagements — eating.

Hummus

Hummus

This was indeed a traditional affair. Christopher Turner, a butcher at The Butcher & Larder at 1026 N Milwaukee Avenue, was the chef. In true Moroccan form, we had to remove our shoes. The invitation had been extended to a fair amount of individuals, so there was a long table that we all sat around on pillows on the floor. I thought to myself that this was going to be a good evening. For starters, there were black and green olives that clearly did not come from a jar. There was also homemade hummus, quite noticeable with a bit of grit to the texture, a sure indication that it was not procured pre-made. With khobz, or Moroccan flatbread, the hummus was an appetizing highlight.

Khobz

Khobz

Because the lighting was relatively dim and we had to pass dishes in communal fashion, there were a few dishes that I did not get to capture any visual impressions of. There were carrots that had been prepared with spices and everyone devoured them to completion. There was also what is quickly becoming a favourite vegetable of mine, as well as the source for my red velvet cakes turning out properly red and moist — beets. Many times I have joked about how my grandmother’s spirit is rolling her eyes and declaring, “Now that boy decides that he loves beets.” I had been engaged in conversation with the individuals seated near me, so I had missed the explanation of how the carrots and beets were prepared. I will simply say that rabbit food prepared Moroccan style is not a bad thing.

Lamp Presentation Lamp Presentation Lamp Presentation

The first meat dish to come to the table was a beef tangine. I have been quite good with keeping seafood as the only meat in my diet, with a few occasions of falling off the wagon and sampling chicken or beef. With my decision to become a pescatarian being a personal decision, not religious or because of a detriment to my health or fad, I opted for a scoop of the beef tangine with baked apples. One, I am glad the beef was not tough. I used the kobhz to pick up the meat and noticed how tender it was to the touch. It was succulent to the bite. Second, the seasoning of cloves and cinnamon made it that more tasty and the gravy added a richness that I must admit captured the beef tangine I had in Morocco many years ago. The apples and raisins in the dish allowed for a natural sweetness to the gravy to lessen any acidity in the recipe. The table that initially was a burst of conversation was accented with quiet.

Harissa

Harissa

Now, there was not going to be meat only, so there was fennel served with the beef tangine. Whenever I have had fennel, it has been in salads and such that any flavouring it could offer would be faint. I do not like licorice, Sam I Am, I do not like it. However, fennel served without anything else being in the way of flavour has a distant licorice highlight to it. I love fennel. How can this be? It’s as bad as me hating peanuts while having an addiction to peanut butter cookies at the same time. Yes, I am an enigma, one who appreciates a plate of smile-inducing fennel.

Beef Tangine

Beef Tangine

Once the course of beef tangine and fennel was cleared, we had an intermiso of pomegranate juice with rose-water and mint. Aside from the rose-water being added, the drink reminded me of hibiscus tea or kakade that I loved during my trips to Alexandria, Egypt. Rose water seems to be a common addition to some beverages and desserts in the Mediterranean, so I can only imagine there being an influence in Moroccan recipes. As soon as I find some market in the Chicago metropolitan area that sells rose-water, I will prepare my own concoctions of liquid happiness. The second intermiso was a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice with rose blossom water, served in a glass with cinnamon and sugar around the rim. If this isn’t a summer drink, I cannot tell you what is. I am adding rose blossom water to my list of ingredients for my summer beverages.

Merguez and  Couscous

Merguez and Couscous

We waited for well over fifteen minutes before the next course came to the table. This allowed for bellies to settle without being inundated with more tasty food immediately. Conversation was lively, new names were introduced that I won’t recall but whose faces I will remember, and anticipation was full in the air. Then came merguez and couscous. I had given in with the previous course and indulged the beef, so I forewent the merguez. Those who were seated near me raved about how they loved the chicken and lamb sausage. It definitely sounded like a winner and their facial expressions indicated so in the affirmative. I did enjoy the couscous, which had a citrus flavouring to it. What I loved most about the couscous was that it wasn’t of the consistency of mushy rice or sticky grits. I was reminded of cornbread dressing without the soupiness of it sitting in broth. Had I partaken of some merguez, I bet the dish would have been several notches past the 10 that I had already given it.

