Balena, Lincoln Park Italian

Balena

Balena

I have not been on very many restaurant outings this year since I had added a few inches to my size and had to reassess my wardrobe. So, I’ve had to get some control and do some things like walking architectural tours and theatre. And immediately after going to see “Pass Over” at Steppenwolf, what should my wandering eyes see across the street but Balena at 1633 N. Halsted Street. I have no willpower.

Complimentary Wafers

Complimentary Wafers

Large, airy, and light on the inside, this Italian restaurant has a casual feel to it that I think many would enjoy. There is enough space such that you can have an intimate table without being crowded and you can also have a large party without feeling the restaurant cannot accommodate all who are dining. Aside from the cosmetics of the interior, the service and the food were winners for me. As for ordering, I specified that I wanted to indulge my dining experience in a pescatarian fashion. The server hit the mark with what I had told her to surprise me with.

The first course was Calabrian prawn spiedini. These large shrimp came with heads and tails on, all on wooden skewers. Not overpowered by the seasoning, it was quite evident that the shrimp was fresh. Paired with this course, I had a glass of Vermentino, a white wine from the Piedmont region of Italy that was dry enough to balance out the shrimp without biting at the back of the jaw.

Prawn Spiedini

Prawn Spiedini

The second course was a kale Caesar salad. Prepared in the same manner as Caesar salad with romaine lettuce, the kale had a rich yet bitter taste. With the glass of Vermentino, the bitter bite was a bit more pronounced. It was a nice option for a salad, albeit a large portion compared to what was expected. Those who love the go-to green leafy vegetable will love this salad.

Kale Caesar Salad

Kale Caesar Salad

The third course was simply outstanding. This was a plate of striped bass topped with a small salad tossed in a mild vinaigrette. Lightly seared to give the skin a bit of a crisp, the meaty bass retained a lot of the silk texture that made it a dish worthy of ordering again on return visits. This was the server’s personal favourite and understandably so, given its perfection in seasoning, preparation, and taste. Per the server’s recommendation, I had a glass of Sauvignon Blanc that was a perfect accompaniment.

Striped Sea Bass with Salad

Striped Sea Bass with Salad

The finale was a deconstructed sundae that came as a melange of shortbread, brown butter gelato, raspberry gelato, and fresh raspberries. Complex flavours if taken alone, but enjoyed together with an accompanying cappuccino made this a refreshing finish for a satisfying early dinner.

Deconstructed Sundae

Deconstructed Sundae

During the perusal of the menu, I noticed that the offerings were not heavy with tomato sauces. There were several pastas that I noted for future visits since I opted for seafood during my first visit. There are also some hearth-fired pizza options that caught my eye as well. The menu is not extensive and I get the impression that the restaurant makes adjustments seasonally. We shall see. We shall eat.

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

Balena Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Little Gem Bar and Restaurant

Little Gem Cafe

After years of living in Chicago, I have been recalling a statement that an individual made when we had met in 1989. She had stated that you can spend your entire life in Chicago and never cover all of it. I have discovered that the same applies to some of the edge cities like Evanston, Rosemont, Schaumburg, Skokie, and Oak Park. Case in point was during a casual stroll a block north of downtown Oak Park where I stumbled upon The Little Gem Bar and Restaurant at 189 N Marion Street.

Duck with Salad

Duck with Salad

Spacious on the inside with a bistro feel to it and also with some outside seating, there is an atmosphere of ease that doesn’t feed into ambient noises and acoustics all over the place requiring you to shout with your dining companions. Taking advantage of the outdoor seating, I settled on a four-course meal that had a French influence. Since the restaurant had been touted as a French bistro on Yelp and Google, I chose to stick with that theme, although I did see a paprikash dish on the menu, which is Hungarian.

For my first course, I had a duck carpaccio with a salad in a light vinaigrette with mandarin slices. The server paired this dish with a Sauvignon blanc that had some fruity notes that balanced out the tartness of the duck carpaccio, which had strips of raw duck. Those who like tartar and the texture would certainly enjoy this dish.

Toast

Toast

Because I had opted for a pairing of wines with each course, the server thought that it would be a good idea to have some bread for a palate cleanser, as well as an aid for reducing buzzing. I’m not really sure if the grilled toast was complementary, but I must admit that it was of the variety that I could go off the rails with while enjoying some gouda cheese.

Deviled Eggs

Deviled Eggs

The next course was a plate of deviled eggs. Accented with parsley oil and a balsamic reduction and topped with crispy, fried onions and pickled jalapeños, all four that came were absolutely scrumptuous. Paired nicely with a Chardonnay that had a buttery and oak flavour that was light on the palate while not usurping the centre stage from the deviled eggs, I actually developed a better appreciation for deviled eggs, as I have not had any that weren’t abused by a use of too many herbs and spices.

As of late, I have been introducing pork back into my diet, albeit in moderation. The server had specified the special for the evening, which was a 10-ounce bone-in pork chop in a jalapeño and apple purée with roasted potatoes sautéed in a Spanish chorizo. For the pairing, the server brought at Pinot noir that had a “right” amount of acidity to match well with the dish. For an individual who has not been a fan of pork for many years, this one was one I would rush back to the restaurant to indulge without pause.

Pork Chop with Fingerlings

Pork Chops with Fingerlings

In keeping with the French effect in dining, I had cheese for dessert rather than a sweet. The cheese board came with an assortment of cheeses, housemade strawberry jam, smoked almonds, candied walnuts, and apples. There were aged Wisconsin cheddar, a brie, a housemade cheese, and a casabola. The housemade cheese was an interesting marriage of provolone, cheddar, and cream cheese. The caso bolo was a mixture of goat, sheep, and cow cheeses. Along with a cup of coffee, this was a delectable and ideal finale to what was a spectacular meal.

