Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Niche in St. Louis

The hostess at Niche was friendly when I called to check on availability, and I had no trouble getting in at the last minute without a reservation. The dining room was decorated with warm colors, and the staff appeared professional - even clean-cut compared to your average scruffy, inked Chicago restaurant worker. It’s a wonder that despite those characteristics, the closest comparison I can think of for Niche is Schwa. Creativity at Niche abounds, but as at Schwa, it tends to take the form of unique, surprising ingredient combinations that don’t just work into a delicious dish, they change the way you think about food. Though Niche (and probably Schwa too) had a couple of modern things such as an “espellete soil”, for the most part the cooking was straightforward and recognizable. Execution and ingredient combinations were what made it special.

The staff was a chatty bunch on a not-too-busy Sunday night, and after hearing that I was from Chicago and chatting with me a bit about related things, they peppered me with generous helpings of stuff I didn’t order. I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone gets treated this way at Niche, but it did feel special. First came an amuse bouche of an egg shell that had been emptied, then re-filled with a rich egg custard and small-diced shitakes, then topped with briny Missouri caviar that literally popped in my mouth. A fantastic start.

Before I ordered, I mentioned that I was teetering between two appetizers. So, of course, they brought a taste of the one I didn’t end up ordering. “Carrots three ways” one variety lightly pickled, a second variety roasted, and a third variety prepared some way I can’t remember. Each had it’s own sauce or accompaniment, a cumin-flavored yogurt and the aforementioned espellete soil being the only two I can recall. I’ve been a food soil hater, but this dish made a compelling case. The espellete soil was a lot crunchier than the potting-soil-textured stuff I had recently at Blackbird, among other places.

Next came a real highlight: the “BBQ Trotter”. Pig trotters had been thoroughly smoked, then the meat was pulled and compressed into a cylinder before being poached a la torchon. Half-inch disks were sliced from the log, rolled in brioche crumbs, and then deep fried until crisp. In case that doesn’t sound rich enough, these deep-fried trotter disks were plated with overlapping same-sized disks of foie gras terrine. A fascinating array of bitter, acidic components – tobacco, calvados, and grapefruit - snapped the dish back into amazing balance.

After some palate-cleansing lemon-thyme sorbet from the kitchen, my final dish arrived: White and dark meat chicken compressed together in a visually interesting way, then cut into a rectangle and topped with crisped chicken skin that adhered so well it seemed to have been placed that way by nature rather than man. Dueling sauces sat under the chicken: on one side a foie gras-sherry reduction, and on the other, one of the most interesting and delicious things of the night - parsnip-picholine olive puree that apparently contained little more than olives and parsnips, yet was so compelling and unique, it really stuck with me. A scattering of house made, maple flavored granola garnished the plate, and provided crunch and a little pleasant sweetness.

I’ve put the address below, but apparently Niche is moving to a St. Louis suburb some time soon. Go, but check where it is first.

1831 Sidney Street St. Louis, MO 63104(314) 773-7755

P.S., Apparently a bunch of Niche alumni are now cooking in Chicago. Most at places with names like Blackbird – no surprise there. It did surprise me to hear that someone who had a prominent place in the Niche kitchen is now running the kitchen at Public House. For no good reason, I had written that place off as another mediocre downtown bar with food-as-afterthought. This news begets a reconsideration.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Don't Forget the Bayless Flagships

For good reason, much of the Rick Bayless talk lately has been about his wonderful new O’Hare tortas spots. Frontera Grill and Topolobampo seem to get less attention now, but based on the meal I had a couple of weeks ago they’re no less deserving . In fact, of the 12-15 meals I’ve eaten over the years at Frontera, the most recent one - where I sat at the Frontera bar but ordered from the Topolo menu - was the best ever. So special, in fact, that I’m confident in saying that no matter what hot openings we continue to have, Topolobampo remains at or near the top of the list of Chicago's best restaurants.

The gordita inflada, simultaneously lighter and crisper than any gordita I’ve ever had, was stuffed with flavorful greens and topped with a dead-perfect slow poached egg (showing that the Topolo crew is respectful of but not beholden to ancient technique, I suspect that an immersion circulator was involved in this dish). It’s an ultra simple preparation that’s outstanding mostly for its perfection in cooking technique, but it’s elevated still by tangy aged cheese and a salsa negra that I damn near licked off the plate.

