Bad Hunter, Good Times, Better Foood

A few weeks ago, while trying to figure out what the have for dinner, my restaurant advisor had sent a few recommendations. One recommendation was a restaurant that serves the best seafood boils in Chicago. The other was a vegetarian forward restaurant. Since my restaurant advisor was curtailing certain culinary items for Lent, I went with the vegetarian options. So, our landing spot was Bad Hunter at 802 W. Randolph Street.

Maitake Mushrooms

Maitake Mushrooms

Going back to an approach in ordering that has worked well for us in the past, we rattled off a few ideas to our server and let her surprise us. The first plate that we shared was of maitake mushrooms with parsnips, smoked pecans, parmesan, and lavendar. Perfect for sharing, but tasty to the point where it could introduce a bit of selfishness because every bite is a dream.

Shrimp

Shrimp

The one meat dish we had was of two rather large shrimp with the heads on. The shrimp had been wood grilled and were plump to the bite. Having a little bit of the parmesan from the maitake mushrooms, we also ran morsels of the shrimp through the sauce, which made for a great accent to the shrimp that didn’t take away from the freshness of the dish.

Fried Sunchokes

Fried Sunchokes

The third dish of fried sunchokes was a delectable plus. Fried in a light buttermilk and black garlic batter, and drizzled with aleppo chili honey, these Jeruselem artichokes reminded me of a marriage between turnips without the bitter bite and cubed potatoes. In the same manner of being a plate to share, it took was splendid without being filling.

Wood Grilled Shrimp

Wood Grilled Shrimp

For our fourth course, we continued in the light dish spectrum with a plate of wood grilled carrots and fennel with pistachio-green chili pesto, avocado cream, and queso fresco. Usually I have dishes where fennel is somewhat like a hint thrown in for effect. Having a substantial amount of fennel in this dish made me love it that much more. And having it balanced out with the carrots made this dish one I would return to indulge often.

Fry Bread

The final large course was a plate of fry bread. Stuffed very lightly with dill and served with pickled onions, burrata, and chili oil, this would have been a very good start to the meal. Then again, it would be a perfect snack throughout the day and with  dinner and when you can’t figure out what to eat and just because. Extremely soft to each bite, the burrata spread made it that more inviting.

Turmeric Panna Cotta with Ash Coconut Ice Cream

Turmeric Panna Cotta with Ash Coconut Ice Cream

The finale was an exotic dessert. We had turmeric panna cotta topped with passion fruit, puffed rice, and coconut ash ice cream. Panna cotta is alreay my favourite Italian dessert, but adding turmeric to it livened the flavour without introducing the herbal taste of turmeric. The coconut ash ice cream was not only refreshing but it was also captivating because it was jet black. The combination of all of the ingredients played well without turning the dessert into something busy on the palate.

My favourite pure vegetarian restaurant is Green Zebra in Chicago’s Noble Square area. Bad Hunter ranks highly on my favourite list, although there are a few menu items that indulge meat offerings. The service was an absolute highlight, from the server being conversational to being extremely knowledgeable of all menu items to making recommendations. For a spacious dining area, seating is very close and the restaurant fills up. In the midst of numerous other meat-centric restaurants, vegetarian forward Bad Hunter is a very good option.

Bad Hunter Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Cafe Orchid, All Things Turkish

Cafe Orchid

Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines are quite common in Chicago. You can easily find a restaurant that has hummus, baba ghanoush, tabouli, and kebab on the menu. However, it is rare that anyone can name a specific country associated with the restaurant. There is then this Pan-Mediterranean or Pan-Middle Eastern dynamic that makes the restaurant or cafe catch-all. And then there are restaurants like Cafe Orchid at 1746 W. Addison Street in the west end of Lakeview. This restaurant clearly indicates that they serve Turkish dishes and given the authenticity and worthy flavours, they have boasting rights.

Patican Salata

Patican Salada

I decided on a 5-course degustation for lunch. First, to quench my thirst, I had a glass of iced Turkish tea that I took without any sweeteners. The first course was patican salada, which was eggplant with red peppers, tomatoes, and garlic. There was a basket of Turkish bread that accompanied the dish. I used the bread as a utensil to devour the eggplant salad and then finished the dish by going around the plate sopping up the remaining gravy.

