Sky Full of Bacon


Play

Airwaves Full of Bacon 16: Greg Biggers of the Sofitel Vs. The City • What’s Next After the City Shut Down Underground Chef Julia Pham • Kevin Hickey Returns To Bridgeport • Kate Bernot Leaves Chicago For Beer

afob logo

Basic CMYK stitcher-logo-transparent1 twitter-icon facebook_icon copy

Click on the above to go to iTunes, Stitcher, Twitter or Facebook.

______________________________________________________________________________

It’s the city episode! All the stories have to do with dealing with this city… and the City.

IMG_3867

(1:16) First up, chef Greg Biggers of Cafe des Architectes in the Sofitel Hotel takes me inside their circuitous kitchens to tell the story of how he had to work with the City to get to do the things he wanted to do… notably, make cheese. It’s a great look inside the health and regulatory process in Chicago.

IMG_3878

IMG_3893

IMG_3888

IMG_4498

(20:06) Then I talk with underground chef Julia Pham, whose Relish Underground Dining came to a halt when she was busted by the City.

After that, I list some of my favorite Asian restaurants in the Argyle area. I wrote about Nha Hang here, and made this video about the old Sun Wah. Here’s more about Double Happiness, where we met up.

IMG_4521

(35:05) Kevin Hickey’s the Duck Inn marks his return to Bridgeport. We talk about that most traditional of old school Chicago neighborhoods, including mentions of Ricobene’s and Bridgeport Bakery. A much longer version of this ran in two parts here and here at the Reader.

hickey5
Here’s the original Duck Inn, c. 1935, owned by his grandmother (the lady behind the counter).

IMG_1235

(50:01) And finally, I talk with Kate Bernot, late of Redeye, about leaving Chicago. Here’s her farewell piece.

IMG_2607
The church of Santo Domingo, with the most spectacular interior in Oaxaca.

IMG_1467
The cloister at Santo Domingo, now a terrific museum containing the major artworks from Monte Alban, the Zapotec city overlooking modern Oaxaca. We also saw an excellent exhibit devoted to the Italian publisher Franco Maria Ricci and one of his recent books.

IMG_2854
A Nativity scene in the Zocalo in front of the protest banners about the murders of the 43 students in Mexico, by a gang allied with the mayor of Iguala. This is the kind of thing that makes you think the parts about Herod in the Nativity story probably hit home harder in some countries than others…

So we had plenty of time to eat at many levels in Oaxaca, and with my first post devoted to the low end, this one will cover off the higher end in various forms. Oaxaca apparently is convinced that it’s the next hot dining destination, or so I read somewhere, and I’ll say this for it: it may not be as polished as current dining capitols, but the prices are so reasonable that you can experiment with little fear that you’ll get ripped off. It’s hard to complain that execution is a little below Chicago standards, as judged by a pork dish fairly crudely butchered, or that service is a bit rushed at a tasting menu, when it’s going for, at most, about a third of the cost in Chicago. Restaurants here have the kind of enthusiasm that forgives a lot.

I mentioned that Rick Bayless was not far from where we were—to judge by a tweet, I missed him by about 20 minutes in the Zocalo, the central square, one day—but I already had some advice about where to eat from him, by way of Topolobampo’s chef Andres Padilla. So I made reservations in advance for two of them, Origen and Pitiona, though as it turns out, even in the tourist-heavy Christmas week it seemed like you could pretty much walk into any place in town.

The main thing was just knowing where to find them—the fine dining Oaxaca is kind of in a different area than the busy everyday tourist Oaxaca, centered on the bustling Zocalo. The restaurants around the Zocalo are, according to most guidebooks, kind of middling, but we visited one called Del Jardin a couple of times for quick meals and local atmosphere, and it was quite decent—Liam discovered a love for Oaxacan tamales here. Honestly, there’s almost no such thing as a bad mole negro in Oaxaca, though I think this one was sweetened up a little for the presumed American palate.

IMG_2467

But if you want food at a higher level than that, you want to go north from the Zocalo. Just a few blocks and you hit the square around the church of Santo Domingo, which seems to also be the heart of upscale tourist Oaxaca. The square is quieter and less frantic with peddlers, all around it are better restaurants, coffee shops (otherwise often rare in Oaxaca) and the better shopping for Mexican clothing, jewelry and knick-knacky artworks. Also a very happy find in this area on some of the days were street markets devoted to locally produced goods and artworks; we picked up everything from handwoven cloths to carved figurines a cut above the usual tourist geegaws, to local chocolate and manzanilla (apple) jam.

Calle Macedonio Alcala, the main shopping street near Santo Domingo, a couple of days after Christmas.

IMG_1479
We bought several excellent carvings from this stand, though not this guy, alas.

IMG_2605

Origen is a restaurant you can certainly see people like Rick Bayless admiring, because it was the most serious about exploring Mexican flavors and not just doing a Mexican spin on continental cuisine. I couldn’t tell you what the seven moles are, but I’d bet I had more of them here than anywhere else, tasting a variety of sauces (which is all a mole is, really) in conjunction with a lot of locally grown things, from squash to quinoa. The downside was that I felt the execution level did not always match the ambition of the dishes; there were at least one dud (a charred romaine salad, which came out a neat rectangle of mushed lettuce with the consistency of a peat bog) and a very good dish of pork rib meat suffered from the meat having been roughly hacked off the bone, fat untrimmed. Still, at about $130 for 4 people it was a creative meal offering a lot of insight into Mexican flavors we didn’t get elsewhere, and I would recommend it.

IMG_2593
Pork rib meat with chicatana sauce, yucca and squash.

IMG_2756
Tortillas at Pitiona made of different kinds of corn—the top one made with agave (in some form).

Pitiona was in some ways less adventurous in cuisine, but moreso in form—the chef worked at El Bulli and there was a lot of Adria-esque playfulness in the form of the dishes, and as the first full-fledged tasting menu for the kids (Myles and I went to Ing once, but that’s it) everyone had a good time waiting to see what they’d bring out next—usually, curiously, plated on something the shape and size of a brick, like the paint-covered block this plantain fritter arrived on.

IMG_2763

Highlights included a venison taco, another with tocino (pork belly)…

IMG_1409

and the most El Bulli-like item of the night, a tomato noodle soup with a spherical ball of cream in it, which you broke and stirred into the soup.

IMG_2786

The meal was fun, the restaurant which rambled over several rooms of an old colonial era house was charming, the only downside here wasn’t execution but service, which raced through the meal and couldn’t wait to remove any plate that seemed possibly finished. I’m not sure what the cause of that was—it seemed unlikely they were desperate to turn the table. I think the kitchen probably wasn’t pacing it as well as they should and the servers were scrambling to make it work. Nevertheless, I’d recommend Pitiona too; not to dwell on price here, but $300 for four compared to the $500 and up for two you’d pay in the U.S. for a tasting menu goes a considerable ways toward covering your airfare to dine like this.

IMG_1485

I hadn’t planned to eat at Los Danzantes, named (somewhat macabrely) for the most famous carvings at Monte Alban, of captured, castrated rival chiefs, but on the last day before our evening flight, it was right there and seemed like just the place to kill 2 hours at lunch. Which it was; the room could not be more dramatic, surrounded by three-story concrete walls with a catwalk wandering through foliage to a lounge and the bathrooms. Choose your own movie descriptor for this space—Bond villain HQ, the wall of Kong, no matter what, it was undeniable spectacle. (I especially loved that the bar turned out to be made of cars crushed into cubes. Wild!)

IMG_2841

IMG_2851

The food would have trouble living up to this and despite a Slow Food designation and a high rating (from Americans, presumably) on TripAdvisor, it wasn’t as artful or intriguing as Origen or Pitiona, tasting more like upscale Mexican flavors on American-style dishes. An appetizer of duck with Mexican spices was best, a white ocean fish rubbed with ash and Myles’ steak were fine, but something advertised as somebody’s grandma’s mole rojo didn’t have the kick or funkiness you’d hope for. This was the first that seemed more tourist-oriented than a local expression, but still, a grand setting from which to salute Mexico and say goodbye with a daytime drink in hand.

IMG_1302

Other than taxis taking the shortcut over the hills, Itanoni marked my only venture even further north, into a neighborhood near the Park Llano that seemed sort of like the Upper West Side of Oaxaca, plenty of upscale shops and a relaxed air. Itanoni wasn’t nearly as upscale as the places above, but Alice Waters is said to have called it her favorite restaurant in Oaxaca and it’s easy to see why—it’s very serious, almost curatorial, toward the tortilla and what goes in it, dividing the menu by different kinds of corn from different microclimates, and the fillings specific to those (micro) regions— which you order like dim sum, checking them off on a sheet. (That said, my main inspiration for going here was less Alice Waters than Nick Kindelsperger and what he had to say about it here.)