Cheese Board with Nuts and Jam

Cheese Board

I was somewhat expecting “regular” fare, but was thoroughly surprised and satisfied with the offerings. The Little Gem Bar and Restaurant is not French-specific. If I could apply a word to the restaurant, it would be Pan-European because of some Eastern European offerings and Mediterranean fare. One thing I have not done on the blog in years is name the servers that went well past outstanding. But Liz and Zach were two of the top servers any diners could have at their table. I understand why most at the restaurant were locals. Oak Park is not a local destination for me, but I have a feeling I will be a regular at The Little Gem Bar and Restaurant.

Little Gem Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Mexcais, Frenchican, Mexique

Mexique

For the past few years, I have been going to a few restaurants in the West Town vicinity of Chicago. During the summer, I got to see much of the area while on foot. One restaurant I passed by several times was Mexique at 1529 W. Chicago Avenue. There was a “white table-cloth” feel to the restaurant and with that in mind, I never went in because I was usually in short pants and walking shoes. So, I decided that I would go one evening after work when I was better attired.

Black Bean Purée, Bread, Chicken Pâté

Black Bean Purée, Bread, Chicken Pâté

Chicken Pâté, Bread, Black Bean Purée

Chicken Pâté, Bread, Black Bean Purée

I considered having the dining experience be more ala carte. And then I decided that I wanted a sampling of several menu items. The 6-course tasting menu was the better option. Having received the explanation that the food at Mexique is Mexican with a French influence, I knew that I couldn’t go wrong with a seafood approach to the tasting. While I waited for the courses to arrive, I had black bean purée and chicken pâté with French bread. The black beans as a purée instead of thick frijoles was great for spreading as was the spicy pâté, both a great complimentary start and marriage between Mexican and French.

Soup and Wine

Soup and Wine

The first course was poblano pepper soup accented with feta cheese, pineapple relish, quince, and celery root. The remarkable thing about this soup is that neither the spiciness of the peppers nor the sweetness of the pineapple relish overpowered the recipe. A white wine accompanied this dish, one with a lovely touch of sweetness. There were notes of peach and apricots in the wine. Smooth on the palate, it was splendid in the pairing in that it brought out the flavours of the soup rather than competing with it on the tongue.

Ceviche

Ceviche

The second course was an interesting and addictive take on ceviche. Cobia fish in citrus juice was the main seafood ingredient. The French influence came in with the inclusion of the stock prepared with green vegetables, green chilies, also paprika oil and micro greens. There were small dollops of poblana mousse that, once stirred in the ceviche, made the base slightly creamy. The wine that paired with this course was a Sauvignon Blanc from a vineyard in California. There was a high mineral aspect to it, a bit tart, that again allowed the ingredients in the ceviche to pop more than they probably would have had there been no wine served with the course.

Mahi-Mahi with Salmon Tartar

Mahi-Mahi with Salmon Tartar

The third course was one that I initially flagged as the highlight of the evening after a taste of the first morsel. There was mahi-mahi in a lovely sorrel sauce and red quinoa with salmon tartar. The entire dish was drizzled with a burned onion aioli. Those who enjoy seafood would love sampling the mahi-mahi and the salmon tartar. Paired with this was a crisp Spanish Rioja wine, consisting of fully ripe fruits, mainly grapes that played well with the flavours of the sorrel.

Whitefish with Potato Puree and Black Bean Sauce

Whitefish with Potato Puree and Black Bean Sauce

Thinking that the third course was spectacular in terms of taste, the fourth course was unforgettable. This was a whitefish with a black bean sauce prepared with a red wine reduction. The white potato purée had a surprising pop on the palate, as it was clearly not seasoned with salt and pepper only. Garnishes were baby carrots, confit style and micro greens. This course came paired with a Chardonnay. The complexity in this wine came in the form of ripe apples, vanilla, and oak. As if the whitefish wasn’t flaky and tender enough, the silky and buttery notes in the wine made the fourth course a culinary dream.

Skate with Vegetables and Grapes Over Plantain

Skate with Vegetables and Grapes Over Plantain

Given each course was progressively better than the previous one, I should have known the fifth course would be a winner. This was another seafood dish, prepared with skate marinated in tequilla over spinach, cauliflower, and picked grapes, and set atop a fully ripe and compressed plantain. There was a nice amount of achiote seeds used for seasoning this dish and all of the ingredients were fantastic for letting each come through individually on the tongue. A French wine came with this dish. Medium bodied wine with notes of raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries, this was a perfect accompaniment for a dish that had so many complex flavours.

Arroz Con Leche with Ice Cream

Arroz Con Leche with Ice Cream

The finale was one that I had to request a pause before having it arrive at the table. The prior dishes, albeit manageable, were slightly more filling than I had expected. I figured there would be a dessert that would be familiar, but perhaps rich. Sure enough, the arroz con leche with vanilla bean ice cream. This traditional Mexican dessert of rice pudding was enhanced with rompope, Mexican eggnog, and sprinkled with candied pumpkin seeds as well as white chocolate crumble. The dessert wine with the course was and Alameda. The figs, dates, prunes, and raisins in this sherry were fantastic, which made this wine a perfect match for the arroz con leche.

Sherry

Sherry

Those who are expecting tacos, enchiladas, tostadas, and traditional Mexican fare may find Mexique a bit weird or lacking in purist techniques. Even those who fancy Tex-Mex may not be okay with the cuisine either. This is not a restaurant that one may consider upscale Chipotle or a chic Mexican restaurant. Those who like variety and those with broad palates will find the ala carte and the tasting menus to be worthy of one or more visits. The sitting area is large, so there is lots of room for stretching out in preparation for dining. Make reservations, as the restaurant tends to fill up quickly. The constant influx of patrons is all you need to know that the food is good. Well, I’ve shown you pictures already. Now get ready for the taste.

