Sunday, December 31, 2006

Filter's Killer Vegan Scone while waiting for Reckless Records

Filter: (Wicker Park) Chicago
1585 N. Milwaukee Ave.
(773) 227-4850

I took Mom and Dad to Reckless Records on Milwaukee Avenue to help Mom look in to selling records. We sipped tea at Filter while they were looking through Mom's soundtracks from All in the Family and The Bickersons.

At Filter, you can find vegan options like their tangy black bean veggie burger and sweet potato fries, but we had just eaten brunch. I didn't need anymore food, including the vegan scone I had. Loaded with seeds and dried fruit, it's made by Bleeding Heart Bakery and baked at Filter - and so crispy on the outside that the crumbly inside seemed so airy. It was hard to save any for later. Filter's sofas and lounge chairs are comfy, but the window seats are key to watching trendy clothing go by in bohemian and upscale styles. Filter's sister, Gourmand in Printer's Row, serves up very similar food with a very similar hip vibe from the nearby colleges, but I have seen vegan bars instead of the killer scones there.

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19 June 2006 photo with Wicker Park's Milwaukee, Damen, and North Avenues intersection in the reflection behind a utility bicycle and Filter's sign luring with "Vegan Slut" and "Dirty Girl Scout" coffee drinks.

photo: Chris B.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Russian Tea Time and Art Across the Street

Russian Tea Time: (Loop) Chicago
77 E. Adams St.

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Mom, Dad, my bro Jon and I were off to a day of museum going, with a reservation at Russian Tea Time for some lunch. Some of us had flavored vodka, some of us the deep house tea with continuous refills, but all of us shared two vegetarian platters for 2. Make sure to be clear that you only want vegan items if that's what you expect; you'd need to omit some items. By default, the setup comes with an appetizer plate of potato dumplings, stuffed mushrooms, carrot salad, beet caviar, hummus, tabouhlie and vinaigrette salad followed by a platter of stuffed eggplant, stuffed bell pepper, a vegetarian layered stew called Domlama, mung bean stew, chick pea and onion stew, rice pilaf and kasha. Their hummus tastes much thicker and heartier than the Mediterranean variety I'm accustomed to, and the bulgar in their tabouhlie feels much more moist and full.

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photos: Chris B.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Soul Veg at Loop Barnes & Noble

Barnes and Noble Cafe: (Loop) Chicago
State St. and Jackson Blvd.

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In the middle of some serious trip chaining, my bro Jon and I found many tasty options from our old South Side favorite Soul Vegetarian Restaurant boxed up and ready to go in the case from the cafe at Barnes and Noble in the Loop. We took the jerk steak wrap (a moist and manageable mess of wheat gluten, peppers, onions, spinach, lettuce and tomatoes) and a Garvey burger (a firm but tender textured vegetable protein patty on a little wheat bun with catsup and mustard). Other options include a BBQ twist sandwich and lunch packs of black beans over brown rice with kale and BBQ wheat gluten roast, lasagna with kale and wheat gluten roast, and macaroni and cheese with kale and BBQ tofu - all vegan.

The impromptu vegan afternoon continued as we saw a "She needs her Fur more than We Do" ad on the Red Line from Mercy For Animals; checked out hot vegan not leather bags by Montréal's Matt and Nat at Akira and Shebang in Wicker Park; and spotted a station wagon advertising "Taste of Vegan Meals on Wheels" with Indiana agricultural education plates on its windows on North Avenue out front Bucktown Fitness.

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photos: Chris B.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Osaka brings vegan Sushi to Chicago

Osaka Sushi Express & Fresh Fruit Smoothies: (Loop) Chicago
400 S. Michigan Ave.
(312) 566-0118

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The softness of the avocado in their avocado (and sesame) rolls is very impressive for this time of year. The (shredded) carrot supreme rolls taste quite clean. And the Kanpyo roll features a sweet caramelized gourd (and sesame) that's just a little bit chewy. The meal's a little lighter than the meals we're been having for the holidays, my bro reminds me as we're staring out the counter windows at the Art Institute and a partial skyline behind it, but still satisfying -especially after cycling to a breakfast of sharing three vegan treats at Bleeding Heart Bakery. Osaka's Inari is quite classic, especially with enough wasabi mixed in to your soy sauce to make you cry. Everything seems quite fresh. Other presumably vegan options include the miso soup, cucumber roll, inari roll, vegan roll combination, edamame, seaweed salad, cucumber salad and sushi rice. Good smoothies? Try them and let me know. I was too taken by the rolls. Thanks Rose for showing me this place. I loved our treats here as well! A frequent must for Loop lunches.

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Cycling back home after lunch

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Faces: all that's left of the buildings behind this scaffolding on Wabash Ave. in the Loop

photos: Chris B.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Indian in the Loop, for a Couple More Days

Indian Express: (Loop) Chicago
122 N. Wells Street
(312) 251-1770

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Hipsters, Loop business people and Indians gather at Indian Express for lunch. I asked my South Indian colleague who came with me, how authentic is it? A little bit, you get a taste, he told me. He rolled in there and tried to order speaking in Hindi, but the server behind the counter spoke Arabic; so my friend ordered in Arabic (they both spoke English, too). For less than $8, I ate a plate full of yellow rice, chana masala and curried vegetables with a chapati to scoop it up with and a drink to wash it down. It's quick oily food you line up to get, slightly over cooked but very savory and filling, and a great change from everything else in the Loop. It's too bad the owners are said to be changing the name, and the menu, to Mashawy Healthy Mediterranean Food in a few days. The loss is sad, because Mediterranean counters already serve the Loop falafel, hummus, baba ganoush and other favorites like grape leaves and lentil soup; but apparently the Loop crowd didn't make Indian work here. I imagine the hot Bollywood music videos will stop, too.

