Sky Full of Bacon

The Nagrant-Gebert Sessions, Part 2: High/Low or Just Good/Bad?

My conversation with fellow food writer Michael Nagrant about the last year in Chicago restaurant openings and trends continues (from here):

MICHAEL NAGRANT: I don’t know if the recession prevented Town and Country from happening, or Dale Levitski prevented Town and Country from happening.  I mean I feel for the dude losing his mom, and I can see how the anguish would be crippling, but that being said, I also have a lot of suspicion about someone who’d rather accrue $4,000 in back rent and squat than leverage the reputation he has and get a job to pay the bills while he gets his ideal thing going.

But, yeah I hear you and agree.  The 2008 Brasserie Ruhlman/Trump Tower explosion etc was a total Michael Milken/Gorden Gekko/Edward Lewis (Richard Gere’s character in Pretty Woman) corporate raid by New York restauranteurs and chefs trying to leverage the reputation our homeboy chefs earned on the cover of every magazine in 2005-2007.  The cool thing is instead of Julia Roberts getting screwed, the economy screwed the carpetbaggers.

Speaking of the eighties, your fervor for these high low concepts has sort of a Roman Polanski reporting on his five minutes looking through the peephole to the girl’s locker room at the local junior high feel.  Well, ok, maybe more like you just did a couple lines of coke from Jack Nicholson’s golden bowl-type enthusiasm (I kid), but still, I’m not sure I’m as positive about the actual execution.

I agree with the theory and ideal you outline, about the possibility of exploring authentic culture deeper and offering value in the process.  However, I feel like the general reality has been that those folks practicing this new form of restaurant ownership are subconsciously or otherwise using the low part of it as an excuse to lower their expectations.

Bill Kim worked at Charlie Trotters for a while.  I can’t believe he got by without tasting his food on a nightly basis.   And yet, there’s this wild inconsistency of plates served at Belly Shack and Urban Belly in terms of salt, mouthfeel, and balance.  Thing is, when it’s on, it’s really something.

But, where’s the discipline?  I feel like the real value of these high level chefs opening lower end concepts up is in their ability to enforce the discipline from the high level at the low level.  The most remarkable thing about places like Blackbird, Trotter’s, Alinea, irrespective of how you feel about the powders or the close tables and loud music or the relatively now old school fusion (guess which is which) is that the food experience is military precision consistent.  The dish that goes out unsalted or underseasoned at these spots in my experience is a very rare thing.  You may not agree with the flavor combinations or may dislike the intellectual underpinnings, but rarely have I disagreed with the technical execution at these spots.

Then again, Big Star gets that right, in fact, again I agree with you, pork belly taco, nice fusion of the worlds, though I’ll quibble that that since a pork belly McGriddle is pretty much a fait accompli at this point, maybe it’s not so impressive. Also, Paul Kahan’s tacos are a lot tastier than Wolfgang Puck’s pizzas, and soup for that matter.  I’ve never understood it, but while I respect Puck as one of the most innovative chefs of his time and a back upon which many stand, he has a Kevin Costner like ability to suck it up when unveiling mass-market concepts.    But, look past the food at Big Star and you start focusing on the vinyl stools and fake rough hewn pine look or whatever and ache for the real character one really would have found in Bakersfield in the 50’s.

If Merle Haggard walked in to Big Star, the record player would screech to a stop and a group of hipsters in Ryan Adam’s t-shirts would converge on him and beat his ass.  The sleek unfinished comforting womb off Avec has somehow given way to the concrete and Home Depot factory second finishes that look like a cold unfinished family basement.