Cig Borek

Cig Borek

The second course was cig borek. This was a traditional meat pie that had been prepared with ground lamb and spices.  Unlike cig borek that I have had at other Turkish restaurants, the lamb had been patted together such that it had the consistency of a sausage. This meant the meat was not falling out of the pastry and that was good because I got to enjoy all of the meat pie. The accompanying yogurt was good for dipping, but I used it over the lettuce and tomato instead, thus having meat pie and salad.

Icli Kofte

Icli Kofte

The third dish, icli kofte, were bulgur koftah tear drops stuffed with minced ground beef and onions. Although this is not considered snack food, I would enjoy these delectable items from a cardboard container without complaint while strolling down the avenue. The recipe resulted in a savoury filling that made them all addictive. And like cig borek, they were served atop a salad with yogurt.

Chicken Shish Kebab with Rice and Salad

Chicken Shish Kebab with Rice and Salad

The fourth dish was a plate of chicken shish kebab with rice and salad. The chicken was tender and juicy without being greasy. Flavoured well, the seasoning had permeated the meat down to the hole where the skewer had been removed. Instead of a dry salad like at many Mediterranean restaurants, there was a light vinaigrette on garden fresh lettuce and tomatoes. Rather than just plain rice, there were chickpeas added that surprisingly added some umph. Of all the Turkish shish kebab plates I’ve had, this was a model of “doing it correct.”

Kazindibi

Kazandibi

For the fifth course, I finished with a kazandibi and hot Turkish tea. Aside from the dollops of whipped cream with the dessert, there was nothing fanciful about the presentation. It was the homemade flavour from actual burned milk pudding and the topping of crushed nuts that resulted in something looking bland tasting instead like a dessert handed down from heaven.

Tea

Turkish Tea, Iced

Hot Turkish Tea

Turkish Tea, Hot

The location where Cafe Orchid sits makes it almost nondescript. It is juxtaposed between a physical therapy building and residence. One would notice it more while walking. While the inside is cozy, there is plenty outdoor seating and highly recommended during warmed months. The service falls in the category of great. Ordering linearly was a plus, as it allowed for a sampling of several dishes without having dishes overlap during the meal. And no one can argue about how genuinely Turkish all the dishes are. Cafe Orchid makes the third Turkish restaurant I’ve gone to in Chicago that remains true to the aromas, flavours, and traditions of Turkey.

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

Sink, Swim, Eat the Way

Time away does the body good. No Facebook. No need to switch into reactionary mode responding to email. No twitching when the phone rings. Even abroad, it means eating without interruption. Oh, but to see how two weeks of stuffing your jaws seemingly fills in your flattened tummy. It’s back to the gym to work extra hard flattening the tummy again and making the abs pop — while showing some love at the many restaurants in Chicago.

Sink | Swim

In the Southern end of Logan Square is Armitage Avenue. What was once a desert is now undergoing a silent renaissance. A year ago I stumbled upon what has become my favourite Italian restaurant in America. And all within walking distance are other swanky shops, cafes, and restaurants that seem to foster community rather than merely being magnets for crowds. Sink | Swim at 3213 W. Armitage Avenue is one of the new restaurants that caught my eye. Had I not been on foot, I would have passed by it without a second glance. Nevertheless, I’m glad that I did.

Cocktail with Gin Base

Cocktail with Gin

Crushed Cucumber Salad

Crushed Cucumber Salad

Waffling between jet lag and ravenous, I scanned the menu and made a quick decision. And just to be punchy, I ordered with the seasons in mind. I started with a crushed cucumber salad and a cocktail that had a gin base. Expecting the salad to be a small plate, my eyes widened when I saw a rather substantial bowl of sliced cucumbers and seaweed served over creme fraiche. The dressing was not heavy, so I could taste the garden fresh cucumbers. The seaweed reminded me of crispy kale. And the cocktail was a splendid complement, refreshing on the palate without any alcohol being overpowering.