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photos: Chris B.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Jetsons' Mediterranean Restaurant

Tizi Melloul: (River North) Chicago
531 N. Wells St.

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From the moment I found charmoula grilled tofu steak on their online menu, I knew I had to try Tizi Melloul; and there was absolutely was no disappointment. They seared the tofu hard, with lines burnt deep in to its flesh. Its bed of perfectly cooked, tender and firm, grilled asparagus and amazingly sultry ratatouille took it to the next level, just like Daniel Craig just did in Casino Royale. Our server Alexis completely accommodated us, suggesting and ordering us a special vegan root vegetable tagine (over couscous). We couldn't have ordered coffee with more ease. I had a great time chatting up the vegan-friendly restaurant scene with Alexis and my electrifying pal Dan; I could have carried on all night. The warm bread topped it all off. "I'm loving this dip," that the bread came with, Dan told me.

Tizi Melloul had a late 20s to early 30s ad agency kind of crowd in a space that looks like it was put together by a an interior designer living in the Mediterranean during The Jetsons' time. Dan called it a "very photogenic space." Their staff is completely gracious and natural, checking my cast iron skillet at the door with fun and excitement. They were playing music that sounded like a cross between Ultra Chilled and Natacha Atlas. If this wasn't fabulous enough, cycling home on Milwaukee Ave. in Wicker Park, I passed a tall bike decked out with Christmas lights riding with a cargo bike with a cargo box in the front.

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photos: Chris B.

Drinks Just off the Michigan Avenue Madness

Fornetto Mei: (Michigan Avenue) Chicago
107 E. Delaware Place
(312) 573-6300

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Just before dinner, Dan and I sat drinking wine in an extension protruding from the Whitehall Hotel building made off glass walls and a glass ceiling. I felt protected from the Christmas shopping madness outside, one block away on Michigan Avenue. We had rolled in this "pan-Italian" restaurant with our bicycle helmets, past the front bar through the dining room to a table aside their second bar. I felt like a local, completely accommodated as one who might come back frequently, among the others in this Hotel District. A gust of cold blew through as one couple exited through a door marked closed for the winter, and they made it a point to go out of their way to come to us and tell us it wouldn't happen again. It's a good place for people watching outside and warming up in sight of their pizza oven on a chilly rainy day like today.

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photos: Chris B.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

North Kedzie brings us the Middle East

Semiramis: (Albany Park) Chicago
4639-41 N. Kedzie Ave.
(773) 279-8900

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Semiramis had run out of the night's special vegetarian (and vegan) moussaka just as we ordered it, and even though Amod said, "it's been [a] really long time since, you know, a waitress had a special which I really wanted to eat," we still got excited about the menu. Semiramis offers the often seen tabbouleh, lentil soup, hummus and baba ganoush, but they go quite farther. They serve tasty sounding lubieh bel zeit (grean beans cooked with garlic, tomato and olive oil), fattoush (salad of cucumber, tomato, green onion, green pepper, radish, mint and pita in olive oil, lemon juice and sumac), and warakenab belk zeit (grape leaves suffed with rice, green pepper, green onion, tomato, mint, parsley and olive oil; but we ordered somethings entirely different.

Green olives and turnips slices pickled in beet juice and vinegar came first, to help us get through all of the menu choices. We ordered everything vegan to share. Getting excited about the menu, Satya exclaimed, "This is really good."

The small stovetop kettle of coffee with cardamom that came to our table just as I returned with a bottle of wine from next door was just for table service, strained from another but larger stovetop kettle used to brew it. I would like to come back and watch them brew this sweet and smooth Intelligentsia Lebanese style (presumably Intelligentsia from the insignia on the demitasses), perhaps while sipping some of the fresh carrot juice from the menu.

A bright lemon flavor on the long wide French fries from the sumac they dusted on was quite brilliantly different for me; and so was the gentle garlic spread served with.

The fava beans with lemon juice and olive oil (ful moudammas) -most of them so soft that they had lost their individual identities- and their cubed tomatoes, four mint leaves and onion slices scooped up quite well with ripped up pita. They satisfied as well as any comfort food, just without a heavy onset. Amod smothered the last of our fava beans in the fries' garlic sauce. At least one bumpy techno softly thumped in the background.

Our falafel wrap, the "falafel special", came loaded with (or course) falafel, eggplant, pickle (Satya took one out to eat), red cabbage, tomato and tahini sauce, with a scoop on the side of cool and refreshing mashed potato colored with tomato sauce with specs of green onion. As Satya took more fries, she told me, "I think I'm going to die on these ... I need to buy sumac now." I can't wait to get a hold of some, either. As I commented on my love for the fries and we thought of how great it was to come here instead of somewhere else for dinner instead, Amod told me "I think it was a good idea coming here."

