Top 10 Jaunts for 2013

December has arrived and it is during this time that I always ponder whether there was something I had intended to do between January and the end of November, but somehow never got around to doing. I swear time went slower when I was a kid. The summers dragged on forever — and I didn’t complain. Christmas break felt like a whole month. School was the equivalent of endless punishment. Fast forward to age 45 and each year feels compressed from a full twelve months to about seven. However, I still get to partake of my favourite hobby second to photography: eating. And for the end of 2013, I decided that I would do something different — a list of Top 10 Jaunts for 2013. So, this post will be dedicated to the restaurant discoveries that tempted my palate. Since I have already written extensive blog postings for each, I will only present highlights.

10. Pasteur
I had spent a lot of time in the Edgewater neighbourhood during the summer. My favourite Indian restaurant is there. One day while walking down Broadway, I happened to see a building full of Chicago architecture with a menu in the window. Having passed the building many times, it looked too fancy to register as a restaurant, but I was glad to have been in a casual mood the one Saturday I stopped and took notice of it. The food was outstanding and the service was top. From the interior, one can easily get the sensation of being in Europe, but it’s the Vietnamese influence in the food that pops. With the menu items supposedly having a French and Vietnamese fusion, I didn’t detect a heavier French accent. It was the Vietnamese flavours that stood out more. In the future I shall return for more good food and great service, and hopefully see if there is more balance to the menu.

Pasteur, Collage
9. Freddy’s Pizzeria and Grocery
A great friend had sent a text message to me to prompt me about Freddy’s while I was at an Italian restaurant on the Far North Side. She had already enlightened me to a few cafes and restaurants in Berwyn, so I trusted her recommendation. She gave me the formal introduction to Freddy’s Pizzeria and Grocery. This is a small grocery store with an annex built on to the side of the market for those who wish to sit and eat without having to rush home to devour the food. There is authenticity to every dish that puts a lot of big box Italian restaurants to shame. It’s evident when you enter the door and see the long line that stretches from the door, to the back of the grocery store, all along the counter, and up to the cash register. I think the trip out to Cicero is worth it, but I advise you to be prepared because staring at the selection of delicious food behind the counter may throw you into a food frenzy.

Freddy's Pizza and Grocery

8. Silom 12
Grub Hub is a beautiful thing and a glorious thing during the winter when delivery is a viable option. I had tried Silom 12 numerous times as a take-away choice when I was too lazy to operate my own stove. Not once was I dissatisfied with what I had ordered. Well, while I was having my hallway bathroom remodelled this summer, I needed a moment to escape from the sound of drills, saws, and banging. Where should I find myself but at Silom 12 for a proper sit-down. And oh was I pleased beyond words. Logan Square is one of America’s hottest neighbourhoods and with the addition of restaurants like Silom 12, it’s easy to understand why. One would think that the price per dish may make the cha-ching sound. No, the price, service, and food make a harmonious sigh of satisfaction. Well, let me take that back and make it personal. I made a harmonious sigh of satisfaction with each bite of food I took and believe me when I say that I ate a lot.

Silom 12

7. Masouleh
When I first moved to Chicago, I spent a little over a year in Northbrook. There was only so much that I could take of the sound of crickets. New York City had spoiled me. So I moved into Chicago proper and my first Chicago apartment was in Rogers Park. At that time Rogers Park had a heavy Mexican influence. Fast forward to 2013 and there seems to be more diversity gracing the Rogers Park landscape. One addition to the neighbourhood is Masouleh. I had met up with some friends after work one Friday evening and had fallen in love with the place after only having some herbs, cheese, and radish put on the table. It was authentic and when I say authentic I mean the flavours popped the way I remember Iranian food tasting. I don’t mean plain hummus and pita bread either. I had to return for my very own adventure and by the time I had finished a parfait glass of Persian ice cream, I was typing my initial blog post from the moon.

Masouleh

6. Kabul House
The first restaurant I went to when I started Chicago Alphabet Soup was Kabul House. It was at a different address. Months had passed and then a few years went by. When I had made plans to return, it was closed. Then there was a cloud of sadness because I remembered the food being so delicious. My friend and I were at the restaurant for hours, slowly taking care of the fine dining that came from the kitchen. Well, I was informed that Kabul House had opened at a new location. I had added it to my list and during Memorial Day, I was so glad that I went. Let’s just say that I rolled my eyes and I don’t mean as in disgust or to be cheeky. Oh, off with the person’s head who said that it’s never as good as the first time. It was better the second time around.

Kabul House

5. Pannenkoeken Cafe
If anyone ever starts rattling off the old adage that the best meal of the day is breakfast, tell them to put a footnote on that and immediately rush to Pannenkoeken Cafe. I am not one for eating lunch or dinner delights from Germany because they are heavy on the stomach. Not quite as sleep-inducing as Eastern European food, but you will drag afterwards. A German breakfast, on the other hand, causes the angels to sing. Pannenkoeken Cafe is a small cafe, so getting there early is advisable. Now, although the breakfast isn’t heavy on the belly, it is filling. So, you have to go on several visits. You have to. You must! Don’t even think about The Original Pancake House. Make your own pancakes at home, but go to Pannenkoeken Cafe for a proper breakfast that will give you a perpetual smile.

