Bar Pastoral, You Can Wine All You Want

Bar Pastoral

It seems that the older I get, the faster time goes by. At the closing of this week, January will have only one more week left and then February will be upon us. It dawned on me that in a few more short months, I will have inched a little closer to 50. (Pause) Okay, so I have a few more years to go before I hit the half century mark in my life. I must admit that I have a tendency to want Chicago winters to rush, though. Summer can never arrive fast enough, but we have had some warm days and with one of the most recent warm days, I took advantage of the opportunity to go outside and to some restaurant. My constant New Year’s Resolution is to find more restaurants. That is no problem in Chicago.

Apple Brandy Old Fashioned

Apple Brandy Old Fashioned

Having been to the Lakeview area to sample a few small eateries, there was a pastoral shop that I wanted to visit to get some wine and cheeses for some upcoming winter evenings I know we are doomed to experience. Well, honestly, I wanted to get a few bottles of wine so that in the event that I would experience insomnia — a problem I have never had and probably never will — I’d tackle that problem in advance. While at the shop, I noticed there was a bistro extension next door. I chose to go and get fed rather than buy some wine that I would probably end up taking to a BYOB affair. It was at Bar Pastoral at 2947 N. Broadway that I had my first breakfast happiness for 2015.

Seasonal Frittata and Spinach

Seasonal Frittata and Spinach

On this weekend, I was in a rare mood to really treat myself. I started off with an apple brandy old fashioned. Bartenders in Chicago love to put their own spin on old fashioned cocktails. It’s when they create a cocktail that leaves you sitting with a stupid smile on your face that you know you’ve had a sip of heaven. The brandy made the old fashioned a very relaxing winter drink. (Pause) Okay, that bad boy was slightly heavy-handed and that meant I had to order a lot of food to counter the alcohol effect. My first appetizer was a seasonal frittata served with baby spinach. Very light and still flavourful without an unnecessary amount of seasoning, the dish was a splendid preamble if you planned to go overboard the way I did.

Autumnal Gimlet

Autumnal Gimlet

With my belly primed and the alcohol slowly being soaked up, I was curious about the parsnip and potato hash. Served with a boiled egg instead of a poached egg — my request — and piquillo peppers and a pesto over an avocado and lemon cream, I kept asking myself why it took me so long to pay attention to the bistro. The potatoes were seasoned well. Being on a low salt diet by choice, I am aware whenever dishes are heavy with salt. Not with the parsnips and potato hash. Compliments to the chef, sous chef, cook, or fry guy because for a dish that looked too pretty to eat, I devoured it without shame. I had to wait a few moments before preparing for my “finish him” course.

Parsnip and Potato Hash

Parsnip and Potato Hash

Where I went all out was with an autumnal gimlet. Swimming in a tall glass were Letherbee autumnal gin, fresh lime juice, simple syrup, quince, and apple tart cherry grenadine. Swimming in my belly was nectar. Swimming in my thoughts, I imagined myself in Brazil on the beach showing my flattened tummy. And then I came back to reality when the plate of chicken and waffles arrived. Ummmmm, ummmmph! I was all about sinking my teeth into some chicken and the buttermilk fried chicken was what bliss is made of. Don’t ask me how the chef got cheddar cheese and bacon into the waffles without making a mess. Don’t ask me how I worked my knife and fork on the chicken and waffles as silently as I did without also making a mess. (Pause) Okay, so I shook my head a few times and declared, “Umph, umph, umph,” as I sopped up the brown butter glaze. You would have too.

Chicken and Waffles

Chicken and Waffles

Bar Bistro is not a restaurant with big box appeal. One thing I will say is that the acoustics are all over the place, which makes talking quickly become shouting. Well, not that bad, unless you’re sitting next to a large party. The bistro is quaint, in a European kind of way. I would, however, recommend making a reservation for Friday and Saturday evenings. Considered how busy it was, it was also nice that the server was extremely accommodating. I had no demands and although he couldn’t give me a pillow so that I could take a nap after my two hours of decadence, he did offer regular coffee. I accepted. And you know what? I forgot to get the wine and cheese that I went to buy initially. But I had a really, really, very good brunch. Umph, umph, umph.

