Tanoshii West Loop, One Is Not Enough

Tanoshii West LoopSeveral years ago, I went to Tanoshii in Andersonville on a whim. What I initially thought was going to be a brief moment at just any sushi restaurant turned out to be one of the more memorable sushi experiences in Chicago. While going to meet a friend for dinner in West Loop a few weeks ago, I saw a sign for Tanoshii at 720 W. Randolph Street. Wondering if the Andersonville location had relocated, I made a note to visit the West Loop location for a proper update. Upon arrival during my visit at the Randolph Street spot, there were the usual greetings and clarification that the Andersonville location was still intact. I imagine the Tanoshii at 5547 N. Clark Street got a lot of business, which may very well have been the impetus for opening a location in another popular area of Chicago.

Kabocha Soup with Crab

Kabocha Soup with Crab

With Chicago having suddenly gone from mild winter to frigid in a matter of days, I ordered a warm sake for a starter. I had devoured a good amount of food the prior evening with friends I had gone to graduate school with and had snacks all day long, so I was not really in a frame of mind for having to be decisive. When the server said that there was a chef’s choice option to ordering, I agreed to that. But to warm me up further, I requested a cup of kabocha soup with crab in it. The soup has a flavour akin to squash soup. You cannot go wrong with that during cold months and you’re well within heaven’s reach when there is fresh, real crab in it.

Tuna Tartar

Tuna Tartar

The chef’s choice came on a wooden board, full of presentation, and considerably more satisfying than I could describe with any kind of justice. The first item on the board was tuna tartar on a tortilla chip. As much as I like raw seafood, I have never been a fan of raw tuna. On the occasions that I have had it at the request of my servers, I’ve been rather impressed. This was one of those times. The chip balanced out the texture of the tuna, but it was the pop in the flavour that added the wow that made it an incredible preamble to chef’s choice.

Tuna Sashimi

Tuna Sashimi

The tuna sashimi was the second item that fell into the category “don’t order much” because of the texture. And again, Tanoshii West Loop somehow managed to change my mind. I didn’t get the list of ingredients used in the tuna sashimi, but it was a good thing that I got a photography for this blog post. I shall order this again when I return and I will have the photo for use during the delivery of the order. The tuna was neither fishy nor rubbery. I think that it were the freshness, the silky texture, and the accents atop of it that made it addictive.

Yellowtail and Salmon

Yellowtail and Salmon

There were yellowtail and smoked salmon sashimi. I have always enjoyed both in maki rolls. However, I have ventured into sashimi dining at Japanese restaurants as of late and find that I want those delectable pieces without them being shared with other ingredients in a roll. The yellowtail and salmon were meaty and so full of bloom that it was after I had finished both that I realized I had eaten them, as well as the tuna sashimi, without any soy sauce. That is the mark of an outstanding sushi chef.

First Makiroll

First Makiroll

Second Maki Roll

Second Maki Roll

I finished the chef’s choice board with a maki roll that reminded me of a rainbow roll. There were tuna and avocado on the roll and enough sauce that this was easily devoured sans any soy sauce, like the sashimi. As much as I wanted a repeat of the chef’s choice board in total, I did opt for another sushi roll. Now I am in love with their truffle honey roll with salmon over a peach balsamic sauce topped off with chili paste and a honey truffle glaze. This was the Mona Lisa of sushi rolls. And would you believe me if I told you that I waddled over to Bombo Bar at 832 W. Randolph Street and had cappuccino and bombolonis, one filled with vanilla custard and one fill with salted caramel?

Bombolonis

Bombolonis

Those who are familiar with Chicago’s West Loop District know that the restaurants fill up quickly. West Loop is a high volume area with plenty of foot traffic and establishments that do a fantastic job luring in customers. Tanoshii West Loop does the same. Unless you tend to sit in the bar area, make reservations, especially during the weekends. From my first visit, I’m certain the after 5:00 PM crowd throughout the week loves to go for sushi and I understand fully. I cannot say if there is a list of “Best Sushi in Chicago” floating around, but I’d be highly disappointed if either Tanoshii location is not on the list.

