Monday, December 16, 2013

Marching With The Sheep for Italian Food - Eataly & Cicchetti

I lied my way into an Eataly pre-opening party, then spent 5 consecutive days visiting during its initial week in Chicago.  Ready to move to the newest hotspot, I showed up at Cicchetti on the Sunday before it opened, having misunderstood internet postings about the place's grand opening.  Unable to talk my way into a mock service they were doing to train staff, I had to wait until they officially opened today for lunch.  Make fun of me if you want, but I am hungry for good Italian food in a city that sorely lacks it.  And my office is steps away from these places.  And I am a sheep.  I couldn't resist.

More has already been written in this town about Eataly than about The Bears, so I'll keep this brief and highlight a few specifics I haven't yet seen described elsewhere.  Eataly is very, very good.  There are interesting products that simply don't exist anywhere else in town, and there is a focus on handcrafted goods that's wonderful in some cases (the filled pastas and the mozzarella ), and admirable even where it works only modestly well (the bread and the pastries).  Among the many restaurants, I've already found some truly special dishes.  The pizza is now my favorite in town, with a crust full of character and flavor, quality toppings that are applied judiciously, and the wet center characteristic of many great Neapolitan pizzas - a characteristic that was sadly abandoned by other local pizzerias in deference to customer complaints.  At the restaurant focused on fried stuff, there's an ultra-simple radish dish that I can't stop thinking about.  No breading or coating - just the carefully-cleaned radishes with their greens still attached, deep fried in olive oil and drizzled with honey and salt when they come out.  I've never had anything like it, and I want it more and more.

At Cicchetti I ate a soup and a pasta.  The white bean soup was served with whole beans, pickled greens, toasted garlic and speck-infused whipped cream in the bowl, the server then pouring the piping-hot pureed bean soup over the top tableside.  The flavors worked well, with the each element powerful on its own in a way that balanced things out well in the end.  I had a small problem with the texture of the beans, some of which seemed rubbery and chalky, as if they'd been undercooked.  Still, it's a dish I'd happily eat again, which I can't say about the pasta.  The squid ink orecchiette were clearly handmade, because only about half of them were actually orecchiette.  The others failed to curve into the characteristic shape and texture, so were essentially just uniformly round coins.  The point of a shape like this is that it forms a little cup that captures and holds sauces, so this was a real failure in pasta-making execution.  The dish also had an American-style oversaucing problem, with way too much tangy tomato sauce for a restaurant with any real Italian ambition.

I'll be back to Eataly many, many times.  There's some terrific food to eat in, interesting handmade and imported products, and staples like bananas and milk and reasonable-enough prices that one could easily make Eataly a primary grocery shopping venue.  I'm sure I'll return to Cicchetti too.  The soup was good, and Mike Sheerin and Phil Rubino have each cooked food I loved at former venues.

671 N St Clair St, Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 642-1800

43 E Ohio St, Chicago, Illinois 60611

(312) 521-8700


Friday, October 11, 2013


On the outside, Michoacanito looks like a hundred other humble Mexican restaurants - bright pictures of menu items, Mexican flag-themed signage, handmade signs touting tacos, tortas, etc.  But after a few observant seconds insite, I could tell this place was different.  The cooler was filled with fully-gelled stocks in see-through storage containers.  A woman in the kitchen was peeling and chopping papayas with the utmost precision and care, while a man pressed tortillas by hand.  The stove in the fully-open kitchen was filled with steaming pots emitting powerful aromas of meat and spice.

I ordered the consome de borrego (lamb soup) per my server's recommendation.  A hunk of lamb and bone sat starkly in the center of a bowl of not-quite-clear broth with bits of fat floating atop.  On first glance, it appeared that this soup would be just pure lamb without much other flavor.  The kind of thing that, though occasionally enjoyable, I expect more from a Central Asian place than from a Mexican restaurant.

As I started to dig in, the server brought a plate of accompaniments intended to Mexicanize the soup.  I added the onion, cilantro, lime, and a bit of dried chile.  Then when my spoon reached the bottom of the bowl, I realized that there were other goodies - lots of nicely cooked hominy, and a reconstituted chipotle pepper that had been part of the broth-cooking.  The fruitiness of the chipotle balanced the gaminess of the lamb broth beautifully.

