Sky Full of Bacon

In the new Key Ingredient (read the piece here), Mike Sheerin at Three Floyds makes guaje seed dirt.

And thanks to Monica Eng for the nice words about the series here.

Not to mention, check out this post on a great barbecue site called Kevin’s BBQ Joints that includes a Sky Full of Bacon classic.

At least I didn’t have to live on these.

I was like a man released from a prison of grilled cheese. Which is to say, if you noticed the ton o’ stuff I had at the Reader last week, and I do hope you watched all three of the videos and read my two pieces, thankyouverymuch, you can probably guess that the life of someone writing/editing video about food occasionally gets too busy to actually enjoy food in. I spent a solid week hardly eating anything more interesting than grilled cheese or salad or delivery pizza, so when I was finally done, or close to, I devoured the world. Or at least it felt like it. Herewith, some not too lengthy notes on what I had:

Owen & Engine
My second visit and the first where, having someone else to share with, I felt I could order the charcuterie platter and not come out of it feeling like I’d huffed down a whole Oscar Mayer lunch loaf by myself. I really like the beer list at O&E, especially since you can consult with the bartenders (at least on a Tuesday night) on your choices in the hushed, detail-oriented manner of a meeting with a financial planner. (I feel it’s important to maintain a diversified portfolio which goes from darker to lighter beers as the evening progresses. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.) I’m also amused by the sudden popularity of cask engines, which is to say, really fresh but decidedly flat beer. Someone somewhere is a genius for marketing flat beer as the latest, coolest thing.

Anyway, after two visits, I think even moreso what I thought after one visit. O&E may not be the culinary trendsetter that Longman & Eagle is, but everything’s friendly and solid, and the atmosphere perfectly evokes its model (which may be more faux-English pubs in Old Town in the 70s than actual England, but that’s fine by me). The charcuterie plate had an excellent hard salami of some sort (I forget what) with big dice of fat in it, a pretty good rillette and beef heart pate, and an imported Spanish ham. A nice plate, though pushing my price tolerance at $19. Closer to a perfect intersection of price and flavor was the rasher and egg sandwich, thin English bacon (more like ham) fried with egg on a crusty bread, with excellent fresh-cut fries. I really liked the roasted bone marrow, too, though it was marred by a couple of executional oddities— one, I had a bone with a center too small for the marrow spoon, which took some wiggling and jabbing with a knife to eat; two, we had to ask for, and were I think charged for, toast points, which in any case took long enough to come that we had pretty much devoured the marrow by then. Bone marrow and toast points, I thought that was one of those combinations that went without saying. (They do have housemade bread, by the way, which is pretty good. Maybe that’s why they’re a little close with it, though.)

I’ve never had a regular bar of my own— in fact, I think it’s somewhat important not to, at least when one had far too many relatives who demonstrated the perils of having one— but I think O&E has dislodged me from the sloth of hitting the ordinary sports bar near me for a beer and a quickie meal, the same meal every time, and convinced me that on those nights, a short drive down Western is worth significantly better food, beer and atmosphere.

Three Floyds Pub/Munster Donuts
The next day I was shooting at Three Floyds in Munster, Indiana— my first visit ever to their pub, which is hidden, like the brewery, in an industrial park which must wonder what the hell is going on when it’s overrun every year for Dark Lord Day. Mike Sheerin, who won a Food & Wine best new chef thingy at Blackbird just last year, is now consulting there while working on his own project, and seems to be trying to upgrade the food at Three Floyds, which I gather from LTH threads has been on a bit of a rollercoaster ride over the years. (Another relatively recent hire in the kitchen is charcuterie blogger Saucisson Mac, so it was good to have a chance to meet and talk with him for a bit.)

You’ll have to wait for the Key Ingredient video on Thursday to see what Sheerin made for that, but we tried some of his first dishes for Three Floyds and were really happy with them. He said the potatoes in the bangers and mash had hops in them; if so, it was very subtle, but the bangers and the refined-tasting gravy were quite satisfying. We also had some mussels with lots of excellent housemade bacon, and a charcuterie platter with a terrific goat knackwurst and housemade mortadella, among other things, which went for a princely $8. At those prices, how can you not make the 45-minute shlep to Munster, Indiana for Sheerin’s high-low comfort food in Three Floyds’ gleefully low atmosphere? Especially when you know you can grab a dozen at Munster Donuts (8314 Calumet Ave.) on the way back to the highway— Bavarian Kreme not so great, but chocolate, cherry (rare in these parts) and sour cream all first-rate and cheap.

Balkan Restaurant
After meeting with Cathy Lambrecht about an upcoming event I will be part of (details to follow, sometime), I had hopes that my meat-and-beer-centric week so far would give way to a largely vegetable-based lunch. So we wound up trying a Balkan spot in a strip mall to eat this:

I’m pretty sure I had been to Balkan (2321 W. Lawrence) before, I remembered the big stone oven dominating the middle of the bright and clean room, but it had been a long time. I think somebody at LTH posted years ago about it being run by a one-armed woman, but the man in charge now seems to be a tall and slender fellow who was surprised at Cathy’s knowledge of Balkan cuisine. (I checked the kitchen but the woman working in there was definitely two-armed.) Anyway, the difference between cevapcici sandwiches is not all that great, but I thought these were above average in beefy flavor, and the spinach and cheese burek was very good; it’s also rare enough to find a Balkan place that’s truly welcoming and willing to interact with the non-Balkan customers that that’s worth calling attention to, too. If Deta of Deta’s Montenegrin Cafe ever does move back to Montenegro like she’s threatened to, this will do.

I was about ready to go back to grilled cheese, or at least a salad, but at the last minute I got invited to dinner at Perennial by their PR person, and joined a couple of other media folk in a low key tasting of new things at Perennial… praying that it wouldn’t be a special Kobe/pork belly dinner. I don’t think it’s the freebie that made this the best dinner I’ve had there, since the last time I ate there was a freebie too. In that case I thought there were some executional issues and Boka, which we also visited that night, came off the better of the two.

So it’s a pleasure to report that dinner was not only executionally flawless but contained a number of things that really impressed me and definitely pushed Ryan Poli up a few notches in my book. It was more of a social event, so I don’t remember it course by course, but I came away especially impressed by three things. One, the fish courses— fish is too easily boring (grill it and put it on top of something julienned) but we had three fish plates, all of which were surprising and pleasing. The first was probably the funniest— a deconstructed fish taco consisting of hamachi sashimi, with avocado and corn tortilla purees. Okay, so we just saw the Top Chef in which the guy who foamed everything went home, and Tony Bourdain ranted about how passé that kind of deconstruction is. But a good dish can get away with anything, and the exquisite delicacy of the velvety hamachi combined with an ethereal blob of airy puree that, by God, really did taste like a bag of El Milagro tortillas, all summed up as “fish taco,” was a grand joke. The fish entrees weren’t tongue in cheek like that, but a beautifully oil-poached cod in a sweet onion broth was also one of the most complex yet easy to like fish dishes I’ve had.

Another thing we tried, that I thought sounded like dumbed-down fine dining but came off surprisingly well, was a trio of Mac and cheeses. One was styled on fettucini alfredo, with housemade guanciale and a quail egg yolk (my favorite); one was built off of duck confit (I was not so sold on this, but others were) and one, “My girlfriend’s vegan mac,” was quite surprising, with a sharp, funky flavor that had us all guessing Asian ingredients like seaweed or MSG; it turned out to be mainly nutritional yeast and paprika, with some other things including soy thrown in.

