Brown Bag Seafood Co — See Food Disappear

Brown Bag Seafood Company

When coming off of the long winters that we experience, it is nice to get outside to see what’s new. When I say that, there is a very strong possibility that some new building has gone up on the landscape in a part of downtown that you may not frequent, some old establishment you may have gone to in the past has closed, and there may be  new businesses opened. While wandering through the new Maggie Daley Park and exiting to East Randolph Street, I noticed a set of new skyscrapers and a certain restaurant marker for a restaurant named Brown Bag Seafood Company. At 340 E. Randolph Street, I had to see what offerings this new restaurant had on the menu.

Spritzers: Ginger with Lemon and Cucumber Mint

Spritzers: Ginger with Lemon and Cucumber Mint

There was the popular Chipotle way of ordering — pick a sandwich, taco, salad, or some other options, and then pick the kind of seafood you want, yada-yada-yada, dabba, dabba, dabba. What caught my eye most was the lobster roll, so I pulled myself out of Chipotle mode and placed my order. After finishing, I sat on the patio and had a refreshing ginger lemon spritzer while I waited for my first order, which was a cup of grilled brussel sprouts and pickled onions. I like brussel sprouts. I love grilled brussel sprouts, especially if they are as appetizing as those at Brown Bag Seafood Company.

Grilled Brussel Sprouts, Pickled Onions

Grilled Brussel Sprouts, Pickled Onions

Going to a seafood company and not ordering a cup or bowl of clam chowder or bisque is a crime. There was clam chowdah — note the misspelling — on the menu and I had to have it. After the first spoonful, it had become apparent that I should have ordered a bowl of it rather than a cup. Or I should have ordered two cups instead. There was no fancy modification to the recipe, rendering the soup unrecognizable to the palate the way I have had it at some restaurant. Loaded with potatoes and clams, this made my Best Clam Chowder in Chicago list.

Clam Chowder

Clam Chowder

Now, clutch your pearls, your pocketbook, your smartphone, your martini. I can’t speak for anyone else, however, I can say definitively that I have now had the best lobster roll ever. The lobster was a chunks, which was a winner from the looks of things. Seasoned well and in a slightly spicy mayonnaise, not just regular mayonnaise with a hint of some herb along with salt and pepper, I declared loudly on the patio, “Oh my God!!!” I had not an iota of shame. Hello, Best Lobster Roll in Chicago. To make matters even more worthy of loud declarations, the tater tots that came with it were accented with truffle parmesan. By now I had a jar of cucumber mint with gin. And there was a remarkable sunset behind the skyscrapers to the West.

Lobster Roll with Tater Tots

Lobster Roll with Tater Tots

The one disappointing thing about Brown Bag Seafood Company is that there is no location in Logan Square. Yes, I know that sounds self-serving, but there needs to be a location along Milwaukee Avenue between the roundabout and Diversey Avenue. The new spot can have booths and tables inside, as well as outdoor seating like the E. Randolph Street restaurant. The menu looks like there are several options for those with a love of seafood and I shall have to return to try some of the other menu items. In the meantime, I think I shall have to see if there are any other new eateries that have popped up in some part of the city where I have not been in the past year. Brown Bag Seafood Company has won me over, for true.

Brown Bag Seafood Co. on Urbanspoon

Going South, Cafe Trinidad

Cafe  Trinidad

With the constant drop in temperatures and snow piling up outside, I have been good about not rattling off the statement, “I will be glad when summer arrives.” Honestly, summer in Chicago on Lake Michigan is like having a gigantic magnifying glass over the city and all pedestrians are like ants. The temperatures go from one extreme to the next. And people in Chicago are resilient. Unless there is a certain threat of bad weather shutting the city down, life goes on. Well, let’s be real. When was the last time your appetite said, “I think I shall wait until you finish your brooding about cold temperatures and not having anything to eat”? I can’t speak for anyone else, but my appetite has a life of its own and I obey when it starts whining.

Homemade Ginger Beer

Homemade Ginger Beer

To force myself into a mindset of being in a place where there is warmth, I was on the hunt for some Caribbean food. Much to my surprise, I found a Trini restaurant on Chicago’s South Side. After moving from the South Side to flee painful memories, I had not made trips back except for church — and I drive like a bat out of hell to get back to the North Side immediately afterwards — and to Hyde Park. But I gave Cafe Trinidad at 700 E. 47th Street in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighbourhood some precedence. So, I grabbed my camera for some action journaling and still shots, and it was off to the subway to connect to an “L” so that I could continue south of 35th Street.

Curry Chicken, Rice and Beans, Plantains, Cabbage

Curry Chicken, Rice and Beans, Plantains, Cabbage

With an interior that looks much like a lot of catfish shacks and chicken shanties on the South Side and West Side, you get that look at Cafe Trinidad. There are a few tables and for those who are big on decor, the bright colours adds warmth during days like what we were having — with 3 to 5 inches of snow accumulating outside. What Cafe Trinidad has in spades is GOOD FOOD. I ordered a plate of curry chicken, rice and beans, cabbage, and plantains. The chicken was not only spicy but it was also flavourful and tender enough to cut with a plastic fork. Yes, you heard me correctly. At some Caribbean restaurants that I have not bothered to put on Chicago Alphabet Soup, the plantains were fried to a horrible crisp or boiled to a questionable texture. The plantains I had at Cafe Trinidad were sweet without sweetener enhancers and just right. And to top it all off, I had some homemade ginger beer. The last time I had homemade ginger beer that was worth writing home about was when I had gone to a Ghanaian restaurant in Washington, DC.

Although you can have a seat at Cafe Trinidad, there is no server to come to your table and take your order and run it to the kitchen. You review the menu at the table or at the till where you place your order. Being able to see the kitchen was a plus for me because I knew there was some serious authenticity to the food. Certainly when my food came to the table with some kick to it, I knew that there was someone from Trinidad in the kitchen working magic. Having only tried the curry chicken dish, I noted that there are wraps and other dishes on the menu. I guess I will have to brave the snow a few more times so that I can indulge some more Trini delights. Seriously, my stomach is already telling me to set aside some dates in the upcoming months. There is some roti on the menu that needs to know that I appreciate it.