Michoacanito makes tortillas by hand, and the homey,very thick, haphazardly-shaped rounds make that clear.  Be warned, these are probably triple the thickness of most tortillas, so they fill you up fast.  They were great for dipping in the soup.

There's a big menu here, filled mostly with stuff you can find all over town.  With a menu so large it's possible that not everything is a winner, but I feel very confident about the soups.  I also learned from someone at the next table that Micoacanito has something of a secret menu.  People in the know seek out the cook's gazpacho and special fruit cocktail recipes, none of which are on the regular menu.  Ask about fruit, I was told.

4315 N. Kedzie

Monday, October 7, 2013


I walked into Mexique with negative biases.   The attention given to the Michelin rating system is something of a joke to me, so I’m prone to discount anyplace with a star.  When restaurants take to Groupon, as Mexique did last year, I view it as a sign of decline.  Finally, the place is called Mexique.  Have you ever tried Mexican restaurants in France?  If so, you would know not to name your restaurant after that take on the cuisine.
With my first taste of the night, I was nearly converted.  A spoonful of the “spiced bouillabaisse broth” served in a bowl with something called a “Pescamal”, though more like a thick mole than a broth, was packed with intense roasted chile, complex spicing, and a shellfish undertone that made it unlike anything I’d ever tasted. 
Had the kitchen served this compelling puree simply with fresh tortillas instead of the sad rectangular starch plopped in the bowl, it would have been great.  The Pescamal , described on the menu as a corn tamal, had the texture and taste of a bake-and-serve dinner roll, stuffed with rubbery bits of fish that were devoid of flavor. 
A trio of sopes furthered the possibility that the chef might be shopping in the Trader Joe’s frozen food section.  The masa pucks were equally sized and perfectly rounded as if by a machine, and they were dense, greasy and tasteless.  The toppings tasted far more pedestrian than their menu descriptions implied.  Bizarrely, two disparate-sounding sauces tasted identical – like balsamic vinegar reduction.  Maybe the kitchen made a mistake with the plating.
The best dish of the night was one featuring braised veal short ribs served with orange-scented mushrooms and peppercorn gastrique.  A well-executed dish even though every component pushed the sweet, fruity side a bit too far.  Had the advertised escabeche de fresas actually tasted pickled instead of just macerated in sugar, this might have been a nicely balanced dish.
Worst was a special of seared tuna loin with chile-infused polenta and “mole de la casa”.  The tuna was seared nicely, but the polenta was so full of lumps that I was shocked that a restaurant of this ambition would serve it.  The mole was way too sweet and overpowered by cinnamon.  Put a straw in it and call it an horchata, and I’d believe you.
The chef at Mexique is mixing a lot of different flavors and techniques, and I suspect there are cases where this produces more winners like the broth served with the Pescamal.  Unfortunately, everything skews very sweet and there is a lot of flawed cooking, including a special level of ineptitude with cornmeal based dishes.  For a place with any degree of Mexican makeup, that’s hard to forgive.

1529 W Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60642
(312) 850-0288


Monday, August 19, 2013

Mott Street and the Lens of Asian Food Experience

“…flavors are as safe and unthreatening as a night on the couch with a bong.”  - Mike Sula, Chicago Reader in an article titled “Playing it Safe at Mott Street”
“…the cooking equivalent of driving 45 in a 55 mph speed zone.” – Kevin Pang, Chicago Tribune

Chicago and other major cities have dozens of humble, first-generation-run Asian restaurants which, even though we Americans are welcome, are cooking food targeted mainly at fellow recent immigrants.  Because of this, and because so much of this food is cheap, there isn’t a food writer or aficionado in Chicago that hasn’t tried pungently fermented kimchi, scorchingly hot curry, and salads flavored with fishy funk. 