IMG_1299

Could I really taste the difference in tortillas made by hand between corn grown on the mountains and corn grown on the isthmus? No, but everything bespoke really careful craftsmanship, everything tasted clean, the way Rick Bayless’ Mexican food often does, and when I peeled open this flor de la calabaza tortilla to see its gorgeous petals inside, I felt like the peasant Juan Diego when the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe was found on his cloak.

IMG_1311

IMG_2662

One last food experience, which both kids would rank among the best things we did on the trip. Belatedly I had the idea of doing a cooking class for the four of us, and found this blog post which talked about five popular classes. A couple were booked all week, one didn’t respond to the email form I sent through its website—and then I saw Casa Crespo as we were walking to Santo Domingo from the bus, across the street from Pitiona.

It was an American crowd doing it, save for one Swedish woman, including a couple from Logan Square—who asked me if I knew Grandma J’s in Humboldt Park. Talking to another couple, a police officer from L.A. and his wife, they mentioned a recent trip to Chicago and how they liked going to places on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives—and said they’d been to Cemitas Puebla. I told them I’d had comments from Tony Anteliz, its owner, in response to my Tweets about this trip.

Anyway, we started off by going to a nearby mill to grind the corn for our tortillas, and then to the Sanchez Pascuas organic market to shop for ingredients (and sample some fruits you can only find in Mexico, like black zapote, which is like a plum filled with squid ink).

IMG_2626

IMG_2631

Back at the school, we began making an ambitious lunch ranging from handmade tortillas stuffed with cheese, flor de la calabaza and other ingredients, to chicken with mole, a cold avocado soup, and chocolate ice cream. I was really happy that the kids got into it and were proud of what they contributed to making. Gotta do more of that at home. It was a tasty lunch and a great experience.

IMG_2638

And after working themselves up to it for most of the week, they tried bugs. At least, Myles put chapulines, grasshoppers, in his tortilla, while Liam at least tasted a salsa that had agave worms ground into it. Dad was proud.

IMG_1344

IMG_2646

A couple of final notes:

• Coffee. We didn’t have a coffeemaker in our villa so getting coffee before too much of the day had passed was a constant struggle. The only places serving anything like American-style coffee seemed to be in the touristed area between the Zocalo and Santo Domingo, so I pretty much had to be in one of those areas by lunchtime; finding caffeine in the rest of the city could be very hit or miss, or at least require you to sit down for a substantial breakfast to get a cafe con leche (not a fan, but it’ll do in a pinch). I relied mainly on two Italian-style chains, Cafe Brujula and The Italian Coffee Co., with multiple locations in this area.

• Baked goods. One thing I’ve never been wild about is Mexican baking. Mexicans can make really nice French pastries, but their own styles seem bland and flavorless to me, and it was disappointing to see so much of it in the markets and never find anything particularly good. The Italian-style coffee shops were your best bet for sitting down with something to nosh on; buying in quantity, the best French style pastries we found were just west of the Zocalo on Independencia at Pasteleria Carmelita, while we got a nice panettone and some crusty bread for Christmas at Pan & Co. near Santo Domingo.

IMG_1482

• And one more ice cream place, just north of the Santo Domingo plaza: Manolo Nieves. This place had a somewhat unfriendly system— you had to order the quantity you wanted and pay for it, then tell them what flavors you wanted— but the flavors were top notch, a simple vanilla was terrific with burnt sugar notes. I had a rose petal one, which I knew I wouldn’t like but it was recommended by a woman there, Spanish or Italian or something, and as someone who gives a lot of advice, I sort of felt I had to take it. I’m still not a huge fan of rose flavor, but it was probably the most I’ve ever liked any thing rose flavored. By the way, tuna is not tuna ice cream—it’s prickly pear.

IMG_1440
Zapotec foot bowls, in the museum.

IMG_1323

IMG_2526

IMG_2517

IMG_2518

One of the things I most wanted to see in Oaxaca was a single hallway in the markets just south of the Zocalo, the main square, lined with meat vendors and blazing charcoal grills. Yet when I got there, it was frightening and overwhelming, a Dickensian vision of bloody carnage and belching inferno, vendors swirling around me telling me what to buy (onions from him! tortillas from her! drinks from him!) as I could barely keep track of it all. Oaxaca’s market wasn’t magical, as the equally frantic Grand Bazaar in Istanbul had been, it was oppressive, a maddening hive of activity and din.

In another couple of hours I knew why I was having such a reaction: I was coming down with the cold two of my family had already had, coming down with it fast and hard, and my senses were already closing up shop in anticipation. The next day one son and I barely went out, and I was faced with the prospect of spending my entire time in Oaxaca in a hotel room as deprived of my customary diversions as a jail cell, while the very idea of spicy Mexican food turned me slightly green. To add to the postmodern preposterousness of my situation, one of the people whose Oaxacan recommendations I had followed, Rick Bayless, was tweeting from within a mile or two all the things I should be doing, as he lived in social media a Martha Stewartish vision of the celebrity’s glamour-filled, perfect in every way visit to Mexico:

Seeing the families turn out in the zocalo, the square, for Christmas Eve had been one of the goals of the trip— but we’d have been courting pneumonia to be out that night. Instead we found the only subtitled movie in town— El Hobbit— and plopped into chairs for three hours with big soft drinks on Christmas Eve, as if we were the stars of a Family Channel holiday special called “The Most American Christmas In Mexico Ever.” For dinner I ate a prefab ham sandwich at the movie theater. It was great.

IMG_2548
The zocalo, facing the Cathedral of Oaxaca.

And happily, that and 12 hours of sleep seemed to break it. I’m still snuffling— I can’t put out my next podcast until my nose and throat clear enough to record the narration— but energy and interest began to return on Christmas Day and stayed with us for the remaining week of the trip. By the end, Oaxaca had gone from a fate I was cursing to a place I was halfway in love with. The first day back in Chicago, I regretted not being able to wander down the street to a tent hawking tacos al pastor. It seemed so quiet, having to have actual buildings for restaurants, after Oaxaca where they sprout between cracks in every sidewalk.

IMG_2560
Before I got sick, we managed to see the Noche de Rabanos, carvings from locally grown radishes which line all four sides of the Zocalo, which are displayed on December 23, the night before Christmas Eve.

IMG_1297

IMG_2561

Anyway, despite losing a day and a half in the middle to the cold, and operating at half speed for a few days after that, we saw our way to a lot of really enjoyable food in Oaxaca, a town of about 400,000 which sprawls over the valleys and hillsides a couple of hours inland from the southernmost side of Mexico as it curves toward central America. Booking late, we couldn’t find anything in the central area, and wound up with a condo in a hotel complex up on 190, the Pan-American Highway, in an industrial/residential district of no particular loveliness. But in a lot of ways that was good; instead of being in an American B&B bubble in town, we took the Mexican buses (about 50 cents) into town and got to see things like the Sunday used car market— where everybody with a used car lines up along 190 and, of course, taco tents sprout everywhere.

The Mexican buses alone were worth the opportunity to take— they’re a whole community unto themselves, the expression of the driver’s personality, decorated up in various fashions, often with a buddy riding along to call out the stops and occasionally picking up vendors demoing the latest release by local musicians or selling trinkets. Other than the fact that they’re built for people on average a foot shorter than me, they were always interesting to ride.

IMG_1402
We’re all riding on a pink Mexican bus, a pink Mexican bus, a pink Mexican bus. This was actually a tour bus to Monte Alban, not a city bus, but you get the idea.

The Best Tacos in Oaxaca

Oaxaca is so fecund with itinerant taco stands that you could spend a decade here and not sample them all— on the way back from Monte Alban, we saw an entire taco row we’d never had a glimpse of until then, which had the best-smelling rotisserie chicken of the trip. Another time! The point of taco-hunting, I think, is less to look for some internet recommendation of the very best in town, than to have a sense of how to taco-shop. Look for places where things are being freshly made in front of you, like tacos al pastor being sliced off the cone, or carne asada sizzling on the grill. Up on 190, this friendly place made very good pastor:

IMG_1282
Cafeteria Los Dos Angeles, Oaxaca

IMG_1279

IMG_2620
Taqueria El Grillito, alas, did not grillito.

but another fooled us with the cone sitting out, but the meat being cooked on a griddle. Even there, though, we found something kind of interesting, tacos de papas— what would potato tacos with meat turn out to be? The answer was great drunk food, a baked potato finished on the grill and then topped with meat and cheese.

