Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Four Midwestern Bagel Service Atrocities


I tried to leave my New Yorkers know best attitude at the door when I left to become a Midwesterner 16 years ago, but there are some things that people in these parts really need to learn from Gotham.  That your legs don’t stop working when you step onto an escalator is one.  Another, which will be the subject of this post, is bagel service.
Mind you, bagel service is not complicated.  By no means am I implying that only New York minds could come up with the proper way to serve a bagel with cream cheese.  We can’t even figure out a reasonable way to transport people to our airports, for goodness’ sake.  No, serving a bagel with cream cheese the right way is so easy that even a PS 169 grad like me can do it.  You slice the bagel and you put cream cheese on it.  That’s it!  There’s nothing more to it, yet there are countless ways in which Midwesterners overcomplicate the process and ruin it.  I’ve listed some of these egregious errors below with the hope that anyone with bagel service responsibility will heed  my warning, and that anyone who knows a person with such responsibility will pass it on.  After 16 years, I’m getting angry about this. Do not keep screwing up my bagel with cream cheese. 
Four Common Midwestern Bagel Service Atrocities:
4. Double slicing.  A bagel should be sliced across its equator so that cream cheese can be applied.  Under no circumstances should it then be sliced again longitudinally.  I don’t know if it’s the more heavily Christian population here or what, but this cross-pattern slicing has got to stop.  The cream cheese oozes out of the center and it’s a mess to eat this way.  Stop it. Really.

3. Cream cheese on the side.  If a man orders a bagel with cream cheese, he wants a bagel with cream cheese on it.  This practice of handing over an unsliced bagel with a plastic tub of cream cheese and a flimsy plastic knife is insulting.  Those flimsy knives can’t even slice a ripe, peeled banana.  They’re hopeless against a bagel, and even more hopeless in spreading the rock-hard cream cheese in that tub you took directly from the ice box.  Do you give these knives out because you’re worried about customers having weapons to use against you?  Continue this cheese on the side practice, and such worry might become justified.
2. Calling the thing a “schmear”.  This is the only one that makes me think, maybe Midwesterners really are less intelligent than New Yorkers.  “Schmear?”  You’re an adult, for Willett’s sake!

1. Toasting.  Toasting ruins a bagel’s chewy reason to exist.  Toasting is for, well, toast.  A bagel is not toast.  Stop this.  If you encounter customers who insist on having their bagel toasted, I’ll allow you to decide whether or not you want to accommodate such misguided people.  If you’re the kind of place that allows people to add grilled chicken breast to any salad on the menu, then you should go ahead and accommodate this equally ridiculous request too.  But so many places toast by default, without even asking if that’s what the customer wants.  Stop this.  People complain to me:  “But what if the bagel isn’t fresh?  Isn’t it better toasted then?”  If you’re eating or serving a stale bagel, stop reading this blog and think about what your life has become. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

La Sirena Clandestina


I walked through the door at what turned out to be a few minutes before opening time.  The staff was busy readying for service and I felt bad for interrupting, but right away John Manion smiled and invited me to have a seat while they finished things up.  I felt like a welcomed guest in somebody’s home.  La Sirena Clandestina is a tiny place, decorated humbly but warmly with candles and flowers.  The setting, the smiles and the relative quiet at 4PM were a great respite from the more typical hustle and bustle of other hot new West Loop restaurants.  Things are surely different at prime dinner time and later, but I suspect that at its core, this place will always be warm and welcoming.
The two dishes I had were good, though I wonder if it’s that same vision to be a welcoming respite for all comers which held the food back from being what I’d hoped for.   Take the Acaraje, for instance: black eyed pea fritters which were split and stuffed/ topped with dende-poached shrimp and pickled onions, with dime-sized circles of dark-orange (not that) hot sauce brightly decorating the plate.  It was a pretty dish to look at, and an enjoyable one to eat, with a crisp outer shell giving way to relatively light interior, much like some of the better falafels around town.  The oil poached shrimp had a soft texture and mild, sweet taste.  What’s to complain about?  Nothing, perhaps, but this was my first time trying Acaraje, so I did some research after dinner.  While there seem to be variations, it sounds to me like many of the best and most authentic ones are packed with powerfully-flavored dried shrimp, often pounded  with nuts into a paste, and crispy bits of shrimp shell that provide big taste and crunch.  La Sirena  Clandestina’s dish was good, but it didn’t seem to push the envelope in any way.  It was safe.  As with John Manion himself when I entered the restaurant, the Acaraje wouldn’t turn anyone away.
The same seemed true of the crispy chicken thighs.  They were very nicely done and served with the advertised rapini, chili and garlic.  It was balanced.  It tasted homey.  The use of garlic was very restrained, with just a few ultra-thin fried sliver.  Ditto for the chile.  Certainly I knew they were both there, but for my taste, much, much more punch would have made the dish better. 
It’s a wonderfully inviting space with well-prepared food and one of the friendliest staffs I’ve encountered.  The restaurant deserves to do well.  Based on admittedly limited menu exploration though, the food at La Sirena Clandestina doesn’t quite resonate with me as I’d hoped.
La Sirena Clandestina
954 W. Fulton Market
312-226-5300

 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Avec

When people ask me what the best restaurant in Chicago is, my reply is "I have no idea, but if it's the best cooking you want, that's at Avec."  When I've felt down about what I've eaten lately or about food in general, Avec has cheered me up.  Has an inedible bowl of cartilage-laden crab at the hot new Italian restaurant pissed you off lately?  Go to Avec and discouragement will vanish.  Avec takes food seriously.  Even restaurants I like sometimes fail to clean shellfish completely, occasionally overcook a piece of fish, or forget to taste a dish for seasoning once in a while.  In dozens of meals at Avec, it's been my experience that that kind of thing just doesn't happen there.  Never.  Of course, it's not enough to merely avoid screwing up.  Right now, Avec is also putting out some of the most flavorful, exciting food in town.

On a cold fall afternoon, you won't find a dish that warms the soul more than the wood-fired squid cooked and served in a piping hot cast-iron cazuuela with fideos, tomato, and guanciale.  The fideos seem to wiggle around in your mouth, adding a playful texture to an otherwise seriously rich, garlicky, and smoky dish.  I had a similar dish at Avec a year ago, and while I liked it then, this was a whole different level of delicious.  One difference came in the aioli that topped the cazuela; last time it was a somewhat bland cream that didn't add much, but this time the aioli was flavored robustly with fennel, simultaneously adding a jolt to the dish while bringing all of the ingredients into harmony.

The sweet, moist flesh of merluza at Avec is going to make it hard for me to eat fish anywhere else.  Merluza isn't the cheapest type of fish at the market, but it's not the most expensive of luxury ingredients either.  If what's served as Avec is representative, merluza should cost double what lobster or dover sole are fetching.   This fish tasted similar to but even sweeter than halibut, but was substantially meatier and more interesting to eat.  I don't know if it's the fish or the cook or, quite likely, a combination, but I want more merluza right now.  As with the fennel aioli with the squid, the creamy garlic sauce with the merluza was robust but sweet, rounded and not overpowering.  With a bit of grapefruit juice that seeped from the bright pink segments garnishing the plate, the garlic sauce turned into something magical, and with bitter treviso and sweet, tiny olives, it was a wonderful complement for the fish.

Veal sweetbreads seem to be the ingredient du jour around town these days, and perhaps excepting The Trenchermen, nobody is doing them on par with or better than Avec.  One huge, meaty, crisp but incredibly tender specimen was served with pungent cauliflower caponata and a slice of crisped Serrano ham across the top.  Nothing fancy, just absolutely delicious.

That's Avec.  No soil on a plate, no delicious liquids turned into chalky powders, no gimmicks.  Just straightforward, fantastic food.  Just the best cooking in Chicago.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

RPM Italian

With the celebrity fanfare combined with bad experiences at recent LEYE openings, when RPM Italian initially opened I didn't take it seriously.  Then some relatively positive reviews seemed to indicate that there might be real cooking going on, and I became intrigued enough to take the short walk from work for an early dinner.  I should have trusted my initial thoughts.

On what RPM calls a Bolognese sauce, I am calling boloney.  It's just an overly sweet tomato sauce with some shreds of slow cooked meat in it.  I'd wager that the meat and the sauce met shortly before service, having spent little or no time together on the stove.  And there's way too much of it, overwhelming what were actually pretty good house made parpardelle.  A loveless dish.

