Indie Cafe, Japanese Style

Indie Cafe

While passing through Chicago’s Edgewater neighbourhood, I walked by a restaurant that I thought was a bar and grill. It turned out to be a Pan-Asian restaurant. I have slowly lost my interest in Pan-Asian cuisine. However, I will make a few exceptions. Indie Cafe at 5951 N. Broadway Street seemed like they were heavier on the Japanese menu. So, that was the option I went with.

Miso Soup

Miso Soup

Figuring that I would have a hearty lunch, I started with a miso soup, wishing that they had kabocha squash soup on the menu instead. After the soup, I had a flight of nigiri. Salmon, tuna, whitefish, octopus, shrimp, hamachi, and unagi, all fresh and all devoured slowly while enjoying jasmine tea.

Omakase

Omakase

Although I had several pieces of nigiri, the flight was still light. After a brief scan of the menu again, I ordered unagi don. This came as a bowl of barbecued eel over rice. This is a dish that I could probably eat daily and never complain about. The eel was not muddy, fishy, or questionable in taste. And unlike at a lot of Americanized Asian restaurants, the sauce was not heavy-handed with syrup.

India Cafe avoids cramming patrons close together. This minimizes the need to compete with others sitting immediately next to you, which means you can have conversation with others in your party without feeling like you are in a sports bar. I didn’t try any of the Thai cuisine since I am slowly working  myself back to indulging Thai at restaurants that prepare Thai food specifically. As to the Japanese fare at Indie Cafe, I must say that I enjoyed it.

Unagi Don

Unagi Don

The Uptown and Edgewater neighbourhoods boast numerous Asian restaurants where you can get a vast selection of Asian delights to fancy your palate. If you are in Edgewater and have a hankering yet you’re going back and forth over what you may find more interesting, give Indie Cafe a try. I recommend going for the Japanese fare on one visit and trying Thai on another one.

Indie Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Seadog Sushi Bar

Seadog Sushi BarHaving watched several photos of sushi on Instagram, it goes without saying that I was in a mood to work some chopsticks. While passing through Wicker Park, there were restaurants quickly filling up with customers who had departed work for the day. Many were probably trying to get into a warm building since Chicago went from tropical to near autumn in a matter of days. Well, not wanting to deal with crowds, I pulled out my cellphone, flipped through some more Instagram photos, and saw a few postings from a restaurant walking distance from where I was pondering what to eat. I quickly made my way to Seadog Sushi Bar at 1500 W. Division Street.

Sea Soup

Sea Soup

Having indeed arrived early enough, I had a window seat and enough room to navigate the table for some shots at different angles. Well, I cannot claim true foodie credibility without photographs of my dining experience. And I was glad to have wiggle room without being in anyone’s way or them in my compositions. Thanks to the sudden drop in temperature, I started with a pot of green tea and a bowl of sea soup. There was no shortage of shrimp, whitefish, and crab in the soup. The flavour of the broth reminded me of sweet soy sauce. The green tea balanced out the sweetness.

The Island

The Island

Spooky Maki

Spooky Maki

An appetizer that grabbed my eye was The Island. It was sushi, but prepared unlike any sushi that I have had before. This was a dish of crispy sushi rice atop ebi tempura. There was a honey mayonnaise in the recipe that gave the sushi a pop that I enjoyed without use of soy sauce. The interesting maki roll was the Spooky Maki. This sushi roll was made of unagi, jalapeno, and cilantro served with a spicy mayonnaise and unagi sauce. The unagi sauce was rather sweet. After patting much of the unagi sauce on the plate, the sushi pieces were delicious.

Green Tea

Green Tea

Seadog Sushi Bar seems like a quaint restaurant, not one that is boisterous and loud. Granted I went as soon as the doors opened for even dinner, there is a bit of a laid back feel in the atmosphere regardless. There is a BYOB policy, so for those who wish to imbibe a cocktail or a beer while feasting on sushi, they may bring their spirits and Seadog will provide glasses. Overall, it was a splendid experience. I will have to keep in mind that it may be wise to order dishes one at a time. I am discovering that a lot of restaurants deliver orders to the table rather quickly and you may not be done with one dish before another one arrives at the table. Seadog Sushi Bar abides by that Americanized way of service. Good sushi is not to be rushed.