IMG_2618

On the weekend, amid the used cars, a row of Michoacan-style carnitas and taco tents popped up. The carnitas were fantastic, pink as ham and maybe the best I’ve had, and the taco tent to its south not only served excellent carne asada but “enchilada” (which I think is just the same thing with a hotter seasoning). I’m not really recommending that you hop a bus out of town a couple of miles to try these specific places, but rather showing how high the level is, that almost anywhere you find a few tents making food, it has a good chance of being this good.

IMG_1415
Carnitas de Michoacan.

IMG_1412

IMG_1417

IMG_1418

But I promised the best tacos in Oaxaca and maybe I can fulfill that promise. Here’s my theory— food gets better with close competition. So if you were going to find a great taco place, it would likely be in an area dense with competing places, close to the heavy traffic of downtown. The epicenter of tacodom, then, seemed likely to be a specific spot just south of Trujano on the Periferico road that half-circles the central district, a 30s-Shanghai-like warren of stalls next to the enormous Abastos farmer/flea/fenced goods market and right where both the buses and the ride-share taxis all come together in the most harrowing clusterfark of traffic I’ve ever seen. Naturally, my older son and I took off one night to explore it.

IMG_2680
Working the comal at Taqueria Los Cuates.

The taco stands here are more permanent, often cramming into a tiny space both a pastor cone and a metal comal, sort of like a convex wok, on which different kinds of meat will be sizzling. One guy operates the comal, another the pastor cone, slicing off meat and then flicking off a slice of pineapple from the top onto the tortilla held a few feet below. Tacos here are small and dirt cheap— two or three pesos, which is 15 or 20 cents each, though like sliders, you’d probably order a bunch at once, meaning a full dinner could run to as much as $1.50. At the first we tried pastor and tasajo, which is chopped beef (but pretty much has the texture of hamburger):

IMG_2679
Our first stop— which part of the sign is the name? I’m not sure.

It was very good, but then we reached the next, Taqueria los Cuates. This time I ordered cecina, marinated pork. The pastor was letter perfect, crispy and with a citrusy tinge, but even better was the cecina, cooked with bits of grilled onion which made it taste like a 30s-style hamburger. The meat was flavorful, the tacos, warmed on the center of the comal, were crispy with little toasted edges… this was truly, The Best Taco in Oaxaca that we would find that night, or ever. We tried other things that night, including an empanada from a very peasanty-feeling stall which was however just fair (we abandoned it after a few bites), but nothing would top Taqueria los Cuates, and a few days later, we’d swing by there for another round, just as good, as a pre-dinner amuse-bouche.

IMG_2686
I liked the Achewood-like mascot.

IMG_2684
Flicking the pineapple.

IMG_2685

IMG_2688
Empanadas on a comal.

Myles and I making notes on video before we forget what we liked.

A few more notes on low-end dining:

IMG_1335

• We only tried Pollo a la Lena, grilled chicken once, on Christmas Day, and encountered an odd situation where they didn’t want to sell us any of the chicken because they were already out of tortillas. At that point I’d be giving the stuff away rather than waste it, but we eventually succeeded at talking them into charging us the full price without giving us any tortillas. Victory! It was perfectly fine, but you’d have to take another trip to try more chicken places to get a sense of what makes for the best.

• There was a Tacos Arabes place I saw, near the Abastos area, selling that doner-inspired precursor to pastor, but he must have taken the time after Christmas off, because it was closed every time after that, alas.

The Mercado de Benito Juarez/Mercado de 20 Noviembre

IMG_2531

And what about that Dickensian meat hall I mentioned at the beginning? If you’re not out of sorts as I was, it’s a must-visit just for sheer chaos and atmosphere, as is the entire market complex just south of the Zocalo. There are actually two market buildings; the northernmost, the Mercado de Benito Juarez, is full of vendors of trinkets, sombreros, mezcal for tourists to take back, and so on, but it also sells a lot of retail foodstuffs, from chickens and fish to baked goods, the local quesillo cheese (which is a million times better than any Mexican cheese you can get here) and moles, and ladies selling chapulines, spicy fried grasshoppers.

IMG_2529

IMG_2503

The southernmost, the 20 de Noviembre, is full of restaurant stands serving comida (a homier sitdown lunch than taco stands), usually Oaxacan tamales, Sopa Azteca, that kind of thing. To be honest, although we had a nice meal or two there, after we had been to some of the other markets in the area the 20 de Noviembre seemed grimy and oppressive with both the restaurants and the vendors constantly hawking you (and some elaborate system of hoses bringing up foul odors from the nether regions of the building), and I’d recommend a much more relaxed experience at one like the Sanchez Pascuas organic market a few blocks north.

IMG_1334
A pleasant comida of Oaxacan tamales and soup in the 20 de Noviembre market.

IMG_2510

But there are two food stops in the first building, the Mercado de Benito Juarez, that you want to make. One is the aforementioned meat hall, which is somewhat separate and difficult to find from the inside, most easily found by looking for its separate entrance on the east side of the building. It’s an elemental food experience well worth having, though I was a bit disappointed that all the steak seemed to be thinly sliced and grilled to chewiness; I’d have loved a thicker cut cooked to medium rare. You order by the kilogram; we got one kilogram, 1/4 the balls of spicy chorizo, 3/4 steak, plus onions, salsas and tortillas, each ordered from and paid to a different person, in an atmosphere of complete frenzy where it seems hard to imagine anyone really collects all the money they’re due, but apparently they do.

IMG_2511

IMG_1472
La Chagüita.

The second is La Chagüita, an equally chaotic ice cream stand. Rick Bayless talked about this on The Feed but was vague about the precise location, and the rest of the internet is vaguer yet when not flat-out wrong (like Google Maps), so let me tell you the easiest way to find it: it is inside the Mercado Juarez, which has five main aisles, and the stalls in each are numbered something like 15, 115, 215, etc. La Chagüita is #27, so enter at the southeast corner, where the fresh fish are, and look for the first aisle, the two-digit numbers. Go straight north in that aisle and you’ll soon hit it (and other ice cream places).

IMG_1475

Anyway, the reason that you want to do this is for the wildly exotic array of flavors of— what is it exactly? Sorbet? A slushy? I’m not sure, but it’s pretty great and the scene is highly entertaining. I ordered mango with chile and guanabana, which for some reason provoked hilarity from the staff, but I was happy as could be with my tangy, slushy choices.

That pretty much covers cheap eats; a post on fine-ish dining will follow. But I took two things away from taco hunting in Oaxaca— one, how good the street food is, but two, how good the Mexican food in Chicago is, in that I didn’t have things that made the food we have here seem a pale shadow of the real thing. Our batting average isn’t as high, but you can find things here that are about as good as most of the food we ate. Oaxaca is one of the great Mexican food cities, but in its own way, so is Chicago, don’t let anybody kid you. Well, except for the Mexican cheese.

IMG_2613

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 10.48.14 AM
Liam’s top 7.

I think this was a great year for food in Chicago—so great that everyone knows what was great about it and more or less agrees already. Who can’t love 42 Grams and Parachute and Baker Miller and so on? For one more list to justify its existence at the very end of the year— when it feels like they’ve been steadily appearing since October, like Christmas ornaments at Target— it has to show rigor and novelty and not just look like a subset of the monster lists of 100 best things that suggest we live in such a renaissance of culinary wonders that we don’t even need to make choices at all.

Pete Wells introduced his New York Times list with a similar viewpoint, and in particular called out the first fish-or-cut-bait point for a critic or, in my case, a reporter who attends media dinners: “Have I gone back, or wished I could?” Which of course really means, would I spend my own money there? In several of these cases I attended media events or tried the food for free while taking its picture or something, but in every case that made the list, I returned happily on my own dime. Believe me, food writers don’t get any more sincere than that.

