Sky Full of Bacon

Here’s a little tease of what the next Sky Full of Bacon will be about.  Oddly enough, this picture was NOT taken somewhere that has anything to do with the next podcast, it just happened to be part of the decor at the next place I visited after going to where this podcast is being shot; but it’s relevant to the subject.  (There, that should confuse everyone.)

Click here to go to part 1.

Now it was time to get to work, recreating my childhood memories— in the kitchen.

Before Cathy arrived to show me the ropes of canning, I did as much prep as I could. I started with the beets. Beets will benefit from almost any logical thing you do to give them a little savory flavor to soak up as you roast them; in this case I vaguely followed this Alton Brown recipe (though the time is never enough; mine roasted for a full hour), coating them in a little oil and tossing them with shallots and a little rosemary I plucked from a plant that never really grew in this weird summer’s weather. But any herb and oniony flavor will be good, enhance their roasted beetiness.

Then I began peeling the tomatoes. Boil water, drop in till the skins start to split, toss into cold water in sink. Considering the half a bushel or whatever I had, it was fast work.

Then the beets went into their bath of vinegary solution. Cathy has a canning kit from Ball which is full of neat little plastic gizmos. The funnel is perfect for not spilling your precious farmstand goodies as you fill the jars…

And this device lets you stir air pockets out, then reverses to show you the height of the air space in your filled jar.

And into the steaming inferno they go, to emerge as shelf-stable, pickled beets.

How do you know how much to do some of these things, like the amount of vinegar, the time to boil, the height of air to leave in the jar? Take off your shoes, your Government has it all figured out for you! Just go here, a site actually maintained by the University of Georgia but paid for by your USDA tax dollars, and a few clicks will take you to instructions for the appropriate foodstuff.  For instance, beets in a quart jar will take 35 minutes of boiling to be safely canned.

* * *

While the beets boil, I turn to the piccalilli.  I puree 8 good sized tomatoes, then add 3 sweet red peppers, a yellow and two green peppers.

Add some onions and at this point what I have is a pretty nice salsa.  I add some cinnamon sticks and allspice in a tea strainer, then half the final vinegar, and begin stewing it all. For the moment, it’s as red as ajvar.

Meanwhile, the beets come out of the canning pot and next go in the Roma tomatoes.  Even with lemon juice, they will take 85 minutes, which gives us plenty of time to fiddle with the piccalilli as it stews.

All along, I’m tasting and testing.  The cinnamon and allspice begin to appear in the background, making it less like a bowl of stewed tomatoes and more like a sauce.  Too much vinegar, but some sugar mellows it a bit, and salt balances the sugar.  Slowly, addition by addition, taste by taste and test by test, I get closer to my grandmother’s piccalilli, like a Polaroid slowly developing, revealing long-gone faces as familiar as if you’d seen them yesterday.

That’s Lilly and her mother, who lived into the early 80s, almost to 100. Did the piccalilli recipe come from her? Or was it just something Lilly clipped from a magazine decades ago that she never thought of as a family tradition, and only became one to me because I associated it with her? I’ll never know. (Well, unless I find the recipe card and it turns out to have the clipping stapled to it, I guess.)

Finally, after maybe two hours of stewing and adjusting, it tastes something like my childhood memories—the vinegar too strong still, but it will have a month or more in the jar to mellow.  The color isn’t an exact match; maybe she did have green tomatoes, after all, what I remember was definitely a mix of red, green and brown.  Growing up, I never even knew there were such things as green tomatoes (that is, as an edible foodstuff) until I was 20 or so, but that doesn’t mean Lilly didn’t.

But the flavor is close, it excites neurons that haven’t tasted this memory in 25 years.  It’s not exactly like being in her house again (for that, I’d have to light up a few Winstons), but it’s like a surprisingly sharp picture of one part of it, reminding me of things I haven’t thought of in years.  (Of course, to really taste my piccalilli in all its Wichita-1978 glory, I’ll need Wonder bread and Cure 81 ham.)

Just five minutes’ boiling for piccalilli, surprisingly.  Then a month or so to mellow.

Not at all a long wait, to have something again for the first time in 25 years.  And to pass a little bit of the great-grandmother who died before they were born, to my two boys.

Lilly, my grandfather Al Gebert, my dad and my uncle, c. 1935.