Tanoshii Sushi Mike's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Izakaya Mita, Sashimi and Robata

During my last restaurant outing, I was in Bucktown enjoying some French food. Next to the French restaurant is a Japanese restaurant named Izakaya Mita at 1960 N. Damen Avenue. Looking in from the outside, there was an intimate feeling about the restaurant that I thought would make it ideal for checking out, that being there would be no extreme crowds. Well, leave it up to me to go on a Friday night and experience a crowd. Anyone who has gone will agree that there is a good reason for the congestion.

Sake

Sake

Seaweed

Seaweed

On the evening that I went, I had come off of a ridiculously nerve-grating day at work. The best way I figured I could null the desire to scream at the top of my lungs was to imbibe a flight of sake. My server was grandtastic — new word of the day — coming up with recommendations and explaining where they were produced, the ingredients in the liquid recipe, what made them spectacular, and pairing them with the dishes I ordered. For example, I had a refreshing sake that went very well with a small bowl of spicy seaweed.

Tuna Sashimi

Tuna Sashimi

There was an inquiry of whether I would like to sample some raw seafood. This gave me the indication that sashimi was perhaps on the offering. It was. I had some meaty tuna sashimi with another glass of sake. For those who may want to indulge this full coloured, mouth-watering lovely should note that it is a small plate with four succulent slices of resh tuna. It is still a splendid order as a small plate.

Salmon Sashimi

Salmon Sashimi

The same can be said of the salmon, which I had with my third sake option. Salmon is one dish that I never tire of eating. When it is cooked such that it is tender and flaky, complaining is never an option. Having it sashimi style has now gotten me addicted to enjoying it before being seared by a flame. There was nothing stringy, fishy, tough, or chewy about the salmon. If it had come on a larger plate as a larger portion, I would have been even happier than I was with it as a small plate option.

Mushrooms

Mushrooms

By the time I was finishing the salmon sashimi, my sister had arrived. That meant more food. It did not mean more sake. While she ordered some dishes and cocktails, the latter to take her mind off having had a mad week at work, I ordered some mushrooms for sharing. Grilled to tenderness and accented with a light sauce, we devoured these fresh mushrooms and noticed that they had the flavour of the garden variety that had not been rushed in growing. There was a reminiscent moment of when we had tasted mushrooms at a favourite sushi and robata grill restaurant named Yuzu in Chicago’s West Town neighbourhood.

Beef Tenderloin, Salad

Beef Tenderloin, Salad

Another shared dish was beef tenderloin over small salad. Neither one of us is a fan of rare or medium rare meat. Imagine both of our surprises when we had gobbled these rare morsels to completion. There were no overpowering herbs and spices in the recipe, so there was enough taste in whatever marinade the chef used to prepare the meat. Nothing was overcompensated and that may have been why it was easier for us to navigate the raw meat without thinking much about it, until we had gone around the plate sopping up the last bit of juice with the lettuce.

Green Tea Mochi Balls

We sat and caught up with other about the week for several minutes before ordering light sweets and green tea. My sister had green tea cheesecake while I had three green tea mochi balls. Not only are mochi balls a swell palate cleanser, but they are also light on the stomach after a hearty meal. The green tea was definitely good for digestion after all we had eaten. This was loose leaf green tea, too, so I was thoroughly content.

Green Tea

Green Tea

Izakaya Mita is not a large sushi bar, but it is most definitely a fan favourite for a lot of individuals. It may be that the Wednesday I went to the French restaurant was indicative of a lighter night. Fridays may be the beginning day of the weekend when everyone wants to enjoy fun, excitement, fellowship, and good food way from home. With this being my first visit, the one server who gave us recommendations was the only indication I have for superb service. I don’t have to be redundant and say ad nauseam that the food is worthy. What I will say is that one may find plenty pretentious Japanese sushi, yakitori, and robata restaurants in the metropolitan Chicago area. Izakaya Mita doesn’t pretend. They’re just damn good.

Izakaya Mita Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Glenn’s Diner And I Don’t Mean Burgers, Fries, and Malts

When I think of diners, what comes to mind are burgers, fries, and milk shakes. And then you go to a neighbourhood like Ravenswood and find that the local diner is a seafood restaurant. You smile. Well, I smiled.

Glenn's Diner, Collage

Click to view larger photos in Flickr album

Let me start by saying that I had an aggressive appetite. CrossFit and kickboxing early in the morning had already worn me out, but in a good way. However, such intense workouts crank my appetite and I obey. Glenn’s Diner at 1820 W. Montrose Avenue certainly fits the bill for satisfying one’s craving.

