I’ve been cranking out a ton of work for the Reader, Thrillist and other things, including two print pieces for the Reader in the next month, so blogging has been a low priority, alas. Nevertheless I want to make notes on some things before I forget them entirely, so here’s lots of notes, starting with the Montreal chunk of our Canada trip in August. If it doesn’t seem like a lot of new things to have tried, well, I also ate all of these.
MONTREAL: Other people (David Hammond) have thought nothing much of Schwartz’s, the famous Montreal deli, but besides gratitude for it being open late Sunday night when we got to town, it charmed me as old Jewish delis with the sheer exuberant life of such places always do, and the smoked meat (pastrami in other words) was plenty good. As for St. Viator’s, I wasn’t wowed by Montreal bagels, I see the virtues of the smaller, chewer bagel with a hint of woodfire smoke, but it wasn’t something that changed my life. That said, I wouldn’t be against them being more accessible, either.
The next night we ate at a cute pizza and sort of Bristol-ish meats and fresh things place called Dolcetto in the old city, which was nice, but a price tag of over $200 Canadian for a few small pizzas, salads etc. drove home just how expensive the town, especially that area, is. We decided not to even think about money for the next two nights. As I observed in the Toronto section, I typically go to other places for their unique low-end dining rather than the high-end dining which may be much closer to what I can get here. But in this case, Montreal’s high end dining seemed to promise a native Quebec cuisine you couldn’t find in other cities. Also, it was Susan’s birthday, or close enough. So we were ballers.
Joe Beef was booked weeks before, but it turns out that Joe Beef has another concept two doors down, Liverpool House, whose concept apparently is… “Just like Joe Beef.” Honestly, several of the famous dishes in the book were right there on the menu, like the breakfast sandwich with foie:
Foie would prove to be a major theme over the next two days (as would, I must admit, “excessive over-ordering”). Joe Liverpool was, in the end, a lot like porky places in Chicago, but an excellent example of the genre and all I really remember specifically after that was that we had a good time and sweated butter on the way home. The next, we had…
More foie at Au Pied de Cochon! We just got into the last available early seating and watched the place (which looks very 80s, not that there’s anything wrong with that) fill up around us. Clams with a beer cheese sauce were pretty great, Myles finally got to have poutine, in general we enjoyed Au Pied, I don’t think the kitchen is as accomplished as Joe Beef but it was satisfying, easy to see why it’s a neighborhood favorite.
But what is Quebec cuisine? I left feeling that probably more than anybody wants to admit, it’s an invention of the marketing department, like the ploughman’s lunch in England (a “tradition” invented in the 60s to boost lunch traffic at pubs), at least I can’t imagine 1900s lumberjacks really making an entire cuisine out of foie and maple syrup like this.
One other thing we did there: Liam and I went to the Jean-Talon Marche, a food market with plenty of shops for charcuterie, bierocks, etc., and an area full of fresh fruit, which I bought for the long trip back.
I didn’t really find anything mindblowingly different, but it was certainly a pleasant day with him; he’s a good, curious companion for such places. Especially when he gets a crepe. I made him try to order it in French. Did he succeed?
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Now on to things eaten in Chicago!
River Roast— I skipped a media preview for this for some other more promising preview, the idea of a meatcentric (but not steak) place on the river from Tony Mantuano (which is to say, Levy Restaurants) seemed total tourist bait. And since then… I’ve paid my own not inconsiderable cash to go, twice, and had a great hearty time both times. The whole roasted meats are all satisfying (beef and fish outstanding, chicken tasty but a little dry, a new addition of Berkshire pork very nice but a tad plain, they need to think up something to go with it), while the kitchen sent us a charcuterie platter (head chef John Hogan says he’s known for his pates; I didn’t know that, but I can believe it) that was excellent as well. I am not a steakhouse guy at all, but the hearty roastiness of everything at this place gets me right in the nostalgic comfy part of the brain.