Bar Pastoral on Urbanspoon

The Best Coffee, the Ethiopian Way

Royal CoffeeI joke about the fact that I would not make a good celebrity. I have no want for doing drugs. Drinking is not something I indulge to embarrassing excess. In the current day and age, sleeping around is a dangerous game of roulette. And I am not one for opening up my mouth and speaking in a stream of consciousness. Ah, but I love to eat. Paparazzi would grow tired of waiting in front of restaurants to snap photos of me partaking of some delectable dish. Tabloids would say that Gino eats constantly but somehow manages to maintain his athletic physique. His life is boring. Doesn’t the man do anything worthy of tabloid fodder?

The answer is NO!!!

Iced Coffee

Iced Coffee

A month ago I had gone to an Ethiopian coffee-house in Chicago’s Rogers Park. Because I was only passing through then, I wanted to return for a proper sit-down. I remembered how outstanding the service was. I also recalled how mouth-watering the food was that I had ordered for take-away. The temperatures in Chicago had been chilly, so I had spent most of my days inside. But with a mild reprieve from the nippy temperatures, I wanted to pander to my vegetarian palate. There is no way that you can go wrong with Ethiopian food.

It was back to Royal Coffee at 6764 N. Sheridan Road for my moment of food reckoning. The manager recognized me when I returned. She was sitting with a friend, engaged in conversation before looking up and greeting me. There are countless restaurants where I have gone on ongoing basis only to be greeted as though it was my first visit or as if I had painted graffiti on the front door. But at Royal Coffee I got a “hello” that made my trip worth more than its weight in gold and I had not even placed my order.

Vegetarian Plate

Vegetarian Plate

With the weather being nice, I ordered an iced coffee with milk and a vegetarian plate. Ethiopian coffee is strong and having milk added only takes the bite out of it a little. Strong and good are the only two descriptions that I can use to describe the coffee as I am sure the spirit of Juan Valdez is not appreciative of my shameless plug for how much I enjoy Ethiopian coffee. After a few minutes of reminiscing about my old neighbourhood, the food came and I snapped back into reality. The spiced spinach, yellow lentils, red lentils, and the potatoes and peas served up with injera bread were outstanding. Each dish came in individual bowls and after I had unrolled the injera bread and spooned each on to the bread, I was ready for action. With each bite I had all I kept thinking was Wow! I have been to almost every Ethiopian restaurant in Chicago and find it hard to say which one I love the most. Now Royal Coffee makes it that much harder. Because I love spicy food, I ordered the vegetarian plate with kick and it was quite evident when I could feel heat rising from my scalp. Yes! Yes! Yes!

Napoleon

Napoleon

I had my usual out-of-control appetite because I finished the entire vegetarian plate. It was practically for two people, yet I polished it off solo. Now that would have been a tabloid feature — celebrity Gino ate a sizeable plate of an Ethiopian dish and then ordered something else. The something else was dessert. Most Ethiopian desserts are full of nuts and while I don’t have a nut allergy, I have no love for the taste of nuts. I do smile when I see chocolate, though. So I had a Napoleon. The flaky crust, cream filling, and chocolate topping were well worth filling the room I saved in my belly. Oh how I enjoyed forking that rectangle of goodness into my mouth.

Cafe au Lait and Butter Cookies

Cafe au Lait and Butter Cookies

My former roommate had mentioned that she was in the area, so I sat and waited for her. While waiting, I had a large cup of cafe au lait with some homemade butter cookies. I have gotten to the point where I take my coffee without sugar. I was almost certain that I would need some sugar because Ethiopian coffee is so strong. Still, I required no sugar. I am convinced that Ethiopian coffee is made from a superior bean or the roasting method at Royal Coffee is remarkable. As to the cookies, bakeries that bake butter cookies that turn out to be compact sugar should have a few of the lovelies from Royal Coffee and correct their recipes accordingly. The cafe au lait and cookies were a perfect match.

Royal Coffee is one of those modest cafes that has no flash and flare, but everything about it makes it a magnet that draws you back for repeat visits. The coffee was superb, the food was spectacular, and the service was outstanding. I love Logan Square — where I live — and the feel of community at all of the eateries and specialty cafes, but I will certainly give in to the pull of Royal Coffee that keeps me catching the train back to my old neighbourhood. And when my friends who live in Washington, DC, come to Chicago and want a restaurant to compare to the fantastic Ethiopian restaurants that DC has, I can now add Royal Coffee to the list. Add it to your list. The only regret you may have is not having added it to your list well in advance of now.