Starting with brunch, I loved the chocolate chip waffle drizzled with chocolate syrup. Loved the scramble eggs with cheddar cheese. When brunch was done, I waited about 20 minutes, got my second wind, and then had the tuna tartar with chips. Raw tuna compacted together with avocado and onions. Delicious. And then I had halibut with potatoes and asparagus. Talk about flaky fish and everything being seasoned without being overdone. The jambalaya with cornbread was out of this world, although it didn’t come with rice. It was closer to the jambalaya that I’ve had in New Orleans than the attempts I’ve had at other New Orleans style restaurants in Chicago.

Jambalaya and Cornbread

Click to view video in Flickr

There is a constant flow of patrons coming and going at Glenn’s Diner. During midday the crowd was light. Given the breakfast was good, I imagine the morning crowd fills the restaurant. The food is certain worthy, so I can understand if the restaurant stays crowded. I’ll be a part of the constant crowd from now on, for true. So glad they were not about burgers, fries, and milk shakes.

Click to add a blog post for Glenn's Diner on Zomato

Bandera, Southwest in the Midwest

One of the things about being a food blogger is that the food blogging community doesn’t appear to be as competitive as entertainment figures. Maybe it has something to do with not being paid a ridiculous salary well into the 7-figure range for the write-ups on restaurants. Perhaps it has a lot to do with genuine interests in what like-minded individuals love to eat and another little thing called information sharing. Such was the case with a blogger I started following mutually out of New York City. I had received an email note recently inquiring about good restaurants in Chicago and whether I was interested in getting together for some good food and some knowledge swapping. Food was involved, and I could leave it at that. After finding out what the blogger had a taste for, as well as what he was tired of eating, I suggested that we meet at Bandera at 535 N. Michigan Avenue in the Magnificent Mile.

Skillet Cornbread

Skillet Cornbread

Having been to Bandera for lunch several times, I was aware that the restaurant fills up quickly. The food is the draw and Bandera is NOT a tourist trap like Cheesecake Factory and Grand Lux Cafe, both which are in the Magnificent Mile. I had never been for dinner, so the three-piece jazz band playing was an added bonus. My fellow blogger and I started with a skillet of cornbread and a plate of focaccia with black olives. The cornbread at Bandera is an absolute must for every visit, unless you cannot stomach bread. We’re not talking perfect little muffins. No, we’re talking a small skillet full of love with a crunchy top that will make you love it more than cupcakes. For a lighter carb on the palate, the focaccia is simply a beauty in flavour.

Focaccia

Focaccia

The blogger had gone to a restaurant or two earlier in the day, which meant that he had been sampling from some menus already. I had captured some impressions for breakfast and a few for lunch at two restaurants, which meant that I was not going to attempt to overdo it at dinner. So, we both ordered entrées rather than starting with appetizers. The blogger ordered the ahi tuna with a salad in a vinaigrette. I had this particular dish during previous visits and loved it. Seeing that the blogger didn’t wince, grimace, or leave any left on his plate, I took that as a sign off his approval of my recommendation.

Ahi Tuna and Salad

Ahi Tuna and Salad

For me, I ordered the pecan crusted trout with potatoes. After the server had walked away from the table, I then had the thought flash that there were pecans in the recipe. I bit down hard and decided that I would enjoy the dish although I hate nuts. Well, it must all be in the preparation because the pecan crust on the trout was a dream. I would like to think that the delectable taste of the gravy contributed to highlight of the trout, but it was only a very good guest star. The pecans had been cooked, baked, prepared such that they weren’t crunchy and being in the gravy, I didn’t get the tree bark aftertaste that I get from pecans. I didn’t want to awake from this dream.

Pecan Crusted Trout with Potatoes

Pecan Crusted Trout with Potatoes

Always great service and awesome food, Bandera is one my top go-to restaurants for American fare. There is no menu with pages of options to leave you with your eyes crossed. One page, great selections, and what you get from the kitchen exceeds what you see on your final tab. Lunch is a perfect time to go for an introduction. If you want to enjoy some outstanding jazz music while delighting yourself with a beverage and entrée, I suggest making a reservation for a Saturday evening and arrive around 6:00 PM. You can thank me later.

