Friday, December 23, 2011
Without further adieu, the top 10 most ridiculous LTHForum threads of 2011:
10. Owners of New Restaurant Condone Rape and Murder
In this astounding thread, a poster makes the case that by choosing the ubiquitous-in-Belgium name "Leopold," these innocent, hard-working restauranteurs made a grave, revolting choice. More astounding is that a number of people actually agreed with him. (link to thread)
9. The NBA Plays on Christmas, and Slow Foods Holds an Event in September
At first I thought the second post in this thread was written with tongue-in-cheek, but as the thread progressed it became clear that the now-part-owner of LTHForum who authored it was serious in his self-aggrandizing stance about Slow Foods holding an event on the same day as the admittedly fun, but hardly major-news LTHForum picnic. I still do a double take when I read this one. (link to thread)
8. My Mother in Law's Friend's Maid is Polish, so I Know Good Pierogi and Yours Suck!
OK, this thread isn't about maids or pierogi; it's about Big Jones, which a particularly annoying poster claims is to Southern food what Red Lobster is to seafood. He offers little to no evidence, but tries to bolster his case by bragging about time he spent in low country. It's an all-too-common and all-too-annoying practice on LTHForum, but this poster takes it to another level. The Big Jones chef responds thoughtfully and passionately, which eventually brings the thread back to something less ridiculous. (link to thread)
7. LTHers Enthralled By 3rd Grade Math Problem:
This thread starts boringly but innocently enough with a complaint about automatically-added gratuities, and rapidly devolves into a discussion dominated by a poster who is bizarrely riveted by some of the most mundane things that happen in restaurants. As they often do, Moderators join yours truly in a hypocritically snark-heavy response that seems to go right over said poster's head. (link to thread)
6. "Reader Real Deal" or "Raw Deal" for LTHForum and it's Readers?
This one really irked me. I'm sure the dude who started this thread is a nice guy, but he posted one useless "deal" after the next. He did not have his facts straight about the restaurants involved, and could not answer even the most basic questions about what the offers involved. Why the Moderators allowed (and continue to allow) him to post this drivel without at least collecting some ad revenue is beyond me. (link to thread)
5. Next Thread Please
I'm not going to post a link to this one. My readers don't deserve to be treated so poorly. The monstrous Next threads (yes, there are several) are complete debacles, devoid of usefulness. You can find pages and pages of scintillating comments like "just emailed my request, waiting for a response," or "clicked the button 5 times and nothing happened." Good luck trying to locate something of interest on LTHForum about the food or experience at Next. This was a case where the Moderators needed to take a firmer stance about what would be tolerated, and by failing to do so they allowed the whole forum to be dominated by useless fly-by posts for weeks at a time.
4. Newcomer Gets Off the Deal Train Quickly, but Not Before Laughable Missteps
For pure deal site ridiculousness, the Reader Real Deal thread was no match for the one started by a company called Bunchbite. The thread's only one page, so read it all the way through. It speaks for itself. (link to thread)
3. Dear Michelin: Winnetka is our Napa
I find just about all Michelin star discussion ridiculous, and this LTHForum is a perfect exemplar. All kinds of time-wasting prognostication here, but the real hilarity comes in the form of a long time frequent poster's case that 40+ additional mediocre restaurants should get stars, and that the Chicago Michelin Guide should treat suburbs like Winnetka with the same reverence as San Francisco's Napa Valley. (link to thread)
2. Hypocrites Attack Well-Intentioned Chef
I hesitate to write this one, because in it I'm directly calling out people that I like and respect, but their behavior in this case disturbed me enough to note it here anyway. Moderators and one prominent poster who is also an experienced chef acted in a mean-spirited way towards another chef trying to get a thread going about his place. The worst part was the grossly hypocritical claims by this chef, supported by his Moderator friends, that Chef Foss was being "manipulative". This insult came from the same chef who had invited LTH friends to a free preview dinner at his former restaurant, and then watched those friends/ LTHers write glowing pre-opening reports. It's the same chef who also just saw a friend of his - a prominent local food writer and LTHForum Moderator - start a thread about his newest venture. I know and like the main actors in this thread, but I was bothered significantly by the suggestion that such overt LTHForum manipulation is somehow less troublesome than the very honest, straighforward way in which Foss approached things. (link to thread)