I had to send back my squid ink pasta with crab after awkwardly spitting out two 3-inch pieces of cartilage which came from the first two bites.  Crab isn't easy to clean, but this was a ridiculous level of carelessness or incompetence.  I didn't get far enough into this dish to determine whether it had any potential.

Stuffed, fried olives were a tasty snack, but paled in comparison to other versions I've had.  If you're ever lucky enough to be at Spacca Napoli when Jonathan Goldsmith is handing out his version for free to waiting patrons, you'll know how wonderful stuffed, fried olives can be.  By comparison, RPM's were an amateurish rendition with olives that were too small to stuff with any meaningful flavor.

Gelato which a manager brought me for free to make up for the crab debacle was icy but tasty.

There may be reasons to go to RPM Italian, but food isn't one of them.


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Local Root in Streeterville


Doubt  and cynicism stemming from the Streeterville location and hyperbolic locavore marketing were shattered by two lunches this week at Local Root, a new casual, quick service place in a culinary wasteland. 

The locavore clich├ęs hit me immediately.  Posted on the window outside is a manifesto about how industrial food is killing everybody and how sustainable restaurants like this are going to save the world.  There’s talk about carbon footprints and the owners’ passion for sourcing local ingredients.  There’s a massive sign claiming that Local Root will be a zero-waste restaurant, with every byproduct, presumably from a melon’s seeds to a customer’s feces, contributing back to the earth in one way or another.  And, of course, there’s a chalkboard.  It lists places like La Quercia and Traderspont Creamery and others with resonance among slow foodies and their ilk.  There’s also a promise that deliciousness will be enhanced, not compromised, by the restaurant’s sustainability vision.

I love La Quercia and Traderspoint, and the values above are values I share; it’s just that I’ve heard them so many times from counterfeits that my instinct these days is to discount the claims as marketing gimmick.  The thing is, Local Root really seems to be living the principles, especially the one about deliciousness being paramount.   This was apparent when I walked in and saw that upwards of half the space in the build-out was devoted to kitchen and prep areas, all of which are open for customers to see.  In a part of town like this where lunch volumes are high, there’s a temptation to maximize seating and waiting areas at the expense of cooking space.  This works fine when a good percentage of your product is based on crappy, processed stuff that comes off of a Sysco truck, as is the case at most places in the area.  It doesn’t work when you’re making food from scratch.

At Local Root, even the bread is made from scratch.  I couldn’t believe this, but at a prime lunch hour two staff members were working full time rolling out dough for baguettes that were about to hit the oven.  To accomplish this, they were using a massive prep table and a workspace as big as my living room.  Impressive devotion.

Everything I ate fell somewhere on the continuum from great to good.  Sweet and tangy gazpacho that tasted of wonderful in-season tomatoes with a little spicy kick was probably my favorite item.  At Local Root, bread thickens the gazpacho more than in most versions, and the soup is served with chopped egg.  These are both characterstics of salmorejo, a Spanish gazpacho cousin upon which I suspect this terrific soup is based.  Sweet and tangy are themes here, and characterized the beet salad that was my second favorite items, with a thick, maple-balsamic dressing, a mix of earthy and spicy greens, and crumbles of outstanding blue cheese from Traderspoint Creamery.  A ham sandwich with meat from an Iowa company called Beeler’s was tasty if not particularly special, served on one of those impressively house-made baguette’s which could have been a bit lighter-textured and crisper for my taste.  The fries served with it, however, were exceptional.

I love what the Local Root is doing and will be a frequent customer.  I must admit that I did have to get over some sticker shock first though.  That ham sandwich with fries was $11.49.  The beet salad was a whopping $9.49.  There’s a La Quercia prosciutto baguette on the menu for $12.49 and duck confit on brioche for 15 bucks.  These prices might be more expected at trendy sit-down restaurants with similar culinary mindset, but they’re tough to swallow at a place where the cashier takes your order and hands you a numbered placard to place on your table until a runner brings the food.  That said, there’s a cost to doing a restaurant build-out in the way I described above, and this place is employing a large number of skilled culinary folks, not high school students cooking from a corporate instruction manual as at so many other places in the area.  I want to support that and, more importantly, I think the quality of the food here is worth the prices.


Local Root
(312) 643-1145
601 N. McClurg
www.localrootchicago.com

Monday, September 17, 2012

Khao Soi Battle - TAC Quick vs ATK (with 2014 Aroy Thai Update!)


Some fans I know of Northern Thai food consider Khao Soi the quintessential dish of the region, and have a near-obsession with their quest to find “authentic” versions.   With a unique flavor that includes a mix of spices such as cinnamon and clove with coconut and more common curry spices, Khao Soi is indeed something special.  In Chicago we’re lucky enough to have a number of restaurants that serve the dish, with Sticky Rice’s version by far the most complex and delicious, in my book.

TAC Quick has always had a number of excellent Northern Thai dishes, and though I hadn’t tried their Khao Soi in a few years I remembered it fondly, if not with the same gusto as the one from Sticky Rice.  With the recent chef shakeup at TAC,  I decided to see how the place was doing without its well-regarded chef and use Khao Soi as a benchmark to compare the Andy-less TAC with Andy’s new place, ATK.

The Khao Soi curry flavors at TAC were as good as I remembered, with subtle heat balancing sweet spice and creamy coconut.  The delicious accoutrements were as I remembered too: sour fermented greens, raw red onions, crunchy ground peanuts and crispy fried noodles that sat atop the boiled noodles within the sauce.  Delicious as it is, TAC’s version is more subtle than the one at Sticky Rice, where there is a pronounced sourness in the sauce and more robust spicing.  Sticky Rice also uses wide noodles instead of the thin ones at TAC, and the heartiness of wide noodles seems to stand up better in a dish like this.  Still, by any account TAC’s Khao Soi was and still is a tasty bowl of food.

From the identical square white bowl to the placement of a big green lettuce leaf, visually the ATK Khao Soi is identical to the TAC version.  Clearly this is either Andy’s construction that the people at TAC have maintained, or it’s one that he learned at TAC and has taken with him to ATK.  The identical type of noodles and list of accoutrements were here too.  Where the ATK version departed in a bad way was in execution.  The boiled noodles arrived in one big, inseparable clump which made them darn near impossible to eat.  The peanuts were ground too finely, rendering them pasty instead of crunchy.  The curry flavors were there and by avoiding the other stuff I was still able to enjoy this Khao Soi, but the execution errors took it several notches below TAC’s version and if this remains how ATK serves its Khao Soi, I’d say it’s the worst version available in Chicago.  Of course ATK is in it’s very early days and it’s certainly possible that the kitchen will find its footing.
I'm not sure what if anything all this says about ATK, and I certainly hope it is or turns into another place for excellent Thai food in Chicago.  Perhaps the two most important things that came from the TAC vs. ATK battle were (1) encouragement that TAC may continue to thrive even after the loss of its chef; and (2) a reminder to get to Sticky Rice soon for Chicago's best Khao Soi.

UPDATE:
Thanks to Rodney for pointing out in the comments that Aroy recently started serving Khao Soi (Kow Soy on the Aroy menu).  I rounded up a couple of friends and made a bee line over to check it out.  Sadly, the Aroy version of Khao Soi isn't in the same league as the places above or Sticky Rice.  It's basically dorm cafeteria Thai food.  Canned La Choy style-noodles on top, very coconut-heavy curry with little complexity, and completely missing the pickled greens and ground peanuts.  Pretty sad effort from Aroy.
 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Pasta in the Parks (Highland and Wicker)


John des Rosiers talks a big game, and at times I've indeed wondered if talk was all he had going.  So it was with tempered expectations that I entered Moderno and ordered pretty much the simplest pasta imaginable - the classic cacio e pepe, or cheese and black pepper.  It flat out rocked.  Moderno uses house made stangozzi which are wonderfully chewy - perfect to me.  In a dish this simple where all the punch comes from black pepper, it darn well better be good pepper.  It was.  This had the aroma and taste of very fresh stuff that had been ground by hand with a mortar and pestle.  The cheese was salty and good, with a slight departure from tradition in the form of melting it atop the pasta.  It worked.