A terrine of foie gras and ripe plantain was among my favorite foie gras preparations ever, and the many components came together in perfect balance. Ultra-rich and crisp croutons made with brown butter. Cocoa nibs sweetened and caramelized just enough to retain only a bit of pleasant bitterness. More of that phenomenal salsa negra, made extra earthy and complex by the addition of reduced sherry. Sharp arugula dressed with a bit of lemon to add a light and refreshing touch to a rich, incredibly well balanced plate of food.

The two dishes above were among the best I’ve had anywhere, but even they were no match for dessert. I remember reading somewhere about Frontera’s pastry chef being a rising star, and I believe she recently won a prestigious award of some kind. Whatever praise is laid upon her, it’s understated. Topolobampo’s fuyu persimmon cake just might have been the best dessert I’ve ever had. The cake itself was moist and generously but not overwhelmingly spiced. It was topped with homemade persimmon spoon fruit, and served with “cream cheese frosting ice cream” that could not have more delicious or a more perfect match for the spice in the cake and the natural spiciness of the persimmons. But what really made this dish was the whole wheat tuile garnish. The first bite was a jarring one, as the tuile is utterly devoid of sweetness. At first I wondered what it was doing on a dessert plate, but then intermixing bites of that very earthy, lightly salty crisp with the sweet and spicy rest of the plate revealed its brilliance. I was floored.

We are lucky to have a lot of terrific restaurants in Chicago, and with the slew of enticing openings it’s tempting to try something new each time you eat out. But if you haven’t been to Frontera or Topolobampo in awhile, you owe it to yourself not to let more time go bye. These are special places operating at the highest level even by their own very high historical standards.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Why I turned down dinner at Next el Bulli

Last night a friend very kindly offered me a seat at her party’s upcoming dinner at Next elBulli. My instinct was to say yes. In attempts to secure these tickets, thousands of people appear to have played a complex game with instructions that seemed written in Catalan then translated into English by a Chinese exchange student learning Spanish in Chicago public schools. Only a fraction of them succeeded. Of course I wasn’t going to turn down a seat that just landed in my lap, right?

Then my friend told me the price: $490. Those of you who have paid more attention than I over the last few weeks must have already realized how much this meal was going to cost, but I was shocked. $490 to dine at Next? Now, I’ve never spent anything close to that on a meal anywhere, but when I’ve dreamt such things, I’ve envisioned elaborate settings with gold chandeliers and Rembrandts on the wall. Truth be told I don’t remember much of anything about the setting at Next, but I think that probably means it was pretty nondescript. It was a room. It had a kitchen in the back. It was neither comfortable nor uncomfortable. Not beautiful and not ugly. A room where people eat. None of this is to say that I place value the expensive artwork or precious metals at the world’s most expensive restaurants. I don’t. It’s just that I couldn’t believe that a meal at a place with little to none of that flash could possibly cost this much. Who knows, maybe their videographer is actually the next Rembrandt.

Once the shock of the price wore off, I had some serious thinking to do. My instinctive reaction went from “yes, of course” to “Whoa! That’s a shitload of money!” My gut told me that I had to decline, but still – so many people practically begging for a seat to this restaurant, and here a golden opportunity has just landed in my lap. I asked my friend to give me a little while to think about it, which she kindly obliged. Her dinner is coming up in just a couple of days though, so I wanted to give her a decision quickly so that she could be sure to find a taker if I said no.

In the couple of hours that passed, I waffled. I went from “Screw it. I might spend that much on a few dinners in a couple of month period, so what’s the big deal if I spend it on one very special opportunity like this;” and, “I just used miles to pay for my trip to the Florida Keys, so I’ll put what I saved towards this;” to “I have a daughter who might struggle to go to college someday and a mortgage that’s for more than my condo is worth. Only an irresponsible idiot would spend $500 on dinner in such a situation;” and, “I’m not really convinced that I’ll even like the meal.”

Regarding that last thought, it may shock all of the Achatz/ Beran/ Kokonas fans out there to hear that yes, there is someone who isn’t convinced that he’ll even like this very special meal of theirs. I understand that elBulli is to many people what dining looks like when it has reached the pinnacle of perfection. I also understand that Adria himself said something akin to “The Achatz team is the only one that can pull this off.” I understand that the team’s other venture is often regarded as the best restaurant in the country, and that Next too has received high accolades. So, who am I to think this might be anything but the best meal of my life?