Lilly’s Piccalilli, Version 10.09
8 large ripe tomatoes or equivalent
3 sweet red peppers
3 bell peppers, green or yellow or orange
2 large onions or equivalent
1-3/4 cups sugar
3 cups cider vinegar
3-4 Tbsp salt, to taste
3 cinnamon sticks
1 dozen allspice berries, in cheesecloth bag or tea strainer
1/4 cup mustard seed
1/3 Tbsp celery seed

Peel and core tomatoes, chop coarsely in food processor, and partially drain mixture in a strainer. Chop peppers and onions in food processor to approximate size of pickle relish. Place all in stockpot with cinnamon and allspice and 1-1/2 cups of the vinegar. Bring to a boil and simmer vigorously, reducing liquid considerably, for 1 hour to 1-1/2 hours.

Remove cinnamon and allspice. Add remaining vinegar, sugar, salt, celery seed and mustard seed, as well as powdered cinnamon and allspice to taste. Simmer for 10 minutes. Pour into hot sterilized jars, allowing 1/2 inch headroom in jars. Boil in canner for 5 minutes.

The closing of Gourmet has led to a number of articles noting the irony that the healthiest food magazine out there is the one that was bought by Gourmet’s owner two decades ago, promptly killed in part to help protect Gourmet, and then resurrected on a business model 180 degrees from Gourmet’s: Cook’s Illustrated. If Gourmet was the New Yorker of food, Cook’s Illustrated has long been the Chilton’s— a no-gloss how to guide low on romance, high on practicality. Their editorial approaches were manifestly opposite, but more significantly now, so were their business models: Gourmet existed to sell glossy ads to food companies wanting to reach old money, Cook’s Illustrated sells subscriptions directly to people who want solid information and will fork over their own money for it.

So you might expect Christopher Kimball, editor-publisher of CI, to make that point when asked why his magazine flourishes in the face of Gourmet’s demise. You might expect pretty much his whole life to be built on that difference, in fact. But you would be wrong. Kimball’s response, in a NY Times op-ed, basically is… “Gourmet would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you pesky bloggers!” Not only did free writing on the internet hurt paid writing at Gourmet (that much seems true at least to a certain point), but in the process, Kimball claims, it killed a culture of quality food writing, only to replace it with democratized dumbth (as Steve Allen called it when he would rant about how pop culture had sunk since his day of… bringing Mexican dialect comedians to America).

This is an odd argument for Kimball of all people to be making, since his magazine is built on the assumption that you can democratize any dish by finding the optimum way to prepare it. But it gets even odder with an account of the history of food publishing that contradicts and refutes itself as he goes:

The precursor to Gourmet, and the first truly successful American food publication, was founded in the 1890s and titled The Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science and Domestic Economics. It eventually changed its name to American Cookery and then died in 1947, forced under, in part, by the founding of Gourmet… It was the end of domestic science and food economy and the beginning of the era of the gourmet

The end of domestic science… except for the literally thousands of practical recipes that continue to be published not only in the major women’s magazines that existed then (McCalls, Better Homes and Gardens, etc.) and have come into existence since (Martha Stewart, O, etc.) but in the many cooking magazines that have sprung up, everything from Cooking Light to Rachael Ray magazine. That is a home ec iceberg that has always been larger than the gourmet tip, if largely unnoticed by the food elite. But keep in mind that exaggerated report of a death when considering the other death Kimball is here to announce.

Next, he poses a scary question:

Now, 68 years after its founding, Gourmet has followed American Cookery… Is American magazine publishing on the verge of being devoured by the democratic economics of the Internet?

but then immediately demonstrates that it’s based on a false premise. He admires the vanished charms of an old school billionaire, Conde Nast’s S.I. Newhouse:

He poured his fortune into his magazine properties and his editors, even when the prospect of return seemed dim. His was a world of philanthropic publishing.

So did Gourmet never actually make money, even in the boom times recently ended? Was it basically The New Republic of food, a moneyloser supported by a rich guy in search of influence? That seems hard to credit, but it does suggest that its high-flying ways were especially vulnerable to any downturn. I’ve read that pages in Gourmet went for a base rate of $90,000, where Bon Appetit, which actually had a larger (if far less elite) subscriber base, charges about a third of that. Is it really any wonder that such a magazine would prove too rich for any advertiser’s blood in any economic downturn? (And will you really be surprised if, having cut Gourmet’s enormous overhead by shutting it down and clearing it out, Conde Nast revives the brand in a much more cost-effective guise?) It wouldn’t take bloggers to kill a magazine under circumstances like that.

The shuttering of Gourmet reminds us that in a click-or-die advertising marketplace, one ruled by a million instant pundits, where an anonymous Twitter comment might be seen to pack more resonance and useful content than an article that reflects a lifetime of experience, experts are not created from the top down but from the bottom up. They can no longer be coronated; their voices have to be deemed essential to the lives of their customers. That leaves, I think, little room for the thoughtful, considered editorial with which Gourmet delighted its readers for almost seven decades.