I liked Moderno so much that I'm disappointed that des Rosiers had thin enough skin to block me on Twitter when I joked about some typically delusional tweet of his that I can't even remember now.  Oh well, I guess I can hope that no one has shared my picture with his staff and that I might be able to sneak into his restaurant again someday.

Highland Park pasta was fantastic, but pasta in Wicker Park didn't work out well for me.  At Nando Milano Tratorria I ordered tagliatelle all'amatriciana, and it was a disaster.  The sauce featured some kind of housemade bacon that tasted like it had been soaking for a year in maple syrup.  The dish was sweet to the point of inedibility.  All wrong.

Moderno
1850 2nd Street, Highland Park
847-433-8600

Nando Milano
2113 W. Division
773-486-2636

Friday, August 24, 2012

Pasta all' Amatriciana roundup


Pasta all’ Amatriciana is among the simplest and most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.  It’s quite easy to make it well, but by now I’m used to the fact that most American restaurants suck at pasta, so it was with limited expectations that I set out to find a decent bowl downtown at lunchtime.  I tried 3 versions.

Bar Umbriago – “Spaghetti Amatraciana”
I tried to chalk the misspelling up to a simple careless typo, but inside I suspected that it was a sign that this place might not be too serious about how they create the classic dish.  It turns out that the sauce here was the porkiest and perhaps tasties of all that I tried.  The guanciale had been cut into thin, long slivers that rendered plenty of fatty flavor and retained a silky and luscious texture.  The spaghetti was cooked well, and this could have been an excellent dish had the kitchen halved the quantity of sauce and bothered to let it cook with the noodles for a bit (instead, the unsauced noodles sat at the bottom of the bowl with giant ladles of sauce placed atop them).  As it was, this dish was mostly ruined by the two sins that I see in almost every Italian restaurant: oversaucing, and failing to cook the pasta and sauce together for a bit after combining them.

Phil Stefani – “Rigatoni alla Matriciana”

Stefani chooses a spelling common and somewhat controversial in Rome, and also pairs the sauce with rigatoni – also more common in Rome than elsewhere in Ital, from what I understand.  Stefani departs from Roman or Italian or just plain good cooking, however, in just about every aspect of this dish.  It arrived at my table about 90 seconds after I ordered it, making pretty clear that there are some precooked noodles in the back waiting to be sauced.  The limp rigatoni certainly reinforced that likelihood, and this dish had a massive amount of thick tomato sauce and absolutely zero pork flavor or texture.  For an ungodly reason, some onions had been caramelized separately (“onion confit” was how the server described it) and then added to the sauce at service, lending a sickly sweet element to already-sweet tomato sauce, of which there was about 5 times too much.  This was among the worst-tasting pasta preparations I’ve had anywhere.

La Madia – “Tagliatelle all' Amatriciana”

At 15 bucks, this was the most expensive bowl I tried.  That may seem reasonable when you consider that La Madia makes its own guanciale out of Slagel pork and uses fresh tomatoes from a local farm, according to my server.  The kitchen here is also far more adept at saucing pasta than either of the others.  Unfortunately though, as with the Stefani version, La Madia’s sauce lacked much discernable pork flavor.  It was just a good, fresh tomato sauce with some extra fat.  Perhaps they didn’t use enough guanciale, or perhaps their guanciale just isn’t that good.  On a related note, I do not understand why restaurants want to make their own guanciale.  Is what you create using a make-shift kitchen apparatus going to be better than what experienced producers who do basically nothing but cure pork can create?  Not a chance.  Similarly, though it sounds nice to say that you make fresh pasta, this is a dish that is better with the al dente texture that only dried pasta can provide.

Fuckerberg – “Bucatini all’ Amatriciana

I didn’t much care for any of the versions above, and perhaps that’s because this is a dish that’s best made at home, and I bring the bias of my own version with me when I try it at restaurants.  Again, this is a simple and easy dish, but there are five principles that I believe must be followed.  First – this is essentially a pork fat sauce, not a tomato sauce. You can see from the picture here that each noodle is glistening with flavorful fat.  The tomatoes provide some sweetness and plenty of acid to balance things, but pork fat is what must be at the forefront.  

Second, the guanciale should provide a textural element, not just flavor.  To some people that means crisping it up, but not to me.  I cook the guanciale low and slow until it renders a lot of fat, but I don’t let it brown and the texture I’m looking for is tender, not crisp.  It retains a lot more flavor that way.  Third, I would never serve this dish without a hearty dried pasta that has been cooked short of what most people probably describe as al dente.  Fourth, Parmigiano Reggiano is the wrong cheese for this, and to me it basically ruins the dish.  It’s too nutty, which distracts from the other flavors.  A salty, straightforward (cheap) pecorino works best here.  On that note, I have never added salt to pasta all amatriciana.  Between the guanciale, the pasta water I add when cooking the noodles and sauce together at the end, and the cheese, there is always plenty.  Finally, though the most traditional versions probably don’t use hot pepper, I frankly can’t imagine eating this without some.  It’s not so much for heat, but a small dose of capsicum stimulates the taste buds in a way that enables the flavors of to dish to linger long after each bite.

Monday, July 30, 2012

A scene and a pizza at Nellcote

I'm going to Vegas in a few days, and I think Sunday brunch at Nellcote will have prepared me well. At Nellcote it's a party all day long, which includes a short-skirt wearing DJ blaring dance music from a raised, caged booth during the early afternoon. I had a beer and bobbed my head to the beat while smirking at the ridiculousness of this scene, wondering who supplied the ecstasy to all of these people who seemed to still be on their Saturday night highs.

I also had a pizza. A simple one with buffalo mozzarella, sauce and basil. The sauce was a smooth, thick, puree that I loved, with high acid balancing terrific natural sweetness. I don't know what brand of tomatoes they're using, but it's either better than anyone else's or the kitchen is doing something to make it taste that way. Neither the cheese nor crust struck me as anything special, and I thought the latter was dry and overdone. It was a homogenous, almost crackery-crisp texture throughout. Fresh basil had been cooked onto the pizza, so it was browned and brittle at the edges when it came out. I prefer pizzas with fresh basil added after the cooking is done.

If this has sounded negative, I guess that's an accurate idea of where my feelings about Nellcote lean. But the pizza wasn't bad, and I'd be lying if I said there wasn't an intoxicating vibe about the place. There have been eras of my life where I suspect Nellcote would have been exactly what I was after.


Nellcote
833 West Randolph Street
(312) 432-0500

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Bland on Bland at Grahamwich

Mush on mush was the other title I considered. This is the green garbanzo sandwich at grahamwich, advertised as having "cous cous + yogurt raita + preserved lemon + shredded carrots + flatbread". The cous cous was clumpy and heavy. The raita lacked tang. There were no carrots to be found. The flatbread was an insipid, cold pita that likely came from a defrosted batch of wholesale foodservice product, as I caught the word "Olympia" on the bag. They're a local company, but not the kind of local that implies anything artisan, or even particularly good. The garbanzos themselves were the opposite of the great-textured ones I described in my post about Stout Barrel House. These were soft, under-seasoned and uninteresting.  A perfect match for the rest of the sandwich, I suppose.  It was served, inexplicably, with a side of sweet, thin peanut sauce.

Followers of my blog know that there is some potential for bias when I post about Graham Elliott. Some will probably think I went to lunch today for the sole purpose of finding something I could bash.  That's not the case.  I indeed hoped to find something interesting at grahamwich about which I could post, but my main purpose, as someone who works a few blocks away in an area with scant quick-service and good lunch options, was to try to add another place to the rotation.  Not gonna happen.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Stout Barrel House and Galley


Though I’m sometimes cynical about the food scene, one can’t help but think things have changed for the better when a stereotypical sports bar - “a total bro place” as a friend described it – serves food that’s as real as at Stout Barrelhouse.  Stout has more big screen TV’s than you can count, the servers are all young, cute and female, and the tables are high tops.  It’s a sharp-looking place, but I wouldn’t be able to differentiate it from some Depaul-area sports bar.  Until I tasted the food.

On my first visit I ordered what you’re supposed to order at a sports bar: the burger.  Served on a thoroughly buttered, well-toasted potato bun, this was a loose, juicy patty with a nice exterior crust.  It was served with mustard aioli, some barely-melted sharp white cheddar and peppery arugula – pungent, quality ingredients that told me someone in the kitchen is sourcing products with care.  On the side were some picture perfect fries – crisp on the outside, potatoey in the center and well-salted.  I also ordered the house pickles -a seasonal assortment of carrots, radishes and more stuff that tasted as if it had come straight from the farmer’s market.