That helps get you past the other moral speedbump, which is that all these places are run by really nice people who are trying really hard and you want to be nice to them and like what other people like. Pick the place that everyone likes and no one will question your judgement, but no one will notice it that much either. So I try to name the places that really struck me, even if it means consigning some places I liked a lot from chefs I know to the seeming purgatory of a runners-up paragraph. I’m sorry! It’s not you, it’s me! But the heart wants what it wants, and it wants different things from all over town and at all levels, and a true list for me has all kinds of food side by side, and the presence of one is not an aspersion on another. I come back to what Duke Ellington said (but I got from Peter Schickele) about music when whether jazz could be as good as classical was a serious debate: if it sounds good, it is good.

As always, my only rules are that the citation is for at least one specific dish I loved (and more to the point, still remember), even if it’s also for the restaurant as a whole; and the dish has to be something new to me this year (so I couldn’t really credit Paulina Meat Market for the fact that their housemade pastrami seems to have taken a leap up in quality of late). Here goes:

IMG_1665 Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 1.52.58 PM

10. Fried chicken threeway tie: [Evanston] Chicken Shack, Five Loaves Eatery, and Fork. Hey, I didn’t say only one restaurant per entry on the list was a rule! I did two fried chicken lists for Thrillist and tried a bunch of fried chicken that was new to me this year, and three standouts deserve shared praise for being nearly as good as the platonically perfect homemade chicken in my head that I work to get ever closer to at home. The first two (one in Evanston, one a sweet breakfast and lunch cafe on 75th street) earn it for not only frying well but seasoning properly; so much fried chicken is texturally right but needlessly bland, but these places know how to use their salt and pepper shakers, and the smoky sweet barbecue sauce at Chicken Shack is the best argument high fructose corn syrup ever had for itself.

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 1.53.25 PM

The third, a perennially overlooked farm to table place in Lincoln Square run by a former Lettuce chef, takes a far more baroque approach to the chicken half of chicken and waffles—it’s marinated in black tea and ginger and who knows what all—but the result is wonderfully complex and crispy. Also, it comes with candied bacon.

IMG_2555 IMG_2559

9. Kohlrabi salad, gemelli with sundried tomatoes and bottarga, A10. Chicago has lots of Italian food and yet I seem to have more and more friends who find it disappointing. Worse yet, I have to agree with them at least a good deal of the time—Chicago knows how to make a lot of B level easy to like Italian (-American) food, not so much A level Italian cooking that shows the Italian love of beautiful ingredients highlighted simply like jewels in a setting. The A though is well placed in the name of Matthias Merges’ Hyde Park spot, which to me, more than Yusho, fulfills his promise of bringing Trotter-level technique and precision with flavor to reasonably priced, accessible food.

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 2.12.34 PM Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 2.14.51 PM

8. Pate de campagne, tagliatelle with beef heart/pig’s blood ragu, etc. Tete Charcuterie. I tried Tete Charcuterie’s food at a preview where I took pictures, and found it very well crafted but thought, well, here’s a heavy meat palace I’m not likely to go back to over and over. And I’ve been back twice myself, and set up a business dinner for my wife there as well. So I guess I liked it more than I thought! Yes, it’s devoted to meat, often pretty strongly (I had a pork liver pate there with two other diners which was a bit too strong for all of us), but the chefs are clearly guys with high overall skills who can not only make a beautifully balanced pate or sausage, but do the same with a salad or a plate of pasta, too. We remain desperately short on French restaurants, but in its own, straight-out-of-the-butcher-shops-of-Les Halles way, this is the best French restaurant opening in some years.

IMG_1447

7. Pancit noodles, kare-kare, fried kawali, etc. Isla Pilipina. It may have been one step back for Filipino food with the quick closing of Laughing Bird, but a cuisine that baffled me for years is finally making progress toward becoming widely accepted like other Asian cuisines. For my own part, I’d tried Isla Pilipina years ago, as chronicled in a post at LTHForum that was mainly about the transsexuals who dropped in for fried chicken the same night, and not been inspired to return for a good decade. But the place soldiered on, in a Lawrence strip mall, and especially under the second generation, grew its skills and improved its menu—and returning at long last, I loved the homey yet brightly flavorful food as much as Chinese or Thai.

IMG_1102

6. Oatmeal, toast, Baker/Miller Bakery & Millhouse. Okay, I’ll be a partial exception to the universal love for this place, even as I know and like the owners—I’m not wild about the muffins and baked goods. They seem heavy and a bit hippie coop-whole-grain-good-for-you-ish. The bread is heavy, too, but in a good way, as in, a slice of this is like eating a bread steak. It’s the closest we’ve come to lembas bread, a few nibbles filling you satisfyingly for the whole day. As for the lusciously creamy oatmeal, how often do you eat something that’s an entirely new texture? It’s miraculous.

5. Miso ramen pozole at Arami, by Rick Bayless. I considered leaving this off because it was a one-off at Arami in October, which happened because Arami chef Fred DesPres is married to one of Bayless’ chefs, but I decided, why not mention the kind of serendipitous collaboration that happens on our scene all the time? Anyway, it was the best of miso ramen, and the best of pozole, made into one hearty Japanese-Mexican dish with all the soupmaking chops of a chef who I think is sometimes more seen as a curator of food culture than the kitchen master technician he (also) is. I just remember on the first season of Top Chef Masters, Bayless was kind of condescended to by all these French and Italian food chefs, like you’re gonna win this with tacos pal, and then they’d go feed the people passing by or at an event— and they all went goggle-eyed when they tasted Bayless’s stuff, and he won the whole season. This was the kind of dish that did that.

IMG_2006 IMG_0607

4. Dim sum in Toronto. There’s a whole post about that here, but to summarize, best xiao long bao I’ve ever had at 369, great pork dumplings and other things at Dragon, and the amazing King of King’s Pork candy at John’s. Thanks Renee!

Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 4.06.29 PM Screen Shot 2014-12-30 at 4.05.56 PM

3. Bing bread, pork belly mung bean pancake, pat bing su etc., Parachute. I’ve believed Asian food is the future of American dining for a long time, but it took until Fat Rice to have a place in Chicago that hit the sweet spot of hipster, almost comfort food atmosphere with bright, sometimes challenging Asian flavors. And one of the joys of Fat Rice was watching it improve and grow more confident with each meal in its first year or two. Now I feel the same way about Parachute, which is one of our best new restaurants and gets better and more interesting each time. If you want to subscribe to a place that sells tickets for a new menu every four months, that’s all good, but for the same kind of experience, don’t forget to simply try a rising star like this place every few months during its most fertile early days of self-discovery.

IMG_0004

IMG_0478 IMG_0457

1 (tie). Charcuterie, Thuringer, Fried Brussel Sprouts, etc. at The Radler; and tasting menu at 42 Grams. I went back and forth on what should be number one before finally deciding to do the cop-out and call them a tie. The thing is, they’re such perfect examples of opposing approaches that they sum up so much about how I think about food. 42 Grams is ambitious, daring, a look-at-this! menu of magic tricks; it’s just fun to go on a journey like this, be part of the show, agree to be wowed time and again. Where The Radler is unassuming by comparison, so relaxed a neighborhood place that I feel it is underappreciated because it demands nothing of you, yet the skills at every level are so high and the finesse so exacting that you should pay it more attention. One is a special occasion, the other makes an ordinary occasion special; they’re both experiences I’m immensely glad to have had.

RUNNERS-UP

Places I feel guilty about leaving off:

Boka, especially after a more recent meal, Lee Wolen is making beautiful plates that are as finely executed as at any of the tasting menu joints, but in a more easygoing setting with the more traditional app-entree-dessert format. That is deservedly a recipe for packing the house every night.

MFK, which makes such nice simple stuff, I love the philosophy but maybe the very fact of being simple and direct like that makes it hard to say, “This was a wow!” about any one thing. It’s sure nice to go to and hang out in, though.

River Roast, I’m the last guy to just want a steak for dinner but I used my son’s birthday as an excuse to go here a second time and eat all the meats

Cellar Door Provisions: I have certain Kenny Z-like issues with $14 open face sandwiches with three slices of beet on them, but that great dark crusty bread and those great dark crusty croissants are, well, great, dark and crusty.

Low-end places I seriously considered: Red Hot Ranch for the fake In’N’Out burger that’s better than In’N’Out, Mezquite Pollo Express, this chicken soup

Place I just went that I’m still processing: Oaxaca

Ten best for: 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003

Play

Airwaves Full of Bacon 15: Soul Food Truck With a Side of Negro League Baseball • Hanging Out With Scott Worsham and Nick Lacasse of mfk • Why A Wisconsin Butcher Shop Was Run Out of Town • Anthony Todd on the Best of 2014

afob logo

Basic CMYK stitcher-logo-transparent1 twitter-icon facebook_icon copy

Click on the above to go to iTunes, Stitcher, Twitter or Facebook.