Mexique Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Parthenon — Meeting New Friends and Opa!!!

A few weeks ago, I received a flurry of email notes bearing good news and invitations. I found out that Chicago Alphabet Soup had made the list of top 50 blogs in Chicago, which was an honour given this is a hobby and balance to my otherwise chaotic day job life. I received a few emails inquiring if I would be interested in guest writing for a few online publications. Getty Images picked up a few of my photos. And I got an invite to Greek restaurant Parthenon at 314 S. Halsted Street in Chicago’s Greek Town. I thought this would be nice, so that I could put faces with the names of several foodies and food bloggers in the city.

Spanakopitas

Spanakopitas

Octopus

Octopus

Skordalia

Skordalia

Saganaki

Saganaki

We had a variety of appetizers. There were spanakopitas, which were phyllo pastries stuffed with spinach and feta cheese. The octopus was not rubbery to the palate. It was as though the morsels had been cooked slowly for days. My first favourite appetizer was skordalia. Puréed potatoes accented with garlic, and I appreciated that the garlic was heavy-handed in the recipe. And, no, I have no fear of vampires.  My second favourite appetizer to arrive at the table was saganaki. If you think the ritual of setting the cheese aflame and the shout of “Opa!” is spectacular, let me be the first to say that you’ll want to cut through all that fanfare and have the cheese set in front of you so that you can show your appreciation or devout appetite accordingly. The most pedestrian course, as I jokingly call rabbit food, was actually good. The salad dressing, albeit light, was still good enough to let the flavour of the ingredients come through. Lettuce, pepper, olives, feta cheese, and an addiction I call tomatoes were a great segue to the main course.

Greek Salad

Greek Salad

With so much tasty preamble, a dish that I thought would sate me without leaving me needing assistance walking thereafter was shrimp flambé with rice. The shrimp, doused with brandy and set afire to a declaration of “Opa!” before being set in front of me, I felt slightly ashamed at devoting the remainder of my time to devouring the shrimp and enjoying the rice. The best way to get conversation out of me during dinner is before serving any delicious food or by serving something quite not all appetizing.

Shrimp and Rice

Shrimp and Rice

Having indulged so much food to this point, I cannot believe that I opted to renege on my intention for no desserts until Thanksgiving. Being aggressive with my workouts, I ordered galaktoboureko anyway. I am a fan of custard and this Greek delicacy prepared with custard and phyllo and then coated with honey was actually lighter on the stomach than I anticipated. The texture was fluffier than the creamy variety that I have gone overboard on in the past.

Galaktoboureko

Galaktoboureko

Parthenon is large like many banquet halls. There is plenty of space for large gatherings and if you love to dine with family or large parties of your friends, this is definitely the place. There are two Greek restaurants in Oak Park that I frequent because of the quality in the food and service. I can say without hesitation that the quality of food at Parthenon is top. With this being a planned event — that being a gathering of foodies, foodists, bloggers and food appreciators — the service was superb. I shall have to return as a Regular Joe for a proper “off the street” dining experience. I’ll be sure not to shout “Opa!” and smash my plate against the floor.

Parthenon Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - 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

Chara, Opa!

Two years ago a friend had told me about a Greek restaurant in Oak Park, Illinois, named Papaspiro’s. I went. I ate. I made a calendar notice to return. And the restaurant was closed. I have to take responsibility for procrastinating and not returning immediately after my first meal. Needless to say, Papispiro’s moved across the street, as a new restaurant named Chara moved in to take its place. I am making a calendar entry to return to the new location in a few days and I won’t put off for later this time.

Sesame Seed Bread

Sesame Seed Bread

The new restaurant, Chara, is a welcomed surprise on the Oak Park landscape. At 733 Lake Street, the restaurant boasts a large dining area, patio seating out front, and a menu full of authentic Greek delights. I arrived at Chara early to get a window seat so that I had enough natural light to photograph my dishes. With everyone taking advantage of the outdoor seating, I had an uninterrupted corner spot — until a couple came in and sat at the table immediately next to me. My sister, who joined me around the time I was indulging dessert, can attest to that.

Pita

Pita

Melitzanosalata

Melitzanosalata

In addition to the homemade, complimentary sesame seed bread, I started with a melitzanosalata. This spread of smoked eggplant, potatoes, garlic, and olive oil served with a black olive, slice of tomato, and slice of cucumber was a fantastic appetizer. Along with the melitzanosalata came pita slices that I used to scoop and devour the dip. The melitzanosalata is the kind of spread that I would serve at parties instead of the usual dips many purchase for gatherings.

Shrimp Saganaki with Feta

Shrimp Saganaki with Feta

For my second course, I ordered shrimp saganaki with feta. Plump shrimp served with roasted bell peppers and onions, and topped with feta, I was all done with it before I realized that it was not the same as regular saganaki — the cheese that is brought to the table and set aflame. Although the shrimp saganaki with feta was more like a salad, the portion was enough to be an entrée.

Bakalo

Bakalo

White Wine

White Wine

Because I was hankering for some seafood, I was quite happy to find bakalo on the menu. The pan-fried cod was mild in flavouring and the seasoning was faint. However, there was still enough pop in each forkful to make the dish appetizing. And not having a fishy taste to the cod made it that more enjoyable. Adding to that the side of skordalia and the rice pilaf covered in a tomato based gravy made this my favourite Greek entrée. The mashed potatoes of the skordalia was actually a nice spread for the fish. But the rice pilaf with potatoes, carrots, and zucchini balanced out the mildness in the cod.