I find this too incoherent to entirely follow (and it goes on for another couple of grafs, without getting clearer) but to the extent I see arguments here, they seem mostly backwards. Articles in magazines may be written by experts, but they’re more often written by freelancers who’ve interviewed experts on the phone, and often in the process simplify and dumb down and just plain screw the expert’s insights up; the internet has brought us the voices of ten million non-experts, it’s true, but one thing it’s also done is cut out that middleman freelancer and given experts a way to talk to us directly. At the same time, by removing another mediator— the editor— the vast variety available online gives us the ability to find for ourselves the voice we trust most on a subject.

Okay, so at its best, Reichl finding and editing Laurie Colwin, say, you have that vaunted magazine experience of the editor shaping the reader’s experience. But 95% of magazine writing isn’t about that, it’s about 5 Hot Tips for the subject of the minute that every other magazine is about this minute. In a bulletpointed, tip-driven freelance market, the reason so many writers blog is because it is their chance to write the thoughtful, considered piece, and not just 7 Great Cheeses To Pair With Giving Him the Best Sex He’s Ever Had.

But Kimball’s committed to the cult of the expert and the editors who love them, so he ends it with an analogy that he thinks closes the sale, but actually sends him down in flames:

Julia Child, one of my Boston neighbors, epitomized this old-school notion of apprenticeship… Her first question upon meeting a young chef was always, “And where did you train, dear?”

That’s right, Julia Child, who wanted us all to cook French at home, is trotted out as the advocate of only eating from certified chefs. If anyone stood for the idea that self-education was possible, it was Child— true, she might have expected expertise in a high-priced restaurant, we all would, but it was an expertise that she herself did not really have (yes, she attended Cordon Bleu, but a housewife going to cooking classes hardly constituted an “old-school notion of apprenticeship” in the feudal kitchens of 1950s France) and plainly did not consider it essential to the act of writing about food. Child may not have thought much of the best-known blog specifically about her, but I very much doubt that if she were alive now, she would so presumptively dismiss, as Kimball does, the explosion of interest in and, yes, expertise shown about food on the internet today.

I know lots of people who can foods around this time of year, but I had never done it myself before last Sunday. I’m pretty game for tackling new culinary techniques, even ones with a risk of botulism attached to them, but this was one thing I wanted somebody to hold my hand on the first time I did it. It’s one thing to inspect a piece of coppa to see what’s growing on it, sniffing and poking it yourself, but another to peer into a sealed jar wondering what life and death might be growing inside it.

The estimable Cathy Lambrecht, LTHForum co-founder and whirling dervish of the culinary-historical scene (if you don’t know her from any of those activities, you saw her helping prep raccoon in Sky Full of Bacon #9), is a hardcore canner and, frankly, someone who takes the Jack Webb approach to canning, the rules exist to be followed exactly, just the USDA regs ma’am. So there could have been no better guide for my first foray into canning.

So what got me canning this year? Well, that’s a little bit of a family historical tale.

I’ve posted and even given talks based on the cooking of one side of my family, my mom’s German Mennonite side. I don’t believe I’ve ever mentioned the other side, my dad’s— and at first glance there’d seem to be a reason for that. They were Irish Catholics, not a group noted for fine cuisine, and they were in Kansas in the middle of the 20th century. Steak, meatloaf, hamloaf— that’s pretty much what I remember them eating, and they ate it out as often as they did at home. They had an active social life right up until most of their friends had died, and my dad summed it up with a story he liked to tell about when he was first in the Marine Corps and the recruits were getting a little maudlin about their silver-haired mamas slavin’ over a hot stove. My dad replied that he could see his silver-haired mama slaving over… a hot game of bridge.

Yet Lillian Gebert (nee Davison) was a very good cook for her day, and my mom made sure to save her recipe box when we cleaned out her house (she died in 1990). And surprisingly, though her side didn’t come from a farming background within living memory (her dad was an executive with a department store), she was the one who occasionally made things to can. If she ever canned fruit or vegetables, I don’t remember it, but there were two condiments she made every year as long as she could: honey mustard and piccalilli sauce.

I’ve never felt a need to make the honey mustard— commercial products like East Shore taste exactly like I remember it— but the piccalilli has long been a mystery, tantalizing me. What is piccalilli, you ask? Well, that’s part of the problem: it’s a lot of things. Search for “piccalilli recipe” and you will find quite a range of preserved condiments seemingly with little beyond the idea of pickling in common. At one end it’s a British pickle with a distinct Indian influence, much like chow chows and chutneys; here’s a good example of this kind of British piccalilli, cauliflower and cucumber in a pickle turned bright yellow with turmeric.

