Sky Full of Bacon

Fanesca is just one of the Easter treats you’ll find in this Time Out piece by me.

And speaking of Easter, check out FOSFOB (friend of Sky Full of Bacon) Cathy Lambrecht here.

Got a really cool comment (not that they all aren’t!) on the Healthy Food video which would otherwise go overlooked:

What a wonderful film. The only thing negative I have to say is that in all the years I grated potatoes with my Grandma, Great Aunt, Aunt, Mother, Sisters, Cousins etc. to make Kugelis, I never had one of those fantastic power potato grinders, just one of those little skillet like grids that took a lot of skin off my knuckles too! My Gran said it adds to the flavor.

You really captured the spirit, and time and place. You caught the trials of Jurgis from the Jungle, the enclaves of the huddled masses, the growth of pride when Lithuania became a country after the First World War right as the Lugenhoppers were starting to make it in America, the difficult and complex motives, stories and choices made by the displaced persons and post Second World War immigrants, the struggles in Chicago inthe 1960s, the fear, the racism, the justified concern of loss. Geeze. You caught it all for me, a 1/2 Lugen, 4th generation, suburban raised (but Bridgeport, Cicero, Marquette Park descended), non-Lithuanian speaking Chicago-loving Brazilian Resident Kugelis maker. Damn. I wanna’ shake your hand.

Consider it shaken, virtually. Thanks.

And watch for a big announcement soon…

There’s a bit from that WBEZ chat the other day that has stuck with me. David Hammond was talking about how the hive mind of LTHForum is out there trying gazillions of places all the time, and Julia Kramer of Time Out Chicago said:

Julia Kramer: David, I think LTH has its limitations; sometimes it’s remarkable, other times I think it breeds group-think.
David Hammond: Julia, you’re right. There are sacred cows, even among an originally renegade group of foodies.
Mike Gebert: “other times I think it breeds group-think” Very true. But true of almost any single source to some degree, when did you last see any publication having a full-on feud between staffers?
Michael Nagrant: Julia, totally valid point. There is often this whole thing where people get really close to the owners and put a lot of validity on the “mom and pop” thing and over-rate.

No writer, or institution, is free of certain settled notions which may go unexamined after a certain point. But groupthink is a different issue, because someone may have more current information, yet they can’t get through, or fear doing so. (The basis for fear is tiny— someone might not speak to me at the holiday party— but of course, so are the stakes and rewards, so it’s easy enough to think, why bother?)

I was involved in an example of that this week, during the Great Neighborhood Restaurant renewal process. It struck me that many of the endorsements for Prairie Grass Cafe in Northbrook were notably halfhearted— it’s a better choice that a Lettuce Entertain You mall restaurant— and the “community-wide” enthusiasm for the restaurant in fact comes from one or two people. So I posted something trying to flush out alternative opinions— and instead of fostering other viewpoints, fostered a bunch of online hostility from the usual partisans of the place, insisting that I must have some vendetta against the place just for asking the question. In fact, I’ve heard LTHers knock the place in private— one memorably described it in a PM to me as reminding him/her of Applebee’s— but you’ll look in vain for much of that on the board… especially after they landed on me like a Chicago cop wrestling a 14-year-old Puerto Rican kid to the sidewalk.

So that’s an extreme example of groupthink outright suppressing contrary opinion, but one could certainly think of others where an LTH orthodoxy is challenged but rarely, starting with the reverence for its namesake, the fairly mediocre “Little” Three Happiness. There’s La Pasadita as the best steak taco in town (it’s not a patch on Las Asadas, Zacateca’s, or others), Patty’s Diner (Patty’s a sweetheart, and the only cook I know who can cook a burger to well done at one end and raw at the other), Poochies (not even the best hot dog joint on that Skokie strip, which is far from where I’d go looking for a great dog anyway), Myron and Phil’s (a tired old alter kocker restaurant in every sense), and so on. Not to mention broader received notions— try arguing the case for Carson’s-style baked ribs over chewy smoked rib tips at Honey 1, for instance, and you won’t make many friends.

