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Venus, not to be confused with Venus or Venus

Venus, not to be confused with Venus or Venus
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  • Venus, not to be confused with Venus or Venus

    Post #1 - March 22nd, 2006, 5:31 pm
    Post #1 - March 22nd, 2006, 5:31 pm Post #1 - March 22nd, 2006, 5:31 pm
    Stopped in for lunch at Venus today.

    No, no, not that Venus.

    Nor was it this Venus.

    Least of all this one, although public transit does run nearby.

    Venus, this one, is a middle eastern-- apparently Iraqi/Assyrian-- restaurant and grocery on California, just south (as in 20 feet) of Touhy. I spotted the awning recently and went in to the grocery today as they were still stocking the shelves with newly arrived jars of zatar and packages of Syrian cheese and Egyptian feta. While the shop is new the restaurant, it turns out, has been there about three years. (Well, I've noted before that I don't so much spot new restaurants as spot new awnings.) One interesting item in the dairy case was something called "Chicago cheese," which, we were told, Arab-Americans from Detroit and other places will drive to Chicago for. How interesting that Chicago has an indigenous cheese style which is known only to middle-easterners, yet identified by them as the Chicago cheese. What is it, I wonder? G Wiv hypothesized that it might be something basically like mozzarella, which would explain the identification with Chicago (i.e., being found in quantity on deep dish pizza). Funny, but hardly unprecedented, if people drive from Detroit for what's basically the same cheese as the Sargento at the Kwik-E Mart....

    Anyway, both restaurant and grocery store are more attractive than the average middle eastern hole in the wall on, say, Kedzie or Lawrence, certainly more sophisticated or at least westernized as there was a print of a Picasso nude in the restaurant rather than the usual gold-framed picture of a mosque, and Lurpak in the dairy case. The crowd seemed a little more upscale in dress than is typical on Kedzie, too. Even though I think we were still just within the city limits, there was a bit of a suburban feel to it, not least in the fact that we were asked in both the grocery and the restaurant if we had ever had middle eastern food before, and steered (despite our attempts to seem knowledgeable) toward the most basic combination platters, something that has never happened to me on Kedzie (where I guess they figure that, if you're there at all, you know what you're doing). Despite being slightly "whited" in this way, we managed to order a nice array of the restaurant's offerings and get a reasonable sense of its take on Iraqi and middle eastern cuisine.

    Image

    The menu said that the falafel were made of chickpeas and fava but under questioning the waiter admitted that they were only chickpea now. The falafel, as G Wiv said, might have been good a few hours ago but were kind of glumpy now. However, what made up for it was the sauce with it, which seemed to be dominated by green olive. We eventually asked what was in it and were told a surprising answer: mango! I could believe that from the texture but there must have been green olives in the taste, hard to imagine how you could get the taste we tasted any other way.

    Image

    We also started with hummus, which was fine, low on garlic but otherwise good; and a complementary lentil soup which we both found surprisingly tasty.

    Image

    As we were sitting there a mysterious, purple-robed man in dark sunglasses popped his head in the door. "I have been scouting this place out for months," he whispered, "I am almost ready to order something, once I know everything about the menu. In the meantime, have the catfish, the maskouf." Then he pulled his robe over his head and disappeared just in time to catch the bus.

    Always taking the advice of mysterious strangers, we ordered the maskouf. Take a piece of catfish, coat it in shawerma spices, grill it and serve it with a tomato sauce-- the result was a bit discordant, the shawerma spices not really going with the tomato sauce, yet the crispy fish was extremely satisfying and had no problem being happily scarfed by us. Here's what it looks like being grilled:

    Image

    We gave in and ordered a combination platter as well. The kafta, though a little tightly packed (and even hard to cut through), was excellent. The beef shawirma was good but a little dry, the chicken shawirma was bland.

    All in all this is easily one of the three best restaurants named Venus in town, no seriously, despite having a little trouble convincing them we had ever seen middle eastern food before, we had a nice meal with some definite high points, not to mention this great can in the fridge:

    Image

    I expect I'll be back for both lunch and to see how the grocery develops.

    Venus Restaurant
    7156 N. California
    Chicago IL 60645
    773-465-8595
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  • Post #2 - March 23rd, 2006, 9:17 am
    Post #2 - March 23rd, 2006, 9:17 am Post #2 - March 23rd, 2006, 9:17 am
    Great report, Mike! Have you ever had Vimto before? It's really quite good - I used to drink it all the time when I was a tot. I had no idea that it was popular in some Middle Eastern countries until I moved to Chicago and started seeing it in Middle Eastern restaurants and grocery stores. It was a very pleasant surprise.