With the seafood dish, I wanted a glass of wine. I had told my server that I wanted a white wine, which is fitting with seafood and poultry, and he mentioned that he would bring a nice wine for me. I had not given any specifics (e.g., a dry white wine or a sweeter white wine) and I was thoroughly satisfied after my first sip. There was a combination of fruity highlights and floral notes. As I am sure that there could have been any selection of wines to accompany the cod, the glass of nectar that I had simply could not be surpassed with any other choice.

Galaktoboureko

Galaktoboureko

By the time I had finished my entrée, my sister had sent a text message to me to say that she was nearby. So, I waited and let my food settle some. Once she arrived and ordered, I opted for a dessert. There was baklava on the menu and having had that to excess as of late, I inquired about a certain Greek dessert that I think would be a sin to miss having at a Greek restaurant. I was curious as to whether there was galaktoboureko on the menu. To me, galaktoboureko is truly a slice of heaven, not just custard with a phyllo crust drizzled with a honey glaze. I enjoyed it very, very slowly along with a pot of peppermint tea.

With change, there is not always the guarantee of improvement. I only had one dining experience at Chara’s predecessor, Papaspiro’s, so I never got the opportunity to develop an attachment to the restaurant. I will admit that after only this one meal at Chara, I have developed an attachment to their fare. Part of it was the friendly service, which actually sets the tone for how great one will enjoy a meal. It also helped that the food was superbly appetizing. It was a package that I could not deny spiked my appetite. And if I were of lesser scruples, I would have stood at the end of my experience, grabbed a plate, smashed it against the floor and yelled, Opa!!!!!

Chara on Urbanspoon

Triste de Vous Voir Partir

Homemade Bread and Butter

Homemade Bread and Butter

Is it possible for one of your best meals to also turn out to be your most disappointing meal? On a pleasant, late Saturday afternoon, a great friend and I found ourselves pondering that question. Put a footnote there, as we shall return with the explanation of why we were disappointed.

We met at Henri at 18 S. Michigan Avenue. For years we had gone to an Asian restaurant next door to the restaurant and each time we said that we would have to go to Henri. Having been in a French mode as of late, we agreed that it was time that we actually went to Henri rather than simply talked about going.

With perfect weather for outdoor seating, we sat outside and had a brief review of the menu while enjoying complimentary homemade bread that had been glazed with honey. In our usual experimental mood, we chose to indulge our own degustation and wine pairing. We explained to the server what we liked — seafood, no pork, no beef, nothing with nuts in it — and told him to surprise us.

Diver Scallops

Diver Scallops

Escargot Bourgogne

Escargot Bourgogne

For our first course, we had diver scallops and escargot bourgogne. The diver scallops came surrounded by a champagne and grapefruit gelatin, and they sat atop a marmalade of endive that’s caramelized to give a hint of bitterness and sweetness. Also with it came a sliver of grapefruit with a mint purée. The escargot bourgogne was marinated in butter and garlic. The escargot were flat top cooked on toasted brioche with truffle, garlic hollandaise, and a salad with a lemon vinaigrette, preserved lemon, and fig purée. To keep our palates wet, the glass of sancerre was silk on the tongue.

Split Pea Soup

Split Pea Soup

The second course was split pea soup. The surprise in this dish was that there was tartness to the soup that was somehow cancelled out by the sweetness of the English peas. Yes, there was enough of a hint in the tartness, but not to the point of inducing a wince, much like what one experiences when getting the first taste of a lemon. The soup was divinely creamy, which was an indication of having been puréed to an extreme or indeed having cream added. And the oakiness chablis was splendid for cutting through the richness of the English peas.

Sancerr

Sancerre

Chablis

Chablis

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir

Rosé

Rosé

Indulging the third course was when my friend and I had earmarked Henri as the most outstanding French restaurant in Chicago proper. Duck cassoulet and nettle ravioli were the two dishes that were our determining factors — and we probably would have said the same of any other dishes. The duck cassoulet is not a dish that you find to excess in Paris. Those in Southern France mostly partake of this casserole and Henri honoured that recipe very, very satisfactorily, and the glass of Pinot Noir was the perfect companion. This casserole of duck confit and black beans, instead of white beans as used in the recipe in France, was absolutely worthy of having the bowl licked afterwards. The plate on which the nettle ravioli came was also a candidate for losing tact and licking. Nettle pesto, truffle duxelle cream, shiitake, peas, and radish, coupled with insatiable appetites made for a work of art that fell victim to our knives, forks, and gnashing teeth. Vegetarians would overdose on the nettle ravioli, for it is that inviting to the palate. And like my friend, the rosé will be an excellent accompaniment to the ravioli.

Duck Cassoulet

Duck Cassoulet

Nettle Ravioli

Nettle Ravioli

The dessert course was light and exemplary of how marvelous the French are when it comes to desserts. We had a banana souffle, three-tier chocolate mousse, and coffee. The presentation for the souffle was unexpected. The souffle came to the table, the server poked a hole in it, and then poured bananas in a creamy sauce atop it while the souffle was falling. One may say, “Oh, that’s nice,” but it only takes one scoop to have a passive remark turn into, “Oh, my God, I need to have some more of that.” The three-tier chocolate mousse looked more like a small sculpture. Yes, it was culinary art, in all sense of the word. Chocolate cake on the bottom, white chocolate mousse in the middle, and a dollop of more white chocolate, and topped with a drizzled chocolate cap, this dessert was too dainty to devour. We devoured it and wrapped up with coffee and cafe au lait.

Cafe au Lait

Cafe au Lait

Banana Souffle

Banana Souffle

Three Tier Chocolate Mousse

Three Tier Chocolate Mousse

As you can tell, this was a meal to make most chefs jealous. Not only was the meal worthy of high praise, but the service was absolutely top. The server took time to explain the dishes. Then again, my friend and I had let him place the orders, so explanations were proper. Even with the wine pairings, the sommelier came to the table and not only gave the names of the wines, but also provided a brief history and location of the vineyards where the wines were produced. Nothing about the experience can be referenced as not being good.