Long crispy onion slivers gave a very welcomed crunch to the soft lentils and rice (moujaddara) -so full they felt like more comfort food, heavily distracting from the a side salad anchored in tomato and cucumber wedges. I think everything we ordered felt like the Lebanese version of comfort food.

Looking at the curtains dividing the dining room, Satya comments, "these are so tasteful," and decided to hang a rug in her home, like the textiles hanging the walls here.

The meal was much more elaborate than we would have prepared on any of the hiking trips we talked about (days in the Grand Canyon or day hikes through tropical waterfalls outside Bombay). The falafel alone would require an utterly obscene backpacking edition deep fryer, and carrying oil might be a burden, not to mention a terrible fire hazard in desert brush when the oil is hot. Perhaps Amod could take such a fryer on his upcoming bus ride over the Andes in to Argentina from Santiago.

The bill: $24.03 (including a $3 BYOB charge). Amod excites, "I can't believe this." Satya continues, "Can you imagine?" It's hard to believe they give 20 percent off to college and university students on lunch. And they're open to 11 on Friday and Saturday and 10 other nights.

As I've been writing this, I've been listening to the jittery pop punk group The Dials. So I've gone back to their site, hitting play over and over on the four songs I see they have up. It goes well with Chicago squad cars racing by my window, making me feel even more alive that this amazing night already has.

I love dining with Satya and Amod because I feel they get just as excited about good food as I do. "I'm so glad we came here", Satya told me, "this food is exactly what I was looking for." We moved on, walking across the street-level Brown Line tracks to window shop at Alkhyam Bakery (4744-46 N. Kedzie Ave.). I've bought their whole-wheat pitas (with "king of pita" on the bag) at Sunflower market on Clybourn. When they're open, I would like to explore what's beyond their stacks of canned bab ganoush, gallons of olive oil, bakery cases and the bags of just-made crispy bread I see from the windows.

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Next Stop: Turkish Coffee at a Diner

Mataam Al Mataam: (Albany Park) Chicago
Kedzie and Lawrence Avenues

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It's a smoky late-night diner (24-hour I hear), or ethnically called a shaan (literally "pride"). I felt like I stumbled in to a hidden world of both community and decor not easily findable anymore. Locals, if not the owner(s), seemed to switch between a table and the bar; a "God Bless America" plaque with the flag and Twin Towers on the back wall near one for Elvis; ketchup and mustard colored walls; vinyl chairs tacked around the top; simulated wood-grained laminated tables with rubberized edges; low-back dusty rose vinyl bar stools with foot rings; a flower clock on the wall that has petals and a pot base for a pendulum; an empty chrome and glass rotating pie case; and a kids cartoon on the TV that reminded Satya and I of Sesame Street. When we walked in and looked for a table, a man at the bar motioned us to take whichever one we wanted.

Satya read me the special menu written in English and (presumably) Arabic over the bar:
  • Monday: eggplant and white beans
  • Tuesday: potato and spinach
  • Wednesday: okra and white beans
  • Thursday: green beans
  • Friday: fava beans
I really didn't need more coffee, but I needed more food even less and we wanted to stop here; and the coffee did come in demitasse cups and on saucers with softly appealing gold line art depicting flowers with a gold weave capturing the edges. The Turkish coffee ($2 and not the default coffee) Amod and I took felt sludgy and nuttier, thicker, grainier and rougher than the Lebanese version at Semiramis. But it tasted sweeter -more appropriate for dessert. Satya took on a yogurt dairy shake ($1) and topped it from a shaker of sumac on the table.

As we walked back to their car, we looked in one more shop -with isles of packaged Middle Eastern food I would like to return to explore, and sets of demitasse cups that would look quite nice on my table when filled with strong coffee on a lazy morning. I loved this exploration with my pals, and the vigor and curiosity it has brought to me, but coming back to Wicker Park made me realize North Kedzie seemed to lack the street crowds, bicycle traffic, and late-night stops that vitalize me. I felt invigorated among the Saturday night energy here. After all of this stimulation plus Wicker Park two movie stops, leaving with a bag of incredibly chili covered crispy lima beans, Nine Queens on VHS from Earwax and Good Night and Good Luck on DVD, I feel like I won't want coffee in the morning.

photos: Chris B.

Seafood Stop serves up Vegan Food after our Happy Hour

Fonda del Mar: (Logan Square) Chicago
3749 W. Fullerton Ave.
(773) 489-3748

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My roommate Liz and I had just wrapped up a three-hour happy hour at our place Friday, and we were off to a friend's birthday dinner at Fonda del Mar, a clean BYOB stop on the west side of Logan Square. To our party, I had caught a ride from the Loop with my pal Rose. Driving was an exception -we both take transport- that cost us 45 minutes instead of 30. And we went straight west from the Loop and then up Western to North to avoid traffic. Rose and I laughed listening to Beautiful South's "36D" and got excited about mini-chocolate cupcakes Rose made especially for tonight. Rose had pastry bags of "butter" cream frosting to top them on location: peppermint, organic lemon zest lemon (and coconut to top), and eggnog (made with Silk nog along with cinnamon and fresh nutmeg to grate on top). "Sorry I narrowed it down to only three flavors of frosting," Rose said as she told me she had throught about peanut butter and Mexican chocolate flavors, too. She was thinking about lavendar truffles, too, but then told me, "I have so many things I want to do." Asking if I could quote her, she told me, "I'll take any publicity I can get." For the record, I'm a big fan of her peppermint frosting; it brought refreshment to all of my mouth.

