More Angry Pasta at Vapiano

Ginger Ale

Ginger Ale

Note: The Lincoln Park location at 2577 N. Clark Street closed in July, 2014. There is a new location in The Loop at 44 S. Wabash Avenue.

My appetite alarm had gone off an hour before it was time for the close of my day at work. Suffice it to say, that is problematic in ways that I can’t describe. All of my thoughts become scrambled and I get edgy to the point of being irritable. I keep saying to myself that I have to do something about my constant appetite, but that may require therapy. And I don’t have money to give to a therapist when I prefer forking it over to a restaurant. Needless to say, I wanted something with a kick to it because the weather outside was biting. To my wondering surprise, I had received a text message from a friend who had mentioned a restaurant in the Lincoln Park neighbourhood, at 2577 N. Clark Street called Vapiano. I recalled walking by the restaurant countless times and thinking, Oh, that looks like a cool lounge. Well, I had to put my thoughts of chi-chi ambience aside and do something about my growling belly. So, I was on the #22 Clark Street bus heading to Vapiano to show some love — or a display of usual hunger.

Strawberry Spinach Salad

Strawberry Spinach Salad

Not even through the door good, the hostess greeted me with a warm welcome. With the wave of her arm, I had my pick of seats. I had arrived before the crowd and it was fantastic being able to choose a seat without any children of the corn and negligent parents in sight. Having a clear view of the open kitchen, my food alarm was dictating that I really indulge. Indulged I did. It was off to the bar for a ginger ale — yes, a non-alcoholic drink since this was a “school night.” Then I was off to the salad bar for what I thought would be a side salad. I ordered a spinach and strawberry salad that was topped with goat cheese, pine nuts, and balsamic vinaigrette. This “thing” didn’t come on a small plate. It came in a huge, deep dish. If I could put a face on my appetite, let’s just say that it wore a huge smile. While I am not the greatest fan of goat cheese, when it is added to a salad as an accent, it makes everything splendid in the world.

Penne Arrabbiata

Penne Arrabbiata

My next order was penne arrabbiata. My pores exhale spices and I tend to love dishes that are heavy-handed with spices. While placing my order for the pasta dish, the chef asked me how spicy I wanted it, on a scale of 1 to 5. After he gave a jeering smile, I settled on a 4. He prepared the penne arrabbiata ANGRY the way that it should be, the way that I like it. The beauty of the dish was that this didn’t come from a bag, out of a can, or from some frozen tray. There was nothing fast about its preparation and the flavour, spicy and angry as it was, was a testament to Vapiano making sure not to fall into the category of “fast food.” Oh, and I used the homemade Italian bread to sop up the sauce. Bravo!!!

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

My New Year’s Absolution was to minimize the amount of sweets in my diet. So far, I have been off to a good start. However, I have willpower issues. I had a chat with my nutritionist, or rather a pleading session, about being able to treat myself every once in a while. She told me that instead of having a hunk of cake, fist size scoop of ice cream, eye-popping slice of ice cream, or slab of cheesecake, I could have an occasional scoop of sorbet, bowl of fruit, or a light cream dessert. Well, what should Vapiano have as a dessert option but a panna cota with strawberry sauce? It was light. It was creamy. It was dreamy. It was my allotment for the month of January. I ordered a cappuccino that I drank sans any sweetener. Either the coffee had been prepared with a quality bean or in a cappuccino machine that wasn’t caked with coffee mud. Wait. The coffee was Illy. Yep, for those who have gone to Intelligentia and are in the know about good coffee, Illy ranks up there on the “Never Disappointing” list. My appetite screamed, Molto bene!!!.

Panna Cota with Strawberry Sauce

Panna Cota with Strawberry Sauce

If you have been to Food Life in Water Tower, you will have some familiarity with the method for ordering and obtaining your food. You receive a card, after which you then go to which ever station you wish to order — salads, pasta, beverages, and desserts. When you give your order, you then “register” your order at the station. Once the orders have been fulfilled, you then pick them up, return to your table, and commence to devouring all the good eats. When all is done, you pay at the close by giving the cashier your card, who then cashes you out. It’s that simple. There are no servers who come to your table, takes your order, and brings your food to you. The atmosphere is spacious and great for a gathering of friends, especially in the bar area. While many may think that a restaurant void of a server providing table service is the equivalent of fast food, the output from the kitchen is anything but fast. And with me having had angry pasta that tasted the way I remember it tasting in Florence, I think I shall have to return to see if it was just my hunger that made the dish taste so blooming tasty, or if it was indeed heaven buried on red sauce.