Cafe Trinidad on Urbanspoon

Pasteurized Foodist

More and more I am discovering a lot of restaurants in Chicago that have a bit of an experimental edge to them. It seems that these restaurants are popping up as a result of chefs who are of a certain ethnicity studying culinary arts in countries far away from their native lands. One such restaurant that comes to mind is Sushi Samba Rio. There is a blend of Brazilian and Japanese in the food, but I have a feeling a chef who grew up in São Paulo or who had been there is responsible for that creation. There is a very large Japanese population in São Paulo. Another restaurant with a blend of two very different cultures is Vermilion, which marries Latin and Indian flavours. A third restaurant to add to the list is Pasteur, at 5525 N. Broadway Street in Chicago’s Edgewater neighbourhood.

Pasteur

Pasteur is a Vietnamese restaurant that has a French influence in the recipes. While wandering around in Edgewater, my stomach was doing the usual growling. As it turns out, I was passing by a building that had a façade blending chi-chi and European. In the window – lo and behold – was a menu. That meant that there was food and I was standing in front of a restaurant. Imagine that. After a brief perusal of the bill of fare, I entered an amazing room that definitely had a rustic European feel to it. Having arrived shortly after the doors had opened for business, I had the pick of seats in the empty great room. I told the server that I was pescatarian, didn’t have any food allergies but HATE NUTS, requested two appetizers, a soup, and an entrée, and told him to surprise me. I pulled my camera from my camera bag, took my white balance, and exhaled as I waited. This is my routine. In addition to my little personal preamble, a group of four came in and sat at the table IMMEDIATELY NEXT TO ME. This whole “sit next to Gino when the restaurant is EMPTY” thing is starting to get tiring. Nevertheless, I injected myself into their conversation. (Sigh) They didn’t mind, but rather enjoyed it.

Spring Roll

Spring Roll

I started with a spring roll. This was not just your ordinary spring roll, but one with sugar cane for the main ingredient. When I was a kid, sugar cane was a delicacy that I enjoyed throughout the summer much the way kids nowadays gobble dangerous snacks of chips, cookies, and pop to excess. The spring roll was made with a ground shrimp paste wrapped around the sugar cane and then grilled. It was served with a plum sauce that I was glad did not come across as competitive with the spring roll. You would be surprised at how some chefs can make the accompaniments more appealing to the palate than the main dish. Where I frowned was with the sprinkles of peanuts on the dish. The good thing is that they made the dish photograph well. However, I shook them off without complaint and commenced to gnashing away on the spring rolls.

Egg Rolls

Egg Rolls

My second course was a plate of egg rolls that I had to eat in the traditional manner. The egg rolls were mixed salmon and dill within the rolled, crispy pastry. They came with lettuce, cilantro, cucumber, pickled carrots, and pickled radish. To eat the egg rolls, I had to roll them in the lettuce with the other vegetables and dip them in a fish sauce before having them suffer the chomp of my beautiful white teeth. I have dined at countless Vietnamese restaurants in Chicago’s Little Vietnam and this is certainly the way you eat some of the appetizers. As high-end as Pasteur projects itself, there is perhaps a clause in their mantra that says they WILL retain authenticity.

Coconut Soup

Coconut Soup

The third course was a curry shrimp soup. I know that this was not a traditional pho. And when I had asked the server if it was Thai, he assured me that it was Vietnamese. I guess there are similarities, but I won’t overgeneralise and say that the flavours of Thailand and Vietnam are synonymous. The soup reminded me of tom ka gai. I had shrimp in this curry soup rather than chicken and I was quite okay with that. When the server had inquired as to whether I was okay with my dishes being spicy, I had replied in the affirmative, so the soup had a bite to it that made the autumn nip outside bearable. By now, the party of four that had sat next to me had begun to eye me with suspicion. Not only was I snapping photos from every possible angle of everything that had arrived at my table, but I was eating all of it without a struggle.

Calamari in Pineapple

Calamari in Pineapple

The fourth course was calamari and vegetables in a carved pineapple. The calamari had been dipped in flour and cooked in a wok with a calamari soy vinaigrette along with mixed vegetables of red and green bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, and fresh lemon juice. The insides of the carved pineapple had been cut into chunks. There was a natural sweetness to the whole dish. When it had come to the table, I could hear my neighbours making remarks as quietly as they could. That looks so delicious. I couldn’t eat it because it looks like art that should be behind a red velvet rope. He didn’t eat all of that other food. I can’t stop looking. That’s a man who enjoys food. I assured them that I did indeed devour the previous courses, albeit slowly, thanks to the aid of hot ginger tea. Plus, this was nearing the two hour mark, so I had everything spaced out to allow my stomach to settle in between. That is what degustations are all about. And the pineapple with calamari and vegetables met a slow end along with the cup of rice that had accompanied the dish.

Fried Banana, Green Tea Ice Cream

Fried Banana, Green Tea Ice Cream

The fifth course was a plate of fried bananas drizzled with chocolate syrup and strawberry syrup and served with a scoop of green tea ice cream. I have had this particular dessert at numerous Thai restaurants and while I cannot say that it is specific to Thai cuisine, I will acknowledge that it may be influenced by the palates of Asia. The bananas were sweet without the addition of sugar. The texture from having been fried was not such that you’d think the chef was thinking about frying chicken. It was crispy without being crusty. I loved the green tea ice cream, so rich, so creamy, so screaming “This was made with loose leaf green tea.” It may have been bought from a local Asian grocer and I don’t care. It was good. DO YOU HEAR ME?

Ginger Tea

Ginger Tea

Because I was in a mood for food roulette, I may not have gotten anything with a true French influence. Then again, it may be that the chef is French and he or she has a great love for the flavours of Vietnam. Instead of applying a fusion, the French aspect may be faint so that there are no competing ingredients in the recipes. My appetite didn’t complain. For the ambience, those who go ga-ga for aesthetics would love Pasteur. The price was so much less than what I had anticipated. The service was outstanding and I say this after my server had hit the right mark with every dish that came to my table. Remember, I simply gave my interests and let him come up with the courses. By the time I was ready to stumble out into the chilly temperatures of the autumn weather, the restaurant had filled with several patrons who were making their growling bellies shut up. And before the party that sat next to me left, I took a picture of them. I used their camera, of course.