Since the name is almost certainly British, that’s probably where it began, but it came to mean something rather different in the American South. Basically, in America it’s a green tomato relish, and became something of a traditional way to use up any green tomatoes still clinging to the vine when winter hit. You might find things like cabbage in it still (as in this recipe), but basically it was a sweet-sour relish made of green tomatoes and green and red peppers, with notes of spices like cinnamon and allspice or cloves.

As the cloves suggest, it goes well on ham, and in fact that’s pretty much all I ever did with it as a kid, put it on ham sandwiches. I’m sort of curious now what else you might do with it. Yet even if my use of it was not terribly sophisticated, it was a pretty bold taste for an 8 or 10 year old to develop a love for, and was probably one of the first genuinely complex things I really appreciated.

So I opened Lilly’s old recipe box, found the recipe, and… nope. It didn’t work that way. The one recipe I wanted was, of course, the one that wasn’t in there. (I have to wonder if, stupidly, I didn’t pull it from the box some years ago, and put it somewhere that it will never be found.) Instead, I had to do some detective work, trying to piece together what was Lilly’s likely recipe based on the tastes and recipes of the time.

I made some suppositions based on memory. It definitely had cinnamon, and I remembered her spending some hours stewing it, so that suggested cinnamon sticks; this was the 60s and 70s, so it probably didn’t have any heat to it, no more than ketchup does. I doubted that she used green tomatoes, that’s a Southern thing we really didn’t know in Kansas much, and she might not have even had red peppers— the color of hers was probably a mix of red tomatoes and the ubiquitous green bell pepper. Clearly it was vinegar-based, both by what I remembered of the taste and because it would need it for preserving, and that obviously implied a lot of sugar and some salt to balance.

Online and in one of Cathy’s many, many vintage midwestern cookbooks, I found a couple of recipes I felt looked right, close enough that I could wing something of my own and make adjustments during the cooking process. Cathy and I picked Sunday to do the canning, and so I set out Saturday with one son driving toward DeKalb, looking for farmstands (I was using enough that it was worth driving out into the country versus paying city farmer’s market prices).

* * *

I chose that direction because I knew another place in the area I wanted to try: Ream’s Market, in Elburn. Elburn is a small town about 15 minutes beyond the edge of Chicago suburbia, and Ream’s is a great little old school butcher shop that answers the question what you do for fun in Elburn: you make sausage all day long. They have an amazing number of different kinds of sausage, most of the bratwurst variety (I picked up a South African style called Boerewors) but including some dry cured salamis (I bought some little finocchino, which are excellent). Not suprisingly, Ream’s is the hub of activity on a Saturday afternoon in Elburn and luckily for me and a hungry boy, there’s a guy with a hot dog cart selling Ream’s incredibly flavorful and smoothly-ground brats and housemade hot dogs.

We continued on Rt. 38 toward DeKalb and saw two farms with farmstands. I drove past the first one to one called Yaeger’s, which had seemed appealing since it also claimed to have Halloween amusements (a corn maze, an inflatable jumping and climbing something or other). Fact was, though, it was pretty small and on a drizzly day, fun looked minimal. So we stuck to acquiring some tomatoes and some corn, plus one pumpkin. Doubling back, we hit the other stand (I don’t remember the name but, hey, it’s the other stand on Rt. 38 between Elburn and DeKalb) and found a much better range of produce. I bought a big box of Roma tomatoes for $12, and some beets as well (I’ve done refrigerator pickles of beets before, but I figured the Romas and the beets would give us something to can while the piccalilli was still stewing). That was all I really saw, this late in the season, that looked like the kinds of thing I’d like to have in my pantry. Relatively cheap produce acquired, we headed back to Chicago to await canning the next day.

Would my piccalilli match up to my memories of Lilly’s?  Stay tuned for part 2.

Ream’s Elburn Market
128 N Main St
Elburn, IL 60119-9167
(630) 365-6461

Further adventures in free lunch:

File photo.


I had eaten at Quartino once before, and for a place that fell pretty heavily on the concepted/Disneyfied side at first glance— an imitation old school meat market type place inside a brand new skyscraper, serving as a different sort of meat market for expense account types— I was pretty impressed by the food. And, for that matter, the decor; the thick white tile design and the well-crafted charcuterie and pastas seemed to be doing an equally good job at convincing you there was some genuine heritage to a place that was a hole in the ground five minutes earlier.

