Cafe Des Architectes, Un Peu de Français

Recently, I have been in a bit of a French mood. For the longest I had been searching for restaurants that had a basque feel, and without the churn of a crowd. Like in France, one can enjoy a meal alone or in small company in some bistros and cafes without an excess of ambient noise and people crowding your space. My restaurant adviser and I had culled together a list of restaurants that we thought would be good samplers.

Bread Service, Trout Croquette, Lump Crab, Heart of Palm, Summer Squash Soup

Bread Service, Trout Croquette, Lump Crab, Heart of Palm, Summer Squash Soup

First on our list was Cafe Des Architectes in the Gold Coast Sofitel Hotel at 20 E. Chestnut Street. Just west of the Magnificent Mile is this fantastic restaurant that’s surrounded by swanky clothing boutiques and other very appealing restaurants. Located off to the side of the lobby is this very spacious, airy, and well-lit restaurant that also has a large outdoor seating area. With weather being extremely nice for October, we sat outside during our first visit to enjoy the moderate temperatures and to watch people in their comings and goings.

Chardonnay, Champagne, Pinot Noir

Chardonnay, Champagne, Pinot Noir

Opting for small plates, we ordered from the appetizer section with a pescatarian focus. Starting off was a l’amuse of trout croquette atop an aioli and the first of three pairings, a champagne that neither nipped at the back of the jaw nor left a pucker on the front-end of the sip. Seasoned well and void of an excessive amount of breading, the bite size trout was still meaty and the aioli was not the least bit overpowering. The Maryland style crab cakes were a reminder of why those are a favorite. Served with a chipotle aioli, citrus segments, and an avocado purée, there was not a crumb of breading on the crab cakes, which meant we got to enjoy seasoned, fresh crab to the fullest. Following with the hearts of palm, which came with a cauliflower custard, radicchio, and caviar, it was evident that the restaurant was going for full flavor even with small plates. And then we had the chilled summer squash soup with a nice smear of mint yogurt, curry oil, and granola. While most may be accustomed to a hot soup, this is the epitome of a summer soup, best served when it’s very hot outside, enjoyed regardless of when the temperatures are warm enough for patio dining.

Escargot Pappardelle, Butternut Squash Ravioli with Shrimp

Escargot Pappardelle, Butternut Squash Ravioli with Shrimp

Getting more into pasta, we had escargot pappardelle. Accented with a garlic cream, parsley, and parmesan, the plump escargot popped with each bite in this light pasta dish. Unlike when escargot is served in a bubbling pesto, there still was enough of the garlic cream in the dish to remind you of how delicious the delicacy is. Wrapping up the many landings with black truffle and corn ravioli with rock shrimp, pancetta, and parmesan, we acknowledged that we had no room for a cheese board as a dessert. The ravioli was also light, but still it was filling without leaving us overly stuffed. Paired with a pinot noir, this was perfection on the palate.

Espresso, Macaron, Chocolate

Espresso, Macaron, Chocolate

The finale was espresso that was clearly made from a fine bean. While my restaurant adviser was sharing a few chocolates from Veruca Chocolates, we received complimentary sweets of mango macarons and key lime wrapped in chocolate. Enjoying this with the coffee was superb, as the macaron was fresh and the chocolate was nothing like the blocks of chocolate you get from anchor stores at the mall. The key lime was creamy, the white chocolate, which had been decorated to look almost like a precious stone, was outstanding, and it all went well with the espresso. The first visit was noteworthy given the appreciation for the quality of the food and the attentiveness of the service. So, we indeed had a return visit.

Cheese Flight, Sparkling Flight, Espresso, Chardonnay

Cheese Flight, Sparkling Flight, Espresso, Chardonnay

Having enjoyed a nice selection of small plates during the première visite, we settled specifically for wine and cheese, champagne and cheese for my adviser. Yet another day with perfect weather, we had an outdoor seat and settled on a selection of soft mild, semi-firm, and one firm cheese. The creamy and buttery fromages of Edel de Claron, Tallegio, and Brie St. Rocco worked well on sourdough. The Fourme d’Ambert, Morbier, and Tomme were semi-firm enough to enjoy on the olive bread that came with the cheeses. The Cantalet was just right for enjoying with the multigrain bread. And for even more enjoyment, the summer berries and miniature madeleines were exactly what we needed to mentally go back to France. Of course, there was no way of departing without taking an espresso.

Cafe Des Architectes has a very laid back feel. There was no rush, which is a rather appealing touch to a restaurant because good food should be savored. Cafe Des Architectes does a fabulous job making your visit the first of many. The closest I will get to France this year will be via a rendezvous in Paris en route to Morocco. In the meantime, I am enjoying this bit of France in Chicago.

