Happy Fall to all with this newest edition of the funkiest and freshest food blog in Chicago, Mastication Monologues. Today’s entry takes us north of the City to the university town of Evanston, home of the Northwestern Wildcats and the American fusion diner known as The Cellar.
It seems that it is located next to a wine and tapas bar that is called the Stained Glass, but we went to the restaurant for a dinner date earlier this summer. Even though it wasn’t the actual tapas bar, I was informed that most of the dishes were designed like tapas, i.e. smaller portions that are meant to be shared (as oxymoronic as that sounds). I started with a cold brew in the form of a Headless Man Amber Ale from Tyranena Brewing in Wisconsin. It definitely was an aromatic choice that had a slightly hoppy aftertaste with hints of caramel throughout the beer. It was light though to compliment the first dish of the night: the butter and salt flight with a warm loaf of sliced French bread ($6.50). If you blinked, you would have missed it being set on the table since we devoured every morsel. This dairy-palooza sported three different types of butter: Parmigiano Reggiano butter with fleur de sel, goat’s milk butter with pink Himalayan salt, and truffle butter with truffle sea salt. The Parmigiano butter with the fancy French sea salt obviously tasted nice and cheesy but not obnoxiously so. It was personally my favorite since the goat’s milk butter wasn’t as pungent and strong as I would expect from a butter that should have had the soul of a good Feta. With the truffle butter, I was somewhat surprised that it didn’t possess the aromatic potency I’d expect from the world famous and ludicrously expensive fungi that I sampled firsthand at London’s Borough Market. I still would recommend this appetizer though. Our second round consisted of the elotes callejeros ($4.75) and the smoked salmon flatbread ($12.50). The former was a nod to the Mexican street food scene (calle meaning “street” in Spanish), and it shown through with the fusion of smoked paprika and grilled corn. The mayonnaise was a more savory choice over the typical butter one can find at any picnic in ‘Murika. It was a more decadent partner to the more understated smoked salmon flatbread. This bite of more Northern Europe cuisine with the cold salmon and greens reminded me of the Swedish flatbreads common to smorgasboards. Instead of a white cream, they utilized a more Mediterranean flavor with the pesto sauce and goat cheese. It all kind of overpowered the salmon itself, but I enjoyed the herbal pesto along the creamy, potent goat cheese. It was delicious, but if you’re looking for a great salmon meal, look elsewhere. Our main dishes finally came. I got the shrimp tacos ($13), and Janice got the empanadas ($9.50). The latter consisted of the ubiquitous, fried Latin turnovers filled with roasted poblano peppers, sweet corn, Oaxaca cheese, and avocado-tomatillo salsa on the side. The flaky yet crunchy crust was bursting with the spicy peppers and were countered with the creamy cheese and sweet corn. Plenty of textural and flavor contrasts that worked together in harmony. As for my tacos, I felt that the tortillas were a bit too small for the fried pieces of seafood that were resting on a kale citrus slaw and topped with grilled sweet red onions. Once I piled all of these ingredients into the flatbread with a dollop of the semi-spicy aioli for good measure on top, I got a mouthful of quality food from beginning to end. The breading was buttery and golden brown, but the shrimp was just ok. However, the citrus slaw and semi-sweet onions provided the zest to the seafood that gave the taco a punch of ceviche flavor. Even though we were chowing down for a good while, we managed to find room for dessert which took the form of the creme brulee sampler ($7.75). It was three small cups of high quality burnt sugar and egg custard with different kinds of flavor infusions. The Mexican chocolate one had a bit of a spicy kick in the form of cinnamon and a little hint of chili pepper. I’ll just say up front that this was my favorite, but the french vanilla was a close second. The chai one was my least favorite since it was a bit too subtle for my liking, but maybe you’ll enjoy it more than I did. It was a sweet flourish to a light but filling dinner.