I think it’s through the lens of that experience that we end up with what I believe are misguided sentiments expressed in quotes such as the ones above.  Mott Street is “safe,” perhaps, when compared to the translated Thai-language menu at Sticky Rice.  But why compare it that instead of to restaurants with similar ambition, chef pedigree and price.? Are the dishes at Mott Street “safer” than those at Avec, La Sirena Clandestina, Le Bouchon or Vera?  Pang did compare Mott Street’s crab fried rice with Balena’s uni pasta, but that is even more bizarre and useless than comparing it to something one might find at TAC Quick.  Past experiences are valuable, but Mott Street is its own place and it would serve writers well to remove their lenses and evaluate the place on its own terms.

Some of the dishes at Mott Street are far from “safe”.  Grilled mackerel with incredible, crispy skin and moist flesh is served with head, tail and spine all attached – a bold decision that most restaurants with similar ambitions and customer bases would not make.  Wok-fried Gai Lan uses greens so intensely bitter that I’m sure many people refuse a second bite, along with oyster sauce that’s fishier and funkier than any version I can remember having.  Kimchi udon challenges safety-seeking palates with tiny bursts of fish roe and a delicious set of complementary garnishes.   I found all three of these dishes highly compelling. 
The kitchen at Mott street shows creativity too, which produces a winner and a loser.  The “stuffed cabbage” bears no resemblance to its moniker, but it is a fantastic combination of contrasting textures and bold flavors.  “Everything wings,” on the other hand, have a mess of bland seeds and a too-mild effort at tzatziki dipping sauce that would have paired poorly even had it been bolder.

I found the service at Mott Street welcoming and knowledgeable.  We had a drink and a snack on the nice patio and were made to feel like part of the crew.  In the dining room for dinner, everyone served us efficiently and with a smile, including members of management who stopped by a couple of times to check on things and solicit feedback.
We all have our own lenses through which we evaluate new restaurants.  Through mine, Mott Street is a winner.

Mott Street
(773) 687-9977
1401 N. Ashland Ave.
Chicago IL 60622

Monday, July 29, 2013

DaVanti Enoteca

During a short stint in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant, I made a lot of gnudi and gnocchi.  I was obsessive about getting them just right, and so when I eat gnudi in a restaurant I’m usually critical.  In general, it’s just something I shouldn't order because I know in advance I’m going to dislike it.  Sometimes I’m a glutton for punishment though (or, some would say, I like writing blog posts about stuff I hate), so I recently ordered the gnudi at the new DaVanti Enoteca in River North.

DaVanti’s gnudi were wonderful.  So good that they could serve them with little more than melted butter or simple tomato sauce and I’d be thrilled.  That these gnudi come bathing in a rich, viscous and intensely delicious pork stock takes the dish over the top.  The dumplings have that ethereal outer skin which is characteristic of great gnudi, barely holding together a light interior of well-seasoned, quality ricotta.  The serving is relatively small, but the dish is so rich and intense that although I wanted more (even after sopping up every drop of pork stock with Davanti’s sub-mediocre bread), I was glad there wasn't any.

Impossible as it seemed for any dish to top DaVanti’s gnudi, the cauliflower steak from the antipasti menu did just that.  A flat, inch-and-a-half-thick slab of cauliflower was charred on the grill and barely cooked through to lend a meaty texture that was just-right for the massive steak knife served with it.  The grill lent a smoky, earthy flavor that was fantastic with the sharp lemon jam, the briny, tiny-minced olive tapenade, and the nutty, crunchy toasted ceci beans.  This is now on a short list of favorite dishes in town, and might be the best restaurant dish I’ve eaten all year.

That this post focuses on the food rather than the annoying enforcement of a “small plates” service philosophy at DaVanti really says something.  It is annoying.  This was my third experience at an outpost of what I think can at this point fairly be called the DaVanti chain.  I’ve enjoyed them all, and if this is what chain dining can become in 2013, please put one in every town small and large to which I’ll be traveling in the coming months and years. 

