Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Sofra Turkish Kitchen

Recently, I happened to read a mention of Sofra Turkish Kitchen.  It had been a while since I had had Turkish cuisine, in fact, the last time I ate Turkish food, I was actually in Turkey.  From what I remembered, I remembered rice, yogurt, and a lot of kebabs.  I did do some looking before I went and I was correct about the rice, yogurt, and kebabs, but it also seemed similar to Greek food (which isn't really surprising considering that they're right next to one another) with some Middle Eastern food thrown in.  The dining room of Sofra is long and narrow with a bar in the front  There is a line of tables along each wall with round tables in the center of the room and a divided area with a low table and overstuffed pillows.  The lighting is from very ornate hanging lanterns.  While there is a full bar, I do like to try drinks that are native to a region when I go to a given ethnic restaurant.  For that, I tried Ayran which is a cold frothy drink of yogurt and water with a little salt which is similar to Indian lassi.  It was white and opaque with a really nice head of foam.  It was slightly salty and sour and tasted like unsweetened yogurt.  While it wasn't terrible and was drinkable, it was definitely an acquired taste and one that I am unsure of whether I am willing to acquire.     

The appetizer list had the standard hummus, babaganush, dolma, and tabuleh.  While I have had all of these things and do like them, I did want to try something different.  For my appetizer, I had Haydari, a combination of housemade yogurt mixed with chopped walnuts, garlic,carrots, and fresh mint.  It was topped with paprika and had a black olive in the center.  The whole of the dish was very creamy, if it weren't for the walnuts, and carrots you could probably eat this with a straw.  While it did come with a spoon, I was also served a lot of pita bread and I ate it like I would hummus, using the pita to scoop it up.  It did have the sour taste of yogurt but the paprika also provided a little spiciness and the walnuts and carrots added to the flavor.  I really enjoyed this and was glad that I tried it.  

My entree was Turkish Moussaka which is similar to Greek Moussaka only in its ingredients.  It had golden eggplant, beef, mushrooms, green peppers, tomatoes, onions, and mozzarella baked in a tomato sauce and is served with rice.  While Greek Moussaka is built like lasagna and is layered, Turkish Moussaka is more like a stew and is served with rice on the side.  While I like Greek Moussaka, I discovered that I like Turkish Moussaka even more.  It had a very savory flavor and stew is easier to eat than "lasagna".    

For dessert, I had the Turkish version of Creme Brulee.  It was called Kazandibi which literally means "bottom of a pot" and is a type of "burnt pudding".  I have to think that it takes some really good timing and a knowledge of your stove in order to prepare this well.  The pudding is caramelized on the bottom and is served upside down with the caramel side up and sprinkled with cinnamon.  I would think that there is a small window between caramelized and burned so timing is everything.  While the burned top is not crispy as creme brulee is, it does have a flavor kind of like roasted marshmallows.  I did like this although I think I might have liked it more if there were a way to make the top crispy like a creme brulee.

I liked my dinner here.  The design is nice and the the staff is friendly.  I had forgotten how similar Turkish food is to Greek food and will have to return to explore the menu some more.  

Monday, November 19, 2012


Comfort foods are those foods that evoke a sentimental or nostalgic feeling. They are easy to eat and leave a feel good feeling.  It could be thought that a restaurant that focuses on comfort foods would be a guaranteed winner but it could also be very boring.  Hearty is a restaurant that I went to recently for a friends birthday that focuses on comfort food but puts a fine dining spin on it.  As far as the restaurant is concerned, it is actually kind of plain.  The main dining room is pretty small, seating about 40 and containing a nice vintage bar.  There is also a private dining area upstairs but we were in the main dining area so I didn't see the private dining room.  The cocktails served are spins on classics.  The cocktail that I had, the Mamie Taylor, was invented around 1900 and consists of scotch, ginger ale, and lime juice.  For my appetizer, I started with Roasted Bone Marrow, also a classic dish.  In addition to the roasted bone marrow which was served in and around the bone, it contained Ox Tail Marmalade, was topped with an Herb Salad and was served with what they called Brioche Croutons though I would have called them toast points.  The dish was very meaty and savory, the herb salad contained arugula and dill, and the croutons were lightly toasted.  The dish was really good and everything went well together although admittedly, it was a little difficult to get the marrow out of the bone.  The other appetizers that we had at the table were Deviled Eggs with a Bacon Lardon, Smoked Paprika, and Ground Mustard Aioli which everyone seemed to enjoy.