Cafe Des Architectes Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

NaKorn Urban Thai, Aroi Mak Mak

NaKorn Urban Thai

Greater Chicago boasts a large number of Thai restaurants. There are two that have been my absolute favorite: JJ Thai Street Food at 1715 W. Chicago Avenue in West Town for authentic Thai street food and Herb at 5424 N. Broadway Street in Edgewater for refined Thai with 100% authenticity. After most recent visits to NaKorn Urban Thai at 1622 Orrington Avenue in downtown Evanston, it has officially become my third go-to Thai restaurant.

NaKorn Negroni

NaKorn Negroni

While passing through Evanston and a quick search to see what offerings were on the menu at NaKorn, there was a draw to the complete absence of a lot of ubiquitous Thai dishes (e.g., pad thai, pad see ew, curries, Bangkok chicken, bamee noodles, and the like). Recognizing that my original list of two favorite restaurants didn’t serve those staples and I had fallen in love with their dishes, I imagined that NaKorn was a winner.

Not a large restaurant, but not small either, it’s airy and spacious for those who like to enjoy their meals with dinner guests or alone without having neighboring diners practically sitting on top of you. For my first visit, I sat outside to enjoy the summer weather and to imbibe a negroni while figuring out what I wanted for dinner. And oh was the negroni a hit without being heavy-handed: just perfect.

Taro Chicken

Taro Chicken

I opted for a prix fixe flight of three courses. The first was taro chicken. Marinated in lemongrass-infused coconut milk and fried lightly before coated in a chili-peanut gastrique, this appetizer popped with flavor. As much as I joke about hating peanuts, the flavor was faint yet not to a point of being undetectable, but enough to let the coconut and taro take center stage on the palate. Simply outstanding.

Pan Roasted White Fish Fillet

Pan Roasted Whitefish Fillet

The second flight was pan roasted whitefish fillet with a sweet pepper chutney and chili tamarind reduction. The whitefish was not only flaky but it was also tender, clearly prepared to perfection. Rather than having this with an air of pomp and circumstances, this dish is best eaten mixed together. Having the fennel, cucumber, radish, whitefish, chutney, and tamarind reduction is a symphony.

Sazerac

Sazerac

For my second cocktail, I was in a bit of a New Orleans mood, so I ordered a sazerac. My restaurant adviser and I laugh about how at one of Chicago’s most touted restaurants, I left a sazerac at the bar intentionally because it was heavy on the alcohol and tasteless simultaneously. That was not the case with the sazerac at NaKorn. This one was smooth, in the same manner that they mix them in New Orleans.

The finale was a plate of mango and sticky rice. While you can never go wrong with mango and stick rice, this dish fueled an addiction that made me catch myself when I was tempted to order another plate of it. The sticky rice had been prepared to order, evident in it not being gummy. And to make the dessert that more appetizing, there was a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream served with it. Yes, that did add a twist while kicking an old favorite up several notches without compromising any of the love in all of the bites.

Mango Sticky Rice

Mango and Sticky Rice

Giving myself time before a return visit, I included my restaurant adviser for the second jaunt.  We opted for a few dishes without going overboard because she had made a suggestion for another visit so we could sample from the upcoming autumn menu. Really paying attention to the menu and also having brief conversation with one of the managers, it became apparent that the dishes were of the variety enjoyed at home in Thailand proper. That explained why there wasn’t even basil chicken available for ordering.

North Shore Punch

North Shore Punch

Shake and Shimmy

Shake and Shimmy

To keep the summer theme going, my adviser ordered a North Shore Punch. I ordered a Shake and Shimmy. The North Shore Punch looked artsy, a visual parfait of vodka, lemonade, and Thai chili-honey syrup. The Shake and Shimmy was a refreshing cocktail of rose hip, Brut Rosé, cranberry, and soda. And in our Garden of Eden, we had watermelon bites topped with crispy shallots. I never would have thought the combination of watermelon and shallots would be so divine. When the manager described this as a summer dish that her grandmother prepared when she was in Bangkok, I understood why this was a favorite of hers.

Watermelon with Crispy Shallots

Watermelon with Crispy Shallots

The next shared dish was vegetarian scallops. Eryngii king mushroom had been prepared so that it had the consistency of tender scallops and had I not glance at the menu a second time, I never would have known the difference. Served with a house made chili jam and topped with frisée and edible flowers, this was another flight that my adviser and I agreed should be eaten slowly so to experience the kick from the chili jam appearing and disappearing on the tongue. Plus, the whole concept of mushroom passing for scallops, albeit not as a trick, is simply fantastic and creative.

