June, It's A Wrap!



I just had a good feeling about June and knew this month was going to be a fun one. I mean summer is almost upon us and it’s the season of patios!

Speaking of patios, I got to try the new patio at the award-winning Urbanbelly at their Wicker park location. Of course, I’m always up for anything Chef Bill Kim would put in front of me, because his is unafraid to use his imagination and get creative.

I went with a friend to the tasting, and we enjoyed a feast of dumplings, noodles and salads, all made with fresh, seasonal ingredients, each with their own creative version.

I tried one of their featured cocktails; the Rum Coconut Vinegar, which was smoother version of a Pina Colada, and was every bit delicious.

The Sweet Potato & Maple Potstickers with feta & arugula salad were surprisingly sweet yet savory and the potato mixture incredibly tasty. They came four to an order, and made for the perfect appetizer.

The Wok Fired Korean Rice Cakes with shrimp, peanuts, toasted garlic and chives was such a well-executed dish. The rice cakes themselves were dense and filling.  And although mostly bland, the sauces did not overwhelm them, so you still got to taste their unique chewy texture and flavor.

From the Make Your Own Bowl, we tried both the Udon noodles and the salad versions, and added shrimp to each. It’s a mystery how perfect Chef gets these sauces.  Just the perfect sour with hints of sweet.

We threw in an order of the Togarashi Fries, which came with a fantastic curry flavored sauce we just couldn’t stop raving about.  I also loved how subtly flavorful the Japanese red chili made the fries.

Given that it was the eve of National Donut Day, the Maple-Glazed Mini Donuts had to be ordered.  These puffy little treats were delicious and came dusted with a Vietnamese cinnamon that I will now be on the hunt for.

Some of our meal was enjoyed on the patio, which faces a big, beautiful, colorful mural.  Just looking at it would put you in a good mood and the food will do the rest. Lots of fun new drink and food additions on the menu at Urbanbelly, to enjoy in their gorgeous space.

The very next day, I was at a tasting at Nakorn Kitchen in Evanston. I have been on an Asian food kick lately, so these tastings have been timed well.

Ranked among the top ten restaurants by Chicago Magazine in January this year, I have been eagerly waiting to visit this place! After a warm welcome by owners Sam and Joe, and Chef Mina who stepped out of the kitchen to personally greet my guest and me, we began our adventure.

I stuck with my summer cocktail theme because I’ll do anything to channel summer sooner. So I ordered the Mai Thai with Mekhong Thai Rum, orange curacao, Giffard orgeat and lime. The cocktail stayed true to its classic tiki version and was delicious!

We delved into some small bites and had the Grilled Octopus first.  This breathtakingly beautiful dish came with seasonal greens, a delicate squid ink tuile and a red chili-lime drizzle.  The octopus itself was tender soft and added the right fishy flavor to the dish.

There was something just so simple and romantic about the Seared Sea Scallops. The chili jam with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves made for the perfect partner. And the scallops were mildly sweet and delectable.

Then came the dish of the night and probably the dish of the week for me, the Khun Sompit’s Big Fish, a traditional Southern Thai dish, signature here and named after the owner’s father who delighted in treating his friends to this tasty preparation. Out came a platter with a crispy, WHOLE Branzino with Belgian endive and lime gastrique.  The skin was crispy and the stuffing flaky soft.  An utterly satisfying dish to any pescetarian. Served straight from the skillet, you’ll need your hands for this one!

My other favorite from the night was the Jumbo Lump Blue Crabmeat served on a bed of warm Thai rice noodles and a flavorful turmeric-coconut curry that’s poured over on the noodles, at the table.  Being Indian, this instantly took me back to some of the coastal cooking I grew with up in Bombay which had similar exotic flavors. What an aromatic dish, which I intermittently ate with the noodles and the coconut rice that I had also ordered on the side.

Everything was made with such perfection here and each dish, served “family” style was executed with such attention to detail.  While chatting with Chef Mina, she explained that her aim was to stray from the usual Thai street food that’s prevalent in the city, and use authentic ingredients to bring out Southern Thai flavors in the food served. 

Dessert also blew it out of the park! The Fresh Mango and Coconut Sweet Sticky Rice was heaven in each spoonful. It has mango cremeux, fresh vanilla bean ice-cream and crispy French wafers.  The unique touch for me came from the salted coconut sauce infused in the warm rice, and the hot and cold combination in the dish.  Now I know what Sam meant when she said that they wanted to give the dessert menu the same amount of attention they gave the other food. Good desserts always leave a lasting impression, no?