Pasteur on Urbanspoon Pasteur on Foodio54

Tomato, Tomahto, Ethiopian, Eritrean

Den Den Restaurant

When I moved to the Chicago metropolitan area in late 1995, my first stop was Northbook. I like to think that I fit into that area well, me being a high-end professional with an income that allowed me to live in a huge, empty apartment without the need of a flatmate. I was as cultured and snobbish then as the locals. I had given up my complete snooty New York City ways and become a laid back Midwest chap. A year into being a bit too relaxed, it was imperative that I moved closer to Chicago proper. The crickets during the summer were driving me cuckoo batty. So, my landing spot became Chicago’s North Side in the hip neighbourhood of Rogers Park. It felt a little like Berkeley, California, with a lot of Mexican influence. Bim, bom, bim.

The neighbourhood was chock full of taquerias and Mexican holes-in-the-wall. Trust me when I say that for the three years of me living in Rogers Park, I never tired of Mexican authenticity to my food. And after I had gotten accustomed to what turns of phrases could get me into trouble because Spanish spoken in the Caribbean has a lot more “colour” to phrases than what you get in Mexican Spanish, I was getting extra goodies in my take-out bags. Extras in the bags were always a good thing, unless you were a prude, a Dudley Do-Right, a total spazz. Well, fast forward to 2013 and I find that some other ethnic representation has dotted the Rogers Park landscape. They now have Iraqi, Iranian, and Eritrean restaurants a few blocks away from where I used to live.

You waited until I moved to do this, Rogers Park. How could you?

Spiced Tea

Spiced Tea

I met with a fellow colleague for dinner, after having been to Rogers Park to sample some Iranian food the previous week. We saw an Eritrean restaurant named Den Den Restaurant at 6635 N. Clark Street while on the way to the Iraqi restaurant and both yanked out our smartphones simultaneously to block a date for a visit. In the Edgewater neighbourhood, there are several Ethiopian restaurants, but Eritrean was new to me and definitely something I felt was worthy for Chicago Alphabet Soup. Friday came around. We both had left work at a reasonable time. And the plan for some love on a platter was on the agenda.

Because the weather was not all that good, with constant, sudden downpours, we chose not to imbibe any of the honey mead. Trying to drive in Chicago is already a frustrating task. Driving with slightly impaired reflexes from having drunk a graft of tej was not an option for us. Instead, we had traditional spiced tea — accented nicely with cinnamon and cloves. Mmmm. Not trying to see if we could fill our bellies endlessly, we went for entrée options rather than starting with appetizers and later regretting not having left enough room for finishing everything in front of us. Because I didn’t get a take-away menu or lift one of the menus we ordered from, I am relaying everything from memory.

The meal was primarily vegetarian. There were chopped greens that had a hint of garlic and ginger to them. Happiness. The cabbage with carrots and the melange of potatoes, string beans, and rutabaga didn’t last very long atop the ingera. Bliss. The creamed lentils and the flour chickpeas were so blooming delicious that they were so wrong at the same time. Rapture. And the chicken mixed with red peppers, onions, and jalapeño had us humming — when we weren’t silent. Petite mort. Being addicted to tomatoes, I won’t even get into how I attacked the complimentary salad. With fingers only and ingera, we reached, grabbed, and stuffed into our mouths so much flavour and bloom with assembly line precision. The fact that there were intermittent intervals of silence and humming was all the indication anyone needed to know that Den Den was several notches past outstanding.

Platter of Love

Platter of Love

Many people think of Ethiopian and Eritrean as the same. However, Eritrea is a country in Northeast Africa completely separate from Ethiopia. There are similarities in the people and in the cuisine. One may even find the beliefs and customs to be similar, considering they share a common border and there is a strong possibility for some cross-pollination to occur. What I had found certainly common among Den Den Restaurant and Ethiopian restaurants in Chicago like Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Diamond, Ras Dashen, and Demera is definitely authenticity, a huge presence of those from the country dining in the establishments, and a welcoming spirit that is standard throughout the whole of Africa.

The setting in Den Den Restaurant is very warm and ambient at night. For most who are not fans of ethnic dining, the service may seem a bit slow. That’s not the case. There is simply an acknowledgement that the enjoyment of flavours from the native land should never be rushed. For those who must have silverware, the traditional way of eating Eritrean food is with your fingers. The best experiences in Ethiopian and Eritrean dining are in a communal setting with friends. Talk about a great way for community gatherings. And when you receive the tab, be forewarned that your eyes will widen with disbelief as you note how reasonable the prices are. Some say tomato. Some say tomahto. Some think Ethiopian. Try Den Den Restaurant and let’s talk Eritrean a little more.

DenDen Restaurant and Bar on Urbanspoon

All on Cue, Japanese Barbecue

Gyu-Kaku

My New Year’s Resolution for 2013 has been rather simplistic — get my weight up to 230 pounds. That may seem like a piece of cake for some people. But in my Disney show, my high metabolism does not allow for me to balloon that fast. The good thing is that my appetite from having started working out last year got me up to 215 pounds. My height has been a blessing in terms of distributing my weight gain, so I don’t look as though I weigh over 200 punds. The weight training I have been doing so far in 2013 is blowing up everything to the point where my wardrobe is fitting snug and the protein powders keep me in the refrigerator — even in the middle of the night — when I’m not at a restaurant ordering from a menu. I will be at my target weight in no time and then probably find myself wondering what a few additional pounds on top of 230 would look like. Needless to say, in my Disney show, I will enjoy getting there.

Miso Soup

In keeping with my constant appetite frenzy, I had met with a friend at a Japanese barbecue restaurant that she and I had gone to a few times during the summer. To the casual pedestrian, Gyu-Kaku at 210 E. Ohio Street in the Streeterville neighbourhood may look like a tourist trap. Only once you go in and hear all the Japanese being spoken do you realize that this restaurant is a haven of authenticity. For me, it also means a lot of food and me diligently working towards fulfilling my New Year’s Resolution quite possibly well in advance of the year ending. As frosty as it was outside and being only a few blocks away from Lake Michigan where the wind was whipping back and forth between the skyscrapers, sitting down at a table with a hot barbecue grill in the middle was a splendid option.