Finally, I’d wondered about the desserts at Perennial and Boka since Elizabeth Dahl, who was their dessert whiz, left with her husband to start Nostrano in Madison a few months back. I don’t know who does them now, but they’re similarly playful and fun, a cheesecake in a glass consisting of cream cheese foam with graham cracker ice cream or a vanilla and strawberry parfait with strawberry Pop Rocks. All in all, a clever and delightful meal that, heck, I’d even pay my own money for next time.

In association with the Chicago Reader, I go behind the scenes of the opening of a new restaurant, Leopold. Read the print piece and watch the video.

* * *

As noted earlier in the week, a weird convergence of events means that this week’s Reader has two articles and three video pieces by me. First up, of course, is this week’s Key Ingredient, in which Brian Enyart, chef de cuisine at Rick Bayless’ Topolobampo, wrestles with sticky, icky, very Japanese natto:

Next, a big feature piece on a new Belgian gastropub, Leopold, and since I video’d all my interviews along the way, there’s a 9-minute video attached as well:

Finally, short and sweet in more ways than one, a blurb on a bakery, Chimney Cake Island, offering a unique Romanian treat, and the totally cute couple who run it:

The things I’ve made most recently are all media: three videos and two articles for this week’s Reader, to be precise. (Kate Schmidt, the food editor, joked that this week would be the special Michael Gebert issue.) So as far as blogging here goes, I’m just going to cover it off with a few pics of things I made to eat at home around the holidays:

1. Pork Head & Parsley Pate, from Pork & Sons.
When I reviewed James Villas’ Pig a few weeks back, Mark S., who blogs about charcuterie here (and is Msmre on LTHForum), mentioned the book Pork & Sons as his favorite of the current crop of porky books, so I added it to my Amazon wish list just in time for my birthday. I have to admit that until then, I had overlooked it purely because of its pink gingham cover. A French import, it’s kind of the Amelie of French meat books, awfully pleased with how cute and quaint and Fffronsh it is. Still, it does indeed seem solid and evocative of a certain style of eating worth preserving.

Wanting something for a Christmas dinner starter, I decided to make this pate— really, a headcheese. I contacted the Jake’s Country Meats folks, who sell at the Logan Square Farmer’s Market, and asked for whatever they had of the cuts the recipe listed: a head, two trotters, and some shoulder. Well, they were all out of head, but I got the trotters and the shoulder, diced up the appropriate amount of the latter, and set it to cooking with some aromatics and vegetables:

One thing to note about pig’s feet— there’s no meat on them. I don’t mean “hardly any,” I mean zero— all you get from them is the gelatin. The meat was all from the shoulder. When reduced to tender chunks, I diced it up and laid it in the terrine:

One thing I remember Rob Levitt said when he was demonstrating making testa was that you should salt and season it heavily, since it will be eaten cold. Meanwhile I reduced the gelatinous broth to a truly shimmery thickness, and poured it over the packed meats and vegetables:

A couple of days to set in the fridge, and:

I really liked this pate, it’s full of flavor (and not just meat, either), though I think I need to buy a smaller terrine for such exercises— I’m the only one who eats this stuff, generally, and it didn’t get completely finished, sad to say.

2. Pancetta, from Charcuterie.

At the same time I got three decent-sized strips of pork belly from Jake’s. Two were destined to be bacon, but I decided to experiment with pancetta with the other, having loved my pancetta from Bolzano Artisan Meats in Milwaukee. I mixed up the spices and curing salts, coated the belly and sealed it away for a week…

After a week I cleaned it off and cut it in half. I wrapped the pieces in cheesecloth and hung them in my wine fridge:

A week after that I took one piece out to try some and use it on a pizza. The meat had only lost about 10% of its weight, and what I realized was, although this soft, supple meat had the texture of most pancetta you buy, and tasted fine, I really preferred Bolzano’s, which I suspect is both more heavily salted and more aggressively dried. So I’m going to try drying at least one piece more, even at the risk of spoilage, and see if I get closer to what I liked about theirs. If it goes bad, well, I learned something.

3. Great Grandma’s Suet Pudding, Marjorie Zalewski, Toledo, Ohio (3rd Place, Ohio State Fair Family Heirloom Recipes Competition)

I was of a mind to make a traditional Christmas pudding this year. Cathy Lambrecht mentioned that she had posted one that had won a prize in a contest at the Ohio State Fair at the Greater Midwest Foodways Alliance site.

With such simple beginnings do many epic sagas start.

The recipe looked like just the thing— old-fashioned flavors like molasses, suet as the primary fat, and so on— so, being of a mind to get whatever I could out of the way before the big day, I mixed it up (making cranberry relish at the same time on the top of the stove), grated the suet myself from some beef fat I’d bought at Paulina Meat Market, and baked it in a bain-marie for three hours. At the end of which, opening the Jiffy Pop-like aluminum tent, I found that it was… flat. Very flat.

I studied the recipe for clues. It didn’t take long: carelessly I had used baking powder where more inflationary baking soda was called for. It was now about eight o’clock on Friday night. If I hurried and actually paid attention this time, I could just get a second one baked by midnight. This is how I spend Friday nights, folks.

The second one went in. Meanwhile, I tasted the first. It tasted… authentic. With nothing but molasses for sweetener, it was very 19th century, very hardscrabble life on the Plains. It tasted like Christmas… in a Willa Cather novel.

I decided I couldn’t end Christmas dinner with a dessert that no one liked. Notably, my children. So the next morning I started making an apple-lemon curd dessert with Sauternes— if the first dessert was Willa Cather, this one was Schnitzler, Toulouse-Lautrec, Debussy, Continental elegance with a touch of the dandy and of the decadent.

Christmas dinner came. I advised my guests that no one would take it amiss if they had one bite of the prairie dessert and then devoured the other. But, in fact, Grandma Zalewski had a trick up her sleeve— it may not have been the case in 1840, but by the 20th century when she was passing this one down, it came with a brandy hard sauce full of sugar, which lightened and leavened the dense, molasses-y darkness of the pudding. It was still substantive, but no longer ponderous. The clash of dessert worlds became a fair fight, and in fact, both were eaten with considerable pleasure (not to mention the rest of the Sauternes). In the end, Cather and Schnitzler together produced a last course out of Dickens, leaving us full and full of good fellowship. It’s important to know how to keep Christmas, after all. Ask a famous author.

Andrew Zimmerman of Sepia does lamb fat in the new Key Ingredient (read it here). Big props to him, since we had some technical issues and he was a real standup guy about helping us out and getting it done.

To do this properly, I need to get the veggie wrap, but— shortribs?  Smoked whitefish?  Those sound so much better. Lunch wins out over the needs of the blog… I’ll just snap a few candids while I wait…

I’ll take it to the seating in the back, there’s natural light— oh hell, some other guy’s already shooting there.

Shortrib it is… looks great… you can hardly see the meat though. I’ll move some of the shoestring potatoes in front…

There’s the meat. Let’s try an arty angle…

Or one that puts it in the context of the store…

Or the context of the dining experience… no, that’s not it. What I need is natural light, to really give it three-dimensionality and some dramatic contrast of light and dark. Turn on the macro, too.