Liz's idea for the happy hour was brilliant. She used her super powers to bring together incedible food. We only got to giving away one of the gifts we set aside, but Liz seemed to have had a smashing time of wrapping them as she had told me earlier, "I just want to wrap things". The place was jammed with really good, fun and virbant people.

Fonda del Mar was simple: walls unadorned expect for framed photos, a brightly colored painting of a stylized pig, another of a fish, and some exposed brick. Food came from behind a red small-tiled wall topped with a black small-tiled counter mostly hiding the line cooks but showing off the stainless steel walls above them. Wood tables with cloth napkins, bottles of hot sauce and bowls of a spicy snack mix of coated peas, peanuts and other fried tasties on the table hinted a casual atmosphere. Across the many BYOB bottles on our long table of twelve, a kid leaned over his table to meet his dad in the middle with a warm kiss that could make some melt. It felt warm and loving, a starck contrast from the dark Fullerton Avenue outside, like the closed for the night "Tienda" seen through the window.

Guacamole came, and as the chef in our group pointed out, it lacked adequate salt. The guac was flatter than the richness that could have been. Had I smashed up the chips with it, it would have been brilliant.

I asked, "I know the menu says no substitutions, but would you mind making something up vegan for me?" They were lovely about it and modified one of their usuals: tortillas stacked and filled with potatoes and carrots in a tomato chipotle sauce, topped with avocado instead of filled with cheese. The flavors were smooth and the tortillas soft, but could have used more salt inside.

photo: Chris B.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Natatorium Food

Swim Cafe: (West Town) Chicago
1357 W. Chicago Ave.

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Swim Cafe Owner Karen Gerod showing off a vegan jam bar (on front right in tray)

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Modified tri-color veggie panini, Mom in background

We had had our sandwiches for just a few minutes when I dropped half of mine on my lap trying to snap a good shot of my tri-color veggie panini with my Mom in the background. We each took this panini the way it came, minus the feta and plus avocado and tomato. Red Hen Bread down the street makes the focaccia, and they do a superior job of it –fantastically crunchy with little indentations from where I imagine the baker pressed down to make wells to trap olive oil. A little wet mess of goodness lied inside two pieces of the bread. The red peppers felt so tender, the spinach very crisp and fresh and the tomatoes gave it the moisture it needed. I found the side salad a special treat -especially since I didn’t spill it- of dark greens, the same tasty red peppers and a house balsamic. Refreshing orange slices on the side boosted up the refreshment, adding to the moisture of the tomatoes and a little avocado.

Swim Cafe’s simple white-topped tables, cutout wavey table dividers and small blue bathroom tiles reflect Eckhart Park’s Ida Crown Natatorium across the street –but they still don’t make me feel like swimming. The laptops spread out across the cafe work better here than in the pool –especially with free wireless. Swim Cafe seems to pride themself on their fair trade coffee; but they also gladly change up paninis how you’d like; and as a bonus, they have a few vegan treats. Owner Karen Gerod told my Mom and I about their vegan jam bars, and that they’re not just vegans who eat them; and her Mexican wedding cookies, dusted in powdered sugar with either cinnamon or powdered walnut. I imagined a wonderfully brittle shortbread; too bad they were out. Karen seems to get excited about the vegan bakery –or at least accommodating her customers- so much that I might feel like coming back just for that even if the food wasn't good. Last time I was in with some pals, she told me how they often sell vegan treats; they just don’t always have them when they’re wanted; and none were available that time. Just then, she kicked off peach cobblers in ramekins for us and baked them in the toaster oven behind the counter.

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Mom's shot of me in my Chicagoland Bicycle Federation T-shirt with my good friend the coffee

photos: Chris and Rita B.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Indian Vegan Buffet Extension

Gaylord India Restaurant: (River North) Chicago
678 N. Clark St.

When I rolled in to Gaylord this afternoon to meet colleagues for lunch, I instantly recognized Nassir at the front counter. I haven't been to Gaylord in ages, but Nassir remembered that I am vegan and came to me to guide me through the buffet. The chana masala, yellow and white rice mix, and pakora are fine. He volunteered to bring me extra from the kitchen. I remember trying to unsuccessfully refuse before, so I rolled with it. And loved it. Then came a plate of tender carrots, potatoes and pea pods. Second came a soup of creamy dal with obvious cumin seeds. Everything was quite savory and lightly spicy, but the dal nicely left a bit of heat in the mouth -more than the other items. The special service was a very nice touch that left me, as in all my other trips to Gaylord, feeling very well accommodated.

Veggie Burgers at Veggie Bar

Lelia Jane's: (Lincoln Park) Chicago
1008 W. Armitage Ave.