Of course, in the macro sense the fact that we’re arguing over Patty’s or La Pasadita at all is a victory for the ethnic dive-focused LTH viewpoint; and if the price of that is that one guy manages to slip in his neighborhood joint where they know how to make his drink, and thinks the rest of us will love it as much as he does without those benefits, well, that’s not that high a price. Still, the unexamined food life is not worth eating, it never hurts, if we are serious food adventurers, to reconsider our views, think out of our box, push our envelope and try a new taco. So here are four recent ventures out of the safety zone of known and approved LTHForum joints:

My Alternative Choice: Zebda Deli
Instead of This LTHForum Favorite: Salam

Salam’s recent history has been odd.  I’ve been noting that this stalwart of the Kedzie middle-eastern scene had gone downhill for almost two years, its decline as the default choice for falafel and shawerma was a motivator of my Bridgeview explorations and Time Out piece.  Then they remodeled and the longtime employees took over from the current manager (who had this short-lived restaurant), and there have been a number of complaints on LTH that it’s been inconsistent, poor service, falafel grown cold before serving, etc.  Yet my experiences since then have been pretty good.

Still, it’s hardly the only middle-eastern place in town, and meanwhile, there’s Zebda, the deli run by one side of the divorce of the former Mundial Cocina Mestizo couple along with the owner of the Algerian restaurant Tassili.  I’m pretty much the only LTHer who ever wrote about Tassili, and not that many more have tried Zebda’s despite praise from folks like Mike Sula.  Yet the freshly handmade sandwiches and salads make for an excellent, modest-priced lunch full of bright flavor.  I really liked a lamb sandwich (served on an open-faced flatbread) and a chicken curry one (I was less enchanted by a merguez one), and among the sides, potato salad and couscous with golden raisins and bits of squash were both light and delicious.  When I’ve been there, I’ve been practically the only customer, so give it some love, quick.

Zebda Deli
4344 North Elston Avenue
Chicago, IL 60641
(773) 545-7000

My Alternative Choice: Chicago Kalbi
Instead of These LTHForum Favorites: Hae Woon Dae or San Soo Gab San

One could easily imagine an alternative universe in which the Korean BBQ place Chicago Kalbi would be an LTH favorite. It has authentic character and it’s obviously known to old-time LTHers (since it came up frequently in regards to Matsumoto), but for whatever vagaries of who ate where when, it has been largely overlooked while San Soo Gap San and Hae Woon Dae have been anointed as the Korean barbecue places of choice.  (And we won’t even go into the egregious Cho Jung, winner of the Tew Kewl 4 You prize for 2009.)

Part of the reason is that it’s actually a Japanese Korean barbecue place, and so the panchan, the little Korean dishes served before the meal, are fairly routine; and there are certain posters who seem to judge a Korean meal by the quality of the appetizers, essentially. But I don’t really go to a Korean BBQ place for panchan anyway, except as counterpoint. The point is the meat and the meat was fairly beautiful, nicely marbled kalbi, tender bulgogi. Or the real point is, the kids got into cooking it, they really dug having the live coals right there and watching the meat cook and trying to learn how to judge when to turn it. And all in all, I was charmed by the decor— I can’t think of another place that so much feels like Korea, or Japan, or most likely of all, the mix of Asian neighborhood joints in my head from movies. It’s one of those great step-into-another-culture places— and though San Soo Gab San is too, here they seem happy to see me and my kids.

Chicago Kalbi
3752 West Lawrence Avenue
Chicago, IL 60625-5726
(773) 604-8183

My Alternative Choice: Barbakan
Instead of This LTHForum Favorite: Smak Tak

Sometimes a place just does what it does so well it renders other restaurants superfluous. The Polish restaurant Smak Tak has fluffy, filling pierogi and other Polish delights, it’s cute and cozy, and the people are nice… and so it’s easy to fall into the habit of regarding it as the only Polish restaurant you’ll ever need.

But this is a bad habit, and anyway, I did need another Polish restaurant— because I was writing a piece for Time Out on Easter traditions, and I had already mentioned Smak Tak in one on Christmas traditions. So I did a little online recon and found Barbakan, located on the far west side. It’s an attractive looking place, done in that sort of 90s distressed-paint Italian coffeebar look that is starting to say “Eastern European” more than “doppio espresso.” And I liked the food quite a bit— a robust goulash tucked inside a peppery, hot-off-the-griddle potato pancake, accompanied by some especially fresh and tart salads— cucumber that could have come from a Thai restaurant, puckeringly tart sauerkraut, red cabbage kissed with a hint of garlic.

