Monday, August 27, 2012

Raj Darbar

While I said in my previous post that many Indian restaurants could be found on Devon Avenue in Rogers Park, there are a few others spread around the city. I visited Raj Darbar, which means The Royal Court and is located on Halsted St. in Lincoln Park.  It has taken me a while, but I have grown to like Indian food.  Because the flavors are very different, it has taken me a while to get a handle on it.  There are a lot of bars and restaurants on the section of Halsted where Raj Darbar is located so, unless you know exactly where you are going, it is easy to miss.  The awning is marked but there is no sign as such.  I managed to pass it without noticing and I did know the address so I had to go back.  When I did find the place, I was seated quickly and given a menu.  The menu is large and the prices are surprisingly affordable.  There was also a good wine selection but I decided to go with a traditional Indian drink, the Mango Lassi which is a sweet, mango-flavored, yogurt drink.  I looked, at the appetizers and while they did have samosas which I really like, I decided to go in a different direction and got what was called a Jheenga Til Tinka.  These were shrimp that are marinated in yogurt, lemon juice, and paprika, skewered, and deep fried.  The skewers were served with onion slices.  The crust on this was solid and very crispy but the shrimp was tender and the flavor was flavorful and slightly spicy.  It was very good and as an appetizer is supposed to do, set me up for the main course.

When the main course arrived, I knew that there was no way I was going to finish it but I would give it a try.  I got what was called the Darbar Special which was a combo plate that had a wide selection of Indian dishes.  It was actually served on four dishes and plates.  It started with chicken curry and rice in separate dishes, continued with a sizzling griddle topped with Tandoori Shrimp, Tandoori Chicken Tikka, and Boti (Lamb) Kebab, and finished with some very good and fluffy Naan.  It was all very good, kind of spicy, and more than I could eat.  I ate well, but I did leave enough room for dessert.

With the dessert, I had no idea of what I was getting.  I saw that the desserts were listed on the menu but I generally don't look at the desserts until I have my main course.  I saw that there were four desserts and there were a few kulfi, which is an Indian Ice Cream type dessert.  While it is good, I decided to go in a different direction (again) and ordered something where I had no idea what I was going to get.  It was called Galub Jamun and while I was told it was deep fried milk balls, I had no idea what that meant.  What I received was a bowl with a clear liquid in which sat 3 round and very smooth balls.  The balls were very light and spongy and had a sweet flavor.  What I have to guess is that the balls were sponge cake that had been soaked in evaporated milk.  The balls were very good but the liquid in which they sat seemed to be a simple syrup and was really not that exciting.  It was good but I am not sure if I would order it again.

While the food was good here and there was a lot, the restaurant really needed more waiters.  My waiter was friendly and very good, he was just too busy to provide attentive service.  While the food is good, Indian food is really a change of pace cuisine so i probably won't be returning soon.

Friday, August 24, 2012


Chicago has a wealth of restaurants of all different varieties.  Many of the same types are located together so if you are interested in a certain style but aren't really sure about what restaurant to go to, you can go to a specific neighborhood.  There are exceptions of course, but if you know what you want but aren't really sure about restaurants you can go to a neighborhood.  For instance, if you want Chinese, go to Chinatown.  There are a lot of Korean, Vietnamese, and Thai restaurants in Uptown around Argyle Street.  There are a lot of Indian restaurants in Rogers Park on Devon Ave.  Mexican?  While there are taquerias throughout the city, if you want good Mexican, go to Pilsen or Little Village.  Where do you go though, if you're interested in Hawaiian?  There is actually a restaurant in Chicago that embraces a Hawaiian aesthetic in it's food (although it does avoid the illusion of being in a tropical paradise).  Sola is this restaurant.  Located in Northcenter on Lincoln Avenue, Sola is inspired by the warmth and sense of community of the Hawaiian Islands while also using local ingredients and embracing sustainability (also a Hawaiian ideal).  While it is a pretty big restaurant and the address is on Lincoln Avenue, it's actually a little hard to find.  It is on the corner of Byron Avenue and the entrance is actually on Byron.  When I came to the corner, I saw a bank on the corner where it was supposed to be located and ended up passing the corner twice before I noticed the restaurant on the side street.  There was a very nice and big patio outside but as it looked like it was going to rain, I decided to eat inside.  There was a big divider wall just inside behind which, was the Host's Station.  The space was divided into two large dining rooms and the entire space seemed to be done in browns, yellow, and orange.  With a banquette along one wall where I sat and round tables with white tablecloths in the rest of the room.  There was a long bar on the wall opposite the banquette seating.  The lighting consisted of several hanging lights in cylindrical light covers.  The light was slightly dim but it wasn't dark as has been the case in other restaurants.  I looked at the menu and while I saw several things that looked really good, but there were a few things that stood out and I was quickly able to make a decision.  As I was waiting, I was brought an Amuse Bouche consisting of Smoked Salmon, Mizuna, Pineapple, Tobiko, and Soy.  It was surprising and really good.  I wouldn't have expected smoked salmon and pineapple to work together and while both tastes were prominent, they did work together well.  The tobiko (flying fish roe) was very subtle as there were only a couple used but they did contribute to the taste.  The mizuna provided more texture than taste.