Click to add a blog post for Seadog on Zomato

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

New Camera, Chopsticks, Maki Rolls

Grand Katachi

At the end of this week, an order arrived for me from an Amazon purchase. Not that I really needed another one, but I had ordered a Nikon 1 J1 mirrorless camera. Because I had been using my high-end Nikon and Canon cameras, I had relegated all other cameras to point-and-shoot status. Honestly, the point-and-shoot cameras are more ideal for the foodtography that I do because they are less conspicuous and they bring very little attention to me clicking away capturing impressions of the food delights. But I am such a stickler for the quality of the photography that I post on Chicago Alphabet Soup, which may be why so many advertising agents who read the blog think I purchase the photos from the restaurants I review. Nevertheless, the Nikon 1 J1 arrived and that meant I needed to start testing it out to see if it was indeed worthy of the purchase.

Green Jasmine Tea

Green Jasmine Tea

I spent Saturday testing shots at  my favourite Indian restaurant in Edgewater. Then I sauntered over to my favourite North Side coffee and dessert shop for more clicks. Sunday morning before church I tried my hand at foodtography at a breakfast spot I had discovered. Up to that point, I was loving the output that I was seeing. Then later in the day, my belly was growling and that meant it was time for me to head out in search of something full of flavour to quiet the rumbling. With a bit of the North Side disrupted with a street festival — a reason for guzzling beer, as if one can’t do that in his or her own home or in a sports bar — I lingered around the Lincoln Park vicinity and wandered past a Japanese sushi bar named Grand Katachi at 4747 N. Damen Avenue, that had a magnetic appeal to it. And I, the culinary vampire, entered so that I could sink my pretty teeth into some worthy goodness.

Gyoza

Gyoza

I started with jasmine green tea and gyoza. These fried Japanese dumplings served with balsamic shoyu dip were great for whetting the appetite. There was a moment when I thought of the festival participants, many who were barely a few weeks over the age of 21 and so giddy with elan that they could finally drink without someone of legal age sneaking them a beer, stumbling around spilling their beer and giggling for no valid reason. They could have been getting fed something aside from fizzy pop and carnival vittles, served by vendors with dirty hands. That was a quick thought as I worked the metal chopsticks on the gyoza and washed the morsels down with the jasmine green tea.

Sweet Potato Maki

Sweet Potato Maki

Caterpillar Maki

Caterpillar Maki

Being a little more adventurous than I should have been, I had ordered three maki rolls all at once. It was when the flight of maki came to the table that my eyes widened and I thought to myself that I should have played it safely and ordered one at a time. Water under the bridge, as they say, since I simply decided that I would pace myself and enjoy the maki rolls. The North Side was practically in gridlock thanks to the street festival a few major blocks south of where I was and I had time to click away with my recent Nikon 1 J1 purchase.

Dragon Maki

Dragon Maki

Not trying to be a prude about my experience and tackling each maki linearly to completion before moving on to the next, I had one piece of each until I was done and reaching for the pillow at the table next to me. The sweet potato maki was the first to have me singing with a low soprano: Satisfying. Then there was the caterpillar maki that kicked in with a tenor: Gratifying. The dragon maki rounded everything out in bass: Electrifying. In my mental Disney, I was in the middle of the floor with a spotlight on me while I was singing, “What’s up, maki rolls? Whoa, whoa, whoa,” after which I launched into my Tom Jones dance. However, in reality, pedestrians who were walking by the restaurant were looking at me sitting at the window seat with a face fixed complete with a stupid smile. Don’t ask me how I finished all of the maki rolls. Just know that I did. And another nugget of information is I somehow had enough room for dessert. So, I had green tea ice cream.  Cue scene with me rocketing to the moon.

Cup of Tea

Cup of Tea

Green Tea Ice Cream

Green Tea Ice Cream

Grand Katachi seems like a potpourri of all things hip once you go in. Usually, Japanese sushi bars and lounges have the sterile, Stanley Kubrick effect where it is quite evident that the interior designer and decorator were men. Pay attention to the colour schemes, or the lack thereof. Now, I will admit that I went when perhaps it was light in patrons. However, the service was top and seeing that I all but licked the plate and found a way to sop the remnants of the ice cream from the glass, the quality was also top. If my mind serves me correct, you bring your own alcohol if you so desire to have libations other than soda, tea, or water. The prices don’t come in a discount fashion, so beware if you’re budget conscious. Not all of the action is to be had on Lincoln Avenue proper. And if you get a new camera or even if you don’t, I think you will find bliss at Grand Katachi. You may even do your Tom Jones dance while clicking the metal chopsticks to make the sounds of castanets. What’s up, maki rolls? Whoa, whoa, whoa.