Salad

We started with drinks, one thing that bartenders at Asian restaurants do to complete satisfaction. My friend had an Asian pear martini. I had a lychee mojito. Martinis and mojitos are as popular as or more popular than beer in Chicago. And bartenders get martinis and mojitos right. Along with our drinks came miso soup. Noting from an off-the-shelf carton, I can attest. There was no salt in it. Any time a dish comes heavy with salt, that is a huge indication of something not being homemade. All you get with the miso soup at Gyu-Kaku is flavour, not the risk of high blood pressure. I turned my cup up and slurped it true Japanese style. The soup was delicious and it warmed me up on the inside. There was no need to be a prude about it. After we had finished our cups of happiness then came a cup of pure bliss. If you have ever had salad at a Japanese restaurant, then you know what it is like to be in good favour. Cucumber, cherry tomatoes, fresh lettuce, eggs, cheese, ginger dressing, and smiles are all you get. It was exactly what we wanted, as we had anticipated devouring some of the salad ever since we had decided to meet at Gyu-Kaku for dinner.

Salmon

We had ordered the Geisha course, which was enough for two people. Just as the first round of meat and vegetables arrived for us to put on the barbecue, there was some sashimi salmon brought to the table. Served raw, we employed our chopsticks and worked them on the salmon without dropping anything. Well, whatever we did drop ended up on our tongues where it eventually disappeared down our throats. The sashimi salmon was the last bit of raw meat that we had. It was then time for us to begin grilling our own meat and continuing with our moment of food happiness.

On the Grill

With the Geisha course, my friend and I were presented with a few marinated meats that we  had to grill ourselves. Prime rib eye stead. Bara kalbi. Chuck kalbi. Bistro harami. Shrimp. Vegetables consisting of corn, onions, bell peppers, zucchini, and mushrooms. Smiles. Since we are regulars at Gyu-Kaku, we knew the routine as far as how long each meat was to remain on the grill and whether to place the items in the middle or on the sides. We were quite efficient and even slick enough to pluck some of the meat from the grill with our chopsticks. With amazing agility, we grilled, ate, had conversation, and nodded with appreciation for all the good things that had been seasoned well, cooked to our satisfaction, and gobbled to completion. Move over Korean barbecue. Hello, Gyu-Kaku.

Bibimbap

Now, of all the menu items to come with the Geisha course, the one that I love the most is the bibimbap. Queue scene with me walking like the Frankenstein monster, arms outstretched, and moaning. What do you want? Bibimbap. What do you like to eat? Bibimbap. What can you not get enough of? Bibimbap. You’re a zombie, so now what do you want? Bibimbap. Prepared tableside in a hot concrete bowl, my friend and I requested to have our bibimbap spicy. We are not adverse to having the flavour of our food pop by the addition of peppers. Bibimbap is not meant to be served like baby food. It is meant to make the scalp exhale heat. And on what was very much a frosty Friday night, we were zombies that groaned, grunted, and applied our chopsticks to our bowls of bibimbap. Have you ever known the Frankenstein monster to derive any pleasure before the townspeople torched to tower to which he fled? He should have been granted a taste of bibimbap. He may have become a welcomed part of the community.

S'mores

After polishing off all the delectable meats, vegetables, and further making ourselves bibimbap-satisfied zombies, we sat for a moment before indulging a sweet. We were always accustomed to sitting downstairs and had never paid attention to the area beyond the upstairs bar where we often wait before getting our table. Well, this evening, we sat in the upstairs part of the restaurant, which is past the upstairs bar. Same cozy ambience and still filled with other Japanese who were no doubt happy to have a restaurant in the city reminiscent of what they had in Japan, we took it all in as we let our stomachs settle. And then came the dessert option. Marshmallows, dark chocolate, and Graham crackers sat on a plate before my friend and I got our skewers and sang our own brand of a campfire song while roasting our marshmallows. Nothing spectacular and no presentation with a wow factor, as it was just us preparing our own dessert. If you ever engage the notion of making samores in the future, I highly recommend dark chocolate and if it is bittersweet chocolate, all the better. For an after-dinner drink, it was loose leaf green tea for us. None of that what-not in the bag, especially with us being tea snobs. And we drank it without any sugar, which was an indication that it was a very, very good leaf. When we were done, we banged our glasses on the table and yelled “arigato” to our server. Well done.

Green Tea

Gyu-Kaku is whistling distance from the Magnificent Mile. For those with milder palates, there are numerous restaurant options to satisfy your appetite. But for those who love a good adventure, Gyu-Kaku is certainly an option I would entertain every time the chance comes up. It is a great place to go with friends who don’t mind rolling up their sleeves and taking part in the cooking process of the food. Everything is marinated to perfection, if not beyond idyllic. All you have to do is engage, enjoy, and appreciate the package. Perhaps in your very own Disney, you too will walk around like the Frankenstein monster, grunting, growling, and gobbling all good things Gyu-Kaku can put in front of you. And would you look at that. I am now a little over 215 pounds, per the scale. I’m well on my way.

Gyu-Kaku Chicago on Urbanspoon

Gino on the Floor

Fogo de Chao

Thanksgiving, 2012, came and went. There was food for all feasts. Cornbread dressing with brown gravy or cranberry sauce. Collard greens. Candied yams. Macaroni and cheese. String bean casserole. Cornish hens because there will be turkey for Christmas. Sweet potato pies. Apple pie. Peach cobbler. Coconut pound cake. Almond scented white cake. There was, of course, a bit of weight gain after so much delighting. But it was not because of Thanksgiving gluttony. No, I had made a pact with my high school sweetheart that for every pound she took off, I would add a pound. Being such a diligent and honest man by holding up my end of the pony, the joints in my legs are now feeling the girth of 211 pounds. As if that was not enough, I returned from enjoying Thanksgiving with family with a calendar appointment for Fogo de Chão. And everyone’s eyes open wide with surprise.

Salad Bar Options

When I started Chicago Alphabet Soup many years ago, Fogo de Chão at 661 North La Salle Street was the second restaurant I went to. That was when I had a cheap point-and-click camera and before I started using my expensive digital camera properly. It was all about the food. Having then returned from São Paulo, Brazil, I wanted to see if the churrascaria in Chicago would make me miss the megalopolis. I remember the temperatures having a bit more bite than I had been accustomed to below the equator. So it was off to the best churrascaria in Chicago for their dandy bonanza of meat, meat, rare meat, medium rare meat, well-done meat, and then some more meat. Fast forward to 2012 and I have jumped willingly into the diet of a pescatarian. Why did I agree to meet up with friends at Fogo de Chão, of all places? Could it be that my high school sweetheart had told me that she had lost a few pounds and I needed to fulfill my end of the pact? Hmm. I will let that be my excuse.

