Filipino Fare From Merla’s

Filipino Fare From Merla’s

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Sampler plate from Merla’s Kitchen (photo by Steve Dolinsky)

Imagine how tough it would be to be a guy like Marian Hossa. The Blackhawks star skates as hard as anyone else, but always seems to fade in comparison to the spotlight on guys like Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane. In some respects, the same is true of Filipino fare. Not nearly as popular as Thai, there are so few restaurants in the genre that they could never possibly have their own “-town” like China or Korea, and I’m not sure pork and vinegar is as sexy - or as widely consumed - as sushi is. That’s why it’s always a pleasure to come across a neighborhood Filipino joint, like Isla Pilipina in Lincoln Square or Merla’s Kitchen, in the North Park neighborhood.

Merla herself runs the kitchen, with her daughters helping out up front. The ubiquitous noodles - pancit - are of course on offer: thin strands of egg noodles wok-tossed with vegetables and chicken will make a beginner feel right at home. Okoy (pictured, above, in the back) kind of resembles an egg foo young, the tangle of bean sprouts, eggs and scallions a crunchy pleasure. There is a strong Spanish influence in the food of the Philippines, and no where is it more obvious than in the homemade empanadas. Merla loads them up with ground beef, onions and a colorful assortment of raisins and carrots to boot. Desserts are truly unique - and re-emphasize the Spanish connections: flan, perfectly creamy and light, as well as ensaimada cake, stuffed with bits of cheese. If you’d like to see some of the dishes being assembled, be sure to watch ABC 7, or just click here after 11:30 a.m. today.

LM’s frog’s leg risotto with morels (photo by Steve Dolinsky)

Tonight at 10 p.m. I’m getting into the spirit of Spring (as most chefs are this first week of May) by focussing on one restaurant where they really take the seasons seriously. LM has been a quiet surprise in Lincoln Square, just across the street from the Old Town School, and while the menu may feel French, the food and atmosphere is as unpretentious as you could get. Bradford Phillips is an alum of Blackbird. His food is both simple, and yet composed of finely-sourced ingredients that are prepared with the utmost skill and precision. Verdant green risotto is dressed with morels and sauteed frog’s legs, while the restaurant’s apple tarte tatin has already become the stuff of legend. You’ll never look at apples and crust the same way again. Check out the video here after 10:30 p.m. tonight.

LM’s fabulous apple tarte tatin (photo by Steve Dolinsky)