Shrimp Toast

Shrimp Toast

Cocktail with Rum Base

Cocktail with Rum Base

For my second course, I had something that I thought would put me in the mind of summer. There was shrimp toast and a cocktail with a rum base. The shrimp toast looked like dainty little sandwiches. Once you got a bite of the shrimp with radish, aioli, and avocado along with a side of summer greens, what you may think is a small plate is not so small after all. I could have had another order of this dish if I hadn’t opted for a small degustation. I was quite impressed by the two savoury sandwiches. And the cocktail with rum as the main ingredient had me thinking of sunsets and recovering from jet lag properly.

Cocktail with Templeton Rye Base

Cocktail with Templeton Rye Base

Whole Gulf Shrimp

Whole Gulf Shrimp

My third course was what I considered my autumn enticement. There was a large bowl of whole shrimp in a white barbecue sauce with fennel and smoked apples. I initially thought the dish looked cute until I bit down into one of the plump shrimp and immediately became addicted. This was the kind of entrée that one would find on the menu at refined Asian restaurants. By the time I got around to working on the third shrimp, I was talking to my food like I usually do. The autumn cocktail I had with Templeton rye was the coup de grace to finalize my deep sleep for the evening. I will have to check the bar menu because the selections the bartender matched with my meals were spot on.

Smoked Chocolate Cake

Smoked Chocolate Cake

And since I was going all out with the dining experience, I had a finale of French pressed coffee with cream and a smoked chocolate cake. The cake was as cute as a button and as rich and decadent as a super moist brownie. Apparently before retrieving the cake from the oven, the chef allows the cake to get exposed to some smoked wood chips. I like different, but I love deliciously exotic and that is exactly what this cake was. Topped with dulce de leche and sprinkled with a generous amount of crushed hazelnuts, I was rather happy that Sink | Swim is in my neighbourhood within close proximity.

Given I was on the hunt for something to eat, I had read a few reviews of Sink | Swim several weeks prior to my visit. There were complaints about the plates being too small, the smell of the sea in the restaurant, and a few other unsavoury points of contention. I asked my server about the small plates and the recommendation that he gave was that they are to be enjoyed with no more than two individuals because of the portions. Ah, yes, that makes perfect sense. A group of five or more having fits over a dish consisting of three pieces is a bit far-reaching. As to the other conniptions pointed out in reviews, the restaurant must have taken those assessments into consideration because what I experienced was a rather divine meal in a swanky atmosphere with top service. While I sank in my bed, thoughts of the degustation of four courses with the flight of three cocktails swam through my thoughts. And it had also occurred to me that I didn’t have a proper smoke afterwards. Oh, wait, I don’t smoke.

Sink Swim Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Demera Ethiopian Restaurant

Demera Ethiopian Restaurant

When friends come to visit Chicago, I often wonder where to take them for a proper Taste of Chicago. Many come with expectations of going to the usual tourist traps: Cheesecake Factory, any of the Chicago style pizzeria restaurants, some sports bar in Wrigleyville, Garrett’s Popcorn shop, and a few other dated restaurants like Hard Rock Café and Planet Rock. But you can get that fare from anywhere. Then again, I pick restaurants from a self-serving standpoint. If I’m treating, I’m getting what I want. With my recent guest, they did not want to go to any tourist magnets. They wanted international fare was.

Tej Addis Abeba Martini

After an afternoon of taking advantage of Shedd Aquarium, I offered up the suggestion for some Ethiopian food. So, we were off to Demera Ethiopian Restaurant at 4801 N Broadway Street. Nice and spacious on the inside, welcoming and homey per the service, this was a great option. We started with a glass of tej, which is honey wine, or rather the nectar of God. And there was the refreshing Addis Ababa martini.

Ethiopian Platter

Because this was my first dining experience at Demera Ethiopian Restaurant, I wanted to sample a few items from the menu. We had the doro wot. This came as two chicken legs in a rich barbecue gravy accented with ginger root, garlic, and onions and ayib cheese. There was ye-siga wot, which was the beef version of the doro wot. For vegetables, we ordered the split red lentils ye-misir wot and there was also the ye-dinich ena carrot alicha, consisting of potatoes and carrots stewed with onions, garlic, ginger, turmeric and special house seasoning. The ye-shimbra assa, ground chickpeas in a wot sauce, rounded out our vegetarian selections. And the ye-asa wot was the final offering that we opted for as a seafood selection. All served atop injera and with extra injera, there was only a smear of gravy on the platter when we were done.