Royal Coffee on Urbanspoon

Seafood Bonanza, Shaw’s Crab House

Cranberry Juice

Cranberry Juice

For those of you reading this, I hope that you are at home or at some location where the temperatures are not as hateful as the temperatures in Chicago. As much as 2014 promised to be a good year, the Arctic temperatures have been prohibitive for going outside. By now, I would have gone to at least four restaurants and blogged them, but by the time I pack up to leave work during the week, my focus is on going home to get into my sweats and fuzzy bear claws. Yes, I have a pair of those. And the weekends seem to be candidates for sub-zero temperatures and mini blizzards. However, I simply cannot sit inside all the time. During one of my “escape from the cabin” moments, I went to a nearby coffeehouse to edit some photos. After a few hours of productivity, I received a text from a great friend who asked if I was interested in partaking of Chicago’s Restaurant Week at one of my favourite seafood restaurants. Well, with food being a factor, my text response was YES — I typed it in all caps. Knowing that there would be a crowd the closer it got to 7:00 PM, we made reservations for 5:15 at Shaw’s Crab House at 21 E. Hubbard Street in the River North section of downtown.

Bread and Wafers

Bread and Wafers

While perusing the menu for any ala carte options, we gnashed away on cheddar rolls and wafers. Um, um, good. Sure, this comes complimentary with the meal, but is still worth mentioning because the bread must be baked on the premises. You cannot find cheddar rolls like these in the market in the bakery section, on the aisles with aging loaves of bread, or in the frozen food section. Our server gave use a grand explanation of the restaurant week menu. Let’s just say that Shaw’s Crab House knows how to lure its customers back for repeat visits. There was clam chowder for the soup. For the entrées, the choices were king crab legs and Maine lobster. Dessert options were key lime pie, which you can never go wrong with, and a raspberry walnut cobbler. Far be it from us to be dining prudes, we ordered a dungeness crab claw for an appetizer. We also added potatoes au gratin and creamed spinach to our entrée orders.

Crab Claw

Crab Claw

Clam Chowder

Clam Chowder

The crab claw came to the table pre-cracked. It would have been a chore, quite possibly with things flying about the table. The claw was full of meat, bursting with flavour. Now, granted it wasn’t a substantial appetizer, it was certainly worth the order. For when the clam chowder arrived at the table, it was evident that the remainder of the evening would be based on complete culinary satisfaction. Thank God for restaurants that don’t feel the need to accentuate clam chowder with pork. There must have been complaints from some pork eaters about a few seafood restaurants that left the oink factor out of their clam chowder recipe because, sure enough, it shows up in the bowl at some eateries. Shaw’s Crab House has not fallen victim to that recipe blackmail.

Crab Legs

Crab Legs

Potatoes Au Gratin

Potatoes Au Gratin

Maine Lobster

Maine Lobster

Creamed Spinach

Creamed Spinach

The entrées were divine. The crab legs were full of meat. With melted butter for dipping, that was all we needed to forget that the temperatures in Chicago were in the single digits. It was all about concentrating on cracking the legs, digging out the succulent meat, and devouring it like seafood lovers. The Maine lobster came to the table steamed. Each bite exploded. No tough texture, no unsavoury aftertaste, only bliss. And not being one to let lobster go to waste, when I got to the head, there was a voice in my head that screamed, FINISH HIM!!! I complied. The mushy texture from the head is not something that appeals to a lot of people. It’s a bit reminiscent of marrow, for those of you who have chewed chicken bones to splinters and partaken of the tasty insides of the bones. It may be better used to season some soups or other recipes. For me, if I paid for it, it’s good as gone — unless I become so bitter that I feel the need to throw the plate against the wall. The potatoes au gratin were delicious beyond words. They did not come from a Betty Crocker box. And the creamed spinach reminded me of the spinach artichoke dip that a restaurant named Houston’s used to prepare — before that restaurant closed permanently for business.

Coffee

Coffee

As part of the Restaurant Week menu option for desserts, there were key lime pie and raspberry walnut cobbler. My main New Year’s Absolution was to remove desserts from my diet except for my birthday. So far I have been faithful, with the exception of having a panna cotta at one restaurant. My nutritionist and doctor said that I could indulge sorbet, fruit, and light cream desserts. To keep from possibly getting out of hand, I passed on the dessert and let my great friend take mine home with her. So, she had the pie and the cobbler. I settled on coffee laced with Bailey’s Irish creme. My friend had a regular coffee with cream. Talk about a great wrap-up to a fantastic meal.

