La France Café & Crepes, Lombard Style

La France Café

Now that I have been on assignment in the West Suburbs, I had been actively looking for some restaurants in that vicinity with an international appeal that I could sample for blogging. The farther away you are from Chicago proper, the more limited the options are in that space. Imagine my surprise when I discovered La France Café & Crepes at 708 S. Main Street in Lombard, Illinois.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir

Iced Mocha

Iced Mocha

I went with my restaurant advisor on a Saturday and we arrived shortly after they had opened for the second part of the day. First thing we noticed was the accommodating service. It was a small touch, but the greeting of “Bon soir,” was enough to set a tone of comfort that we were both okay with. For me, being fluent in Quebecois and conversational in Creole meant not fumbling for words or feeling out of place whenever certain French words were used during our dining excursion. While perusing the menu, my advisor started with a glass of Pinot Noir and I had an iced mocha, after which I decided to have a Beaujolais once I had something to eat.

Boeuf et a L'Abricot

Boeuf et a L’Abricot

On to the good stuff. We ordered three savory crepes and two sweet crepes. The beouf et a l’abricot crepe reminded me of Moroccan tagine but stuffed inside of a crepe. Filled with tender beef, apricot slices, and spinach, and topped with toasted almond slivers, this was just what I needed to put me in mind of being back in Morocco. The beouf bourguignon was the equivalent of beef bourguignon as a stew reduced so that it could go into a crepe without making the crepe soggy. Filled with pearl onions and plump mushrooms, we loved it. The crepe de saumon a l’estragon was my favorite. This was stuffed with salmon that had a mild kick, red onions, tarragon, tomatoes, spinach, and crème fraiche. The seafood lover in me indeed approved.

Boeuf Bourguignon

Boeuf Bourguignon

Crepe de Saumon a L'Estragon

Crepe de Saumon a L’Estragon

One of the sweet crepes was a framboise citronnee, which was filled with lemon custard, drizzled with a raspberry sauce (not from a jar), and sprinkled with confectioners sugar. Each bite was like summer on the palate. The other crepe was a abricot et brie, a true sweet and savory crepe thanks to the apricot purée and brie, while topped with candied apricots and dusted with confectioners sugar. Instead of going with whipped cream on the top, we had a fist size scoop of ice cream on the side. And we finished with Moroccan mint tea, yet another trigger to make me miss my vacation in Morocco.

Framboise Citronnee

Framboise Citronnee

Abricot et Brie

Abricot et Brie

One thing to note is that nothing comes to the table within five minutes, except maybe the complimentary water, a coffee, or a glass of wine. The crepes are made to order, so there is no rush of any of the crepes to the table within five minutes. If you go to a creperie and you get your crepes in a flash, I highly recommend that you run. The crepes at La France Café and Crepes do not have a spongy texture, but rather that of a flat-pressed pancake. This is good because crepes in non-touristy France are prepared accordingly. Well, they reminded me of the ones I had in cafes during my days in Chalon-sur-Saone. For my restaurant advisor and me, there will be repeat visits. Pour de vrai.

Moroccan Mint Tea

Moroccan Mint Tea

La France Café Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Antico, Bucktown Delicious

Antico

We arrived at the very end of March and I realized that I had not posted since the very beginning of the month. This was a rather aggressive month, starting with me jumping out of information technology and plunging into photography seriously, albeit working on a website for a display of my portfolio still has me hooked into IT on a periphery. I added some real estate to my cache, became more engaged in community activism, and started an investment club along with some outstanding friends. My reviews thinned out, but my appetite didn’t.

Focaccia

Focaccia

For months, I had walked by a restaurant in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood that caught my eye after taking a peek at the menu. Antico at 1946 N. Leavitt Street is an Italian restaurant with the exposed brick interior that is rather popular throughout the Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Logan Square landscape. A nice setting without claustrophobia, an appetizing menu, and an impressive wine list, I was glad to have finally indulged this winner. And noting the influx of patrons starting immediately at 7:00 PM, it was clear that this was a delight for many.