That was the upside. The downside was the feel of the place, which radiated Soviet-era indifference. Staticky music came from the kitchen, loud enough to bother, not loud enough to hum along. A fire alarm chirped its desire for a new battery once a minute. Other customers got soup and bread with their entree, but not me. I sat with a dirty plate for ten minutes, waiting in vain for the not-that-swamped waitress to quit chatting with walk-in regulars and drop off my check. In the end, I never even investigated whether this place did anything special for Easter or not, because I just couldn’t see recommending Barbakan to budding food adventurers— the cold shoulder here might discourage them for good. So look for a different alternative to Smak Tak in the magazine this week… and as for me, Smak Tak is still the Polish restaurant of choice, offering a warm welcome to all.

3143 North Central Avenue
Chicago, IL 60634
(773) 202-8181

My Alternative Choice: Aroy Thai
Instead of This LTHForum Favorite: Spoon Thai

Aroy has always hovered just outside the holy trinity of Thai restaurants on LTHForum, Spoon, TAC Quick and Sticky Rice, and there had been some exploration of its menu by Erik M. and others, and a translated menu by Erik M. which you can read here. But even though it’s just up Damen from my house a mile or so, I’d never been there; the pull of what I knew to be good at Spoon or TAC discouraged me from trying another place from scratch, or scratch assisted by some guidance from old threads.

Finally Seth Zurer, one of the organizers of Baconfest among many other things, and I met there for dinner, using the menu from this long-ago dinner as a guide to some particularly strong dishes. And you know what? It’s a great restaurant! I was blown away by a beef soup, tôm yam lûuk chín néua pèuay, all the pungency I expect from tom yam but also lots of deep bottom of beefy robustness; and I loved their pork neck nam tok, the same grilled juiciness as TAC’s. Also good were papaya salad and phàt nàw mái náam phrík nùm, mouth-puckering pickled bamboo shoots. It made me realize that as good as Spoon and TAC remain, it’s been a while since I’ve been surprised there, ordering the same classics every time; this brought back the heady days of discovery a few years ago when every week seemed to bring a new, mind-expanding Thai dish on LTHForum. Which makes it a reminder that the truest LTHForum spirit is not to settle for what everybody thinks to be good already, but to always be looking outside the familiar and the accepted for something new.

Aroy Thai
4656 N. Damen

I had some fun a while back with the apocalyptic feel of the Logan Square Farmer’s Market, as it appeared in the dead of winter in a crumbling old theater. Yesterday was the last day of the winter session, though, the market reopening in June in the great outdoors— and this day the old theater seemed lively and packed with vendors and musicians and kids and even a few growing things. The apocalypse has apparently been canceled, in favor of spring.

Since I had younger son with me, our first stop was Zullo’s, so we could get a snack. I had a slice of flatbread with onion on it, he had a cone of little doughnuts, which he was very happy about. Next we swung by Otter Creek cheese to pick up some more of their Spring cheddar, which is expensive and worth every penny, full of deep cheddar flavor, not funk, but rich, full-bodied cheesiness. He was next to the Meat Goat guy, who sold me the short ribs for my Thomas Keller meal a while back; and he told me that they’ll be doing meat and cheese deliveries over the next few weeks, apparently you can place an order through either site and they’ll deliver, including fresh meat (everything brought to the market has to be frozen).

The macarons from the macaron lady looked gorgeous as ever, and Liam had eaten several dollars’ worth of samples by the time I snatched the toothpick from his hand, so I bought a little box of those, even though I already had two different desserts for dinner. The coolest-looking one is a bright purple cassis one. Liam reported it tasted good, too.

Turning the corner, Hillside Orchard actually had apples, not sure where those have been hiding, so I bought some Honey Crisps and some Golden Delicious, and then some eggs. Turning around, Vera Videnovich had one jar of quince marmalade. It looked pretty runny, I question whether it’s suitable for toast, but I’m sure there will be some interesting use for it, with cheese or something. She also had garlic scapes, when someone asked how they could be growing already, she said they’d simply survived winter without drying out or turning brown, somehow.

Last stop we swung by the crepe stand; they had chocolate brioche, and after my own experiences making it for the first time, I thought, well, we have to try this. So Liam and I polished that off, and I realized I still have a ways to go before making a brioche that light and fluffy.

The market was lively in a way I hadn’t seen it before. People were coming out of their caves, happy to see each other and to welcome the return of the growing season. Winter is over. Long live spring. When I got home, we put up the hammock.