Vegetarian Scallop

Vegetarian Scallops

The third landing was a plate of coriander crispy shredded beef brisket. Described as having been shredded by hand, it was apparent there was a lot of preparation involved in the the dish, but what made it a case study in “Best Beef Brisket Ever” was the right amount of herbs and spices used without overpowering the taste buds. Served atop sticky rice, I will now be very critical of any brisket I have in the future because the culinary bar in preparing succulent brisket has been raised thanks to NaKorn.

Coriander Crispy Shredded Beef Brisket

Coriander Crispy Shredded Beef Brisket

Moving into the main flights, the first entrée was a plate of steamed baby lobster tail with kohlrabi, micro greens, and a Thai chili broth served with coconut rice. With both adviser and me being seafood fanatics, every morsel from the lobster dragged through the chili broth made for a culinary delight. This was the first time I have had lobster at a Thai restaurant and this recipe has become quite possibly the one I will hanker for when lobster is on the menu. Plating was visually stunning. However, there was a point when we resorted to using fingers for extracting the plump meat from the shell and dispensing of using forks except for when eating the rice.

Steamed Baby Lobster Tail

Steamed Baby Lobster Tail

The second entrée was a plate of jumbo lump blue crab served with Thai rice noodles and a spicy turmeric-coconut curry soup poured on the side. Three words come to mind again: Garden of Eden. The crab was fresh and I can always count on my adviser to speak to the quality of crab, of which she vouched could be the equivalent of truth serum. Certainly the aroma was inviting just from the wafting while arriving at the table. The soup had a flavor akin to what one finds in kow soy. The lump crab made it one of NaKorn’s most recommended dishes.

Jumbo Lump Blue Crab

Jumbo Lump Blue Crab

The finale was a take on a favorite that we have had at one of the Thai restaurants I mentioned earlier. There was a mix of jackfruit, mango, and water chestnuts. This is usually served in coconut milk with a little bit of sugar, but instead it was served with a scoop of panna cotta. Thailand meets Italy. Aroi. Delizioso. Outstanding. For an absolute scrumptious dinner, this wrap-up left us with a want for a quicker return than we scheduled.

Panna Cotta with Fruit

Panna Cotta with Fruit

NaKorn retains authenticity in the Thai dishes. The plating may look like something other than Thai, but the palate will say otherwise. No, they don’t prepare pad thai, panang, tom yum, or dishes in sweet gravies loaded with mushrooms, onions, carrots, and bell peppers. They do expose patrons to dining that is customary to Thailand proper while adding creativity to presentation without diminishing the dishes to middle of the road. In a long list of Thai restaurants that have cookie-cutter output from the kitchen, it’s refreshing finding NaKorn moving out ahead with menu items that have those who don’t speak Thai saying, “Aroi mak mak.”

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

Super Jalapeño Grill Super Yum

Jalapeno Grill

After a few months of slacking off from my gym regiments because it has been so nice after work that I’ve been busy lifting knives, forks, and spoons instead of weights, my clothes are fitting me a bit tighter than I would like. That means buying new clothes that have breathing room or getting back to my workout routine. So, while biking twenty miles recently, on my return home I passed by a restaurant that I order from online — Super Jalapeño Grill at 2910 W. Armitage Avenue. And what should I do but stop in any undo my long distance ride.

Jarrito Piña

Jarrito Piña

Chips y Salsas

Chips y Salsas

Certainly not a medium or big box restaurant, it’s one of countless taquerias in Chicago where you get real Mexican food, not an attempt at Mexican. There is nothing fancy about the restaurant and once the food arrives at the table, you really don’t care. Since I had already endured one hour of CrossFit, 45 minutes of kickboxing, and a little under an hour of biking, I was ready to sink my fangs into something to tide me over until I got home.

Tres Tacos

Tres Tacos

I had chips and the flight of salsas. There were tomatillo, a mild tomato salsa that reminded me of having a tamarind accent in it, a spicy tomato based salsa, and some pickled vegetables. Loved every crispy bite. Starting with a flight of tacos, I had one camarone, one pescada, and one carne asada. Not stacked with a heaping of lettuce, tomato, cheddar cheese, avocado, salsa from the jar made in New York City, sour cream, and whatever else was in the refrigerator, these tacos were of the variety that my Mexican neighbours prepare. No meat was dry, no flavours were lacking, and I had room for shrimp a la plancha that came in a buttery sauce along with frijoles and rice. With the accompanying corn tortilla, I placed the plump shrimp, rice, and frilojes in them and devoured all of it in total silence. Oh, I also had two quesadillas with this delectable platter.