Caipirinha

Much like the temperatures were during the first visit to Fogo de Chão, I wanted something to put me in the mind of being in São Paulo years ago. A glass of ciapirinha certainly would make that happen. Think of a mojito without the mint. I was quite happy, although I was aware of the sweater I had on, which meant I was aware of being in Chicago instead of in Brazil. Being a lightweight, I needed something to keep the alcohol from having me floating about the restaurant in my own little ether world. It was off to the salad bar. Asparagus. Mushrooms. Cheeses. Bread. Olives. Tuna salad. Chicken salad. Salmon. Smiles. You are told to get a small plate of fruit and vegetables, not to fill up on the salad bar because the gauchos will keep your table occupied with various cuts of meats, rolls that melt on your tongue like cotton candy, mashed potatoes, and baked bananas. This could easily become any glutton’s nirvana.

Spiced Beef, Parmesan Crusted Pork

Then it was time to turn over the card for “sem,” yes, yes, Yes!!! The gauchos hovered through room with slabs of meat on skewers, of which you end up in a daze wanting everything that they bring. If I were a devout pescatarian, I would have stayed away. However, I have no willpower. That was rather evident when there was the mouth-watering aroma from lombo, which is parmesan crusted pork. There was also the essence of some beef ancho wafting up my nose. Imagine if you will Oliver saying, “Please, sir, I want some more.” This wonder meat had me wanting to launch into song, singing, “Food, glorious food, hot mustard and sausage.” Moist. Succulent. Tender. I am sure I could come up with about two dozen more adjectives to describe the flavours, six dozen if I were to describe the taste in several other languages.

Nice to Meat You

The picanha, the best part of the sirloin and flavoured with garlic, was worthy. I could have told the gaucho to leave a quarter of the slab at the table. Then others in the restaurant would have been screaming for my head on skewer, perhaps. This choice meat was just as tender as the previous selection. There appeared to be something of a glaze to it, as there was a slight sweetness to each bite. Imagine that. Other than at Argentinean steak houses, I have never had meat like this in it natural juices without the addition of sugar to the recipes. Fogo de Chão is the first restaurant to have succeeded in making the meat sing. And I have been to all the popular churrascarias in America, Chicago boasting the majority of them.

Meat

By the time a slice of fraldinha had made it to the table, the pescatarian angel and the vegetarian angel that were sitting on my shoulders had smacked their foreheads and declared defeat of saving my belly from the evils of meat. When I was a heavy carnivore, I wanted my meats to be well done. Well, I chose to have a medium well cut of the fraldinha. Needless to say, I enjoyed it. This is more popular in Southern Brazil, and I remember stuffing myself senselessly with some of it after a capoeira ceremony in Bahia. Yes, it was better that I had partaken of this after hand stands, backward flips, cartwheels, and round-houses. I would have split my pants or landed with a thump otherwise. But at Fogo de Chão I simply had to fan myself to stave off the sweat from working so hard on the constant cuts of meat, mashed potatoes, rolls, and baked bananas.

Meat

In keeping with dining on beef primarily, I requested a cut of the alcatra. It was at this point that the previously mentioned angels were sparring behind my back. This is my favourite. I have been to all the other churrascarias in the city — Texas de Brazil, Sal y Carvão, and Brazzaz — and whatever attempts they have made at alcatra seemed to fall into the okay category. There is no want for a cigarette afterwards. There’s no silence, which is an indication that the food is working magic on you. There is no Wow! Much like me wanting the picanha all to myself, the alcatra invokes that same sensation.

Meat

Rounding out my choices of meats was a cut of filet mignon. Growing up, filet mignon was always presented as bacon wrapped around ground beef. Who thought that was a brilliant idea? For my Brazilian dining experience, I opted for a medium rare cut. Now, usually when I have ever asked for any meat to be medium rare, the cow was still protesting. My appetite would have a quick pace running far from the restaurant. At Fogo de Chão the medium well cut of filet mignon was a tender piece of juicy meat that did not squirt or squirm. I worked my knife and fork on it like those actors in commercials who smile for the camera. But more than smiling, I actually ate the meat and I had no remorse, even for my pescatarian sensibilities.

Flan

After about two hours of flipping the coaster back and forth over to alert the gauchos to bring meat and to stop bringing meat, it was time to stop the meat odyssey and polish the palate with some dessert. I have mentioned in past posts that I could put any cornfed Iowa Bart or Indiana Billy Joe Bob to shame at the dinner table and desert number one of three was a case study of that. The flan was creamy like the flans I loved from Santo Domingo. As much as I love flan, my blood pressure cannot say the same. But I am not a “yes” man to constantly working my teeth on the delectable dessert every time the option presents itself. Pause. Okay, it’s most of the time that I concede to my want and gnash away on flan without complaint.

Pastel de Tres Leches

However, I shall not forget about the tres leches cake. Having had a slice of it from a restaurant a few months ago where I swear they poured a whole carton of milk on the cake, turned the carton upside down, and then hit the carton from the bottom to get the last drops out of it, the pastel de tres leches at Fogo de Chão had a texture not of drowned cake. Enjoyed with some cafezinho, coffee, I can say with certainty that everything was okay in the land. To be honest, let me stop pulling your leg and just say that I was drunk from too much eating. Not one for turning into a jester, had I been at home, I would have danced, sang, and put on a performance. Food, glorious food.

Chocolate Molten Cake, Ice Cream

The award for most gluttonous eater of 2012 goes to, none other than, Gino Williams. The chocolate molten cake with a dollop of vanilla ice cream under a drizzle of chocolate was the coup de grace. Here is where we had Gino on the floor. There is a restaurant in downtown Chicago called Grand Lux Cafe that has the best molten chocolate cake in the whole world. The cake at Fogo de Chão runs a very close second. I had been sitting for three hours filling my jaws and the act of standing was not an option. Having to move about was impossible. It was bad enough that I had to force myself to lean over so I could retrieve my wallet to pay the tab. But standing up and realizing that I was bent over like a geriatric was all anyone needed to see to know that I had shed my British polishing for being a thoroughly satisfied food brute.