Mint Tea and Dessert

Mint Tea and Dessert

After the finale of merguez and couscous, there were desserts and traditional mint tea. The chef for the evening was honest enough to inform us all that the desserts were catered courtesy a bakery named M Desserts. Anyone who has had any desserts from the Middle East, you know that there is a high level of intricacy to the design and baking process. You cannot whip up some batter, put it on baking sheets, bake for some length of time at some set temperature, and serve as if you were some master baker. There is a science to desserts from the North African/Middle Eastern/Mediterranean part of the world. I shall have to find M Bakery. Nevertheless, there was an array of pastries, and cookies, all sweet and full of nuts the way they are prepared and served in Morocco. And we could not have any of those desserts without some mint tea served traditionally in a glass, from which you have to use the tips of your fingers to hold the glass by the rim and sip.

Relaxation

Most of the guests were personal friends of the guest chef. They described him as being great as a butcher. Although I have never been to the shop where he works, I would venture to say that his chef talents probably put his chop-chop skills to shame. It is unfair for me to say that what I had transported me back to my visits to Morocco, but I will say that the food would be worthy of return visits to any restaurant where he was the master chef. I hope that his volunteer chef work for the evening will help towards raising awareness about the Hairpin Arts Centre. Considering I have lived in Logan Square for years and have passed the building where the arts centre resides, the absence of a moniker or any advertisements have resulted in me constantly passing by a significant part of the Logan Square landscape. I would hope to see more coming out of and going into the Hairpin Arts Centre, and I would gladly support Christopher Turner if he were to take his talents up a notch along the lines of culinary arts.

Ride of the Foodies, Scandinavian Style

Svea Restaurant

With the weather warming up a bit, albeit a tease, getting out of bed earlier on the weekends has become easier. That means I have been able to start indulging the most important meal of the day — breakfast. It often starts off with a slice of cake and a tall glass of milk. If not cake, then there is some kind of croissant filled with apples, cream cheese, or chocolate, and milk to wash it all down. I guess I should provide a little more context and state that I have those lovely treats for my weekday breakfast delights while packed on the subway heading into downtown for work. But Saturdays come and I get to enjoy breakfast the right way — at some restaurant with my feet planted under a table, a plate of happiness in front of me, and a book in the hand that is not wielding a fork or spoon.

Coffee

Coffee

For a few weeks, I had been to Pannenkoeken Cafe for some of the best German breakfasts I have had on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Today I wanted to expand my European repertoire. While browsing the web, I had found a Scandinavian restaurant in the Andersonville neighbourhood of Chicago. I was aware of a small Swedish concentration in the area and a little west of Andersonville, but to find something Scandinavian-specific was a bonus. Queue soundbite of “Ride of the Valkyries,” and me driving down Clark Street in my Volkswagen Jetta, windows down, sun roof back, slow motion, wind blowing through my hair. Now queue sound of needle being taken off the record a bit too hastily. It’s too cold to have windows down in the car and I have not even a bit of fuzz on my head, as I shaved it all off. However, I did drive to 5236 N. Clark Street to Svea Restaurant for some proper food action.

Eggs, Hashbrows, Sausage

Eggs, Hashbrows, Sausage

Because really good ethnic restaurants and cafes fill with patrons quickly, I was at the restaurant as soon as the doors opened at 7:00 AM. With a warm welcome from the waitress/cashier and from the cook, I got a seat at the window and checked the options. A cup of hot coffee warmed up the body a little, not that I was completely frozen, since I had parked across the street. After some discussion about the way the weather and temperatures had been waffling, I ordered a Viking breakfast. On one plate came scrambled eggs that I got with cream cheese, Swedish hashbrowns, rye toast, and sausage. At the table was a happy me. I could have had a plate of the scrambled eggs with cream cheese alone. There may have been some salt in it, but not of the dosage my tongue detects at places like International House of Pancakes, Golden Nugget, or Original Pancake House. The hashbrowns were not the crunchy, shredded horror bites that many breakfast shops serve. These seasoned potato cubes screamed, “Keep eating me.” I keep forgetting that Europeans are not big on frying everything imaginable, so I snapped back to reality when I noticed the sausages were boiled. They reminded me of large Vienna sausages — without salt and the aftertaste. Then there were thin Swedish pancakes with lingonberry jam. These were not the substantial American style pancakes that put you to sleep after devouring half of the stack. Think of crepes that had been cooked on a griddle. I worked my knife and fork on the two pancakes to completion and did not experience food comatose immediately afterwards. And truth be told, the lingonberry jam was perfect to the point where there really was no need for syrup. After I was done, I commented to the waitress that all I needed was a red beard, for I had gobbled all of that food like a true Viking warrior. She responded that I had indeed enjoyed my little feast like a Viking that was celebrating from having performed well in battle.

