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

Italy Comes to Chicago

Castello del Poggio BrachettoLiving in Chicago and being a food blogger for fun has way more excitement to the food adventures than I can say. There are new discoveries that the palate may delight. There are existing eateries that serve as magnets for returning culinary lovers. Many restaurants provide an atmosphere of community for large parties consisting of friends or family members. We shall not discount any of the boutique restaurants that provide intimate settings and swell background jazz music. And with Chicago having one of the world’s largest global communities, ethnic dining awaits you at practically every corner. The reasons for loving dining at Chicago’s restaurants are endless. But what is more fantastic is that even with staple cuisines like Chinese, Mexican, and Italian, there are twists that make such restaurants seem like a first-time find. Such was the case during a recent excursion to Basil Leaf Cafe at 2465 N. Clark Street in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighbourhood.

When I began Chicago Alphabet Soup, I had been adamant about avoiding Chinese, Mexican, and Italian restaurants — Chinese restaurants because I will scream if someone offers beef with brocolli, general chicken, or sweet and sour what-not ever again; Mexican because you can have enchiladas, frijoles, and Tex-Mex tacos only so much; and Italian because spaghetti and meatballs — me being pescatarian — and ravioli are as exhaustive as any can of Chef Boy-Ardee. But I received an invitation to meet with several other food bloggers and sommeliers for a food and wine pairing at Basil Leaf Cafe. Seeing that the restaurant’s menu online was more rustic, an indication that we would not have our fair share of red sauce splashing about our plates, I agreed to the dinner gathering and replied with my appetite as a guest.

As it turned out, the dinner and wine pairing was with Francesco Zonin of Casa Vinicola Zonin USA. Imagine an evening of fine wine and delicious food with the president of Zonin USA. Humourous and looking more like a fashion model, after providing a bit of history on the company, he explained that the dinner would feature Casa Vinicola Zonin’s Tenuta Ca’ Bolani Estate wines. Now, Tenuta Ca’ Bolani grows internationally known wines such as Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Also, there are well indigenous varieties, such as Traminer, Muller Thurgau, Tocai Friulano, Pinot Bianco, and Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso. Not that my wine snobbery is polished, I have yet to drink an Italian wine — white or red — that I found not to my liking. And, honestly, not being chic-chic enough to pair the right wines with my food, this evening was certain to be one worthy of documenting.

Amouse Bouche

For our amouse bouche, we started with baked, fresh figs topped with gorgonzola and mascarpone cheese and drizzled with a balsamic redux. Let me just say that I have baked cookies with figs in them and my grandmother had a way of making wine with figs and muscadines. Never have I dined on figs prepared the way they were this evening. My palate is refined, so hearing the appetizer, I figured that it would be an interesting festival on the tongue. Well, interesting is not the right word to describe how addictive the amouse bouche was. The figs were sweet, of course, but the mixture of cheeses and balsamic redux turned this into a rather tasty dessert. With this course, there was a Zonin Prosecco. This white wine was closer in sweetness to a dessert wine without the sweetness that you get in an ice wine. As an entry into the evening’s dining, the combination of the fig appetizer and the Prosecco was superb.

First CourseThe first course was the initial indication that things were going to be quite splendid for the rest of the evening. There were porcini dusted sea scallops, sweet pea puree, and micro green salad. Although I am a pescatarian, scallops are one seafood item I have tended to shy away from because some restaurants embrace cooking scallops al dente. What that translates to is a tough  texture, the equivalent of chewing a rubber ball. The master chef, sous chef, or head cook at Basil Leaf Cafe must have decided that he or she was not going to serve a scafezza — disaster — to a room full of food lovers. This was the first time I have had scallops so tender that the knife glided through the meat instead of me needing to slice through it. The seasoning, while it could have been heavy-handed and overpowering, was there but faint enough to let the flavour of the scallops come through. The sweet pea puree was a nice complement to the dish and it too was seasoned well enough that the tongue did not scream from too much seasoning. And served with the first course was a Tenuta Ca’Bolani Pinot Grigio. As with any Pinot Grigio, the flavour was light and had a distant fruity tone, ideal on the tongue and accommodating enough to let the dish have the spotlight.