1. Cleaning out Coupons, but Dirtying LTHForum's Reputation
My snarky responses in this thread, a fraction of which still remain, nearly got me booted from LTHForum for good. Here, an LTHer begins planning a particularly disturbing, regularly scheduled gathering where a single, modest coupon will be shared among a table of 8 or so participants who will try to make sure they don't spend more than a few pennies. They'll end up reserving a large table at prime dinner time, then they'll share just a few dishes and spend a tiny fraction of a normal per-head amount before handing the coupon to the server. Oblivious to how rude this is, the event planner and Moderators didn't much like it when I pointed out the ridiculousness of the behavior. The planner made the reservation under "LTHForum", and the manager of this place - who knows me and my involvement well - shared with me how this behavior seriously damaged his formerly-positive view of the forum. And to the Moderators I was the bad guy. Oh well. (Link to thread and link to next thread)
Thursday, December 22, 2011
If the dish my companion and I shared last night is representative, then taro leaves have a very strong taste that may be hard to like for people who didn't grow up eating them. The taste is incredibly earthy - muddy, really - and the aroma is like that of a a barnyard or freshly-laid fertilizer. Upon first whif, I was instantly taken back to my one and only visit to Paris Club. Laing is cooked in coconut milk - perhaps to remove some of that challenging character - but if that's the intent, it did not work. There's also some fish sauce or shrimp paste, in case the greens aren't funky enough for you, I suppose. The mushy, loose texture under the dark lights at 13 Pins probably don't help counter the feeling that you might be eating bird excrement. Especially after taking a walk under the pigeon-filled Kennedy overpass to get to the restaurant.
None of the above is to say I did not like the laing at 13 Pins. It has many of the same traits as great cheeses I seek. The first time I tasted a ripe epoisses, I almost spit it out; now I can't get enough of it. The jury is still out for me on liang, and I definitely plan to try it at least once more, though I'm not sure it will be on a return visit to 13 Pins. I thought the food was actually quite good, with the laing and some crunchy fried pork skins served with an acidic, spicy dressing being the highlights. But the drink selection is pretty bad, and the vibe is an odd combo of romantic/ disco-clubby that didn't work for me. My liang-eating partner and I did eat later than I usually do, so perhaps I'd like the place more at my more typical 5:30PM dinner hour.
Thirteen Pins Tapas and Bar
4202 West Irving Park Road
Sunday, December 18, 2011
First up was the Naem Khao Tod at Dharma Garden, which I posted about a few weeks ago and had again last week. The highlight of this version was the house made pressed ham, which was offered in very generous proportion and was pleasantly more sour than any of the other versions. The salad as a whole was dressed well and the ingredients were in good balance, with the one low light being the mushy rice croquette pieces, which I'd guess were fried earlier in the day and/or fried in oil that wasn't hot enough.
My next version came from Sticky Rice, where it was offered as a whiteboard special. At Sticky Rice this usually means it's about to become part of the regular menu, so I expect it to available there for a long time. Unfortunately, as much as I love Sticky Rice, this dish was a disaster and I won't be having it again. The peanuts tasted off, which was bad enough to ruin the dish by itself. I could forgive spoiled peanuts and give the dish another try, but in this case the biggest problem was that there was WAY too much dressing. It created a half-inch deep pool at the bottom of the bowl and destroyed any chance of the croquettes retaining crispness. The dish was a sour, soggy mess.
