Gino in the Sky With Food

Lulu's

Lulu’s

The Beatles may have made the song “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” famous. The first phase of my birthday celebration had a case of “Gino in the Sky With Good Food.” I cannot even get around to saying that I would put that to any music, let alone script a full set of lyrics to sing to it. What I can say is that celebrating my birthday this year has been an absolute blast and as I can become drunk on food, there were a few moments of food bliss that had me in my mood for wanting to perform. It may be the stiff Brit in me that said, “Just revel in all the good food you’re eating this week. Don’t embarrass yourself, as you know you flush rather easily.

I had to go to Evanston to get a camera from a friend. I had let him borrow it so that he could photograph a pretty-pretty for a portfolio. While in the neighbourhood, a few other friends had told me that I should meet them at Lulu’s. At 804 Davis Street in the middle of downtown Evanston, we got a table and was ready for action.

Ginger Ale Lemonade

Ginger Ale Lemonade

Lulu’s is one of those restaurants that presents itself as an Asian-fusion eatery. You peruse the menu and start to think that perhaps it falls more in line with Pan-Asian. There is also the mention of dim sum, so one could think that maybe there is all Chinese fare. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s food. I am all for cultural blending, but please let the culinary part of that marriage not suffer. Lulu’s obliged by not being an agent of “horror” dining.

I started with a ginger ale lemonade. From the menu, it looked like a drink I would be okay with. The server said that it was intense and she accentuated the word “intense” with a pithy growl. There was no way I was going to turn down something that brings about that much expression. After the first sip, I understood why. Wow! You could taste the ginger. I’m not talking the fizzy, bubbly stuff that makes you belch when you turn up a can of Schwepp’s ginger ale. A blend of ginger ale and lemonade sounds almost “too experimental,” but it works incredibly well as a mixed drink here. There is no alcohol in it and that was fine. However, this drink should be mandatory serving when the temperatures in Chicago reach the point of equatorial.

Curried Squash Soup

Curried Squash Soup

In the like manner that I exhibit when I go to restaurants now, I was in the mood for a degustation. The premise of the restaurant was dim sum, so there would be a little of something, not the American style dining where you practically beg for a pillow after dinner so that you can lie down. For my first course, I had the curried squash soup.

Mama’s little baby loves curry, curry
Mama’s little baby loves curry squash soup

Let me start by saying that anyone who has a complaint about Lulu’s, for any reason, should have a bowl of that soup and take a breath. Each sip, or slurp as it concerned me, brought about the dumb smile I wear when I’m experiencing food rapture. You could taste a hint of the curry without feeling as though the chef had poured a tablespoon of it on your tongue. It may have been cinnamon, allspice, or nutmeg that made the whole bowl burst with flavour. One thing I will say is that none of it was disappointing. None of it, I say.

Potato Croquettes

Potato Croquettes

When my second course came, which were four potato croquettes, I was feeling a bit excited by the third bite. I remembered having potatoes smothered in melted cheddar cheese at a Spanish tapas restaurant several years ago. That was actually the first time I really did have a cigarette after dinner. If it weren’t so frosty this evening and if I were indeed a smoker, I would have paused for a moment to go outside and puff away on a Marlboro. Not drowned in cheddar cheese, but rather topped with a spicy mayonnaise, I simply could not force myself to take itsy-bitsy bites and be okay with it. Partaking of those potato croquettes was nothing more than an experiment in trying to maintain your composure. I moaned out loud and then covered it up by coughing. Yes, I need therapy; I know that. But you don’t understand. Potatoes are supposed to be bland, salted at most. Those croquettes were wicked delicious.

Coconut Shrimp and Cole Slaw

Coconut Shrimp and Cole Slaw

A few months ago, I was visiting a friend who let me bake a cake in her kitchen. Well, the cake was for her anyway. Anyway, she ordered delivery from Lulu’s. One of the dishes that I had requested was coconut shrimp because I wanted to be in a tropical mood to take my mind off the fact that snow and sleet were falling fast outside. I was nonplussed, disappointed, horrified, petrified, and morbidly bitter. Okay, so that is a bit exaggerated, but I was almost in tears because the delivery was a mess. Fast forward to my latest in-house dining experience and there sitting before me is a plate of coconut shrimp and a dollop of cole slaw. Note to readers: Do not get the coconut shrimp as delivery. Get a table and order it for in-house dining. You will shoot straight to the moon. The coconut shrimp were plump, exploding with flavour. The batter was nothing like the saccharine B-chef gotcha that I had as a delivery item. It was all about joy on a plate. I was so in love.