Like the pizza at the auto show, today’s post is just a whole bunch of stuff thrown together:

• First off, thanks to my post on Tuesday about when a review is a review, I was a last-minute invitee to WBEZ’s Lunchbox series of online media guy chat thingies, along with a real Ocean’s Twelve of local food media folks— Kevin Pang (who dropped the only major news of the thing, that the Trib food section is about to get all reinvented, including him being Mr. Cheap Eats, which was always the best part of it anyway), Steve Dolinsky, Sula of the Reader and Sudo of Chicagoist, Julia Kramer of Time Out, Mike Nagrant, David Hammond, and Audarshia Townsend of 312 Dining Diva.  It lasted an hour, but you can read the transcript in ten or fifteen minutes, it was a lively discussion not unlike Nagrant’s and my five-part year end chat a few months back.  (Well, not unlike if you don’t count A LOT SHORTER.)

• No Beard nomination for me this year, but there are very good things in the video category (which is what I entered), including one I’ve linked to many times, Liza de Guia’s Food, Curated.  I asked her which she entered and she couldn’t remember exactly, but here are a couple of them:

Notes from a Lone Acre: 1 Dude. 1 Acre. Many Little Anecdotes. from SkeeterNYC on Vimeo.

Brooklyn’s Urban Beekeepers: Breaking The Law For The Planet (Part I) from SkeeterNYC on Vimeo.

Also nominated were my supporters-linkers the terrific site Serious Eats, for this portrait of a farmer who sells at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York:

Last is a site called Alwayshungryny (yes, it was all New York this time), who don’t let you embed and also didn’t tell me which specific videos they entered, so go here and just watch whatever you please.

• But I do have some other exciting announcements coming up.  It will perhaps be no surprise that one of them is strongly bacon-oriented… and is taking place April 10. It’s sold out, so you either know what it is and have tickets… or it kinda doesn’t matter.

• Another announcement with international flavor will be coming later in the week…

• Finally, watch for next week’s Time Out Chicago— I’ll be talking ethnic Easter traditions around Chicago.

In the past few weeks, I’ve had several occasions where I’ve tweeted the existence of a post and someone has shot back critical comment with some degree of indignation. This is always startling to me because blogging, unlike Tweeting, had until recently been fairly anonymous; if I did get feedback, it was rare and calm and usually well after the fact, a missive delivered with the relaxedness of snail mail. Where Twitter is like your phone ringing two minutes later— “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU THINKING?”

In this case it had to do with my post on The Purple Pig and Ceres’ Table on Monday. Someone who is in the biz, if not at a restaurant, shot back thusly:

How can u call this a resto review after (A) visiting the resto once & (B) only trying 3 very small plates–4% of the menu?

I sent back this response, within the 140 character limit of Twitter:

Because it’s not only upfront about those facts but incorporates them into my views. Welcome to the post-Vettel world.

To which she responded:

It’s one thing to write about your experience, but another to call it a Restaurant Review!?

There’s an important point to get out of the way first, I think. If you object to the idea of a review after one visit and three dishes (though I’d guess they represent more like 10% of the menu, by the way), you certainly can’t say I hid those circumstances in the piece:

…after my interview at Crain’s I popped in there for lunch and had three things…

Now, admittedly, maybe I just didn’t have a large enough sample— if one thing wowed me on a typical visit to Avec, say, it was probably one out of six or seven things ordered. Three may not have been enough candy bars to get a golden ticket….

So disclosure is not the issue— the issue is whether the title “Restaurant Review” carries with it the assumption of certain time-honored dead-tree-media responsibilities on my part. (Actually, the only place the actual phrase “Restaurant Review” appears is in the tags, but I’ll accept that given their placement in the format, this piece is, indeed, labeled a “Restaurant Review.”) I’m sure we can all recite what those responsibilities are— multiple visits, anonymous dining, pay my own way, and so on. At this point I’d like to show you a building:

That is what Sky Full of Bacon does not have: a big-ass media institution behind it. Nor does my opinion have the imprimatur and represent the august opinion of a large media institution. And I’m pretty sure people are in no illusion about either one of those.

They also know that the world of media is changing.  So I just don’t see, in that changing world, why the thing that’s replacing something, or at least growing up as an alternative with its own rules, is required to adopt all the characteristics of the thing it’s replacing/alternative to.  Why would what’s coming up want to copy what’s going down?