On visit two I ordered house made lamb sausage, a flavorful, loosely formed link cut into thirds and served as 3 mini sandwiches inside New England style split, toasted bun thirds. Each mini sandwich was topped with a couple of pieces of curried cauliflower, with crunch and intense flavor that served as a delicious reminder that the chef is getting his produce from a good source.  If I had to quibble, I’d note that though each component was delicious they were constructed in a way that was tough to eat – I couldn’t really treat the sandwich as a sandwich, needing instead to pull it apart and eat each delicious component on its own.  Perhaps the best part of this dish was a refreshing chickpea salad with beans that had that just-right, not-quite-crisp, and definitely not mushy, texture.

Both of my visits were on a Friday afternoon, the only weekday that Stout is open for lunch.  At that time the dining room was pretty sparsely filled with what appeared mostly to be neighborhood business people.  The staff was relaxed, friendly and efficient, though in food knowledge terms definitely more like the people you’d expect to see working in a sports bar than those you might expect at a chef-driven restaurant.

I will not suggest that Stout is a must-visit Chicago restaurant, but if you find yourself in the mood for a sit-down, casual lunch in the neighborhood I can’t think of anything better.  And on the list of places with a gazillion giant TV’s tuned into sports, I’d have a hard time believing there’s one with better food than this.

Stout Barrel House and Galley
642 North Clark Street  
(312) 475-1390

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Day One at Piccolo Sogno Due

There is some interesting-sounding stuff on the Piccolo Sogno Due menu, including bread made with squid ink, raw fish rolled into pasta sheets with what looks like spicy mayo, and a dish that features house made saba. Some items sound more appealing (the bread) than others (the maki-like tuna tartare), but none of it worked particularly well for me.

Twice during lunch, I had to spit food from my mouth into a napkin. The first spit yielded a pebble-sized, rock hard piece of bone or stone from a bite of lamb meatballs, for which I suspect the meat had been ground in house. The second spit produced an impossible-to-chew, plasticky layer of artichoke that had been part of a pasta dish with clams, and should have been peeled off during prep.

Though it's hard to forgive such carelessness - even on a restaurant's opening day - I would have been inclined to do so had the rest of the food showed more promise. I detected no sea flavor in the aforementioned squid ink baguette, but it did deliver an unpalatable overdose of salt. That pasta dish with the tough artichokes also had tiny, mushy clams and a lot of butter sauce that just pooled at the bottom of the plate rather than adhere to and flavor the linguine. The garlic slivers were sweet and nicely toasted, at least. Aside from the near tooth breaking bit in the lamb meatballs they were fine, if a little tougher and denser than I would have liked.

It's a 100 degrees out today, so when my server came over to take a drink order, I requested a Spritz, which I am inclined to do on days like this. A few minutes later he came back to report that the bartender gave him a look that made him feel like an alien when he asked her for the drink. Neither of them had any idea what a Spritz is, which is OK I guess; but was there not someone on staff at this completely empty, massive restaurant run by vastly experienced Italian restaurateurs who could have explained it? Could someone have googled it instead of just saying "Can I get you a prosecco instead?"

A very nice guy in chefs whites, who I assumed was Tony Priolo, and a couple of men in expensive-looking suits spent the latter part of my meal glad handing people they knew around the now-filling-up dining room, and I was reminded of the time I ate at The Pump Room when it first opened. Back then, with Jean George doing similar glad handing I wondered what power Brad Phillips - whose cooking I like a lot - really had over the menu. He didn't last, of course, but perhaps Todd Stein's experience working for the Marriott and some famous chef's Las Vegas outpost will better prepare him for what looked to me like a similar set-up.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Restaurant Ecuador

Years ago, an Ecuadorian cab driver recommended Restaurant Ecuador to me. I kept it on my radar for a few months, but it closed down before I could get there. A few days ago around lunchtime, I noticed a few people in and around the tiny storefront, so I parked and walked into a bustling restaurant with a 20 minute wait for one of it’s dozen-or-so tables at 1:30PM on a weekday afternoon. This seemed like a very good sign.


That cab driver years ago lauded Restaurant Ecuador’s seafood, and said that the best ordering strategy was to simply ask the staff what’s freshest that day. That sounded like sound advice, so even though I had already learned that the place is now under completely new ownership, I went with it. My server told me that the corvina had just come in that morning, and the owner was in back right now cutting it into steaks for the corvina frita, which she recommended with rice and plantains. An outstanding suggestion. The corvina had a light coating of flour that had been pan-fried crisp, with juicy, fresh-tasting flesh under the surface. Crisp iceberg shreds with lightly pickled/ marinated onions were a refreshing counterpoint. The rice was somewhat sticky, which may or may not be an intentional style in Ecuadorian cuisine. Either way, it seemed to work well to stab a forkful sticky rice and eat it layered-kabob-style on the same fork with a piece of fish and a marinated onion piece.

Even better than the excellent fish was the bolon de verde I ordered as an appetizer. This very substantial $2.50 oval of mashed green plantain, butter, onion and very crispy chicharrones was flavorful, and a textural pleasure to eat. After being stuffed and rolled, the ovals are oven roasted and basted frequently with lard to crisp up the exterior. It’s a wonderful snack, but if you order it as a starter you really want to share it with at least one more person. I could see the bolon de verde being an excellent meal on it’s own, and in fact my server explained that in Ecuador it is a coastal specialty that’s eaten most frequently for breakfast.

The sense I got from talking to a bunch of congenial patrons who took my struggles to communicate in Spanish with good humor is that while there are numerous Ecuadorian restaurants in Chicago, this is the one where Ecuadorian “foodies” congregate. One gentleman who teaches at a high school across town told me that he is here almost every day. When his coworkers chided him for never joining them, even when they go to an Ecuadorian place a few blocks from the school, he explained that “It’s easier to drive across town for food like this than it is to fly home.” The menu at restaurant Ecuador is expansive, and a young couple told me that in the evenings the place is often filled with a lively crowd taking full advantage of the byob policy. That sounds like fun to me, and I’ll definitely be back.


Restaurant Ecuador
2923 W Diversey Ave
(773) 342-7870

Friday, June 29, 2012

Before Dolinsky, there was Graham Elliot vs. Fuckerberg

The news that Graham Elliot booted Steve Dolinsky yesterday got me thinking that this might be a good time to post about the origin of my blog's name.

Well before Dolinsky's tweet got him onto Graham Elliot's shit list, my own unrelated actions on Twitter had made me Enemy#1. After eating at grahamwich, I tweeted some criticism of a lousy pickle I had tried, along with a line that said when it comes to grahamwich "I'm ready to stick a spork in it," referencing the cheap, useless, "whimsical" tools that Elliot's crew gives out as part of the sandwich shop's shtick.

I had no idea how rapid and ridiculous the firestorm would be following my tweet. Within minutes, Elliot had read my tweet, done some research about me, and found out my full name. This is what he tweeted back to me:

"Nice spork reference, fuckerberg."

That seemed in relatively decent humor, and for the moment I was just amused that a famous chef had bothered to respond at all to online criticism from a nobody like me. But what followed took a much meaner and more bizarre turn. A few minutes after the fuckerberg tweet, Elliott sent this to his thousands of followers:

"D-Bag Alert. Keep a lookout for this guy."

The above tweet included a link to a picture of me along with a short profile from a social networking site Elliot had found. I don't make any effort to maintain an anonymous online persona, so this didn't particularly bother me. I was surprised, however, that someone with such fame and success would act so childishly vindictive as a result of an admittedly snarky, but hardly personal post about his sandwich shop.

What followed from there was not really Elliot's doing, but he had started a comical storm of internet rumors about me, with my picture circulating among thousands of people, many of whom posted pretty nasty comments based entirely on false information that was being spread by Ari Bendersky at Eater and Audarshia Townsend at 312DiningDiva. First Townsend circulated my picture on her blog and twitter stream, captioning it with "OMG, Graham Elliott outed the 2-cent tipper". A couple of days earlier, there had been a widely circulated report of a guy who left a 2-cent tip along with a nasty note to his server. In Chicago, reports about the "2 cent tipper" and unconfirmed speculations about his identity had gone viral. Now, for some reason the Dining Diva believed she had gotten the scoop! Bendersky, ever-careful fact checker that he is, picked up Townsend's story and ran an article on Eater, again linking to my picture. Within hours, over a hundred comments were circulating around the internet bashing me and linking to my picture.

