Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The New Dharma Garden

The recent changes at Dharma Garden are the most exciting thing to happen to the Chicago Thai food scene in years. After Heather Shouse published this article in August touting the fact that for her preparations of authentic northern Thai fare, the new owner earns the admiration of Thai cooks and staff at favorite places such as Aroy and Sticky Rice, I would have expected the Thai-obsessed eaters at LTHForum and elsewhere to flock to Dharma Garden, which just happens to be right around the corner from me. Instead, there has been virtually nothing of interest written about the place anywhere since Shouse’s article. Dharma Garden is now a special place that deserves better than the sparse or non existent crowds I see there daily.

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.

Dharma Garden
3109 W Irving Park Rd

Monday, November 28, 2011

Why am I Blogging Now?

In this blog I expect to write about three main subject areas: (1) the food I eat in restaurants; (2) my criticism of what food writers, bloggers and LTHForum posters are saying; and (3) perhaps a wee bit about the mostly Italian cooking I do at home. I plan to write very little here about myself, but in this post I will indulge my desire to say something on that front.

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

Best Pizza in America. No Waiting.

People describe Jimmy's Pizza as selling NY-Style slices, and in fact Jimmy himself describes his pizza that way. To me, this pizza - especially the white pie - transcends geographic labels and is in fact the best damn pizza anywhere, period. The crust has well-developed ferment and a dark, ultra-thin but audibly crisp layer that gives way to soft, airy bread that's foldable but not without significant exterior cracking. Toppings are applied judiciously, and what stands out to me most is how perfectly seasoned everything is. Well-salted but not overpoweringly so, and a generous quantity of black pepper - an ingredient that's often lacking but is an especially needed component of a great white pie. And garlic. Lots of garlic, in fact - but it's sweet and incredibly well balanced among the rest of the seasonings.

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
773) 293-6992

WTF is David Tamarkin talking about?

This review of Al Dente is more than a month old now, but I haven't yet gotten past the insulting and outlandishly inaccurate description of a unique neighborhood restaurant. Reading this review, I genuinely wondered whether Tamarkin had ever even been to Al Dente.

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 rag├╣ 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

Bai Cafe - Kazakhstani hidden in plain sight

For an ethnic restaurant that's been open in the heart of Lakeview for 9 month not to capture even one Yelp or LTHforum post is remarkable. Will my little blog contain the place's first-ever online review? From the looks of the clientele and half-dozen cabs parked under the el tracks just next to Bai, I gather that the place caters to a fairly narrow base. The owner told me that though he's been open awhile, he just added storefront signage a couple of weeks ago. It looked like an abandoned building before that, he said.

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".

Bai Cafe
3406 N Ashland Ave,
Chicago, IL.
(773) 687-8091