Perfect! Now that’s how you photograph a Grahamwich!

(If none of this makes any sense to you, read this.)

So I read on the blogs that Graham Elliot was in Paris. Aha! My perfect moment to visit Grahamwich without risking a thrashing from a Texas bullwhip. So after shooting an upcoming Key Ingredient, I walked over, ordered a shortrib sandwich, and waited. As soon as I snapped the candid at top, the manager noticed me. It quickly became clear that he knew who I was, and the backstory of why I was taking photos. “Why, is there a Wanted poster in the office with my face on it?” I asked. He laughed, and when my sandwich arrived I was treated to chips and a drink on the house. (The chips, dusted with cheese and chives I believe, are very tasty, but the portion is huge, we’ve been munching them for two days at home— you could easily split among two if not three or four at lunch. The housemade orange soda was first-rate, too. It’s easy to drive your lunch bill to $20 with these things, but at least they’re really very good.)

I went up front to get natural light, since Steve Dolinsky was hogging the back getting B-roll for an interview he did earlier— I’m in some of it, trying to be practicedly casual in how I eat my Grahamwich. (It was actually a big media/industry day— Julia Kramer of Time Out popped in as well, and so did a chef from Longman & Eagle. Hope they get regular customers too.) The manager offered me a new vintage tray to shoot on, and dressed my sandwich with some extra shoestring potatoes. No glycerine or other tricks of the commercial photography trade, though. Several more tries, and— in the end I had a shot that I thought demonstrated how good a picture you could take and still be an amateur with a pocket camera taking no more than a couple of minutes to get your shot.

So how was the sandwich? Shortrib’s an easy layup, to be sure, always comfily ingratiating, and if they couldn’t get that pretty right it would be shameful; but you have to balance what you put on it, too many sandwich places smother good meat under creamy sauce or overdo the bread (pretzel roll, probably LaBriola). This was a really well-balanced sandwich, well, apart from the extra shoestrings for visual effect, surely 2-3 times the normal amount. And I was impressed to see the staff working furiously not only making the sandwiches, but remaking some of the toppings as we watched, in order to ensure that everything was as fresh as could be. I’m eager to try more… as soon as I find out Elliot’s out of town again.

ADDENDUM: See here. Elliott is probably being a bit sarcastic about little old me, but all I can say is, blogging may be a smalltime thing but it’s on the level: the photo wasn’t good, the sandwich was, and I said both honestly at their respective times.

Continued from Part 4 here, not to mention parts 1, 2 and 3.

MICHAEL GEBERT: It’s our last day, and we have a couple of questions from the commenters (thanks, folks) as well as every other subject that has anything to do with food to cover here before I run out of pixels. So let’s buzz through them, although of the things everyone will expect us to cover, there are at least two that I just can’t work up any energy to talk about again— Michelin and food trucks. But don’t let my ennui stop you.

Let’s start with another very recent and much talked-about controversy‚ a restaurant called Red Medicine in Beverly Hills outed the L.A. Times’ S. Irene Virbila in a particularly nasty fashion— posting her picture (of which all I can say is, my mom should go eat in Beverly Hills, she looks enough like her to get great service next time) and refusing her service. I’m firmly of two minds about this. On the one hand, I don’t care if Hitler comes to eat at your restaurant, it’s not good business to get known for embarrassing customers in public, especially in a place like L.A. where many of your richest and most powerful customers are, indeed, famously loathsome. There’s a way to fight back against critics with panache, and treating customers rudely isn’t it. (For instance, it would be hilarious for some restaurant to publish a review of the reviewer’s behavior at table, written in mock reviewer-ese.)

But I’m not entirely sorry if the fiction of anonymity for such long-running reviewers took another hit. I saw at one restaurant the board with all the major critics’ mugshots on it that’s right as the servers exit the kitchen, I’m sure you’ve seen similar.  Recognition must happen all the time, at least at the high end.  But as we talked about last year, it’s just one part of how the whole review system is sort of stuck in the past.  There was an example of that this year that really struck me. When it was announced that Mike Sheerin was leaving Blackbird, Phil Vettel let it drop that he had been to Blackbird recently, presumably for an upcoming review of Sheerin-era Blackbird— the first review of that most important and influential restaurant in over a decade.  Which now wasn’t going to happen, obviously, since the chef it was about was leaving.  What, you couldn’t have blogged a couple of things you really liked in the interim, Phil?  You sure can’t write that review now.  This idea of sitting on your visits to Blackbird until you can craft the perfect comment on it for the ages— it’s so out of step with the speed the food scene moves at these days, as indeed it proved in this case with the chef change.  (Just imagine if he tried to review Va Pensiero!)

NAGRANT: Most of the people who’ve argued that pursuing anonymity is worthless or silly or antiquated are people who never seriously pursued it in the first place. They are people who often derive their self-importance from being insiders or doted upon by the establishment. These folks who often know in their heart that they are freeloading sycophants and so they wish mightily that the establishment would justify their actions by declaring anonymity dead.

There is a question as to whether anonymity should only be the burden of the “critic” and it’s tough to argue that features writers could do their best job by staying home, so I suppose I agree with that.  However, the number one defense people use to take a free meal or moon for the glamour shots in the local glossies is “But, I’m not a critic.” This is fine, but when one of those folks, as they did last week, goes on TV and says they’re a “food critic”, well you know, which way is it?

I’m not arguing that it’s possible to maintain iron-clad anonymity for long. It’s not, see Sifton et al, but it’s still an endeavor worth pursuing and not entirely a fiction as you paint. There is no question, based on my own experiences, that all the rumors are true, things change, you get nicer everything when the jig is up.

Still, even if anonymity is sometimes a ruse, there are more cooks in this city who don’t recognize Mike Sula, Phil Vettel or Jeff Ruby than there are that do.  As such those guys still have the opportunity to provide a unique valuable service, one Grant Achatz (see our earlier discussion), or Steve Dolinsky and his mug shot (who undoubtedly has raised the bar for TV journalism and who I truly admire for not pulling punches when he doesn’t like something) can not: the everyman experience.  Is there a bigger question about how often Vettel could be writing or whether he should be rotated in to a different role after say 5-7 years like most of the New York Times critics?  Sure.

From a very personal standpoint, I am a charming bastard (if I do say so myself). I honestly believe only being a public voice and not a public face has impacted my writing career to some extent. People have a tough time connecting only with a piece of paper – they crave a face, a voice, a personality, and while I’m not the Brad Pitt of food journalists, I know if I went on TV or created a very public persona, I think it would probably allow me to promote myself more effectively.  However, while I love in depth or long form features and interviewing, the market for that seems to have dried up faster than the market for criticism. In the last few years, I feel editors have passed on incredibly interesting stories in favor of the juicy news item I could give them far more than they had in the past.

Criticism still seems to be somewhat in demand and frankly I enjoy it just as much as the features and I’m also good at. I generally want to be the best at what I do, and I think being the best critic, for many of the reasons I’ve cited above includes being an anonymous figure.  Call me a dinosaur, but my great career aspiration is to one day have Sam Sifton’s job at the Times or to take over for Pat Bruno or Phil Vettel and bring a fresh critical voice to Chicago’s major dailies – one that blogs, records, and does holography (if that’s what gets the message across) as well as write the weekly review.  This is not why I keep my anonymity, I would were I writing for the Whitney Young High School newspaper, but it is part of the bargain of being in those positions.  As such, I’m doing more work these days as an e-commerce consultant instead of pursuing some “personal brand” strategy to be a food writer at any cost.