Interesting on Powerhouse….as I said then, the place looked like a steakhouse as imagined by the Ramada Inn interior design team.  However foodwise, and I’m not sure if you ate there when John Peters was in the kitchen or when he’d left, but while it was very straightforward, it was a technically precise elevated level of comfort food I was really excited by.  In that same vein, my new foodie fan boy obsession right now is Kith and Kin – David Carrier’s of Trio, French Laundry and Andrew Brochu’s of Alinea, Pops new spot.  The only thing revolutionary about it is that they’re serving what you want to eat every day seasoned at incredibly perfect levels, aka Michelin chop mom food.   It’s sort of this perfect marriage of what I’ve been looking for from Bill Kim, Blackbird team etc…I mean you even get a sort of reinvention of form in that you get what seems like your everyday Montreal Poutine augmented by French Laundry quality gravy, all for like $6.   Of course, the disclaimer for those who don’t know, I had an essay in the Alinea book, and so maybe I’m prone to liking Alinea shoot-off dudes, though I never knew or met John Peters or David Carrier – they were before my time.

The culture guy friend of yours who doesn’t know about Alinea, yeah, I mean talk about humbling.  I’d say 9 out of the last 10 people I’ve mentioned the word Alinea cookbook or restaurant to, look at me like I’m from Mars, including a person who lived two blocks from the place. Again, I don’t know if this is the entrée to the media discussion or discussion about how food journos make a living in the next decade.  But when Gourmet Mag’s best restaurant in America isn’t on people’s radars, can we even expect to make a living talking about food that doesn’t involve me getting a surf punk color and cut and wearing sunglasses on the back of my head?

MICHAEL GEBERT: To answer a few of these things in not too long a manner: the unfortunate thing about these high/low joints, and now I’ve been to Xoco too, is that they all seem to be struggling to hit half the menu being worth a damn.  (For instance, I think the potstickers at Urban Belly were one of the most egregious cases of critical— and LTHForum— emperor’s-clothesism this side of Cho Jung.  Honestly, I could buy a bag of shu mai from Trader Joe’s, stick ’em in freshly made ginger soy sauce, and claim they were Slagel Farm organic goat-testa potstickers from Urban Belly, and nobody would call me on it. It’s mainly the soups that wowed me there.)  At Trotter prices, that failure rate would be unacceptable.  But the point is, they’re not at Trotter prices (although they’re not necessarily so revolutionary in pricing, either; I wouldn’t say that Xoco is any cheaper than Frontera, really, and if Avec dished you up three tacos, I don’t think it would be that much more than $6).

Maybe a lot of the difference in our outlooks is that so much of my food adventuring happens at lunchtime.  I’m pretty damn grateful for Belly Shack existing, ready to serve me something interesting and with a certain affected chicness at 12:30 on Tuesday.  You are, of course, right about the inauthenticity of Big Star’s interior, which is about as honky-tonk as a dorm room at Brown, but again, that’s a complaint about the execution, not the philosophical issues involved in being a Baudrillardian simulacrum of a Texas roadhouse by way of Sprockets.  Anyway, I hope we get ten more of them this year, and five will have something worth going back for, and two will, hopefully, be really good.  Let a thousand pork belly tacos bloom.

I ate at Powerhouse at what should have been John Peters’ highpoint, but I thought it was a well-executed, largely unmemorable meal, like dining in the best non-Disney-property restaurant in Orlando (which I also did, some years ago).  I have more hopes for the comfort food at Kith & Kin, even if it does sound like a tea shop opened by two lesbians with lots of cats.  As for your future career tasting 20-gallon tubs of slop and going “Whoa, now THAT’S what I’m talkin’ about,” perhaps that is the segue to our food media discussion….

TOMORROW: The Food Reviewer, Dinosaur or Last Man Standing?

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9 Responses to “The Nagrant-Gebert Sessions, Part 2: High/Low or Just Good/Bad?”

  1. David Hammond Says:

    “I feel like the general reality has been that those folks practicing this new form of restaurant ownership are subconsciously or otherwise using the low part of it as an excuse to lower their expectations.”