My entree was a spin on a childhood favorite.  I had Beefaroni.  While Hearty's Beefaroni was built generally the same way as the canned treat from Chef Boyardee, it was definitely better.  Served in a casserole dish, it was built with Braised Short Ribs, Black Pepper Spaetzle, Roasted Butternut Squash and Tomatoes, and topped with Fried Onions.  Texturally, it was very similar to the canned Beefaroni although the fried onions on top were a treat.  While the pasta, meat, and sauce, did taste similar to Beefaroni but it tasted fresher, and had a more complex flavor.  It definitely evoked memories of childhood and was really good although there were things like the bacon meatloaf that was ordered by someone else at the table that made the choice difficult.

For dessert, I went with the Sazerac Creme Brulee with Absinthe Citrus Sugar and Topped with Candied Lemon Zest.  I really like Creme Brulee and the alcohol incorporated into it brought something extra to it but I like my creme brulees to have a nice thick crust.  This did have a crust, but it was pretty thin.  It was a good dessert but it was actually my second choice.  I was really interested in a dessert called Milk and Cookies which was bourbon spiced milk with a bacon chocolate chip ice cream sandwich.  I thought it sounded really good but I would have had to wait for 15 minutes which I really didn't want to do.  The creme brulee, while it wasn't my first choice, was better than a 15 minute wait.

I really enjoyed my meal here and will definitely be back.  It is definitely accessible but it also pushes boundaries for those people that are timid eaters.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


Many of the restaurants that I have gone to for brunch have been restaurants that also serve dinner.  Jam was an exception and so is Orange which I went for brunch recently.  As one might expect, Oranges feature heavily in their menu to the point that they even have orange flavored coffee.  They also have regular coffee but I decided to try the orange flavored because it is one of their specialties.  In addition to the coffee, they have a make your own juice bar.  Starting with one of the standard juices (orange, grapefruit, carrot, pear, apple, or watermelon), you then add another juice which include the previous, plus lemon, lime, cucumber and mango.  You could finish there, but there are also premium ingredients that you can add for an additional  $0.99 which include banana, strawberry, ginger, yogurt, and pineapple.  I suppose you could also stick with a single juice, but what fun would that be?  I ordered an Orange Carrot Ginger Juice which was really good.  The color was a little more red than I would have expected but as I have never seen carrot juice, I have to assume that the darkness comes from the carrot contribution to the juice.

While every brunch place that I have been to has a combination of both sweet and savory elements on their menu, most seem to lean one way or the other.  While the savory side of the menu was larger than the sweet side for Orange, their specials leaned to the sweet side and they have a pancake flight that changes weekly and also leans sweet, so I thought that I would try the sweet side of the menu.  As a weekly special, Orange has pancake flights, the selection of which changes every week.  They also do a special flavored pancake (full size) and occasionally Frushi (fruit sushi).  The frushi though, was not on the menu when I went.  I decided that the pancake flight was the best way to try a bunch of stuff (and besides, it sounded REALLY good).  The pancake flight consisted of 4 sets of three silver dollar pancakes of different flavors.  My flight consisted of Coffee & Cream Cookie Pancakes, Fruity Walnut Thumbprint Pancakes, Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Pancakes, and Very Chocolate Brownie Pancakes.  The Coffee & Cream Cookie Pancakes were vanilla pancakes with espresso cream between layers and topped with chocolate syrup.  The espresso cream on these provided a subtle coffee flavor but the chocolate syrup was what provided any bitterness.  This wasn't bad, although I think I would have liked it more had the coffee flavor been stronger.  The Fruity Walnut Thumbprints were probably my least favorite pancakes (although they were still good).  They were walnut pancakes topped with homemade blueberry jelly and sugar crystals.  The flavor combination was good but the jelly was a bit dense and didn't spread well so I tasted it most with the top pancake.  Because of the fact that the jelly was a little hard to spread, the lower pancakes were a bit dry.  The Oatmeal and Raisin Cookie Pancakes may have been my favorites.  These were spiced oatmeal pancakes with cinnamon-raisin butter and maple syrup.  The oatmeal flavor was pronounced and it really did remind me of an oatmeal cookie and the cinnamon raisin butter provided complementary spices.  There was just enough syrup to make them moist and provide a nice maple flavor without being soggy.  I tend to be subtle with my syrup so this was great.  The Very Chocolate Brownies were very chocolaty.  These ran a close second to the Oatmeal and Raisin Pancakes.  They were chocolate-infused pancakes studded with milk chocolate chips, topped with a thin chocolate ganache and sprinkled with powdered sugar.  They were dense and chocolaty and the chocolate chips were like a secret prize.

