The joy of dining, as taught to me by sushi.

I never experienced sushi growing up. I would learn of it at some point in my early twenties. The concept both intrigued and frightened me a little. The idea of raw and mysterious meats made me wonder how I could work up the nerve to try it. The fear of the unknown kept me away.

What changed all that for me was my good buddy, Martin. He knew sushi well enough. He’d been to Japan after all. He had a sense of the basics and could guide me through the process of making my first selections. It gave me the courage to start with the “safe stuff”, smoked salmon, tuna, and shrimp. I stayed there for a little while, afraid to try anything I’d never eaten in another form before.

Fast forward a few years to when I met Vojn. He’d moved here from San Francisco, a seafood mecca out west. He was convinced Chicago couldn’t offer comparably good chinese food, seafood or sushi. Challenge accepted. That led to the delightfully surprising Sushi House in downtown Naperville. Dragon roll good. Godzilla Roll better. We both left there impressed, and the bar had been raised on my expectations.

Martin also introduced me to kaiten sushi at Sushi Station in Rolling Meadows. Sushi on conveyor belts, so there’s always something ready when you are. Even when it’s not the best sushi around the experience is still worth the trip for the uniqueness in presentation alone. He also got me hooked on unagi and anago, the two types of eel. Done right, it’s amazing. Done wrong, it’s a little fishy. So it’s always a gamble, but one I relish taking.

Fast forward a few more years, and after numerous places both good and bad, thanks to Restaurants.com, I discovered Sushi by Chef Soon in Lisle. Of all the contemporary and fusion sushi places I’ve been to, this one nails it on all counts. Often, a sushi place will excel at either rolls or individual pieces. Chef Soon gets both right. I cannot recommend it enough.

So what do I love so much about sushi? Beyond the flavors and the variety, sushi taught me to slow down and dine. The process: prepare chopsticks, cleanse palette with ginger, dip piece in soy sauce or top with wasabi (optional), place piece in mouth and slowly savor the flavors, then repeat. This isn’t scarfing down a burger or devouring a burrito. This is dining at it’s best, slow and deliberate, with immense variety throughout the meal.

So, when it comes to dining out, there’s nothing else quite like sushi. Except maybe tapas. Yes, tapas and sushi. Oh, and dim sum. So, tapas, sushi, and dim sum. Wait, there’s also¬†churrascaria, which can still be a very diversified menu depending on the restaurant… and let’s not forget fondue… Anyway, you get my point. Enjoy!

My Final Word on… My Views

The beauty of the “Myself” category is that it gives me an opportunity to speak my mind on subjects unrelated to food. At the same time, I want to make it easy for my subscribers and visitors to identify my politically and religiously charged posts by giving them The same ongoing theme. So, whenever you see a posted titled, “My Final Word on…”, you’ll know whether you’ll want to skip the post or dive right in.

The main goal of these posts for me is to offer an intelligent perspective on the things I’d rather not argue on Facebook. Too often, people want to argue the left or the right. My hope is to present a lucid argument on the middle. Whether the topic is guns, gay marriage, the economy, or religion, I’m looking to document my beliefs on each subject. As much as I’d love to entertain and challenge others with these posts, it also offers a record of where I stand today to amuse my future self in the years to come. After all, I can’t help but laugh at what I used to think and believe in years past. So that’s my final word on my views… for now. Enjoy!

Chinese takeout… via the longest way possible!

When I visited China in 2006, it was on a business trip, mostly in the south, to visit the factories that made the products I designed. It was meant to help me better understand the process for future work.

On most days of my trip, the itinerary was a simple one. Breakfast in the fancy hotel’s buffet, which often had a fascinating mix of east and west. “Why, yes, I’d love eggrolls with my omelette.” Then I’d spend the day at a factory, with some simple lunch brought in. “Bao? Wow, that’s awesome! More, please.” The the owners would take me and my coworker out to a fancy restaurant for dinner. Those dinners were the real learning experience on my trip.

Some nights we went out for the traditional and elaborate ten-course meal in a private room, with a large round table sporting a lazy susan in the middle. I had some amazing crab, various noodle dishes, chicken and pork (both with heads still on the plate), Beijing Duck (apparently the same as Peking Duck, since Peking=Beijing), and a broth brewed in a teapot filled with shrimp and veggies. My hosts were impressed with my chopstick usage, then later amused when I brandished them at the modern Japanese steakhouse, only to see everyone else smiling and holding forks.

There was a trip to a classic Japanese sushi restaurant with the low tables. These offered the pit under the table to dangle one’s legs comfortably. I went to a Korean BBQ with the dome-like grill. I even tried my first (and probably my last) Sea Cucumber. Imagine flavorless, gritty jello. When the lady. who acted as our mediator with the companies, looked at me and said, “You eat. It’s good for you,” I replied, “No, it’s good for you,” and handed her my plate.