Second Course

For the second course, the vegetarian in me stood on the table and danced. Hmmm. No, not exactly. I shall simply say that I nodded — excessively — in appreciation. This dish consisted of poached pear in Castello del Poggio Moscato D’Asti over baby arugula, topped with gorgonzola cheese, glazed pecans and honey balsamic. The pear was not merely sliced and poached. There had to have been some additional seasoning added because had there been crust, I would have foresaken eating apple pie or peach pie ever again. And because the glaze was not thick like molasses, I smiled even more knowing that this tasty treat did not come from a can. The salad was a nice companion to the pear, green, fresh, and lightly touched with the honey balsamic instead of drowned in it. The wine served with the second course was a Tenuta Ca’ Bolani Sauvignon Blanc, only a notch sweeter than the Pinot Grigio, ideal enough to take a backseat to the pear — that would have made an awesome pie — and the delectable salad.

Third Course

As if the amouse bouche and the first two courses were not splendid enough, the third course was where the chef let it be known that he really shines. Wild mushroom risotto cooked in Tenuta Ca’ Bolani Sauvignon with fennel dusted shrimp sat on plates like works of art that should not be touched. The risotto had been cooked maybe a few seconds past al dente, not the point where it was mushy and thankful that it was not gummy. The plump shrimp exploded with each bite. I imagined them popping as I slowly gnashed away at them while having at the wild mushroom risotto. I know several individuals who swear that they make the best risotto and I made mental notes of them all being liars because the risotto at Basil Leaf Cafe is indeed the best that I have had at Chicago Italian restaurants. Then again, it may have been the combination of seafood with the risotto instead of beef or chicken. Switching up the dish in terms of the meat accompaniment may have been what made the dish that more pleasing to the palate. Add to that a glass of Tunuta Ca’ Bolani Refosco. Granted this wine is served mostly with red meat, the strong currants, wild berry, and plum flavours make this a de rigeour request for me with seafood. Unless the seafood is in a rich, creamy sauce, a full bodied wine like a Refosco will redefine love.

Tenuta Ca' Bolani Refosco.One thing I have discovered with multiple food courses at Italian restaurants is that when the chefs start pulling you in with their addictive dishes, they keep going up in notches until you quiver with an addiction. The fourth course consisted of grilled salmon topped in a balsamic and berry reduction with fingerling potatoes and brussel sprouts. I shall start by saying that I never had an aversion to brussel sprouts as a child, surprisingly never getting enough of them. The brussel sprouts at Basil Leaf Cafe were al dente, but I completed them all the same. As to the grilled salmon, I had a brief vision of me on a psychologist’s couch whining about how I could not live without the dish and how I would make all sorts of promises — none that I would keep — so that I could have more. I tend to prefer my fish seasoned well, barring tartar sauce or even ketchup. Anything sweet on fish has a tendency to detract from the flavour. Then I showed up at Basil Leaf Cafe and that changed with the balsamic and berry reduction. It may have been because the sauce was more of a glaze and not a drenching. And with this feast of bliss was a glass of Feudo Principi Di Butera Nero D’Avola. This lush and impressive red is resplendent with a cherry fragrance and a hint of spice. The texture is smooth and velvety. I mean, it is easy to be lured into thinking you are downing a pricey bottle off wine, but for its complexity in taste, the price is reasonable enough for me to restock my wine cache with some of it.

Fourth Course

Of course by now, everyone at the table has a dreamy, hazy feeling from so much good food and even more fabulous wine. But what meal is complete without a dessert? None, I say. The dessert at Basil Leaf Cafe was indeed a new one to me. Crispy gnocchi with vanilla bean ice cream, topped with chocolate and pistachio came out in a substantial bowl. The ice cream with the chocolate shavings and pistachio was fine all by itself. However, the crispy gnocchi was a surprise and one that I welcomed. Now, I may add that the gnocchi was not crispy like a rice crispy bar and it was not deep-fried, but rather toasted. Not seasoned with anything other than perhaps a faint coat of sugar, what initially looked to be a heavy dessert turned out to be light. With this dessert finale was a dessert wine: a Castello del Poggio Brachetto. This reminded me of an ice wine that I had tried in the Finger Lakes region of New York State — a wine that was incredible and costly to match. And now that I think of it, the dessert was not overly sweet, and perhaps for good reason so that the sweetness of the wine would not create a saccharine crisis for all at the table.