Which is not to say that some of the old values shouldn’t be maintained, either. I do believe in those values to some extent— I’m not always anonymous and I don’t always pay, but I am scrupulous about disclosing those things because you shouldn’t have to wonder about that as you read. But if you’re going to think it’s unfair that pipsqueaks like me get to pipe up about a restaurant after one visit, I think it’s important to recognize that something else has always been unfair in some ways: the fact that the Trib or Chicago Magazine gets to issue one opinion carved in stone, based on a mere two or three visits, which will hang around the neck of a restaurant for years.

The flip side of pipsqueak reviewing is that reviewing has become this constant fluid thing. A thread at a site like LTHForum, or even Yelp, may be made up of single visits by nobodies with less expertise and experience than one name reviewer (I said “may”), but it almost certainly represents more visits over more nights by more people with different life experiences eating a wider variety of what the restaurant has to offer over many seasons and many evolutions of the menu. And I for one think that’s a pretty great improvement; but even if you don’t, it’s not obviously and grossly inferior to the old way. (Well, unless you’re used to the old way only throwing softballs.)

It’s a little less obvious when it comes to a blog where there’s only one voice, but still, I just don’t believe there’s anybody coming here thinking of it having the officialness of a big media dining guide.  It’s a diary of one guy’s adventures in food, as random in what gets talked about as my own life seems to be to the guy living it. And I’m going to write about what I eat, right after I eat it (and I’m going to do so frankly, I’m not interested in boosting the scene, or any restaurant, though there are plainly some I like and encourage). Then— this is the benefit— if I go there again, I’ll write about it again, unlike a newspaper reviewer. And if that gets labeled “restaurant review,” I wouldn’t take it to mean that in the same way that the Tribune or Chicago Magazine or The Boonesville Picayune-Troubadour means it.

Well, that’s my take on it, anyway. But maybe you think the words “restaurant review” do come freighted with all those old media things, and I’d be better off deleting the tag and making “Mike’s freeform diary of occasional dining” be more clearly that. If you have an opinion, put it in the comments, and if you have a long and involved enough opinion that you think it should get rebuttal time above the fold here, then let me know and I will… probably… give you equal time and space to tell me I’m full of it. (How often does a newspaper do that, I ask? Depends how many lawyers you bring to the meeting, I’d say.)

* * *

And we have a passionate opposing view:

You can call your posts whatever you like, but I don’t think it’s fair and certainly not a comprehensive “review” if you only visit a restaurant once and only sample a small percentage of the dishes available. That, to me, is more a snapshot of a restaurant than a fully informed appraisal of a restaurant and its consistency over time. It shouldn’t matter if, in this snapshot, you say positive things (if that’s your response to criticism) – you still only got a limited perspective of a restaurant with one visit. I don’t think stating that “things are changing” exempts you from attempting to be fair and as objective as possible when writing about any business, and I think that excuse is a cop out.

If I were blogging about a restaurant based on only one visit, I personally don’t think it would be ethical to call it a “review,” with the comprehensiveness that title implies. I guess you can make up your own rules if you like, but be prepared to take hits if people disagree with the way you pick and choose how to apply said rules as you see fit. This isn’t about “old media” versus “new media,” or being tied to old school ideas or what have you, it’s about basic fairness and how your voice, as a well known persona on the Chicago food scene, is seen as authoritative. With that comes a certain responsibility. It’s on you if you reject that just because you enjoy ranting against print reviewers or whatever. You absolutely have an obligation to try and be as fair as possible in any review you give, no matter who is paying (and I honestly don’t care about that), and I don’t think you can do that based on a single visit.

“My other piece of advice, Copperfield,” said Mr. Micawber, “you know. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. The blossom is blighted, the leaf is withered, the God of day goes down upon the dreary scene, and— and in short you are for ever floored. As I am!”

Small amounts can make all the difference. I had two meals recently at places which have enjoyed considerable praise, and found myself a bit of the exception to the chorus of delight. Yet when I totaled up the experience, I found myself tipped back toward praise by the fact that the prices at both were so reasonable, on average about two bucks less per item than I might have expected. This not only meant I could order more (which gave them more of a chance to wow me with at least one thing), but that I didn’t feel screwed on the way out, my grumbles given time to ferment into a full-fledged pan by the time I sat down here. Instead, I felt inclined to give both the benefit of the doubt— and so I will.