My running joke is that Fogo de Chão is indeed a lazy buffet, as all you have to do is sit while the gauchos tempt you with all the various choices of meats. There are the side dishes, but the whole churrascaria experience is worth the trip. You may find other churrascarias in the city, but the one that you may find yourself frequenting is Fogo de Chão, hands down. One thing to note is that the price may grow a few grey hairs in your head, in your beard if you’re bald. Go for lunch instead, when the prices are not as cha-ching as the dinner prices. But make sure it is during a half day at work because eating too much will result in a dire need to go to sleep afterwards. Another thing is that it would be a crime to go to the restaurant if you are not one for eating meat. The salad bar panders to the vegetarian and pescatarian palates wonderfully. Still, the constant view of meat would tempt even a staunch vegan. As for me, I think I gained enough weight to keep my word to my high school sweetheart. But that was not enough. She called and told me that she lost a few more pounds. Looks like I will be getting up to 220 pounds by the beginning of the New Year. My resolution will be to stop making pacts, but it won’t be to stop eating like a bottomless culinary fanatic.

Fogo de Chão on Urbanspoon

What You Won’t Do for Food

Yilin Japanese & Chinese Cuisine

A Saturday afternoon and my belly was having its usual constitution, grumbling and complaining about not having been fed after a mere two hours had passed. I was in Oak Park, Illinois, at a spice shop looking for some flavoured cooking and baking oils. Having combed through several restaurants in the Oak Park neighbourhood, I had found myself traipsing down Madison Avenue in Forest Park. Plenty of pubs in the area to leave the Irish with options for quenching their thirsts. At the far west end of the Madison Avenue stretch of eateries at 7600 W. Madison Street, there is Yilin Japanese and Chinese restaurant.

Oh how I love Pan-Asian.

Edamame

The inside of the restaurant is reminiscent of a ski cottage with the wood and dark facing to everything. All you need is a fireplace, a mug of hot cocoa, and someone sitting by the fire with his or her leg in a cast. (Pause) Okay, that may be a bit too exaggerated. The customer service is top, and you can tell when smiles and statements of welcome are painful to hosts and hostesses, not the case here. There was a hint that English was indeed a second language and recently learned. While my Japanese is a bit more conversational than I may let on, I knew the slant to the eyes was Chinese, not Japanese. But the most common acknowledgement of a smile was more than enough to let me know that my business was important and that I was going to receive the best. I was off to a good start.

Hot and Sour Soup, Edamame

First to the table was complimentary edamame. As much as people enjoy a cup of those beans, it may have been shelling peas with my grandmother as a child that makes me grimace whenever a cup of edamame is placed before me. Thankful that these were not powdered with salt, I partook of the edamame to completion. Then there was a warm cup of hot and sour soup. Loved it. It has been years since I had hot and sour soup, having sworn off any restaurant Chinese food after having had some of the best authentic Chinese food prepared at the hands of my first post-college roommate’s parents.

Spicy Shrimp and Vegetables

Where it all got to be pedestrian was with the sweet and spicy shrimp. This was certainly a dish that I would have enjoyed more had I never been served “real” Chinese food. Thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Cheung, for preparing so much delicious Chinese food with real flavour that blew my mind, because the food that I have at any Chinese restaurant has as much zest as a boiled egg without salt. I devoured the plump sweet and spicy shrimp with a bowl of rice. I will not let food go to waste. And the complimentary slice of watermelon at the end of the meal was too cute for its own good. Usually there is a sweet for the palate. Who would have thought of a natural sweet instead?

Watermelon

The customer service is really fantastic, an indication being the manager asking me if everything was okay. I don’t recall the same attention given to other patrons. Then again, I was enraptured with the meal before me. It may have been because I had my high-end camera out photographing the meal. High-end camera at any restaurant no doubt could mean the photographer is a visual agent for a magazine or editorial. I appreciate the customer service because that is one magnet that draws a person back to an establishment. However, food is the other draw and I fear that I may have been belly-washed from having had Chinese food prepared the way that it is served in China, not for the soft American palate. Perhaps next time I shall have to gather some of my Chinese friends and have them join me. Yes, I shall do that, and then see how different the flavours are in the dishes. What you won’t do for love, you do for food. Sorry, Bobby Caldwell.

Yilin Japanese & Chinese Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Gino, Japanese Style

SaganoMemorial Day in Chicago and the air had a hint of autumn to it. Compared to what we had experienced for a stretch of time a few weeks ago — white hot heat and humidity that left you dripping after only a minute or two of being outside — the temperatures in the 70’s, cool breezes, and cerulean blue sky were all worth bottling. I had been to several restaurants and was more overzealous with my photography than normal. Nothing says, “You have been a rather busy man,” like the discovery of you having taken well over 2,000 photos that have had taken at five restaurants in a short window of time. So, in addition to having to scribe a commentary about the dining experiences, I had to go through a large volume of photos to find out which ones I would feature on Chicago Alphabet Soup. However, there was no way that I was going to edit photos and type up journal entries on an empty stomach. No, no!

Miso SoupBecause I wanted to get some almond butter for baking almond butter cookies, I knew that I could not go wrong with Trader Joe’s almond butter. The Trader Joe’s in Oak Park never disappoints, so I drove over to pick up the necessary ingredient and a few more items. While in Oak Park, I headed toward the intersection of Oak Park Avenue and Lake Street. What had I not tried? I asked myself. And after a brief scan of eateries in the area, I saw a Japanese restaurant that I know I had not been to. Yes, I have been quite an African-American-Asian as of late and walking into Sagano at 731 Lake Street with no hesitation was an indication that I have a food lust for Asian cuisine. Quaint and intimate on the inside, I opted to enjoy the inside when it is colder, for the weather was way too nice for me to waste my time inside staring at walls.

Soft Shell CrabGive me some miso soup. I swear there must be a pack for that soup, but it the best regardless. There was a bit of a nip in the wind, so the warmth of the miso soup was good enough to guard me against the quick drop in temperatures and me feeling it because I was sitting in the shade. And then there was the soft shell crab. The first time I had soft shell crab was at a Thai restaurant. And now that I think of it, the restaurant also had a Japanese menu and soft shell crab seems to be a staple. I don’t know where to begin with describing the wonders of each bite. Served with shredded beats, shredded carrots, and some other shredded vegetable that had a water base to it, the plate already looked like art, let alone something you would associate with delighting the taste buds. Being fanatical about my food photography, I clicked a count of well over 275 photos of the soft shell crab from various angles — from my seat, from standing up, from kneeling at the edge of the table, landscape, portrait, tilting, you name it. But as soon as I sank my teeth into it, the photos did the dish absolutely no justice. Absent of a surplus of seasoning, and I know that it wasn’t seasoned with salt and pepper only, the soft shell crab and the shredded vegetables were lip smacking. I wanted more, so much more, a lot more, but I had also ordered another dish.