The clear winner was the one everyone talks about. At Spoon, it seemed that the pressed ham was more of an accent, with the rice croquettes playing the lead role. That's a fine thing, because these were some spectacularly crispy, tasty bits of deep fried rice. Dressing was applied lightly but provided plenty of flavor, and all of the ingredients tasted fresh. The Spoon Thai version of Naem Khao Tod was all about the fantastic rice croquettes.
Leela from the She Simmers blog rightly suggests that Naem Khao Tod is the kind of dish that you want to order when you eat Thai food at a restaurant. "If your local Thai restaurant has this on its menu, by all means, get it," she writes. It is indeed a tasty dish, and with one notable exception I support following Leela's suggestion.
Monday, December 12, 2011
My understanding is that in Sicily there are countless ways in which broccoli and raisins are used together, many of which turn into sauces for pasta. Pasta is what I do, and my favorite method is a simple one: puree the pair with roasted walnuts, cheese and olive oil to make a pesto, then serve it over long, thick pasta. In the most recent case I used pici, which I love for its substantial chew and long cooking time, which enables me to start it before putting my daughter to bed and still have time to read The Cat in The Hat and sing 2 lullabies before it's done.
The walnuts, oil and cheese make this a rich dish. Sometimes I just leave that alone, but this time I topped it with some homestyle* breadcrumbs that I fried with lemon zest to give a little acid balance. I also emboldened the richness with a dollop of creamy ricotta.
I cook mostly vegetarian food at home, and this is one of my absolute favorite rib-sticking, wintertime home cooked dishes.
*chopped as best I could by hand so as not to let the noise of a food processor wake the little one.
Monday, December 5, 2011
"Silken" tofu was relatively smooth, but nowhere near the wondrous texture that spoiled me in the Gras era at L20. Unlike Gras' simple serving method which added one complementary element that really made the tofu the star, the Slurping Turtle added an I-can't-remember-now array of strawlike, discordant ingredients. The one garnish I do remember with clarity was some julienned kombu that had been marinated in sugarry soy sauce. It was plasticky and way too sweet. Though not the same level of disaster as the shumai, this dish did absolutely nothing for me.
With a green tea and two tiny portions of food that were memorable for all the wrong reasons, lunch was over 20 bucks. It is perhaps too soon to judge a place, but for me the Slurping Turtle is off to a very bad start and I can't imagine ever returning.
Sunday, December 4, 2011
Papaya with custard cake, which I understand is called Ma Lai Go on some menus in reference to its Malaysian origin, emblemizes what I love about Cai. It's the lightest, spongiest of sponge cakes, with just a whiff of sweetness to let the rich egg flavor shine. The papaya is in almost too minuscule a proportion to even notice , so perhaps it's there just for color. No matter, I crave the pure custard aroma wafting from that piping hot bamboo steamer for days after I eat it.
BBQ pork turnover is a baked pastry that I've had at a number of places, MingHin most recently before Cai. None are even close to a match for Cai's perfect pastry execution, creating multiple layers of very flaky, delicious crust. The bbq pork filling is nothing special, and they could leave it out entirely as far as I'm concerned. Or swap it out for some almond paste to make the best damned almond croissant south of Logan Blvd.
I've ordered congee at much-loved dim sum places, and I never understand the appeal. Whatever the fixins, it always tastes like nothing - a massive bowl of mushy, unseasoned rice. More knowledgeable congee eaters than I suggest that the blandness is intentional, and that diners are supposed to season it to their own liking. They're probably right, but if so Cai's perhaps-inauthentic, well-seasoned congee that's cooked in flavorful stock instead of water is what my Gringo palate wants. In particular, the one made with homemade fish balls and greens is not to be missed.
I should disclose that I probably get special treatment at Cai. My family and I dine so early that we always have the entire massive restaurant to ourselves, and the staff adores and dotes over my curly blond 18-month-old little girl. Show up at 11:30 on Sunday to wait for a table with a crew of hungover hipsters, and the experience may be different.