Where the disappointment came into play was with the discovery that Henri will close its doors for business in June, 2014. We had the opportunity to shake hands with the owner, as he was welcoming customers to the restaurant and engaging them in polite banter. He remarked that he will open an Italian restaurant in Henri’s place. Henri, being in a section of Michigan Avenue that has a lot of foot traffic and tourists, can be “intimidating” when onlookers see everyone dressed in finery. Chicago has a few French restaurants and several others that have a French influence, which is not the same as being authentically French. The output from the kitchen at Henri is authentically French, reminiscent of meals I have had in Paris, Chalon-sur-Saône, Avignon, and Marseille. Chicago boasts a plethora of Italian restaurants. The same cannot be said of French restaurants. Those who had their first enjoyable experience at Henri and those who had become repeat customers will miss the richness of the flavours, the authenticity of the food, and the addiction that ensued thereafter.

Comment pourrait-on le faire?

Henri on Urbanspoon

Midweek Escape to Italy

So, my cell phone rings while I am still at work and it is one of my great friends. There is the inquiry as to what I was doing after work, to which I answered that I was sitting at my desk — well past 5:00 PM — pondering what to eat. Food consumes — no pun intended — my free thoughts. What to eat? Where to eat? Do I drive there, walk, or take public transit to get the food source? Should it be quick or a dining experience where I can sit still and really enjoy my meal? My friend’s call snapped me out of my waffling at least such that I could think of a general location. There was a certain Italian restaurant where she and I had gone last summer. And talk about clarity, there was no case of introducing other options along with the Italian restaurant. It was off to 116 N. Oak Park Avenue in Oak Brook for a midweek escape to Il Vicolo.

Gnarly Head

Gnarly Head

The temperatures were moderate enough that we wondered if there would be seating available outside. Once we arrived and there was a bit more bite in the wind than before we left our respective job locations — she coming from Oak Brook Terrace and me coming from downtown Chicago — it dawned on us that temperatures are not consistently warm until the last week of June. Nevertheless, we had a window seat and imagined the warmth of the sun as we watched pedestrians’ pass by with clattering teeth.

Olive Oil, Parmesan Cheese, Pepper

Olive Oil, Parmesan Cheese, Pepper

Usually whenever my friend and I would catch up for dinner, we would never have wine or a “loaded” beverage during “school nights.” We reserve libations for weekends when we don’t have to worry about sleeping through the ringing of the morning alarm. However, I was in one of my “just bring it” moods and opted for some wine. In past posts I have mentioned that I have no wine snobbery. What I said to the server was that I’d relay what I like for possible dinner courses and she could surprise me with an accompanying wine accordingly. After my friend and I had given our requests, the server said that there would be a red wine that we both should try. And, so there was a bottle of Gnarly Head, a Pinot Noir, brought to the table. There was a quick pour, a swishing around in the glass, a tasting, and a nod of approval, and then the glasses were filled. Bravo.

Tortino Di Melanzane

Tortino Di Melanzane

With a basket of complimentary bread, fresh olive oil, parmesan cheese, and cracked black pepper, we enjoyed homemade Italian bread. One of the things about being serious with baking, I can tell when bread is fresh and when it has been purchased from a grocer or bakery. This bread came from the oven at Il Vicolo. That says something for authenticity and our devouring it was testament to our approval of not having perfectly prepared Sunbeam or Wonder bread put in front of us. For a salad, we started with a grilled calamari salad that left us not wanting fried calamari ever again. Don’t get me wrong, as there are some restaurants where the fried calamari has been the absolute best. However, tender grilled calamari and baby octopus in a very light lemon garlic and olive oil served over a mixed green salad were fantastic. Next time I return to Il Vicolo, I will inquire as to whether they use fresh vegetables because the salad had the kind of flavour that pops, much like what I have had any time I have gone to the country where pesticides and growth enhancers are not used on the crops.

Grilled Calamari and Salad

Grilled Calamari and Salad

The dining experience got into full swing with a tortino de melanzane. We all have had eggplant parmesan and have friends who swear that they, their mother, or their grandmother prepares the best eggplant parmesan ever. Whatever. You can have it. Give me tortino de melanzane. The baked eggplant was neither mushy nor crunchy. Goldilocks would even agree that it was just right. The mozzarella was not piled on so high that it introduced a choke factor. The tomato sauce was moderately chunky the way Ragu wished that jarred foolishness they sell was chunky. Again, full of flavour without the feel of salt on the tongue. And they included one of my all-time favourite highlights of cilantro. Now I was understanding fully why the Gnarly Head was the wine of choice per the server. The oak flavour was all the spice needed to complete the marriage with the meal. Listen to me sounding like a real food critic. Ha!

Penne Arrabbiata

Penne Arrabbiata

Italian cuisine may be known for a good mix of herbs and spices in the dishes, yet most dishes are not spicy. You don’t turn red in the cheeks after forking your meal into your mouth. Well, some people have mild constitutions and anything other than just salt has them screaming and putting on a show. I have been gaining weight slowly over the past few months, so I keep carbohydrates in my diet. Hence, I had pasta and this time I had a spicy penne arrabbiata. My first exposure to penne arrabbiata was with the purchase of a bag of it from Trader Joe’s. I was surprised that something frozen could taste so blooming delicious because food from the frozen section is saturated with ingredients that people use for trick words in spelling bees. Then after having penne arrabbiata at some Italian restaurants, it became a source of addiction. Well, the same can be said for the pasta dish at Il Vicolo. It was spicier than what I have had anywhere else, but that made it all the more appetizing to me because I love fire with my flavour. Each bite was bliss and rather than drowning the penne in the sauce, the sauce was more like an accent. Outstanding!