I raced home on my bicycle, popped an espresso filled chocolate in my mouth and started writing about Lelia Jane's -a bar with all vegetarian bar food. My pal Dan and I had been bicycling about looking at the dramatic changes to the South of Amitage corridor that Susan Chandler described in her October 8, 2006 article in the Chicago Tribune. We thought, we haven't been to Lelia Jane's in a while; why don't we stop in? Maybe five minutes after we got there and made ourselves very comfortable, we realized they hadn't opened. Still, they took care of us very well.

Dan and I each ordered an avocado veggie burger that they served on bread from Signature Breads (5806 N. Milwaukee, Chicago). A lemon, basil and olive oil sauce made them brilliant. Later the owner, Gregg Wynne, sat down with us. Gregg cuts their fries (that came with our burgers) with a knife, or a blade as he said, and fries them in a mix of canola and olive oils. "I usually buy everything fresh," Gregg told Dan and I. He goes to Stanley's Fruits and Vegetables and other local shops.

I remembered my last Lelia Jane's visit. A friend and I had ordered, but the cook (the owner's lady, Christa) wasn't in yet. Apparently, Christa was stuck in traffic. Later after we had our food, Christa took some time with us and told that they make their hummus from scratch -not from canned chickpeas but dried ones with lemon, pepper, basil and olive oil. She told me they're tastier that way. You can also get vegan pizza, garlic and olive oil flatbread or a veggie sandwich. Christa and Gregg look very fitting together, both relaxed, slender and seemingly very into food.

Gregg told me how he cooked Ethiopian (lentils, zucchini, squash and fresh green beans with "quartered up garlic cloves") at home with Christa, "it's so easy to make. Just look online." Dan and I got excited about it, and Dan reminded me that we have to try a Nigerian place we've heard of, Vee Vee's. I took napkins to jot down more quotes. Gregg is working at home on his injera (spongy Ethiopian bread used to scoop up food), using nutmeg and allspice to darken it, and soda water so it bubbles. He reminded me to use ingredients "as fresh as possible."

I think Dan and I both relate to freshness. Dan told me of his guacamole makings this morning for breakfast on a veggie patty with toast. He told me, "You know when you open up an avocado and it's perfect? It's not too early or too late." Three avocados later, he had his breakfast.

Dan I had sat down in the little round table in the front at the window. Dan had taken a spot on the long booth upholstered with dark curly lines along the window. A colorized episode of Casper The Friendly Ghost from 1947 had projected on a screen on the sidewall absorbed us. Gregg told us, "it's good to play when the Jazz Cats are playing." Casper cuddled a little bird, then took off flying with it -injured with a sling on his wing- as a passenger. Dan appreciatively mentioned that the episode is very pro-animal, then told me, "I could sit here and watch this all night and I'd be happy." And that was before we saw a zebra and an elephant come on. Dan excited, "It has animals in it." We both love our animal friends. Then, as somehow I remembered seeing in my childhood, Casper tied a knot in the elephant's trunk. The elephant exhaled in to its trunk as it filled into a balloon that lifted the elephant into the sky for a reason that might have been apparent had I not been taking so many notes.

Even when Casper is not playing, Lelia Jane's feels great. The dim lighting, large medieval-looking chandelier, DJ table and hanging bicycling jerseys chill the place out and give a scene of the owner's taste. A reggae song with lyrics "time is the master" had played, starting like a Pink Floyd cover. Depeche Mode came on, too. It was a great and total mix up. Thinking about the atmosphere, Dan told Gregg, "you nailed it here." Gregg talked a bit about freestyling on track bikes -Chicago Free Ride stuff, he told me; and how he rode a 1971 Schwinn Paramount, a nice old race bike. (I've heard you may bring your bicycle in to Lelia Jane's when it's not jammed). Dan told me that Lelia Jane's reminds him of a place called The Comet in Cincinnati known for their veggie burrito. And that if I check out The Comet, I've got to check out Cincinnati's glorious Findlay Market dating from 1852 and "Ohio's oldest surviving municipal market house."

Gregg put his hair up as Dan put on his winter head wrap to leave, tied in a knot at the top looking like it was hiding a ball of hair like Gregg had up. I asked Gregg if the popcorn is vegan (they have a machine full of it by the bar at the back). Just olive oil and kosher salt he told me. "I love it," I said; and he told me, "it's easier."

Thursday, December 07, 2006

God, I Ate A Lot of Pizza. Plus pancakes later.

Pizza Metro: (East Ukrainian Village / Wicker Park) Chicago
1707 W. Division St.

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My pal Rose and I were going to go to Oysy Sushi in the South Loop tonight before Conscious Choice's celebration at Funky Buddha Lounge, but pizza overcame me. Plus, I can't imagine Oysy giving us a whole raw potato to go with a potato pizza. I think we chose wisely this time. We ordered a full size ("whole sheet") pizza that's said to serve 4 to 6: potato rosemary with onion, extra sauce and no cheese. The extra sauce is key, and it doesn't make their crust soggy. I sipped a 250 mL bottle of San Pellegrino and Rose took on the brand's Limonata. "Refreshment in a bottle," it has sugar instead of corn syrup, she said. Later, she snapped photos of the bottles embracing. But they were just friends.