Davanti Enoteca (the outpost on which this post is based)
30 E Hubbard St
Chicago, Illinois
(312) 605-5900

Friday, July 26, 2013

My New York

No matter how long I spend there, there are 3 things I never fail to have on every trip to New York: bagels, pizza, and time at the bar at Gramercy Tavern. On a recent trip, I had those 3 and more, including pasta and tofu at wonderful Italian and Korean restaurants that remind me that cronuts and other nonsense obsessively covered by food media have not yet ripped the guts from what is still a great, diverse, sometimes humble food city with an unchangeable core.

Here's a post about the bagels and pizza part of my trip.  The other stuff will follow at a later date.
I'm not going to rehash all that's wrong with bagels outside of New York. In fact, it turns out that New York is no longer immune to bagel atrocities, as 4 out of 4 bagel shops on this trip were guilty of the cross-cutting I railed against in the linked post. I'll use this space instead to rank 4 rather popular places I tried, from worst to best.
4.   Worst was Pick-A-Bagel (3rd Ave and 23rd St), with monstrous bagels with no flavor and a soft, crustless texture throughout.
3.   In 3rd place came the famous Murray's Bagels on 8th Avenue in Chelsea, with bagels more reasonably sized and better flavored, but still missing the textural contrast I want between a crisper exterior crust and a chewy interior.
2.   Next came an outlet of a place called Brooklyn Bagels, this one also on 8th Avenue, just a block from Murray's. Bagels here were as huge as Pick-A and lacked textural contrast, but the unique malty, sweet flavor won me over. My love for these bagels might stem from nostalgia, as these are very similar in style to the now defunct H&H bagels I enjoyed many times after late night bar hopping on the Upper West Side in my early 20's. The bagels are probably too sweet, but the everything-bagel variety has enough big salt crystals to balance that out beautifully. I don't think I'd want to eat a plain bagel or any non-salt-topped variety from Brooklyn Bagels.
1.   In first place came Ess-a-Bagel on 1st Avenue at 21st Street.  This had everything I want: a reasonably small size, great contrast between the crust and the interior, and excellent yeasty flavor accented by just a touch of malt and a little sweetness.  And don’t try to order a toasted bagel here.  They know better than you.
I should note that besides Pick-A, all of the bagel shops above are better than bagel shops anywhere outside of NY. 
Almost every article about “NY Pizza” gets it wrong.  Lists of “The Best NY Pizza” are comical in their misunderstanding of the genre.  Di Fara, Lombardi’s, Patsy’s – these are all fine pizzas similar to the best pizzas you can find in places like Arizona and Kansas.  They’re distinctly New York places, but they’re not making distinctly New York pizza.  New York pizza is not made by artisans.  It has no resemblance to the Old Country, and although it is undeniably great, it isn’t necessarily good.  What makes something “New York Pizza” is the fact that’s it’s cheap, fast, foldable for consumption on the run, reheated in a scorching oven, and ubiquitous.  That’s all great stuff that exists almost nowhere else.  Where is the best New York pizza?  Wherever you happen to be standing when you’re hungry and have just some loose change left in your pocket.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Doubt Conquered, Hope Shattered (Baume & Brix, Cantina Pasadita)

When Moto was in its hot early days and clients insisted that I take them there, my heart would sink. Test tube salads, ice cream that tasted like fried chicken - everything at Moto seemed like an experiment designed to produce something uniquely undelicious. Though I haven't been back to Moto in years, from what I hear it has evolved into something even more bizarre and less delicious. So, when I see "former Moto chef" on resumes, it doesn't exactly lead me to rush right over. It's pretty close to where I work and I have tried one dismal place after the next in the area, but Baume and Brix had barely made it to my radar screen before I finally tried it this week.

I cast doubt aside after eating the remarkably straightforward and delicious asparagus salad. Thin spears had been charred beautifully and served atop an intense asparagus puree. Asparagus is a strong and distinct vegetable, and I think it marries better with strong and distinct ingredients from other food groups than it does with other vegetables, which tend to get lost amidst the poweful greenness of the asparagus. The gamey chicken liver pate on the plate with it at Baume and Brix worked perfectly. Again, just a straightforward, gimmick-free pate topping some well-toasted bread. Sure there was a poached egg on the plate too, which they insisted on telling me was prepared at a precise 63 degrees in a circulator, but I can shrug that off and just acknowledge that this was one heck of a tasty plate of food with well-selected, carefully-prepared, seasonal ingredients.