Nocciola

Nocciola

By now my camera was starting to do its own thing. Buttons were inoperable, which really made it horrible for me being able to set the focus point for my compositions. Even resetting the white balance to account for the sunlight gone down was impossible. Sure, I should have been in the moment rather than photographing my food. But how else can I present impressions of my dining experiences to make you want to dash out to the restaurant? It would have been so unfair for me to leave out such appetizing photos. Alas, I could only muster so much and I put the camera away and made a note to myself to trash it when I got home. I have three other digital cameras that work without giving me grief. The cheap one I used for these shots was disposable. My friend had ordered pappardelle gamberi e funghi. I don’t particularly like to have my friends wait for me to finish snapping away with my camera because ticking off close to a hundred shots per dish could mean having fork up lukewarm food. So, I missed capturing her dish of tasty homemade flat pasta with shrimp and mushrooms in a fresh tomato and basil sauce. This is one dish that I have yet to have all to myself and I must return to for that very purpose, per my friend’s recommendation.

Chocolate Lava Cake

Chocolate Lava Cake

We wrapped up with coffee and dessert. The coffee had a robust flavour, yet it required very little sweetener. And there were the desserts. Instead of the ubiquitous plate of tiramisu or cannoli, my friend had chocolate lava cake and I had nocciola. The chocolate lava cake, which had a preparation time of eight minutes, apparently was a big hit with my friend. Then again, the last time she had cake was earlier in April for her birthday, thankful that Easter had passed and sampling a dolce was not a frowned-upon option. I had it before and agreed with her expressions that indicated it was a worthy dessert. The nocciola was certainly real gelato. You can’t buy that flavour in the frozen dairy section of your local market. You just can’t.

On weekends, Il Vicolo has a tendency to fill up quickly. Once you have had any of their dishes or interacted with the wait staff, you understand why. The prices of the dishes are far from exorbitant. Of all the times going, I have not had a dining experience that resulted in me leaving dissatisfied. If anything, I always make plans for a return visit. If you go on the weekends and for the evening courses, make a reservation. Trust me when I say that you will not want to stand around watching plates boasting flavours and aromas that cause drooling. You will want to work your knife and fork on some morsel without delay. As for me, I do believe a midweek escape to Il Vicolo is in order for the near future.

I Am 45

The Williams Smile

The Williams Smile

On 5 April 2013, at 1:15 PM, I officially turned 45. As a mathematician I tend to be more exact with things than necessary. When I turned 30, I was too busy planning the celebratory birthday party to realize that I had reached a third decade in my life. By the time I turned 40, family had a huge birthday party for me and it was just another day. Now that I am 45, it occurred to me that the next big birthday for me will be 46, not 50 as some would say. Truth be told, I look forward to each year with more excitement than the previous years.

As I get older I am aware of more things that are pertinent in my Disney.

  • There are things I am not supposed to have. And I’m okay with that.
  • There are places I am not supposed to go. And I’m okay with that.
  • There are people I am not supposed to have messing up my happiness. I am ecstatic over that.
  • Time goes by faster now than it did when I was a kid. Summer break used to last forever.
  • I am with the person who makes me happy. Note the strikethrough. That alone shaves 20 years off my face.
  • Smiling removes wrinkles naturally. To think that people pay for Botox injections and nip-tucks.
  • I am aware of the passage of time, as there isn’t enough time to eat all that I’d like to eat.
  • Food is my lover and anyone who thinks otherwise should be fitted for a straight jacket. (Being careful so my high school crush doesn’t read this statement.)

Instead of a huge party with dozens of people milling around and me not getting a chance to sit and talk with any of them at great length, I opted for more personal celebratory gatherings with friends, family, and my high school crush who kept teasing me with the promise of baking me an Italian cream cake. I started the morning meeting some friends for breakfast. With it being my birthday, they wanted me to be “in the moment,” which meant we were not doing anything with an ethnic leaning to have me switch into blogger mode. That didn’t mean I should leave my camera at home. So, into the bag went the camera and out the door I dashed to Marmalade at 1969 W. Montrose Avenue in the Ravenswood neighbourhood of Chicago. I was in blogger mode and that was inevitable. Super service, contrary to some disturbing reviews I’ve come across, and I will chalk that up to us getting to the restaurant at 7:00 in the morning when everything was new and patrons with bitterness, indecisiveness, and wants for vicious reviews had not poured in.

Cafe au lait. Eggs scrambled well with cream cheese. Cubano French toast.

Cafe Au Lait

Cafe Au Lait

The cafe au lait was not bitter, not in the least. I drank it without any sugar and said silently, “Intelligentia, you have competition.” By the second cup, I was saying, “Intelligentia what?” Nothing spectacular about cream cheese in my eggs, as that is a staple for my desired preparation of eggs. Where I wanted to stand up and sing “Gino Marmalade,” was with the Cubano French toast. I would gladly have enjoyed a petite mort after the first bite of the French toast in guava marmalade with a cream anglaise, topped with strawberries, guava, and granola. The lyrics would have been something like:

Gitchi, gitchi, ya ya da da da
Gitchi, gitchi, ya ya here
Mocha chocolata ya ya
Hungry Gino Marmalade

Scrambled Eggs

Scrambled Eggs

The prices for the menu items are reasonable. The service was outstanding. The food was so yum-inspiring that I could have sung an aria. Whatever gripes reviewers on Yelp have with Marmalade, I will return and I will have to make it a point to fight the urge to stand up and launch into the following lyrics:

Voulez-vous manger avec moi ce jour?
Voulez-vous manger avec moi?
Voulez-vouz manger avec moi cest jour?
Voulez-vous manger avec moi?

