Friday, December 23, 2011

Top 10 Most Ridiculous LTHForum Threads of 2011

I wrote this post for entertainment purposes, with no agenda to even any scores or to out anyone's behavior. That said, I am not so naive to think that nobody will be hurt or angered by it. The volume of links coming to my blog from an LTH sub-forum that a system message tells me I am "not authorized" to read lets me know that behind the scenes, people are already watching this blog with, well, let's call it "interest". After writing this I seriously considered not publishing it, but in the end I decided that there's nothing here that I would not say to anyone in person, and this post is just the stuff I'd be writing on the forum itself if the regime would tolerate it. I'm also comfortable with any repercussions that may come my way; heck, what's one more kennyz removal from an LTHForum member's Christmas Party invitation list?

Without further adieu, the top 10 most ridiculous LTHForum threads of 2011:

10. Owners of New Restaurant Condone Rape and Murder
In this astounding thread, a poster makes the case that by choosing the ubiquitous-in-Belgium name "Leopold," these innocent, hard-working restauranteurs made a grave, revolting choice. More astounding is that a number of people actually agreed with him. (link to thread)

9. The NBA Plays on Christmas, and Slow Foods Holds an Event in September
At first I thought the second post in this thread was written with tongue-in-cheek, but as the thread progressed it became clear that the now-part-owner of LTHForum who authored it was serious in his self-aggrandizing stance about Slow Foods holding an event on the same day as the admittedly fun, but hardly major-news LTHForum picnic. I still do a double take when I read this one. (link to thread)

8. My Mother in Law's Friend's Maid is Polish, so I Know Good Pierogi and Yours Suck!
OK, this thread isn't about maids or pierogi; it's about Big Jones, which a particularly annoying poster claims is to Southern food what Red Lobster is to seafood. He offers little to no evidence, but tries to bolster his case by bragging about time he spent in low country. It's an all-too-common and all-too-annoying practice on LTHForum, but this poster takes it to another level. The Big Jones chef responds thoughtfully and passionately, which eventually brings the thread back to something less ridiculous. (link to thread)

7. LTHers Enthralled By 3rd Grade Math Problem:
This thread starts boringly but innocently enough with a complaint about automatically-added gratuities, and rapidly devolves into a discussion dominated by a poster who is bizarrely riveted by some of the most mundane things that happen in restaurants. As they often do, Moderators join yours truly in a hypocritically snark-heavy response that seems to go right over said poster's head. (link to thread)

6. "Reader Real Deal" or "Raw Deal" for LTHForum and it's Readers?
This one really irked me. I'm sure the dude who started this thread is a nice guy, but he posted one useless "deal" after the next. He did not have his facts straight about the restaurants involved, and could not answer even the most basic questions about what the offers involved. Why the Moderators allowed (and continue to allow) him to post this drivel without at least collecting some ad revenue is beyond me. (link to thread)

5. Next Thread Please
I'm not going to post a link to this one. My readers don't deserve to be treated so poorly. The monstrous Next threads (yes, there are several) are complete debacles, devoid of usefulness. You can find pages and pages of scintillating comments like "just emailed my request, waiting for a response," or "clicked the button 5 times and nothing happened." Good luck trying to locate something of interest on LTHForum about the food or experience at Next. This was a case where the Moderators needed to take a firmer stance about what would be tolerated, and by failing to do so they allowed the whole forum to be dominated by useless fly-by posts for weeks at a time.

4. Newcomer Gets Off the Deal Train Quickly, but Not Before Laughable Missteps
For pure deal site ridiculousness, the Reader Real Deal thread was no match for the one started by a company called Bunchbite. The thread's only one page, so read it all the way through. It speaks for itself. (link to thread)

3. Dear Michelin: Winnetka is our Napa
I find just about all Michelin star discussion ridiculous, and this LTHForum is a perfect exemplar. All kinds of time-wasting prognostication here, but the real hilarity comes in the form of a long time frequent poster's case that 40+ additional mediocre restaurants should get stars, and that the Chicago Michelin Guide should treat suburbs like Winnetka with the same reverence as San Francisco's Napa Valley. (link to thread)