The potato chip gnocchi was a bit more gimmicky, but no less delicious. The gnocchi were crisp and feathery, plated with a grown-up take on sour cream and onion potato chip flavors. There were sweet caramelized onions melted into a silky butter puree, thin chives, creme fraiche, and lightly pickled mushrooms that added sourness and a squeaky texture that served as a great contrast to the gnocchi. Good ingredients, thoughtfully combined and very well prepared.

Service was attentive and informed, though I should note that mine was one of just two occupuied tables during my lunchtime visit. I also found the wine list was well curated, with an especially wonderful and somewhat novel domestically-produced Gruner Veltiner which I enjoyed a lot. Baume and Brix surprised and delighted me, and I consider it among the very best of last year's restaurant openings.


When I moved 6 years ago to my current home, there wasn't a single bar or restaurant that could just as easily call Lakeview or Wicker Park its home. Fast forward to now, with Leader Bar right on my corner and Pithfork a block away, this stretch of Irving Park could almost be Wrigleyville. Though I was happy when a Pasadita taco stand moved in a couple of years ago and have enjoyed it many times for a quick, just-fine snack, the largely-Gringo clientele add to a feeling that the neighborhood was trying to turn into Division Street between Ashland and Damen.

None of this bothers me at all, by the way. I like what it might do for my property value and I also like having a place on my corner to escape occasionally from a house of screaming kids to watch a game on some high definition TV's while drinking a pretty good beer. I also like margaritas. A lot. And I like drinking them outside in the sun. So when signs came up showing that Cantina Pasadita, a full-bar, table-service branch of the taco chain was taking over the space across from Leader Bar, with its nice sidewalk seating area, I was hopeful. I met the GM a few weeks before it opened, and he described the coming place as "high-end," with things like "tableside guacamole and a mixology program". He also said that they'd hired a chef with years of experience at well-known local restaurants. "It's going to be nothing like the taco stands," he said. I was skeptical, but really if all the place had were fresh chips and decent margaritas made with real lime, I'd be a regular.

The margaritas are fake and they suck. The chips are stale. There is crazy-expensive guacamole that's completely bland, and the table salsa tastes like ketchup. there's also something called "Cachos," described by my server as "authentic Mexican nachos". Whatever. More stale chips with some cheese, topped with cubes of watery chicken breast.

I hope potential buyers for my condo don't read this blog. Cantina Pasadita is horrible.


Baume & Brix
351 W Hubbard St
Chicago, IL 60654
Neighborhoods: Near North Side, River North
Cantina Pasadita
2958 W. Irving Park Road

Friday, April 26, 2013

Foods I Like (Yes, you read that right)

People tell me that I have a reputation for hating everything.  Though the pages of this blog already show that such criticism is unfounded, I’m devoting this whole post to a bunch of stuff I’ve had and liked recently.  It’s the first beautiful Spring Friday of 2013.  Here’s a little extra sunshine:

Jerk wings and festival from Jerk – Modern Jamaican Grill Food Truck.  This truck is one of the first in Chicago to cook onboard, and they’re doing a fantastic job with a simple menu that uses just a grill and a deep fryer.  Wings are juicy and fresh, and have hot, no-holds-barred jerk seasoning with an especially  potent garlic component.  Hand-cut fries are well-seasoned but a little limp and greasy.  Skip those and opt instead for a side of festival  - crisp, slightly sweet corn fritters that do a great job cooling down all that spice.

Smoked whitefish Caesar salad from Bavettes.  Most of the time when people mess around with toppings on a Caesar salad, they ruin a good thing.  The salty, slightly-smoky fish here was an exception.  It tasted great and had a firm enough texture to hand up to the crisp greens.  This was a well-executed salad with a little something to take it up several notches.  This dish stood out even at a meal where I liked just about everything that was served (except the” creamed spinach”, which had cream and spinach, but was not creamed spinach).   