The Purple Pig has enjoyed rapturous reviews for its quality bar food, or perhaps its quality food in an after-work bar atmosphere, to be more precise. Certainly by the standards of Michigan Avenue, it’s a huge gastropubonomic advance; I actually worked in that building, eons ago, so the idea of anything better than a Fluky’s franchise in that area seems fairly miraculous to me.

That said, after my interview at Crain’s I popped in there for lunch and had three things, all of which were good, none of which rose to the sort of praise lavished on it by, say, Steve Dolinsky, who tweeted that no opening since Avec had excited him as much. I had one of the housemade salamis, a bowl of salt-cured beets with whipped goat cheese, and the widely-praised neck bones in red gravy. (No actual bones, just some tender pork shoulder.) The salami was pleasant, but didn’t merit comparison with some of the real excellent and funky salami around town; the beets were just absurdly rich, like a beet sundae, and almost too salty to enjoy; the neck bones were the most simply satisfying, like Iberico’s queso de cabra, but simple is the operative word. In short, three things I thought were pretty good, very good for after work bar food perhaps, but nothing that made my eyes open wide with the magic of what I’d just tasted, as I’ve experienced at Avec, The Bristol, Mado, and other places with a fairly similar culinary orientation.

Now, admittedly, maybe I just didn’t have a large enough sample— if one thing wowed me on a typical visit to Avec, say, it was probably one out of six or seven things ordered. Three may not have been enough candy bars to get a golden ticket. Or maybe The Purple Pig is happy where it’s aiming, straight for hearty (and plenty salty to encourage drinking) with a dollop of culinary aspiration, for that after work drinking crowd. The redeeming factor, certainly, is that I walked out of there, after three such quality dishes, with change from a twenty. That is what will encourage me to give it another try— and see if there’s more to it than simply outclassing mozzarella cheese sticks as a spicy, carb-heavy nosh to go with your beer.

* * *

Does it matter to a nice meal if your feeling about the meal is that it reminds you of what you were eating around 1992? I mean, if you enjoyed it in 1992— and I was a working adult in 1992, this is not a matter of an immature palate— shouldn’t you enjoy it again now? Food styles don’t age like hair styles, do they?

Maybe not, but Ceres’ Table felt like a meal I’d have eaten at, say, Oo-La-La 15 or 20 years ago; it had that sort of Northern Italian-influenced feel that was all the thing in the 90s, but now seems very American next to the more authentic Italian food one can find around town. We started with a country pate which was slightly more interesting than a bologna sandwich (the best thing about it was the jam on the plate), and a dull salad with woody bits of shaved artichoke, a dressing crying out for some black pepper bite, and pencil-eraser bits of enoki mushroom. I wouldn’t call it disastrous, simply because I couldn’t get that worked up about it. (There was also a bit of service awkwardness starting with them bringing much too large plates for the pate; since there wasn’t room for that plate and my salad, I, who’d actually ordered the pate, was the one who didn’t get a plate for it.)

Dinner could only go up from there but thankfully, it did— a lot. I ordered spaghetti carbonara made with duck egg, and it was a beautiful, silky rendition of this classic dish. My mom ordered a braised lamb shank, which was also textbook-perfect (if exactly how this dish would turn out at any restaurant, or, indeed, at my house), accompanied by horseradish-tinged mashed potatoes— which is what prompted these thoughts of 1992, back when garlicking or horseradishing up your mashed potatoes was de rigueur. Even if it seemed like a dated touch, though, I suppose you shouldn’t argue with a dish that turns out very well and makes its purchaser happy, which this one certainly did. Would it really have been better if it had been 2010’s trendy sunchokes or turnips instead? That’s heading toward the territory of the movie mogul Sam Goldwyn’s famous line, “I’m tired of the old clichés! Let’s have some new clichés!”

As at Purple Pig, what made one feel tolerant toward a 50-50 meal at this point was the fact that everything was so reasonable; even the lamb shank was, I think, only $18, which is halfway to a 1992 price for a 1992 dish. At higher prices I’d have been ready to quit gambling after entrees, but when the dessert card came out with the magic words “All desserts $5,” which is at least $2 less than I might have expected, I gave in to my kids and let them order a couple of things.