For disclosure, the blogger who had come to Chicago blogs at Lord of the Forks. His trip to Chicago was not just to sample a few restaurant, but to meet with several Chicago-based foodists and to get more samplings of restaurants worthy to showcase on Tabelog. The one city in North America that has a tremendous representation of “old country” authenticity in its restaurants’ food is Toronto, much because Toronto is a metropolis of immigrants. Little do many know or even acknowledge is that Chicago — for all of its flaws and national gaffes — is a true sister city to Toronto. So, you find a plethora of cultural culinary havens. And what my newfound friend found in Chicago were not celebrity chef hangout spots, pretty-people-only lounges, big box eateries with bigger price tags on food, flash, and flare. He discovered the States’ proper melting pot. Raise the bandera to signal the people to come.

Bandera on Urbanspoon

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.

Self-Assessment, Thai Style

Silom 12

At various times I take self-assessments that give me clarity and reality checks to keep my head out of the clouds. I have accepted the fact that I live in a trendy section of Chicago that is becoming more hip by the minute. I also accept the fact that I will not have a six-pack abdomen ever again – unless I do something drastic like resort to liposuction. At the risk of making a sexist statement, it is actually okay to be physically attracted to someone before dating them rather than trying ridiculously hard to convince yourself that you really want to wake up next to someone who makes your withdraw. And I acknowledge fully that Chicago is North America’s answer to outstanding food. Meanwhile, someone is saying, “No, New York City is” – where appetizers at brand name restaurants start at around $45.

Seafood Sauce and Chips

Seafood Sauce and Chips

With my condominium in the midst of going through some renovation, things are a bit all over the place. Bad enough I am all sixes and nines because of having things scattered, that does not interfere with my constant appetite. Rather than fidgeting around in the kitchen trying to concoct something to gobble before going to a Fourth of July barbecue to look at people devour chicken and ribs drowned in sauce, I figured I would get something righteous – and healthy, per my self-affirmation. Remembering a certain Thai restaurant that I have ordered take-away from several time, I left my condo in its disarray and zoomed to Silom 12 at 1846 N. Milwaukee Avenue.

Ginger Tea

Ginger Tea

The weather had been waffling between fair skies and overcast with a suspect look for a sudden downpour. So, instead of sitting outside and chancing having my food get doused by rainfall, I sat inside by a ceiling-to-floor window that opened up to the outside. It was the middle of the day and everyone was probably going towards the lake to watch fireworks – if there were any to be on display once the sun set. I had placed my order, got my camera ready, heaved a slight sigh, and three women came in and chose to sit next to me. Of all the spots in the empty restaurant, they sat next to me and gossiped loudly. I think I have been cursed.

Tuna Tataki

Tuna Tataki

I started with ginger tea to get my stomach ready for all the tasty food I was going to indulge. Let me just say that this ginger tea was not from a tea bag. There were crispy rice chips and a seafood sauce that had a faint hint of barbecue to it. How about that for the Fourth of July. This was a unique complimentary serving, light, yet blooming with flavour. My first hearty dish was an appetizer of tuna tataki. This was a very appetizing plate of seared tuna that was sesame-crusted with crispy egg noodles in a spicy Thai style seafood reduction. Served over julienne cucumber that came out of a garden, completely untouched by pesticides and “make it grow faster” enhancers, those three pretty-pretties had to watch my facial expressions of appreciation. I have had tuna tataki at several Japanese robata grills, but now I can say absolutely that Silom 12 has a version on its menu that is serious taste-worthy competition.

Larb Tod

Larb Tod

My next dish was larb tod. This was a plate of fried, ground chicken in rice powder and fresh herbs served with lemon over a bed of lettuce and red onions. I have a friend whose aunt had sent him hot curry from Thailand a few years ago and he prepared some larb for me that was immediately addictive. I was expecting the same from Silom 12, and it may have been the absence of the curry that detracted from what I was expecting. It was good, but I was thinking the first bite would have left me with a facial expression of wow. Nevertheless, my appetite refused to allow me complaining time, so the larb tod disappeared after I had worked my chopsticks on the dish for several minutes. And then came the dish that I was really at Silom 12 to have anyway – panang gari goong. That had been my dish of choice every time I called for delivery or take-away. The panang curry was sweet and spicy the way I requested, without leaving me with the feeling that my hair was on fire, though. Filled with red and green peppers, green beans, and plump shrimp, I was okay knowing that I could sit through any barbecue and watch people smear barbecue sauce across their lips, chins, cheeks, and every across their receding hair lines.