    Now I just need to work out where to get some Irn-Bru and I'll be set.

    Anyway, I'll have to check this place out...
  • Post #3 - March 23rd, 2006, 10:45 am
    Post #3 - March 23rd, 2006, 10:45 am Post #3 - March 23rd, 2006, 10:45 am
    Mike G wrote:How interesting that Chicago has an indigenous cheese style which is known only to middle-easterners, yet identified by them as the Chicago cheese.

    Mike,

    Interesting indeed, mozzarella, maybe? They also had 1-lb packs, but had not put them out as of yet, next time I will buy a pack and see. I notice they are distributed by Alkhayam Grocery, I'm going to be right down the street from them later today, I try to pick up a pack there.

    The Original Chicago Cheese
    Image

    As you mention some of some of the flavors seemed a bit on the mild side, hummus for example, though I will say the kafta kabab was quite delicious. Not quite up to my current favorite of Salam, but very good nonetheless.

    Combo Platter (From top, rice, chicken shish kabab, kafta kabab, shawirma)
    Image

    Grilled catfish with tomato sauce (Maskouf) was particularly good, tender, moist catfish with scattered char toasted points of flavor from the grill.
    Image

    All in all a very nice meal, comfortable seating, efficient friendly service and reasonable pricing.

    Enjoy,
    Gary

    Salam
    4636 N Kedzie Ave
    Chicago, IL 60625
    773-583-0776

    Al-Khyam
    4746 N Kedzie Ave
    Chicago, IL 60625
    773-583-3099
    One minute to Wapner.
    Raymond Babbitt

    Low & Slow
  • Post #4 - March 23rd, 2006, 12:51 pm
    Post #4 - March 23rd, 2006, 12:51 pm Post #4 - March 23rd, 2006, 12:51 pm
    Mike G wrote: However, what made up for it was the sauce with it, which seemed to be dominated by green olive. We eventually asked what was in it and were told a surprising answer: mango! I could believe that from the texture but there must have been green olives in the taste, hard to imagine how you could get the taste we tasted any other way.


    Mike, I've seen a version of Mango pickle at some iraqi places called amba. It's made from green mango which would have a more olivey taste and texture than ripe mango. There's also a version of mango pickle available in Indian stores that seems to be more for export to the arab world which is similar. I haven't had venus's and it's not pictured so i wouldn't be able to sa with any certainty that there's is what I am referring to


    Mike G wrote:
    As we were sitting there a mysterious, purple-robed man in dark sunglasses popped his head in the door. "I have been scouting this place out for months," he whispered, "I am almost ready to order something, once I know everything about the menu. In the meantime, have the catfish, the maskouf." Then he pulled his robe over his head and disappeared just in time to catch the bus.

    Always taking the advice of mysterious strangers, we ordered the maskouf. Take a piece of catfish, coat it in shawerma spices, grill it and serve it with a tomato sauce-- the result was a bit discordant, the shawerma spices not really going with the tomato sauce, yet the crispy fish was extremely satisfying and had no problem being happily scarfed by us.


    Maskouf is also regularly available at Larsa on Dempster and pretty nice there as well

    Anyway thanks for the report, I've been wondering about that place for a while, the grocery store is called mosul kabba right? or I am confusing it with anothr spot in the area?
  • Post #5 - March 23rd, 2006, 2:12 pm
    Post #5 - March 23rd, 2006, 2:12 pm Post #5 - March 23rd, 2006, 2:12 pm
    Actually the mango sauce is pictured next to the falafel, but since it's a puree, it doesn't tell you much. Now pickled mango I could believe. There's a definite briny/pickled/sour flavor that it seems would be beyond any mango's power to produce on its own, even an unripe green one, but take a green one and pickle it to dial up its sourness/saltiness further, then you could arrive at that green olive taste, I think.

    Mosul Kubba is or was next door to the new grocery, which is Venus as well. It was hard to tell if it was closed or simply not very oriented to walk-in business (wasn't it more of a restaurant supplier of baked goods or something? I know nothing about it except what was in a Tribune article on Iraqi food on the wall at Venus, which made a passing reference to Mosul Kubba as well).