Soft Shell CrabAt Japanese restaurants, I always order sushi, as if though it is a cardinal sin to order anything else. Because this is the case, I made the decision that I would break that chain for this particular day and indulge something from the entrée menu. Teriyaki chicken with vegetables and rice. Would think that was bland. However, the tender chicken that had been cooked in a light teriyaki sauce and served with a melange of broccoli, carrots, zucchini, green beans, shredded carrots, and another shredded vegetable that does not come to mind, as well as with rice, left me speechless. All this time I had been depriving myself of something new, Sam I Am, and the teriyaki chicken burst with each bite. Having polished off a bowl of the miso soup and then gobbling up the plate of soft shell crab with the shredded vegetables, I savoured each bite of the teriyaki chicken dish. There was no need to rush through the small feast with the weather being so pleasant outside and the food being so blooming delicious. In my mind, I heard a voice chanting “Yummmmm! Yummmmm! Yummmmm!” while imagining myself sitting in a yoga pose meditating so that I could find my chi. From now on, I shall balance out my Japanese feasting by having an occasional entrée other than sushi and maki rolls.

Teriyaki ChickenAfter having such a great time with my little personal feast at Sagano, it was necessary for me to walk off a bit of the stuffing. My destination was to go to the Marion Street end of Oak Park for some kind of dessert, something just a bit light instead of incredibly filling. Ice cream would be it, I said to myself. At 134 N. Marion Street is Cold Stone Creamery. It appears that Chicago has an anti sentiment against Cold Stone, as majority of them closed their doors to the frozen yogurt epidemic. Being a man who makes his own homemade ice cream, that whole chilly froth that is all the rage is not something I care for much. When it comes to ice cream, Cold Stone Creamy is where you go and I rank it higher than Baskin & Robbins. Nevertheless, I got to the location in time to order an Oreo Overload in a recently baked waffle cone. No sooner had I sat than some teenagers rumbled in. Nothing tests the nerves like five teenagers giggling and pontificating for fifteen minutes before ordering. Add to that, there was conversation that went along the following lines:

 I wanna like try that flavour.
(Giggle)
Did you like see Jillian’s blouse?
(Giggle)
Oooh, you’re like getting chocolate.
(Giggle)
Like I’m gonna take my ice cream outside and like people watch.
(Giggle)

Oreo OverloadGrowing up during the 80’s, I was very much accustomed to the whole Valley Girl and Surfer Dude scene. Add to that the ear-grating Valley-speak. It had a short shelf life, but listening to it while devouring a frozen treat was a notch or two more horrible than brain freeze from ice cream. Too much use of the word like and incessant giggling will make you want to run your fingers down a chalkboard to drown out the fray. When it was evident that well over 15 minutes had passed and others were staring as though watching someone shrinking, I got up and left the snickering villains to their own devices.

Such a perfect day it was to be out and about enjoying Japanese cuisine and more ice cream than my belly should have been forced to endure. But, hey, if I am going to have any kind of suffering, it shall have to be the sweetest pain and satisfying. Like, how often do you get to have Japanese food and then ice cream all in, like, the same day? (Giggle)

Sagano Sushi on Urbanspoon
Cold Stone Creamery on Urbanspoon

Down the Yellow Hutong Road

Hutong Fresh Asian Cafe

One thing I must admit is that you can never get enough of good Asian food when it is prepared properly. Some may inquire as to what other way can Asian food be done. If you have had any authentic Asian food, and by that I mean cooked in someone’s home, not at a buffet kitchen, then you know the difference. The food is spicy — not necessarily in the manner that it burns when you eat it — but it is full of flavour. There is a bloom to what you eat. You almost do not want to refuse offerings of more. For something quick, many of the express Asian cafes and buffet halls provide something akin to frozen shrimp meals: a lot of crust and the rest is essence. Bite into a  shrimp that comes with a frozen dinner and tell me how much actual shrimp you sank your teeth into. That is what you get with a lot of Asian cafes that do not want to offend a common palate. An absence of spices, a hint of flavour, and a lot of questionable output, you may find yourself barking like a dog in protest for having something so anti-delicious.

Fresh Ginger AleOne evening when I had finished work, I went to Oak Park, Illinois, to buy some wine, bread, and cheese from a cheese market that has become a big hit with my culinary sensibilities. It has reached the point where whoever is at the counter addresses me by first name. Yes, I love this particular wine shop so much that I am in there weekly procuring something for my snacking pleasure. But let me not digress. Although the downtown area of Oak Park is relatively small, I had covered most of the eateries in the pedestrian area of boutiques, cafes, and restaurants. But there was one that a friend had mentioned and seeing that there was some outdoor seating that I could take, I opted to follow her recommendation. Hutong Fresh Asian Cafe at 1113 Lake Street had the look and feel of the usual boilerplate Asian restaurant. Well, it actually has the canned ambiance of any American get-it-and-go establishment with a dine-in option. Where this restaurant’s impression exceeds expectations is with the output. While they may follow a formula that is popular now among most walk-in restaurants, the cosmetics of the place pale in comparison to the quality of the food that they serve. It may be that the eatery is relatively new, so the greeting from the cashier has a positive light. Then again, the hello with the smile I received may very well have been authentic. At the end of the day, you know people are ready to vacate the premises and go home or wherever. A smile that does not look pained after 6:00 PM is indeed genuine and that makes the establishment that more inviting.