Camarones a la Plancha

Camarones a la Plancha

Needless to say, my final two miles home felt like I had five more to go. But I was well fed. Chicago has more Mexican restaurants than anyone can keep track of and the beauty of them is that they are all authentic, not placebos to satisfy a common palate. Super Jalapeño Grill is family-owned and operated, so you’re indeed getting genuine Mexican sabor. I have ordered from this restaurant for delivery and always felt they sent the best from their kitchen. The sit-down experience proved that they have pride in what they cook. I’m going back, but not after an intense workout routine and long distance biking.

Super Jalapeno Grill Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Goree Cuisine, Senegal in Kenwood

Goree Cuisine

During my university days, my circle of friends became very specific to West Indians and West Africans — Jamaicans, Haitians, Crucians, Ghanaians, Nigerians, Ivorians, and Senagalese. For us, it was customary to have some cultural representation in food available during study sessions that were not conducted in the library or in the labs. We built our networks so solid that whenever we travel the world, we assured each other that we or our families would look out for any in our network when we pass through their countries. When I started traveling between Chicago and Cape Town for personal holiday, I would stop in Dakar for an extended layover and, of course, partake of Senegalese food before my continuation flight.

Nem

Nem

Goree Cuisine at 1126 E. 47th Street takes me back to Dakar where everything is proper Senegalese instead of essence of Senegal. Spacious on the inside and full of light, Goree Cuisine brings authenticity to Chicago’s Kenwood neighbourhood that many mostly experience on Chicago’s North Side. Having been to two other Senegalese restaurants in Chicago, one having lost a bit of its edge and the other one very much Dakar-in-Chicago, Goree Cuisine is an addition to the Chicago landscape that had won me over during my first visit and had me completely addicted on my second visit.

Fataya

Fataya

The intent for my first visit was for a sampler, so I started with nem and fataya. Already aware of the history of how nem, the French word for spring roll, got its introduction into Senegalese cuisine via a Senegalese soldier’s marriage to a Vietnamese woman, I had an order mostly for comparison and contrast to others that I’ve had before. Stuffed with ground beef, shrimp, chicken, and glass noodles, I found these spring rolls to be considerably more appetizing than any of the proper Vietnamese variety and the best that I’ve had in America. The second street food appetizer I ordered was a plate of fataya. These flaky pastries with fish paste came with a side of kaani, a peppery tomato sauce, for dipping. Not stuffed to the point of the pastries looking puffed up, there was something almost cotton candy like with how they melted on the tongue. And considering they weren’t overly filled, there was still a lot of flavour in each bite.

Yassa Shrimp

Yassa Shrimp

For the main dish, I had yassa shrimp at the chef’s recommendation. This was pure heaven and brought about all the wonderful memories of my university days and layovers in Dakar. The shrimp were plump and fresh, complete with a hint of grilling in the taste. Served with grilled onions in mustard sauce, this was the first time on this side of the Atlantic Ocean I had a yassa dish without a visible squirt of Heinz mustard on top of the dish. The chef worked the mustard into the recipe and that made for the best yassa dish I’ve had since my last trip to Senegal.

Aloco

Aloco

On the second visit, I had my restaurant advisor join me. I knew she would indulge whatever came from the kitchen without complaint and without nose turned up. We had nem again, of which she repeatedly said, “Wow!” We then had maffe and an accompanying bowl of aloco. The maffee came in a bowl of peanut and tomato sauce with carrots, potatoes, and yams, along with rice. Reminiscent of peanut soup we’ve had at Ghanaian and Nigerian restaurants, albeit thicker and heartier, we resorted to silence while finishing this dish. And the aloco were the best prepared plantains we’ve had in months. They must let the plantains get almost overripe before frying them just to the point of caramelizing them: the best.

Maffe

Maffe

When my food advisor starts declaring, “It won’t stay on the fork,” I accept that fact that a dish is well past outstanding. This was the case with the yassa lamb. The yassa lamb came with grilled onions in a mustard sauce like with the yassa shrimp during my first visit and with yellow vegetable rice. The leg of lamb was a winner. Tender to the point where managing it was a bit trying because the meat kept falling off the bone without effort and not staying on the fork, the lamb also had no gamey aftertaste. The chef hit the mark on sending a plate to the table with tender, juicy, succulent meat that left a great lasting impression.

Yassa Lamb

Yassa Lamb

No food at Goree Cuisine goes into a microwave for a few seconds and then delivered to the table immediately thereafter. It is evident in the way the meat pulls apart from bones and how it falls from the fork. It is recognizable in how there are certain spices that you can taste “in” the dishes, as opposed to them tasting like the addition of condiments after the cooking. There is also no rush — no hurry up, be done with that plate, pay, and now leave. It is impossible to enjoy the cultural experience by rushing through it, so Goree Cuisine makes sure that not only will you fall in love with their loving from the kitchen, but that you will make plans to return repeatedly. I may not get back to Senegal often, but I will go to Goree Cuisine regularly.