Dove’s Luncheonette— I’ve been to this Mexican food American diner from the Blackbird etc. crew twice on my own dime, too. The first time I had pozole, right after having a special miso pozole made by Rick Bayless (as in, standing there serving it himself) at a special event at Arami (the chef there is married to one of Bayless’ chefs), which was fantastic. So Dove’s pozole was up against tough competition and I just thought it was all right; I also found it nearly impossible to dig out of the enormous bowl with the spoon, without having to tilt the spoon so far that all the pozole fell out of it.
Better was a side of beets with a little mole, but I have to say I had philosophical problems with it; it was a substantial plate for $8, which to me is completely misunderstanding the nature of diners. They’re where you go to be among people when you don’t have anyone to be among. That melancholy separate-togetherness is what diners are all about (see this Thrillist piece) AND SO THERE’S NO SHARED PLATES IN THEM. (You can share a Sun-Times in a diner; you do not share food, that’d be like getting too chummy in a men’s room.) Should have been a single portion, half as much for $4. In a diner.
Anyway, went back a few weeks later and had the one thing that wasn’t Mexican food, sort of a fried chicken and gravy plate, and I liked it a lot better. Which doesn’t really help, since it’s the only thing like it on the menu. Anyway, I have some mixed feelings (as I did about Big Star’s Mexican food in a blue collar 70s America context/concept, frankly) but as always with this group, even a straightforward concept turns out to have more than a few layers to tease through.
Paul the day man and Oliver the night man at Belmont Snack Shop.
Uncle Mike’s Place— One thing about doing that diner piece was that after a certain point, I felt like I was writing Ten Places To Get The Exact Same Thing For Breakfast. I needed a ringer that did something different, and I thought of this Filipino diner, which people like Cathy Lambrecht had written about at LTH but I had never been to. I got a big breakfast sampler that included a fried egg over garlic rice, hunks of both tocino (sweetly marinated pork) and steak, a salsa and some kind of sweetish bean puddingy thing. After trying a few better Filipino things, this seemed pretty simple in its flavors—like diner breakfast!—but a good time was had from all. I might do this once a year from here on.
MFK and Salero—Two Spanish-ish small plates places, one I loved instantly, one I don’t know what I think yet. MFK does simple, direct things with seafood. It’s the kind of place you can drop in, have three things, be full and go. Well, it’s too popular to drop in easily at night, but it is open for lunch and in the afternoon. Did I love everything? You don’t have to, you just try things and some will be really good. Like Vera.
Salero is next to Blackbird, a somewhat more formal looking space, though they’re friendly at the bar. The sardine thing shown above, that I liked as easily as I liked things at MFK. Other things, like a red pepper stuffed with short rib meat, I didn’t equally take to. How do you get one place of this kind so quickly, while another kind of puzzles you? I don’t know, but that was my reaction.
Bohemian House— The idea of an upscale Czech place downtown is improbable, and for that very reason endearing, surrounded as it is by all the blaring cliches of River North. The inside is like a hipper version of Smak Tak or Staropolska, River North’s idea of a medieval castle. The cocktails looked bizarrely sweet, the wine list, as my dining companion shelf said, looks like the middle shelf at Jewel, but the craft beer list was good. And really, what did you think you should be drinking in a Czech place, rum and coke?
I’d read a lot of praise for it, so it was disappointing that the opening courses were all about 3/4 of what they should have been, I thought. A cauliflower salad had too sharp a vinaigrette, a beet salad was all right, the short rib pierogi, gummy, were a particular disappointment. I was ready to write it off when the entrees turned out to be by far the best things—chicken paprikash was maybe a bit overwhelmed by the taste of hot paprika, but it was beautifully roasted, and a roast duck was pretty much perfect (hey, River Roast, where’s your roast duck?) So I don’t think this makes my best of the year list, but it definitely makes my Thank God It’s Not Another Italian Restaurant in River North list, and I’ll recommend it to those looking for something different.
U Gazdy— The pierogi above belong not to Bohemian House but to a rustic Polish spot out in Wood Dale, near the southern end of O’Hare, which Cathy Lambrecht wanted to check out one day. Not that the Polish restaurants in the city feel like they’ve gone mainstream, but this definitely felt even more rustically out of Chicago, like the building was entirely carved by forest dwarves, starting with rye bread served with smalec, a lard spread, which you use like butter, except for the fact that you think every bite is a mortal sin. The pierogi were very good, a nice light dough, and the schnitzel was all right, but the out-of-Chicago feel was the best part.