Panang Gari Goong

Panang Gari Goong

I washed the remaining lunch down with the ginger tea from the first cup and was then ready for a wrap-up of dessert. Per my server’s suggestion, there was banana wonton for my delight. Ripe bananas, accented with cinnamon and sugar, and fried inside of a wonton to a crisp went over so very well. There were slices of bananas on the side and a fantastic scoop of vanilla ice cream drizzled with caramel and lime sauce. Now, I could have had Thai custard, sticky rice and mango, and perhaps some other Thai favourite. But the banana wonton was ideal for my ridiculous craving. Truth be told, I was in a complete meditative state after I had finished the dessert and downed the last cup of ginger tea. Everything was quite okay in my world.

Banana Wonton

Banana Wonton

It is a good thing that I had ordered from Silom 12 several times before my in-house visit. It is a must that I dine at the restaurant before I feature it on Chicago Alphabet Soup, so this trip was necessary. The price is comparable to what you find at all Thai restaurants in the Chicago metropolitan area. The service was several notches past outstanding. And if you like the lounge scene – i.e., seating, interior design, and ambient music – Silom 12 is the place for you. When all was said and done, I left with another self-assessment.

I will be going back.

Silom 12 on Urbanspoon

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.

Yuzu Sushi and Robata Grill on Urbanspoon

Degustation Japanese Style

Roka Akor

SakeDuring the week of 3 February 2013 through 10 February 2013, many restaurants were participating in Chicago Restaurant Week. I had received an email about some of the restaurants and their menus, several that piqueing my interest. One restaurant that stood out on the list was Roka Akor, at 456 N Clark Street.  The River North section of Chicago is already filled with notable high-end restaurants that have reasonable prices for those who appreciate good food and who also do not want to worry that the final bill will leave them gasping in shock. Having gone to Bombay Spice Grill immediately next door, I had made a mental note to visit Roka Akor to see if the menu had items that would be a good fit for Chicago Alphabet Soup. Looking at the menu display outside the restaurant is one thing. Sitting still and looking at the menu online is another and it was reviewing what Roka Akor had for the appetite that made my decision to go for a seating that more easy. One thing that stood out more was the Robatayaki style cooking that the restaurant employs. I had experienced Robatayaki style cooking in Japan, but not in America.  I made a reservation so that I could arrive early for dinner, well before the serious dinner crowd started to file in. I had plans to do some serious photography and while making the reservation, I was clear about that so that I could get a seat where I would not be in the way of the staff or other dining patrons. Plenty of seating and romantic ambience, I was ready for my food adventure. Much to my surprise, I got a seat right in front of the Robatayaki bar and sashimi bar. Yes, I was ready for action.

Seared ScallopIn keeping with indulging degustations in my dining excursions, I scanned the menu and when the server came by to ask if I was ready, I gave my response. I had been waffling between going with the Restaurant Week menu, picking random items from the different sections of the menu, or letting the server have carte blanche with the selection. The menu for Restaurant Week had items on it that I have eaten countless times, so that option was thrown out. Picking items from the menu at random was another idea that I took a pass on because I would have selected comfort items. So, it was putting the selection into the capable hands of the server that I went for. An indication that I was in good hands was the glass of sake that he had recommended, and I am kicking myself for not remembering it. I remember my server’s name and his face, though, which means I can always go back and request that very sake. But, it was a sake that was smooth going down and with a hint of a floral note.  Now, I will be the first to admit that I have not come close to achieving wine, spirits, or sake snobbery. However, I could find myself navigating a room with a glass of the sake that I had and pretending to be higher above my station than I am already. I thank my server for opening my repertoire more.