Gorée Cuisines Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Proper Spain Comes to Chicago

mfk.In September, 2016, I went to Spain and instead of doing the touristy trek, I opted to do a run of wineries throughout the country and to feast on tapas to counter the alcohol. It was one of my best international escapes, one that made me long for returning to Spain. And recently my restaurant advisor sent a text message with the initials mfk.

In Chicago’s Lakeview, at 432 W. Diversey Parkway, is quaint boutique restaurant mfk that focuses heavily on seafood, borrowing mostly from the cafes in coastal Spain. Unlike many restaurants that attempt to “get it right,” mfk seems to have someone from Northern Spain in the kitchen, which may explain the authenticity in the dishes that come without pretense.

To whet our palates, we started with cocktails. My restaurant advisor had a hotel nacional, a rather refreshing mix if Clement VSOP rhum agricole, pineapple, lime, and apricot liqueur. I was more Portuguese in my selection, opting for a caipirinha, very much reminiscent of the Brazilian favourite doctored up with cachaça, demerara syrup, and lime.

Caipirinha

Caipirinha

Hotel Nacional

Hotel Nacional

Having asked for five menu items as server’s choice without much review of the menu, the first landing came as ceviche. Not the usual preparation in a dainty glass with chips on the side, this ceviche came as filets of suzuki, thinly sliced, and tossed in a combination of lemon, lime, and orange juice that sat atop homemade guacamole accented with a little bit of citrus and a touch garlic, all affixed on tostados with squid ink. For each to be bite size, there was an incredible amount of piquancy and without the citrus biting at the back of the jaw.

Ceviche

Ceviche

The second landing was a plate of anchovies. I fell in love with anchovies when I was in Spain and they are nothing like the horrible anchovies that people order for a pizza topping. After having these on toast accented with farm set butter and lemon zest, I guarantee you that you’ll fall in love with these tasties as quickly as I did in Spain, and with my renewed love of them at mfk.

Anchovies on Toast

Anchovies on Toast

The third landing was an exotic one, a plate of crunchy prawn heads. The heads had been lightly breaded and fried. These then sat nestled atop a pepito mojo, which was a mix of different herbs, parsley, chives, and pumpkin seeds, worked up with a touch of olive oil. Not only were the shells easy to devour without them being noticeable between the teeth, but the seasoning and the mojo made for a divine dish.

Prawns Heads

Prawns Heads

The fourth landing was a take on a favourite dish that I order at most restaurants that serve seafood fare. This was a huge bowl of Price Edward Island mussels that had been simmered in a broth of cider with a little bit of butter and vegetable stock. The plating consisted of mussels with bread crumbs, crème fraiche, dill, parsley, and tarragon, along with toasted bread on the side. I have loved mussels with saffron in the recipe, but mfk served up my absolute new mussel crush. No grit in mussels and no mushiness with each bite, they were divine with a hint of the tarragon and dill in the background.

Mussels and Toast

Mussels and Toast

Having completed our first cocktails, we had a second round. Requesting surprises, my restaurant advisor had ranch water, which was a refreshing drink mixed with mezcal, lime, orange bitters, and topo chico. I had a marriage of Spain and Italy, a negroni prepared with mezcal insteal of with gin. People think everything tastes better with bacon in or on it. If only they knew about mezcal.

Ranch Water

Ranch Water

Mezcal Negroni

Mezcal Negroni

The fifth landing was a take on paella. Prepared with tomato and shellfish stock, the addition of herbs brought it up in flavor. For service, prawns, mussels, and clams were simmered and then finished with fresh herbs chopped on top and a couple slices of toast. In true paella preparation, there was saffron rice for utter enjoyment. There was so much flavor building in the recipe that while my restaurant advisor and I were practically stuffed, we did not let any of the paella go to waste. You could hear the Mortal Kombat sound byte saying, “Finish it!”

Seafood Paella

Seafood Paella

The sixth landing was a slice of the most heavenly cake you will ever have. The basque cake is simply the best way to save a failing marriage. Prepared with a generous portion of eggs, four, sugar, and vanilla, it’s extremely moist. To make the cake even more devilish, the almond pastry cream in the recipe has rum in it. Topped with almonds, there is also has a hint of salt from the salted almonds. Finished with a very nice glass of brandy, I’ll leave you with these famous words: It will save your marriage.