Ethiopian Tiramisu

Not being in a rush, we sat and let our stomachs settle before requesting menus for perusal of desserts.  I ordered an Ethiopian style tiramisu. Instead of ladyfingers having been soaked in espresso, they had been soaked in Ethiopian buna, or Ethiopian coffee. The robust flavor of Ethiopian coffee actually makes the dessert have a stronger taste while not leaving an aftertaste. Drizzled with chocolate sauce, this was heaven. And if heaven wasn’t good enough, the sambussa definitely was perfection. The pastry was filled with with almonds, walnuts, cardamom, rose water, and saffron, and served over a homemade raspberry sauce that was not from a can, box, or jar.

Sambussa

Chicago’s Uptown neighbourhood is a location filled with many African restaurants and there is a lot of representation in Ethiopian dining. Demera is indeed one restaurant with an inviting atmosphere. Starting with a welcoming air, it is most delightful once the food arrives. For those who are not familiar with Ethiopian dining, the injera, which is the bread, is used for picking up the food. While the servers may accommodate those who prefer to use eating utensils,  the tradition way of eating Ethiopian food actually makes the experience fantastic. And if you go with a large group, it is a most beautiful way of sharing — food that is.


Click to add a blog post for Demera Ethiopian on Zomato

Little Bucharest Bistro

Little Bucharest Bistro

Several years ago, an individual who had done some photography and web development for some restaurants had given me two recommendations. One was for an Italian restaurant — Pasta D’Arte — and the other was for a Romanian restaurant. I went to Pasta D’Arte during the late summer of 2013 and decided that I should also follow up on the second recommendation. So, not far from Logan Square is Little Bucharest Bistro at 3661 N. Elston Avenue in Chicago’s Irving Park neighbourhood. It was a nice Saturday afternoon and my appetite was absolute wildly, now more than ever because I had been doing a few sessions of CrossFit training.

Little Bucharest Bistro has an airy, spacious interior and thanks to plenty of large windows, the setting isn’t dim. For those who wish to sit outside, there is outside seating, but having arrived early, indoor seating next to a window worked perfectly for me. Although Eastern European food is something that I prefer mostly when the temperatures are chilly, I asked my server for recommendations, while informing her that vegetarian is my first preference and seafood is my second. The offerings that I got had exceeded my expectations.

Little Bucharest Bistro Collage

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album

For a starter, I had borscht. At most Eastern European restaurants, the borscht tasted like it had been prepared with pickled beets from a jar. The taste was alway too sharp. At Little Bucharest Bistro, there was definitely a flavouring of cooked beets from a garden that didn’t leave an overpowering taste. It was also nice that the soup was full of beets and not just beet juice. Second to the table was the village salad, which consisted of red bell peppers, green bell peppers, red onions, cucumber, feta cheese, tomatoes, and olives. Drizzled with a nice balsamic vinaigrette, this was rabbit food I would welcome anytime. With the complementary, homemade bread, my taste for Eastern European food had a bit of a renaissance.

A light appetizer that I got next was a plate of eggplant, prepared much like baba ganoush, that was served with pita bread, a small salad, and a melange of pickles, crepes with cream cheese, and salmon. What an offering and this small platter still packed a flavourful punch that I would gladly indulge on future visits. And in keeping with vegetarian dishes, there was the vegetarian goulash. This was a hearty dish of grilled eggplant, cabbage, peppers, spinach, and garlic couscous in a tomato sauce. I was expecting something along the lines of a spaetzle, but the goulash was a classic example of different being outstanding.