I really liked my appetizer but I did forget to take a picture of it.  It was grilled baby octopus and lemon topped with arugula.  I think there were some other things in the dish but I don't have a picture and it has since come off the menu.  I do specifically remember the greens because the plate was essentially covered when it came over.  There were a few octopus tentacles sticking out underneath but you had to look.  After digging in, I found that there were a lot of octopi which had a nice char and a good texture and obviously, a good flavor.

While there were several entrees that looked good, my choice was obvious, I chose the duck which was served with Lemongrass Risotto, Baby Bok Choy, Curry Syrup, and Coconut Butter.  This was amazing.  The duck was cooked medium rare and was very tender and juicy.  The risotto was very creamy and had a nice flavor with the lemongrass.  The bok choy was crisp and slightly lemony and the curry and cocunut provided additional flavorrs that complemented everything well.

While I thought everything was good so far, I had not had the dessert.  The dessert was actually the highlight of the meal.  I had the Five Spice Salted Caramel Creme Brulee which was served with Ginger Cookies.  While every element of this sounds good on paper, it was just as good as a whole.  The creme brulee had a nice crust to it that did require some cracking to get into.  The custard had a nice buttery sweet and salty flavor and the five spice, a combination of star anise, cinnamon, fennel, cloves, and Sichuan pepper, added a spiciness that matched well with both the sweetness of the custard and the ginger cookies.  I really like a well made creme brulee but this was one step beyond.

I really enjoyed my dinner here.  The place looked nice the waitstaff was friendly and helpful and as I have stated, the food was great.  I will really enjoy returning here.  They also do a weekend brunch that looks good, I may have to try this as well.       

Friday, August 17, 2012

Southport Grocery and Cafe

In the heart of Lakeview, there is a business called Southport Grocery and Cafe.  While it does have some packaged foods for sale, it is not a grocery in the same way that Dominick's, Jewel Osco, or even Standard Market is a grocery.  What they are known for are there baked goods and their brunch.  It is more a bakery and cafe that serves some dry goods.  As far as their grocery is concerned, I would compare it to Provenance Food and Wine, you can get a pretty nice variety of very good gourmet type foods but you probably wouldn't go grocery shopping there.  Besides the grocery and bakery they have a very nice cafe where I convened brunch with a group of friends.  The space is actually kind of crowded with the kitchen in the back, the bakery and cashier along the left wall (as you are walking in), the grocery items are in the middle, and the cafe seating is on the right wall and outside.  We sat inside which has seating for about 20 (the group I was part of was much smaller than that).  Outside has seating for about 20 as well.  Our brunch started with a some Shareables which are essentially Appetizers for brunch.  We had a Grilled Coffee Cake which was a Cinnamon Walnut Sour Cream Cake which was stuffed with Zingerman's Cream Cheese and topped with powdered sugar.  This was insane!  You would think that this would be heavy, especially for a starter, but it was surpringly light.  The cake was light and moist  with crisp edges and was a little spicy from the cinnamon.  The cream cheese was creamy, as one might expect and provided a perfect complement to the coffee cake.  We also had what they called a Savory Muffin with Egg which was an herb muffin with cheese that is stuffed with a hard boiled egg.  It reminded me of what I might imagine a vegetarian Scotch Egg might be like.  A Scotch Egg is a hard boiled egg wrapped in sausage, breaded and deep fried.  Other than the fact that it was missing the sausage and it was shaped like a muffin instead of an egg, this was essentially the same thing and it was pretty good. 