______________________________________________________________________________

IMG_3843

(1:55) First up, I talk with Don Curry, who recently launched the Negro League baseball-themed Southern Pitch Food Truck. You can follow it on Facebook and Twitter.

IMG_2996

(12:10) Then I hang out with chef Nick Lacasse and owner Scott Worsham of mfk.

IMG_0379

That’s the razor clams dish referenced multiple times above; here’s the piece Scott wrote for Morsel. My favorite fact about M.F.K. Fisher is that she was a gag writer for Bob Hope in the early 40s, no joke.

(30:38) In 2012 I made a documentary about butchers called The Butcher’s Karma; the part about Bartlett Durand and Black Earth Meats was this segment, The Zen Butcher. We talk about what happened since then, none of it good. (There’s a longer version of this interview and a fuller telling of the story here.) Here’s Black Earth Meat’s Kickstarter.

atodd

(40:30) And finally, Anthony Todd and I talk Michelin, Shake Shack and other things.

Here’s the Kickstarter for a movie about composer Kevin Macleod.

IMG_0525

I’ve been cranking out a ton of work for the Reader, Thrillist and other things, including two print pieces for the Reader in the next month, so blogging has been a low priority, alas. Nevertheless I want to make notes on some things before I forget them entirely, so here’s lots of notes, starting with the Montreal chunk of our Canada trip in August. If it doesn’t seem like a lot of new things to have tried, well, I also ate all of these.

IMG_2028

IMG_0532

MONTREAL: Other people (David Hammond) have thought nothing much of Schwartz’s, the famous Montreal deli, but besides gratitude for it being open late Sunday night when we got to town, it charmed me as old Jewish delis with the sheer exuberant life of such places always do, and the smoked meat (pastrami in other words) was plenty good. As for St. Viator’s, I wasn’t wowed by Montreal bagels, I see the virtues of the smaller, chewer bagel with a hint of woodfire smoke, but it wasn’t something that changed my life. That said, I wouldn’t be against them being more accessible, either.

IMG_0561

The next night we ate at a cute pizza and sort of Bristol-ish meats and fresh things place called Dolcetto in the old city, which was nice, but a price tag of over $200 Canadian for a few small pizzas, salads etc. drove home just how expensive the town, especially that area, is. We decided not to even think about money for the next two nights. As I observed in the Toronto section, I typically go to other places for their unique low-end dining rather than the high-end dining which may be much closer to what I can get here. But in this case, Montreal’s high end dining seemed to promise a native Quebec cuisine you couldn’t find in other cities. Also, it was Susan’s birthday, or close enough. So we were ballers.

IMG_2048

Joe Beef was booked weeks before, but it turns out that Joe Beef has another concept two doors down, Liverpool House, whose concept apparently is… “Just like Joe Beef.” Honestly, several of the famous dishes in the book were right there on the menu, like the breakfast sandwich with foie:

IMG_2050

Foie would prove to be a major theme over the next two days (as would, I must admit, “excessive over-ordering”). Joe Liverpool was, in the end, a lot like porky places in Chicago, but an excellent example of the genre and all I really remember specifically after that was that we had a good time and sweated butter on the way home. The next, we had…

IMG_2090

More foie at Au Pied de Cochon! We just got into the last available early seating and watched the place (which looks very 80s, not that there’s anything wrong with that) fill up around us. Clams with a beer cheese sauce were pretty great, Myles finally got to have poutine, in general we enjoyed Au Pied, I don’t think the kitchen is as accomplished as Joe Beef but it was satisfying, easy to see why it’s a neighborhood favorite.

IMG_2091

But what is Quebec cuisine? I left feeling that probably more than anybody wants to admit, it’s an invention of the marketing department, like the ploughman’s lunch in England (a “tradition” invented in the 60s to boost lunch traffic at pubs), at least I can’t imagine 1900s lumberjacks really making an entire cuisine out of foie and maple syrup like this.

IMG_2086

One other thing we did there: Liam and I went to the Jean-Talon Marche, a food market with plenty of shops for charcuterie, bierocks, etc., and an area full of fresh fruit, which I bought for the long trip back.

IMG_2042

IMG_2044

I didn’t really find anything mindblowingly different, but it was certainly a pleasant day with him; he’s a good, curious companion for such places. Especially when he gets a crepe. I made him try to order it in French. Did he succeed?

IMG_2031

IMG_2032

* * *

Now on to things eaten in Chicago!

IMG_0723

River Roast— I skipped a media preview for this for some other more promising preview, the idea of a meatcentric (but not steak) place on the river from Tony Mantuano (which is to say, Levy Restaurants) seemed total tourist bait. And since then… I’ve paid my own not inconsiderable cash to go, twice, and had a great hearty time both times. The whole roasted meats are all satisfying (beef and fish outstanding, chicken tasty but a little dry, a new addition of Berkshire pork very nice but a tad plain, they need to think up something to go with it), while the kitchen sent us a charcuterie platter (head chef John Hogan says he’s known for his pates; I didn’t know that, but I can believe it) that was excellent as well. I am not a steakhouse guy at all, but the hearty roastiness of everything at this place gets me right in the nostalgic comfy part of the brain.

IMG_1105

IMG_0834

Dove’s Luncheonette— I’ve been to this Mexican food American diner from the Blackbird etc. crew twice on my own dime, too. The first time I had pozole, right after having a special miso pozole made by Rick Bayless (as in, standing there serving it himself) at a special event at Arami (the chef there is married to one of Bayless’ chefs), which was fantastic. So Dove’s pozole was up against tough competition and I just thought it was all right; I also found it nearly impossible to dig out of the enormous bowl with the spoon, without having to tilt the spoon so far that all the pozole fell out of it.

IMG_0833

Better was a side of beets with a little mole, but I have to say I had philosophical problems with it; it was a substantial plate for $8, which to me is completely misunderstanding the nature of diners. They’re where you go to be among people when you don’t have anyone to be among. That melancholy separate-togetherness is what diners are all about (see this Thrillist piece) AND SO THERE’S NO SHARED PLATES IN THEM. (You can share a Sun-Times in a diner; you do not share food, that’d be like getting too chummy in a men’s room.) Should have been a single portion, half as much for $4. In a diner.

Anyway, went back a few weeks later and had the one thing that wasn’t Mexican food, sort of a fried chicken and gravy plate, and I liked it a lot better. Which doesn’t really help, since it’s the only thing like it on the menu. Anyway, I have some mixed feelings (as I did about Big Star’s Mexican food in a blue collar 70s America context/concept, frankly) but as always with this group, even a straightforward concept turns out to have more than a few layers to tease through.

IMG_3552
Paul the day man and Oliver the night man at Belmont Snack Shop.

IMG_2350

Uncle Mike’s Place— One thing about doing that diner piece was that after a certain point, I felt like I was writing Ten Places To Get The Exact Same Thing For Breakfast. I needed a ringer that did something different, and I thought of this Filipino diner, which people like Cathy Lambrecht had written about at LTH but I had never been to. I got a big breakfast sampler that included a fried egg over garlic rice, hunks of both tocino (sweetly marinated pork) and steak, a salsa and some kind of sweetish bean puddingy thing. After trying a few better Filipino things, this seemed pretty simple in its flavors—like diner breakfast!—but a good time was had from all. I might do this once a year from here on.

IMG_2998

IMG_1084

MFK and Salero—Two Spanish-ish small plates places, one I loved instantly, one I don’t know what I think yet. MFK does simple, direct things with seafood. It’s the kind of place you can drop in, have three things, be full and go. Well, it’s too popular to drop in easily at night, but it is open for lunch and in the afternoon. Did I love everything? You don’t have to, you just try things and some will be really good. Like Vera.

Salero is next to Blackbird, a somewhat more formal looking space, though they’re friendly at the bar. The sardine thing shown above, that I liked as easily as I liked things at MFK. Other things, like a red pepper stuffed with short rib meat, I didn’t equally take to. How do you get one place of this kind so quickly, while another kind of puzzles you? I don’t know, but that was my reaction.

Bohemian House— The idea of an upscale Czech place downtown is improbable, and for that very reason endearing, surrounded as it is by all the blaring cliches of River North. The inside is like a hipper version of Smak Tak or Staropolska, River North’s idea of a medieval castle. The cocktails looked bizarrely sweet, the wine list, as my dining companion shelf said, looks like the middle shelf at Jewel, but the craft beer list was good. And really, what did you think you should be drinking in a Czech place, rum and coke?