Coffee with Bailey's Irish Creme

Coffee with Bailey’s Irish Creme

For years I had gone to Shaw’s during lunch when I worked about two blocks way from the restaurant. Even when I changed jobs, I was always confident that my palate would find satisfaction in all that the menu had to offer. Because Shaw’s is not ethnic, per se, I never blogged it. This time I felt that it was worthy of inclusion on Chicago Alphabet Soup. Now that I am being more serious about sticking to a strict seafood and vegetarian diet, there may be more seafood restaurants showing up on the blog. The service at Shaw’s Crab House was way past outstanding. Any time a server takes time to explain things in a great detail and offer recommendations without a scowl or a need to rush away from the table, the experience is usually a hit thereafter. Not once have I had a meal that I was not pleased with and the most recent dining experience was such a highlight that I was talking to my food and singing. And looking back on all of this, going out in the cold wasn’t such a bad idea. I got my usual food bonanza in the process.

Shaw's Crab House on Urbanspoon Shaw's Crab House on Foodio54

I Am 45

The Williams Smile

The Williams Smile

On 5 April 2013, at 1:15 PM, I officially turned 45. As a mathematician I tend to be more exact with things than necessary. When I turned 30, I was too busy planning the celebratory birthday party to realize that I had reached a third decade in my life. By the time I turned 40, family had a huge birthday party for me and it was just another day. Now that I am 45, it occurred to me that the next big birthday for me will be 46, not 50 as some would say. Truth be told, I look forward to each year with more excitement than the previous years.

As I get older I am aware of more things that are pertinent in my Disney.

  • There are things I am not supposed to have. And I’m okay with that.
  • There are places I am not supposed to go. And I’m okay with that.
  • There are people I am not supposed to have messing up my happiness. I am ecstatic over that.
  • Time goes by faster now than it did when I was a kid. Summer break used to last forever.
  • I am with the person who makes me happy. Note the strikethrough. That alone shaves 20 years off my face.
  • Smiling removes wrinkles naturally. To think that people pay for Botox injections and nip-tucks.
  • I am aware of the passage of time, as there isn’t enough time to eat all that I’d like to eat.
  • Food is my lover and anyone who thinks otherwise should be fitted for a straight jacket. (Being careful so my high school crush doesn’t read this statement.)

Instead of a huge party with dozens of people milling around and me not getting a chance to sit and talk with any of them at great length, I opted for more personal celebratory gatherings with friends, family, and my high school crush who kept teasing me with the promise of baking me an Italian cream cake. I started the morning meeting some friends for breakfast. With it being my birthday, they wanted me to be “in the moment,” which meant we were not doing anything with an ethnic leaning to have me switch into blogger mode. That didn’t mean I should leave my camera at home. So, into the bag went the camera and out the door I dashed to Marmalade at 1969 W. Montrose Avenue in the Ravenswood neighbourhood of Chicago. I was in blogger mode and that was inevitable. Super service, contrary to some disturbing reviews I’ve come across, and I will chalk that up to us getting to the restaurant at 7:00 in the morning when everything was new and patrons with bitterness, indecisiveness, and wants for vicious reviews had not poured in.

Cafe au lait. Eggs scrambled well with cream cheese. Cubano French toast.

Cafe Au Lait

Cafe Au Lait

The cafe au lait was not bitter, not in the least. I drank it without any sugar and said silently, “Intelligentia, you have competition.” By the second cup, I was saying, “Intelligentia what?” Nothing spectacular about cream cheese in my eggs, as that is a staple for my desired preparation of eggs. Where I wanted to stand up and sing “Gino Marmalade,” was with the Cubano French toast. I would gladly have enjoyed a petite mort after the first bite of the French toast in guava marmalade with a cream anglaise, topped with strawberries, guava, and granola. The lyrics would have been something like:

Gitchi, gitchi, ya ya da da da
Gitchi, gitchi, ya ya here
Mocha chocolata ya ya
Hungry Gino Marmalade

Scrambled Eggs

Scrambled Eggs

The prices for the menu items are reasonable. The service was outstanding. The food was so yum-inspiring that I could have sung an aria. Whatever gripes reviewers on Yelp have with Marmalade, I will return and I will have to make it a point to fight the urge to stand up and launch into the following lyrics:

Voulez-vous manger avec moi ce jour?
Voulez-vous manger avec moi?
Voulez-vouz manger avec moi cest jour?
Voulez-vous manger avec moi?