Though I had some choice words for Bendersky and Townsend - both of whom I still find to be useless, ass-kissing hacks whose main skills include shilling for chefs in order to gain access and cutting and pasting from press releases - for the most part I was humored by the fame I had gained for a day. Through this blog's name, I continue to try to milk it for all I can get.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Next: Sicily

Turning on a dime from 30-courses of molecular cuisine to a family-style Sicilian meal is certainly a challenge for a professional kitchen, so kudos to the Next team for pulling it off.  Because that’s what it’s all about, right?  We watch what we’re told are the greatest chefs in the world pull off the impossible!  We see a team of rising culinary stars push themselves to the limit without breaking!  Through playlists and handwritten notes, we experience the seamless transformation of a restaurant’s ambience from grade school cafeteria to Sicilian grandmother’s home!  I enjoyed much of what I ate at Next Sicily, but I just don’t value those other things by which I’m supposed to be impressed.  And without them, a meal at this price - with many service missteps and culinary failures – is not one to be lauded.

As is surely always the case at Next, the team serving our table was friendly and professional, if a bit overly rehearsed.  But polished they were not.  Our initial drinks were dropped off with no explanation by a runner who disappeared in a flash.  It took at least a couple of minutes for someone to come over and explain what we had.  After almost every course, my wine glass was removed while it still had wine in it, with no warning or inquiry about whether I was still drinking.  The staff seemed to be rushing to make sure they kept to a pre-determined pace.  One of our party received her dessert missing an integral component that everyone else had gotten.

While there were a number of food items I didn’t like, only one was a complete disaster.  The Bucatini in our first pasta course were unpalatably gummy, so while the flavors in the dish were fine, it was tough to eat.  Sometimes pasta texture is a matter of taste, but in this case I feel strongly that the kitchen simply produced something bad.  Not disastrous but still surprising for a meal with this price tag were the Panelle - light and crisp at the top of the serving bowl, but soggy and greasy toward the middle.  Garnishes throughout the evening generally disappointed me too, with big clusters of tough, tasteless leaves that seemed a better fit for rabbits.  They weren’t washed well enough either, as when I made the mistake of tasting one to see what it was (couldn’t tell, flavorless), I was left with a mouthful of grit.

To be sure, there was also some downright fantastic cooking.  I’ve never tasted a piece of swordfish cooked more beautifully, and I loved the lightly mashed chickpeas served with it.  The Cassata was a very special dessert – beautiful to look at with flavor and texture to match.  I loved that the kitchen dared to serve lamb tongue to a crowd with diverse culinary adventurousness, and it was delicious inside the light and wonderful arancini.

I paid over $200 for dinner at Next Sicily.  The magic these people have created is that for a fleeting moment, even I thought this was a bargain.  I’ve heard people laud Next as the future of dining.  I’ve heard them say that people who don’t rate it highly enough are simply living in the past, unwilling to see the way food is being redefined by Achatz and his team.  Call me a laggard, but I’m pushing back on a future where $200+ meals with gritty garnishes, gummy pasta, and rushed service are the pinnacle of dining.


Friday, June 8, 2012

Chicken Works & Salad Company

You can't go a half-mile in my neighborhood without stumbling on one of the chicken joints, most of which feature very good South American-style rotisserie birds. These are mostly humble places - some of which might reasonably be called dives - that cater largely to a clientele of their countrymen. Among this crowd, Chicken Works & Salad Company stands out like a show poodle in a rescue kennel full of mutts. As far as I know Chicken Works has only one location, but the glossy menu board, cheery, uniformed staff and many meal deals scream "chain". Assuming the facade meant that this place would be appealing to the lowest common denominator of neighborhood folk afraid of people who don't speak great English and menus with amusingly bad translations, I waited quite awhile before checking it out. Don't be fooled as I was; Chicken Works is serving some outstanding food.


Birds here are marinated overnight in what tastes to me like a citrus brine, then butterflied and grilled over coals. The results are juicy and compellingly delicious flesh, with skin that crisps up a bit and is tender and tasty. In line with what one might expect from a glossy chain, side options are bountiful and diverse, spanning the gamut from baked potato and pasta salad to curry rice and carrots with pineapple. There's even a salad bar. Despite misgivings about whether such expansive offerings ever include anything of note, let me tell you that the curry rice light and flavorful, with a little sweetness and a little kick that make it an excellent accompaniment. Chickens also come with good, fresh-tasting pita that gets a last minute warm-up on the grill.

Chicken Works & Salad Company is a worthy place, not to be overlooked amidst the sea of fowl in the area.

Chicken Works & Salad Company
3658 W Irving Park Rd
773.588.5488

Friday, May 25, 2012

French Fry Roundup (burgers and French food too). And A Couple of Diners

The proliferation of places that serve hand-cut fries made from real potatoes is, for the most part, a good thing. Not everyplace does them well, but 3 recent versions were enjoyable.

The Bad Apple
I've had these a few times, and though they've caused some divisiveness on LTHForum, I have found the Bad Apple's fries to be consistently good. They have a dark color that translates into toasty taste, and althought they're not particularly crisp, there is pleasant texture contrast between the exterior and the fluffy inside. As for the rest of The Bad Apple's food, including the much-praised burgers, I'm not a big fan. They're OK, but the meat seems way too lean for my liking. I do like the refreshing, healthy, herb-laced quinoa salad on offer.

Troquet
These fries are crisper than the Bad Apple's, and just as tasty. Served with pungent horseradish aioli (available for the asking), these are a nice snack with Troquet's well-curated beer list. What I really love about Troquet though, is that 12 bucks buys you what is essentially a chef-prepared, French version of a "Meat n 3" (actually a Meat n 2 at Troquet). On one occasion, I chose a crisp-skinned, moist piece of trout. On another, it was a generous helping of delicious German sausage. Each $12 entree comes with a side of those fries and an excellent, subtely-dressed mixed green salad.

Burger Joint
This place's biggest claim to fame seems to be that it's open late enough for the area's drunken club-goers to get a greasy, late-night bite on weekends. It just so happens that they also serve what were the best darn fries of this whole recent lot. Very crisp on the outside, very potatoey and soft inside, and generously seasoned with salt. The Heinz ketchup on the side is a significant improvement over Bad Apple's housemade ketchup, too. I liked Burger Joint's juicy, meaty burger a lot too, though like many places, they are too afraid of the salt shaker.


A quick word about two recently opened "modern" diners. I stopped in at Au Cheval for a drink on my way to dinner elsewhere, and was surprised by how cozy the place felt, and how unfussy and untrendy the staff were. They poured a fine gin rickey, and I enjoyed my brief visit enough to plan a return for a meal. At Eggy's Diner I was pretty sure I'd be let down, as that's almost always what happens when The Hungry Hound tweets high praise for some new place and I follow in his footsteps. A glutton for punishment, I ordered some pastrami hash and it basically met my expectations. The darkness of the potatoes and onions added nice flavor, but the pastrami itself tasted cheap and bad. Worse, it was cut into little squares that were chewy and squeaked like fresh cheese curds. Even for diner hash, you need to slice pastrami against the grain before cutting it into smaller pieces. The haphazard knife work ruined the dish.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Leopold


My inclinations point me toward places with straight-up, not-necessarily-creative but well-executed food, where cooks respect delicious ingredients and treat them with care.  After a fantastic recent meal, Leopold took a spot on the short list of Chicago restaurants that meet these criteria.

I was struck the kitchen’s ability to magnify the flavor of already delicious produce.  This was especially evident with the treatment of mushrooms in two dishes: the seafood risotto and the pierogi.  The description of a seafood risotto with tomatoes and morels worried me, as I typically find that those two ingredients clash.  Here, however, the morel flavor dominated with intense earthiness, and the tomatoes played a very subtle background role, adding just a hint of acid and a good dose of natural sweetness.  The menu advertises that  the pierogi come with “woodland mushrooms”.  I am no expert on mushroom varieties, but these thin, delicate white mushrooms with tiny caps looked more like what I’ve seen called “beach mushrooms," and that was a pretty cool thing because beach mushrooms are tough to grow and not often found on local restaurant menus.  The last place I had them was at L20 under Laurent Gras, where they were rubbery and bland.  The mushrooms topping Leopold’s pierogi were spectacular.  They were buttery and tender with just a bit of snap to them, and had an incredible, unique and robust flavor.