The little buggers were right. Pastry chef Leticia Zenteno has figured in much of the praise Ceres’ Table has received so far, including the only nomination it got in the Time Out Chicago Eat Out Awards, and it’s absolutely deserved, she’s a star.  To reach that $5 price point, the desserts are on the smallish side, but I have no problem with them not being Cheesecake Factory-huge; what matters is that they were brightly flavored, well-balanced and beautiful to look at (and if you get three for $15 instead of two for $14, then surely you came out ahead in every way possible). A nectarine tart, however out of season, was sunny in the mouth, a banana bread pudding light and fluffy.

Lower prices are a bonus, but in the end, the food has to be worth spending money on at all.  Zenteno’s desserts would tip you back toward happiness at a restaurant that charged considerably more for each dish than Ceres’ Table does.

So I was invited down to Crain’s Chicago Business last week to comment about the food scene or something. I had actually just bought a couple of new dress shirts so I put on a nice green one. Which turned out to be a bad choice, since they were planning on shooting green screen, which means, anything green would vanish and be replaced by the background. Personally, I’d have gone for the floating Cheshire Cat head effect, me looming over the city as a literal sky full of bacon-devotee, but they didn’t like that idea, so they dug out a sweater. A sweater with a big ribbed collar that looked like it came from an 80s Star Trek movie:

The sweater was also twelve sizes too small, so I wound up having to sit completely immobile so as not to pop the snaps, which has the cheering effect of making me look like The Food Blogger With The Tiny Head Who’s Too Fat To Get Up From His Chair. Which, honestly, I am not. Though I did go to The Purple Pig afterwards.

Anyway, some nice plugs for Sky Full of Bacon in the piece, as well as rare footage of me on camera, as I’d look if I were being swallowed by a giant mollusk. Check the piece out here; I’m only in the video at top.

1. I’ll start with things I found by checking out the people who link to me. First, Clever Food Blog has an interesting post on a tasting event featuring only foods with histories and recipes stretching back 1000 years…
2. While Eating Video Games is a blog by a guy who went in (with his brothers) on La Quercia’s Acorn Edition 3. Here he starts telling the story of what he did with the first of his pig parts, mentioning two of my videos along the way (hint: the other one involves a pig’s head). The story continues here.
3. Martha Bayne has a bunch of posts on the Family Farmed Expo last weekend, at the Reader; the most interesting one (to me) is on whole hog cooking, with some tart quotes from Rob Levitt of Mado; she also has some good observations on the panel about shared kitchen licensing, though since the city refused to participate, it doesn’t sound like the discussion itself amounted to much.
4. Paupered Chef goes on an LTH-like Italian sub crawl and identifies two Chicago faves.  At least one is no surprise to me.
5. Something’s been done to these photos of a floating market near Bangkok so they’re unnaturally sharp and colorful, but they’re pretty fascinating all the same.
6. Thanks to Serious Eats, I’ve played Sushi Cat way too much lately. Well, it is one of those so-simple-it’s-brilliant games….
7. Design For Dreaming is a crazily elaborate 50s General Motors promo film from the 1950s; it’s all pretty cool if you like retro stuff, but at least jump to about 3:10 to see the kitchen of the future (and note that that’s where the heroine is taken to recover when the car of the future proves too much for her feminine nerves!)

L, duck, R, chef.

It may seem strange or even hypocritical to say so, but I’m not a fan of chefs roaming the room chatting up each table. I mean, I think it’s a smart practice, management-wise, but for me personally it’s an awkward moment if I don’t know the chef already; he’s asking how everything was and I’m incapable of stammering out any better answer than “Uh, great, everything was great. Really great. I thought the fish was great. And the vegetables next to it. Really great.”

But Mike, you say, you’re making videos with chefs and talking about how you talked to the chef about old recipes in Charleston Receipts or whatever. You’re like, the dude who talks to chefs all the time! Well, yeah, but if I interview a chef, I have questions, I’ve done research, I have a topic to explore. And even if I’m just dining at the restaurant of someone who I’ve interviewed, at least we have that history of conversation behind us. Where if I talk to someone cold straight after eating their food… it’s full awkward dorkiness time. “And the yellow stuff on the plate, what was that, powdered essence of poached pheasant pancreas— oh, parmesan cheese, huh? Well, it was great too.”

Black garlic.