Swedish Pancakes

Swedish Pancakes

Truly Svea Restaurant is an outstanding cafe for some authentic Scandinavian and Swedish food. I noted that there were lunch items and dinner items. Being only able to speak to the breakfast options, I would recommend it highly, especially for those who like hearty breakfasts during Chicago’s cold months. Svea Restaurant has a cash-only policy, so go to the ATM in advance, get some cash, and drive over to 5236 N. Clark Street for a brekkie fit for a Viking. If you have a CD player or even an MP3 player, be sure to queue “Ride of the Valkyries” while on your way to the restaurant. Trust me, you will understand.

Svea on Urbanspoon

I Come From Another World

HarvestBerwyn, Illinois, is surprisingly becoming a suburb for those who have no compunction about indulging tasty food. A former colleague who lives in Berwyn has introduced me to a few restaurants that have shown themselves worthy of repeat visits. There supposedly was a feature on television for a restaurant that is out of this world. Autre Monde, translated as “another world,” and at 6727 Roosevelt Road, was touted as a must-go-to eatery for those whose palates enjoy cuisine with a Mediterranean flair. My former colleague had gone to the restaurant and had spoken to how you cannot describe the taste — you simply had to experience it. Well, that was all I needed to hear to know that I wanted to be transported to a another world where people relished at aromas that tickled the noses and flavours that danced about the tongue like lords a leaping.

Autre Monde has a look and feel that is rather common among a lot of lounges in the immediate West Loop and Near North Side sections of Chicago. The lighting is dim, giving a muted orange glow. Everyone is glamorous, almost to the point where you wonder if it hurts to be so beautiful. The atmosphere is intimate. It is always recommended that you make reservations well in advance for the assurance of a seat and you arrive for the time that you have made the reservations, lest you relinquish your seat. The restaurant fills quickly. Of course, the service is outstanding and they will accommodate you if you visit without a reservation. But once you are there, be prepared for one of the best dining experiences of your life and a recognition that Chicago suburbs are, per the current urban lingo, on and popping.

Hummus and Fava Beans SpreadHaving the Christmas season upon us, my former colleague and I were in a festive mood. This was going to be a gathering before I departed to spend Christmas with my family and she to spend it with hers. With the restaurant filled, bearing others who came with co-workers and other friends dancing and doing things a notch short of embarrassing, we figured we would really get started with something from the drink menu. There is a drink called Harvest that is nothing short of autumn in a glass. I never would have imagined that whiskey and cider would be a great combination. Add a dash of cinnamon and you have a winning drink. Because we had saved our appetites for Autre Monde, we were careful not to imbibe the Harvest as though we had been crawling across the desert and were ridiculously thirsty. We tempered ourselves and placed our orders to cater to our degustation wants.

The first course we opted to sample was a plate of hummus and fava beans. There is no reason to ever go to a Mediterranean restaurant and not order any hummus. It is a staple in the Mediterranean diet and with some pita bread, you can fall in love with those creamed chickpeas, olive oil, and spices. Now, add fava beans to the mix and this was nothing short of Silence of the Gino, Mediterranean style. I have had fava beans with fish, chicken, pork, and in a complete vegetarian meal. I have even had them with a Chianti. Having it prepared as a spread was a new experience and one that I enjoyed more than I can put into words. It may be that it was something completely different to my palate. It may be that it was really that delicious. We’re not talking a dish that was heavy-handed with spices enough to be the glaring complete antithesis of a boring plate. It was a perfect start.