We topped it off with another shot of the Mekhong, which served well as a digestif and left with our happy bellies!

For being less than a year old, the restaurant seems to have everything well in order, and draws a nice-sized crowd both in their dining room and their patio.  For Chicagoans and Evanstonites alike, this will be a fun summer spot to try some creative Thai cuisine!

And for those of you who can’t wait to visit after reading this blog, remember that Mondays they have half-off wine, and Wednesdays a $30 pre-fixe menu you may want to take advantage of!

Bravo Nakorn, so should I say, Chiyo!

It's always fun to take a break from the city and do a little food excursion in the burbs. I did so with a phenomenal tasting at Solstice in Western Springs, recently.

Headed by brothers Matt Bumba (Chef) and Lucas Bumba (General Manager), the restaurant which launched in February 2015, showcases the love for food these two brothers have, and their desire to offer scratch-made cooking used with the most authentic and seasonal ingredients. I was lucky enough to enjoy this vision and their new dinner menu.

The menu is succinct but keeps guests focused on the philosophy of this restaurant, which is ‘simplicity!’  Each dish is made using only  local ingredients acquired through deliberate partnerships with community farmers and stores.

I walked in on a Friday evening into a beautiful, industrial chic, and spacious venue, which was bustling with energy, with guests taking full advantage of their outdoor patio. Lucky for me, it was a gorgeous day!

My friend Kira who had invited me in for the tasting suggested we start with the Flatbread with mushrooms, sautéed spinach, caramelized onions and loads of Parmesan. Everything about that sounded great. The freshness of each vegetable on the pizza shined through and through and it was nice, crisp start to our meal.

I had been secretly wishing I could’ve tried the Nashville Chicken n Waffle sliders on the menu, which looked delicious. Well, they made it happen for me, sans chicken! You could’ve fooled me that it was the original version. The softest waffles in a genius combination with buttermilk maple syrup and some pickles for topping, made for a very satisfying appetizer! I’d say, one of my favorites from the night!

The Roasted Beets salad next added a little subtlety to our carb load. The plating on this dish was intricately beautiful with a medley of fresh produce from Werp Farms. It comprised of radish, micro sunflowers, blueberry vinaigrette, and get ready for this…goat cheese fritters! Another nicely executed arrangement of tangy and sweet.

From their entrees, I couldn’t keep away from the Whitefish Po’boy sandwich and wasn’t willing to waste even a drop of that yummy remoulade it came with. The Sea Bass special on the menu was quite amazing too. The braised cabbage and potato pancakes were different and hold the savory flavors of this dish well.

A side mention to the fresh biscuits that came out, nicely piled up.  Again, homemade, and providing that much needed taste of comfort. With it came a mouth-tingling assortment of blackberry vanilla and maple butter to dip the flaky biscuits in. I was in pure heaven!

You would think that would’ve counted as dessert, but we had to try the trio of pastries and cheesecake that had just come out of the oven. Those were phenomenal also. “Stuffed,” would be mildly putting it, but with no regrets!

Towards the end of our meal, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Lucas to learn a little more about his vision for the restaurant.  I was impressed at his commitment to bringing more awareness to organic eating and refusing to compromise on the quality of food served to patrons.

The tasting was certainly the highlight of my weekend and I haven’t been able to stop talking about everything I ate at the restaurant. It would be well worth it to drive to Western Springs and experience all this deliciousness for yourself.

Remember, they also have an extensive brunch menu and you’d be able to get your hands on some of those warm, buttery biscuits!

It’s discovering those small, quaint restaurants around the city, with good seafood is what makes my life as a food blogger most exciting.

This month, I attended a tasting at Raw Bar & Grill located in Wrigleyville. Raw Bar is a casual restaurant with a seafood focus, where live shellfish are plucked and served. My kind of place I would say. The décor is cozy and unassuming where guests can choose to dine either at the bar or in the dining area.

During my tasting, my friend and I tried a variety of dishes, starting with a plate of their chilled, Blue Point oysters they’re known for.  We also ordered their Baked Oysters Platter, which came with both the buffalo and the garlic style preparations. I didn’t realize how very well spices combine with the meat, because it was entirely tongue tingling.

We got to also try the crab cakes, which came on a bed of warm, crispy fries and along with a heavenly tartar sauce. The crab cakes were mini sized which I loved for a change.