The final leg of my trip was a little more like a vacation. Thanks to the threat of a typhoon, we left the south a day early and returned to Beijing. There my coworker, Chris Yee, and his then fiance, Kate, took me sightseeing to a popular tourist area of the Great Wall, where I had this amazing chinese breakfast wrap. We visited an old alleyway marketplace nestled between two newer looking buildings (it felt like a Chinese version of Diagon Alley) and had the popular “meat-on-a-stick” for which the symbol for what it’s called is two parallel lines crossing one perpendicular line, looking like two pieces of meat on a stick. The little cafe we had lunch in reminded me of so many mexican dives on the southside of Chicago, except for the language differences. Dinner came from ¬†Chris’s favorite eatery close to the hotel. Some of the best traditional chinese I’d had the whole trip. Sadly, that restaurant is no longer there.

Thus ended my trip to China. For weeks afterwards, I was teased by my friends about all my food stories, but that was what stood out to me. My days were eating, standing in factories and more eating. Other than the Beijing visit, which also including my first excercise in haggling, for a silk, kung fu-style jacket I’ve yet to wear anywhere, and a trip to the Forbidden City, where I saw people lining up to get their picture taken dressed up as the emporers of old, it was almost exclusively a culinary experience. One that was so amazing that I can’t wait to go again. Enjoy!

A Fond(a) Memory

Part of the inspiration for the idea of blogging came from a series of experiences my wife and I had at an establishment called Fonda Isabel in Villa Park.

Our first trip there happened by accident as the nondescript and cheesy exterior gave no indication of the finer dining available inside. Seeking simple Mexican fare, we were greeted with amazing contemporary cuisine, a fusion of all things Latin, from both sides of the pond.

The food was amazing, and rarely disappointing, with their version of the classic chips and salsa including four house-made dips, each as flavorful as the others. Food presentation was always appetizing, and portion and price were well in line with comparable establishments.

Their downfall, in my opinion, could be largely attributed to one obvious factor. Service was sub-par. They always seemed understaffed, no matter when we went, and everything seemed to take longer because of it. The manager was ever-present, which both helped and hurt them, because it meant he was readily available to deal with problems, but also seemed ignorant of the obvious one.

It’s a shame, really. At one point they tried to resort to a cheaper, more traditional menu, but by then, they’d already lost out to the competition. It’s just further proof that the key to success in a such a competitive field requires more than just good food. It takes a keen awareness of all the factors that impact a patron’s experience. Enjoy!

Fearless

I never really succeeded creatively in the kitchen until I was willing to fail. Since I started taking risks and stopped cooking from a box, surprisingly tasty things started to happen.

Tonight, I made a Skyline chili and potato casserole topped with 4-year aged cheddar. Not only did I not use a recipe, I used the oven! The fact that it tasted very good was just the icing on the cake. Want the recipe? Just ask. Enjoy!

(Now, if only I could remember to take pictures…)

Another “On Par” Breakfast Place

I visited the Egg’lectic Cafe for breakfast today. Maybe I should have ordered a breakfast entree, but I had a pot roast sandwich instead with a side of “Mexican rice”. It was quite tasty, but calling the thinly sliced meat pot roast seemed inaccurate. The rice, corn and bean mix was a bit dry, as is often the case with precooked rice side dishes, but enjoyable with a little hot sauce on top. The flavored coffee was worth a second cup.

Sure, I’d go back, as is the case with most “on par” restaurants. Because on par is a perfect assessment. It satisfies the expectations, but does not exceed them. A birdie, eagle or hole-in-one is much rarer, so any establishment should be happy with on par. It’s infinitely better than being sub-par. Enjoy!

Coffee Chemistry

It must be nice for people who drink coffee black. Server comes by with the pot and just refills away. I’m a cream and sugar guy. Getting just the right mix is very important to me. I can only take a refill when I’m empty or halfway, so I know how to recreate my perfect blend.

Some servers get it. Some have fun with it. (That’s right, Brenda. I’m talking about you.) I’ve learned to love red wine, so maybe someday I’ll learn to love black coffee. In the meantime, cream and sugar please and I’ll let YOU know when I want more. Enjoy!

Nights Around the Dinner Table

When I was growing up, we didn’t eat out much. Mom cooked. Dad helped a lot. We ate together whenever possible, and always at the table. There were rare occasions where dinner was eaten in front of the tv, but most of the time, we sat down, we ate, and we spent time together as a family. There were distractions at times, but they were interactive, not isolating, as we played games together or recounted our day’s activities. To this day, my preferences for food and penchant for dining with company are influenced by those early meals.

Mom encouraged us to help in the kitchen, but didn’t force us. I’m pretty sure cooking was one of the creative outlets she enjoyed most. She loved my dad so much she learned to cook traditional mexican dishes from his mother, and made some wonderful salsas to keep handy and feed Dad’s heat obsession. She didn’t always have the budget to cook beyond mac and cheese most days, but she always found ways to dress it up. Hers is the only beef liver I’ve ever enjoyed, but when the breading is that good, ketchup was often unnecessary.

My mom isn’t able to cook anymore, for reasons I’d rather not dwell on here. It’s tough not being able to share my passion for food with her now that I’ve embraced it so thoroughly. Maybe someday…