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