2100 S Archer Ave Ste 2F
Friday, December 2, 2011
Trippa alla napoletana was OK, but while my favorite versions have a relatively even balance of sauce to tripe, this one was basically a giant bowl of good tomato sauce with a scant scattering of relatively tender, mild tripe. Inoffensive but not very interesting.
Silky and intense lemon sorbetto was the best thing I tasted, followed closely by a “Spreetz” unlike any Spritz I had on my relatively recent trip to Venice. Bar Toma’s was more balanced, without the over-the-top bitterness that overwhelmed all of the versions I had there. It was served in a wine glass, which I found odd.
I suppose one should evaluate Bar Toma on its own merits and in doing so it’s probably a good place. It’s better than that if you compare it to most options in the immediate vicinity. But I couldn’t help but compare Bar Toma with the pioneer of real food on the Mag Mile - The Purple Pig, In the end I couldn’t help but conclude that Bar Toma is playing it safer, and I’d strongly recommend the Bannos’ joint over Mantuano’s.
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
I’ve gotten through only a tiny fraction of the Thai menu, a translation of which is available for the asking. My favorite dish so far is Gang Som – a thin, sour curry that’s available at a few other places around town. Dharma Garden’s is a richer broth that’s a bit more sour than others, and it’s served with perfectly crisp and moist pieces of delicious fried catfish. The soup’s abundance of vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower is perhaps a Western touch, and I enjoyed it.
Nam Khaow Tod, a dish made famous among internet foodies at places like Spoon Thai here in Chicago and Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, is also very good at Dharma Garden. Unlike Spoon, Dharma Garden makes its own pressed ham for this dish (and every other cured meat/ sausage on the menu). The pressed ham in this version seemed more tart than at other places, and that lent a delicious burst. It’s a terrific dish at both places, and Spoon wins on the extreme crispness of the rice croquette pieces. At Dharma they were good but a little soggy. For what it’s worth, I had the opposite textural problem with Dharma’s sausage, which seemed to spend to much time reheating in a deep fryer, rendering it palatable but dry. Great flavor nonetheless.
The translated Thai menu at Dharma Garden is 3-and-a-half pages long, and I look forward to enjoying a lot of it.
3109 W Irving Park Rd
Monday, November 28, 2011
I have written 4,791 posts on the food discussion website, LTHForum. Among members who have never had any behind-the-scenes role, I think that places me (kennyz on LTHForum) second all time in posting volume. It's been a significant part of my life for several years.
I loved being part of LTHForum. Many of its members were among the most knowledgeable food people I'd ever encountered. I got to know a good number offline in real life, and we became friends. Some of my enjoyment - I must admit - also came from a certain voyeuristic trait. I like having an audience. When I wrote something I thought was particularly insightful or funny, I enjoyed the feedback I often received confirming my probably-too-lofty opinion of myself at that moment.
In the paragraph above, I struggled mightily with the verb tense. Most of it is written as if my feelings are in the past, and I guess that is largely correct. A few links in this grubstreet piece allude to what one might call a battle I waged against changes that I saw happening at LTHForum. It was a smaller place when I started, and seemed more targeted at a higher level of food discourse - whatever that means - than Yelp or other similar sites. I saw that slowly start to unravel, and my perception was influenced by two factors.
First came the constant battle LTHForum moderators waged with me regarding what they thought were my overly snarky posts. The moderators would confide that they personally found these posts amusing and they acknowledged that in general my posts were interesting and filled with rich, useful content. I am being honest when I say that I really never believed any of my posts to be particularly personal or hurtful toward anyone. But the Moderators were making the case that my posts might make the Forum seem like an unwelcome place for newcomers. I began to sense a desire on their part to expand LTHForum's reach, even if doing so meant watering things down.
Next, many of the LTHForum contributors I found most interesting starting dramatically decreasing their participation or ending it entirely. Each surely had his or own motives, some to which I'm privy and others to which I'm not. But the fact remained that a significant percentage of the members who had been writing the most interesting stuff either weren't doing so at all anymore, or were doing so in other venues. As a whole, though there are certainly exceptions the content and the posters at LTHForum simply became less interesting to me, which - as pretentious as this may sound - gave me less of a desire to be among them.