Basque Cake

Basque Cake

Brandy

Brandy

The dining area in mfk is very intimate. It is highly recommended that the later you go, it is better to make a reservation. Everything we had on the menu was worth a repeat visit. And a repeat visit we will entertain for a sampling of other dishes we did not have on the first visit. There is authenticity in the preparation and in the taste of the dishes. Since I have plans to go to other countries for vacation during the upcoming years, if I don’t get back to Spain any time soon, I will go back to mfk sooner than later.

mfk. Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Ramen Takeya

Ramen TakeyaAs of late, ramen has been the new fad. Those who may have had more than enough ramen from the little block packages during your college days may give a side eye. But proper ramen is all the rage. One good thing about it is there are some restaurants that do the noodle dishes justice. Ramen Takeya at 819 W. Fulton Market in Chicago’s West Loop gets it right.

Having my usual hankering and a bit of curiosity about Ramen Takeya, I made my way over to the restaurant after work and started with a Moscow mule to take the edge off. Not as strong as one I had in Denver when a classmate hipped me to the cocktail, it was still good going down.

Moscow Mule

Moscow Mule

Since I didn’t want to stuff myself, I noted two small dishes and a ramen dish that I figured would be a good introduction to the restaurant. So, I settled on three menu items, reserving dessert for something else later.

The first landing was a bowl of ebi chili. The shrimp was fresh, tossed in a sweet and sour chili sauce, which was a winner. The dish was a salad with lettuce that had been accented with salt and pepper and what seemed like perhaps some lemon juice. It was not competitive with the spicy shrimp, as it was a better complement to the shrimp than I have had at a few other restaurants that prepared the same salad. For those who like light starters and have a taste for shrimp, I recommend this highly.

Ebi Chili

Ebi Chili

The second landing was barbecue eel. Served in a cup over rice, this was a winner. The sauce was neither overpowering nor excessively too much over the rice. Being a fan of unagi, it was great having eel that was meaty without having a fatty texture on the palate.

Barbecue Eel

Barbecue Eel

The final landing was a bowl of spicy chicken paitan. With mushrooms, bamboo shoots, a sunny side egg, onions, scallions, and chili sauce spice, there was a balance to the ramen but still with an allowance for the seasoned chicken to shine. Instead of a huge bowl full of ingredients, you get a nice sized bowl full of flavour.

Spicy Chicken Paitan

Spicy Chicken Paitan

Like many restaurants in Chicago’s West Loop, Ramen Takeya fills up quickly with the after work crowd. There are a few tables in the immediate area where you enter and tables along a short corridor that faces the open kitchen. There is a lot of energy and a lot of tasty Japanese fare to go along with the vibe. Reasonably priced with fabulous service, you’ll understand why it’s a favourite while you’re hovering over a bowl of ramen slurping.

Ramen Takeya Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Troquet River North, French Style

Troquet River North

Chardonnay

Chardonnay

Several years ago, a colleague who discovered my love for food and blogging about it had recommended a French restaurant in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighbourhood. Like some suggestions, I had entered it into my cellphone but never followed through. And when I did, finally, I discovered that the restaurant had moved closer to downtown. With Restaurant Week in full swing for Chicago, I saw a listing for Troquet, the restaurant that was once farther north, and that the restaurant was participating. So, it was off to 111 W Huron Street for a sampling.

With this being my first visit, I was more of a curiosity seeker than someone wanting to try a long list of menu items. I settled on a few dishes that I figured would be a good introduction to Troquet and a way to gauge whether repeat visits were worthwhile. The first dish that I started with was a bowl of creamy tomato soup. This came in a deep bowl, topped with some croutons that tasted like nothing from the bags at market, and also accented with a drizzle of chili oil. Before the first spoonful, it was apparent that this was not soup from a can, which some restaurants in the Chicago metropolitan area have sneaked out to tables. The chili oil didn’t overpower the base, yet it did provide a mild kick that made the tomato soup stand out as a favourite.

Tomato Soup

Tomato Soup

The second landing was a plate of dorade atop cauliflower, mushrooms, and spinach. Dorade was a curiosity menu item for me, being a lover of seafood, but having never had dorade. The texture was flaky with a faint note of silkiness. I initially thought that I had Chilean sea bass. The skin had been seared enough to have a bit of a crisp to it. However, the fleshy meat was succulent and bursting with flavour. The accompanying vegetables had been seasoned such that they were not screaming with salt or an excess of seasoning. This was a perfect landing.

Dorade

Dorade

The finale was an apple tart. The apples, which had mild hints of tartness and were crisp, were sliced thinly and served atop a flaky pastry that wasn’t a victim of too much sugar. This was an indication of the pastry having been baked on the premises from scratch. To make the dessert that more better, the caramel drizzle tasted like caramel that had been prepared using sugar and butter in a skillet in the kitchen. Yes, it was homemade. It was not melted blocks of Brach’s caramel.