Normally, when I go out for brunch, I will go savory for my main course.  As we were at a place that is famed for it's baked goods, I figured I would switch things up and check outside the sweet side of things.
I got Stuffed French Toast which was topped with Fresh Blueberries and Preserved Lemon, and stuffed with more Cream Cheese.  This was also very good.  Blueberries are among my favorite fruits and as you can see it had a lot of blueberries.  It was crisp, moist, and chewy, the fruit provided sweetness and tartness, and the cream cheese provided a texture contrast and complemented the tartness of the fruit.

After the very good coffee cake and French toast, I had to have a cupcake which is one of the things that Southport Grocery and Cafe is most well known for.  I got a Red Velvet Cupcake which had Sour Cream Frosting.  While it was simple in appearance, it looked very good in its simplicity and I actually forgot to take a picture of it before I ate it.

I really enjoyed my brunch here.  It was actually kind of difficult to choose what I wanted so I will definitely have to be back.  In addition to breakfast foods, they also have a nice selection of sandwiches.  While the place is a little crowded, the service is very good and the food is excellent.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Standard Market/Standard Grill

While you won't see a restaurant in a grocery store often, it really isn't that uncommon.  Most groceries of any size have a deli section (without a dining area),  and a lot of Mexican grocery stores have attached taquerias.  Whole Foods also has a deli and a bar with a dining area.  In Westmont, there is a specialty grocery store called Standard Market.  From the outside, it looks a little odd.  While it is on the main drag (Ogden Ave.), it looks either like a large white barn or a funeral parlor.  The interior though, looks as one might expect of a specialty grocery with sections for fresh, local produce, cheese, beer, the bakery, meat, and some prepared dishes.  Located off of the produce section is the Standard Grill which features burgers, sandwiches, salads and pizzas.  They also feature a variety of rice bowls (called Buddha Bowls) for lunch and grilled chicken, pork, fish, and shrimp for dinner.  The order counter is at the front of the grill with the menu above the counter.  After ordering (and paying with a credit card because this establishment doesn't take cash), you seat yourself, and your order is brought to you when it is ready.  The dining room is set up like a nice cafeteria with several round tables and a few high tops.  There is also an outdoor dining area that didn't seem to be open when I was there.  As one might expect of a food establishment associated with a grocery that specializes in local, organic, and artisanal foodstuffs, the ingredients used in the food on the menu is of the highest quality.  The meat used in the burgers is ground daily, the cheese is from local dairies, and the produce is organic and local.  I ordered a Bacon & Blue Burger which other than the very juicy burger, contained Neuske's Bacon, Danish Blue Cheese, BBQ Sauce, Oven-Roasted Tomatoes, Bibb Lettuce, and Sweet Onions on a Sesame Seed Bun.  The burger came with a choice of French Fries, Cole Slaw, Market Salad, or Sweet Potato Fries which is what I ordered.  It also came with a small dish of honey mustard served on the side.  The burger was light on the BBQ sauce but it was okay because it was juicy and flavorful enough as it was.  The bacon was cooked not quite crisp so it still had a nice chew to it and the blue cheese added a nice sweet bitterness to it.  I did add some of the honey mustard to provide a little tartness to the burger.  As simple as it was, it was still very good.  The sweet potato fries were cut thick and were tasty although admittedly, they were a little more droopy than I like fries.

While this isn't a place that I would go every day, both the grocery and grill are nice with a variety of fresh and artisanal foods.  I will definitely be back when I come to the area.