This time, it was a lunch PR event for chef John Colletta’s new book, 250 True Italian Pasta Dishes:

In addition to a platter of their house charcuterie, which is very nicely made, we were served a number of dishes allegedly from the book. I say allegedly because, well, there was a definite disconnect between the mass appeal, Better Homes and Garden-ish look of the book and the dishes we were served, which included a lot of ingredients like guanciale or oddly shaped pastas you don’t readily find at the Piggly Wiggly in Huntsville, or even Whole Foods. In fact, the whole affair seemed a bit of a strange meeting of different worlds; the chic, masters-of-the-universe big city restaurant producing a cookbook for an audience that clips recipes from Sunset and Parade, promoting that book by feeding its food to writers from The Onion (that’s who we sat with) and other urban-hip publications. (And sure enough, close examination suggested that the recipes bore only modest resemblance to the dishes we were served— the best of them, a complex bolognese-like pork ragu that bespoke many hours of stewing, seemed to be an entirely different dish from the quick, tomatoey thing pictured, for instance.)

Having attended two of these events (thanks to Mr. Hammond) with roughly the same crowd of local food niche media, I continue to wonder, does this kind of PR make sense? Is a message reaching any sort of target market for this book (obviously the kind of urban-hip people who buy chic-looking Italian cookbooks like this one will judge Colletta’s by its middle-America cover)? It seems like these folks get invited out for things like this because they are the folks you can get to turn out for an event like this (and I saw many of the same hearty eaters from my last adventure in PR events). But with the media changing so rapidly, I really wonder if the way of really reaching the audience for this book, whoever they are, hasn’t changed too— or should, anyway.

But to return to me heartily stuffing my face… authentically from the book or not, several of the dishes were outstanding, particularly that pork ragu with orrechiete. I came home with the book, but mainly it made me  interested in returning to Quartino sooner than the next Super Bowl with Chicago in it.

Hearty Boys

The Hearty Boys are caterers. The Hearty Boys had one restaurant, HB, now sold to somebody else. The Hearty Boys are gay. The Hearty Boys had a TV show for one season. One of the Hearty Boys introduced me at the Printer’s Row Literary Fest earlier this year.

That concludes a complete inventory of my knowledge about the Hearty Boys, Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh, before I was invited to a party at their house for 1) an artist who used to work for them, Matt Lew, and 2) their new upcoming restaurant, Hearty. They knew even less about me, I’m sure.

In any case, I had a pleasant time chatting with assorted food industry and food media folk while noshing on assorted catering stuff that, again, was alleged to represent what was going to be offered at the restaurant when it opens on November 4. Hard to tell from such little noshes what entrees will really be like… but I gotta say, they’re very good caterers. The stuff was all fresh and lively, not merely generic alcohol-soaking stuff, nasty little puff pastry bites or stuffed mushrooms or whatever. (The most interesting item: an assortment of hardboiled eggs stuffed with various things like beets; this actually will be an item at the bar, a rather ironically named egg “flight.”) And nothing wrong with the alcohol either… they were primarily mixing Aviation and Brown Derby cocktails, and I like the idea of focusing on classic retro cocktails a lot.

So: I wouldn’t say I came away with too clear an idea of what they’ll be serving, but I will be interested to see when they open next month.  As for the social side of the party-Hearty… I remember reading a book where a Russian emigre to the hipster scene in early 80s New York comments that “American men were all so neatly dressed that I thought they were all gay!”  At this party, I definitely felt like I was standing up for the traditional heterosexual values… of rumpledness and schlubdom.

Edzo’s Burger Shop

Eddie Lakin, LTH poster, blogger here and here, and chef here and there, is opening a burger place in Evanston.  You can read all about it at the second of those two links.  No, really, you should.  It’s pretty interesting, reading all the mundane but nerve-wrackingly necessary stuff that goes into making a restaurant happen.  I talked with Eddie about the possibility of chronicling his progress toward Burgerdom as a Sky Full of Bacon podcast, but we were both too busy to be in each other’s faces for the amount of time it would have taken to do that, so go read his blog and gain a new appreciation for what it all takes.

Anyway, by now he may just be a few days from opening, but last week I went up to his place to try what he was making and offer feedback as he worked at training his staff (Mexican cooks he inherited from the space’s previous incarnation as a pita and hummus joint) in the finer points of burgerdom.  What’s going to be really cool about Edzo’s is that he’s really studied the different classic burger styles that exist around the Chicago area and is aiming for, yes, exactly the kind of fresh meat, thin patty burger that a certain blogger posted about here, among other places.  Here you can see how he’s going for the Schoop’s-like crisped lacy edge:

It was still a work in progress as of last Tuesday, but I offered my feedback (as did the others there that day) and I think Eddie’s well on his way to changing the burger paradigm on the frozen-burger-puck-plagued north side.  There are lots of little signs of his personality and willingness to try new fun things at Edzo’s, and of the many new, quality-burger joints to have opened in the last year or so (Five Guys, Counter, Epic, etc.), I think Edzo’s will be the one that defines a particular Chicago style and has the potential to be the Hot Doug’s of burgerdom.  I can’t wait!