Lentil soup at Salam.  The food at Salam is generally much better than at any other local place serving similar food, and this soup is a real highlight.  It has a refined, creamy, extra-strained texture you’d expect at a French restaurant, with lightness and balance unmatched by other lentil soups.  I love it, and it’s my 3 year old’s favorite delivery food (mango lassi is a beverage, not a food).

Smoked salmon at Jam.  I will never understand why Jam serves a piece of frosted chocolate cake as an amuse bouche for dishes like this, but recently I’ve been able to put that incongruity aside and simply enjoy the good things about the place.  The smoked salmon dish is a real standout.  House-smoked fish with great flavor and texture, a brilliant bĂ©arnaise sauce, crisp potato pancakes, gorgeous, gooey poached eggs, and some nice crunch from salsify slaw.  A dish of beautifully contrasting colors and complementary flavors.

Granduca cheese from JP Graziano.  This Sardinian pecorino is incredible.  It’s hard and I suspect intended mainly for grating, but I’ve just been eating it straight with young, cheap Southern Italian wines.  It’s very nutty and only mildly salty as compared with other pecorino cheeses, but what makes it so special is the underlying flavor of high-quality goat milk with complex, but not overpowering funk.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Jekyll & Hyde at Howells & Hood

If you order the seafood salad at a massive, corporate-looking sports bar at the bottom of a downtown Chicago office building, you deserve the mushy, tasteless fish with gloppy dressing you’re likely to get.  It is a marvel that at Howells & Hood, the dish rivals the best versions at seafood-focused restaurants in places like Boston and San Francisco.  Tender, well-charred octopus mixes with a variety of delicately poached shellfish, all adorned simply but robustly with lemon and oregano.  Eat this and you can reasonably imagine being at seaside restaurant in Sicily.  You’ll have to tune out the very-American couple next to you as they order their burgers to be made without salt, and the very American sorority girl a few feet away as she requests a round of Sex on the Beach for her table.
The good vs. evil theme suggested by my post title is inaccurate.  Howells & Hood is not 2 things.  It’s not 3 things, 4 things or 5 things.  Howells & Hood is everything.  It’s a restaurant for locavores, run by a chef who passionately espouses things like rooftop gardening and hyper-local cuisine.  It’s a sports bar for the heavy-drinking frat crowd, such as the ones who, during one of my visits, did shots of Jack and high fives every time their school’s basketball team hit a 3-pointer.  It’s the place where 14 office workers grab lunch together and ignore the gigantic beer list while they drink diet cokes and make fun of the boss.  It’s where tourists go to lay out their guidebooks before planning their Mag Mile shopping adventures.  It’s the spot for beer geeks who want to explore what must be the city’s largest tap beer list. Howells and Hood has high tops and low tops and medium-sized tops.  Indoor bars and outdoor bars.  Booths, tables, and semi-booth-tables.  It has everything.
Not surprisingly, Howells & Hood even has a burger.  A very, very bad burger.  At about 6 inches tall, this burger is inedible as a sandwich unless you pull some of the parts out first.  I started with the inch-thick onion rings, breaded so thickly that the batter inside was still gooey and raw.  I took out the tasteless tomato next, and then brushed off some of the slaw-like shredded lettuce.  I was barely able to get my mouth around the thing now.  Then I sneezed.  The pepper in this monstrosity was ground very coarsely, and there was so much of it that my nostrils were not able to cope.  The next flavor to hit me was carbon.  The exterior was blackened with a burnt crust that obliterated all other flavor.  I had ordered the burger medium rare and there was indeed a corner of the thing that was cooked that way.  The rest of the burger ranged wildly – parts of it were reddish pink and juicy, but more parts were totally grey and dry and there were some parts in between – signs of a cook that doesn’t understand how to manage a fire.
I’ve been to Howells & Hood several times, and for the most part I’ve liked the food.  The seafood salad is special, and I expect to find other gems as I continue exploring the menu.  Howells & Hood is everything, so it takes a bit of time to sort through it all to find the somethings you like.  I work steps away, and with the limited options for good food around, I will be happy to keep exploring.  One can eat at The Purple Pig only so many days in a row.
Howells & Hood
435 N Michigan Ave.  312-262-5310

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Flour and Stone

"We're running a lunch special.  A pizza for one and a salad for $19".  This was the start of my dialogue with the Flour and Stone staff, and at prime lunch hour I witnessed several other conversations that started the same way.  I stayed for lunch, but more than half of the others left with various levels of huff and head-shaking.