Mushrooms and Polenta

Mushrooms and Polenta

After skimming the menu, I launched into my “challenge” method of ordering since the restaurant was not busy when I sat. I ordered an appetizer, a pasta, and an entrée, or rather I let the server handle the ordering. And I also trusted the server with the wine pairing. Starting with the mushrooms over polenta, this was certainly a choice I would entertain on future visits. Void of syrup, the mushrooms were not from a can, definitely given from the freshness in each bite. Drizzled with olive oil, the polenta was loose yet not to a runny consistency. With a glass of Nebbiolo that had a hint of berry on the finish, the first course received a compliment to the chef and to the server for the wine pairing.

Lasagna

Lasagna

Given my intent was to indulge myself in a hearty fashion, there was a spacing in time before the pasta course arrived. This was a manageable-sized bowl of lasagna. Prepared with a Bolognese sauce, bechamel sauce, and parmesan cheese instead of mozzarella to give a rich and creamy texture on the palate, this has quickly become my favorite lasagna I’ve had at any Italian restaurant. First, it wasn’t stacked such that it was heavy. Second, there is a very faint touch of nutmeg in the Bolognese sauce that shows up without making an announcement. It felt — or tasted — like a clue. Paired with a glass of Rossi di Montalcino, pure sangiovese that is like a Chianti on the palate, this was another amazing pairing as it still allowed the lasagna to steal the show.

Pork Milanese

Pork Milanese

The pork Milanese topped with fresh, crispy arugula along with cherry tomatoes, parmigiano vegano cheese, and fresh lemon, came on a regular sized plate with the pork chop almost hanging off the sides. Simply amazing. The pork milanese was a thin slice but fleshy because the breading was light. The salad, drizzled with a citrus vinaigrette, was a perfect accompaniment considering a rice, potatoes, or pasta would have been a bit much with the dish. This was paired with a Langhe Rosso, which was a combination of Nebbiolo dolcetto and barbera. It was mildly drier than a lot of the red wines that I drink, but the wink of cherries and nuts tricked me into not recognizing that. Again, for this to have been a course that I entrusted my server to order, this was a success.

Nebbiolo

Nebbiolo

For dessert, I shied away from anything that I thought would be “usual” on the menu. Having been good about not having a dessert with every meal, I opted for whatever gelato was on the menu. What arrived at the table was a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream with nutmeg topped with raspberries and powdered sugar. A dream this was and I believe the chef has a love for nutmeg, evident in how it was “hinted” in the lasagna and how it was included in the ice cream.

I have been rather unfair with my love of Italian restaurants in Chicago. While I like many of them, there is only one that I loved — Osteria Langhe. Antico now becomes the second Italian restaurant in Metropolitan Chicago that I love. Exceptional food is always a key to having someone return based on a hankering. But service is everything. What I discovered at Osteria Langhe was a staff that clearly enjoyed offering recommendations and listening to the customers. That was the same feeling I experienced at Antico. Good customer service is a dying art and when it rears itself in a restaurant setting, married with superb dishes, you achieve perfection and a spot on any one of my “I love this place for whatever reason” lists.

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

Volo Restaurant and Wine Bar

During planning for restaurant outings to sample wines and cheeses, I received a recommendation for a wine bar along a hidden stretch in Chicago’s Roscoe Village neighborhood. A bit rustic in the look and feel with plenty seating, I had a midweek reservation for an early meal. Volo Restaurant and Wine Bar at 2008 W. Roscoe Street was the landing spot.

Fall Flight

Fall Flight

My restaurant adviser and I had designs on trying a few cheese flights along with wine flights for pairings. While the flights were not extensive, there were enough for us to have a few samplings. The first wine flight was a bubbly flight. The 2014 Spagnol, extra dry Prosecco from Veneto, Italy, wasn’t dry to the point of inducing puckering and the notes of apple, pear, and bread crust, surprisingly, made for a smooth and balanced bubbly. The NV Jaillance, Cuvée de l’Abbaye Rosé from Cremant de Bordeaux, France, was subtle on the tongue with a faint accent of strawberries and cream. The NV La Vida al Camp, Brut Cava from Cava, Spain, gave a nose of grapefruit and floral notes.

