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

Friday, March 23, 2012


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)

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