While I knew that I was going to like the pancakes, I also knew that I was going to want some savory so I ordered a side of bacon.  While I would normally say that bacon makes everything better, in this case, I will say that the bacon confirmed to me that Orange does sweet better than savory.  I love bacon and this might have been good bacon, but it was impossible to tell because they cooked it so crispy it lost all of it's chewiness.  It would have been impossible to stab a fork into it without shattering it.  While it did taste nice and bacony, I can't say that I would order bacon here again because it was so brittle.

I did enjoy my breakfast here and while I wasn't particularly happy with the bacon, I did enjoy the orange flavored coffee, the juice, and the pancakes.  I may try savory when I return but I probably won't order a side of bacon.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

La Encantada

I have said before that there there is a lot more to Mexican food than burritos, tacos, and tamales.  However, there is a big gulf between the fine dining of Frontera Grill and your average taqueria  and the food of La Encantada occupies that space between the two extremes.  It is a small restaurant on North Avenue in Humboldt Park with a glass front wall and aged brick walls.  The large bar is on the right side and the dining tables are on the left and in the rear of the restaurant.  There is a lot of art from local artists hanging on the walls and much, if not all of it is for sale at a nice price.  La Encantada does have many Mexican standards but they also have steak, chicken, seafood, and several types of fajitas.  While the menu is very large and there were things on the appetizer menu that did look good, I decided to simply order an entree because with two included sides of the diner's choice, it was going to be more than enough even if there was no meat in the dishes that I ordered.  While there was no meat in my meal, I cannot say that it was vegetarian.  I do not know whether lard was used or not.  I don't mind if it was because I am not a vegetarian.  I ordered what I ordered because it sounded really good.  I ordered Crepas Poblanas con Huitlacoche with rice and Calabacitas con Queso as my sides.  The Crepas Poblanas con Huitlacoche were two rolled crepes filled with a fungus that grows on fresh corn (huitlacoche) and topped with poblano sauce and melted Chihuahua Cheese.  There was also some corn mixed in with the huitlacoche.  Admittedly, the fungus doesn't look that great.  It's black and it's cut up so you are unable to tell exactly what it looks like.  It does have the texture of a mushroom and has a slightly sweet, mushroomy, and woody flavor.  The poblano sauce added a nice bit of spice to the crepes.  The chihuahua cheese covered everything and how can you go wrong with chihuahua cheese.  The Spanish rice was fairly standard but standard Spanish rice is good.  The other side was the Calabacitas con Queso was actually much more than calabacitas con queso.  Calabacitos is actually a generic term for a small squash.  It could be anything from pumpkin to summer squash to zucchini which is what it was in this case.  It was chopped and cooked with tomatoes, onions, and more cheese.  It was tangy, the zucchini had a nice density to it and it went well with the huitlacoche crepes.

I really enjoyed my meal here and am glad that it is an easy walk from where I live because I will definitely return.     

Saturday, November 3, 2012


Until it closed in January, one sixtyblue had been my favorite restaurant.  I was very disappointed when it closed but it did give me an opportunity to explore.  one sixtyblue had been part of a restaurant group owned by Michael Jordan called Cornerstone.  After having liked one sixtyblue, I figured that the restaurant group would maintain some type of culinary standard.  There are a couple of other Cornerstone restaurants in Chicago (actually three if you count belly Q, the restaurant that replaced one sixtyblue) and while I have not been to any of them, I had been to a couple of chef demos featuring chefs that ran other Cornerstone restaurants so I thought I had a little familiarity with them.  I decided to go to Wave recently, one of the Cornerstone restaurants that I had been to a demo for.  Wave is located on the North side in the W Hotel on Lake Shore Drive.  The dining room is located in the front of the hotel to the right of the main entrance at the bottom of a short stairway with the bar actually in the lobby of the hotel.  There is also a nice patio at the front of the hotel that overlooks Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan.  The dining room is relatively narrow with a lot of flowing curves (like waves).  There is a 10 place communal table in the center of the room with several round tables on the main floor and large four tops with couches for seating on either side of the table on an elevated area in front of the window that overlooks the patio, Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan.    This was where I was seated.  The lighting consisted of candles on the tables and some multicolored LED lights that sort of reminded me of nightclub lighting (as did the background music).  Wave serves seasonal and locally sourced Mediterranean style cuisine.  That can actually mean a lot of things but frequently includes things such as olives, garlic, capers, fresh vegetables, and/or pasta.  Not all of my dishes reflected this entire idea but there were elements to be found in my meal.  I started out with House-Made Spaghetti with Garlic Sausage, Charred Cauliflower, Capers, Pecorino Cheese, and Oregano.  There were several elements of this dish that sounded really good on the menu but I was unsure about the Charred Cauliflower.  I needn't have worried.  While there was plenty of cauliflower in the dish, and part of the florets on each of the pieces were blackened, they were just blackened and not carbonized as I was worrying about.  The cauliflower itself was kind of toothsome as was the spaghetti.  The dish smelled strongly of capers (because there were a lot of capers in the dish.  The garlic sausage was garlicky as one might expect and the entire dish had a nice tangy and spicy flavor to it.