Wonton Wonton Sundae

Wonton Wonton Sundae

This was a pre-celebratory birthday dinner for me, which meant that there would be dessert. I am well past the age of being okay with someone singing “Happy Birthday” to me at a restaurant because it always smacks of a free dessert after the meal. Again, I get embarrassed very easily and part of that is because my parents were not advocates of free meals, soup kitchen mentality as Ma Williams called it. I must admit that I can be selective if I think the free meal is worthy and I have indulged some without my conscience beating me up over it. As to the pre-birthday dessert at Lulu’s, an Instagram photo I posted to my Facebook wall sent one of my friends into a tailspin. Three fist-sized scoops of ice cream — vanilla, coconut, and banana chocolate chip — sat atop a fried wonton that had been coated with sugar and cinnamon. Another large fried wonton doctored up like the one under the ice cream towered on the plate. All of it was drizzled with chocolate, caramel, and confectioner’s sugar, and my friend was out in orbit. The people at the table across from where we were sitting told me to stop heaving such heavy sighs. When I told them to get their own, it was our turn to tell them to keep it quiet. Oh my God!!!

Lulu’s is a quaint little restaurant and seems to fill up rapidly, especially immediately after work. The service can be slightly off-putting, as you could find yourself waiting a while before any of the servers get untangled from running rampant through the restaurant. When a server does approach your table, you get an attentive member of the wait staff. If it is a rather busy evening, it may be a good idea to be concise with your order. The scene in “When Harry Met Sally” may be hilarious when watching that movie, but applying that technique of complexity to your ordering at Lulu’s could result in a botched order and you’re then penning an unsavoury review on Yelp. But if you are like me, you will get your Pan-Asian/fusion/dim sum/élan and everything will be quite okay in the land. Hmm. I think I need to return for the third phase of my month-long birthday celebration. Lulu’s now!!!

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Foodie Mantra No-No

A few nights ago I met a great friend for dinner in Wheaton, Illinois. With me working in the West Suburbs of Chicago and he living even farther off the map, we decided that we would meet in a central spot and decide where we would work our teeth on something worthy. Before I left work, it had dawned on me that I had left home earlier without any one of my high-end cameras. Not that I had to have one of my Canons or one of my Nikons, but not having a camera is a cardinal no-no in the foodie mantra. See excerpt from Section 5.2 in the Foodie Bylaws.

Section 5.2: Must Have Camera at All Times
All foodies must have in their possession a camera that they shall use to capture the impressions of food and beverage. The cameras are not limited to professional cameras, prosumer cameras, point-and-click, and cameras on cell phones. Acknowledgement as a foodie shall be revoked if a foodie does not have proper equipment for photographing food or beverage.

When I finally realized that all I had with me was my cell phone, I cursed under my breath just before I sent a text message to my friend to tell him to bring his Canon. As a photographer, cell phone cameras are wicked devices that are better used for texting, setting calendar events, sending email on-demand, and posting ad hoc posts on Facebook. Needless to say, my friend had left home well in advance of my text message. More cursing and then me dropping my purist photography air and settling on using the camera on my cell phone. It takes great photos anyway.

Lobster Fra Diavolo

Lobster Fra Diavolo

Once in the quaint downtown of Wheaton, my friend and I looked at the menu at the restaurant we initially said we would try. Then we opted to review the menu at another Italian restaurant he had said received great reviews. At first glance, we settled on the second restaurant, Il Sogno, at 100 N. Hale Street. Up the stairs we went where we entered a dimly lit room with aromas all in the air. We knew that we had made the right choice.