As for the Red Medicine/Virbila incident. It is what it is, a heinous childish action by petty second rate owners.  What are they so afraid of?  I guarantee they’ve given free meals to journalists who’ve still written unfavorable things (and a bunch who wrote just what the owners wanted) – why don’t they expose those people too? Because they control them. I mean of course I’m probably wickedly generalizing, but the actions of those owners feels like the work of a group of guys who fed their friend a 100 shots of beer on his birthday, duct taped him naked and threw him in a lake and were lucky their friend didn’t die. Now it’s 10 or 15 years later and those same guys have some money and a restaurant and they still think their frat boy pranks are funny. As a side note, if Hitler did come in to my gin joint, knowing he was a vegetarian, I still might serve him some offal with a wink and a nod.

GEBERT: But I’m not a critic… I suppose that’s the first reason we have a different attitude about it.  Obviously if you’ve looked at my blog I post reviews of whatever I’ve eaten lately, but that’s as much a way of taking notes and organizing my thoughts as anything; I don’t think I’ve been paid for anything like a review in well over a year, it’s all been feature writing of some sort, which is more interesting to me.  I understand why you say that the market for that has dried up— certainly at the moment the full-time jobs that have been open have all been for the inside news blogs, Grub Street, Eater, Feast, etc. firing off short newsbites all day  But I think that’s a short term function of the advertising environment as much as anything— they can get lots of hits in a day, and keep people coming back to see what’s new day after day.  But that can’t be the only model for food content online, it’s too narrow and now-focused to be the only kind of food writing there is; people want other things too even when there’s no successful content model that proves the fact (except, maybe, books, which remain unkillable no matter what technology throws at them, proving there’s a primal need for intensive one-on-one engagement with a writer, even with the reader’s own money).  But we could just as easily have a different model tomorrow that sells whole articles for 25 cents for the Kindle, or in which Grey Goose Vodka sponsors them or something, and then the longer, meatier piece will be more marketable again.

And I think for journalists, you need to go not only where the traffic is but where your strengths are; the review is devalued because everyone can do it, for free.  (Do it, not do it well, of course.)  But the in-depth piece of reportage— a blogger can do this, but it’s exponentially more legwork (I stopped telling people how long it took me to put together each Sky Full of Bacon video, because I was tired of the “And you’re not getting paid for that?” look), and benefits from having the institution behind you in terms of getting your calls taken, and so on.  Anyway, I’m convinced that if the market’s dried up for longer, more interesting pieces, it’s not because there’s no market, it’s because the market and the demand are still sorting each other out, and now’s the time to be one of the people inventing the new forms.

Okay, let’s take a question from the comments.  Kennyz posited his views on the malign influence of PR firms on Day 1:

2010 was the year of the Public Relations professional. Last year’s chatter was all about who would win the food media wars – traditional outlets or bloggers and discussion forums. Meanwhile, as those peons were battling their esoteric arguments out, PR firms were figuring out how to take control of it all, and they succeeded big time. As we enter 2011, whether it’s a random LTHForum poster writing about a great dinner at Ampersand & Ampersand, a Michael Nagrant tweet to hundreds or thousands of followers, or a feature article in the Chicago Reader, there’s a damn good that it emanated from a carefully orchestrated campaign put together during a brainstorming meeting in some corporate office with a whiteboard and a tray of Corner bakery sandwiches in the center of the table.

My feeling is we really answered this on Day 3, talking about Grahamwich.  I don’t think there’s anything sinister, or even moreso, that there’s anything new about PR people pitching stories to publications; the publications seem to have the upper hand on what they go for or not and even when they go for a pitch, the ability of the PR firm to direct it from that point is so minimal.  I’m working on something right now which started with a pitch from a PR rep, but other than keeping me up to date of the restaurant’s progress toward opening, the PR person has had nothing to do with the shape of the story.

The real change, I believe, is that chefs are taking over the process— and they’re much more likely to be mercurial about how access is granted.  I think it’s worth remembering what happened with movie journalism in the 80s.  A few stars with ties to a few big agencies like CAA became so central to magazine covers that produced newsstand sales that they got the upper hand and were able to say, you bring up Scientology in your Tom Cruise piece and you not only never get Cruise again, you don’t get all these other stars I represent either.  And they gutted magazine movie journalism in that decade; Premiere started out as a glitzier Film Comment and ended the decade as Us (and soon died), and they blacklisted certain writers, and all kinds of things. That’s way more intrusive than anything that ever happened with Sidney Falco pitching J.J. Hunsecker an item for the column at Sardi’s.  (The difference is, this time there will still be blogs out there like cockroaches, surviving and publishing everything.)

NAGRANT: Well, I like KennyZ. I’ve appreciate his posts on LTH and to some extent, he’s right, PR people do have more tools at their disposal to push their messages and they’ve found backdoor channels to push their messages. I mean, yes I do sometimes RT chefs directly or to a lesser extent, PR people. While he can’t see the lust in my heart – let me assure him that I only RT things I’m generally interested in and not because I’m trying to curry some favor.  I’ve been critical of Graham Elliot this year and I even made a joke at Rick Bayless expense regarding the old BK commercials – that’s not something you do if you have some kind of calculated need to suck the teat of monster PR.

That being said, yeah, the Chicago Reader does have a gossip column which is no doubt fed by PR in some way – even if it’s backdoor unconscious stuff.  Still, no there is no PR firm in the world that I know of which represents dudes making sausage in their backyard or opening black market taquerias in their garage. Sula’s coverage is still some of the edgiest craziest shit, stuff so esoteric that frankly it would be suicide to pursue if he weren’t such a good storyteller.

GEBERT: And of course Ellen Malloy’s new model is the opposite of the PR person carefully planting stories, it’s to create a place where chefs can nail stuff to a wall for journalists to find and get inspired to do a piece by.  It’s hands off, giving the chefs an open field to prove to be interesting, or not.  (Which does mean that the chef with lots of innate personality who makes good copy becomes more important than ever without a PR person smoothing the path for them.  We’ll see in ten years if that meant the food got better, or merely that the chefs got more famous.)

Another question from the comments.  An anonymous commenter asks:

What are your thoughts on the Chicago brunch scene? It seems our city more than others has valued the trendy brunch place in the past. Solidly entrenched tradition, or fad on its way out?

Here we’ve run into one of my areas of ignorance; my kids get me up early enough on Sunday morning that by the time those trendy restaurants roll out of bed and start serving mimosas at 11, we’ve been fed for two hours already.  Your thoughts?

NAGRANT: I definitely don’t get to brunch as much as I used to. However, I can say the real solid contenders in the category the last couple of years like Meli Cafe, Stax in Little Italy, Publican, and Jam have really focused on high quality either classics or solid gourmet twists over trendy Butterfinger candy bar larded pancakes. Then again I still love me some Bongo Room (South Loop location) as much as the next guy.  I mean I think as long as you have Sex and the City movie sequels, hung over people, old people with no kids and lots of money and time, and young Chicago transplants who never went to bed the night before, there will always be a demand for brunch.