Crab Rangoon

Being safe, I chose the Thai option and started with crab rangoon. Not really paying a lot of attention to the menu, I figured the crab rangoon would come as four small pastries stuffed with cream cheese and crab. Much to my chagrin, there were three crab rangoon, but they were delightfully substantial. And when you bite into them and the cream cheese does not projectile about, you know you have just had something worthy of recommending to friends and family. Much like crab rangoon served at Thai restaurants, there was a sweet and spicy sauce that came as an accompaniment. Yes, it was smashing. Not enough to drench the appetizer, it was enough to glaze them and I enjoyed every chomp just the same. With a pure ginger ale in hand, I was quite the happy chap devouring the wonder appetizer. Not that the ginger ale was something to fan and faint over, I will say that I love all-natural products. Seeing pure ginger floating about in the drink and the taste that was spicy but not enough to choke you, I will seek this particular brand in the markets. Sticking with the Thai theme, I had also ordered a red curry dish with chicken. As I have mentioned in several other posts, Thai restaurants in Chicago tend to waffle between thin curries and hearty curries. At Hutong Fresh Asian  Cafe, the curry was of a consistency somewhere in between. But that was okay. Loaded with green peas, brocolli, bamboo shoots, and eggplant, I understood how the word Fresh got introduced into the name of the restaurant. I kid you not when I say that I believe they have a garden in the back or somewhere nearby that has not fallen prey to the evils of pesticides and growth products. The chicken was fresh, for one, but the vegetables were certainly organic. The colouring and the flavour were all the cues I needed to know that I was putting something healthy into my body. My appetite appreciated it.

Red Curry Chicken

Looks can be deceiving and American restaurants have now taken on what I dub the Stanley Kubrick formula. Most upscale fast food eateries are applying the look and feel of Chipotle, Roti, Burrito Beach, and the like. While those cookie-cutter establishments have everything sitting in front for review, and you get served in a conveyor belt fashion, Hutong Fresh Asian Cafe does not have everything on display for you to point to while in a queue with other customers. One may argue pessimistically that you have no idea what is coming from the kitchen, but if you can taste the freshness, you can be confident that it is worth the trip to ease on down the yellow hutong road to get something that not only will your appetite thank you for, but also your body.

31 July 2012

Algerian, Zebda

Zebda

It was a Saturday afternoon in Chicago and the temperatures had warmed up enough that going outside was mandatory — for the following day would come and the temperature would be frosty or the weather would be bleak and rainy. With such great weather to enjoy, what better way to round out a fantastic afternoon than to add a little spice. A little North African spice was perfect. After a break from going to various ethnic eateries in Chicago due to being abroad on personal holiday, I was looking forward to putting my feet under some table and getting fed. Destination: Zebda.

Harrira

Harrira

Located at 4344 N. Elston Avenue in Chicago’s Old Irving Park neighbourhood, Zebda looks like a minimalist deli that has nothing to offer except for an empty store-front. But looks can be surprising, as cliché as that sounds. I had ordered from Zebda before on GrubHub.com, so I knew that what was on the menu was a very small sample of what was on the entire bill of fare. The owner, who was a jolly yet reserved guy, greeted me a bit stiffly until I let some French slip during my greeting — proper French, not cuss words — and then it was on.

Zebda is primarily in the business for take-away orders and for delivery. There are only two tables in the deli, but that was okay. There was a true hole-in-the-wall feel to the place as a result of the limited seating. So it was off to one of the tables for business. I had ordered a harrira, which is a traditional soup that Moroccans and those influenced by Moroccan cuisine partake. The first time I ever had harrira was courtesy a friend’s sister when I was in Morocco many years ago. I had fallen in love with the soup then and, of course, have tasted a fair share of attempts from restaurants at it. Then I have some at Zebda and I am addicted fully. I was absolutely pleased after the first sip when it was apparent that the cook had not held back on the spices. I loved it, absolutely loved it.

Couscous Crusted Salmon

Couscous Crusted Salmon

Instead of rushing my main dish out after seeing that I had only finished half of the bowl of soup, the owner had conversation with me instead. He told me about how the deli has been in business for a few years and how they are accommodating the palates of those from Morocco, Algeria, the whole of the Mediterranean, and North Africans who have lived in France. Noticing the passing faces and the languages spoken in the area where the restaurant is, it was clear to see that there is a heavy concentration of North Africans in the Old Irving Park area, not along Broadway where there is a solid concentration of Western and Eastern Africans. The owner went on to give me the meaning behind the word zebda and how it is used among Algerians in France as a term of endearment. Sweet, I thought to myself, nothing like going into an establishment to spend your money and you get treatment like you are family. I loved it and coupled with the fact that the soup was a bowl of heaven, the ease of interaction with which the owner had with me made my decision to return that much easier for me.

But the catalyst that sealed my decision to go back to Zebda was the entrée that I had ordered. As I had mentioned earlier, I had ordered from Zebda on GrubHub.com, which meant I had an awareness that I was going to have something way past delicious delivered to my table. I was not prepared to be wowed the way that I was. Couscous crusted salmon served over julienne carrots and zucchini. After the first bite, I could have taken off running down the street with a stupid smile on my face for no reason other than I had tasted something so addictive that I can now put a physical description on the word addictive. There are restaurants that under-cook salmon until it is practically sushi with a quick flame set to it and there are some restaurants that cook salmon until you know it is indeed dead. Then you have Zebda who cooks the salmon enough that it has a crust but it is still tender, flaky, and juicy. Add to that julienne carrots and zucchini that have been flavoured just right and not such that you will need blood pressure medicine or an up in your current blood pressure medication. When the owner asked me if the food was okay, he had this smirk on his face as though he knew he had me by the nose after the second bite. I smiled and nodded my head to acknowledge my satisfaction. The owner responded with a wider smile and, ‘Thank you.”

After Meal Tea

After Meal Tea

When I finished the entree and sat for a while, the owner approached and offered me tea — on the house. More and more I am finding that it is not just me clicking away with any one of my high-end cameras that gets me something extra or an item coming up missing on my final tab. It has to be me engaging the owners and/or staff in conversation as well as enjoying the food and their service. A limitless palate and an open mind are necessary ingredients for a recipe in top customer satisfaction. But back to the tea. The tea was peppermint tea served with the mint leaves in it. And having a familiarity with North African culture, mint tea is not just merely for drinking, but it is a symbol of hospitality and tradition. Small things like the offering of tea makes my visits to restaurants and eateries like Zebda worth the trips. Even my British sentiments, that which loves tea, enjoyed every sip.

Zebda has a fantastic menu and for those whose palates delight in tastes from North Africa and the Mediterranean, you will find great pleasure in partaking in the wonders of Zebda’s kitchen. The brick and mortar establishment is small and it really does have only two tables — three chairs — so going with a large party is not an option. The service was top, the price was a sure invitation back, and the food was super. For those of you who are vegetarian, North African food will hit the spot. Let Zebda take care of that for you.

9 April 2011

Zebda on Urbanspoon