2. Hypocrites Attack Well-Intentioned Chef
I hesitate to write this one, because in it I'm directly calling out people that I like and respect, but their behavior in this case disturbed me enough to note it here anyway. Moderators and one prominent poster who is also an experienced chef acted in a mean-spirited way towards another chef trying to get a thread going about his place. The worst part was the grossly hypocritical claims by this chef, supported by his Moderator friends, that Chef Foss was being "manipulative". This insult came from the same chef who had invited LTH friends to a free preview dinner at his former restaurant, and then watched those friends/ LTHers write glowing pre-opening reports. It's the same chef who also just saw a friend of his - a prominent local food writer and LTHForum Moderator - start a thread about his newest venture. I know and like the main actors in this thread, but I was bothered significantly by the suggestion that such overt LTHForum manipulation is somehow less troublesome than the very honest, straighforward way in which Foss approached things. (link to thread)

1. Cleaning out Coupons, but Dirtying LTHForum's Reputation
My snarky responses in this thread, a fraction of which still remain, nearly got me booted from LTHForum for good. Here, an LTHer begins planning a particularly disturbing, regularly scheduled gathering where a single, modest coupon will be shared among a table of 8 or so participants who will try to make sure they don't spend more than a few pennies. They'll end up reserving a large table at prime dinner time, then they'll share just a few dishes and spend a tiny fraction of a normal per-head amount before handing the coupon to the server. Oblivious to how rude this is, the event planner and Moderators didn't much like it when I pointed out the ridiculousness of the behavior. The planner made the reservation under "LTHForum", and the manager of this place - who knows me and my involvement well - shared with me how this behavior seriously damaged his formerly-positive view of the forum. And to the Moderators I was the bad guy. Oh well. (Link to thread and link to next thread)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Laing at 13 Pins

I don't think I'd ever tasted taro leaves before sharing some at Thirteen Pins, an odd, clubby, Filipino "tapas" place on Irving Park Road just west of the Kennedy. They're the main component of a dish called laing, which I gather is fairly popular/ common in Filipino restaurants and homes. A little googling suggests that laing is most commonly served over white rice, though at Thirteen Pins the concoction is placed atop white-bread crostini instead.

If the dish my companion and I shared last night is representative, then taro leaves have a very strong taste that may be hard to like for people who didn't grow up eating them. The taste is incredibly earthy - muddy, really - and the aroma is like that of a a barnyard or freshly-laid fertilizer. Upon first whif, I was instantly taken back to my one and only visit to Paris Club. Laing is cooked in coconut milk - perhaps to remove some of that challenging character - but if that's the intent, it did not work. There's also some fish sauce or shrimp paste, in case the greens aren't funky enough for you, I suppose. The mushy, loose texture under the dark lights at 13 Pins probably don't help counter the feeling that you might be eating bird excrement. Especially after taking a walk under the pigeon-filled Kennedy overpass to get to the restaurant.

None of the above is to say I did not like the laing at 13 Pins. It has many of the same traits as great cheeses I seek. The first time I tasted a ripe epoisses, I almost spit it out; now I can't get enough of it. The jury is still out for me on liang, and I definitely plan to try it at least once more, though I'm not sure it will be on a return visit to 13 Pins. I thought the food was actually quite good, with the laing and some crunchy fried pork skins served with an acidic, spicy dressing being the highlights. But the drink selection is pretty bad, and the vibe is an odd combo of romantic/ disco-clubby that didn't work for me. My liang-eating partner and I did eat later than I usually do, so perhaps I'd like the place more at my more typical 5:30PM dinner hour.

Thirteen Pins Tapas and Bar
4202 West Irving Park Road
(773) 283-6626

Sunday, December 18, 2011

3 versions of Naem Khao Tod, and The Winner Is...

This post on the wonderful She Simmers blog got me thinking about Naem Khao Tod, which, despite loving it on many occasions, I hadn't had in a year or two. So without really trying, I ended up doing a mini Naem Khao Tod a-thon, trying versions from 3 places over just a couple of days last week.