SashimiFirst to the table was a grilled diver scallop. This was not just the usual morsel that comes with some seafood dishes. Seasoned with lemon sweet soy, crushed wasabi pea, yuso mayonnaise, and purple shiso crust, my fork sank through it without any effort and I smiled a wide smile as my teeth sank through each bite. Of course, the scallop was more of a starter than anything else, the initial presentation had me wondering if I was going to be in store for aesthetically pleasing dishes to the visual senses while compromising flavour. Oh was I wrong. Not only was the scallop anything but tough but you could taste the flavours, none competing with the other. The sushi chef had mentioned that this particular dish was one of his favourites and it was really nice to know because there was thought put into presenting something for me that the chef actually preferred. I doubt that it was because he had prepared it that he viewed the dish highly. It was just delicious. The same was to be said for the butterfish and tuna tataki that the sashimi chef had prepared. Yet again, there was a small dish of what looked more artistic than culinary. There was no rush, so I took small bites and enjoyed each with the accompanying sake. By the time I had completed two of the pieces, I had acknowledged that Roka Akor was not just a restaurant of visually stunning dishes but it was a fine dining establishment with a sushi chef, sashimi chef, and cooking staff that give attention to making sure each taste a dining customer has guarantees a return visit. In the same fashion that the sushi chef had explained the dish, since I was sitting at the counter, the sashimi chef did the same. And, thus, began conversation about Roka Akor in Scottsdale, Arizona, and in London, United Kingdom. And there was dialogue such that the chefs inquired of how I had become interested in blogging ethnic restaurants. It was not just me taking photos and scribbling dishes, but there was suddenly a feeling that I had gone to friends’ homes and told to make myself comfortable.

Sashimi Platter

The next dish was one I saw being prepared that I thought was going to another dining patron. There was no tossing items on the plate or rearranging anything haphazardly. There was an attention to detail and a display of care that had I caught on videotape, you would be able to see a bit of love going into the preparation. I had to ask if I could photograph the process, only to find out that the platter was for me. For a noticeable moment, I was rather speechless.  Here was a dish that you see in magazines and on television shows, a product after styling and polishing. I was watching magic. I was anticipating bliss. When all was done, a sashimi platter on ice was placed before me and all eyes were on me as my server explained what the treat entailed. Bluefin tuna, stripe jack, amber jack, oyster with ponzu sauce and fresh lime, shrimp, head of shrimp, salmon with truffle butter, super white tuna, yellowtail, red snapper, and Japanese seaweed salad with ponzu sauce. It is rhetorical to mention that the only thing I could mouth was, “Wow!” At my age of 44, I have been to restaurants on the high-end that have presented dishes that were fitting for pedestals while fitting for throwing against the wall. Restaurants that were all the rage, touted as bigger than life, and Roka Akor places a sashimi platter in front of me that deserves more high praise than I can type. Every morsel of seafood on the platter was fresh, obvious from the lack of fishy smell and absent of any questionable taste. And still, the sake that I polished off with the platter was an ideal pairing.

Seafood PlatterMore conversation was had while the next course was being prepared. The idea was to give me an idea of all the offerings that Roka Akor has without having me sample every item that there was on the menu. Since the sashimi chef had wowed me with the cold platter of delectable sashimi, the sushi chef was composing a platter of cooked seafood. And again, I was blown away with a selection of the absolute best, freshest seafood. Grilled Pacific lobster, Alaskan king crab, roasted Fanny Bay oyster, and tempura huma huma were all I needed to state with clarity that I had been to heaven. I shall start by saying that the texture of oysters never curried favour with me. However, the grilling of the oyster yielded the texture found in mussels. The seasoning of the oyster painted another smile on my face that stretched with each bite of the flavourful lobster, crab, and huma huma. Another thing to note is that while the plate looked substantial, I was not stuffed to capacity after I had completed the dish, licked my fingers, and raised my arms in the air as though I had defeated an aggressive boxer. I have enjoyed seafood this flavourful and fresh on the West Coast, East Coast, and along coastal countries abroad. As far inland as Chicago is, the seafood much be imported fresh, daily in order for the dishes to be so exquisite while remaining void of muddy flavouring. And my taste buds were appreciative of the seasoning to the seafood not being overpowering or overcompensation in any manner. The mark of an outstanding chef is knowing the right balance or ratio to make a dish pop. I will be the first to say that no one can argue that the chefs at Roka Akor do anything less than produce the best dishes for the palate.