Vapiano on Urbanspoon

Bravo and Encore

Basil Leaf Cafe

One early evening during a summer day in 2012, I had the opportunity to go to a restaurant that was hosting a wine and food pairing. Being perhaps one of the individuals, if not the only one, who was not a sommelier, I thought that the event would be a bit out of my league. And then the food came to the table. Yes, the wine was splendid. However, the food was a major highlight for me and one that stayed with me since that participation in the wine and food pairing. With work gobbling up a great deal of my time and then my high school sweetheart and me taking an extended vacation to Calgary, Montreal, and Lisbon, scheduling a return to the restaurant of my culinary dreams had faded. A new year began in 2013 and I had finally entered a note in my cell phone to make a reservation for a dinner at Basil Leaf Cafe at 2465 N. Clark Street. It would be my luck that the cell phone went to sleep permanently on me and January was speeding by fast. There was no way that I was going to find myself well into 2013 before actually returning to the restaurant.

Olive Oil and BreadWith the New Year I had decided that I would focus on degustations more during my dining excursions. Too often I find myself scrambling to eat my appetizer and entrée before they are cold because at many restaurants both come to the table simultaneously. That is very much an epidemic at American style restaurants because there appears to be a need to rush patrons. Since Basil Leaf Cafe was the first restaurant that I was blogging for 2013, there was no better way to start my newfound appreciation of degustations than the present. A most inviting welcome on entry and my pick of seats because I had arrived before the dinner crowd, I handed the menu to my server, told her what I liked, and told her to surprise me. As a complimentary l’amuse, there was warm, homemade bread served with an olive oil that had various Italian herbs and spices in it. I would normally add Parmesan cheese and pepper, but that would have been a bit evil considering how flavourful the bread and olive oil were together. Oh, if I may add, bread is a source of weakness for me. I can’t deny it. I can’t refuse it. And if it is as good as what I had at Basil Leaf Cafe, then I tend to indulge to excess without any additional thought. And a note to myself is to find out the recipe for the olive oil so that I can try my hand at it at home.

Butternut Squash Soup

The first course to the table was a butternut squash soup. Let me start by saying that I have had my share of butternut squash soup and have loved it. This was the first time I had the soup and the first sip gave me pause. It was absolute heaven. I had a few more sips and then declared with certainty that I had just tasted the best butternut squash soup ever. There was no aftertaste. And the hint of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg or whatever spice was added left me with a rather wide smile. I guess my server thought that I was making up a story when I said that it was the best butternut squash soup that I had ever eaten. There was no lie and because I had to maintain decorum, I did not take any of the homemade bread and go around the edges and bottom of the bowl. Only the first course and it was evident that the rest of the meal was going to be progressively better.

Mixed Berry Salad

And then there was a mixed berry salad that came to the table for the second course. I had told the server that I was not a fan of nuts and not because of any allergies. The texture and taste do nothing to assist my appetite. The salad was one that usually comes with walnuts. However, they were omitted. Having been to restaurants where my mentioning of not liking nuts was treated as an omission and I had to pick around the nuts to keep from making my whole dining experience unsavoury, the fact that my server had explained that walnuts are usually an ingredient in the salad and they were left out at my request, that made each bite all the more worthy. The mark of an outstanding wait staff is when they listen to the customers. Raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries sat atop lettuce, drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette, and topped with crumbled gorgonzola cheese. The only other times I have had any kind of fruit in my salad were when I had apricot salads at one of my favourite Algerian restaurants. Berries on salad always looked a bit much, albeit quite appetizing. However, having the mixed berry salad and seeing that I had left only a smear of the vinaigrette afterwards was proof that it was not only visually stunning but it was incredible to the palate.

Linguine and SeafoodI was going to be daring initially and try two entrées — a vegetarian dish and a seafood dish. After being warned that the portions were large, I opted instead for the seafood platter. The third course was a seafood linguine. Plump shrimp, fresh salmon, well-seasoned mussels, tender scallops, and delectable clams rested on a bed of linguine and topped with a red sauce before I began working on the entrée. The pescatarian in me yelled, “Bravo!” and enjoyed the whole dish leisurely without a care in the world. Perhaps if I had a glass of wine to go with it, say a Merlot or a Malbec, I would have had a Food Network composition. But the dish was perfect with the glass of orange juice. One thing that I really liked most about the seafood linguine was that it had a spicy kick to it without me requiring glasses of water. And the seafood was nothing akin to the nibble size morsels that you find in most Italian seafood dishes. Not only was the portion of the entrée large but the seafood was not lacking in quantity and quality of freshness. I kept screaming, “Bravo.” Of course, it was to myself, though.