Mussels au Sete
Then we moved on to Mussels au Sete. I wanted muscles. I got some now. My arms are noticeably larger than they were several months ago. But I wanted mussels that tasted award winning in a savoury gravy. Lucky for me, I was already at Autre Monde and was happily obliged. It had to be the light gravy that made the mussels have an unforgettable taste. Heavy enough on the garlic but not enough to send a vampire running back to his coffin, my former colleague and I dipped the complementary toast in the sauce and devoured the delicate mussels with a tempered hunger. After all, we had more in mind to sample.

Moroccan Chicken WingsThe third menu item was one we saw going to other tables. The patrons were baring their teeth, frowning, and gnashing away with an animal intensity that made Sally in “When Harry Met Sally” come across rather tame in her mockery during the famous restaurant scene. Moroccan chicken wings landed on our plates and we topped them with cucumber yoghurt and a light pepper syrup. The combination of cool and hot was not something that my dining companion and I were going for but mixing the cucumber yoghurt and the pepper syrup really made the chicken wings scream. Even without adding the yoghurt and syrup, the wings had a flavour that held its own. The crust on the wings was delicate, nothing like the harsh crunch that you get on most fried chicken and definitely not a case of the Kentucky Fried Chicken sort, where the batter is almost feathery. We were contemplating ordering more of the wings, but that would have taken away from the degustation sampling we had planned. We were happy to have bared our teeth, frowned, and gnashed away on the wings that we had the way everyone else had.

Fontina and Wild Mushroom FlatbreadWe then graduated to fontina and wild mushroom flatbread. The whole concept of flatbread is all the rage in Chicago and has been for years. There are restaurants that make sandwiches with flatbread. Some pizzerias use flatbread as crust. There are even a few speciality cafés that serve it with dips and spreads. But when it is done right, it is an absolute showcase of talent. Looking at the fontina and wild mushroom flatbread, one would think it was pedestrian fare. It is anything but plain. The recipe apparently was well-balanced enough that the herbs and spices were present without overpowering the fontina cheese and the mushrooms. And let me not miss expressing the fact that you could taste the mushrooms, not simply chew them and know that they were on the flatbread.

Because the fontina and mushroom flatbread was so amazing, we wanted one more flatbread. An option was the spicy duck sausage flatbread. We immediately flagged this flatbread as a mandatory reason for a future repeat visit. Sun-dried tomatoes and seasoned duck sausage on flavourful cheese. It also found its way between our fingers, rising up from the plate, up towards our mouths where it entered and our teeth went to work. Smiles. Smiles as though we were on Fantasy Island. But it was no fantasy. If I had to choose between Chicago style pizza, Brooklyn style pizza, and the spicy duck sausage flatbread, Autre Monde would be happy to know that their little belly happy menu item would win.

Spicy Duck Sausage FlatbreadFor the finishing touch, we had pot de crème. Many people seek a pot of gold. If I want happiness, I only need the chocolatety hazelnut flavour of pot de crème to paint my face with a smile. So delicious it was that we intentionally took almost half an hour to eat all of it. There was no reason for us to rush through such a perfect dessert. The hazelnut influence in the chocolate custard had the right ratio to let you know that there was the presence of hazelnut but not such that it competed with the chocolate. After all, there were shavings of hazelnut on top with the homemade whipped cream. There could not have been a more fitting sweet.

Pot de CremeAutre Monde is, to put it succinctly, out of this world. For Berwyn to be such a homey suburb, you would never think that a restaurant with high-end atmosphere and top billing cuisine would be there. A few years ago, Berwyn was primarily a walk-up café haven where you were guaranteed some authenticity in the food you ate. The addition of Autre Monde and a few other restaurants will eventually have Berwyn filled with foodies seeking their Holy Grails of dining experiences. The price is commensurate with the quality of the output. The first time I went to Autre Monde, I did not have my camera and wished that I did. There was no way I was leaving home the second time around sans my toy to capture the culinary impressions. Actually, I wished that I had a camcorder to record my thousand faces of happiness as I ate. While I was able to capture the menu items that my former colleague and I had, and a picture is worth a thousand words, you will find that there are a thousand ways to express bliss for something delicious from another world.

Autre Monde Cafe on Urbanspoon