With a server who was very much knowledgeable of the menu without having to refer to it when we asked for recommendations and very much in tune with the specials for the evening, my friend settled on chicken parmesan and I ordered lobster da fravolo. But before the entrées, we accepted the suggestion from the server for stuffed calamari. Let me just say that instead of getting a plate of well-seasoned rings of calamari, we got whole calamari stuffed with a cream sauce that deserves an encore. This appetizer was so delectable that if I get any more fried or plain calamari rings in the future, I may toss the plate on the floor and bark an obscenity in Italian.

If you think that my description of the stuffed calamari was a highlight, that was nothing compared to the entrées. The chicken parmesan that my friend ordered had come with a tomato sauce that was lightly spicy and with a hint of ginger. Hello! I have had a tomato sauce flavoured with ginger to the point where it was pungent. The faint taste of it at Il Sogno added an accent to the dish that made every bite a gala. As to the lobster da fravolo, there is a certain Italian restaurant in Chicago proper where I have been — that will remain nameless — that could take notes. Spicy like an arrabbiata, the well-seasoned lobster, mussels, and clams sat atop a bed of linguine under a lip-smacking tomato sauce. I drooled. My eyes went to slits from food comatose. I smacked the table. I hummed. My friend and I indulged ourselves to the point where we completed our entrées and had no room for any desserts. The only thing that we could muster was cappuccino and that was absolute top.

Butternut Squash Risotto

Butternut Squash Risotto

Because I could not get the thought of Il Sogno out of my mind or the wonderful taste of the calamari and lobster da fravolo out of my mouth — okay, an exaggeration — I was in Italian mode for much the remaining week. Having gone to Korean barbecue with another friend earlier in the week and then to Il Sogno the next evening, I decided that I would complete the weekend in my kitchen rather than dining out again. How about that? There has to be a special section in the Foodie Bylaws for indulging yourself in your own kitchen, as long as you abide by Section 5.2. Well, that was no problem. Being a lover of bread, I baked a loaf of Italian bread. And no loaf of Italian bread is complete without some fresh parmesan cheese, olive oil, and black pepper. How do you say, Yummy, in Italian? Warm from the oven and me sopping the olive oil, parmesan cheese, and black pepper while drinking pineapple juice from a mason jar, this complement was ideal with the butternut squash risotto that I prepared. Not to toot my horn, but when your neighbours knock on your door inquiring about whether they can borrow some ingredient only to sit at your counter, you are doing something correct. The butternut squash base took some careful preparation and I finally cooked the risotto so that it was al dente — not mushy like I have done before. Satisfaction.

Olive Oil Ice Cream with Raspberries

Olive Oil Ice Cream with Raspberries

Now, as of late I have become rather eclectic with the desserts that I have been preparing at home. Devils food cake baked with ancho and chipotle chillies. Chocolate gelato made with sweet curry. Vanilla ice cream made with strawberries macerated in balsamic vinegar and brown sugar. This evening was no exception. I had prepared a custard with olive oil and frozen it. Olive oil ice cream with raspberries. Who would have thought? Yes, there are some who are cringing, wincing, spitting, and rolling on the floor. But the olive oil adds a fruity hint to the ice cream, unlike what you experience when you are dipping Italian bread in olive oil mixed with parmesan cheese and black pepper. I get excited thinking about how refreshing and tasty the dessert was. And just to be even more eccentric, I drizzled a sweet olive oil syrup over the ice cream. I do not know what to do with myself.

Well, I abided by the Foodie Bylaws and captured the main courses for your visual delight. At Il Sogno I used the camera on my cell phone and was rather surprised to see how well it captured the lobster da fravolo. With me having professional cameras, the cell phone is giving them competition. At home, I used one of my Nikon cameras. The risotto almost never made it because the smells were so powerful that my growling belly had kept telling me to hurry and get to gnashing on the dish. I complied. For the ice cream, I shall enjoy this special dessert for the upcoming week while I ponder the next exotic ice cream concoction I plan to try. Regardless of what it will be, rest assure that I will have a camera ready to capture the impressions. I simply cannot shirk my foodie responsibilities by not having a camera ready. For shame.

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