But people seem to want to talk to the chef, beats me why, so various events have started springing up to make it a more interesting encounter than simply chefs putting diners on the spot at the end of a meal, and vice versa. You can go watch Rob Levitt of Mado cut up a pig, say. Or, like I did last week, you can go (as a guest of the Park Hyatt hotel, I should point out) to a presentation on the classic French dish canard apicius, featuring NoMI sous chef Christian Ragano and Judy Shertzer of Terra Spice, an Indiana-based spice vendor who supplies NoMI (among others).

Canard apicius— basically, in both name and recipe, simply “spiced duck”— is a dish that’s supposed to go back to Roman times, but what it really goes back to for NoMI chef Christophe David is his time at Lucas Carton, which was for many years one of the top Paris restaurants.  (It was renamed for owner Alain Senderens for a while, and made more casual, but it appears to be back to the old name— and prices.)  I don’t know what he did there, but then again, I guess I do— he was one of many young cooks cranking out the place’s signature dish.  As David explained to us at the table, it’s a dish that doesn’t really work in a hotel— it requires prep a few days in advance, then about 45 minutes to roast and serve— so he was clearly glad to have an event which would allow him to serve a dish with personal meaning to an entire table at his restaurant, and perhaps, to stretch the muscles of a staff used to working within the hotel-food genre with some old French restaurant discipline.

Sous chef Christian Ragano did the actual presentation; partway through he confessed that this was his first time doing a presentation like this, but he seemed a natural for it, witty and well-organized and making the somewhat daunting process sound like something a regular person could actually do.  He talked us through blanching the duck (which you may recall from Sky Full of Bacon #2), which is done in a flavorful stock, followed, ideally, by overnight air-drying; then the duck is trussed and roasted partway, the spices are toasted in a pan, and duck meets spices for finishing in the oven.

As our small salon filled with the smell of toasted coriander and other spices, we also sniffed and tasted a number of spices laid out in bowls.  Any idea what this is?

No particular flavor, the only clue is the yellowish cast— it’s whole turmeric, which grows in a ginger-like root.

After the presentation we enjoyed a three-course meal in a dining room with the Park Hyatt’s most obvious advantage— a spectacular view looking up Michigan Avenue with the old Water Tower front and center.  Banyuls, a sweet fortified wine, is the traditional accompaniment for canard apicius, but in this case for the first course, the duck leg, we were served a Riesling Kabinett, which has some of the sweetness but presumably less than the banyuls.  Instead, banyuls figured in the salad’s vinaigrette (and this superbly composed salad nearly stole the show from the duck leg).

The second course was the duck breast, served with an apple compote (not that exciting) and a Medjool date puree (brightly flavorful).  In both duck courses, the subtle perfuming of the half-roasted bird with the spices kept the strong spices from becoming overbearing, though I did crack off some of the spice coating at times, so as not to chomp whole coriander seeds and the like.  We finished with a very pretty dessert served in a kind of snifter, in which raspberry gelatin at the bottom was set off with a slight note of heat and spice from a pink peppercorn cream, the work of dessert chef Frederic Moreau, who calibrated its ratio of comfort to provocation (about 6 to 1, I’d say) ingeniously.

Hotel restaurants are their own genre, serving a different client base and worrying about things (like breakfast and room service) that other restaurants don’t have to deal with; and it’s easy to think of them as kind of impersonally professional compared to chef-driven restaurants— serving equally anonymous travelers who will almost never become regulars or gain a sense of the chef’s strengths and point of view.  A program and meal like this gives both chefs and diners a chance to break out of that way of looking at things and to relate as people cooking something that has personal meaning for them for a small group who will be receptive to it.  At $125 a person, it’s definitely downtown-hotel-priced, but I’m glad that my first exposure to NoMI was in a way that made it more accessibly human-scaled for me— and meant that I could be more sincerely and intelligently appreciative to the chefs than simply stammering, “It’s great, everything’s great.”

Yes, that’s right, I’m guest waffle-blogger at the justly lauded Waffleizer this week. Check out my creation— waffle iron-fried chicken and waffles, a dish so powerful it cures vegetarianism— and my never-before-told tale of Waffle Day at my dot-com job in the late 90s by going here. (He has some awfully nice things to say about the new video, too.)

Tomorrow, I go to a major business publication to talk blogs and the restaurant scene, or some such thing. Watch for the guy with the extremely square haircut (maybe it will grow out in the next 24 hours). Anyway, more on that coming soon.

Also with awfully nice words: Helen at Grub Street.