For my entree, I chose Prosciutto-Wrapped Monkfish which was served with Clams (In Shell) on top of Smashed Red Nordland Potatoes, and topped with Kale.  While monkfish are a really ugly fish (they are a type of anglerfish) they provide for a nice sized piece of meat that tastes really good.  The fact that it was wrapped in prosciutto just added to the pleasure of eating it.  I like clams but was caught a little off guard (even if I probably shouldn't have been) because most of the time when I have had clams, they have been breaded and fried.  It did take a little more work to get to them but it was worth it.  The smashed potatoes were well cooked and seasoned and added to the overall flavor of the dish and then there was the kale.  Kale is a leaf vegetable that frequently reminds me of spinach.  It has a lot of uses from salad greens to fried kale chips.  This was well seasoned and pan fried, although not enough for it to lose it's fresh crispiness.  I did expect some spiciness but I didn't expect the level of heat that was on the kale.  I asked about the kale's seasoning and was told such things as salt, garlic, rosemary, thyme, and a pinch of red pepper.  I actually think that more red pepper was added than was planned for.  While it was pretty spicy, it wasn't so spicy to me that it was made inedible.  Overall, it was a well seasoned and spicy dish that I did enjoy.

After the appetizer and entree, it was time for dessert.  Wave does their dessert menu a little differently than other restaurants.  While none of the items on the dessert menu was unusual in and of itself, how it was served was what made it different.  The desserts were served in what was called Sweet Bites.  For $8, you could choose three, for $10 for four desserts, and $12 for five.  While the idea of trying five desserts did cross my mind, I thought I would actually try to enjoy the desserts instead of becoming gorged by them and only ordered three.  I ordered a Ginger Creme Brulee, a Dark Chocolate Brownie topped with Vanilla Ice Cream, and a Panna Cotta with Espresso Gelee.  The desserts were served on a single plate that was garnished with chocolate syrup.  I decided that in order to taste the desserts properly, I would have to eat them one at a time, so I attacked them from left to right.  The Creme Brulee was done well.  The crust was nice and thick and provided a good crunch to the creamy custard below it.  The ginger provided a nice bit of spice as a counterpoint to what would have been simply a very sweet custard. While sweet is good making the tastes of a dish a little more complex is better.  Next came the brownie and I will admit that I love brownies.  This bite provided a little bit of comfort food between a couple of bites that were a little more exotic.  I like my brownie to tend to the fudge side (as opposed to the cake side) and this one hit the right point.  The outside was slightly crisp and the inside was very moist and chewy.  It was served warm underneath the cool vanilla ice cream and it was all covered with chocolate syrup.  My only complaint for this dish was that I wanted more.  My last dessert bite was the panna cotta with espresso gelee.  Panna cotta is another very simple and creamy custard that is nice on it's own but can be made so much better with the addition of something else, in this case espresso gelee, espresso that had been gelatinized.  This may have been my favorite dessert.  It came out in what looked like a water glass so you could see that it was layered.  The thin top layer was the espresso which, as you might expect, was like bittersweet coffee.  The next layer was the panna cotta followed by coffee, custard, another layer of coffee, and the bottom layer of custard.  It was all very good individually and together.  It was very creamy and if eaten together, it reminded me of a cool cappuccino.

After reading this, you would probably get the impression that I really liked this place and you would not be completely wrong.  The food was really good, the waiter was nice and helpful, and the place looked nice with a great view of Lake Michigan.  While I wouldn't mind coming back here.  The atmosphere, while not cold, didn't seem exceptionally welcoming.  It felt like what it was, a hotel restaurant.  While I might come back for the food, I won't be back for the atmosphere.