I’d read a lot of praise for it, so it was disappointing that the opening courses were all about 3/4 of what they should have been, I thought. A cauliflower salad had too sharp a vinaigrette, a beet salad was all right, the short rib pierogi, gummy, were a particular disappointment. I was ready to write it off when the entrees turned out to be by far the best things—chicken paprikash was maybe a bit overwhelmed by the taste of hot paprika, but it was beautifully roasted, and a roast duck was pretty much perfect (hey, River Roast, where’s your roast duck?) So I don’t think this makes my best of the year list, but it definitely makes my Thank God It’s Not Another Italian Restaurant in River North list, and I’ll recommend it to those looking for something different.

IMG_0772

IMG_0775

U Gazdy— The pierogi above belong not to Bohemian House but to a rustic Polish spot out in Wood Dale, near the southern end of O’Hare, which Cathy Lambrecht wanted to check out one day. Not that the Polish restaurants in the city feel like they’ve gone mainstream, but this definitely felt even more rustically out of Chicago, like the building was entirely carved by forest dwarves, starting with rye bread served with smalec, a lard spread, which you use like butter, except for the fact that you think every bite is a mortal sin. The pierogi were very good, a nice light dough, and the schnitzel was all right, but the out-of-Chicago feel was the best part.

IMG_1124

La Habanera— A Logan Square Mexican spot that immediately made me regret going there by confronting me with two strong suggestions of inauthenticity: a menu that translated basic Mexican food words, and a portrait of every white person’s favorite historical Mexican, Frida Kahlo. Well, that was too harsh a first judgement; it’s a real Mexican family place, with some accommodations to its neighborhood. I ordered a pambazo, the spicy sandwich where you dip the bread in a spicy chile de arbol sauce and crisp it up a little on the fryer, then stuff it with the usual stuff (steak, lettuce, crumbly cheese). I liked all that, but the chile de arbol sauce was too salty and made it a little hard to love the effect of the bread. I’d give it another try and see what the standout on the menu is.

IMG_1096

El Conde SA— There are two of these now, one in Pilsen and one closer to Little Village, specializing in a Mexico city treat called tacos de canasta, basket tacos. They’re premade tacos which steam and stay warm in a basket; they usually just have some form of meat in them. They’re a little soggy, so after trying them in two places (the other was La Chilangueada) I may not need to have them a lot more until I’m in their natural habitat, a bar in Mexico City where someone walks in like the tamale lady to sell them. I also had a sope with carne asada and the steak was very good, so I count the tacos de canasta as a bit of a novelty but this place as a whole as a good find to have.

IMG_1102

Baker Miller Bakery & Millhouse— And one last thing which was, honestly, sublime. It’s the oatmeal at this new bakery from the former 2/3 of the Bang Bang Pie team, which makes a big deal of grinding their own flour. I talked to Dave Miller about it— he says the way they grind it leaves both big pieces and a fine powder, and then he cooks it in half and half, and the oatmeal plumps up into this lush, creamy viscous goo that has a wonderful mouthfeel. It was kind of magical, and when I redeemed my Kickstarter gifts (two bags of whatever grain I wanted), I made sure that the rolled oats was one of them.

* * *

And finally, a cautionary tale, I guess. The irony is that food-obsessed me lives in one of the most whitebread neighborhoods for food, Roscoe Village, the epicenter of Sunday breakfast. So I was excited that we were finally getting a hip-sounding kind of place in Endgrain, which grew out of pop-up doughnuts from Nightwood, which is just about as hip as it could possibly get, right? And as it happened, a preview slideshow would be one of the last things I did for Grub Street.

A few weeks later I took the family for breakfast there. We made the mistake of arriving at 9:40 am, plenty late for breakfast if you ask me. They were open… but not open for breakfast, just for doughnuts and coffee. And the fact that we wanted to be seated, even if we had to wait to order, kind of flummoxed the (admittedly, very green) server and hostess. I basically had to tell them, look, other people are having coffee, you can bring us coffee too and menus, even if we don’t order for another 20 minutes. It was ineptitude, not malice. But it left a bad taste, to feel like we were supposed to sit there without so much as water, in a holding pen, for the crime of coming in too early for the wrong thing.

Some months later I went there for lunch. I walk in and there are people at the counter. But I immediately get the Serbian Social Club what-are-you-doing-here vibe. Uh, lunch, that’s what I’m doing here? Oh, no, we don’t do lunch on Tuesday. We do doughnuts and coffee. I suppressed saying “Not nearly enough to stay open, clearly,” and left.

And even though I’d pass it and see it open and full of Logan Square type hipsters at night, I never went back. I often thought I should give it another try, but two tries and never once feeling really welcomed into a place right in my neighborhood meant I never worked it up to try a third time.

And now it’s closed. Turns out my neighborhood full of families can’t really sustain a place whose hours have nothing to do with the normal routines of family life. At Logan and Kedzie they might have made it, but they were too out of step for Roscoe and Wolcott. Ironically, I just saw them mentioned in a national article about hip places to eat in Chicago. I’m sure they were very excited to be in Bon Appetit or whatever it was. This will finally put us on the map! But they were already on a map; they should have paid more attention to where it said they were.

Play

Airwaves Full of Bacon 14: Hunting Frogs with Iliana Regan of Elizabeth • Hiring Grant Achatz • Wine Lists and Wine Writers in Chicago • The Squeezonk of Tolerance

afob logo

Basic CMYK stitcher-logo-transparent1 twitter-icon facebook_icon copy

Click on the above to go to iTunes, Stitcher, Twitter or Facebook.

______________________________________________________________________________

They’re out there…

and there’s only one way to stop them!
IMG_0712

(1:15) I go frog-giggin’ with Iliana Regan of the foraging-based Chicago restaurant Elizabeth and her friends Tonya Pierce and William “Getty” Sikora, and then see how she turns foraged frogs and childhood memories into a fine dining dish. It was a long drive, so we had a lot of time to talk about foraging as a trend and a lifestyle on the way.

IMG_3350

IMG_3469

You can read more about this at the Reader here and here.

IMG_2900

(24:34) Henry Adaniya (right above) was back in town for Next’s newest menu paying tribute to his restaurant, Trio, where he gave Grant Achatz his start over a decade ago. The full interview was here in the Reader but I selected an excerpt about hiring, and almost not hiring, a kid named Achatz.

IMG_2886
Black truffle explosion

(30:36) So wine retailer Craig Perman wrote this on Facebook. Then Shebnem Ince, who works for him, wrote this, and my friend John Lenart wrote this. What are they all talking about? Wine lists, and why we don’t have more food writers critiquing them. So I gathered all three of them at Perman Wine Selections to talk about all that some more.

IMG_0739
Shebnem Ince, Craig Perman.

(63:13) And I read a story at the last Between Bites, at Homestead, in July, called The Squeezonk of Tolerance.

Another Between Bites event is coming up at Frontier on October 20th; here’s how to find out more and get tickets.

between bites

IMG_1890
Canada remains ever vigilant against American invasion at Fort George, near Niagara Falls.

People often ask me before I go to another big city if I plan to eat at [INSERT EXPENSIVE TASTING MENU PLACE HERE]. The answer is almost always no, for two reasons: one, I feel like I should be true to my school and spend those bucks on the people I cover in Chicago, not go chasing the shiny thing in New York. But two, I don’t feel a burning need to go eat the food of guys in New York who’ve staged at Alinea and Mugarritz and basically have the same background and outlook on international modern food as plenty of chefs here. If I’m going somewhere different, I want to eat what’s really native to and reflective of that area. Barney Greengrass means New York to me more than Eleven Madison Park does, so that’s what I want to go have.

Up to a point, anyway. So for Toronto, the most interesting thing to try for me was Chinese food; 20 years ago, before so many Hong Kong Chinese emigrated to Canada, I went to a place in Toronto’s urban Chinatown, but that’s now dwarfed by the area out in Markham and Richmond Hill, where hundreds of import businesses are served by dozens of Chinese restaurants in strip malls. But for Montreal—if there’s such a thing as Quebecois food, it’s at top restaurants like Joe Beef and Au Pied de Cochon, so I did what I never do and got two high-end reservations back to back at those two places (actually Liverpool House, Joe Beef’s other concept, though as far as I could tell the concept is “Exactly like Joe Beef two doors away”).