I'm not sure what Flour and Stone is trying to be, but whatever it is, I don't think it's going to work.  There is a huge and captive business/ tourist lunch crowd in this area, with a whole lot of crappy choices for them.  It's hard for me to imagine shunning this crowd the way Four and Stone does.  When the place first opened, it was dinner-only.  That really baffled me.  Now they're open for lunch, but a solo luncher would be hard-pressed to get change back from a 20.  If they're shooting for some sort of upscale restaurant vibe, neither the counter-service setting nor the sparse decor are going to make that work.

But readers don't want paragraph after paragraph analyzing decorations and business models and what might or might not be going on in the mind of a restaurant's owner. The Sun Times would still have a food section if you did.  You want to know how the pizza is, and I'm going to tell you - not that good.  The crust is thick and overly bready.  It's got more char than Pizza Hut, but it's in the same ballpark.  The sauce is tart and watery, and could use salt.  Toppings include onion and garlic that are still raw after coming out of the oven, and mushrooms that are bland and need more cooking time too.

I saw an interview somewhere, where a Flour and Stone Owner said, bizarrely, that what he is describing as Brooklyn-style pizza is based on the style of pizza he ate growing up in Rochester, NY.  I believe him.

Flour and Stone
355 E Ohio St  Chicago, IL 60611
(312) 822-8998

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.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Phil Stefani 437 Rush Under Christian Fantoni

Almost a decade ago, Christian Fantoni ran the kitchen at Fiamma, a Michelin-starred Italian restaurant in New York City with a big following.  A few years later, he was making wedge salads and chicken parm at a Portillo’s branch in Aurora.  It’s been a strange career, but with knowledge of his early accolades I was intrigued when I learned that he’d taken over the kitchen at Phil Stefani’s 437 Rush, normally the kind of business lunch, try-to-please-everyone place I avoid.  In 3 meals during the early part of 2013, I saw a tiny glimpse of what might have been the Fiamma Fantoni, but for the most part I still see the same Phil Stefani 437 Rush that’s always been there, with perhaps even a slight decline in basic execution.
A delicate bibb lettuce pesto was crisp and bright without overpowering the meticulously-prepared clams and tender cuttlefish that were the stars of the dish.  These ingredients sauced  flavorful potato gnocchi that, while not as light and dreamy as those at places such as a Tavola and Spiaggia, were well-crafted  - not the gummy, leaden balls found at most restaurants.  Textures and flavors worked in harmony here, and I started to see why a NYC Michelin reviewer or James Beard House representative might have taken notice.

Then I tried the butternut squash soup and imagined a multi-gallon vat of premade glop adorning a Portillo’s quick-service counter.  It was thick like spackle and utterly devoid of flavor, but for some crumbled cookies used as garnish.  It was a vile bowl of food. 
Two more pasta dishes failed to invoke any of the joy I felt with the gnocchi.  Orecchiette with rapini and sausage were cooked pleasantly al dente, but the advertised broccoli puree was either non-existent or flavorless.  Neither the rapini nor the sausage had much flavor either.  It was the kind of bland, inoffensive dish you’d expect to find at a place like this.  Nothing more.  Worse yet were ravioli, advertised as being stuffed with ricotta and herbs, then sauced with some kind of lettuce pesto.  The filling was indeed green as if herbs had been used, but I tried really hard and failed to taste anything beyond plain ricotta.  The pesto was a vile, separated mess of flavorless green oil in a massive pool, and flavorless clumps of dry greenery with sliced almonds that hadn’t been pulverized at all.

Fantoni hasn’t been at the helm here for too long, so there may be some hope that he will influence the menu and execution in a positive way.  My confidence about that isn’t high though, and after the dreadful soup and ravioli it’ll be a while before I try again.