Dessert Platter
By the time I had finished the cooked seafood platter, I requested some time before the dessert came. In Asian dining, desserts are not heavy, so I had a bit of confidence that I would be able to handle whatever was in store. I had completed a second glass of sake and my server brought a Riesling that was almost sweet enough to be a dessert wine. When the dessert had finally arrive, I understood why there was a tempering of the wine that was accompanying the work of art that I stared at in amazement. There was a medley of fresh fruit: watermelon, honey-dew melon, raspberries, blackberries, oranges, pineapple, and pomegranate. Included was a scoop of raspberry sorbet that I swear had been made fresh in the back with crushed raspberries. I have not had any sorbet from the market with such flavour that pops. And if all of that was not enough to make the most cantankerous food critic stand up and dance, there was a ginger crème brûlée topped with a few kernels from a pomegranate that puts crème brûlées at other restaurants to shame. This I am not making up for effect. After you have had crème brûlée regular style, tasting a hint of ginger in it somehow makes everything okay in the land. Ginger, like cilantro, goes great with many dishes. And as to the dessert at Roka Akor, I now find it hard to debate anyone about fruit not being the perfect wrap-up for a meal.

Preparing Sashimi Platter

Having recently entertained a degustation where I had given the server free rein to come up with the courses for me and having enjoyed the whole experience more than I could say, I was impressed even more with the culinary options I had at Roka Akor. The server said that they all are basically experts in the restaurant’s menu. Yet and still, recommending dishes for someone who is a stranger and every recommendation coming out a success means that something else is working right. The next time a list of top restaurants gets published, Roka Akor should be on that list.

Roka Akor on Urbanspoon

Eurythmics Comes to Mind

Sweet dreams are made of this,
Who am I to disagree?
I travelled the world and the seven seas,
Everybody’s looking for something

Ah, I remember that song from the Eurythmics, way back when I was in high school and a huge fan of the 80’s British invasion. That song had been playing quite a bit recently, and I attribute part of it to serendipity in advance of me going to a boutique restaurant in Oak Park, Illinois, named Seven Ocean. While Annie Lennox provided her velvet voice over the words “seven seas,” Seven Ocean fit rather nicely and I was happy all the same, for I was going to have an adventure in fine dining.

Willamet Valley Vineyards RiselingLocated in downtown Oak Park at 122 N. Marion Street on a cobblestone stretch of small shops, restaurants, and independent cafes, is the neighbourhood’s most recent addition — Seven Ocean. Providing fine cuisine with an Asian influence, Seven Ocean is minimalist in its interior decoration. Not that ambience only defines a restaurant, that being the food here takes centre stage, there is a Stanley Kubrick sterile feel that I actually like. Then again, the man in me loves straight lines, simple colours, and lots of space. With nice jazz playing in the background, I was certain that the evening was going to be worth the visit. Given an intrepid and great waiter, he explained to me what I would receive in a seven-course tasting with wine pairing. Lucky for me I had skipped having a hearty lunch because seven courses with wine were certain to induce a state of bliss.

Tuna Tar Tar

For starting, I had tuna tar tar with a 2010 Riesling from Willamette Valley Vineyards. As far as white wines go, and I am not a wine snob, you simply cannot go wrong with a Riesling. On the dish, the only meat that I like raw is that in sushi. Even in Japan, I was okay delighting myself with several dishes of seafood that had not passed over any flame. Tar tar, on the other hand, is something I tend to avoid, mostly because it is some tar tar made from beef or another four-legged animal that I do not even eat cooked. However, the tuna tar tar at Seven Ocean receives exemption. Fresh tuna with Asian pear, avocado, aioli, raw wasabi tobileo, and chilli oil came on a plate with fried lotus root chips. So colourful, so appealing, and so appetizing, I slowly worked the tuna tar tar until there was only a faint smear of the chilli oil left. Not that I will indulge myself relentlessly on any other kind of tar tar after loving the tuna tar tar the way that I did, I will remember that Asian influence in food entertains exotic preparation. It was evident that Seven Ocean got it correct.

Fried Tiger Prawn

The second course was tiger prawn, lightly breaded and fried with a crust reminiscent of tempura. Served with beet root, wasabi sprout, and a tamarind caramel reduction, it had dawned on me that I was then in food heaven. Yes, the portions were small, as this was a taste, but the prawns were so plump that they practically popped shortly after my teeth sank past the tempura crust. Low-key jazz music playing in the background, each bite was hypnotic. Had there been a worry bothering me earlier, I had completely forgotten whatever the trouble was by the time I had finished the second course.