La Habanera— A Logan Square Mexican spot that immediately made me regret going there by confronting me with two strong suggestions of inauthenticity: a menu that translated basic Mexican food words, and a portrait of every white person’s favorite historical Mexican, Frida Kahlo. Well, that was too harsh a first judgement; it’s a real Mexican family place, with some accommodations to its neighborhood. I ordered a pambazo, the spicy sandwich where you dip the bread in a spicy chile de arbol sauce and crisp it up a little on the fryer, then stuff it with the usual stuff (steak, lettuce, crumbly cheese). I liked all that, but the chile de arbol sauce was too salty and made it a little hard to love the effect of the bread. I’d give it another try and see what the standout on the menu is.
El Conde SA— There are two of these now, one in Pilsen and one closer to Little Village, specializing in a Mexico city treat called tacos de canasta, basket tacos. They’re premade tacos which steam and stay warm in a basket; they usually just have some form of meat in them. They’re a little soggy, so after trying them in two places (the other was La Chilangueada) I may not need to have them a lot more until I’m in their natural habitat, a bar in Mexico City where someone walks in like the tamale lady to sell them. I also had a sope with carne asada and the steak was very good, so I count the tacos de canasta as a bit of a novelty but this place as a whole as a good find to have.
Baker Miller Bakery & Millhouse— And one last thing which was, honestly, sublime. It’s the oatmeal at this new bakery from the former 2/3 of the Bang Bang Pie team, which makes a big deal of grinding their own flour. I talked to Dave Miller about it— he says the way they grind it leaves both big pieces and a fine powder, and then he cooks it in half and half, and the oatmeal plumps up into this lush, creamy viscous goo that has a wonderful mouthfeel. It was kind of magical, and when I redeemed my Kickstarter gifts (two bags of whatever grain I wanted), I made sure that the rolled oats was one of them.
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And finally, a cautionary tale, I guess. The irony is that food-obsessed me lives in one of the most whitebread neighborhoods for food, Roscoe Village, the epicenter of Sunday breakfast. So I was excited that we were finally getting a hip-sounding kind of place in Endgrain, which grew out of pop-up doughnuts from Nightwood, which is just about as hip as it could possibly get, right? And as it happened, a preview slideshow would be one of the last things I did for Grub Street.
A few weeks later I took the family for breakfast there. We made the mistake of arriving at 9:40 am, plenty late for breakfast if you ask me. They were open… but not open for breakfast, just for doughnuts and coffee. And the fact that we wanted to be seated, even if we had to wait to order, kind of flummoxed the (admittedly, very green) server and hostess. I basically had to tell them, look, other people are having coffee, you can bring us coffee too and menus, even if we don’t order for another 20 minutes. It was ineptitude, not malice. But it left a bad taste, to feel like we were supposed to sit there without so much as water, in a holding pen, for the crime of coming in too early for the wrong thing.
Some months later I went there for lunch. I walk in and there are people at the counter. But I immediately get the Serbian Social Club what-are-you-doing-here vibe. Uh, lunch, that’s what I’m doing here? Oh, no, we don’t do lunch on Tuesday. We do doughnuts and coffee. I suppressed saying “Not nearly enough to stay open, clearly,” and left.
And even though I’d pass it and see it open and full of Logan Square type hipsters at night, I never went back. I often thought I should give it another try, but two tries and never once feeling really welcomed into a place right in my neighborhood meant I never worked it up to try a third time.
And now it’s closed. Turns out my neighborhood full of families can’t really sustain a place whose hours have nothing to do with the normal routines of family life. At Logan and Kedzie they might have made it, but they were too out of step for Roscoe and Wolcott. Ironically, I just saw them mentioned in a national article about hip places to eat in Chicago. I’m sure they were very excited to be in Bon Appetit or whatever it was. This will finally put us on the map! But they were already on a map; they should have paid more attention to where it said they were.