A lot of care at Leopold goes into prepping ingredients and combining them in ways that make sense.  A big bowl of steamed mussels was completely devoid the grit and broken shells so often found in lesser versions, allowing the plump, tender meat and aromatic broth to shine without distraction.  In the above-mentioned seafood risotto, not only was the mushroom flavor intense and the rice cooked just right, but each of the several varieties of moist, fresh-tasting fish was timed well so that it cooked through without disintegrating or drying out.  Even a boring-sounding endive-apple salad starred on account of superb flavor and texture balancing, with pungent buttermilk-tarragon dressing and hazelnuts chopped finely enough to be incorporated into every bite, but not so finely that you forget that they’re actually hazelnuts.

To me waffles are a meal, not a dessert.  Normally I couldn’t imagine ordering a big waffle with ice cream to end a multi-course dinner, but I’m very glad we were hungry enough to make an exception at Leopold.  On my first visit to Leopold a couple of years ago, one of my companions was a friend of the house and the staff really wanted us to try the waffle.  We did, and I frankly thought it was badly burnt, dry and not worth eating.  Gladly I remembered that only after my wife and I received our waffle last week, because much has changed.  Never have I tasted a better waffle, with an incredibly crisp exterior that gave way to a tender, luscious interior.  With the fantastic bourbon-brown butter sauce, this was a dessert worth violating whatever one’s dessert-eating principles might be.

While much of Leopold’s menu has stalwarts that appear unchanged from my first visit, there were also a lot of seasonal things that must change frequently.  I look forward to multiple repeat visits.


Leopold
1450 West Chicago Avenue
312-348-1028
   

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Notes from NY


Eataly
Despite what has surely been oodles of publicity about Eataly, I actually knew very little about itt.  Batali and Bastianich have certainly taken other projects seriously, but for whatever reason I half-expected this to be a mail-it-in, hype-over-substance capitalization of celebrity at the expense of the tourist wallet.  I was wrong, and blown away by the volume and quality of goods – everything from the raw fish and meat counters and charcuterie case to the pizza, pasta and wine restaurants looked fantastic.  I tasted only two things: an espresso, and some made-before-my-eyes fresh mozzarella.  Both were wonderful.  Here’s hoping that Chicago's soon-to-come version is something close to this.  It would have been nice if one of our own, like a Tony Mantuano, could have put together something serious like this, but we’ll take what we can get.

Moshe’s Falafel
Forget food lists, this cart on 46th and 6th should be on NYC’s  Top 10 Sites to Visit list.  Where else can you get falafel that are ultra-crunchy on the outside, airy and well-seasoned inside, and served on the street by long-white-bearded, yarmulke-wearing guy who looks about 110 years old?  The $2.50 admission price includes 4 big, delicious balls and some excellent tahini.  If your midtown hotel concierge doesn’t tell you about this place, he sucks.

Bagels
I’m not sure where people go for bagels in NY these days.  I tried a couple of random places on the upper west side, near Amsterdam and 79th where my hotel was.  They were no better than the NY Bagel and Bialy stuff we get in Chicago.  One thing that NY bagel places definitely have over ours though is that they all know how to hand-slice nova to order.  That’s a pretty big deal.

Maialino
Danny Meyer and Bill Clinton are in the same category of people I liked before they decided to write a book.  Both wrote self-important, long-winded drivel that seriously dampened my opinion of them.  I was so annoyed by Meyer’s book that I almost decided to boycott his restaurants.  That, of course, would have been silly.  Add Maialino to a list of NY favorites run by Meyer.  Pastas were particularly wonderful, with a black-pepper-heavy, very rich spaghetti carbonara being my favorite.  A whole rabbit dish where the kidneys and everything else were included prominently on the plate was also delicious.

Yakitori Totto
I liked the simple, grilled skewers of meat here, but I liked the setting even more.  It’s a bustling, crowded place, but once you settle in the staff treats you well, pours some beer, and there’s instant camaraderie with the people sitting around you.  Everyone at Totto – from families with kids to young people on first dates was having a great time, and the place emanated warmth that’s a refreshing retreat from the cold, pressure-filled intensity of NYC. 

Bar Boulud
This was easily the best food I had on my NYC trip.  Onion soup was dark, sweet and super-oniony, with a rich, gelatinous broth that I could not get enough of.  Lyonnaise salad included the crispest, freshest frisee with thick, pleasantly chewy lardoons and slices of chicken liver cooked just-right.  I’ve never had a better version.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Frog n Snail

Frog n Snail is a beautiful, comfortable restaurant with roomy, gorgeous wood tables and terrific lighting that creates a simultaneously romantic, fun and practical ambience.  The staff were enthusiastic and friendly, and there were some delicious bites of food too.  So I hope that the missteps and bland dishes that stand out more in my mind right now were just new-restaurant kinks that will be worked out.

The best dish might have been the simplest: mussels cooked in a creamless, intensely citric and garlicky broth finished with absinthe and plenty of butter were the kind of dish you plan to share with companions, then subconsciously forget until they’re all gone.  Almost as good, the lyonnaise salad proved that in the deft hand of a chef who understand how to use it judiciously, black truffle oil can lend great complexity to a balanced, acidic dressing. Lardons, a runny poached egg on top and terrific French fries underneath make this a salad you might skip if you’re prepping, as a fair number of the beefy, skin-tight-shirt-wearing Frog n Snail clientele may have been, to participate in the Friday night shower show at Spin a couple of blocks away.

Unfortunately, my first bite of the night was a disastrous one.  The sweet pea risotto was woefully crunchy and chalky, having been either substantially undercooked or cooked too far in advance, allowed to dry out, and reheated improperly.  Restaurant risotto is often inferior to home cooked risotto on account of it being impractical for a restaurant cook on a busy weekend night to stir constantly while patiently adding liquid a little at time for 25 minutes, but there are techniques that manage this challenge while producing results far better than Frog n Snail’s.

The rest of the meal sat mostly in the middle of the mussels high and the risotto low.  A namesake dish of crisp, beautifully cooked frogs legs and minerally snails in a green peppercorn sauce showed excellent technique, but it was underseasoned and the frogs legs themselves were in especially desperate need of salt.  The broth in the French onion soup seemed too light in color and flavor, though some terrific, sweet spring peas lifted it, so maybe a certain light spring-ness was what the kitchen was going for with this traditionally rich, dark dish.  Two fish preparations – barramundi and trout – were good, though each seemed unfocused, with at least one too many ingredients.

For now Frog n Snail is byob, but a bartender said that will be changing soon with a cocktail list that he assured me would include “a lot of really awesome martinis”.  That, combined with the mixed bag of dishes, a well-meaning, hard working server who had no idea how to explain the word barigoule on the menu, and Spin shower show days that have long passed, left me doubtful that this will prove to be more than a very occasional spot for me.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Four Bowls, A Crock And A Jar

Four Bowls:

1) Salmon pasta with peas at Benny's Chop House. This disgusting thing was up there with the worst of Buca di Maggiano Garden. Limp, luke-warm noodles suffocating in a deep lake of heavy bisque flavored by dry bits of raunchy fish and starchy, tasteless peas. I should note that I once had a great steak at Benny's, served with an especially delicious Yorkshire pudding filled with oxtail jus. Why, you might ask, would I ever order pasta at a steak joint like this? According a prior visit's server, Benny's does or did share an executive chef with an Italian joint, and Italian cooking was, the server explained, the chef's true passion. She lauded the pastas in particular.


2) Seafood ramen at Ginza. Nausea and regret stemming from that Benny's bowl were cured by this one. The food at Ginza almost always has that effect on me, and this clean, light, seafood broth with fresh-tasting assortment including some of the plumpest, most delicious mussels in memory really did the trick.




3) Pea risotto at Markethouse. It's a shame that this place is where it is and doesn't do much to compensate, because the food always outshines the setting. The rice here was firm but gave easily to the bite, and was held in a creamy, buttery suspension flavored intensely by a wonderful pea puree. The peas themselves were tender and delicious, and the judiciously applied, earthy mushroom assortment were a nice little enhancement. As for the setting, for standard hotel-dining it's probably not bad; it's just that the restaurant absolutely screams WE'RE IN A HOTEL at you the whole time, from the name-plated staff and cheesy elevator music to the closed-off breakfast-cereal bar that sits prominently in the dining room during lunch and dinner service.