IMG_1880

Montreal will be in part 2, Toronto in this post. But first—we had to drive there. And driving toward great food up through the back end of Ontario is a somewhat dispiriting experience, punctuated by rest stops whose choices are almost Stalinistically identical (Tim Hortons, KFC, Taco Bell, a convenience store called Marché). From there it got culinarily worse, as we went to Niagara Falls, the town of which is a nightmare of alleged fun attractions (wax museums! Dino mini-golf!) which even the kids couldn’t put behind them fast enough. More attractive for certain was Niagara-On-The-Lake, but it’s a typical weekenders’ quaint little shopping and eating town, take Napa and replace all the wine geegaws with maple syrup gewgaws. We had lunch and walked around and shopped a little, and we were done.

IMG_1970

IMG_1969

Finally, Toronto in time for dinner. Online I found a noodles joint called Chinese Traditional Bun that sounded promisingly funky, down some steps into a ratty little room, but with ladies making food right by the entrance. They looked at us like we had to be lost, but we convinced them we weren’t and sat down. We had pretty good xiao long bao, soup dumplings—well, Liam had most of them:

Screen Shot 2014-09-04 at 10.48.14 AM

There was also this interesting, sandwich-like thing with lamb in it. It was good, and very unusual— I wonder if it’s a Chinese thing or was invented in Toronto and has no antecedent back home to speak of. [UPDATE: see tweets at bottom.]

IMG_1962

But the best thing was dan dan mien, with housemade noodles (below). Scissors were provided to cut them as you ate. I also ordered something that said it was a lamb stew with Chinese bread in it. I don’t know what Chinese bread is, there were lots of little pieces of what looked like pasta in an enormous, fairly flavorless bowl of weird lamb cuts. Sometimes the price of experimenting on something new turns out to be that you have to waste a huge bowl of something in front of the people who made it, alas.

IMG_1960

IMG_1975

On the way there we had spotted a tiny window where a guy offered lamb skewers, so on our way back we ordered the minimum order of four and watched as the guy took them out of a home freezer, rolled them in cookie sheets covered with spices, and grilled them by hand over an electric grill. This would have been more novel if I hadn’t had basically the same thing in Chicago a few weeks earlier at the skewer place in the Richland food court next to the Chinatown Square mall, but it was cool, nevertheless, to buy street food like this on the teeming streets of Chinatown.

We wanted to get to Montreal early in the week so as not to have all the driving back at the very end, so our last stop in Toronto for the time being was hitting a place in Markham for breakfast dim sum on the way out of town. We’d actually stayed in Markham, 20 years ago, when it was farm country and the TV series of Anne of Green Gables had been shot nearby (never mind that it’s set in P.E.I.) Now it was a busy suburban area loaded, absolutely packed, with strip malls of Chinese-oriented shops.

IMG_2008

I knew there was a knockoff of Taiwan’s famous Din Tai Fung nearby, but an article in The Globe & Mail steered me to a place they said was both better and less likely to be packed, 369 Shanghai Dim Sum. Indeed, at 11 we were the second table there, though it filled up fast. First choice was xiao long bao… which were the best I’ve ever had. I’m a little leery of saying that, since there has been a lot of xiao long bao obsessiveness online, so I didn’t haul out the micrometer to measure the wrapper. I’ll just say: most delicate wrapper, best tasting soup, you can’t argue with that.

IMG_2000

IMG_2006

Most of the other things we had evidenced similarly quality, from shrimp dumplings to pastries filled with pork. At one point I saw something interesting on a nearby table, a bao with kind of a ridged top, something like a croissant, and quietly asked the waitress what it was, not wanting to seem intrusive toward the other table. “This?” she said loudly, sticking her finger right into the middle of their plates. I said yes and she explained that it was a snail. Or snails. I couldn’t tell if she meant it was just shaped like a snail shell, or actually had snails in it. I decided not to inflict an order of those on the family, but I still wonder.

IMG_2001

* * *

IMG_2137
Renee with the menus at John’s Chinese BBQ.

Coming back after a few days in Montreal I planned another Chinese-palooza with my friend Renee Suen, who writes for Toronto Life. As someone who often guides other journalists, radio hosts, etc. to places in Chicago, I was delighted when I told her that we had gone to 369 Shanghai Dim Sum based on the Globe & Mail piece by Chris Nuttall-Smith— and she replied “Yeah, I took Chris there.”

IMG_2107
Piri-piri chicken.

We planned to meet for more dim sum the next day, so the night before we tried something else we don’t have in Chicago— we went to a Portuguese grilled chicken and meats place called Piri-Piri. To be honest, it wasn’t that different from all the South American grilled meats places we have, but it was likable enough.

IMG_2111

IMG_2113
You have not tasted the power of my Dragon Fu-sion!

Since we’d had Northern dim sum, Renee wanted us to try Southern dim sum too, and she directed us to a place called Dragon Boat Fusion Cuisine, which was packed and barely able to contain the crowds that hovered around the host stand and which she had to beat back out of the dining room regularly. We waited a half hour but finally sat, and it was worth it. Things maybe weren’t as delicate as at 369, which being Northern-style uses a different kind of wheat wrapper anyway, but they were well-made and the fillings were a cut above any that I’ve had here, from something as basic as pork in an egg white wrap to the BBQ pork bao and this cool-looking thing you dipped in mustard and plum sauce:

IMG_2120

IMG_2121
Custard buns.

IMG_2117
BBQ pork pastries.

IMG_2126
Yes, there were children deciding what to order.

We were full but not done; Renee wanted us to try one of her favorite dishes, something called “King of King’s Pork” at a Hong Kong BBQ place, John’s Chinese BBQ. It’s a hunk of meat somewhere in the vicinity of pork belly, double-glazed in a honey sauce. And it’s awesome, the ultimate meat candy.

IMG_0607

My delight in it was slightly diminished by the display in the foyer as you enter the restaurant: an assortment of shark fin skeletons, a reminder that this is the real Chinese cuisine, eating endangered species to this day in north America. China really has set up shop in this corner of Canada, on a scale well beyond the ability of food writers or much of anyone else to fully comprehend.

IMG_2145

IMG_1922
At Fort George we saw them fire this…

IMG_1938
In honor of these guys, Canadian paratroopers who dropped on and right after D-Day.

ADDENDUM: from a couple of friends via Twitter:

Play

Airwaves Full of Bacon 13: Smoked Salmon Tasting With Ethan Forman of H. Forman and Son, London • Paul Fehribach of Big Jones on His Southern Cookbook • Michael Nagrant on Life as a Restaurant Critic in 2014

afob logo

Basic CMYK stitcher-logo-transparent1 twitter-icon facebook_icon copy

Click on the above to go to iTunes, Stitcher, Twitter or Facebook.

______________________________________________________________________________


It’s the very far from fat free episode!

(1:40) First up, David Hammond and I taste smoked salmon with Ethan Forman of London’s H. Forman and Son, makers of superior smoked salmon which you can find at Eataly, Whole Foods, and a number of north shore delis including Kaufman’s, Upper Crust, and Once Upon a Bagel.


Sashimi cut.


Paul Fehribach with caul fat for making chaudin.

(17:25) Then I talk with Paul Fehribach of Big Jones, who has The Big Jones Cookbook coming out next year, based on his extensive research into southern food. I’ve written several times about his digging into old food ways, like here, here and here. A longer version of this interview was at the Reader here and here.


Salt-rising bread.


Pancit noodles at Isla Pilipina.

(36:10) Then I talk with Michael Nagrant, reviewer for Redeye, about reviewing and the restaurant scene in 2014, and we mention lots of things along the way. Here are links to things he wrote about: the chicken-donut sandwich, North Pond, Isla Pilipina, Laughing Bird, Publican Quality Meats, Bohemian House, Tete Charcuterie, and MFK.

So contrary to what it says in the podcast it doesn’t look like my last appearance on WGN Radio is available online, but here’s the episode of Outside the Loop in which I talk about the food journalism scene.

IMG_2479
A photo my son Liam took of the zoology building at the University of Chicago.

From the news our food scene seems like it’s entering a more corporate-concept phase— steak houses and ramen shops from the best-known restaurant groups, every day something interesting closes to reconcept as standard Italian, and so on. It would be easy to think that we weren’t going to see much in the way of personal restaurants this year.