Grand Katachi on Urbanspoon Grand Katachi on Foodio54

Bang the Gong

Hot Woks, Cool Sushi

ChopsticksYears ago, a great friend and I used to frequent a restaurant in downtown Chicago named My Thai. It was a fantastic escape after work on Fridays for some of the best curry dishes that you could find in the city. And if curry was not something we were hankering for, then there were other dishes like pad thai, bamee noodles, basil chicken, or ginger tofu. We never wanted for anything that was not served up lovingly from their kitchen. Then after a length of time not going, we happened to go to the restaurant one day after work and discovered a surprise — it was no longer there, but replaced with another Pan-Asian restaurant. How could this be? Who had allowed this to happen? Why were we not consulted for our permission? And the other My Thai chains were not in walking distance such that our growling bellies would entertain any more time seeking good Thai cuisine in the immediate area. So, we took a chance and had some food so yummy that it left us quivering. Bang the gong!

Fast forward to a few days ago, and I found myself at one of the chains for this new restaurant. Located at 2032 W. Roscoe Village is one of the sister restaurants for Hot Woks Cool Sushi. The first chain branch where my friend and I had gone still retained the minimalist feel that the prior My Thai restaurant had. Another branch that is two blocks from where I work in downtown Chicago has chic-chic ambience. The location in Roscoe Village brings the same air to it. Minimalist and airy, I had a window seat off to the side of the sushi chef stand. As I perused the lunch menu, I remembered saying that I would not blog chain or franchise restaurants. Well, when it is good, there is no denying that a write-up is necessary. As for Hot Woks Cool Sushi, I had to ask myself why it had taken so long to pen how worthy the whole dining experience there is.

GyosaHot Woks Cool Sushi has Japanese and Thai cuisines on the menu with a hint of Chinese added for a little more fusion appeal. I opted for the Japanese selection. As usual, I had to start with an appetizer, entertain an entrée, and work my way up to dessert. Starting out, I had gyoza. In many Asian dining, you will hear the term pot stickers. Yep, these are the same, and served with a soy sauce they are incredibly heavenly on the palate. These were a little more crispy on the outside than usual and that actually worked in their favour as they absorbed more of the sauce. And I tended to all five pieces until there was only the shredded carrots left that I also gobbled with a smirk plastered across my face.

Unagi Maki and Spicy ShrimpWith it being lunch time and me having missed breakfast, I did not hold back on ordering two maki rolls. I had a ravenous appetite — albeit no more mad than usual. There are two types of maki rolls that I love, hands down. There was unagi maki and a spicy shrimp maki. Once I got over the notion that eel was not a snake, as opposed to seafood, I could enjoy eel rolled up in some rice and served sushi style. Hence, the unagi roll being one that I ordered without hesitation. I am not one to speak to which part of the week seafood is freshest in restaurants, but the eel was absolutely tasty without any “old” or muddy accents in the flavour. I was quite happy working my chopsticks on the maki pieces and plopping them in my mouth. There were smiles, although I was not on Fantasy Island, but I was quite appreciative of the wonders of what sat before me. And when I had begun to attend to the spicy shrimp, I was devoutly in love. Having been to the East Coast and returned with a bit of sinus congestion, the kick in the spicy shrimp maki opened my nasal passages nicely. And ever so the danger boy that I am, I dipped the pieces in the soy sauce that I had primed with a few small dollops of wasabi. Happiness. Bliss. Rapture. Glee. Elation. Pick a word, any word to describe how satisfied I was and submit it to Webster’s with a photo of my smiling face for inclusion in the dictionary. Then again, only my expression could describe the satisfaction I derived from fresh ingredients wrapped in rice, stacked neatly on a plate for my temptation, and the flavour that dance about between my cheeks.

Unagi Maki and Spicy ShrimpAs if that was not enough, I simply could not leave without having dessert. No sticky rice with mango. No sticky rice, period. No Thai custard. Sure, those were on the menu, but I had to have mochi balls. I was all about them bringing me mango and green tea mochi balls. As I sat at my window seat having my way with the cold dessert, I pondered the marvel of cloud formations flying above in the sky. As you may have noticed, I have a tendency to pontificate about meaningless things when I am indulging culinary delights. I wondered where do these Asian restaurants find these ice cream balls. One friend said that I can find them at Trader Joe’s. Believe me when I say that I will go to all of the Trader Joe’s in the metropolitan Chicago area in search of these delights — until I go back to Hot Woks Cool Sushi.