Well, I am a guy who ate at Next during the last cycle and thought it sucked. I am a guy who thought that the kitchen paid way too much heed to presentation and storyline at the expense of taste. I am a guy who hates the aroma of burning embers as part of a dish’s plating, and I am a guy who thought placing 5 or 6 disparate, uncomplementary toppings around a plate of macaroni was an insult to serious cooking even in the context of a menu called “childhood”.

So, in the end this is what made up my mind. I am simply not convinced that the kitchen at Next will cook a delicious meal. Will it be true to the techniques they learned from some master sent over from Spain? Almost surely. Will it represent hours and hours of hard work, studying, and overcoming obstacles? I bet it will. Will those things get in the way of it being a delicious meal? Well, I don’t know for sure, but I do know that this kitchen has shown that what matters to them does not matter to me, and in fact detracts from my enjoyment of food. So I passed.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Things We Don't Care About

One of the things I miss about being an active LTHForum member is that when I ate at some middling place that didn't particularly inspire me one way or the other, I could still just find an existing thread and post a comment or two that added to the data. With this blog, I feel more of a probably-phony sense of responsibility to write about things and places about which other people might give a shit. Well, in this thread, I'm just listing the stuff - some pretty good, some pretty bad, some neither - that I feel like recording somewhere. Warning: I'm not even gonna bother to spellcheck, and I'm not going through the effort to list any addresses or contact info about these places. Sue me.

this is a place next to the Turmp Tower, adjacent to a McD. I understand that the new owners took over from something called Pie Hole or Pie Plate or whatever. A pizza joint. Anyway, this one's striving to be more of a traditional Italian deli, with a case of prosciutto and other meats, some by-the-pound cheese and antipasti, etc. They also make pizza and sandwiches. The ataff speaks Italian and on first glance I had the impression that this would turn out to be a hidden gem - a bastion of "real" food in an area that needs it. I wasn't right. They make a decent meatball sub, eggplant parm that's too greasy and has too-thick breading on pretty good Labriola rolls, and 10 inch personal pizzas that are cheap enough but sound better than they taste on account of cheap ingredients like bad parmigiano cheese and characterless Boars Head meats. Still a decent option for the 'hood, but no need to make a special stop.

Epic Burger:
I guess this is a chain of some kind. Like Bongiorno's, it's not awful. But teh burger patty badly needs seasoning and the shake I had tasted like it was made from freezer-burned ice cream. Good fries.

I once lost to the chef here in a charity mac and cheese contest at Goose Island, where I came in third and he took first (Kuma's was second). The rockit mac was really good, and since then I've had a vague desire to try the place out once. I did. It sucked. All I had was 2 soups: a french onion and a matzoh ball. They tasted exactly the same, which should tell you all you need to know.

I stopped here for breakfast awhile ago, and it was terrible. Stale breads and pastries, overcooked eggs. My daugher did like the "chocoflan".

Don Pedro Carnitas:
If you go here, order in a more confident way than I did. Speak Spanish. Or refuse the first plate of food they give you. I got a lousy plate of dried out other white meat, but from the looks of things around me and from the tweets of people who responded to me, there is definitely betetr stuff to be had here.

The Takashi thing in Macy's:
The bast damned bowl of vegetable soup I've had in years. Huge, filling, flavorful, great textures. Get this. It's the mushroom ramen, or something like that.

Chief O'Neill's:
I could actually write a whole blog post about this, but I'd have to deal with the fact that I know the new chef, he's deeply connected to a lot of LTHer's, and I said what might be perceived as unflattering things about him in a prior blog post. So I'm not gonna bother. I will reiterate that I like Alan. He sat down with my 20 month old and me over dinner a few nights ago, and we enjoyed his smoked shrimp dish and chicken n chips quite a bit. The shrimp is done in peat and has a pretty intense flavor, so be warned if you don't care for things like the smell of a room full of people spoking pot. It comes atop a pretty inense carrot-ginger reduced juice that I thought complemented it well. I think I would have liked the chicken to be a bit crispier, but it had a really terrific rich flavor on account of what Alan explained was poaching in rich chicken stock before frying. The steak fries (chips) are done in 100% tallow, and they were fantastic.