Cubano French Toast

Cubano French Toast

For lunch, I met with two friends I had worked with when I was driving off the map to the wonderful West Suburbs. We met at Wok’n Fire at 1576 W. Lake Street in Addison, Illinois. It’s the usual big-box atmosphere like what you get at Pei Wei Asian Diner and at PF Chang. But the aromas made the restaurant smell less of a buffet cafeteria and more like some good food was being prepared in the kitchen. After laughter about how the company had become a revolving door and joking about how some people manage to get promotions although they take vacation time in impromptu, unscheduled fashion, it was time for food. Per recommendation from one of my friends, I ordered Schezuan tilapia. Served with brown rice, spinach, and in a Schezuan sauce with red peppers, onions, broccoli, and mushrooms, lunch had a wow factor that left me weak in the knees. I had to drive back into the city and doing it behind the wheel of a manual shift after such a fantastic lunch, I was glad to get home and take a nap in advance of dinner. But before my siesta, I had a long chat with Ma Williams who boasted about how proud she was of me and how she’s glad I have been taking care of myself and some other mushy stuff that indicates I was never a disappointment. Not many mothers can say that and we Williams offsprings became high-end. And then she asked me if I had made use of the cake pans she sent to me for my birthday gift. Ma Williams always gets me the birthday gifts that make me smile.

Schezuan Tilapia

Schezuan Tilapia

Now, let me just say that I slept so good during the afternoon that I had thought I slept a bit too long. There was no way that I wanted to miss my birthday dinner. Sure, I can go to Marion Street Cheese Market at 100 S. Marion Street in Oak Park, Illinois, at any time. But for a proper celebration, and I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed, it was necessary for me to get up and be ready to head out for a worthwhile meal.

Flight of cheeses — Dante, l’amuse gouda, and sharp cheddar. Sunchoke arancini. Quiche. Salad. Flight of wine. Pot de creme.

Quiche and Salad

Quiche and Salad

Sunchoke Arancini

Sunchoke Arancini

The flight of cheeses came with candied walnuts, toasted almonds, a flavourful jam, wafers, and bread. So perfect and we worked our teeth on the items that begged for us to continue. Yep, we even paused conversation so we could concentrate. The sunchoke arancini was several stops past the last exit to wonderful. Ingredients of hazelnut chimichurri, sunchoke puree, sunflower sprouts, and lemon made for a vegetarian’s plate of happiness. We smiled through each bite. The quiche was of the kind that the meekest person would clobber a corn-fed Indiana football player senselessly if the football player were to mess with the mild person’s quiche. We’re talking about a quiche with Sarvecchio parmesan, caramelized onions, and parsnip puree served with braised spinach. You simply will not stop making comment about how delicious it is after each bite. Oh, and let me not forget to add that we each had flights of wine. Liquid bliss! For me, I told the server to bring a flight, any flight. It didn’t matter. I didn’t care. It was my birthday and he did not disappoint — three reds, two from France and one from Chile. The flight paired well with everything. The dessert was a pot de creme — chocolate hazelnut pudding topped with a baked meringue. There is a special corner in hell for me after working that pot de creme with exaggerated facial expressions, the homemade butter cookies, and a cup of coffee that was made from a fine bean. As we teetered out of the restaurant, it was rather apparent why we all return there so much. And people who don’t like that assessment are sitting back saying, “I know better places.” I can only shake my head and say, “Umpf, umpf, umpf. Tell me anything.”

Pot de Creme and Butter Cookies

Pot de Creme and Butter Cookies

As a kid, I used to think that people in their 40’s were old. I am quite amazed at how my perspective has changed since, rather considerable if I may add. When I look in the mirror and the only things that can possibly give my age away are my balding head and the grey in my beard, I realize that I can shave and those indicators go away as well. When I think about how I had furrows in my brow and pessimism in my eyes during my twenties, none to be seen in my physical appearance now, it feels nice announcing my age. Because then I can watch the show when people start to actively debate me and call me a liar who wants to be older than he really is. And I smile, yet again removing any potential wrinkles.

Hello, my name is Gino Williams and I am 45 years old. Oh, and I am a food addict.

Marmalade on Urbanspoon Wok'n Fire on Urbanspoon

Your Love Deserves an Encore

During my high school days, there was a singer by the name of Cheryl Lynn. You may remember her songs “Got to Be Real,” “Shake It Up Tonight,” and “Star Love.” Here we had a woman with the pipes of an angel and who could stand flat-footed at the microphone and belt out a song without any studio magic — or that awful auto-tune phenomenon — to cover up poor vocal talents. And she did not shake her rump like she was performing in a Bollywood video. I loved the songs that Cheryl Lynn graced the airwaves with. But there was one song in particular that I played endlessly when I had first heard it. “Encore.” Your good loving deserves an encore, she would sing. And when I find myself returning to certain restaurants, I am reminded of how much “Encore” applies and I all but bring my own microphone and perform for others at the restaurants.

Lobster Gyoza

Earlier during the summer I went to a relatively new restaurant in Oak Park, Illinois, named Seven Ocean. Sitting at 122 N. Marion Street in the cobblestone stretch among boutiques and cafes, I was thoroughly impressed with the dining experience and the service I had received. Granted I had a prix fixe meal along with a wine pairing, I walked away feeling that the summer menu was absolutely brilliant and the chef will make a mark in the culinary world if the restaurant continues to perform with an air of high calibre affectation. Now that the temperatures had started to become consistently chilly, that being autumn was in the air, I wondered if Seven Ocean was one of those restaurants that changed their menus to be reflective of the seasons. The answer, in short, was yes and there was, of course, the tune in my head of Cheryl Lynn singing my favourite song.