Edzo’s Burger Shop
1571 Sherman Ave.
Evanston, IL

Whoever said there’s no free lunch never had a food blog; in the last couple of weeks I’ve had plenty of opportunities to partake of free food, and to observe the circumstances under which free food is flung at writers who might maybe say something nice about the flinger.  Draw your own conclusions about the level of corruption to which I have undoubtedly sunk, as I recap (in two parts):


Kevin Boehm, developer or impresario or whatever you want to call him of these hoppin’ Lincoln Park spots as well as the upcoming Stephanie Izard restaurant, invited David Hammond to pull together a group of a dozen prominent LTHForumites for a tasting of his three restaurants. At one point LTHForum was considering a no-freebies-ever policy (which even at that point was not strictly true, though the freebies tended to be pretty low cost at that point) but as this thread suggests, with more of us moving into more official journalistic endeavors which pierce the veil of reviewer anonymity and so on, they seem to have decided, screw it, let’s eat! That there is still some uncomfortableness about this choice, however, is made evident by the fact that when this goes up, I’ll be the first of the dozen to post about the dinner, now two weeks past.

Anyway, we had about five courses at each of the first two restaurants, and then dessert at Landmark, by which point we were quite stuffed by the competing dinners before. The first spot, Perennial, occupies the kind of space you’d expect to find a coffee shop in, a sort of V-shaped space in the corner of a hotel, and if the room seems awkward at first it actually proves to be a pretty lively combination of fine dining with the bustle and urban liveliness of a diner on a corner overlooking the park. (Ironically, the hotel is the least lively part of the building— apparently the developers went bust and are now under indictment, so Perennial is sort of the restaurant for a hotel that doesn’t exist. I didn’t ask if any of the bartenders were named Lloyd.)

Perennial is pretty committed to fresh local ingredients, as you might expect from a place across the street from Green City Market (and in fact I saw chef Ryan Poli there on Wednesday), and that was the strength of what we had. One of the best things of the night was the first— a simple corn fritter in a corn soup, which tasted like really, really in season corn. Unfortunately I felt like most of what followed just missed because of this or that executional issue— squab with foie gras and a tomato marmalade (excuse me, Iron Creek tomato marmalade, to namecheck a Green City vendor) had great flavor and others found it perfect, but I found my squab to be on the uncooked side of rare; Roman style black truffle gnocchi had great accompaniments, not least a generous slice of truffle, but the gnocchi (formed into a loaf and then sliced) seemed gummy. And a dish of lobster with French-style lentils with bits of Berkshire pig trotters in them, seemed like two dishes that were better eaten separately.

Others seemed happier than me (no one else seemed to find their squab undercooked, a couple even used the word “perfectly”) so it may be that the challenge of serving 12 at once threw a wrench into the restaurant. Anyway, I think it has promise and Poli, who came to perhaps a bit too early fame at Butter when John Mariani raved about it, is clearly a capable chef worth watching, but I’m not convinced Perennial quite achieves the level it’s aiming for yet, next to other chefs making noise about their commitment to local ingredients. But the night is young.

Boka I had actually eaten at already, not entirely happily. It’s one of the city’s most beautiful rooms— dark brown, with white sails along one wall— and I had some things that I liked a lot, but by the end, dividing the price tag by the things I really liked, it didn’t feel like that great a deal. Some of it was that the food seemed out of date— Asian fusion, been there done that— but more of it was that things just didn’t work often enough for the price. If you’re going to be next door to Alinea, you need to wow, even adjusted for price (and though expensive, it was certainly nowhere near as expensive as Alinea).

This time, I was much more favorably impressed— though I have to say that that seemed to be a minority opinion at the table. The tasting started with a bento-like box containing four seafood tastes including one sitting in smoked salt. Others felt that the smoke overwhelmed everything but I thought this was exquisite, delicate little hints of the sea that absolutely made the case for Asian fusion as a still lively area of culinary exploration. The other wow dish came from the absolute opposite end of the spectrum— braised Gunthorp pork belly with a quince sauce, a marvelous savory fall dish.

We ended at Landmark, which is as much a club-slash-party space as a restaurant, and a very impressive adaptation of an old candle factory into rooms with moods ranging from urban chic to mock-Arabian sybarism. (Seeing the latter, all I could think was, if you can’t get laid at an office Christmas party here, you can’t anywhere.)