GEBERT: Final question, same as last year: tell us something fantastic to go eat right now.

NAGRANT: Todd Stein’s caramelle pasta at Florentine. If you’re adventurous, the maatejeering (i’m sure this is spelled wrong, but I’m too lazy to brush up on my Dutch) shot at Vincent, and for good karmic measure, everything in the pastry case at Pasticceria Natalina.

GEBERT: Florentine, I hear that place has an atmosphere like a glorified airport lounge/faux library/garage sale art gallery, but the pastas are good.  My recommendation, which it has been to everybody for the last couple of months, is Taza Bakery in a sketchy little strip mall at 3100 W. Devon.  They have the best beef shwarma in town at the moment, but they also bake all kinds of stuff like spinach or potato pies, and they make these great big puffy breads called tannur that are dirt cheap and great to use like Boboli as a pizza crust.  Check it out.

Thank you for joining me here again to solve all the food world’s problems; thanks to all our commenters for their intelligent and pointed observations, to everybody who linked it, and to all the readers and Twitterers we picked up along the way.  Read Michael Nagrant in New City every week and Chicago Social.  As for me, you’re already here, but be sure to read (Julia Thiel) and watch (me) the Reader’s Key Ingredient every week; the latest one (Paul Virant and spirulina) is here. And there will be a continuation of the Grahamwich-photo kerfuffle on Monday… come back and see.

Paul Virant and a nutritional supplement from the 80s star in the Reader’s latest Key Ingredient; read the piece here.

Continued from Part 3 here, and be sure to read yesterday’s comments— some excellent ones in there including from our buddy David Hammond and one from an anonymous server who says I’m way underestimating how annoying foodies can be…

MICHAEL GEBERT: So we ended yesterday talking about Black Dog Gelato, which I’ll happily endorse if you don’t buy Stephanie Izard’s endorsement, and the tendency of chefs in the media to follow what I used to call the Paradise Sauna Paradigm.  Which is, the media would ask a chef where they like to go eat when they’re off work, and the chef doesn’t want to give business and props to direct competition, so he picks some place that poses no threat.  Which somehow usually seemed to work out to be the late Paradise Sauna on Montrose for sushi.  (Hey, it was open late, and… well… who knows what else it may have offered.)  So yes, there is this paradoxical thing of people wanting info straight from the chefs, forget the media gatekeepers, they want that connection to the chef’s knowledge… even when they know they’re getting an answer that’s good politics for the chef.  (Paul Kahan says he loves to eat at Avec or Big Star!)  But hey, there may be a rational calculation there on the part of readers that even a calculated answer is closer to the insider knowledge that everybody wants, than some publication’s “Ten Places You Must Eat Char Siu Now” listicle which is totally generated out of some 20-year-old intern’s Googling.

Anyway, that’s my roundabout way of getting out of the fine dining sphere and into talking about more casual food, not that much of our talk about fine dining hasn’t been about how it’s becoming increasingly casualized.  How do you feel about the under $20-a-plate scene in the last year?  For me, one big story was that— in a cosmic joke on Kevin Pang, who had just stopped doing his video segments about them— Chicago finally became a pretty good burger town.  I wasn’t that wild about the chains that opened, from Five Guys to Epic Burger (though Meatheads out in mallburbia is actually quite good), but of course Edzo’s was an instant classic, this year’s Hot Doug’s, and I was really impressed by DMK Burger Bar, too, for its (successful) use of (admittedly expensive) artisanal meats.  And speaking of Hot Doug’s, creative sausages seem to be everywhere, too.  So how do you feel about the casual scene?

MICHAEL NAGRANT: But doesn’t Black Dog use corn syrup in their ice cream? Hahaha….foodies.

Do people know they’re getting politically correct answers from chefs? I mean they’re probably all convinced that all chefs do is drink Old Style, eat at Avec, and get the occasional burrito from Taco Burrito Palace #2. Actually, that’s a pretty good picture. Except when they’re on vacation, chefs don’t eat out much because they’re so hard at work late night that everything is closed by the time they get off.

Wait, you were impressed by DMK burger bar? This is a set-up, right? I mean I’m sort of reluctant to say any more than I did in my column because I don’t want Michael Kornick to think I have some weird vendetta. Because, I don’t. But, bottom line is I don’t like the flour top bun. It’s dusty and has a weird mouth feel. In many cases I think the toppings take away or overwhelm the burgers. I didn’t think you could taste the difference in meat or that the patties were made with “love”.

I mean I thought Epic burger – South Loop made a more satisfying a burger (cooked well-done!). Neither excited me anyway. I loved the fries at DMK and the drinks were good. My biggest problem I guess is that Kornick’s MK in the early days was rock solid, and I see DMK as a dilution of the brand. I don’t feel that way about Big Star where Kahan et al have created maybe the best taqueria in town or Xoco, definitely the best whatever it is, hot chocolate stand/torta joint, in town. If Kornick had created Edzo’s, now we’re talkin. I mean I loved M Burger too. They got the bun and the secret sauce right and they make a righteous strawberry shake. Franks and Dawgs is great. All they need is Doug Sohn and they’d have lines down the street.

I was on the fence about Saigon Sisters French market outpost, but I love their lunchtime bao and banh mi at the new spot. Their dinner probably doesn’t fall in to the casual price range, but I’m really happy with what they’ve done. I’d like their Pho to be a little more beefy, but it’s the best we have in the West Loop.

I liked Del Seoul. I think they got the “Korean” taco right for the most part – the seasoning on the meat was righteous, even if the tortillas were just aight.

Davanti Enoteca which is pretty much all reasonably priced small plates was the big surprise of the year. I’ve always liked Mia Francesca and I respect what Scott Harris does, but it is what it is, a place to get really consistent Italian standards and good service, i.e. Lettuce Entertain You like chain level food. Davanti has real personality and a nice convivial neighborhood vibe and really excellent food. If there’s any complaint, it’s that all the poached or fried eggs garnishing the plate will raise your cholesterol to dangerous levels, but that’s pretty much par for dining out anywhere.

I Dream of Falafel is very good and the endless pickled toppings are nice. I’m still waiting for an awesome cheap take-out fast casual Indian spot. Delhi 6 was on the right path, but they closed up faster than a chef who’s been asked about his worst dining experiences of the year.

GEBERT: I kid you not, you need to get back to DMK, maybe they didn’t have their act down yet when you went.  It’s one of the few places where I felt like I could really taste the difference of using better meat— Bad Apple is another, the New York-sourced beef is great but I’ve never found a topping combination on the menu that I really liked at Bad Apple, where the first burger on the list, at least, at DMK, the one with fried onions and blue cheese, was dead on and not over the top.  (I also like that in both cases, the burger patty isn’t grotesquely huge.) That said, I must admit that I don’t entirely understand the Kuma’s-inspired dress-it-up-like-a-Vegas-stripper mentality toward burgers, or even toward dogs.  A sausage with some mustard on it, or a burger with mustard pickle and onion, are pretty much perfect things, time-tested and true; if you’re going to add all kinds of stuff, you really need to make sure you still deliver on the primal snap of the grilled sausage and the bite of mustard and onion on ground meat.  I can’t exactly diss Franks and Dawgs considering I’ve been there twice in the last three weeks, but too many of those creations seem so far from the basic, root-level delights of a grilled sausage, so gilded with things that are sweet or vegetably or whatever that isn’t mustard and onion.  (Maybe I just need to ask them to actually char mine.)  My feeling about gussied-up burgers and dogs is, first, do no harm to the time-tested paradigm of the foodstuff.