We chatted about sweets -how there's a little shop on Columbus in San Francisco called XOX Truffles that makes up incredibly rich vegan truffles, and how Rose's Simran Bakehouse is due to make vegan ginger cookies this weekend. When the pizza came, it looked large and lovely, especially with its red sauce against the green plastic cutting board they served it on. I asked our server across the counter, do most people order the big pizza (instead of the half sheet or a slice) for just two people? The place is long and narrow with ripped stools and a counter down the middle, a few tables and chairs across from it, and ranges and ovens behind it. "No, not really," she said while probably smiling, but she told me she's seen two people eat one. Jerseys hang on the side wall and an "It's great to be Italian" banner hangs on the back wall. It's perfect, especially considering Rose was telling me later how she knit her scarf on the train in Italy.

Rose asked me to put the Parmesan cheese shaker out of her sight: I'm trying to be vegan, she said. We loaded our square slices up with dried pepper flakes, and in the spirit of potatoes as Rose pointed out, salt and pepper. Rose snapped off shots trying to capture our excitement. Oh, this is a lot of peppers, but I like it, she told me. I dumped peppers on my slice like mad. A little too many, I thought. But then Rose reassured me: that's going to be a good one. There was still a lot of pizza left and we weren't as hungry as when we walked in. Rose told me, I really don't want to eat this whole pizza, but it's just sitting here. Rose snapped more photos as I helped. "The only thing keeping from me overeating right now is taking photos," she told me. She got excited about a large mixer's paddle hanging about the range, "you know what that goes to?" A huge Hobart (a large, restaurant mixer, perhaps one with a 20 quart capacity). "I want one." Back to the pizza, we finally came to terms. I told Rose, "we are going to eat all this," and she told me "I know. It's sick," and laughed. I loaded my next slice with hot pepper flakes and felt like I couldn't get enought of them. My mouth didn't yet feel like Madonna's Burning Up. Rose liked the pepper, too: "I can't stop. I don't want to stop." But we were going to have a few slices left to take away.

We asked how many potatoes it took to make our pizza; perhaps three or four? Just one or two, they said, but we were still imaginging more. A man behind the counter went to bring us a whole potato and put it on the counter aside our pizza. It was a rather large one. It seemed more plausable now that it took just one to cover our entire pizza.

I ran out of room on the sheet Rose had given me to take notes for this blog. Luckily, she told me she had more. Quickly, I exclaimed, asking for another. I felt my head full of all the magic of Pizza Metro and didn't want to loose any of it. We remembered Rose emailing me earlier asking if it'd be OK if she didn't bring the camera, and me saying it would be. As Rose kidded, I don't know what we would have done. "Sat in silence," she joked. The wondeful aroma lingered.

We stopped off to upload the photos. Then, we were riding in a cab to Funky Buddha, I got a call from a pal at Chicagoland Bicycle Federation as part of their year end appeal phone drive. I'm a big fan of advocating so I donated. I kidded myself that the dontation would offset my cab usage tonight. At the Buddha, we met up with some others and together checked out a couple of books depicting trendy outrageous street fashion in Japan: Shoichi Aoki's Fruits and Fresh Fruits. These make me want to redo my wardrobe.

Hunger Pancakes

Rose's pal Jen dropped me at home and her, Rose and I made up some quick pancakes to quench our not-so-late-night hunger. Rose and I guessed the measurements and Jen assured me that we really can't mess up pancakes. We quickly mixed up a bit (maybe two tablespoons) of chestnut flour from Green City Market, maybe 1/2 cup oat flour, maybe 1/2 cup wheat flour, a small handful of sugar, maybe 1/4 teaspoon baking powder, a couple splashes of peanut oil and enough soy milk to make this pour like pancakes. I poured the batter on a hot cast iron pan on low with enough hot peanut oil to give the bottom of the pan a high gloss. The batter made 4 pancakes, using more oil each time to make the pancake sizzle. When the pancake looked dry in the middle, I flipped it. In a small pan, Jen mixed maple syrup and cashew/macadamian nut butter before we heated it. The pancakes were thin and crispy on the edges and the syrup was creamy. It was all quite a wonderful nighttime snack with some new pals.

Chris at Pizza Metro (photo: Rose G.)_2.jpg

Pizza Metro (photo: Rose G.)_6.jpg

Rose's Dollar Bill Ring (Photo: Chris).jpg

Rose's Dollar Bill Ring (Photo: Chris)_2.jpg

photos: Rose G. and Chris B.

Quick Loop Falafel: Haifa

Haifa Cafe: (Loop) Chicago
318 W. Adams St. (with additional Loop locations: 163 N. Wells, 19 N. Wells, 410 S. Clark)

On my walk to Haifa Cafe through the valleys of the tall buildings in Chicago’s financial district, I counted seventeen signs on my side of the sidewalk warning of the danger of falling ice. What exactly should one do about such dangers? Walk while continuously looking up only to look back down to avoid cars racing stale yellow lights? I didn’t want to take time for such madness. This was a quick lunch jammed with three errands: drop used batteries for recycling at Walgreens, purchase screws at the local Ace Hardware and drop into the shoe doctor to see about resoling shoes. An affirmative lady at the shoe doctor took how I felt about getting the most of my lunch break to the next level of efficiency. It went something like this:

Lady: We can't resole them.
Chris: But they’re supposed to be resoleable.
L: Who told you they can be resoled?
C: The manufacturer.
L: Then you tell the manufacturer to resole them.

