Restaurant Tours: dinner in a strange land | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Restaurant Tours: dinner in a strange land 

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In the barroom, a jazz trio wails. In the restaurant--a sleek modern space with parquet floors, marble tables, comfortable blue banquettes, and a snazzy spotlit food bar--handsome young servers are delivering appetizers, entrees, and "tastings" (grazing-size portions) ranging from Hung Tao Dragon Noodles to chicken flautas with avocado relish to insalata di calimari. Stodgy Evanston has rarely seen the likes of Bodega Bay, the wildly eclectic restaurant that Leslee Reis and chef David Dugo are running in the bottom floor of a boringly modern downtown office building at Grove and Sherman.

Named for the town that the birds invaded in Alfred Hitchcock's thriller, Bodega Bay is a purveyor of what Dugo calls "freestyle cooking." One of its innovations is to pay two-week-long culinary "visits" to exotic locales like Central America, Australia, and Morocco.

"Doing these cuisines was pretty much my idea," says Dugo, 27, who has studied at La Varenne in Paris, done a stint at Roger Greenfield's American Grill, and has been at Bodega Bay for not quite a year. "The restaurant draws on a wide variety of cuisines, so I thought it would be fun to concentrate on certain areas. Eclecticism is the watchword here--nothing is safe from the menu."

Owner Reis liked the idea "because it offers us a chance to do a cuisine that I wouldnt be presumptuous enough to devote an entire restaurant to. If there is going to be a Malaysian or Moroccan restaurant in Chicago, then I feel that it should be run by someone from that ethnic group. But that doesn't mean we should ignore those cuisines, either--our 'Globetrotting Gourmet Series' is our way of visiting those cuisines."

For Dugo the visits are "much more intense than the way I approach our standard menu. With the kind of eclectic, California-style menu that we do here, you don't usually have to sit down and think about what you're going to do. The produce market has opened up tremendously, so you can let your inspiration ride on what you get in the house. You don't have to sit down and say, 'I'll get this and this and this . . . You just connect the lines and there you go. It's very appropriate that we do jazz here--it's fusion cooking."

But the globe-trotting specials require a less improvisational style. "I approach the trip by doing a lot of research into the cuisine. The oriental stuff that we've done (Szechuan and Thai) was pretty easy, because I had done a lot of it before, but the Moroccan was much more challenging. I bought cookbooks, spent time at the library. Some of the ingredients were very hard to come by. 'Ras el hanout,' for example, means 'top of the shop'; it's a mixture of anywhere between 15 and 24 of the best spices in the shop--we use it on a chicken appetizer. I found a few recipes for it, and fooled around until I was happy--it's pretty much a mixture that can vary from family to family in Morocco. Allspice, nutmeg, and cinnamon are the mainstays, the flavors that come across right away, but there are weird things in there like lavender flowers, rosebuds, and galingale root, which I finally dug up in health-food stores--it's supposed to be good for the heart, and is a natural energizer, sort of organic speed."

The Moroccan tour, which kicked off the summer series, revealed Dugo's deft hand at adapting unusual foods. The traditional saltiness and outrageous proportions of cayenne pepper in some Moroccan dishes were toned down, but not eliminated, and the special offerings were neatly married: among the appetizers, a mild dish of couscous and vegetables complemented the strong, hot snails boubbouche, and both went nicely with the chicken ras el hanout (which has been enshrined on the permanent menu). The entrees were Couscous Fez--with chicken, garbanzos, and saffron--and a lamb tangine (stew) with preserved lemons served over rice. As is usual for Bodega Bay, portions were huge--"too big for my taste," admitted Reis, "but our customers seem to love them that way." Wet wipes were provided for those who wanted to eat Moroccan-style, with the fingers, a technique that appealed immensely to our six-year-old. Our server was unusually well informed about the food, and service was good--not just for restaurant reviewers, but for the tables we watched around us.

This month (through July 14) Bodega Bay is visiting Malaysia, whose food, according to Dugo, "is mostly in the Indian tradition of cooking." Featured appetizers are aroog (minced chicken fritters) and tomato palak bhat (tomato/spinach/rice cakes); the entrees are green peppers and shrimp in sesame seed sauce, and roasted snapper with walnut chutney. Future destinations are Jamaica (August 19-September 1) and Puerto Rico (September 16-29).

Grazing at Bodega Bay can be inexpensive, but the full globe-trot--two appetizers, two entrees, two drinks apiece (the selection of beer and wine by the glass is very good), coffee, and desserts--will run $55-$60 before tip. The restaurant is located in the One Rotary Center building at Sherman and Grove in Evanston, and it's open from 6 to 10 Sundays through Thursdays, and until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Reservations are advised and often necessary on weekends. It's OK to drink the water.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.

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