Cubano French Toast

Cubano French Toast

For lunch, I met with two friends I had worked with when I was driving off the map to the wonderful West Suburbs. We met at Wok’n Fire at 1576 W. Lake Street in Addison, Illinois. It’s the usual big-box atmosphere like what you get at Pei Wei Asian Diner and at PF Chang. But the aromas made the restaurant smell less of a buffet cafeteria and more like some good food was being prepared in the kitchen. After laughter about how the company had become a revolving door and joking about how some people manage to get promotions although they take vacation time in impromptu, unscheduled fashion, it was time for food. Per recommendation from one of my friends, I ordered Schezuan tilapia. Served with brown rice, spinach, and in a Schezuan sauce with red peppers, onions, broccoli, and mushrooms, lunch had a wow factor that left me weak in the knees. I had to drive back into the city and doing it behind the wheel of a manual shift after such a fantastic lunch, I was glad to get home and take a nap in advance of dinner. But before my siesta, I had a long chat with Ma Williams who boasted about how proud she was of me and how she’s glad I have been taking care of myself and some other mushy stuff that indicates I was never a disappointment. Not many mothers can say that and we Williams offsprings became high-end. And then she asked me if I had made use of the cake pans she sent to me for my birthday gift. Ma Williams always gets me the birthday gifts that make me smile.

Schezuan Tilapia

Schezuan Tilapia

Now, let me just say that I slept so good during the afternoon that I had thought I slept a bit too long. There was no way that I wanted to miss my birthday dinner. Sure, I can go to Marion Street Cheese Market at 100 S. Marion Street in Oak Park, Illinois, at any time. But for a proper celebration, and I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed, it was necessary for me to get up and be ready to head out for a worthwhile meal.

Flight of cheeses — Dante, l’amuse gouda, and sharp cheddar. Sunchoke arancini. Quiche. Salad. Flight of wine. Pot de creme.

Quiche and Salad

Quiche and Salad

Sunchoke Arancini

Sunchoke Arancini

The flight of cheeses came with candied walnuts, toasted almonds, a flavourful jam, wafers, and bread. So perfect and we worked our teeth on the items that begged for us to continue. Yep, we even paused conversation so we could concentrate. The sunchoke arancini was several stops past the last exit to wonderful. Ingredients of hazelnut chimichurri, sunchoke puree, sunflower sprouts, and lemon made for a vegetarian’s plate of happiness. We smiled through each bite. The quiche was of the kind that the meekest person would clobber a corn-fed Indiana football player senselessly if the football player were to mess with the mild person’s quiche. We’re talking about a quiche with Sarvecchio parmesan, caramelized onions, and parsnip puree served with braised spinach. You simply will not stop making comment about how delicious it is after each bite. Oh, and let me not forget to add that we each had flights of wine. Liquid bliss! For me, I told the server to bring a flight, any flight. It didn’t matter. I didn’t care. It was my birthday and he did not disappoint — three reds, two from France and one from Chile. The flight paired well with everything. The dessert was a pot de creme — chocolate hazelnut pudding topped with a baked meringue. There is a special corner in hell for me after working that pot de creme with exaggerated facial expressions, the homemade butter cookies, and a cup of coffee that was made from a fine bean. As we teetered out of the restaurant, it was rather apparent why we all return there so much. And people who don’t like that assessment are sitting back saying, “I know better places.” I can only shake my head and say, “Umpf, umpf, umpf. Tell me anything.”

Pot de Creme and Butter Cookies

Pot de Creme and Butter Cookies

As a kid, I used to think that people in their 40’s were old. I am quite amazed at how my perspective has changed since, rather considerable if I may add. When I look in the mirror and the only things that can possibly give my age away are my balding head and the grey in my beard, I realize that I can shave and those indicators go away as well. When I think about how I had furrows in my brow and pessimism in my eyes during my twenties, none to be seen in my physical appearance now, it feels nice announcing my age. Because then I can watch the show when people start to actively debate me and call me a liar who wants to be older than he really is. And I smile, yet again removing any potential wrinkles.