Edamame Cream Soup

Black Rice Noodle Served Cold in Balsamic VinaigretteThen came another glass of a white wine, a 2011 stainless Chardonnay from Chamisal Vineyards. A bit dryer than the Riesling, it was still an excellent accompaniment to the edamame cream soup that came as the third course. Usually, you when you hear the word edamame, you think of the bowl of salted beans served at Japanese restaurants. Served as a soup with soy, fresh cream tobiko and truffle oil and bacon infusing, you have a winning delicacy. After the second course was a peak dish, I initially thought that the soup was going to be a trip down into the valley. Absolutely not. Given some light, tasty bread or some exotic wafers, I could eat that edamame soup endlessly while enjoying wine with it.

Next to the table was black rice noodle served cold in balsamic vinaigrette with crab meat and sweet pepper over an asparagus spear. There was a tremendous Japanese persuasion in this dish. Not really sold on the course when the waiter was first explaining the dish, I was completely wowed after twirling a bit of the noodle and spooning it with the crab meat onto my tongue. Far from elaborate in presentation, the flavour was a work of culinary art and I beheld the visual effect briefly before continuing to polish off the rest. Even the asparagus spear that looked to have been steamed only tasted better than some doctored-up asparagus that I have had at other eateries. The fourth course was another winner.

Fried Red Snapper

Up to the table with the fifth course was a glass of 2011 savignon blanc from Wither Hills Vineyard in Marlborough, New Zealand. Not a bad choice, it was an ideal selection for the fried red snapper. Pan seared with home made sweet and sour sauce, chopped apple, red onion, and dried chilli, I could have stopped, said that the five courses were top, requested the bill, paid, and left it at that. The West Indian in me loves red snapper, but having it at Seven Ocean really introduced a lust factor for the seafood that I had never experienced before. I thought the presentation was eye-catching, but nothing compared to the concert of ingredients making such a delectable recipe for love. And the savignon blanc was a remarkable partnering. Just to savour each bite, I was slow about engaging the dish to completion too fast and then having eater’s remorse. Love is to be cherished and that red snapper was the epitome of love.

Roast Duck Breast

When I thought that nothing could best what I had eaten already, there came as the sixth course a glass of 2009 cabernet savignon from La Linda Vineyards and roast duck breast in mild Thai red curry with saffron rice, crispy fried red onion, and langon. After the first bite, I forced myself to pause. Words could not describe how much I wanted to dance, sing, do something involving running for no apparent reason. Let me just say that the langon, which is an Asian tree fruit like lichee, tasted better than any plum or grape that I have ever had. Naturally sweet, this otherwise bland looking ball is so delicious that I would find it hard to believe that Asian children cringe whenever their parents try to get them to eat langon. As to the duck breast, this was not the oily duck that I have had at numerous restaurants before. Eaten with the companion saffron rice that was topped with the fried red onions, I was a man full of life and sated with great food.

Dinner is Served

Last to the table was dessert. Thankful that this was not heavy since I had been filled proper with six prior courses, I smiled at the presentation of a familiar dish — a plate of fresh sliced mango with sweet sticky rice, coconut cream with strawberry sauce drizzle, and chocolate sauce. Granted the dessert was not as fancy as the other dishes, and it was light so that one could finish all of it without feeling forced, the mango and sticky rice comprised a Thai delicacy that I have loved ever since I began eating Thai cuisine years ago. The chocolate sauce was more for effect, but the rest pandered to my constant appetite nicely.

La Linda Cabernet Savignon, 2009From the reservation to the confirmation of the reservation to the arrival and then to the whole dining experience, Seven Ocean is at the top of my list of restaurants. Not particularly a fan of fusion or Pan-Fill-in-the-Blank restaurants, when an establishment gets the concept correct, I will be the first to admit that I can become their greatest fan. The price is stiff, but nothing like restaurants that vie for or obtain top Michelin star ratings. I must say that I got more than what I paid for and the service was worthy of bottling, which is not something possible to do. Understanding that Seven Ocean just opened their doors, I hope that they receive more business. There are three factors working in their favour: delicious cuisine, fantastic service, and reasonable fare. Sweet dreams are made of these things. Fortunately for me, I travelled to Seven Ocean and found another awesome haunt for my culinary wants.

Seven Ocean on Urbanspoon