Apple Tart

Apple Tart

Troquet is a spacious restaurant and surprisingly quiet. The interior gives off the feeling of a restaurant that was once a bar and has been repurposed. French restaurants in Chicago tend to have a bistro feel (casual) or a white tablecloth atmosphere (fine dining). River North boasts watering holes for those who love vibrant bar scenes. In the vein of French restaurants, Troquet is not a bar and while it’s not a pretentious place, the cuisine seems to stand out. For a place with great service and outstanding French food, Troquet is worthy of countless return visits.

Troquet - Hotel Felix Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

JJ Thai Street Food

JJ Thai Street Food

While enjoying some robata grill happiness at Yuzu, my favourite sushi and robata grill in Chicago’s West Town, the owner sat with my restaurant advisor and me so that we could catch up, having not seen each other since the New Year began. Afterwards, she walked us over to the first location where Yuzu first opened its doors for business for an introduction to the owners of the new restaurant that had moved in. My restaurant advisor and I only sampled a small dish called sai-krok e-sam. Two grilled Thai style pork and sour rice sausages were all we needed to return to JJ Thai Street Food at 1715 W. Chicago Avenue.

Sai-Krok E-Sam

Sai-Krok E-Sam

Having perused the menu, we noticed that much of the usual Thai fare was not listed. There was no pad Thai, pad see-ew, red curry, green curry, yellow curry, or Thai fried rice dishes. And during conversation with the owner, who was not present when the owner of Yuzu had walked us over to make the first introduction, it was then known that the food was prepared truly culturally, with made-to-order customizations on request. This was a plus because it was apparent we’d have dishes cooked they way they are cooked in Thailand proper.

Gai Satay

Gai Satay

Gyo Tod

Gyo Tod

Two menu items that we started with were gai satay, which were three skewers of chicken served with a creamy peanut sauce and a cucumber salad. Unlike gai satay at many Thai restaurants, the chicken breasts were substantial. And it took very little work to get the succulent chicken off of the skewers. The dish also came with grilled toast that tasted like cake when dipped in the accompanying peanut sauce. The second item was a small platter of gyo tod, which were fried wonton stuffed with ground chicken. Served with a spicy sweet and sour sauce, I don’t think I will ever want crab rangoon after having these lovelies.

Tom Yum Kung Nam Khon

Tom Yum Kung Nam Khon

Where it was evident that JJ Thai Street Food would make a consistent favorable impression on the palate was with the tom yum hung nam knon. This pot of soup had a spicy kick to it but without the highlighted sweetness one gets at a lot of Thai restaurants. The mushrooms were plump. There were no bell peppers, carrots, and onions. The shrimp was not popcorn shrimp. For the soup to have been minimalist with ingredients, it was aromatic to smell and divine to taste.

Khao Khai Ra Berd Ta Lay

Khao Khai Ra Berd Ta Lay

Because my restaurant advisor and I had budgeted the whole afternoon for a sampling of multiple dishes, one main landing we ordered was khao khai ra berd ta lay. Not a dish one usually skims across on menus at Thai restaurants, this plate of stir-fried shrimp, squids, and mussels with basil over rice and topped with a sunny side up egg was simply heaven. The spices were welcoming enough without making the dish hard to enjoy, but perfect enough to wake senses.

Khao Panang Neua

Khao Panang Neua

Our second main landing reminded me of a lamb panang dish I’ve had at Herb, which is my favourite fine dining Thai restaurant in Chicago. The khao panaeng neua was panang beef served over rice. Another minimalist dish, it came without the addition of a long list of ingredients, just a hearty gravy accented with a perfect amount of herbs and spices. This was proof that very little can be a plus with preparing extremely enticing menu items.

Khao Mun Gai

Khao Mun Gai

The final landing was khao mun gai, which was braised chicken served over ginger rice with a cup of chicken stock. Looking at the plate, one would think it had no flavor to it. The khao panaeng neua had already resulted in very little conversation between my restaurant advisor and me, but the khao mun gai had rendered us completely silent. This must be a surprise dish because for it to look tasteless, the seasoning of the chicken without being too much and the ginger rice made for an outstanding dish. Even with the accompanying spicy side sauce, there was a punch before adding it that made the dish addictive.

Thai Iced Tea

Thai Iced Tea

Chicago boasts a large number of Thai restaurants and while I have been to many that I love and frequent, JJ Thai Street Food is indeed the second Thai restaurant where I have developed an addiction. I recommend it highly. The service is impeccable. Being familiar with authentic Thai food and having a limited grasp of the Thai language, I had a bit of ease with ordering and asking for recommendations. But I am certain that the service would have been just as outstanding had I not switched in my limited Thai. As to the food, I cannot express how much I have become a fan. Everything is cooked once the order is placed, so nothing comes to the table immediately. Be glad because that means you’re getting a meal with fresh ingredients, not pre-packaged, not defrosted and microwaved, but prepared on the spot. I’ll leave you with two phrases to use while at JJ Thai Street Food: aroy (delicious) and kab kun krub (thank you).

