Sky Full of Bacon


My Life as a Schnorrer, pt. 1

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

Perennial/Boka/Landmark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perennial
1800 N Lincoln Ave
Chicago, IL 60614
(312) 981-7070
perennialchicago.com

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

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

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2 Responses to “My Life as a Schnorrer, pt. 1”

  1. David Hammond Says:

    “with more of us moving into more official journalistic endeavors which pierce the veil of reviewer anonymity and so on, they seem to have decided, screw it, let’s eat!”

    Well, as I may be standing here with a target on my back, let me just say that the decision to accept comped dinners was discussed literally for years, and was not quite so cavalier as your tongue-probably-in-cheek statement suggests. Significantly, your balanced evaluation of the food we ate at the three restaurants we visited is a beautiful example of how having dinner paid for by the owners does not guarantee a brightly glowing review.

    I liked the squab, though it was definitely teetering on the fence of raw/cooked, and the crispy (!) foie gras was memorable, edging into magnificent.

    Thanks for being first to post. One of my main reasons for my not posting was that I didn’t want to make anyone in the LTH community feel left out, and as you know (or can guess), narrowing down the group to 12 was a painstaking process involving marathon back-and-forth as a group was selected in consultation with other moderators, though I arrogated to myself ultimate, unquestionable, bullet-proof, Chinese-Emperor-class final decisions. For this has always been my way.

    Glad you made it to dinner that night and that you took it upon yourself to report it.

  2. Michael Gebert Says:

    Well, as you know (indeed I said so in the linked thread, I think), I believe the real temptations all revolve around friendship, feeling like a foodie bigshot, etc., more than a few free bites. If a state of purity was to be maintained, it not only required not getting comped but trying not to be known at all to certain restaurants, or doing things like Gary not participating in the Green City BBQ, etc. It was the Chowhound model, eat anonymously, report anonymously.

    And would the result have been worth that price? I don’t think so, because I don’t think anyone gives that a big a shit about any of our anonymities, or any of our opinions, for that matter. The net benefit of these further endeavors– yours, mine, Gary’s, whatever– not only outweighs the alleged benefit of our purity, I think it outweighs it quite directly, in that we’re providing a model for others to get better experiences through engagement with restaurants. Chefs are tweeting back and forth with customers, farm to table dinners are providing opportunities to chitchat, people are creating secret menus based on what the restaurant is willing to offer, there are so many ways in which these walls are being broken down. To me the new reality is not that the small elite needs to safeguard its ethical purity so much as that the “elite” is open to everyone now, who wants to engage the restaurant on some level.