The mussels deserve a blog of its own.  Sans the Applewood-smoked bacon, these sautéed mussels came in a white wine broth with Maytag blue cheese disbursed in it. Ah, what a wonderful creation. The bread as usual served well to dip into this delectable broth.

On the side, we also ordered a plate of their homemade hummus, which was very creamy, and a side salad.  Everything was fresh and fast. The service was great too and we had a very attentive server who was knowledgeable about the menu.  That’s a plus!

Who says sports bars can’t do good seafood?!

Summer is here! I attended a very fun kick-off party at Chop Shop’s new patio sponsored by Zubrowa Vodka, and tried some yummy food and drinks on the menu. We also got to be part of the unveiling of the new artwork by artist Lauren Asta, on the patio, which was amazing.

It helped that it was a gorgeous, sunny day too.  But I simply loved the versatility of this hybrid butcher shop with some of the delicious vegetarian fare they passed around such as these delicious cucumber hummus bites.

And of course the French cider was a big hit with me, and I think by now you know why! Everything from the crowd, the vibe, the food, the cocktails, were all aligned to leave a lasting impression on my mind, and put this rooftop on the top of my list for the summer!

Okay, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve walked by this restaurant a million times but never knew that it comprised of three restaurants, all located in one building.  I learned that and much more at a recent tour and tasting I was invited to by the restaurant.  Opened in 1927, the restaurant celebrates its 90th anniversary this year and I was honored to be a part of it.

Chicago’s oldest Italian restaurant, the building hosts three amazing restaurants, The Village, Vivere and La Cantina. The décor and set up is in such a way so as to transport you instantly to Tuscany.  Each restaurant consists of private rooms and seating areas, and we were seated in one of the coziest, most romantic one!

I always say that I won’t fill up on bread before I commence any Italian meal, but when its warm, oven-baked garlic bread oozing with butter, it’s a little hard to follow that rule. We ordered a plethora of other appetizers, such as the burrata and calamari.  The latter, was one of my favorites and I still don’t know what that sauce was it was cooked in, but it reminded me of something I ate growing up. I didn’t question it, because sometimes it’s nice to keep the mystery going.

Speaking of Tuscany, the Cacciucco, which is probably any pescetarian’s benchmark for good Italian seafood, was next for me. This Tuscan, seafood stew came in a large bowl and exuberated flavors of caramelized fennel, which was wonderfully aromatic!  And it tasted even better than it smelled. All the fish; scallops, mussels, calamari and clams were fresh and nicely cooked in a mouth-watering tomato garlic saffron herb broth. Leftovers came home with me and I’m literally rationing it to make it last as long as possible!

The Three Cheese Tortelli was pillowy soft, filled with Mascarpone, mozzarella and ricotta cheeses and cooked lightly in a delicate cherry tomato broth.  It was a nice change from the heavier pasta dishes that Italian restaurants usually serve.

Before venturing for Parte Due of our meal at Vivere downstairs, we got a mini private tour of their exquisite wine cellar hosting almost 2000 wines.  We walked around a room that housed some of the most expensive wines of the world, including my favorite Sauterne.  A very fun part of the tasting, and an opportunity to burn off some of the pasta before igniting our appetites again.

Vivere is another gorgeous space and while still cozy, the décor is entirely different from upstairs. So if you wanted to get your dinner one place and dessert another, you could do that without having to leave the building. I bet you’ll thank me in the winter.

Here, I got to try their crabcakes, which in addition to being tender had a moist sweetness to them. Each patty was beautiful and placed on a spicy aioli, which gave it a sweet n spicy kick.  I savored every bite.  As if this wasn’t awesome enough, the next dish that came out knocked it out of the park. Ladies and gentlemen, I present the Gnocchi Di Tartufo with homemade black truffle, spinach, white wine shallot sauce and sweet Maine lobster.  Now I’ve had truffle on a lot of dishes but the homemade truffle did make all the difference.  It said truffle and it did truffle!

Desserts were of the same standing as everything else we ate.  And we had two amazing dessert wines to pair with them from their huge wine collection.  The Honey Amaretto Cheesecake with graham cracker, mocha Semi Freddo, candied walnuts, toasted Italian meringue and macerated berry sauce will blow your mind.  The Tiramisu, a classic that I would never not order at a fine Italian restaurant like this, was above par than any other Tiramisu I’ve had. I think the white chocolate mousse atop was what set it apart for me, but it was delicious and soft altogether!