Landmark and Boka’s desserts are done, or now I should say were done, by Elizabeth Dahl, wife of Blackbird pastry chef Tim Dahl (seen in Sky Full of Bacon #6; actually Elizabeth is in it too, but I didn’t identify her because she was just helping her hubby out, not officially part of the mulefoot dinner crew). They have now left to return to Madison to open a restaurant, so no telling what that means for desserts at these places, which were one of the strong points with her there; anybody who can make me like a concord grape sorbet (I really don’t care for concords) is a dessert whiz, and she certainly is one.

The best part of the experience at Landmark, though, was sitting down with Kevin Boehm, the mastermind behind these places. One downside of the cult of the chef is if we ignore the role of clever owners, much as film critics rave about the work of directors who were really on short leashes held by powerful and creative producers. Boehm is one of those energetic 36-hours-in-a-day types who started his first restaurant (a sandwich shop in the “new urbanist” community of Seaside, Florida) with everything he had except for a car to sleep in, and has worked his way to a small empire of name restaurants in one of the major restaurant cities in the world.

He has very clear ideas about what he wants his places to be and what kind of a good time you’re going to have in them.  And even if my personal tastes favor the most chef-driven spots (Vie, Mado), he demonstrates that one of our scene’s greatest strengths is these companies that can create cannily commercial concepts that don’t feel concepted, using the good suppliers and serving food that can hold its head up in any company.  They don’t always work (to name a place belonging to somebody else, I think The Gage, for instance, is an example of a restaurant that buys great ingredients and turns them into Cheesecake Factory food) but at their best, they’re some of our best, and it’s the showman, more than the performers, who’s responsible if you liked the show.

1800 N Lincoln Ave
Chicago, IL 60614
(312) 981-7070

1729 N Halsted St # 1
Chicago, IL 60614-5537
(312) 337-6070

Landmark Grill
1633 N Halsted St # 1
Chicago, IL 60614-8640
(312) 587-1600

I liked the idea of Vie more than I liked the reality when I ate there in early 2008. I went in the dead of winter, hoping to taste deeply of the bounty of their closet full of preserved things (above, as seen in Sky Full of Bacon #5; it’s actually been moved upstairs now, though). I liked the idea of a place so devoted to local eating that it was doing all this canning and building a cuisine around those tastes. That said, I found it nice, well-prepared and skillful, but kind of tamed down for the good burghers of suburban Western Springs, certainly not as adventurous in terms of nose-to-tail eating as John Bubala’s short-lived Baccala or the wonderful spot that would open a few months later, Mado.

But I kept having tastes from Vie, and they kept suggesting a much better place than I felt I had been to. Mike Sula and I had the secret hamburger (made from the sides of artisanal Dietzler beef they were getting in house) and the superbly well-balanced Vie salad, and even though I found the toppings on the burger eccentric, there was no denying that it had a purity of beef flavor that left other hamburgers in the dust. The cotechino (a kind of peasanty fresh sausage with bits of organ meat and skin it) Vie provided to the mulefoot dinner was unquestionably one of my top two dishes from that dinner. And Vie’s take on Southern food for the Green City Market BBQ was maybe my favorite thing there, too, smoked turkey with pickled greens on it that reminded you of a big bowl of collard greens, but dialed up to 11.

Along the way, Vie chef-owner Paul Virant proved to be a friend of, or at least willing participant in, Sky Full of Bacon, in fact he’s appeared in half the videos so far (one accidentally— he was at Green City Market and literally walked through a shot as I was shooting). And cooking things up at the Shedd event-slash-Sky Full of Bacon premiere recently, he put the squeeze on me to come out and eat at his place again. So we invited a couple of other couples and went out there Saturday night.

I don’t know if it’s my perception or the restaurant that has changed more, but there’s nothing timid or suburbanite-safe about Vie as it exists in September 2009. In fact it might be the most radically whole animal-oriented restaurant in the Chicago area, even moreso than Mado, the Bristol, the Publican, anybody. The menu has item after item which takes a turn into organ meats, offal, once-ignored cuts like pork belly— and an older suburban crowd had packed the place and was eating the weird stuff happily (believe me, you know when the table behind you gets a plate of pork belly and smoked pork loin).