So, I'm blogging now because I have loved writing about food and the "food scene" for many years, and the venue in which I used to do it doesn't feel like the right fit for me anymore. If they'll still have me I'll probably participate here or there in LTHForum discussions I find interesting, but this blog is what I'll use for the bulk of my own content. No doubt this will make some people over there happy. I'd be lying if I said I harbor no ill will toward any of the people I believe prompted me to make this move, but I do like and respect others that are currently involved, and I wish them well. I have no illusion that my blog will garner even a tiny fraction of LTHForum's readership, so that voyeuristic side I spoke of above will just have to work with what I get.
Saturday, November 26, 2011
Jimmy and his mom also sell freshly fried beignets, which I found to be just as good as those at famed Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans. Which is to say that they were fine. I don't get people's love affair with beignets. The perfect espresso that Jimmy's mom made me, on the other hand - with its thick, long-lasting crema and sweet, nutty aroma - was something quite special.
Jimmy's Pizza Cafe
5159 North Lincoln Avenue
In the second paragraph, he writes that "...the neighborhood has already embraced it: People descend in big groups..." I walk by Al Dente nearly every day, often at prime dinner time and at least 3 times on a Friday night. The unfortunate truth is that there is almost never anyone in the place excepting the chef and a couple of staff members who look longingly for a customer to cross through the door. Perhaps by pretending that Al Dente is the latest trendy hot spot, Tamarkin seeks to make the pretentious case that his trained palate knows better than his hoards of imaginary Irving Park simpletons "congregating over Perez’s ... solid food".
Even more bizarre is the fourth paragraph, where Tamarkin makes the befuddling case that Al Dente's menu is an also-ran copycat of legions of other Italian joints. He writes that "gnocchi with boar ragù is a dish that seasoned diners have seen again and again—probably at Spiaggia, Tuttaposto or Cibo Matto. To that end, very little, if anything, is surprising on this menu." This is where I not only wonder if he actually visited the restaurant, but if he even bothered to read the online menu. The chef at Al Dente is Mexican, and his menu is a Mex-Italian fusion unlike any other I've come across. Grilled calamari are marinated in guajillo; a Romaine lettuce salad has cilantro dressing; fries are served with habanero aioli; salmon is served with Oaxaca-style adobo negro sauce. For Tamarkin to leave readers with the impression that Al Dente is just another neighborhood Italian place, and to not even mention the Mexican influence on the menu, does them a terrible disservice. For God's sake, there's queso fundido on the menu.
Did David Tamarkin's intern accidentally write down the address for Leona's instead of Al Dente?
Friday, November 25, 2011
The menu is uninteresting: a couple of soups, some grilled meats, chicken wings, rice, etc. Perhaps the cook/ owner sensed my quest for something more exciting when he motioned for me to come into the kitchen, where he showed me a couple of simmering pots of "today's specials". With the exuberance of an old school French waiter, he lifted the silver colored lids off of the pots and said "Voila" as he displayed what looked like potatoes in tomato juice. When I asked him what it was, he said "potatoes in tomato juice". "Is it good?" I asked, to which he replied "very authentic". Then he lifted a lid off of another pot and said "This is special lamb". I told him to give me both, and then left the kitchen for a table in the dining area.
"Potatoes in tomato juice" was served as a soup. It was salty and had some defrosted vegetables and chunks of difficult-to-chew meat along with very soft potatoes. "Special lamb" had the same potatoes and tire-textured meat, though it also had some robust lamb jus which made a decent dipping sauce for the stale pita with which it was served.
I can only assume that Bai Cafe fills some void for Kazakhstani cab drivers longing for a taste of home. They probably go there for the same reasons I continue to frequent places in Chicago that sell shitty "NY Pizza by the slice".
3406 N Ashland Ave,