    I will definitely have Vimto next time.
    Watch Sky Full of Bacon, the Chicago food HD podcast!
    New episode: Soil, Corn, Cows and Cheese
    Watch the Reader's James Beard Award-winning Key Ingredient here.
  • Post #6 - March 24th, 2006, 4:44 pm
    Post #6 - March 24th, 2006, 4:44 pm Post #6 - March 24th, 2006, 4:44 pm
    On the recommendation of an Assyrian friend, I have eaten at Venus several times over the past year. Each time I go, it seems to get a little better (and a little more expensive). Plus, they have added the store. My friend pronounces it like "Venice", so for months I thought that was the name of the place. I couldn't figure out the whole Iraq/Italy connection. Anyhow, it is not the best Assyrian food I have had, but it is fairly good, and the owner is so friendly and genuine, you really want the place to succeed. So whenever I am passing by and hungry, I try to stop in.

    In fact, coincidently, I had dinner there last night. What is weird, I told my dining partner, I wish I had a camera phone so I could take pictures of the food to post on this forum. Then today I see this thread, complete with pictures of Vimto and Chicago cheese, which I was also fixated on. ( I wonder if that is the cheese they put in the Borak? If so, it is just like Mozzarella.) It is probably best that I didn't have a camera. They would have freaked out if twice in one day, customers started photographing their food.

    I find the menu at Venus just a little odd. It has items listed as entrees such as Potato Chops, Borak and Kibbeh, that probably work better as appetizers or side-dishes than entrees. They are good, but they are things that you don't really want to eat a whole plate of. Much better for sharing.

    The actual appetizers at Venus are decent enough (and mostly priced at $2.99). The Hummus is well presented (as the photos show), but a little bland. It is much better served with Gus (beef shwarma) on top (which is also listed as an entree). The Baba Ghanouj is smoky and fresh with a definite garlic presence. They also make Lahim Beajine (which is called Lahmejune in Armenian). This is like a little pizza covered in ground meat, tomatoes and onions and is fairly ubiquitous throughout the middle east and central Asia. I really love this appetizer and wish more places would serve it. Alas, I find the Venus version to be somewhat soggy and sparsely topped (but still very edible).

    They also make 3 types of Borak there (again listed as an entree). These are not unlike a thin and crispy egg roll, filled with beef, cheese or potato (which is not on the menu) and deep fried. They are very crunchy and tasty in a deep fried way, but not terribly interesting (the beef ones are best). They come six to an order, which is way too much deep-fried action for an entree. They should offer a sampler of two of each kind as an appetizer instead (I am sure they would accommodate such a request). The potato chops are a very common Assyrian dish, potatoes stuffed with a beef mixture (which I think is the same as they use in the Beef Borak). Again, these are probably better to share (IIRC there are four to an order).

    Another entree they offer, which is often seen as an appetizer, is Kibbeh. The Venus version of this dish is interesting (called Kibbeh d'Mousil). On the owner's rec we ordered it "boiled" instead of fried. Rather than the usual deep-fried egg-shaped lump of bulgur stuffed with ground meat, it was a thin pancake of cracked wheat topped with a thin layer of a seasoned ground beef filling, then topped with another layer of wheat. It was more like it was steamed than boiled. I had never had it cooked like that. It was unusual in a good way. The wheat was somewhat pasta-like and the steamed filling reminded me of White Castle sliders. Not bad actually. Not very pretty, but flavorful.

    What Venus seems to do pretty well is basic grilled meats. That may be why the owner steered you towards the combo platters. Whenever I see a group of Assyrians eating there, they are passing around big platters of rice topped with various meats. For me, the highlight of Venus is the Gus (Beef Shwarma), but I am a sucker for anything cooked on a rotisserie (I like my meat dizzy). On occassion though, the Gus has been a tad dry. That is why I like eating it on top of Hummus. The Chicken and Kufta kebabs are pretty good also. The lamb is just OK. I have had better, but it is certainly edible, and for the price, I can be a little forgiving. I have not tried the Cornish hen. Nor have I had the Falafels, but the sauce sounds interesting.

    I did once have the Venus Chicken, which came in a spicy sauce of stewed tomatoes (much like the catfish). Compared to most of the other entrees at Venus, the dish was surprisingly peppery. However, I see they have changed the description of "Venus Chicken" on the menu, so it may no longer be the same. One menu item that has caught my attention is called "Chilifry" which sounds just like the chicken dish I described, but made with Lamb. That might be good. I will ask about it the next time I am there.