There is the feel of family-owned and small restaurants that you get as soon as you enter Little Bucharest Bistro. From the owner greeting you at the door — you never get that kind of welcome at downtown eateries — to the wait staff that is attentive and engaging to the food that leaves you wanting more, this is certainly a restaurant that should be on your list of places you must sample in Chicago. Aside from my usual running around, travelling, and getting into other things, it should not have taken me years to follow up on the recommendation to go to Little Bucharest Bistro. This first experience is definitely all the more reason I shall have to return again very, very soon to see what other delights they have on their menus to convert me into a regular customer. And with autumn and winter coming, Eastern European food will do well for my appetite.

After Dinner Drink

After Dinner Drink

Little Bucharest Bistro on Urbanspoon

EL Ideas, Where Art Meets Contemporary Cuisine

The thing about family and close friends is that you never have a boring moment. And if eating without shame is your thing, then those family members and close friends know what really appeals to your palate and they make outstanding recommendations accordingly. Friday afternoon before work and a great friend and I were going back and forth about what restaurant would be worthy of sampling after the clock struck 5:00. The one we wanted to try had reservations available for Saturday, so we made reservations for Saturday. In the meantime, we went to Green Zebra in West Town to indulge their vegetarian menu.

Saturday came and after a long day of anticipation, we arrived at EL Ideas in University Village. At 2419 W. 14th Street in an area that looks anything but inviting, is a welcoming restaurant where, as mentioned in the subject, art meets contemporary cuisine. There are countless restaurants in Chicago where presentation trumps taste and several restaurants where presentation and taste are absolutely top. El Ideas falls into the latter because while everything put in front of your looks like fine art, it is all fine dining that makes going to W. 14th Street quite okay.

Collage

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album

The menu is fixed, which means you don’t have a bill of fare placed in front of you so that you can pontificate what you want to eat. The seating area is small, so those who love going to restaurants with a large party of friends may have to rethink trying to pile in comfortably. Also, because the atmosphere promotes a dinner party concept and the kitchen is in visual range, you get to engage the chefs and see what they’re preparing for your taste buds. But just to give you an idea of what we had, below is a highlight of the menu items that we had for our gastro-feast.

Caviar Blueberry. Moonshine. Banana. You have to eat this by licking the plate. You actually have no choice since no eating utensils are given.
Watermelon Feta. Eggplant. Basil. Mint This was a “you can’t go wrong” course. Unless you drop watermelon on the floor, it is hard to mess up any dish having it as an ingredient. Case in point with this refreshing taster.
Nunavut Char Cantaloupe. Fennel. Chili. I love the silky texture of cooked Atlantic char, but having it in tartar form gives the cooked version a run for its money.
Mussels Beer. Garlic. Tomato. Birch. After you pour the beer sauce over the mussels, those who don’t like beer may reconsider.
Sturgeon Summer squash. Green tomato. Tarragon. With the texture of extremely tender chicken, this course made sturgeon that much more of a favourite fresh fish choice for me.
Raviolo Morel. Plum. Lobster. Having fallen in love with a lobster consomme at my favourite French restaurant in the Chicago area, this was heaven in a deep bowl.
French Fries & Ice Cream Potato. Leek. Vanilla ice cream. This is pure genius, as the dish remains hot and cold at the same time.
Fonduta Black truffle. Bellota. Bread. Because we requested no pork in our course, we had extra truffles as a substitute. Notice I didn’t mention anything about us complaining, for it would be a crime to moan about extra truffles.
Bison Bok choy. Rutabaga. Bleu cheese. Although pork is a no-no in my diet, we had forgotten that there could be other meat choices on the menu. The bison, cooked medium rare, didn’t stand a chance once the plate reached the table.
Foie Gras. Raspberry. Star anise. Huckleberry. This course of raspberry foam over huckleberry had a wow factor that I cannot register on a 1 to 10 scale. No scale could accommodate my rating.
Peach Oatmeal. Elderflower. Lychee. I love peaches. But combine peaches and lychee sorbet, and then put it over oatmeal, you have a truth serum.
Chocolate Cherry. Mahlab. Chocolate brownie, chocolate block, raspberry, and vanilla ice cream made with the help of liquid nitrogen, chemistry comes to the kitchen and everyone is happy.