At Haifa Care, I enjoyed a sandwich that could have contended for messiest falafel in town -at least after the pita ruptured. They had added grilled eggplant and hot pepper mix like I asked for. I sat in one of three stools at the counter by the window next to a 30-gallon trashcan –the only place to eat in this long and narrow take-away (their Clark St. and one of their Wells St. locations have more seating). I looked outside and caught people looking at me eat as they walked by. Just as I would notice, they would turn away. I felt like I could have been a window ad for Haifa featuring one of their tasty sandwiches if only I could lure people in. Construction scaffolding above the sidewalk went well with the trashcan inside. A messenger watched me eat as he unlocked his bike from the scaffold. He nodded to me when I noticed him. Perhaps I should have been nodding to lure the sidewalk people in. Maybe I’ll try that next time.

Another Visit: Friday, December 8, 2006

I returned to Haifa and, this time, tried nodding at a sidewalk person. I was eating Haifa's vegetarian kalya, a seasoned combination of zucchini slices, lima beans, carrot slices, broccoli and pea pods with garlic over yellow rice. I'm quite glad that the cashier asked me if I wanted the homemade tomato sauce. I told him yes and he sent the Styrofoam container back to the line. The sauce's tang helped distract me from the sogginess of the overcooked veggies. One falafel piece, pita and hummus come with and round out the meal. Unlike my previous visit, I nodded at a sidewalk person who I noticed might have been watching me eat and they walked into Haifa. Perhaps they were coming here anyway. As I was leaving, the cashier asked me how the food was. I told him they should do something about the Styrofoam. I wish, I wish, he told me.

Other vegan options: falafel sandwich (with tahini, lettuce, tomato and Jerusalem salad), grilled eggplant sandwich (seasoned and topped with tomato sauce, lettuce, tomato and Jerusalem salad), falafel plate (falafel, hummus, salad and pita), freshly squeezed orange, carrot or apple juice, various smoothies, baba ghanouj, tabuleh salad, hummus, Jerusalem salad and bagels with or without peanut butter (breakfast).

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Old World European Snack in the Loop

Hannah’s Bretzel: (Loop) Chicago
180 W. Washington St.

Muesli at Hannah’s Bretzel.jpgNothing conjures up Old World thoughts quite the way a carry-out eatery from a company that aligns itself (on their Web site and coffee cup sleeves) with the text “since 1477” does (turns out, or so I've heard, it's their Bretzel recipe that's that old) -except Hannah's has been laid out in a clean contemporary style. The place runs as narrow, deep and lacking of seating as you might expect from an efficient Loop carry-out. But Hannah’s selection of chocolate bars is quite extensive –including many of the dark chocolate vegan variety, lining the right wall as you come in. They can make a sandwich on hearty bread, too –small and about the same shape as the store. Torn between muesli and such a sandwich, a gentleman with a European sounding accent, pinstriped slacks, a black turtleneck and dress shoes explains that they make the muesli to order. It takes about five minutes; they heat it on the stove in the back -this time with soy instead of dairy. The gentleman goes on with some colleagues to discuss menu details and take measurements of the store. Mommy-O grabs the last of the place's four seats and tells me about her expedition to the Loop for lunch with Daddy-O at the Christkindlmarket (at Daley Plaza until December 24). I stand and enjoy my snack: a thick warm moist mess of whole grains, raisins, sunflower seeds, fresh apple cubes, and whole almonds whose toasted taste pleases my mouth with full-on nuttiness.

Hannah's Bretzel provides for recycling but goes farther. The December 2006 Conscious Choice reports Hannah's Bretzel to be Chicago's first LEED certified "green" retail building. According to the article, Hannah's uses biodegradeable containers and cleaning materials and makes other reduced-impact decisions.

Photo: thanks Mom for letting me use your camera and emailing me the pix. XO

Serenity for Lunch in the Loop

Spa Café: (Loop) Chicago
112 W. Monroe St.

Rose at Spa Cafe (photo: Chris) 2 Chris at Spa Cafe (photo: Rose) 2
By the time I met my pal Rose for lunch at 11:30 a.m., I’d been thinking about food for a while, but Rose helped me over the edge. Ideas of a bake-off came up a few times. I’d brought the recent book Vegan Cupcakes, Take Over The World (Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero) and we were paging through getting excited over close-ups of toasted coconut cupcakes with buttercream frosting, peanut butter cupcakes and banana split cupcakes. Too bad there wasn’t an oven for us to use. I’m more into deep-frying homemade donuts today. Rose and I agree on our love of the yeast-risen donut over the chemically leavened variety. Does deep-frying make a home smell like oil? I don’t know, but I’m going to close my closet before I start.

Goofing on the Street after Spa Cafe (photo: Rose)Spa has been a favorite of mine ever since the chef, Patrick Cassata, had vibrantly told me that he’d cut the dairy out of some of their soups, wanted to sell vegan bakery and try out a tofu scramble in the morning. His occasional gifts of coffee or a vegan cookie helped. The place is an oasis right in the middle of the hustle back to work Loop. The water tricking down the small wall-hung waterfall takes me away, as do the green plants and parts of the walls laid with soft blue tile squares or rocks. And they separate plastic for recycling.