    I really have to mention the Lentil soup. I didn't have any last night, but the times I have had it, it was phenomenal. Perhaps the best I have ever had. The owner told me it is his mother's recipe, but (don't tell his mother) he thinks his is better. They used to serve a cup of it with all the entrees, but now it only comes with the combo feast. It is worth ordering ala carte for $1.85 (BTW it is vegetarian).

    Anyhow, I love Assyrian food. Unfortunately, many Assyrian restaurants in Chicago have closed. Like I said, Venus is not the best I have had, and I wish they made some more stews like Kurush and Tashrib. However, the food is pretty darn good, and cheap, and the place is very friendly and comfortable (Assyrians are some of the friendliest people in the world). Because it is close by, and I want it to be successful, I will continue dining there on a semi-regular basis. If it continues to improve, I might even recommend going out of the way to eat there.
  • Post #7 - March 24th, 2006, 5:33 pm
    Post #7 - March 24th, 2006, 5:33 pm Post #7 - March 24th, 2006, 5:33 pm
    Thanks for the additional info, D4v3.

    They also make Lahim Beajine (which is called Lahmejune in Armenian). This is like a little pizza covered in ground meat, tomatoes and onions and is fairly ubiquitous throughout the middle east and central Asia. I really love this appetizer and wish more places would serve it.


    Both's Larsa's and Turkish Cuisine serve a version of this, under a slightly different name like lahmacun or lahma ajine or something. Erik M. talks about Larsa's with a pic here. My pic of the version at Turkish Cuisine is here.
    Watch Sky Full of Bacon, the Chicago food HD podcast!
    New episode: Soil, Corn, Cows and Cheese
    Watch the Reader's James Beard Award-winning Key Ingredient here.
  • Post #8 - March 24th, 2006, 6:16 pm
    Post #8 - March 24th, 2006, 6:16 pm Post #8 - March 24th, 2006, 6:16 pm
    Mike G wrote:Both's Larsa's and Turkish Cuisine serve a version of this, under a slightly different name like lahmacun or lahma ajine or something. Erik M. talks about Larsa's with a pic here. My pic of the version at Turkish Cuisine is here.


    That version at Larsa's looks wonderful. What Venus serves is absolutely pitiful by comparison. I drive down Demptser fairly often, but usually I stop at Basha's for Shwarma. I have meant to go to Larsa's, but never have. I will definitely go now. Is it Lebanese?

    I used to occassionally stop at the Turkish Bakery for to-go stuff, but I have never actually eaten at the restaurant. They told me they made Lamejun, but they were always sold out of it. It looks from your picture, that there is cheese on it. Is that right? Your post also made me think about how different the Venus interpretation of Borak (or Borek) is from the traditional Turkish phylo dough version.
  • Post #9 - March 24th, 2006, 10:30 pm
    Post #9 - March 24th, 2006, 10:30 pm Post #9 - March 24th, 2006, 10:30 pm
    d4v3 wrote:[I have meant to go to Larsa's, but never have. I will definitely go now. Is it Lebanese?


    In the Larsa's thread which I initiated:



