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.


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