While having a quick stroll through Oak Park and having stopped in at a nearby dessert shop for a quick cup of coffee, I sauntered over to Seven Ocean and allowed the magnet to pull me on in completely. Although there were no comfy sofas and chaises placed strategically throughout the restaurant, there was the sound of boutique jazz playing in the background that made everything that more inviting. I still think that the design was done per a man. The straight lines and muted olive earth tones were nothing akin to flash, flair, reds, and curves. The aesthetics of the restaurant are too stiff, and that may be why the food is the antithesis of the cosmetics of the restaurant. Talk about a well-placed balance. Because I had sampled the summer fare from the prix fixe menu, I settled for creating my own menu selection.

Seaweed Salad

Often I like to request recommendations from the server as to what he or she would prefer. That works brilliantly at times, but it is a bit of a presumptuous thought that the servers know exactly what I want and will suggest bill of fare items without me wincing. Many times, I do believe they have been so worked to near spiritual defeat during their work hours that they appreciate someone requesting his or her own meal. There are moments when you can hear the sigh from servers as though air is being released from a deflating tire when you lead in with, “What would you recommend?” In restaurants where the faces change rather quickly, it helps knowing what you want before the server approaches the table to take the order. Having witnessed some fed-up servers make recommendations in a manner fitting for a saucy comedy club sketch, I showed a bit of a command for what I think is best for my palate — I should be an expert on my own taste.

Coconut Soup

My approach to the meal was to delight a multi-course meal with a pescatarian fare. I started with lobster stuffed gyoza. Japanese style gyozas filled with lobster, sitting atop shiso leaves and red cabbage, and glazed with a ponzu sauce was absolutely a great choice for a starter. The gyozas gave an Asian influence to the appetizer and perhaps had there been only one gyoza and I was at an Italian trattoria, I could have called it a l’amuse bouche. Alas, there was nothing left of the gyozas after a few slow minutes of me slicing, forking, and indulging. A few minutes passed and then there was the second course, a seaweed salad. Seaweed may not look all that appetizing when you are snorkelling, but Japanese seaweed, cucumber, sesame, and vinegar dressing never tasted so divine. The seaweed had the texture of well-cooked, thin green beans and the vinegar dressing entertained a citrus flavouring that would leave most questioning whether there was any vinegar in the dressing at all. There is something to be said for a salad looking so bland having such a bloom to its taste. Again, here was another course that had an Asian influence to it that did not fail.

In keeping with a Thai appeal, there was coconut soup. I was already quite enthralled with the first two courses, but the coconut soup as the autumn soup went over so well that I did not miss anything in the pumpkin or yam family doctored up with a hint of cinnamon, a dash or nutmeg, or a touch of allspice. There were crab meat, shimeji mushrooms, and tobiko that arrive in a bowl and then covered with steamed coconut milk. If you have ever been to a Thai restaurant, I guess I could relate the soup to tom kha. You may have recognized from my many posts on Thai restaurants where I have been that I have a very strong preference for foods influenced by Thai culture. The pairing of the herbs and spices in the recipes never fall short of works of culinary care, evident in the high notes of flavours in the dishes served. That same notion became apparent after a whiff of the coconut soup at Seven Ocean, well before the first sip. Also with the soup, I had a Sauvignon Blanc from a vineyard in New Zealand. Neither dry nor sweet, there was a hint of a floral note that made the wine a superb complement with the soup. I could not have offered a better wine suggestion and this was where I deferred to my server for an ideal selection of wine to accompany the meal.

Prawn Yakisoba

By the time I was finished with the soup, I had convinced myself that nothing could possibly go wrong. Then the prawn yakisoba over Asian cabbage accented with soba sauce and fish flake that moved its own from the rising heat, came to the table. I had started singing “Encore” by Cheryl Lynn off key, making up words for the lyrics that I could not remember, humming the song in other parts, doing a little dance with my eyes closed, and then opening my eyes to see that some other customers and my server were staring at me. The prawn yakisoba was absolutely fantastic, but I had to deal with my embarrassment however I saw fit. It was just that in the meantime, the succulent, well-seasoned shrimp had a wow factor along with the noodles in the rich sauce. Another glass of the Sauvignon Blanc and there was no argument that the prawn yakisoba became, at that moment, my all-time favourite autumn dish. Realizing that I had already made a fool of myself with my singing and dancing, and I could not go back in time to catch myself, I began humming again. This time, I kept it low enough that no one could hear me.

When I first went to Seven Ocean, I had a dessert of sticky rice with mango and crème fraiche. During the evening of my most recent jaunt, I had a different take on the dessert. There was sticky rice but topped with a mango sorbet and then there was a moat of light mango soufflé around the scoop of sorbet. Brilliant, I thought to myself, as I enjoyed the magic of each spoonful. When the dessert was mentioned, I initially thought that I was going to have the same dessert I had during my first visit. Part of my misunderstanding was because I was still bandying the song “Encore” around in my mind while the server was telling me about the dessert. Oh was I glad I decided to have it instead of coffee. If someone were to ask me to define love, I would tell them to got to Seven Ocean and request the autumn version of dessert.

Mango Sorbet and Souffle Over Coconut Sticky Rice

So, after all was done, I was very happy that I had gone to Seven Ocean for a sampling of the autumn menu. It was not only a meal, but it was an experience. Like all of the restaurants where I have returned for more than one visit, I was again taken in to the point where I made plans to return during the month of January or February to see what their winter menu will have for those who appreciate fine dining and something with an unconventional twist. Because Seven Ocean is up-scale, the price is reflective accordingly. The restaurant is not a showcase in fanfare or grandstanding. Simply put, the service and dining are smashing. Yes, Seven Ocean, your good loving deserves an encore.

Seven Ocean on Urbanspoon