We didn’t make it to La Cantina because my stomach was literally about to explode (in a good way).  But I’m saving it for another visit here soon.

The service was impeccable.  Every server we had had been there at least a decade which speaks volumes of any establishment.  They were knowledgeable, accommodating and attentive and most of all excited to navigate us through our experience.  Gina who is one of the third generation owners of the restaurant, stopped by to say hello, as did Chef and Sous Chef.  It was so pleasant to see the camaraderie between the two chefs too.  Another good sign!

I literally felt as though I had been temporarily transported to Italy during my dinner here.  And since I haven’t made it to the country yet, this was a nice compromise for my Wednesday evening.

Thank you Italian Village for the wonderful treat!

Olive Mediterranean Grill

I finally got to check out Olive, a fast casual Mediterranean restaurant, at their River North location. Olive prides itself for providing that home cooked meal feel using the bestest, most premium quality of food, all sourced responsibly. The menu is simple making it easy to pick your sauces and add-ons, either salad or sandwich style. Vegetarians are accommodated for well. Even the pita bread is freshly made everyday. The kitchen, which we got a tour of afterward, is probably cleaner than my kitchen at home. Employees looked happy to serve and its just all easy, like food should be!

I got a Falafel platter with the yogurt sauce and baba ghanouj and s ide of couscous and faro, along with some cucumber salad.  While I’m not a big fan of falafel, I did eat all four on my plate, just to give you an idea of how delicious their food is. The sauces were refreshing with a cooling taste, even the Baklava (catered by Nazareth Bakery) is heavenly.

This is the kind of place I’d want to go to for lunch everyday. Healthy eating that’s stress-free, and with an easy all around vibe.

Seafood On The Tables

There is a new restaurant in Lakeview dedicated solely to all kinds of seafood and all kinds of preparations from grilled fish to seafood boils to stir fry’s, and I got to visit them for a tasting recently, with several other food bloggers. We walked into an aesthetically curated space, with that perfect nautical theme to get you excited for your fish. The staff was super-friendly and owner Angie who personally oversees operations, welcomed us with open arms.

Then began the adventure and the food started to come out one by one.  We first had the Grilled Jumbo Prawn, which housed a cooked egg yolk in its cavity and came with a delicious sauce on the side.

The grilled squid, a crowd favorite, was big in portion and lightly seasoned yet so very flavorful!

The Seafood Salad came with everything under the seafood sun and was almost too pretty to eat.  It came mixed in with this tangy, fiery dressing that definitely activated our senses.

We were each given individual portions of the Garlic Fried Rice, which is always a favorite for me at seafood places. But it was too delicious for me to wait until the rest of the food arrived and I ended up devouring it.

Then arrived the star of the show; the seafood boil.  Three huge portions of assorted seafood each prepared in the Sweet Basil Chili, Thai Curry and Tom-Yum sauces respectively, were gently poured onto the table so we could get down and dirty with it.

We did exactly that, and got our bibs and plastic claws ready to go.  For the next many minutes, there was silence, as everyone ate their way through the amazing medley of crabs, calamari, shrimp, mussels, corn, and potatoes in front of us.  It is the most flavorful, aromatic mess I have ever seen! I loved that each sauce had its own unique taste, so something to please all levels of spice tolerance.

We were also lucky enough to try their Dungeness Crab (only on the menu as available) with more of that yummy Tom Yum Sauce poured all over it.  So, so delicious, I can’t even begin to describe it.

We cooled our palettes with the Fried Banana Roll for dessert, which had homemade cream cheese, banana and young coconut served with chocolate sauce and mountains of whipped cream. It was perfect!

The restaurant is BYOB so we had some fun selections of beer, wine and rice wine, which went well with our meal.

This is hands-down my new go-to spot for seafood!

The downstairs bar at Maple & Ash now has a patio area and a brand new summer menu and I was lucky enough to go check it out. This beautiful gazebo like patio is the perfect neighborhood spot for city residents. 

I made my way through a bunch of featured cocktails with unique twists such as the Trust Me, which was concocted with Absolut and cold brew coffee. Can’t imagine how those two come together? Go try it for yourself.

The Paloma Ahumado is one not to miss; this blend of Milagro Resposado, Mezcal , grapefruit and soda screams summer with every sip. A fun crowd too at the event and lots of tasty appetizers passed around. Can’t tell you how many of those roasted shishito peppers I had, and the crab lettuce wraps and salmon avocado toast made this pescetarian especially happy.