Flights of Cheese

Flights of Cheese

With autumn soon arriving, we indulged the fall flight. The 2015 Maison Yves Chaley et Fille, Haute Côtes du Nuits Blanc from Burgundy, France, played well on the palate with fresh Grannny apple, pear, lemon zest, and floral tones. The 2012 Cantina Bove, ‘Marso,’ Montelpulciano d’Abruzzo, from Abruzzo, Italy, was earthy with a mix of black fruits and herbal tones. The 2014 Arsonist, Red Blend carried us to California with a silky blend of Petit Verdot, Malbec, and  Cabernet Sauvignon, bearing notes of blue and black fruits, vanilla, and clove for a spicy finish.

Pinot Noir Flight

Pinot Noir Flight

Sparkling Flight

Sparkling Flight

We had a nice selection of cheeses to start off the evening along with our first flights. For sheep’s milk cheese, we could not go wrong with the three month aged Manchego from La Mancha, Spain, a fantastic semi-firm cheese with a creamy finish. For cow’s milk cheese, we had a Camembert from France, soft and creamy with a flowery rind and a umami flavor. Another favorite, which was a brie, was certainly an offering that we could not miss. And with a vintage gouda from Netherlands on the menu, there was no way we were going to pass on enjoying that along with embedded, crunchy caramel. Wanting to try something made from goat’s milk, we had a Montchevre garlic and herb from Wisconsin. The mix of roasted garlic, rosemary, and thyme in the cheese worked with the the goat cheese almost playing background. One other cheese that we requested to come to the table as a surprise was one akin to a crumbly gorgonzola, very mild, and quite inviting as with the accompanying candied walnuts, crushed figs, and honey.

Salmon Salad

Salmon Salad

Moving into the small plates, we tried a salmon salad that had a light citrus vinaigrette along with julienne cucumbers and crisps. Slightly reminiscent of a deconstructed ceviche, the salad was a rather nice touch to the finishing sips of our initial wine flights. After enjoying this and an allowance for a few minutes, we then ordered a bowl of mussels in a white wine sauce with shallots, parsley and French butter. Very partial towards mussels that come in a saffron sauce, the white wine sauce was ideal not only for the moment but rather fitting given the theme of the wine bar.

Mussels

Mussels

Having enjoyed the cheeses, salmon salad, and mussels with toast, we had an interest in more flights of wine. Having overlooked it earlier, there was the cheese and charcuterie flight. The 2015 PortoVino, Cardedu, Vermentino de Sardegna Nuo from Saardina, Italy, was herbaceous with a slight edge of minerality. The 2016 Domaine Haut de Mourier, Voignier “Cuvee Stephanie Bouix,” from Languedoc, France, came from a mountainous region with a nose of apricots and peaches followed by pear, apple, lavender, and honey. The 2013 Juris, St. Laurent from Burgenland, Austria, had tones of cranberry, raspberry, and florals, slightly tart, yet a wonderful selection for those who love Pinot Noir.

Spicy Chicken Over Coconut Rice

Spicy Chicken Over Coconut Rice

The fourth and final wine flight on the menu was the Pinot Noir flight. The 2012 Ara, “Pathway” Pinot Noir from Marlborough, New Zealand, was sweet without crossing into dessert wine territory and perfectly spicy, which paired extremely well with a spicy Asian fried chicken dish that came over coconut rice. The 2014 Bouchard Père et Fils, Pinot Noir, from Burgundy, France, had a bloom of cherry, raspberry, currant, and early notes, and unlike a lot of wine with tannins, the tannins in this selection did not overpower the sips. Finishing with a 2014 Rascal, Pinot Noir, from Williamette Valley Vineyards in Oregon, the cranberry, black cherry, and strawberries in this wine could easily make one fall in love with Oregon wines.

The Wrap-up

The Wrap-up

Finishing with coffee from one of the local roasters, we agreed that the selections were very nice for something light. It was certainly great having a server who was knowledgeable of the wines and could speak to why they paired well with certain cheeses and dishes, as well as speak to personal preference. The wine bar was not teeming with patrons, which may have been due to many in the area crowded into some other bars watching a Cubs game. But if you are looking for a nice date spot without the noise and clamoring, Volo Wine Restaurant and Wine Bar is a sweet spot for libations, small plates, cheeses, and satisfaction.

Volo Restaurant Wine Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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

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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