4) Linguini with clams at GT Fish & Oyster. I ate at Boka a few times when the GT chef was at the helm, and I always thought the food looked better than it tasted. I can't remember disliking anything, but every server's description that made me think, "Wow, that sounds fantastic," led to a taste that made me think, "Hmm., that's not bad." Would that this background info ended with me telling you that all has changed now that the chef has moved to a more casual place with less fine dining pretense. As with much of what I've had at Boka, the linguini was just too "refined" for me. The made-in-house pasta lacked the heartiness of dried, and I think of lingini with clams as a big, hearty dish. At GT it was loaded with butter - fine butter I'm sure - and the clams were quite good, but their flavor did not infuse the butter at all. In the end this was tender housemade pasta with an excellent butter sauce. Missing were toasty garlic, clam aroma wafting from the bowl, and good, pungent olive oil to finish the dish.


A Crock:

Chilaquiles at Xoco. Wood ovens may do great things for pizza and bread, but it turns out they are lousy at cooking chilaquiles. This crock of tortillas swam in liquid salsa, the two never coming together to improve one another. An egg or two which must have been pre-cooked before hitting the oven came out rubbery and dry atop the crock, once again not integrated at all into the dish. I understand that Xoco is limited by the fact that they don't have a stovetop or grill to use at service. What I don't understand is why, if that's the case, they chose to put something like chilaquiles on the menu.


A Jar:

Clam chowder at GT Fish & Oyster. This should have been called bacon-cream soup. Way too much heavily smoked pork in this chowder, and more of those tasty-enough clams that failed to infuse the broth in any discernible way. This looked and tasted like pure gimmick.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Ribollita at Publican Quality Meats and Bar Toma. A Pizza Too

Ribollita is the humblest of soups - often a bunch of leftover stuff that’s about to go bad boiled into something hearty that fills the stomach for another meal. At home, I might might haphazardly throw it together out of pantry staples such as stale bread and wilting produce when I don’t feel like leaving the house, and if it comes out looking clumsy and tasting fair I’m OK with that. But when I order ribollita at a restaurant helmed by a famous chef I think I have a right to expect more. One such famous chef delivered on that expectation and then some, while another came up embarrassingly short.

Publican Quality Meats puts far more care into their ribollita than would your average Italian Grandma, and it shows. The broth is complex, with deep, porky flavor and tongue-tingling acidity. Each bean has retained its shape, and is creamy while maintaining a bit of pleasant bite. Kale, bread and other ingredients are cut thoughtfully into sizes that fit comfortably on a soup spoon, allowing the eater to focus on eating and enjoying rather than dissecting or, worse, choking. Perhaps best of all, the soup is topped at service with a hefty drizzle of some awfully good, pungent, fruity olive oil. At PQM, this humble soup is elevated into something immensely satisfying and special.


Bar Toma has been serving ribollita as a special. They need to stop. Plating this horrible bowl of salty, sloppy nothingness would embarrass any cook who tasted what PQM is offering. The broth in Bar Toma’s ribollita tastes like nothing but vinegar and salt. 5-inch strips of tough greens that are impossible to eat in any reasonable way fill the bowl, along with big globs of cheese and bread. This is a miserable bowl of food by any standards; that it comes from a restaurant named for the chef of Chicago’s most famous Italian restaurant is disturbing.


I posted some time ago about Bar Toma’s characterless pizza crust. A reviewer I like recently said positive things about it though, so I wondered if things had changed. Indeed, the crust on my more recent pizza was less bready, thinner, and texturally more interesting than the first time. Still not great, but better. Unfortunately, the kitchen’s sloppiness carried over from the soup to the pizza topping. As is apparent from the photo, sauce was applied in an extremely uneven way, leaving some pieces too saucy and others brittle and dry. The gimmicky tableside grating of dried oregano left a couple of ineble branches on the pie, and I think the anchovies should have been either sliced smaller and applied broadly, or rinsed of at least some of their unpalatable salinity.

If you’re one of those readers who just skip to the summary, here you go: Publican Quality Meats is wonderful. Bar Toma’s bad, careless cooking has placed it on my avoid-forever list. I'm sure they'll miss me.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Bar Ombra

David Tamarkin recently wrote a TimeOut review criticizing Bar Ombra for some issue or other that only he would think matters. As usual, he also revealed in that piece the constraints facing a writer with poor work ethic and mediocre ability. I considered doing a whole post tearing apart his review, but then I remembered that Fuckerberg readers have great taste. As people with great taste, you already know that Tamarkin has little, so I need not bore you with details. Instead, this post will be a review of what you should eat when you go to Bar Ombra, a unique and fun place with delicious food.

At its core, Bar Ombra is a cicchetti bar. You do not want to make a Tamarkin-like mistake and miss what might be the 2 most iconic items in the cicchetti universe: baccala mantecato and sarde in saor. Having prepared these things more than once, I can tell you that as simple as they seem when you eat them, they are not easy to get right. Baccala mantecato is what some people call Italian brandade, but unlike brandade, this Venetian version has no cream or potato to ease the emulsification process. A proper baccala mantecato is made from little more than good cod and good olive oil, whipped together in a highly controlled frenzy to form a smooth emulsification where the taste of the fish and the taste of the oil shine. Bar Ombra gets it right, producing a luscious, uncomplicated and delicious spread that sits atop simple polenta squares or triangles. It’s adorned with, well, nothing.

Bar Ombra’s sarde in saor is not as true to tradition as versions throughout Venice, but I may have liked it even more. Traditionally, this preparation was used to preserve the bounty from Venetian waters; when people couldn’t eat the catch quickly enough to avoid spoilage, they’d preserve it in a vinegar and onion based marinade after giving it a quick fry. At every place I tried this dish in Venice, it was served after several days in that marinade, in various stages of pickling. At Bar Ombra, the fish seemed to have been lightly fried just that day, so while it absorbed plenty of the marinade in whatever time they had to meld, it also retained much of it’s fresh-from-the-sea quality. It was easy to tell that these were terrific, oily sardines, still crisp from frying and balanced wonderfully by a sweet and sour marinade that had raisins and, thankfully, a lesser bounty of onions than most of the Venetian versions.

I enjoyed many more dishes, but three were clear favorites. Arancini neri - risotto balls with crispiness on the outside and creaminess on the inside, had a black-as-night interior color that housed the pure flavor of squid ink. Perfectly hard-boiled eggs with tonnato sauce were great too, and had the kind of tongue-tingling acid, balanced by richness, that you want to whet your palate at the start of a long meal. Simple fried smelts with fried, thin slices of lemon were wonderful too, adding Bar Ombra to a growing list of places, including The Purple Pig, that do wonderful versions of Italian-style fish fry. I was less impressed by the calamari neri, which seemed too salty and a little flat – surprising in light of how good the arancini were. The only mild disappointment of the night.

Bar Ombra has a massive menu. My ordering strategy was, for the most part, to let the owner – whom I’ve gotten to know through visits to Anteprima over the years– choose our dishes. It’s possible that there are some relative duds somewhere on the menu, but from my seat at the expansive counter, Bar Ombra was one heck of a place that I look forward to frequenting.

Bar Ombra
5310 N. Clark
773-505-8600

Friday, March 23, 2012

Balena

A poor meal at Balena left me thinking that either the chef’s idea of what tastes good is widely different from mine, or the kitchen is having quality control problems in these opening weeks.

Pastas were the worst of the lot. Canestri - small, hanging-basket-shaped ridged pasta that I was excited to see - were served with what the menu called a duck liver ragu. I disagree with that nomenclature, as what ended up in the bowl were too-large pieces of dried out liver, not anything resembling pasta sauce. The beauty of canestri lies in their great ability to absorb and hold sauces, making every bite a delicious balance of whatever the dish contains. That beauty was completely lost by serving these shapes with big chunks instead of a cohesive ragu. Taglioline nero – flat, black noodles – were served with what the menu advertised as sea urchin, crab and chile. What the menu didn’t say was that the tastes of those things would be completely obliterated by a crazy-heavy hand with lemon juice. I like acidic food, but this was pucker-worthy sour. A major failure.