Pannenkoeken

4. Den Den Eritrean Restaurant
Rogers Park has developed a bit of magnetism to it thanks to the addition of a few ethnic eateries. There are several Ethiopian restaurants in Edgewater. While going to Masouleh one evening, my great friend who had recommended Freddy’s to me pointed Den Den Eritrean Restaurant out to me. I don’t think I had taken a few steps before I retrieved my smart phone and blocked some time for a visit. I had never thought of any Eritrean representation in Chicago’s culinary landscape. Everything about Den Den was top-notch. While I can’t say that Eritrean and Ethiopian are the same, the food preparation, serving, and method of eating the food are the same. However, Den Den takes the top spot among the Ethiopian restaurants I’ve been to in Chicago. And I’ve been to all — except one that I zipped pass while speeding up Ashland Avenue.

Den Den

3. De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine
Skokie has a small section in a business district that isn’t on a busy street. Had I not gone to Kabul House to renew my food vows, I never would have stumbled across a restaurant that has some cultural significance to me. When I saw the word “Jamaican” flash in front of my eyes, the return to the small stretch of Oakton Avenue was mandatory. The saltfish and ackee, callalou, rice and beans, beef patty, and june plum juice reminded me so much of my paternal grandmother’s kitchen that I spent almost every Saturday at De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine. And when I didn’t get back during a Saturday visit, there were occasional trips for take-away throughout the week. Certainly when you find something with a cultural attachment, it’s hard to detach.

De-Jred Fine Jamaican

2. Roka Akor
Earlier in the year, I wanted to try something new in the downtown vicinity. Most restaurants in downtown fall into the tourist trap or “big box” categories. You go and then tell your friends that you had gone to such-and-such restaurant because that’s where all of the Joneses had gone before you. But Roka Akor is where you go when you want to keep up with the Williamses. I was blown away on the first visit with the good fortune of having a server who had hit the mark on every menu choice offered as an option. There wasn’t one dish to be placed in front of me that I wasn’t raving about by the second bite. Getting to sit at the robata grill was a splendid option because I got to chat with the sous chef and the sashimi chef. You can’t do that at just any restaurant, and certainly not at a tourist trap or “big box” eatery.

Roka Akor

1. Basil Leaf Cafe (Tie)
Coming up with the number one spot was hard — and I’m not saying that just to have something to say. I started the year off with Basil Leaf Cafe being the first ethnic restaurant I was sampling. This was also the first time that I had decided to have a degustation without ordering from the menu. I trusted my server to make all recommendations and bring to the table a soup, a salad, two entrées, and a dessert. Basil Leaf Cafe had raised the bar up through the clouds and even on return visits, I was always in awe of how I could simply state that I liked seafood and vegetarian dishes, hand the menu back to the server, and let him or her bring to the table culinary choices that had indicated that they apparently listen to their dining patrons.

Basil Leaf Cafe

1. Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill (Tie)
I don’t know where to begin with Yuzu. This was another hard decision because I wanted there to be ten restaurants on my Top 10 list. It turned out to be eleven because Basil Leaf Cafe and Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill were deserving of the top position. My first visit to Yuzu had moved the expectation bar way up. No one disappears behind a door and comes back with a delectable dish. The sushi station and the robata grill are on full display, so you know exactly what you are getting. I was curious as to how a sushi bar could have a constant flow of patrons early in the day on a summer Saturday. It was after the first bite of some grilled eggplant from the robata grill that I understood why. Based on all of the robata grill items and sushi that my server had brought to the table, I honestly believe I could have won the lottery if I had asked her for the winning numbers. Everything was delicious.

Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill

I am hoping that 2014 will not be as busy and fast as 2013 has been. Yes, there is the saying that you should take time to smell the roses. But when there is the aroma of some inviting food wafting from the kitchen, put those roses in a vase and go see what the source of the aroma is. I know that I shall do just that in the New Year. I have to come up with ten more new restaurants for 2014. That means weight gain. Oh wait, no, that means I had better get started coming up with a list of eateries to sample throughout 2014.

And at this time, I would like to thank all who have been following Chicago Alphabet Soup and who have been giving me encouragement. Enjoy the holiday and may the New Year bring you joy and continued peace. And if none of that, then may some server bring you a dish that makes you sing a happy song.

Domo Arigato, Mr. Robata

Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill

Recently I received an email about a Japanese sushi and robata grill in the Noble Square neighbourhood in Chicago. I can’t tell you how many solicitations arrive in my inbox from advertising agencies and marketing houses wanting to provide photos and written copy for me to post on Chicago Alphabet Soup. Bad enough I don’t think WordPress allows advertising — as that could mean me making money off of a free site, which would probably go over like a lead balloon. But when I got the email about the Japanese restaurant, I knew that the person who sent it apparently follows Chicago Alphabet Soup enough to know that the blog site is a showcase of my photography and experiences at restaurants and that I only feature ethnic restaurants — albeit some American restaurants are on the site because they are worthy of their inclusion of ethnic influences.

Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill at 1715 W. Chicago Avenue was the subject restaurant. Although it is on a stretch of Chicago Avenue that has pedestrian traffic, it is not in a high foot traffic area. Nevertheless, it has more of the hipster allure to it, which is pretty much gobbling up the landscape of Chicago. It is more reflective of a younger crowd and truth be told, the hipster cabal tends to be representative of diverse thought and that also carries over into the acceptance of different cuisines. Well, it was easy for me to fit in to the scene and noting the constant ebb and tide of customers through the restaurant, it was apparent that they are doing great business.

Green Tea

Green Tea

I knew that I was going to be overzealous with my dining options, so I ordered hot green tea to ease digestion of the numerous culinary options I had planned to have. Then I began the dangerous task of wanting more than I knew I should have had. Starting small, or so I thought, I ordered a tuna poke. This was Hawaiian tuna salad with green and white onion, Japanese chilli pepper, soy sauce, and sesame oil, served atop avocado with an avocado fan for the backdrop. For those who claim to be adventurous with their dining, and you know you say you’re open to trying new things more or less to impress someone, the tuna is raw. Since I love my fair share of sushi, it was no problem for me working my chopsticks on the tuna poke until it was all gone. I must say that the soft texture of the raw tuna and the creamy texture of the avocado may be a bit much for some people, so beware if you are daring.

Tuna Poke

Tuna Poke

Next to come to the table was a flight of the robata grill. These items were prepared yakitori style, being that they were skewered on sticks the way they are prepared for street food in Japan. There was soft shell shrimp with a yuzu sauce. Again, this may be a bit daring for some people’s palates because you get the whole shrimp from head to tail. Next was chicken brushed with black bean sauce and topped with green onions. Looking at it, one may think that it is bland. The flavours burst with each bite to the point where it was anything but pedestrian. Per the server’s recommendation, I had nasu, which was Japanese eggplant with teriyaki sauce. Eggplant parmesan what? Baigan bharta what? Give me tender Japanese eggplant on a stick from now on. Another item on the platter that was slightly different but well worth ordering was shishto. Who would have thought that Japanese sweet peppers with ponzu and teriyaki sauce would have such a winning flavour? Imagine my surprise when I exclaimed, “Wow’” after the first bite. Spicy but not peppery, this yakitori item is a favourite now.

Flight from Robata Grill

Soft Shell Shrimp. Chicken and Black
Bean Sauce. Nasu.

Flight from Robata Grill

Shishito. Nasu. Chicken and
Black Bean Sauce.

After some time to relax and let the previous servings settle, I was ready for more. I ordered a whole grilled squid. Topped with ginger and garlic and served with jalapeño dipping sauce, I immediately swore off having fried calamari and fried squid ever again. I had made that statement before. However, it was an absolute declaration this time. There was no rubbery texture to the squid and that is one of the things about squid that most think is bothersome. That was not the case with the whole grilled squid at Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill. And having squeezed lemon over the squid and used the jalapeño dipping sauce, I accepted the fact that I had a winning lunch and was even happier that I had followed the advice of the email note I had received and gone to the restaurant.

Whole Grilled Squid

Whole Grilled Squid

But that was not the end of it. The server had asked me if I wanted to try any sushi. Thinking that I would have been too full up to this point, I was hesitant. Drinking the hot tea really did wonders for not leaving me feeling stuffed. So, I told my server what I liked and she recommended a maki roll that they call Sorry, I’m Drunk. That was a rather curious name for a sushi roll. And even after it came to the table, I still could not believe the name. Unagi, cooked shrimp, spicy mayonnaise, black and red tobiko, chilli oil, and scallions comprised a magnificent display on a wooden board. It looked like a flower, with the sauce and the arrangement. There was such a wow factor to each bite. Freshness to each piece was a testament to the quality of the ingredients. Even the unagi sauce was not sweet, which means you can taste the unagi, shrimp, and spicy mayo. It was incredible.

Sorry I'm Drunk

Sorry I’m Drunk

Well, there was no way I was going to leave without having tried a dessert. I figured I could not go wrong with something light. Mochi balls were it. The flavours were mango, green tea, and strawberry, each placed on a plate and accented with sauces that gave the presentation of a flower and buds. You can’t go wrong with mochi balls and whether they are prepared in-house or somewhere else, they have such a bloom of flavour that you cannot fight when the option to sample some is presented to you. This was an absolute wonderful ending to a fantastic meal.

Mochi Ice Cream Balls

Mochi Ice Cream Balls

The quality of food at Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill is comparable to or better than any high-end restaurant in Chicago. Where Yuzu comes out ahead of the game is with reasonable prices. Much like the low cost for street food, you get some really great sushi, robata grill items, and other greats without feeling as though you have given a down-payment on an apartment. Another positive note is the outstanding service. I am a huge advocate of going to restaurants where the wait staff is extremely helpful and even conversational. It makes the experience that more enjoyable. There is only one other robata grill in Chicago where I have had enjoyed my visits thoroughly and now Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill is its competition. A return visit is necessary.

Arigato gosatimasu.

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