Rose seemed to share my love of for the marinated tofu pita: “I love eating tofu in public. I don’t do it too often.” She laughed as she said this and as I left for the counter to borrow a pen to remember this quote. We both enjoyed thick purple sweet potato and chipotle soup. Spa plates modest portions; get a combo if you’re hungry. Say yes to the crackers with your soup; they’re coated with seeds.

As I’ve been writing this, I’ve finished a glass of Seedling’s pear juice from Saturday’s Green City Market. The pear flavor came through so clean and crisp. This juice enjoys a splash of coconut rum, too -perhaps even better with fresh donuts.

Photos: Rose G. and Chris B.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Late Night Gnocchi: 11:10 p.m.

Enoteca Roma: (Wicker Park) Chicago
2146 W. Division St.

Christopher sent me a text to invite me out last night. The temperature had dropped well below freezing, but after staying in much of the Saturday afternoon, I felt like a little invigorating bicycle ride would pick me up a bit. Christopher and Laura didn’t recognize me when I arrived and walked by the restaurant window in the snowboarding helmet. I’d switched from my bicycle helmet for warmth. Inside, the three of us sat at the bar catching up. Enoteca Roma’s lit glass bar cases made it obvious how much dimmer the main lighting was. Combined with the invigoration of the ride, this atmosphere relaxed and stimulated me into very soothing conversation.

After sipping a round of brandy, my stomach pressed for food. Enoteca Roma had provided bruschetteria and a good sampling of olives before, but I felt something more substantial was in order. That’s where a quick check-in with the kitchen led to finding that the gnocchi seemed vegan. A couple obvious changes to the Boscaiola (no cream, butter or Italian sausage) left me with a combination of whole-wheat gnocchi, crimini mushrooms, peas, garlic and olive oil that hit my spot. Laura liked the peas.

Gnocchi at Enoteca Roma.jpg
Thanks to Laura for letting me snap photos on her camera and for emailing them to me.

I Heart Beirut

Sultan’s Market: (Wicker Park) Chicago
2057 W. North Ave.

The temperature seemed to be dropping below freezing; I wanted nearby cost-conscious comfort food for lunch; and a savory falafel sandwich and zatter bread (a traditional mix of sesame seed, thyme and sumac rubbed on flat bread with olive oil) sounded like it’d fill me up quite well.

It was just after 1 p.m. yesterday -a Saturday afternoon. Inside Sultan’s, a line of hip looking customers waiting to order curved from the counter towards the door. As the person in front of me got their food and moved up the line towards the register, my turn came. Menus on the counter clearly identify the vegan options: spinach pie, falafel, zatter bread, hummus, baba ghanooj, tabboule, Jerusalem salad, lentil soup and rice and lentils. A salad bar adds dolma (grape leaves stuffed with rice), roasted Brussels sprouts, pickled turnip and more. Once, I asked if the lentil soup was vegetarian - knowing it's one item that would most likely be vegan if it was veg - and got a solid, "it's vegan," back.

I got my food, paid and sat down to take the scene in and eat. The register displays an I heart Beirut sticker and a computer jamming remixes of Arabic sounding music holds a booth. Behind the counter, pans hang aside the burners and someone mechanically scooped fresh light-colored falafel –soon to be dark and crispy- into the deep fryer. Middle Eastern groceries line the shelves under the counter: bags of large or red lentils; sesame seeds; herbs and spices like sage, cinnamon, fenugreek, cardamom, and sumac; mixed nuts; Jordan almonds (candied as pastels and whites); cans of chickpeas, fava beans and stuffed grape leaves; bottles of olive oil, rose water, tahini; and various hot sauces.

Above the tables, hanging strings of colored beads circle stylized light fixtures. A cusped archway fronts each booth’s concave canopy. Many tables extend beyond the boundaries of their booths, with chairs surrounding the extensions, and take on groups yielding lively combinations of talking and eating.

A neighborhood moment came upon leaving Sultan’s. I ran into an acquaintance I’d run into in the morning at Green City Market. He had been bicycling home with bamboo plywood for a desk from Greenmaker ("Chicago’s green building supply store") in the bags of his Xtracycle. We looked at the wood’s striking streaks. He told me that some of the pieces in the plywood had been baked, which brought out a caramel color that provided great contrast. Seeing this bicycle delivery the day after the season’s first snowstorm made me smile. Having Sultan’s in my belly kept my face happy all the way home in the cold.

Update with Jon and Kerry: December 29, 2006

Is the baklava vegan? Oh yes, they said. This was the perfect post-falafel treat to have just after my brother's girl Kerry rolled in on the Blue Line on a suprise layover from O'Hare airport. On the walk out to return a movie at Earwax, we ran in to my good pals Satya and Amod and their friends from Bombay. Could we have found a better to show Kerry around Wicker Park? The next day cycling to a coffee break with my roomie Liz, I ran into Satya and Amod again. This time, we
were at the same cafe, sipping coffee in the extra room at Alliance Bakery that you get to from the sidewalk, and ended up chatting about projects.