As you can see, it is better to go on an empty stomach. The portions may be small, and most of them are not as small as they are at some like restaurants, but thirteen courses tend to amount to a lot of food. If the dining experience that my friend and I had is any indication of how El Ideas operates, then you can expect to be at the restaurant for almost, if not more than, three hours. To devour such incredibly delicious food in less than two hours is suspicious — that is, the diner is running from something or someone.

One thing to note is that EL Ideas is a BYOB affair. Not to sound like a snob, but if beer is your thing, a backyard barbecue may be a more fitting venue. However, if you have a refined palate for vegetarian dishes, seafood, and choice meats, a bottle of red wine, white wine, or both would be highly recommended. The price may be steep for some, but the food is outstanding and the service is top-notch. Having been to restaurants in Chicago like Alinea, Moto, and Schwa, I must say that EL Ideas has found a comfortable slot in my Top 5 High End Contemporary Dining restaurant listings. Next time I will take a bottle of wine. No, I will take two.

EL Ideas 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.

Italian Style at Mancini’s

Italian Bread

Italian Bread

My herbs and spice rack was running low on product. That meant it was time for some replenishment. With the temperatures getting chillier, there will be pumpkin soup, sweet potato soup, apple cobbler, blackberry cobbler, gingerbread loaves, and helpless gingerbread people who will never escape the vice of my pretty teeth. You simply cannot have any of that without some cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, ginger, allspice, and other spices. I know you’re saying, “So what?” Well, your inquiry is a good segue into my story. In Oak Park, Illinois, there is a spice shop by the name of Penzey’s. It’s the equivalent of a chef’s candy store. Unlike the products you will find on the spice aisles at your big box grocery store, the products at Penzey’s have pizzazz for your recipes. Everything pops when you add a bit of Penzey’s to your ingredients.

After spending almost an hour in Penzey’s and purchasing more than I had anticipated — why didn’t someone tell me that saffron was so blooming EXPENSIVE? — I did a little skippy-do-da across the street to Mancini’s for some Italian smile-inducing menu items. For years I had been intending to go to Mancini’s and there was a moment in time when it had closed. Then it opened again in a new location at 1111 Lake Street. There was no reason for me to have several more years pass before seeing if they were worthy.

THEY ARE WORTHY!!!

Fried Ravioli

Fried Ravioli

In usual metropolitan Chicago fashion, the temperatures had waffled towards being warmer. So, I sat outside and gobbled a loaf of homemade Italian bread with olive oil and parmesan cheese while scanning the menu. Ah, I had decided that I would mess up my diet briefly by indulging some fried cheese ravioli. I didn’t go wrong with the order. I haven’t had any fried ravioli that I have not fallen in love with and Mancini’s now ranks up there with restaurants that get it correct. Any time I think of fried menu items, I am reminded of the Texas State Fair and the murderous deep-fried what-not things they sell — fried Twinkies, fried Snickers, double fried turkey legs, fried shrimp and grits, fried spaghetti and meatballs, fried collard greens, fried Kool Aid, fried candy apples, fried cheese, fried macaroni and cheese, fried Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and countless other fried baddies that make you want to run through oncoming traffic. My cholesterol and blood pressure skyrocket thinking about it all. I am not making this up either.

Salad with Raspberry Vinaigrette

Salad with Raspberry Vinaigrette

To balance out indulging eight, small fried ravioli with some incredibly flavourful marinara sauce — didn’t taste like it came out of a jar, and the tomatoes were much too chunky to convince me otherwise — I had a green salad. No Thousand Island dressing. No ranch. No Caesar dressing. I had a raspberry vinaigrette. I had a stupid smile on my face afterwards. I had told my server that I did not want any nuts on the salad because that is a sure way of having my salad tossed on the ground. (Pause) Okay, I’m not that petty. But the salad sans the nuts and with the raspberry vinaigrette would have been enough to convince me that feasting on rabbit food is an option that would appeal to my discriminating palate. Rabbit food is like ambrosia when served with a raspberry vinaigrette.