Mochi Balls

Now, at most sushi restaurants that dole out the same quality as Hot Woks Cool Sushi, you can expect to pay the price handsomely. I cannot say whether it is for ambience or for name at many Japanese establishments, but at Hot Woks Cool Sushi you pay an inviting tab for atmosphere, top service, and a quality dining experience. I may have had my purist thoughts about chain restaurants when I started Chicago Alphabet Soup, but it takes certain establishments to wreck that meme and have me rumpled at the table, all but drooling while trying to figure out when next I can get my feet under the table again at — shall we say — Hot Woks Cool Sushi.

Bang the gong!

Hot Woks Cool Sushi on Urbanspoon

Gambling, No Win

The month of April has been a wonderful month for me. Having had a birthday on the fifth of April, I began a great deal of celebration. With many other friends having birthdays this month, that means I have been in feasting mode since the month began. Food. Desserts. Drinks. Reminiscing. All the good things. There has not been one day or evening that I have not been pleased from some type of food satisfaction. Even the night prior to me penning this journal entry I was at an Indian restaurant with a great friend having a fabulous time on some choley batura and four incredibly large shrimp. And to think that I woke with hunger again, ready for action, hankering to quiet the monster that growled endlessly. Being the puppet that I am, I figured that I would venture to the South Side down to Hyde Park to work my appetite on something at one of the many restaurants there. Through congestion and gauntlets of crazy drivers, I cursed and projected foul language the entire drive from my condo to Hyde Park. Shinju Sushi I arrived in Hyde Park and decided that I would start at 53rd Street and find something along that stretch. Thai. Italian. Barbecue. Japanese. Coffee. The selection was vast, but my hunger wanted me to be quick. So, I settled for Japanese at Shinju Sushi, located at 1535 E. 53rd Street. Upon entry, I had a bit of the welcoming feeling you receive when you go to saucy fast food joints but with a hostess who takes you to your seat. A rather cold welcome, a quick escort to my seat, and that was it. Not much of a problem, but while reviewing the short list of sushi options, one server came by and yanked the main menu. This was a red flag. Needless to say, I did not have a chance to see what was on that menu, just in case I may have had an interest ordering something from that bill of fare. Miso Soup Miso soup was one item I was going to order, but a server had brought out a bowl that I took for being complimentary. Enough to warm me up on the inside, considering it was brisk outside, I devoured the bowl of miso soup with a smile. By then, I had finished my order. I had a taste for gyosa, unagi maki, and shrimp tempura maki. No sooner had I handed the selection to the waitress than she returned with the gyosa. It was as though there was some telepathy involved. The chef knew that I wanted gyosa. Served with the accompanying sauce, this fried potsticker appetizer was tasty the way I have had other gyosa — albeit at room temperature. Gyosa After having the second of the five gyosas, the sushi came to the table. Again, the chef must have had some kind of telepathy because sushi does not come quickly unless it has been prepared in advance. And at the risk of sounding like a sushi snob, there was a hint of pre-packaging that I gathered based on the first bite. If you have bought any pre-made sushi or if you have ever had sushi or a maki and saved some for later, there is a certain texture that the sushi takes on. While not stale, each bite presents the feel of chewing gum that has been gnawed for half of an hour. This was the case with the unagi maki. In addition to the noticeable texture, the eel sauce on the maki was rather sweet. An indication of my gums experiencing a slight throb was hint enough that the unagi sauce on the maki was more saccharine than necessary. Little kids who thrive on sugary treats to perk their already-boosted energy would love the unagi maki. Unagi When it was time to consider having my way with the shrimp tempura, I had opted to leave a few pieces of the unagi maki alone. Yet again, there was the texture of pre-made sushi and at room temperature. Add to that the sugary sauce that had been used to douse the shrimp tempura maki. Oh were my teeth sensitive. Having a low sugar diet, and primarily avoiding anything with high fructose corn syrup and excessive quantities of sugar, my palate goes into overdrive, my gums come to life, and my teeth tingle like I have drowned them in ice water. I could only stomach a few pieces of the shrimp tempura maki. Honestly, the whole process was a case study in me forcing myself to eat and that is problematic considering I have an outrageous appetite that requires little coaxing for stuffing my jaws.Tempura Shrimp Shinju Sushi is one of those restaurants that I would have plugged shamelessly during my college days. The cheap prices — a buffet of $14.99 — and just the mention of sushi would have been enough for me to have stamped myself as sushi omnipotent, as though I had lived my whole life in Japanese going to the best sushi bars ever, and been a walking advertisement. After watching sushi chefs work their magic on fresh ingredients, it is easy to become a purist. Then you have sushi with questionable texture and excessively sweet taste. Well, you win some. And then you return to sushi bars where you have walked away teetering from having eaten so much fresh and tasty sushi and maki. Yes, you win some.

Shinju Sushi on Urbanspoon