First up was the Naem Khao Tod at Dharma Garden, which I posted about a few weeks ago and had again last week. The highlight of this version was the house made pressed ham, which was offered in very generous proportion and was pleasantly more sour than any of the other versions. The salad as a whole was dressed well and the ingredients were in good balance, with the one low light being the mushy rice croquette pieces, which I'd guess were fried earlier in the day and/or fried in oil that wasn't hot enough.

My next version came from Sticky Rice, where it was offered as a whiteboard special. At Sticky Rice this usually means it's about to become part of the regular menu, so I expect it to available there for a long time. Unfortunately, as much as I love Sticky Rice, this dish was a disaster and I won't be having it again. The peanuts tasted off, which was bad enough to ruin the dish by itself. I could forgive spoiled peanuts and give the dish another try, but in this case the biggest problem was that there was WAY too much dressing. It created a half-inch deep pool at the bottom of the bowl and destroyed any chance of the croquettes retaining crispness. The dish was a sour, soggy mess.

The clear winner was the one everyone talks about. At Spoon, it seemed that the pressed ham was more of an accent, with the rice croquettes playing the lead role. That's a fine thing, because these were some spectacularly crispy, tasty bits of deep fried rice. Dressing was applied lightly but provided plenty of flavor, and all of the ingredients tasted fresh. The Spoon Thai version of Naem Khao Tod was all about the fantastic rice croquettes.

Leela from the She Simmers blog rightly suggests that Naem Khao Tod is the kind of dish that you want to order when you eat Thai food at a restaurant. "If your local Thai restaurant has this on its menu, by all means, get it," she writes. It is indeed a tasty dish, and with one notable exception I support following Leela's suggestion.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Broccoli and raisins

Anyone who's been to as many Wisconsin potlucks at rented out bowling alleys as I knows that broccoli and raisins are a classic combination. Mixed with Miracle Whip and Bacon Bits, the pairing perhaps loses some of the culinary appeal of its Sicilian roots, but for me it's still something quite magical. One need do nothing more than eat a piece of broccoli with a couple of golden raisins out of the box to see just how well these two ingredients complement one another.

My understanding is that in Sicily there are countless ways in which broccoli and raisins are used together, many of which turn into sauces for pasta. Pasta is what I do, and my favorite method is a simple one: puree the pair with roasted walnuts, cheese and olive oil to make a pesto, then serve it over long, thick pasta. In the most recent case I used pici, which I love for its substantial chew and long cooking time, which enables me to start it before putting my daughter to bed and still have time to read The Cat in The Hat and sing 2 lullabies before it's done.

The walnuts, oil and cheese make this a rich dish. Sometimes I just leave that alone, but this time I topped it with some homestyle* breadcrumbs that I fried with lemon zest to give a little acid balance. I also emboldened the richness with a dollop of creamy ricotta.

I cook mostly vegetarian food at home, and this is one of my absolute favorite rib-sticking, wintertime home cooked dishes.

*chopped as best I could by hand so as not to let the noise of a food processor wake the little one.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Not Going Back to The Slurping Turtle

The Slurping Turtle's shumai were a disaster. The wrappings were way too big in proportion to the miniature filling, creating starchy, way out of balance things with little flavor. The top third of each dumpling came to the table hard and dry, as if it had cooled too quickly or been handled improperly before assembly. These were the worst shumai I have ever tasted or could ever imagine tasting.

"Silken" tofu was relatively smooth, but nowhere near the wondrous texture that spoiled me in the Gras era at L20. Unlike Gras' simple serving method which added one complementary element that really made the tofu the star, the Slurping Turtle added an I-can't-remember-now array of strawlike, discordant ingredients. The one garnish I do remember with clarity was some julienned kombu that had been marinated in sugarry soy sauce. It was plasticky and way too sweet. Though not the same level of disaster as the shumai, this dish did absolutely nothing for me.