Big Star, Big Star… okay, I can understand liking Big Star as a whole package, beer, taco, hipsters going downscale in a rehabbed Phillips 66 with vinyl on the turntable, hot neighborhood location.  But as far as calling it the best taqueria in town— I just think settling on one tidy-white place is missing the whole point of Mexican in Chicago, which is that there’s never an end to it, there’s always another place that holds out the promise of greasy, funky discovery.  Most will be bad or at least totally ordinary, but then somebody finds a Birrieria Zaragoza or Cemitas Pueblas and, wow.  Columbus discovers another new world.  That chase is what it’s about, not one moderately solid (it has its good points) place.

That said, Mexican is both the most tantalizing and the most frustrating cuisine in town.  I mean, every fine restaurant in town is full of Mexicans, right?  How ironic is it that in one of the Key Ingredients I’ve been doing for the Reader, the chef at Blackbird didn’t know how to cook bull’s testicles, so he asked his prep guys and dishwashers and they all did?  Every restaurant has two entirely different sets of institutional knowledge inside it, which probably barely communicate with each other.  Yet somehow, that exposure to fine dining and the world so rarely seems to translate into a bigger commitment to excellence and creativity in Mexican restaurants.  Only Bayless managed to spawn some proteges who could take Mexican to a higher level, meanwhile, all over town the same shortcuts— precook meat before making steak tacos, cook pastor meat in a pan rather than on a cone, etc.— continue to hold Mexican joints back.  Isn’t there one guy making $2 steak tacos who realizes he could make $3 steak tacos for gringos with real charcoal and the same meat cooked to order?  They’re paying it at Big Star…

I haven’t been to Saigon Sisters’ restaurant, only their French Market stand; I thought the banh mi I had there was fine, but Nhu Lan’s easily beat it.  Anyway, as I said in this space last year and also in Eater last week, to me one of the most interesting things on our food scene to me is that we’re getting a younger generation of Asian-Americans who are opening up fun, chic, cartoony, whatever new concepts that break with the traditional Asian restaurant mold which is so tired and shabby-genteel.  Ming Hin or Sweet Station may be a little tamer foodwise, a little more gringo-friendly in their flavors, but only a little, and the atmosphere is fun and vibrant.  And as people dig into the menus, they’re finding more stuff that’s new and good— I really liked the corn and pork cake at Ming Hin, Rob Gardner recently cited the beef brisket and rice noodle rolls in a pot, and so on.

I hope that outlook and youthful energy will spread to other ethnic cuisines— Indian badly needs to be shaken out of the shabby-genteel buffet mode, too, and there’s at least one kabab/kati roll place that’s kind of a start, J.K. Kabab House.  But there ought to be ten wild and crazy Bollywood joints on Devon packed on Friday nights.  Korean has potential, too, that’s a cuisine that really needs to break out of its shuttered, Howard Hughes-private dining paradigm and is starting to with the Korean taco thing (though none of the explicit attempts at that have impressed me that much, not even Ruxbin’s).  The one cuisine that’s kind of a disappointment is the one that, like Mexican, I would have called one of our local glories five years ago— Thai.  Every new Thai place seems to be Ameri-Thai mixed with mid-level sushi.  If anybody has opened a place serving authentic Thai food since Sticky Rice or TAC, the word hasn’t reached the gringo foodie community.  So for now we just have to keep exploring the menus at the ones we know (I’ve been big on Aroy this year), and keep an eye out for better— I had a couple of new and interesting things at a place called Kan Pou… but it closed.  And became a sushi joint.

What else are you digging in to when you don’t want to drop the big wad on dinner?

NAGRANT: Along the lines of what you’ve said about the thrill of taqueria discoveries, the same pretty much applies for Chinatown. I continued to pretend to be an honorary Jew on Christmas Eve and hung out at Triple Crown on Wentworth this year. I’d never been. While I’ve had dim sum all over the place, Furama, Shui Wah, Phoenix, etc, and I thought Shui Wah was the General Tso’s toes (that’s Chinese for bee’s knee’s if you don’t know), it turns out that Triple Crown is just as good or better. Though, no one has better salt and pepper squid in all of Chicagoland than Shui Wah – you can book it. The best part is that Triple Crown serves dim sum everyday until 2 a.m. Also, they had one of the best and freshest stir fried crabs I’ve had anywhere. So, while I’ve cased most of the bakeries and most of the dim sum, I’m thinking there are still probably like ten or so places in Chinatown with amazing food I haven’t tried yet.

I also will never give up the hunt for the next great taqueria. But, maybe you need to go back to Big Star like I need to go back to DMK. In the beginning I felt as you did. But, that’s all changed. Also, make no mistake, this is not about Big Star being a whitey taqueria. In fact, despite the hipster flavoring, I’d ask is it really a whitey taqueria? Other than Justin Large, that whole kitchen is pretty much manned by Latinos and masa-patting tortilla ladies. The paint job and the language on the signs is all very Spanish. You could argue it’s a gentrified parody, but while the dining room is what it is, the kitchen is pretty authentic.

My last three visits have been extraordinary. Big star is consistently nailing seasoning, texture, and balance of flavor. You won’t find braised pineapple or charred scallion bits or any of Big Star’s gourmet touches at most other places. Likewise, very few places have a better tortilla or house salsa. Though, I might mention La Lagartija has nice house salsas and the best shrimp taco in Chicago. And finally, Big Star is using cuts, read pork belly, that few are. Also, they could probably make the tacos a little bigger and charge $4 bucks a piece, but they don’t, so the price is right on.

Yes, Cemitas Puebla makes the best taco arabe. Yes, Zaragoza makes the best birria (or not – last week I thought it was Reyes de Ocotlan in Pilsen again) and yes Asadero makes the best carne asada etc…but Big Star has taken it to another level generally across the board without pandering or gouging. None is more consistent or inspired across the board.

As for Thai, I thought I was satisfied with the local options until I ate at Lotus of Siam in Vegas. It’s no longer a secret thanks to Jonathan Gold opening the flood waters way back when. In fact, our fearless Hungry Hound, Steve Dolinsky’s ubiquitous 8 x 10 glossy was staring me down as I tossed back some Northern Thai sausage. That being said, every dish at LOS that’s available on the secret menu at say Spoon is better at LOS. Then there are some dishes including this stir fried shell on shrimp dish with chilis, whereby the shells tasted like a deep fried potato chip that aren’ available anywhere in Chicago. Add in one of the best Riesling lists I’ve seen at any restaurant 5 star or otherwise and, well, we have a lot of work ahead of us here.

Better than that was Raku, maybe the only place worthy of being called an izakaya in America. If God issued a proclamation declaring Lance Armstrong clear of all the steroid allegations, I still wouldn’t be as inspired by him as I was a grilled bacon-wrapped cherry tomato at Raku. Of course, once again this was a strong reminder that our own neo-izakaya movement is pretty lame at this moment – though I really thought Masu was promising. I know you found that “real” place or whatever, but it seemed like you were still lukewarm.