And yet somehow we’ve had three restaurants open within the past year that seem about as good as they can be at giving three chefs who’ve been around the scene a while a platform for the expression of their mature selves, personal and without significant compromise. One is The Radler, for longtime Vie #2 Nathan Sears, representing his notion of a German beer hall with fresh food, meaty yet light and winning. One is Parachute, from Beverly Kim and her husband Johnny Clark, a Fat Rice-like hipster cafe with Korean flavors and fine dining execution. And surprisingly, the third is Matthias Merges’ A10, in Hyde Park.

The surprising part is not that Merges was capable of such a thing— as the guy who ran the kitchen at Charlie Trotter’s for 14 years, he seems capable of pretty much anything. But his first two concepts were just that, concepts, and that seemed to be the direction he was going. Yusho seemed very smartly thought out as a kind of refined-Japanese-comfort-foody bar, and the concept was independent enough of who was actually cooking there that it would be possible to replicate at least a few times without losing quality— and so there’s one in Las Vegas, and one coming soon to the same stretch of Hyde Park as A10. His second place, Billy Sunday, seems less well thought out— I liked the drinks (a tonic-based cocktail program) a lot, but the food (helmed by John Vermiglio, formerly of Table 52 and G.E.B.) seemed a weird mess of things that didn’t go together, or with the setting.

But the point is they both seemed conceived in terms of how to market them to a certain audience in Logan Square. Very smartly so, but still. A10 also originated in a business deal— Merges was approached by the University of Chicago, which is trying to redevelop 53rd Street to help make Hyde Park more attractive to prospective students and job candidates. (You see U of C security all over the street at night, giving the entire neighborhood a kind of Universal City Walk feel even though there are plenty of non-U of C businesses along there.)

IMG_2555

So A10 seemed like a smart concept for the neighborhood, contemporary Italian with French and just plain modern touches. (The A10 is the highway that connects Italy and southern France, so the French part is more like the Rhone and the Riviera than Paris or Burgundy.) But it’s a surprise that it also turns out to be one of the best Italian restaurants in town, and the clearest example yet of how Merges’ Trotter heritage translates to more accessible and reasonably priced food.

I should say that Vermiglio is the official chef here as well, so I have no idea who’s responsible for what exactly, but Merges did walk in soon after we arrived on Friday night, incidentally blowing my cover (I’ve interviewed him and videoed him for Key Ingredient; he sent us a couple of extra things and stopped by to say hi). In any case let’s assume a meeting of minds between the two of them on an approach to food. The salads seemed like pure Trotter’s, with hair just mussed a little for Italian rusticity— a blend of cucumber, melon, red pepper puree and grilled onions, or kohlrabi and apple slices shaved with downy parmigiano, the kohlrabi sourced, we were told, from the Cook County Jail’s gardens. Simple height-of-summer produce dressed just enough and no more, and despite the efforts at seeming more casual, nearly as perfect-looking as they would have at Trotter’s (note the spacing of the tiny bits of chopped green whatever on the kohlrabi salad above). I should note, though, that there was an exception to this that didn’t delight in the same way, a kale salad with tonnato dressing and pumpernickel (pumpernickel is the new Italian bread, apparently, to judge by this and Cicchetti). It was heavy and wintry, but that’s our fault for ordering it I guess, more than theirs for having the apparently-inevitable-at-the-moment kale salad on the menu.

IMG_2548

More than one restaurant has gone downhill after the salad course in peak season, but not this one— the pastas, made in house, were superb. The best was this gemelli with some kind of sauce involving oil-cured sun-dried tomatoes, some kind of roe (bottarga maybe, under another name?), saffron (I think that was in the pasta itself) and lemon. I’m not sure of the precise composition of it, all I know is that it sang, it absolutely shone of lemony brightness with an undercurrent of brine and cello-deep notes of tomato. I want it for an alarm o’clock every morning, to jolt me into the light.

IMG_2559

My son Liam had bucatini carbonara, which he pronounced excellent (I’ve made it many times; he quizzed the waitress to see if it was heavy on the pepper like mine is), and we also nibbled on green tomato lasagna with blue crab and bearnaise sauce— I wondered if green tomato lasagna would mean the pasta or what was in between them, but it proved to be the latter. I don’t think anything was either French or Italian about this, except the basic idea of lasagna, but what it did remind me of was the one thing that I had really liked among the food at Billy Sunday— their version of a hot brown, which was heavy on sliced tomato and mornay sauce, as I recall it. There was also a special of corned short ribs with cabbage, which turned out to be what that would make if you think about it— a reuben in a pan without bread, basically.

IMG_2553

Desserts were a little anticlimactic, fine but not as creative-seeming as the savory courses; they included a nice coconut panna cotta and, as at Yusho, soft serve (chocolate malt, which had a lot of barley tang). One other thing I noted about A10— the staff seemed a little older and enthused to be there. A lot of people have wanted higher-end choices in Hyde Park, but I suspect servers from the other restaurants around the area have wanted it even more than most, hoping to make more money than you can at, say, Mellow Yellow or Ragin Cajun. For now, at least, A10 has very interactive and conscientious service which is happy to see you.

A10
1462 E. 53rd
773-288-1010

http://a10hydepark.com

* * *

IMG_1818
Salt for your fries?

When I ran across Ivy’s Burgers, Hot Dogs & Fries in Edgebrook, I thought I might have discovered a place right under the noses of many of the more active remaining LTHers who live on the northwest side. Turns out that Rene G, who lives in Hyde Park, had actually been there and eaten a Japanese dog with seaweed salad (!) there, and there are a handful of other mentions, though more about it opening soon (a year ago) than about how it actually turned out to be. Actually, you know who didn’t mention it? The guy who wrote the best hot dog in every neighborhood post at Thrillist, and tried to find every dog spot doing the Hot Doug thing of more exotic dogs. Oh well, it probably wouldn’t have beaten out Superdawg for that area anyway.

Still, let’s give it a nod, it’s always good to know a better dog and burger joint in every neighborhood, especially one close to something you might do, like bike on the forest preserve bike trails at Devon & Caldwell; and while I like the sleepy-50s feel of that area (I spent a few moments reading the 80s and 90s clippings on the front of the Filipino restaurant on Caldwell there), I can’t say it’s a bad thing that something from this century has opened up along there, too. Great smoky Polish, good-looking burgers (haven’t had one yet), the chili dog was decent but the homemade chili a little watery, eating it was a race against time before the bun fell apart; there are more exotic dogs on the menu, fresh-cut fries— served saltless so you can salt them yourself from the exotic salt bar— and good-looking shakes, plus a message about sustainability in the wood they used for their tables, or something like that. Always happy to know about one more dog spot that’s pushing the envelope and trying to do something unique.

IMG_1822

Ivy’s Burgers, Hot Dogs & Fries
5419 W. Devon
773-775-2545
www.ivyschicago.com

Barbecue at Mariano’s. I wrote about the sushi bar at the Lawrence/Ravenswood Mariano’s recently, and after a couple of more visits around meal times, all I can say is Eataly missed a bet not being located here. The place gets packed every lunchtime and every night, it may not say the best things about a neighborhood if its local wine bar is where you also get toilet paper, but the neighborhood has embraced it for all those purposes. I’m going to be a little contrarian on barbecue though, at least contrary to my usual position vis-a-vis Mike Sula, who usually blasts a new barbecue place and then six months later I find it’s not bad. Sula had generally positive things to say about “Todd’s BBQ” here even if he could never find out if there actually was a Todd.

Me… well, sure, it’s high among supermarket barbecue, of that I have no doubt, because how much supermarket barbecue isn’t simply meat that’s been sauced and got no closer to smoke than the Pall Malls rolled in the meat cutter’s sleeve? They use a Southern Pride smoker, which has the potential to make real barbecue, so give them points for that right off the bat.

I ordered brisket and pulled pork; the brisket was pretty good, if awfully loose and floppy, like it had spent a lot of time in a warming drawer steaming itself. Still, I’d put it on the thumbs-up side. The pulled pork (which was, incidentally, chopped, not pulled) didn’t have enough smokiness and basically, like most supermarket pork it didn’t have much flavor, but what flavor it did have was a little off, industrially vaguely unpleasing. The sauces (in help yourself bottles at the counter) were all way too sweet, but that’s easily remedied, just buy your own of something better. There’s rotisserie chicken behind the same counter which doesn’t appear to get smoke, and some other chicken, it appears, going on a gas grill. Anyway, a fair showing but better really isn’t that far away; I will probably drive an extra mile or so for Smalls or somewhere instead. On the other hand, if one person wants barbecue and the other wants sushi, this is the place.

Tags: , , ,