Hello, my name is Gino Williams and I am 45 years old. Oh, and I am a food addict.

Marmalade on Urbanspoon Wok'n Fire on Urbanspoon

Out with the Old, In With the Wow

Please return your seats and your trays to their upright positions. We will be landing shortly.

I have been on and off of airplanes so much during 2011 that there was a point when I knew exactly when the announcement was about to come on. During one of my most recent trips, the announcement was a reminder of me returning a city that I only visit for a few days annually. Jackson, MS, was my destination for a quick escape from Windy Chicago and from London fog. During my years of living in Jackson — so very, very, very long ago — I remembered downtown and two buildings that were blots on the downtown’s landscape. There was the Standard Life building, which is the tallest building in downtown. The other building was the King Edward Hotel. Both buildings, vacant and abandoned for decades, had been nothing more than markers indicating a city that had come to a standstill when the doors to both structures closed for business. Fast forward to 2011 and the King Edward Hotel is now the Hilton Garden Inn that boasts apartments, hotel rooms, and a fabulous restaurant.

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My childhood best friend and I have a ritual. We usually, if not always, catch up with each other the afternoon before I return to Chicago — or destination X — because that is generally the only time I would come outside for any length of time when I am in Jackson. This time we made it a point to get together to clown well before my return north. He had recommended that the restaurant at the Hilton Garden Inn should be a fantastic place for lunch. Having spoken highly of a meal the chef had prepared for some doctors at an event and with me being a food addict, there was no way I was going to turn my nose up at sampling something worthy of a bravo. So it was off to downtown Jackson to see what the transition was from King Edward Hotel to Hilton Garden Inn at 235 W. Capitol Street, and what the kitchen had to place a smile on my face.

Goat Cheese with Pomegranate Syrup

While my friend and I waited for one of my high school classmates and her sister and another of my friend’s high school classmates, we feasted on homemade yeast rolls twisted with fresh spinach and topped with toasted black pepper and butter. Clearly, this was an indicator that all was going to be well in the land. These were not frozen rolls that had been defrosted and placed into the oven for warmth and then garnished with butter and spinach, no. These rolls were so delicious that my friend and I indulged ourselves while we waited for the others. When the others did arrive, that was when we began our venture into Food Wonderland.

Fresh Vegetable Salad

First to the table was a fresh vegetable salad with a pancetta vinaigrette in a balsamic reduction. Being a pescatarian — that being a vegetarian who indulges seafood — the ham in the pancetta vinaigrette simply went down without complaint. I have a feeling that the absence of it may have taken away from the salad. Served in concert with the vegetable salad was a dollop of goat cheese over a pomegranate syrup and topped with black pepper. Goat cheese, to me, has a consistency and a mild hint of cream cheese, so I am always pleased whenever it arrives at the table tempting me to feast on it. Having recently delighted my palate to some baked goat cheese in chunky tomatoes, I knew that the cheese would leave me with a smile. Yes, it did, indeed.

Pumpkin Soup with Shrimp and Spinach

Second to the table was puréed pumpkin soup with a shrimp and spinach. I have always been a fan of sweet potato soup and kale, so I initially had thoughts of the bitter after-taste of pumpkin from pumpkin pie when we were told the ingredients. Very much to my surprise, this was not pumpkin with the bite that gets you at the back of the jaw. Could it have been the addition of the plump shrimp? Could it have been the accent from the spinach? Could it have been that the pumpkin was prepared to satisfaction? I prefer to believe that it was a combination of all three, with the latter being the most outstanding part of the recipe. I could see myself having this tasty soup all through the autumn and never tiring of it.

Curry Turkey with Cilantro on Rice

Third to the table was a roasted turkey breast in a coconut and curry sauce with spiced rice, garnished with fried onions and fresh cilantro. Somewhat reminiscent of Thai food, I was in heaven with each bite. Never mind the fact that the flavours were not having competition, but the roasted turkey — there goes my vegetarianism for the year — was so succulent and juicy that it was hard to keep on the fork. Well, once it went on the tongue, yes, it was hard to keep on the fork. Perfection on a plate and me giving full acknowledgement with every whiff of the delicacy is the best way that I could describe the experience.