Dessert

This was the second food and wine pairing that I have had within the past few weeks, the first at an exotic Asian boutique restaurant and now this addiction-filled dinner experience at Basil Leaf Cafe. Having partaken of food and wine pairings in the past, there were always dishes where clearly the chefs were trying too hard and they stumbled. What was apparent at Basil Leaf Cafe was that the chef knew the right mixture of ingredients for the dishes and how to present the star and supporting dishes so that nothing competed on the tongue. The wine pairings were worthy, each on the mark. With the photography that I do at all of the restaurants where I visit for journaling, it was also quite nice seeing others engage their food from the taste point of view and from the artistic standpoint. And how often do you get to say you dined with the president of an Italian winery that produces and sells some of the top wines in the world? New friends, new beginnings, wonderful service, and a memorable night of food and wine at one of Chicago’s spectacular Italian eateries. What more could I have asked for?

Answer: A cab home.

Basil Leaf Cafe on Urbanspoon

Ending Song to Carol Burnette Show

It was a Friday night. I am soon to depart Chicago for Washington, DC, where for the next three months I will be on weekend scavenger hunts for restaurants to rival those in Chicago. I must say that Chicago has made it impossible for any other city in the world to best it in the cuisine department — that is unless you go to Melbourne, Australia, where you are guaranteed to shout from the rafters that you have been to food Mecca. But some critics with mild palates have stamped San Francisco as the top food haven in America. Far be it from me to debate someone who has never exhausted himself or herself to great satisfaction at a dining establishment in Second City.

Bruschetta

Red, Red, Wine

My circle of friends had a proper send-off for me. We met at Tasting Room at 1415 W. Randolph Street in Chicago’s Near West Loop. Right at the edge of one of Chicago’s premier locations that houses swanky boutiques, fantastic restaurants, coffee houses, fancy shops, and a demographic consisting of artists, bankers, lawyers, engineers, and the like, Tasting Room was a most inviting choice. There are two floors that you may choose for meeting to sip an aperitif or two and sample tasty delights. The bottom floor has a full bar and a generous seating area of tables and lounge chairs. Sweet. And there is the second floor that has a wide-open loft feel with plenty more tables and lounge seating. Windows, tall and wide, face downtown and you see the splendour of the skyscrapers with lights painting the windows while you enjoy company. This is exactly what happened for my friends and me this particular Friday evening.

I have lost track of the number of times I have been to Tasting Room, spanning as far back as 2009. The quality of the food has always been a magnet that draws me back. The knowledge of the wait staff, and I do believe the server we had this time is a sommelier, exceeds that of what you will find at most casual dining establishments. Tasting Room is not for the frugal, but at the same time, it is not one to cause fear of going broke. With such splendid service and great space, it is an excellent location for a gathering of small friends or a send-off with a large party. And because you are certain to find at least one bottle of wine worthy of taking home, may I recommend the adjoining wine shop? Yes, I may.

Vino Rojo

We all ordered flights of wine, the names relating to the Rat Pack that was so famous during the 1980’s. The white wines were attributed to the female cast of the Rat Pack: Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald, Demi Moore, and others. The red wines had names linked to Judd Nelson, John Cusack, Michael Anthony Hall, Emilio Estevez, and other male characters of the bunch. It was a rather touching theme, one that made me aware of how old I am because I remember all of those Rat Pack movies — “Breakfast Club,” “Pretty in Pink,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Better Off Dead,” and several other worthy movies from that group that makes me wince when I see picture shows by the present ilk of silver screen Thespians. The table before us held flatbread pizzas — one with ricotta cheese and spinach, another with olives and pine nuts, and a margherita pizza topped with fresh tomatoes. We grinned as we delighted ourselves on Bruschetta with sweet, dried cranberries. A crab cake sandwich with spicy, authentic onion rings appeared from the kitchen and were dealt a swift end. And the piave cheese fondue that was ideal for the small group was well-received, as was evident from the fact that we had all but wiped the fondue bowl to completion. White bread, rye bread, potatoes, apples, and chicken swirled around in piave cheese and then popped into our mouths without hesitation. We all smiled.

Delicious

When the night ended, I remembered the start of the lyrics to the song that Carol Burnette used to sing at the end of her variety show: It’s so nice we had this time together. The thing that left me with a smile is that I also remembered that the show came on again the next week. The laughter, commiseration, and fellowship that I have with my circle will resume when I return. But now that I have been so informed of how warm winters are in Washington, DC, I may want to work out some arrangement where I spend the summer in Chicago and winters in DC. I can suffer through not going to a Chicago restaurant for a few months. Well, I can try to convince myself of that. I guess.

Tasting Room at Randolph Wine Cellars on Urbanspoon