JJ Thai Street Food Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Mad Boiler, Mad Delicious

Mad Boiler

Earlier this month, while in West Loop for a concert at a nearby venue, I walked by a Cajun seafood boil boutique. Having experienced the delight at a few other seafood boil boutiques and restaurants, I was anxious to return the West Loop location at 1045 W. Madison Street, by the name of a Mad Boiler.

Clam Chowder

Clam Chowder

For an early Sunday afternoon, the restaurant was empty. Given the city was being blanketed with snow, many who would have been out and about perhaps stayed inside. Unlike them, snow and frosty temperatures don’t deter me.

Cajun Fries

Cajun Fries

I started with a cup of clam chowder. Having had cups and bowls of watery clam chowder, I was well past elated when the chowder at Mad Boiler arrived with a truly creamy base. Even with there being some bell peepers in the recipe,  it was still the best.

For my main feast, I ordered a pound of shrimp and a pound of crawfish in a combination sauce of Louisiana Cajun rub and garlic butter. Served in a bag, the shellfish was also accompanied with corn on the cob and andouille sausage. As if that was not enough, I had Cajun fries and a small loaf of bread, the latter for sopping.

I fell in love with the seafood boil concept here in Chicago in early spring, so I was thoroughly excited when everything I had at Mad Boiler was a winner. The shrimps were plump, the crawfish were fresh, the corn was sweet, the sausage was tasty, and the sauce was out of this world.

Crawfish, Shrimp, Corn, Andouille Sausage

Crawfish, Shrimp, Corn, Andouille Sausage

Mad Boiler gets plenty business through the week and I’m certain it draws a crowd on the weekends during the evenings. The service is absolutely top. The prices per quantity ratio is reasonable, especially if you have an extreme appetite and order a lot. There are other soups, sandwiches, and seafood offerings for your delight. I recommend going, donning the bib and gloves, and being quite okay devouring seafood from a bag. You will eat enough that it may drive you mad.

Mad Boiler Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Macku Sushi, More, More, More

Macku Sushi

A year ago, almost to the date, I went to a Thai restaurant in Edgewater for their one-year anniversary. With Chicago and the surrounding neighbourhoods being saturated with Thai restaurants, it was nice finding one that retained authenticity while also applying some jazzy techniques to the recipes. While at the anniversary gathering, one individual recommended several restaurants that she felt would suit my taste and would be a fit for the blog. Macku Sushi at 2239 N. Clybourn Avenue was one of the recommendations. So, one year later, almost to the date, I followed through on the suggestion.

There is the usual minimalist decor and non-cluttered seating that one finds in Japanese restaurants that focus primarily on food. With me having sat by the window, I got a good view into the preparation and cooking station, which was all I needed to know that I was about to get satisfaction with a variety of flavour. Now, having gone to countless Japanese restaurants, I was not interested in yet another bento box, teriyaki platter, or litany of maki rolls. Instead, I handed the menu back to my server and told him that I wanted an omakase and sake pairing. And then the fun began.

Click photos to open in Flickr album
Eighth Course
Second Course Fourth Course
Seventh Course

For those who have indulged one or more omakases, there is the awareness that each dish is the chef’s whim. Some items are on menu, some aren’t. I opted for a bit of experimentation. Over the course of the dining experience, I had ten landings. There were tuna, salmon, pumpkin soup, Japanese snails as a take on escargot, oysters, uni, whitefish, tuna tacos, and a selection of nigiri. In true outstanding dining spirit, each landing was progressively better than the previous landing, and the very first course was already a winner. It was nice having an explanation of each dish, and even a bit of history to some, rather than having plates delivered in obligatory fashion. That added touch shows that the servers are knowledgeable of what’s served, not just gophers running dishes to tables. As to the sake pairings, not being a sake expert, I was extremely happy that each pairing complemented the dishes.

Macku Sushi deviates from the usual maki roll and sushi fare that comprise a mainstay in Japanese dining. The plates are not substantial in size, so there really isn’t the potential for stuffing yourself. And while Macku Sushi is not high-end dining, the prices associated with the sizes of many of the dishes may be high-end for those who expect buffet offerings. The high points are the quality and freshness in the ingredients and the service. One would have to be offended for no other reason than being offended is an option to find anything wrong with Macku Sushi. Authenticity in the kitchen output, top service, and they haven’t fallen into the Pan-Asian trap, I pass along the recommendation that I received a year ago. GO!!!

Macku Sushi Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato