With vibrant bursts of color, flavor and freshness, the cuisines of the French Riviera and Levantine region help us keep summer going just a little bit longer.
Imagine strolling past the beaches of Nice or Cannes, enjoying a fresh baked roll filled with salade Niçoise or tapenade with olives and anchovies. Or maybe you’re nibbling on a pissaladière — a pizzalike tart covered with caramelized onions and herbes de Provence. Next, you’re walking on the ancient cobblestone streets of Amman, Jordan, stopping at cafes and street food stalls to sample tiny eggplants and grape leaves stuffed with lemon rice, walnuts and pomegranate molasses, or maybe some grilled seafood or watermelon with a brined white cheese. In between bites, you sip on a lavender cocktail, iced hibiscus tea or fresh mint lemonade.
These are perfect treats to expand our definition of Mediterranean cuisine. We’ve picked three Chicago restaurants where you can indulge in your travel fantasies and tune out the approaching fall season for a few more weeks.
The cuisine of France’s Mediterranean coast is like a combination of Provence and Italy, and it works with a broad, colorful palette of fresh herbs and produce. The Harvest Greens salad ($17) at Le Sud in Roscoe Village is a great introduction to these flavors, with its mint leaves, mixed greens, grilled Michigan peaches, shaved fennel, goat cheese, toasted pecans and orange vinaigrette. “We regularly incorporate fresh herbs from our patio garden, including mint, basil, sage, rosemary and parsley,” said William Lara, executive sous chef.
A French 75 cocktail ($14) with Champagne, gin and lemon juice might conjure up dreams of the Côte d’Azur, since Le Sud’s exterior has turquoise and white tones. The bar also has regional specialties. “Some of my favorite summer drinks from the French Riviera are Côtes de Provence rosé or an aperitif made with dry vermouth and Coca-Cola over ice,” Lara said.
Although Le Sud uses Mediterranean seasoning and cooking techniques, they don’t limit their influences to the south of France. Let your taste buds travel further east by getting the mussels Provençal ($23) with fennel, fire-roasted tomatoes, shaved garlic, shallots, grilled lemon, herbes de Provence, smoked paprika and sambuca with spiced pita. Or try the shrimp kabob ($18) special on Tuesdays with vegetables and lemon-fennel dipping sauce, plus a side of Parmesan garlic frites with lemon aioli ($9). A Santorini ($18) with baby arugula, feta, olives, shaved radishes, sun-dried tomatoes, cucumber, ras el-hanout and lemon-mint vinaigrette will set the right tone for the greens. The bar can even put an Eastern twist on your cocktails, since the Gardener ($14) blends vodka, rosewater, lime and chamomile syrup, while the hibiscus mule ($14) features hibiscus-infused vodka, lime juice, hibiscus syrup and ginger beer.
2301 W. Roscoe St., 773-857-1985, lesudchicago.com
“In my culture, we tend to grill kebab in the summer, since it’s an outdoor activity and a family-gathering type of food,” said Faris Ismail, owner of the family-run Palestinian restaurant Al Bawadi Grill with two locations in Niles and Bridgeview. “It’s always hot in that region, but the fruits are the one thing that change in the summer. We can put a mix of sabr cactus fruit, watermelon, cantaloupes and honey dew on a tray and eat them for hours.”
As you enter Al Bawadi, take in the ornate wooden panels, colorful woven fabrics and servers clad in traditional Palestinian attire. Start off with a few hot or cold mezes like the makdous ($9), which is tiny eggplants stuffed with walnuts, red pepper, garlic, salt and olive oil. “My personal favorite food is stuffed grape leaves,” Ismail said. Every single country in this region, whether it’s Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Jordan or Iraq, makes them differently, especially with the fillings. In Lebanon, they use pomegranate molasses and tomatoes, and we don’t. Our base includes a lot more lemon, plus olive oil, meat and rice.”
There are multiple salad options, including the classic fattoush ($8-$11), with tossed greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and onions with fried bread on top, or taboulah ($8-$13), where the finely chopped parsley, tomatoes and mint are dressed with olive oil and lemon. The Ghazawi ($7) might be less familiar: “This simple salad from Gaza is a spicier version of a classic Arabic salad with cucumber, tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil, but with added jalapenos,” Ismail said.
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If you prefer to celebrate summer vibes in a different way than with kebab, go with the seafood mixed grill ($30), where salmon, fillet of basa and jumbo shrimp are marinated in lemon, garlic and olive oil. It comes with tahini sauce and a side of either hummus or house salad, and they’ve got the perfect drink to match it with the freshly made mint lemonade ($7), which is popular in the entire Levant region.
8501 Dempster St., Niles; 847-957-1999; 7216 W. 87th St., Bridgeview; 708-599-1999; albawadigrill.com
“The summers on my grandparents’ farm in the south of France inspire the dishes I create today,” said Alain Allegretti, chef and culinary director at Fig & Olive’s Gold Coast location. “I remember the freshness of produce picked in the morning and prepared for lunch by midday. I was always in the kitchen with my grandmother watching her prepare dishes, and it was the simplicity of things she would make such as roasted chicken, fried polenta with a simple tomato sauce that was so delicious, or a summertime staple like fried zucchini flowers.”
An earthy but luxurious starter is the fig and olive salad ($21) with haricot verts, olive tapenade, shaved fennel, Castelfranco chicory, sun-dried tomato, Gorgonzola, figs and candied pecans. It’s nice to enjoy a light, yet satisfying main course before the season of stews, pot roasts and root veggies sets in, so the Mediterranean branzino ($43) is a good tip from Fig & Olive’s summer season menu. “I wanted to capture a feeling as if you were sitting by the turquoise waters of the coast,” Allegretti said. “I added the fennel, haricot verts and fava beans to give a nice crunch to the dish, potatoes for a fulfilling starch, and finished it off with a flavorful sauce vierge.”
As for cocktails, make your pick between the Lavender Fields ($18), Summertime Boulevardier ($20) or alcohol-free sparkling hibiscus iced tea ($10). “In Lavender Fields, rosemary and St. Elder bring out the botanicals in the gin, and a touch of lavender bitters finishes the cocktail with the aromatics of Provence,” Allegretti said. “Summertime Boulevardier is our Riviera take on a classic Parisian cocktail with Aperol and fresh strawberry. Throughout the Mediterranean, you will find beautiful gardens with exotic flowers, including hibiscus. We brew a hibiscus rose tea and combine it with Fever Tree Mediterranean Tonic, which contains notes of rosemary and lemon thyme — ingredients also synonymous with the French Riviera.”
104 E. Oak St., 312-445-0060, figandolive.com
Nikki O’Neill is a freelance writer.