Not quite completed, the fourth dish to grace the table was a skirt steak encrusted red fish, accompanied by a cilantro simple syrup. One can never have enough cilantro in his or her dish. Well, I should clean that up and make it personal. I can never have enough cilantro in my food. And I will never have a fit about having my share of any tasty fish placed before me. The only time I winced was when I had gotten to the last few bites and did not want the moment to end. I could have left a bit in honour of those who could not join us. But those individuals were, no doubt, too busy anyway. So I heaved a heavy sigh and finished the last morsels sans any remorse. By now, I was operating in slow motion.

Skirt Steak Crusted Redfish

For dessert there were two desserts — one for those whose diets included meat and one for those whose diets did not. There was a bacon and cinnamon roll bread pudding topped with a Chivas Regal gastrique. I let go of the pescatarian wagon for this one and performed a natural act of eating without shame. My mouth burst with fireworks and flavours. I never would have considered bacon to be an engaging recipe ingredient for any dessert and the bacon was prepared so that you only got a pop of the taste on the first bite and then it became faint after eating the bread pudding. Most restaurants would have a sensation akin to duelling pianos going about the tongue, teeth, and jaws. Not so with this dessert, as it was apparently prepared for just a hint of the bacon while the bread pudding stole the show. For those who were not fans of meat, red meat being at the top of their list, Mississippi mud pie was served. By now, all I could do was look at the dessert and ponder its magic. My language was garbled, my mind was roaming, and once the slurring became painfully evident, photographing the mud pie — with shaky hands — was all that I could muster.

Bread Pudding with Caramelized Bacon

Nick Wallace, who is the executive chef for the restaurant at Hilton Garden Inn, came to our table to welcome us to the restaurant, of which we thanked him profusely for hosting us for a chef’s table lunch. A young man in his early thirties, he employs a “waste not” mantra that adds appeal to his recipes as what may be a garnish in one menu item may be a base in another menu item. And use of local ingredients means freshness in what goes into the culinary works. It was clear from the smells and tastes of what came from the kitchen. While the King Edwards Hotel has relinquished its abandoned status to being an establishment with proper pomp and circumstances, the restaurant shines. Attentive and knowledgeable wait staff and a dynamic chef, well before you complete your meal, chances are you will shout Bravo! If I did not have such British polishing, I would have shouted in the restaurant. However, I waited until I was in the car far, far, away from listening ears.

Mississippi Mud Pie

Cumin to a Neighbourhood Near You

Cumin

Chutneys

Chutneys

It was Friday mid afternoon and we were allowed to leave work early. It was the beginning of the Memorial Day weekend and many companies downtown were rather anxious to start the weekend. Everyone wanted to leave work in a rush to avoid being stuck in traffic or crammed on public transportation en route to home — or wherever they were going. As for me, I opted for a casual subway ride from downtown to Wicker Park with intentions of going to a Nepalese-Indian restaurant. It was late enough that the lunch crowd would have thinned and the after-five crowd would have considered an early dinner an affront to their evening drinking agenda. I arrived at the door and saw that it was dark. Ras! The hours off business are 10:00 AM to 2:30 PM and 5:00 PM to 11:00 PM. Nevertheless, Wicker Park is only the neighbourhood south of Logan Square, where I live. So I went home and dropped off my attaché case, sat for a spell, and then headed back out for the 5:00 PM opening.

Aaluko Achar

Aaluko Achar

Found on the stretch of hip Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park at 1414 N. Milwaukee Avenue is Cumin, one of Chicago’s few Nepalese restaurants that is not tucked in between a host of Indian restaurants on Devon Avenue in Chicago’s Rogers Park. Restaurant atmosphere with a lounge kind of feel to it, I arrived at the restaurant while there were only two tables of diners. I had my pick of seats. Having received a recommendation from a colleague about how outstanding the food was at Cumin, I had slightly high hopes, but I moderated them just a bit. I have found that Indian, Pakistani, and Nepalese restaurants that are not on Devon Avenue tend to appease the American palate more — that is, the food is rather absent of spices, especially the spices that burn the tongue.