It’s easy to see why they trust his kitchen with such stuff— because Virant and his crew are preternaturally good at mining deep flavors from a dish. They can get away with offal because they use it to add complexity and depth to dishes— you don’t taste aggressive liver, you taste an orchestra which includes some earthy bass notes. A lamb “bolognese” had all the brightness of lamb, the funkiness of offal, the comfiness of a warm, nurturing pasta dish with housemade pasta— it was as deeply satisfying as anything I’ve had in years. Yet they do delicate just as well— sturgeon was topped with a fruity root-vegetable slaw that sang of the simple virtues of well-chosen in-season produce. And taste after taste seemed sharpened to its best possible result— earthy cotechino with crisped edges, a supple, eye-opening slice of cured goat loin (!) on “Nathan’s charcuterie plate” (sous chef/charcuterie whiz Nathan Sears, who’s also been in my videos with Paul), the flavor of smoke trailing off a wood-smoked pork loin, a melt in your mouth blue cheese served with local honey, a smooth and concentrated strawberry sorbet (I saw their new ice cream machine, which Nathan said costs as much as a car— “But a car can’t make ice cream.”)

I don’t know enough about the tippy-top of the dining scene to say what the best restaurant in Chicago is; even when I’ve been to such places, I haven’t been enough and recently enough to make a remotely fair judgement. But I do know that as much as I admire what’s happening at the very high end, my soul likes a little funk in the mix, and I find the precious arrangement of things into little cubes to get sterile sometimes, however exquisite it may be. For me, then, in my experience there’s no Chicago restaurant at work right now better than the meal I had last Saturday night, for its dedication to getting the best, richest, most purely satisfying flavor out of the best ingredients. And if you can think of other things a restaurant should be doing first, well, we just have different priorities, I guess.

Dept. of Disclosure: We paid for our meal but the kitchen knew we were there and sent out a couple of extra things, which we enjoyed happily.

I did a CSA for the first time this year, and while some of it was just ready supply (I made a lot of zucchini bread), I can think of a couple of things I got in my CSA, or grew in my Earthbox, or bought at the farmer’s markets which really surprised me with how much better they were than what I’d been buying, or avoiding buying, for years. Despite all the arguments about whether organic or farmer’s market or whatever produce does or does not contain more Flavora-6 or Nutritia-9, this stuff blew me away with its more concentrated flavor and, I am convinced as a result, concentrations of many other good things compared to watery supermarket versions of the same species. Here’s what surprised and delighted me this year:

1) French breakfast radishes. I’ve spent a happy life not eating radishes, but I had radishes with butter and dark rye bread at the Bristol last year, and after staring at it with a definite WTF? expression, suddenly I had an epiphany and not only wanted more radishes, I wanted to grow radishes. And so I did, as I described here. They were a hit through much of the summer, I’m now a committed radishophile.

2) Kale. Another vegetable I think I’d managed to live several decades without eating, but what started to sell me on it was having the cavolo nero, black kale, at various fancy dinners (such as the mulefoot dinner; you can see it in process at Vie in my video on that dinner). Kale soaks up porky flavor beautifully, as well as any collard green-type southern green, but it keeps more of its own texture than those greens, which get a little seaweedy by comparison. Not that they aren’t glorious, but I like the sturdier kale best.

3) Celery. This one really surprised me. I got celery in my CSA box a couple of times and it’s just amazingly more flavorful than watery, styrofoamy supermarket celery— small, dark green, packed with peppery flavor. A little of it adds a lot of vegetable depth to a soup or other use. I’ll never look at this often rather mediocre and forgettable utility player the same way.

After my scathingly nasty letter to the Apple Store about this, I got a call from the manager of the Woodfield store. I learned:

1. He never saw the letter addressed directly to “Manager, Apple Store, Woodfield.” I copied corporate and they sent a copy of their copy to him.

2. “You’re not the first one this has happened to.” This is not as consoling as you might think. Is anything being done about the obviously confusing process on their website? “I sure hope so!”

3. He apologized and said they probably should have taken care of me (ya think? Ya think a store should take care of its customer standing there with steam coming out of his ears? Is that like, a 70-30 thing, or a 51-49 thing?)

4. And he hoped the next time I was in the store, they’d have the opportunity to give me the great service he knows they’re capable of. I pressed and said, how, what’s changed that would make that more likely to happen? Uh, well, he just hoped next time they’d rise to the occasion.

In other words, he got told to apologize, but they’re not really changing anything to be more likely to not treat a customer like crap next time. They’re just really, really hoping that next time, they won’t treat me like dirt. Or if they do, maybe the next time after that they won’t. Or the next time.

Still got a lot to learn, Apple Store. But you’re going to learn it on somebody besides me.

Rob Gardner says over at the Local Beet that Oriana Kruszewski will be selling Asian pears and who knows what else at tomorrow’s Green City Market. This is my sign that fall is truly here— when Oriana, who specializes in fall fruit, starts selling at the market. Who is Oriana you ask? Why, I just happen to have a video about her:

Sky Full of Bacon 08: Pear Shaped World from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Watch it, then go at least sample her Asian pears. Odds are you’ll come home with a bunch.