GEBERT: Well, I bucked Catholic tradition and had Thai food for Christmas Eve from Spoon, and it was still pretty great. And yeah, the izakaya I went to in Mt. Prospect, Sankyu (which Mike Sula recently wrote about as well) was real in the sense of a good family restaurant, not an exactingly great restaurant. Which points to the quandary with these small ethnic places— Sankyu was more real and a couple of times really good, but it’s obviously not at the same executional level as Chizakaya, which is the izakaya, sorta, in Chicago hipsterville, and whose chefs came from the likes of Trotter’s and L2O— and which is sometimes impressive and sometimes silly, and often no more Japanese than The Purple Pig is.  I guess all we can do is go to both, depending on what we want at any given time, refinement or funk.  We’re lucky to live in a place where there is such finely-honed skill at work in kitchens… and also where you can run away from it and have a really great meal where the menu is written with magic marker on a take out bag and stuck to the bulletproof glass between you and the cash register.

TOMORROW: We round up every other subject that you could possibly be interested in

Continued from Part 2 here. Submit your questions/observations/rants in the comments and we’ll do our best to address them on Friday.

MICHAEL GEBERT: Talking about restaurants is, of course, merely the prelude to talking about talking about restaurants— that is, the whole food media/online foodie scene, which is to say, talking about ourselves. You brought up some good points on Monday which I want to get to, but if there was a big story this year, I think it was the fact that the whole world got together and announced that it was sick to fucking death of foodies already. The media (including our own Tribune just last week) announced that they were sick of their readers being interested in what they write about, and lots of chefs announced that they were sick of people photographing their food and talking about it online, and The Atlantic and Tony Bourdain hated on Alice Waters, and Graham Elliott got mad at me for dissing on a photo of a Grahamwich, and Natalie Zarzour doesn’t like you or anybody very much.

My first thought is, I’ll listen to a newspaper complaining about people obsessing over a trivial part of life the day it apologizes for wasting an entire section on sports for the last century and a half. My second thought is, I’d hate foodies too if I had ever met anybody like the awful annoying people they describe, but as with the Why-I-Hate-Locavores stories that turn up every few months, the straw men that get marched through these pieces don’t bear all that much resemblance to the real locavores or foodies I know, who are generally interested, thoughtful,  and generous with money and praise. And my third thought is, as I said at Ellen Malloy’s place, if chefs don’t like people talking about them online, believe me, it can be arranged and you can see how much you like it then. But what do you think? Are we just in a patch of grumpiness from the people who’ve mostly benefited from the foodie explosion, albeit in ways that can be damaging to the professional ego when ordinary folks get to express their opinions too, or is there some justice in the feeling that the foodie thing has become a monster raging out of control?

MICHAEL NAGRANT: That’s always been the mode of journalism, right? Trumpet the zeitgeist and then right at the peak, trample all over it. That being said, I don’t know that Chris Borrelli’s piece in the Tribune is a “patch of grumpiness from the people who’ve mostly benefited from the foodie explosion, albeit in ways that can be damaging to the professional ego when ordinary folks get to express their opinions too.”

I mean he was pretty even-handed about saying he was a contributor to the problem and that he made his living off the back of the movement. Plus, Borrelli doesn’t even really care about food like half the journalists in town. He’s just a good writer who happened to get the food beat. As a result, he’s generally one of the better food writers in town, because he hasn’t lost himself in the BS and forgotten to tell a good story along the way.

That being said, do you really think these locavores or evangelists are really straw men? I hear you. Most of the people we know don’t fit the stereotype. However, I guarantee Alice Waters, and frankly half of the moms of kids in my son’s peer group -who wouldn’t know a gougere from a profiterole – would be clucking her tongues at me if they saw me taking my son for chicken nuggets at McDonald’s. For those people, I don’t think there’s really a middle ground. Then again, the irony is that Tony Bourdain while dubbing Waters culinary Khmer Rouge or whatever, is also swearing he’ll never take his young daughter for nuggets at the evil empire too.

So, sure I guess there’s some double-dealing, but you know they say the sign of a great intellect is being able to keep both sides of an argument in your head without going crazy. Most things in life are shades of gray, and it’s not necessarily disingenuous to profit from a movement and also be critical of aspects of it – that’s just smart engagement.

I mean the Zarzour quote about me, Sula and Dolinsky not knowing fuck-all isn’t what it seems. I totally get it. I’m sure what she really meant was “no one really knows how hard it is” and that’s true no one does, not even those of us who have supported her along the way. I mean I’m always talking about she candies her own citrus, makes her own marzipan, spends six hours to make 30 cassatine, infuses her own liquors etc….but I don’t really know what it’s like to work as many hours, living in the bakery. I don’t know exactly the struggle that it takes to continue to use expensive product because it’s the best thing you can use, even when using AP flour, tons of sugar, and industrial oils make 90% of the world happy. Yes, a $9 cannoli is absurd, but she was making a statement. If all those mom’s looking down on me for giving my son the occasional chicken nugget didn’t spend all their money on truly bad commodity pastry from “cute” boutique shops and spend the rest of their time bashing Zarzour for selling a $4 cannoli, it probably would have stayed at $4 or 5 bucks and been the best one you’ve ever had and worth every penny. Instead it will now disappear.

The thing is, there are a lot of d-bags out there looking for free stuff who are more interested in rubbing elbows with famous chefs or in raising their level of self-importance than telling a good story or being generally interested or knowledgeable about food. I think if anything that’s what a lot of people are raising their hackles toward now. I don’t think Paul Kahan has a problem with Sky Full of Bacon videos or Hungry podcasts. I think he has an issue with bad Yelpers, people who don’t know how to mute a flash in the middle of nice service, people who expect chefs and restaurants to be their personal servants, and so called writers/bloggers who tweet what restaurant they’re about to arrive at five minutes ahead of time.

GEBERT: Well, I’m not sure that not caring about food would exactly be an endorsement of Borrelli’s position in this piece; it makes it sound more like a cry for help to his bosses, to get transferred. But I do think these kinds of pieces wind up being easy thwacks at straw men. I know tons of locavores of various stripes, and lots of people with weird hippie notions about food, and the one kind I have never, ever met is the one who gets self-righteous about your rutabaga traveling 501 miles to get here. They’re all about, hey, check this out, it’s awesome, not puritanical rules.

Likewise, foodies are infinitely variable, and obviously a lot of folks on Yelp are of the “I know my Chinese food, and Lao Sze Chuan didn’t have any of the classics like P.F. Chang’s offers” stripe.  LTHForum is better, certainly, but it’s not like there isn’t a lot of Twitter traffic mocking posts there, too.  But these colossal foodie jerks— I’ve maybe come to know of exactly one of them, in all these years, and he’s a guy who’s richer than God and believe me, those guys have been throwing their weight around since before Babbage’s Difference Engine. The internet and Michael Pollan didn’t make them happen.

