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.