With a green tea and two tiny portions of food that were memorable for all the wrong reasons, lunch was over 20 bucks. It is perhaps too soon to judge a place, but for me the Slurping Turtle is off to a very bad start and I can't imagine ever returning.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Cai: a new favorite for dim sum

If dim sum restaurants opened at 6:30AM, that's when I'd be there. As it is, I'm pleased that Cai and a few other places open at 8, when most other Chicago restaurateurs are still asleep (along with a more disturbing number of "modern" butchers, bakers and wholesale grocers). I mention that because the early hour affects the type of food I want to eat, and I think that's the type of food where Cai shines. While other places may serve more robustly seasoned, exciting preparations, nobody betters the technical execution and subtlety one wants out of early morning cuisine.

Papaya with custard cake, which I understand is called Ma Lai Go on some menus in reference to its Malaysian origin, emblemizes what I love about Cai. It's the lightest, spongiest of sponge cakes, with just a whiff of sweetness to let the rich egg flavor shine. The papaya is in almost too minuscule a proportion to even notice , so perhaps it's there just for color. No matter, I crave the pure custard aroma wafting from that piping hot bamboo steamer for days after I eat it.

BBQ pork turnover is a baked pastry that I've had at a number of places, MingHin most recently before Cai. None are even close to a match for Cai's perfect pastry execution, creating multiple layers of very flaky, delicious crust. The bbq pork filling is nothing special, and they could leave it out entirely as far as I'm concerned. Or swap it out for some almond paste to make the best damned almond croissant south of Logan Blvd.

I've ordered congee at much-loved dim sum places, and I never understand the appeal. Whatever the fixins, it always tastes like nothing - a massive bowl of mushy, unseasoned rice. More knowledgeable congee eaters than I suggest that the blandness is intentional, and that diners are supposed to season it to their own liking. They're probably right, but if so Cai's perhaps-inauthentic, well-seasoned congee that's cooked in flavorful stock instead of water is what my Gringo palate wants. In particular, the one made with homemade fish balls and greens is not to be missed.

I should disclose that I probably get special treatment at Cai. My family and I dine so early that we always have the entire massive restaurant to ourselves, and the staff adores and dotes over my curly blond 18-month-old little girl. Show up at 11:30 on Sunday to wait for a table with a crew of hungover hipsters, and the experience may be different.

2100 S Archer Ave Ste 2F
(312) 326-6888

Friday, December 2, 2011

Bar Toma

In one of the gazillion media pieces about Bar Toma, a representative was quoted as saying that the pizza is not Neapolitan style. Instead, the Bar Toma rep said, it’s “Bar Toma style,” which he or she explained was based on some life changing pizza that their research team had in Rome. Or something like that. Whatever they want to call it, toppings aside Bar Toma’s pizza is much closer to what one might find at a mid-scale Italian restaurant in Tulsa than anything I ever had in Italy. Though some of the toppings might challenge your average Oklahoman tourist, if she stays with something that sounds familiar she’ll be pleased with the recognizably bready, structurally homogenous and boring pizza she’s had for much of her life. I chose the bianco, which has lardo, rosemary and way too much of some kind of grating cheese that was applied before baking and therefore came out with a chalky, dry texture and sharp, salty taste that distracted from the luscious and mild lardo.

Trippa alla napoletana was OK, but while my favorite versions have a relatively even balance of sauce to tripe, this one was basically a giant bowl of good tomato sauce with a scant scattering of relatively tender, mild tripe. Inoffensive but not very interesting.

Silky and intense lemon sorbetto was the best thing I tasted, followed closely by a “Spreetz” unlike any Spritz I had on my relatively recent trip to Venice. Bar Toma’s was more balanced, without the over-the-top bitterness that overwhelmed all of the versions I had there. It was served in a wine glass, which I found odd.

I suppose one should evaluate Bar Toma on its own merits and in doing so it’s probably a good place. It’s better than that if you compare it to most options in the immediate vicinity. But I couldn’t help but compare Bar Toma with the pioneer of real food on the Mag Mile - The Purple Pig, In the end I couldn’t help but conclude that Bar Toma is playing it safer, and I’d strongly recommend the Bannos’ joint over Mantuano’s.