    E.M.
  • Post #10 - May 30th, 2009, 1:50 pm
    Post #10 - May 30th, 2009, 1:50 pm Post #10 - May 30th, 2009, 1:50 pm
    Lately, Venus has become one of my favorite places to get Assyrian sandwiches (sorry Big Buns, I still love you). They are offered on either Samoon bread or Pita. Venus buys the Samoon fresh, so they sometimes run out. The sandwiches are served with decent leaf lettuce (red or green), onions, pickled turnips, and are sprinkled with an olive oil dressing. Very tasty either on the puffy bread or wrapped in a thin pita. The Chicken kebabs are moist and flavorfully marinated with a touch of char. The fresh kufta kebabs are dense and moist and have a very nice garlicky charred flavor, some of the best I have tasted. The Gus (shawerma) is also pretty darned good. The prices are $4 for a falafel sandwich and $5 for others. Not a bad deal, but the entrées are all priced higher than other similar Assyrian restaurants (like Big Buns). Venus also makes a very tasty lentil soup, that I would put near the top of my list in the Great Lentil Soup Showdown (so far, Olive Mountain comes in last). Every Assyrian restaurant has their specialties, and I guess Venus' specialty would have to be their Borek. Unlike Balkan Bureks which are big meat pies, Assyrian Burek are more like fried egg rolls. Venus makes them stuffed with a choice of cheese, spinach, meat or potatoes. Unfortunately, they are only sold as an entrée, but you can get them mixed. Also, I should note that the store that used to be next to Venus is now closed and has been converted to a sparse, but pleasant and bright dining room for the restaurant with posters depicting Assyrian and Babylonian history.
  • Post #11 - June 3rd, 2009, 2:45 pm
    Post #11 - June 3rd, 2009, 2:45 pm Post #11 - June 3rd, 2009, 2:45 pm
    Mike G wrote:One interesting item in the dairy case was something called "Chicago cheese," which, we were told, Arab-Americans from Detroit and other places will drive to Chicago for. How interesting that Chicago has an indigenous cheese style which is known only to middle-easterners, yet identified by them as the Chicago cheese. What is it, I wonder? G Wiv hypothesized that it might be something basically like mozzarella, which would explain the identification with Chicago (i.e., being found in quantity on deep dish pizza). Funny, but hardly unprecedented, if people drive from Detroit for what's basically the same cheese as the Sargento at the Kwik-E Mart....


    I'm just guessing here, but I suspect that the reason Assyrian-style "Chicago cheese" is called that may have much to do with the Assyrian population concentration in Chicago: about 100,000 of the total 400,000 Assyrians in the US live in the Chicago area, and the Assyrian Church of the East is headquartered here.

    The packaged cheese in your photo is labelled jibneh arabieh (aka jibneh arabia), which seems to be a generic term for white Middle Eastern cheese, originally made with sheep or goat milk, now commonly also made with cow's milk.

    I figured that the cheese was made by a Chicago-based Assyrian-owned company, but looking more closely I see I was off a little. The label shows a Wisconsin logo, and I found two Wisconsin cheesemakers that make jibneh arabieh; there may be others. My googling efforts did not reveal which one is the maker of "The Original Chicago Cheese." The label says it is distributed by Mounsef International, which is based in Chicago. I am curious to find out more about the particular Assyrian connection, if any, to "Chicago cheese."

    A jibneh arabieh-based dip, which I have seen called jajek and jarjik, can be approximated by mixing cottage cheese, cream cheese, and seasonings, as in this recipe, for example:

    16 ounce cottage cheese (small curd)
    1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese (room temperature)
    1/2 cup finely chopped fresh dill
    1/2 cup finely chopped celery
    1/4 cup finely chopped green pepper
    1/2 cup finely chopped fresh coriander (optional)

    Cream cottage cheese with cream cheese together until smooth and free of lumps. Add remaining ingredients. Blend well. Serve with crackers, pita, Vienna or French bread.


    I found some info on the roots of Assyrian cheesemaking in this article on food and diet in ancient Assyria:

    Milk and milk products are perishable, therefore, their history is patchy, depending for the most part on literary, ceramic and art evidence. Early representations of milking include that in a frieze at Ur (c. 2900 BC). Probably cow and goat milk have been the most generally used by early communities. The use of butter, sour milk and cheese must have quickly followed the regular milking of animals, for by accident alone this milk product must have occurred again and again. Butter would be very easily produced merely by the action of transporting milk from place to place in containers. Certainly in Mesopotamia it was of great importance. The milking scene from Ur demonstrates the method used by the shepherds: a man is seated rocking a large narrow-necked jar lying on its side, and to his left two men are straining the resulting liquid in order to take off the butter. In Assyrian all fat was described simply as ‘fat’. When the phrase is unqualified or is accompanied by some term implying excellence, it meant butter. Other forms of fat like that derived from the sesame plant were explicitly described. There is some doubt, however, which has been cast on the use of the word ‘butter’ and later translators have substituted ‘curds’ as a more accurate description of the product. In Mesopotamia cheese making was an important task, and some cylinder seals found there depict the shepherd with his flocks, and rows of little circles probably representing cheeses. Numerous cheese-moulds were found in the dairy of the Palace of Mari (3rd millennium BC).

    (In case you're wondering ... Sweet Baboo is Assyrian. When we started going out I had to study up a bit to avoid saying embarrassingly ignorant things around his family members. Who knew there were any Babylonians still alive?)
    "Your swimming suit matches your eyes, you hold your nose before diving, loving you has made me bananas!"

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