Aalu Tikka

Aalu Tikka

During review of the menu, I noticed that the Nepalese bill of fare was considerably smaller than the Indian menu. The vegetarian options were also limited, surprisingly. Indian restaurants are quite dominant in the city, so I decided that I would focus on the Nepalese menu, specifically, perhaps with one exception. I saw a few vegetarian items on the menu. However, I deferred to the waitress for recommendations. I told her that I was primarily vegetarian and wanted something that was authentically Nepalese. Staying away from the usual menu items like samosas, pakoras, and curries, I simply handed the menu to her and told her that I wanted two appetizers and two entrées. With the vegetarian fare being lighter, I entertained one Nepalese appetizer and one Indian vegetarian appetizer. The entrées were Nepalese proper. Seeing that I was pulling my cameras from my bag, the waitress asked me if I wanted my food all at once or if I wanted it linearly so that I could photograph each dish without having the shuffle plates around on the table. I agreed to have each plate come individually.

Basmati Rice

Basmati Rice

The Nepalese appetizer to come to the table was the aaluka achar. Visually, this is every food photographers’ dream, stunning in presentation and well placed for your viewing pleasure. Taste-wise, these baby potatoes and cucumbers, diced and picked with sesame-lemon paste, tempered with fenugreek seed, red chillies, and tumeric powder were heaven served with the restaurant’s signature crispy flattened rice. This dish was so fantastic to the palate that I just knew the rest of the food I had ordered was going to be highly disappointing. And then the Indian appetizer of aalo tikki chaat came to the table. Not only was this appealing to the visual senses, but my taste buds had a party with every bite. This was a mashed potato cake under a cornucopia of boiled chickpeas, chopped onions, yogurt, chaat masala, and tamarind-mint chutney. My mouth went Wow with each taste and understandably so. What made this appetizer even more delectable was the fact that the tartness of the yogurt was balanced out nicely by the sweetness of the tamarind-mint chutney. The aaluka achar and aalo tikka chaat were so expressive in my mouth that I was then certain the appetizers were the best on the menu and the entrees were going to be the complete antithesis.

Palungoko Saag

Palungoko Saag

And when the first entrée came to the table, it was quite evident that I am neither a gambling man nor one who operates on first impressions setting the expectations bar. The baalungoku saag that I had is a traditional Nepalese dish that I can understand why it is favoured so well. In the bowl were fresh spinach leaves sautéed in cumin seed, mustard seed, fenugreek seed, dry red chillies, and fresh garlic cloves. Pa-pow-pow went the insides of my cheeks with each forkful that I placed on my tongue. The spinach had been cooked such that it was not bitter and spiced just right with the red chillies that there was a kick without a need for several swallows of water thereafter. The second entrée was parvate aalu tama ra bodi. Yet again, this was an amazing dish of potatoes, bamboo shoots, and black eyed peas cooked in delectable Nepalese spices. Recommended per the waitress as a traditional vegetarian dish in Nepal, I can say with brutal honesty that I do not want black eyed peas in another fashion than as a dish of parvate aalu tama ra bodi. Not to omit any items, but the basmati rice and roti that came with the entrées rounded out my meal very nicely. The nods of appreciation, the smiles of rapture, and the silence of my growling belly were all evidence that Cumin had done a fantastic job.

Parvate Aalu Tama Ra Bodi

Parvate Aalu Tama Ra Bodi

I knew that I would be able to finish the appetizers without incident. As to the entrées, I ate enough so that I could engage the waitress about the dishes, their preparations, and their cultural significances in Nepal. While getting the remaining entrées prepared for take-away, I had a chai. Naturally sweet and certainly not prepared like that sugary madness you get at Starbucks and other coffee houses, this chai reminded me of that which I partook of in Bangalore, Delhi, and Bombay, just not as peppery. I was quite satisfied and was thrown for a bit of a quandary when I saw the bill. I was quite certain that the waitress had left something off — something that happens often at restaurants where I go. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that all of the appetizers, entrées, and chai that I had ordered were present and accounted for. It was just that the prices were not so above the clouds that the cash register sounded off in stereo with “cha-ching” when the waitress cashed me out.

Masala Chai

Masala Chai

For a first visit, I found Cumin to be a restaurant that I would recommend highly. From the inviting welcome, to the delicious factor of the food, to the price, Cumin is a package that is hard to shirk. As mentioned earlier, the Nepalese menu is small in comparison the Indian menu, and I will have to return in the future to sample what the Indian portion has to offer. With Cumin also being a few stops away from where I live or a bus ride away, I will not have to venture north of where I live to Devon Avenue for some Nepalese food fascination. In the meantime, I will polish off the remaining baalungoku saag and parvate aalu tama ra bodi while reminiscing of how great my experience was on this particular early Friday evening.

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