CappuccinoAfter the bread and olive oil, soup, salad, and seafood linguine, I required a bit of rest before entertaining a coffee and dolce. In keeping with letting everything be a surprise, I deferred to my server for the sweet. Whenever I go to an Italian restaurant, I always choose espresso or cappuccino. It probably would have been wiser for me to have ordered an espresso so that I could have avoided fighting sleep after such a wonderful meal. Instead, I had a cappuccino and my server brought an apple tartlet with a dollop of vanilla ice cream to the table. One bite and I could have hit a tenor aria to have brought the restaurant to its feet for a standing ovation. It was clear that the dessert was not something you find in the frozen section at the local market. No, there was no syrupy compost drowning chunks of overcooked apples. There was flaky crust enveloping thin, tart apples that had been cooked in their own juices. If it were not for the ice cream accompanying the apple tart, I would have dragged my dessert feast for a full hour. Being cognizant of the ice cream melting, I savoured the dessert and the cappuccino slowly and to completion. And let me just say that I did not need to add any sweetener to the cappuccino. The mark of a splendid cup of coffee is not having to add extra sweeteners to it to make it palatable. When you can enjoy your coffee the way I enjoyed the cappuccino at Basil Leaf Cafe, then you have had your coffee proper.

Apple Tartlet with Ice Cream

One thing I have not considered was coming up with a Top 10 list of restaurants in Chicago. What I can say with certainty is that as of me penning this blog entry, Basil Leaf Cafe holds the number 1 spot. That is a bold statement. Yes, others may scream that I am being unfair and that I need to come to their restaurants. Believe me when I say that as long as I am in Chicago, I will find my way to your dining haven. One thing to note is that when service, high quality of cuisine, and price come together to form an inviting request for a return, how can you possibly deny a bravo and an encore? You simply can’t. Only on a few occasions have I chosen to let my server make my dinner choices for me based on my likes and dislikes. What I experienced at Basil Leaf Cafe was a winning game of cuisine roulette. I was impressed thoroughly during the wine and food pairing at the restaurant that one summer evening in 2012. I was even more impressed during my second visit. I shall indeed return for an encore. I highly recommend that you visit Basil Leaf Cafe and see for yourself.

Annual Narcissism Celebration

Iguana CafeSeveral years ago, I did something that a lot of people who have limited success in relationships refuse to do. I backed off and spent time getting to know and love myself rather than seeking someone to do that for me. Well, those several years were actually fifteen years ago. What was supposed to be a brief self-assessment turned into a case of me practising narcissism. And truth be told, since then I have not gone to bed with grief, tears on my pillow, sleepless nights, or a diminished sense of self because I was abiding by an emotionally damaging mantra of “I am nothing without a woman.” This had marked my fifteenth year celebration. Not being one for shopping and I am going abroad mid September through mid October, I made an appointment with my ego to go to some restaurants and feast in celebration of having discovered that the world will not come to a screeching halt because I am single.

Belgian WaffleMy first stop was Iguana Cafe in the River North section of Chicago at 517 N. Halsted Street. It is one of those boutique restaurants that has a coffee-house feel to it and fills up with those who have an urban chic appeal to themselves. That may be very much due to the ambience that the cafe exudes. Two very close friends had given rave reviews about Iguana Cafe, almost bordering on fanatical. So I had to see what the appeal was. On entry, one thing I found a bit disconcerting was whether to seat myself or wait. Not as though the cafe was bursting with patrons, the staff seemed rather scrambled. But I waited for a few minutes before being acknowledged and taken to a seat — where I waited for a noticeable amount of time before my order was taken.

Iced ChaiWith it being morning, I scanned the extensive menu for something along the lines of breakfast fare. Usually breakfast menus leave me with a gasp, for there is so much that leaps from the pages along the lines of appetizing dishes. At Iguana Cafe, the bill of fare was somewhat pedestrian although exhaustive. Noting that, I ordered a Belgian waffle because I was confident that the kitchen staff would not botch that. I also ordered Greek yogurt with strawberries and bananas and an iced chai to wash it all down. The Belgian waffle certainly was not a defrosted breakfast delight, as it was still crispy on the outside, warm and fluffy on the inside after I had snapped about 75 shots of it from various angles. Filling the whole plate, the taste finally made things feel okay, because the initial impression of the cafe was — shall we say — a bit run of the mill. As an individual who is not a fan of yogurt from the dairy section at the local grocer, the Greek yogurt with strawberries and bananas really etched itself in my mind as a highlight. Greek yogurt alone is a bit of an acquired taste because it is not loaded with sugar, saccharine, Splenda, Equal, or high fructose corn syrup the way you find yogurt in the supermarket. The natural sweetness of the fruit was all that was needed. And the chai, although it may have been the quick mix in the pourable carton, was still good enough on ice to wet the throat. So, I get to say that the dining experience at Iguana Cafe was worthy.