Shrimp Fra Diavalo

Shrimp Fra Diavalo

It was clear that Mancini’s was not a rustic Italian eatery. Most of the pasta dishes had a red sauce base to them. And considering they are popular for their pizza, I guess tomato based sauces would be more popular as well. There was nothing wrong with that. It was quite evident that they do best with tomato bases because the shrimp fra diavolo reminded me of the “I need a cigarette STAT” arrabbiata dishes I have had. There was a spicy punch to the shrimp fra diavolo that made it more than worth the order. The abundant shrimp burst as I bit through the plump figures. A few words to describe the shrimp fra diavolo: angry, fresh, mandatory, much-needed, blissful, and Oh my God, I must have some more of this.

Homemade Gelato

Homemade Gelato

By the time I had finished all of the food that had been set in front of me, I needed about fifteen minutes of sitting still to let it all go down. There was dessert to be had. I wasn’t leaving without having any. No way. No how. No tiramisu. No canolli. I had homemade gelato. My eyes rolled, and I don’t mean that in a bad way either. Scooping stracciatella, nocciola, dark chocolate sorbet, and banana with the miniature spatula, there was a brief blanking out as I think I had leapt out of my seat and performed some kind of dance without knowing I was out of my head. That had to have been it because people were looking at me and clapping. I keep saying that I need to seek therapy for the blackout moments, but I often find myself making plans to go to some other eatery rather than finding a proper therapist.

The visit to Mancini’s was long overdue. I think part of my delay had been due to the fact that it’s known for being a popular pizzeria. I am not big on having pizza from any place that isn’t a hole in the wall. Chicago has some big box style restaurants that sell pizza and I find myself smiling a plastic smile when gnawing endlessly on cheese in the like manner of chewing a huge wad of gum. You don’t suffer through your pizza dining experience like that at the suspicious pizza shacks. I am glad that I ordered from the pasta offerings. My server was outstanding with recommendations and being able to say absolutely that the shrimp fra diavolo was their best pasta dish. There was no waffling and remarks of, “Well, I like everything.” That kind of decisiveness is very Italian and I like that. She was just as direct with convincing me that I wanted some gelato and suggesting flavours that would go over well. Having bought a season’s worth of spices, I don’t know when I will get back to Penzey’s, but I will be going to Mancini’s again in the a few days.

Mancini's Pizza Pasta Cafe on Urbanspoon Mancini's 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

Curry With Chopsticks

Bombay Chopsticks

One of the things about being a part of the global community is that friends from other countries are constantly giving me suggestions for restaurants. At dinner a few weeks ago, I had discussion with a friend about a high-end restaurant in Chicago proper that does an outstanding job blending Indian and Latin flavours. She had then told me about a restaurant that had recently opened in Hoffman Estate, Illinois, named Bombay Chopsticks at 721 W. Golf Road. The name had given me an idea of what one could expect if going to the restaurant for some food happiness. I immediately associated Bombay with India and chopsticks with Japan. No sooner had she mentioned the restaurant than I entered a date into my calendar so that I could see what Bombay Chopsticks has on its menu.

Spices

It was out to the Northwest Suburbs on a beautiful yet brisk Saturday morning so that I could be certain of beating the crowd. Upon entering Bombay Chopsticks, I felt as though I was at a lounge. There is a full bar at the entrance. When you go past the bar and around the corner, there is a large area for seating and the decor is definitely inviting. There are comfy booths, which are perfect for dates. There are enough table seats for parties of four or more. The lighting inside was ideal in that going as a single person does not make you feel as though you are in an intimate setting; there was no mood lighting giving that effect. Led to a table by an accommodating hostess who was okay with me having my pick of seats because I was going to photograph my food — par for the course — I had a feeling that everything was going to be just fine this afternoon.

As usual in Pan-Asian cuisine, this time there being Indian and East Asian, the menu is extensive. The pescatarian in me scanned the menu for vegetarian and seafood options, so I had narrowed down my choices. Now, not that I was difficult, but I was rather eccentric with my order. There were three entrées that I wanted. That being the case, appetizers were not an option. There were two vegetarian dishes and one seafood dish that turned my food alarm on. When placing my order, I told the waitress that I wanted three entrées, each to be served as small tastes, with the rest packed for me to take home. She had recommended salt and pepper okra, shrimp in chilli garlic tomato sauce, and baby potatoes Thai style. I complied and while I waited for the experience to begin, I sipped some rather refreshing mango juice.