Our pizza fared slightly better on account of very good tomato sauce, but the crust was something of a disaster. It was way overcooked and dry, with the sturdy texture of cardboard packing material. As one of my dining companions pointed out, there was also a thick layer of raw flour that must have been used to line the peel, creating an unpleasant, chalky eating experience.

The one main-course-like thing we tried - a couple of wet-roasted duck legs served with dried figs and amaro – was decent but uninteresting. The duck supposedly had some kind of glaze, though I didn’t notice anything particularly tasty about the skin. The dried figs were fine, though probably bitter enough on their own that they did not benefit from the splash of barely reduced, amaro-infused thin liquid saucing the plate. Ultimately, this was little more than a nicely cooked duck leg that most people can do pretty easily at home.

Best of the evening were two selections from the appetizer section. Seafood salad had a variety of cold shellfish that were fresh and tasty, if not particularly unique or exciting. They had just a bit of grit. The smoked mackerel dish – with nice smoke penetration and a very luscious texture – was my favorite of the night. It had crunchy breadcrumbs and a soft-cooked egg. Very tasty, though it would have benefitted from some capers or lemon or sour cream – something with acid. I should have stolen a tiny spoonful of sauce from that crazy taglioline.

Because I’ve usually liked the food at The Bristol, I’m inclined to think that Chef Pandel, now at Balena, will work some of these problems out soon. Then again, Balena is a much bigger place and perhaps his forte does not lie in the quality-control measures required to serve dinner to these kinds of masses. Time will tell.

(note - photos all courtesy of Charlotte Tan)

Balena
1633 N. Halsted Street
Chicago, IL 60614
Tel 312.867.3888

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Burgers in Oklahoma City, Pizza in Wausau

Perhaps to distance myself from the attitude that underlies my NYC roots, I try hard not to think in a narrowly provincial way about where one might find the best restaurants. Sure, NY and Chicago have some of my favorites, but so do St. Louis, Indianapolis and Greensboro. That said, it was with relatively little hope that I started researching what to eat on my recent travels to Oklahoma City, OK and Wausau, WI. After these trips, I realized that I still have work to do to widen my NY-mindedness.

As skyfullofbacon, who knows a thing or two about both meat and Oklahoma, twitted during my trip planning, Oklahoma City is “the burger capital of the galaxy”. As I drove around the expansive city it indeed seemed hard to go far without seeing a sign for “Onion Burgers” that dozens of places have been cooking for decades. Onion burgers in OKC apparently started as a way to make meat go further when times were tough –onions were smashed into beef patties to extend their volume. As with many great classic dishes, this is an example of humble, necessity-based cooking that ends up producing something downright fantastic in its own right.

I tried a couple of the old time places that have been doing onion burgers for generations, including one popular and delicious stand that’s located in a gunshop, but I could not resist the appeal a recently-opened place called Tucker’s.

These guys are preparing things the classic way, but unlike their counterparts, Tucker’s is sourcing local, grass-fed beef, artisanal buns made down the street, and other quality, local ingredients whenever possible. The setting is hardly fancy though, and Tucker’s fits in well among the “real” old school places.


More importantly, the Tucker’s double onion burger was fantastic. Onion burgers are pressed with a heavy spatula on a flat grill, and cooks have differing opinions about how hard and how long to press. This is one of the things that makes going from place to place to try these things an interesting adventure. Hard, long pressing leads to super-crispy, tasty lacing on the exterior of the patty (this was the way of the gun shop cook), while lighter pressing logically keeps more juices inside. Tucker’s falls into the relatively-light-pressing camp – there’s still good, crispy lacing on the outside, but most of the meat is juicy and loose. It probably doesn’t hurt that they use a slightly larger patty than most places – about 4.5 ounces vs. the more typical 3-4 ounce patty. Also at Tucker’s, the onions took on a darker, more naturally sweet caramelization than at the other places. I think this was because they kept the grill at a slightly lower temperature, leading to a slower cook. The double was a delicious monstrosity; I polished off the whole thing, but on my next visit I’ll go with a single, which should be big enough to stand up to the super-fresh, local potato bun.


Burgers in Oklahoma are one thing. In retrospect it’s not hard to understand why that’s a thing. But what about pizza in Wausau, Wisconsin? Is there really anything better than the Papa Rococco or Papa Milano or Papa Napoli or whatever other middle of the road chain and chain imitator that’s all over the place. It turns out there is, and it’s located in a place that also serves something less surprising to find in the parts: great beer. Redeye Brewing Company is a snazzy looking place that’s hopping every night of the week. I had to wait 20 minutes for a seat at 5:30 on a school night!

The best beers here are the hop heavy American-style IPA’s, and they’re very good indeed, but the star of the Redeye Brewery show is what comes out of the pure-wood-fired 850 degree oven that’s the center of an open kitchen. The crust has great chew to it, and they use very high quality toppings, including a peppery fennel sausage that was among the best I’ve tasted.




Tucker's Onion Burgers
324 Northwest 23rd Street Oklahoma City, OK 73118
(405) 609-2333

Redeye Brewing
612 Washington Street Wausau, WI 54403
(715) 843-7334

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Niche in St. Louis

The hostess at Niche was friendly when I called to check on availability, and I had no trouble getting in at the last minute without a reservation. The dining room was decorated with warm colors, and the staff appeared professional - even clean-cut compared to your average scruffy, inked Chicago restaurant worker. It’s a wonder that despite those characteristics, the closest comparison I can think of for Niche is Schwa. Creativity at Niche abounds, but as at Schwa, it tends to take the form of unique, surprising ingredient combinations that don’t just work into a delicious dish, they change the way you think about food. Though Niche (and probably Schwa too) had a couple of modern things such as an “espellete soil”, for the most part the cooking was straightforward and recognizable. Execution and ingredient combinations were what made it special.

The staff was a chatty bunch on a not-too-busy Sunday night, and after hearing that I was from Chicago and chatting with me a bit about related things, they peppered me with generous helpings of stuff I didn’t order. I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone gets treated this way at Niche, but it did feel special. First came an amuse bouche of an egg shell that had been emptied, then re-filled with a rich egg custard and small-diced shitakes, then topped with briny Missouri caviar that literally popped in my mouth. A fantastic start.

Before I ordered, I mentioned that I was teetering between two appetizers. So, of course, they brought a taste of the one I didn’t end up ordering. “Carrots three ways” one variety lightly pickled, a second variety roasted, and a third variety prepared some way I can’t remember. Each had it’s own sauce or accompaniment, a cumin-flavored yogurt and the aforementioned espellete soil being the only two I can recall. I’ve been a food soil hater, but this dish made a compelling case. The espellete soil was a lot crunchier than the potting-soil-textured stuff I had recently at Blackbird, among other places.

Next came a real highlight: the “BBQ Trotter”. Pig trotters had been thoroughly smoked, then the meat was pulled and compressed into a cylinder before being poached a la torchon. Half-inch disks were sliced from the log, rolled in brioche crumbs, and then deep fried until crisp. In case that doesn’t sound rich enough, these deep-fried trotter disks were plated with overlapping same-sized disks of foie gras terrine. A fascinating array of bitter, acidic components – tobacco, calvados, and grapefruit - snapped the dish back into amazing balance.

After some palate-cleansing lemon-thyme sorbet from the kitchen, my final dish arrived: White and dark meat chicken compressed together in a visually interesting way, then cut into a rectangle and topped with crisped chicken skin that adhered so well it seemed to have been placed that way by nature rather than man. Dueling sauces sat under the chicken: on one side a foie gras-sherry reduction, and on the other, one of the most interesting and delicious things of the night - parsnip-picholine olive puree that apparently contained little more than olives and parsnips, yet was so compelling and unique, it really stuck with me. A scattering of house made, maple flavored granola garnished the plate, and provided crunch and a little pleasant sweetness.

I’ve put the address below, but apparently Niche is moving to a St. Louis suburb some time soon. Go, but check where it is first.

Niche
1831 Sidney Street St. Louis, MO 63104(314) 773-7755


P.S., Apparently a bunch of Niche alumni are now cooking in Chicago. Most at places with names like Blackbird – no surprise there. It did surprise me to hear that someone who had a prominent place in the Niche kitchen is now running the kitchen at Public House. For no good reason, I had written that place off as another mediocre downtown bar with food-as-afterthought. This news begets a reconsideration.