Greek YogurtAfter an enjoyable breakfast, I felt as though I was at a Jamaican cafe when it came time for paying the tab. In Jamaica, you practically beg for the tab and have to push your way to the counter to pay the bill. I waited for the tab to be brought to the table — and I waited, and waited, and waited. By the third time having to request the check, I walked to the till to pay the tab. Crime. Treason. Horror. Murder. The stares I received from the staff, as if though I was supposed to sit and wait for fifteen more minutes while the time on the parking metre ran out. This is not written as a deterrent, but while the food left me with a smile, the whole customer service thing was missing from the equation. To quote the youth of the present urban setting, “It is what it is.” And as I walked out the door with a filled stomach, I checked Iguana Cafe off my list of restaurants to sample.

The Sit Down Cafe & Sushi BarBy lunch, my belly was growling. I had been pondering whether I wanted to go to a restaurant on the North Side but remembered a certain cafe from my days of living in Hyde Park. The first experience was so pleasing that I wanted to return for another episode at the outdoor seating area. So it was off to The Sit Down Cafe at 1312 E. 53rd Street. The weather was perfect: no hot and humid temperatures, blue skies, and a mild breeze. Reaching the restaurant and finding that there were plenty of outdoor seats because everyone was inside — or elsewhere — I requested a table that was in a shaded part of the front patio and had pulled out my camera to start my calibration for my photography. And wouldn’t you know that out of all of the outdoor seating, these two loud-mouth women sat immediately next to me and grimaced at me clicking away with my camera in advance of receiving my food. Apparently none of the other seats were good enough. To borrow an observation from my brother, “We have been cursed such that we have a tendency to attract foolishness.” He actually used another word rather than “foolishness.”

Pineapple, Orange, and Pomegranate JuiceFor a refreshing beverage, I had a pinorgranate juice. This was a blend of pineapple juice, orange juice, and pomegranate juice. Oh was it tasty. I have had pineapple and orange juice but the addition of the pomegranate juice added a hint of tartness that did some tricks on the tongue when matched with the sweetness of the other juices. Americanized Asian dishes have a love of adding sweet and sour meat-of-your-choice to their menus. The sweet and tart marriage in the glass of pinorgranate juice had given me an idea of some juicing to try at home. Not to stuff myself relentlessly, I opted for a maki roll because the rolls I had during my first visit were so outstanding that I do not think I gave the write-up justice when I did my first journal entry for The Sit Down Cafe. On this visit, I ordered a dragon roll. Tempura shrimp, avocado, cucumber, tobiko, and barbecued eel. What more could you ask for in food satisfaction? Of course I could rattle off several more choices, but the dragon roll never fails and I found a bit of a perverse satisfaction watching the two mouths frown and scoff at my photography enjoyment and subsequent exaggerated sighs of bliss. I bet they won’t sit immediately next to someone else in an otherwise empty restaurant or patio again. I don’t remember having the dragon roll when I had gone the first time, so the light feast this time was virginal at The Sit Down Cafe. Although the cafe has some other fare on their menu like a few Italian dishes, they are absolute top in terms of their sushi.

Dragon RollThe waitress who had taken my order remembered me from a year ago during my first visit. Since patrons usually snap photos with their cell phones and point-and-click phones, seeing someone photograph their food from multiple angles and with up to well over 300 clicks of the camera, I guess it would be hard to forget someone who is not only passionate about their photography but who also cleans his plate. Again the loud mouths sized me up because to hear the waitress engage me in long conversation about what I do for a living if photography is not it, what I had been doing since the first visit, some of my favourite cities for specific cuisines, and some  recommended restaurants in the city was not something she did with the other dining patrons. The complete converse of Iguana Cafe, I left The Sit Down Cafe feeling as though I had left a friend’s house. And as the waitress had said, I have a feeling that you’ll be back more now that you’re in Chicago more, I will indeed return for more juice and sushi on a regular basis.

Brownie SundaeTowards the latter part of the day, and after having snacked on something throughout the remainder of the afternoon, I decided that I would treat myself to some ice cream. I had gone to one of my favourite neighbouring suburbs to see “Beasts of the Southern Wild” at the picture show. A little extra time on my hand I walked over to the Oberweis Ice Creamery at 124 N Oak Park Avenue and had a brownie sundae with a large scoop of chocolate ice cream, a scoop of cookies and cream, whipped cream and topped with a cherry. It was a perfect ending to an A+ day. After a full day of having my cell phone off so that I would have no disruption to my annual narcissism celebration, I returned home to voice mails from friends about broken hearts, divorce, and emotional torture. For some twisted reason, I smiled to myself because if I were to introduce them to the joys of narcissism, they would learn to love themselves and know the next time when someone is trying to bring trash into their homes to mess up the merry work. People take trash out for a reason. For me, if I’m not busy staring at myself in a mirror, I’m staring at my reflection in an empty plate. And I smile.

Iguana Cafe on Urbanspoon
The Sit Down Cafe on Urbanspoon