But let’s get back to the local scene. I loved Pasticceria Natalina when it first opened, but if anything, I feel guilt as a journalist rather than as a foodie who failed to live up to Natalie’s expectations, because I was one of those who wrote things which praised her treats so lavishly that they probably encouraged her to think she could do anything (and that people were a-holes if they wouldn’t pay anything for it). And sorry, a bakery is a business, and Andersonville is probably too expensive a place for it, and there are only so many times that I can go into one shop and walk out with one small $30 box with tonight’s dessert in it. And as Kennyz pointed out on LTHForum, she can say that people buy her quality of stuff every day in Sicily or wherever, but that’s because a cannoli isn’t $9 there. (LTH being LTH, the claim was immediately followed by actual citations of recent prices paid in Europe.) So I’m not convinced that there wasn’t some way to make that business work somewhere in Chicago and educate people along the way, but turning a cute little bakery into some kind of anti-consumerist performance art piece probably wasn’t it.

I mentioned my little run-in with Graham Elliott, which was somewhere in the high four digits of most consequential foodie stories of the year and hardly bears repeating, but to me shows a couple of things about the way the world works now between fame-seeking chefs and online voices clamoring to be heard and the professional food media blogs always looking to turn something into A Big Story. Certainly on the one hand Elliott has been very good at being his own best publicist, a larger than life attention magnet.  And Grahamwich got a hell of a lot of opening attention for a sandwich joint, climaxing with all those photo essays of a completely empty, food-free Grahamwich at 9 in the morning of its opening day.  They were like foodie zen— image after loving image of brand new countertops on which nothing resembling a sandwich was to be seen yet. You have to call that a triumph of a chef getting the food media to buy into his myth and follow his every move.

Except a picture of a sandwich did go out at the same time— a snapshot of a spinach-colored veggie wrap, taken by a non-food nightlife blogger. Not to insult her photographic skills, but it was just a snapshot and the thing looked like a wrap from the most ordinary strip mall lunch spot, no GEB magic. And I tweeted to that effect, and Elliott shot back that I was a douchebag hater or something. Which may be true, but still, the one image of the actual food that’s out there is this green log, so you’ve got this complete disconnect between the media rhapsodizing about the coming of Grahamwich and the only reality anyone’s seen (I’m not sure it still isn’t the only photo of a sandwich I’ve seen from there).

So Elliott is great at playing in this world on the level of a bigger-than-life celeb chef who can F-bomb back against bloggers or Chicago Magazine or whatever and only gains in cachet from doing so.  But the next level of being a participant on the scene for your own purposes isn’t just fighting back against bloggers as pipsqueak worms, it’s being cool and strategic enough to turn the current your way.  If he’d called me— or some blogger with better photographic skills— and said, hey, douchebag, why don’t you come see if you can take better photos, I guarantee you there would have been a whole bunch of much sexier shots of the sandwiches out on all the blogs a few hours later.

Which maybe brings us back to something you said on Day 1, about how there are so many outlets now covering the scene: “I think part of the blame is the blog war (and this includes old school pub blogs too – not just the new guys) we got going on. Everyone’s fighting for the last scrap and as a result they feel compelled to cover every two-bit line cook and his or her dream as if they were the next Thomas Keller. Mediocre falafel shacks in the suburbs are given the same pre-opening treatment/gossip as Grahamwich.” Basically, there’s no gatekeeping any more— everything is hot news, everything goes out to the world and makes noise as if it were the most important thing that ever happened since the last most important thing.  Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

NAGRANT: I’m not saying Borrelli doesn’t care about food. I’m saying he’s not “inside baseball.” He’s not obsessed with the culture or the competition from bloggers and his motivations are likely not about tearing them down, but rather a genuine concern about where this whole thing is going.

There are a bunch of people who think they know everything and they’re making it hard for people who are trying to be original or unique in the marketplace by always tearing things down. There is nothing more odious than the reviewer or the food blog poster who says, “Well I’ve been to Italy and whatever they serve at X restaurant is not a proper piece of agnolotti.”  Such phraseology is a blatant attempt to sound like you’re cosmopolitan or somehow qualified to judge more than someone else and always a set-up for a teardown.  And who cares what Italy does? I don’t care if they were the originators.  I’m not likely to be on a plane to check it out tomorrow.  I want to know what’s good here, right now? Americans make certain types of pizza better than Italy ever did, and that never would have happened if we just tried to match or ape Italian cuisine.  The real question that needs to be answered in these cases, is the thing good, period?

I think Pasticceria Natalina worked. I think it still works, but I don’t think its owners want to continue to operate it given all the hard work and conflict it takes to maintain their standard, that’s all. Sometimes it’s just too tough and you need to move on. Thomas Keller failed in New York before finding a way to make his standard work at the French Laundry. The Zarzours will find something that works for them.

As for Grahamwich, well I had this exact conversation with a local blogger. I said, “Why are you going in at 9 a.m. to take a picture of nothing. Don’t do it.  You’re not being unique. Everyone’s going to do the same thing, so what’s the value?”  This obsession, not even with food as much as the things around food, is the precise problem I think Borelli’s sort of getting at.

We need less worship and obsession and more judicious substantial storytelling. That being said, I’m not saying Elliot’s sandwich shop doesn’t deserve coverage. It does. Just take a look at that website.  While the load times are a little annoying and he decides to play music on it which I think 97% of web surfers hate, it’s a very interesting interactive approach to a food website. Likewise the sandwich options being offered at Grahamwich are likely to be much better than their tired counterparts served elsewhere. I guess I would have liked to see a story on the construction of the menu, how Elliot came up with the flavor profiles he did or how he invented certain flavors.

I don’t think what’s happening is a triumph of the chef as much as a failure of journalism. Then again, the chef has a lot to do with exploiting that failure.  Elliot is smart enough to know that we’re so obsessed with the celebrity that instead of doing a journo preview, he invites celebrity chefs and key tastemaker friends the day before, knowing full well, they’ll send tweets and journos will eat that up.

Of course, what happened is that in doing that, he also exposed that while chef friends and their girlfriends might be great cooks and slick talkers, they’re not always the best judge of quality or the best photographers. Also their coverage can come across as biased and not often informative, and in the case of the terrible photo of the veggie wrap, sometimes detrimental.  I mean Elliot can call you a d-bag, but he knows that picture made that wrap look like a POS.

Then again half the food bloggers operate the same way as those chefs too because they don’t care about quality as much as speed and the scoop or having people listen to them or scoring attention from a particular chef, so really I’m not sure it matters who gets the preview.

That being said I’d still rather get my news from the most disinterested party I can.  Clearly I respect Grant Achatz and what he does. I wouldn’t have begged to work on his cookbook if I didn’t. That being said, I’m not sure what I’m learning from his tweets about local restaurants.  He’s tweeting often about friends in the industry – there is nothing to be gained from saying a critical thing and everything to be gained by being nice to his peers and that’s likely what we get.  Also, if you’re Grant Achatz, everyone in food knows who you are and I guarantee he gets most people’s A game and not necessarily the experience most “normal” people get.

On a different note, but along the same lines, the last page of Food and Wine this month had Stephanie Izard’s hot list or whatever.  One of the things she recs is Black Dog Gelato. The thing here if you’re paying attention is that the owner of Black Dog Gelato used to be one of Izard’s employees.  So, sure maybe she does love Black Dog, but does she love it better than other Chicago options or is she just pimping a friend?   If you really want to learn something from Achatz or Poli or Izard or whoever is talking, you need to know the places they went and didn’t tweet or talk about.

TOMORROW: We take a walk on the low-rent side