Salt and Pepper Okra

The waitress had placed the order linearly. Instead of having everything come to the table at once only to get cold, the first entrée arrive at the table was the salt and pepper okra. As a lover of gumbo, which is full of okra of the slimy nature, I was anxious to see how fried okra would taste in a salt and pepper batter. Much like some salt and pepper chicken I have had at a Vietnamese restaurant and salt and pepper soft shell crab I have had at a Pan-Asian restaurant recently, this fried okra dish reminded me of both in a “precious memories” kind of way. Spicy the way I like peppery food and served with crispy noodles and steamed rice, I was grateful that the first recommendation had won me over.

Shrimp in Chili Garlic Tomato Sauce

There was a bit of timing between the first entrée and the second one. This was to allow a moment of rest before the second course. Next to the table was a bowl of shrimp in a chilli garlic tomato sauce. This dish was closer to Indian and what I recalled during a visit to Bombay several years ago — although the dish I had eaten in Bombay was filled with fish rather than shrimp. At any rate, the shrimp in this bowl of satisfaction were plump to the point where they really did burst in my mouth when I bit into them. The sauce was spicy in a divine way. I cannot say that most people would be okay with the pepper dancing around their tongue and jaws, but it was outstanding to me. Eaten with rice to minimize some of the pepper, this was yet another suggestion that was a winner.

Baby Potatoes Thai Style

We allowed for more time between the second entrée and the third entrée. Granted the portions were small, as I was taking the remaining portion of the entrées home, they were still filling. Once I gave the signal, the order was placed and the third dish came to the table in the form of baby potatoes prepared Thai style. This was another spicy dish that was prepared in a gravy that had peanuts and a bit of a kick to it. Not really being a fan of any kind of nuts — except for almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, and pine nuts — I made no fuss about the peanuts in the dish and I ate it with the steam rice that came with it. There was a moment of complete satisfaction to be acknowledged as I worked my fork and spoon on the rice and the baby potatoes in the Thai gravy. By the time I had completed this dish, I was incredibly grateful that the waitress had given three fantastic recommendations because, as I had mentioned, the menu was filled with a large selection of choices.

Vanilla Ice Cream, Crispy Noodles with Honey and Sesame Seeds

Customary but not necessary was dessert. There was a bit of time that I let pass before I had decided to indulge something sweet to the palate. I ordered crispy noodles drizzled with honey and accented with sesame seeds and two scoops of vanilla ice cream. I put honey in my tea, in my yogurt, and in my honey chocolate cake, but having it served over crispy noodles and ice cream was new. And let me just say that this was a new experience that I enjoyed to the point of rapture. And now that I think of it, the only other time I have had a dessert with similar ingredients was an Ethiopian restaurant where they drizzled chocolate instead of honey over the ice cream and crispy noodles. However, having it today really made me that more appreciative of having an experimental palate.

Ready for Action

Usually I have a tendency to avoid restaurants that receive too many negative reviews. The experience actually comes in three parts: what you put into it by being open to trying something different, your positive interaction with your server, and what you want to get out of it different from what you have already had before. On entrance into Bombay Chopsticks, I was greeted with a welcome. My server was the epitome of outstanding customer service and attentiveness, as well as knowledgeable enough to recommend three dishes to a stranger, which is what I was when I sat at the table. Be forewarned that the prices range from $12 to $15 for the entrées. Also be aware that the flavours can be overpowering if your palate is accustomed to milder dishes. Yes, you can order the food milder, but there is more pop when the spices are added as they are in the dishes natively. As I had initially thought of India and Japan, I found that there is a bit of East Asia with hints of Indian preparations added. There are no duelling spices, so whichever ethnicity is represented in the recipe is allowed to shine. Before I departed Bombay Chopsticks with the remainder of my entrées, I sent a text message to my friend to thank her for prompting me about the restaurant and I made a mental note to myself that I shall find my way back out to Hoffman Estates in the near future for another restaurant jaunt at Bombay Chopsticks. This was a positive experience.

Sukriyā.

Bombay Chopsticks on Urbanspoon