Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Naha in 2013

With the tsunami of internet and reviewer activity every time some hot-named chef so much as blinks in the West Loop, I wonder whether there are stalwarts languishing in other neighborhoods as they try helplessly for attention in an era when only the newest places seem to get any press.  Erwin. Crofton. Trotter’s.  Once-famous places run by chefs once seen as the best around seem to be dropping out rapidly and suddenly in this environment.

It was with concern about this phenomenon that I paid three visits over the last few months to a stalwart that I’d put in the same mix as the places above.  I’ve been eating at Naha for almost a decade, and did so with regularity in the early years.  It was among my favorite places, but for no good reason it had been three years since my last visit, and I started to wonder whether I’d been playing a role in the demise of the type of restaurant that puts great food and great service before great social media strategy. 

In 2013, Carrie Nahabedian doesn’t get the kind of press that someone like Stephanie Izard gets, but their cooking styles are similar.  Both marry sweet with savory flavors in ways that might at first sound odd, but end up working.  At Naha, bacon is served lacquered with syrup in a pastry crust with pineapple and fennel.  Chicken thighs are treated with middle eastern liqueur and served with sweet oranges.  Even a burger gets an extra dose of sweet via a slow roasted tomato and deeply caramelized onions. 

Izard does it better.  Her flavors are bolder and more sharply contrasting.  At Naha, the sweetness dominates rich-tasting but otherwise muted broths, sauces and marinades with spicing that’s too subtle to work the kind of magic that happens on Randolph Street.  In the bacon tarte tatine, the bacon had sticky-sweet lacquer, the sweet pineapple was caramelized to make it even sweeter.  Fennel added an even further sweet note, and there was just nothing to give an Izard-style jolt to what became palate-tiring dish after just a couple of bites.  The chicken thigh tagine sat in a sweet, anise-flavored broth with raw honeybell slices.  The dish needed the advertised coriander seeds and “Turkish spices” to add some complexity, but they’re way too far in the background.  An heirloom squash soup had deliciously deep squash flavor, but garnishes that included herb spaetzle and horseradish cream needed more oomph.  I couldn't taste any herbs or any horseradish, and as good as the squash flavor was, it was one-dimensional and I wasn't interested in coming close to finishing the soup.

The pastry chef's name was printed in bizarrely big, bold letters at the top of the dessert menu.  Something like "Our Famous Pastry Chef So and So Introduces The following Desserts".  I'm sure he's a respected guy even though I'd never heard of him, but this sort of showmanship seemed out of place at Naha.  Perhaps it should have warned of a chef interested in glitz and glamour over taste.  I had an almond dacquoise.  Actually, it was barely a sliver of dacquoise amidst a veritable kaleidoscope of garnishes.  There were white powders, off-white stick-shaped things, tiny purple berries, a flavorless tan gel that might as well have been aspic, some greenery, and surely more.  Other than the aspic, nothing on the plate tasted bad.  None of it made any sense to me either.

I'm not sure whether Naha has declined or my tastes have just changed since those days when I loved it.  You'll probably find me contemplating that question with everyone else at the next iteration of Fulton-Market-Buzz-Restaurant.