    I interpret this effort to join high and low more as a post-modern gesture toward irony, as I mentioned elsewhere, in an LTH peek beneath the emperor’s robes:

    “These are fun creations, just like Warhol’s soup cans, so I hesitate to be too critical, but they all seem (in my more mature eyes) so…decadent. There’s artistry, cleverness of a sort, and great expense involved, but also a certain cool remove, a posturing that makes the older me feel a little uncomfortable. There’s also a smug sense that the chef is creating a parody, a commentary on something else, a creation whose value depends, in part, on our knowledge of something other than the thing that’s being eaten. The overriding sensation is one of distance, and I don’t think I ever want to be distant from my food. I can’t say I enjoyed DB’s burger or any of the Kobe sliders I’ve recently eaten as much as hand-splattered Steak N’ Shake burgers – and that’s because when I eat the regular old well-made hamburgers, I enjoy the food itself rather than the cerebral exercise of comparing it to something other than it is. When it comes to what’s on my plate, irony fails to satisfy.” (

  2. artjackson Says:

    Mr. Nagrant, you say that these chefs are “…using the low part of it as an excuse to lower their expectations…” Do you mean that the chefs’ expectations are lowered (if so, what are their expectations in your opinion?) or that by executing these concepts the clientele’s expectations will be lowered?

    I also think it’s safe to say that this discussion would not exist if these chefs/places lacked discipline. Hot Doug’s has of course been around for awhile. A simple concept run by a trained chef. There are people who scoff at the lines and the idea of putting foie gras on a hot dog but the place is very successful because of the creativity and discipline of the chef/owner. Has anyone ever gotten under seasoned or overcooked fries there? Maybe an occasional less than perfect sausage or dog? I’m sure they have because out of thousands of orders something is bound to be less than perfect every now and again but not for a lack of discipline.

    The very idea of high/low simply would not exist without disciplined operators. Discipline means sticking to a uniquely simple concept and executing it with the same integrity that would be applied at casual fine dining or luxury fine dining. I also think that chefs who are willing to take a stab at the high/low are just as gutsy as the ones who try to make it at fine dining.

    I also agree that concepts can be caricatures of themselves on this or any level and that is all part of the allure. To most people, restaurants are places to grab a bite, hammer out a deal, go on a date, etc. But the great ones will always have a story–that story is there for anyone who likes to “read” into it. Some stories are more contrived than others, some are to the point. We all may interpret these stories differently but we’re all talking about them–double net. I long to see the day when there’s a story worth talking about on every corner.

  3. Mark Mendez Says:

    This is really interesting stuff guys, keep it up. I agree with David in that I really didn’t enjoy DB’s burger as much as I have enjoyed Schoops, though Daniel Boulud is a culinary hero of mine. Sometimes chefs think that if they use better ingredients or better technique that their version of whatever will be many times better. What they fail to grasp (sometimes) is the soul of what they are cooking. I have been trying to make a pupusa for the longest that tastes anything as good as the ones I had at Red Hook ball fields in Brooklyn and have come close but not quite, sometimes our overthinking gets in the way.

  4. Kenny Z Says:

    Interesting stuff, and I appreciate that you’ve broken it up into manageable quantities of reading material.

    Interesting too, the different perspectives people can be about the same restaurants. Mike N perceives glaring inconsistency at Bill Kim’s places, but none at Big Star. My perceptions have been exactly the reverse.

    Looking forward to the continued reading.

  5. Michael Gebert Says:

    Kenny, we may test your tolerance tomorrow, when we start talking what we would do if we were King of All Media. For what it’s worth, the inconsistency I see at Bill Kim’s places is that some stuff has deep rich flavor and some seems kind of sweet and flat (although the paradigm breaker is the kogi sandwich, which is definitely sweet and not particularly complex, and I’ve been jonesin’ for it since I had it). To Hammond’s point, I don’t see these places as pomo ho’s, I think they represent a certain feeling, which may be as offensive in its own way, that every place needs a Concept, not just to be itself. Big Star is certainly the most obviously concepted of that group’s places, for instance (Bakersfield honky tonk meets pretentious guy with hifi and jazz LP collection)– before they were much more oblique (what, exactly, is the concept of Avec? Swedish sauna on a space station? It has one, but you can’t put it into words easily). So all these high/low places have kind of a prefab McDonaldsness to them, which you could find an unfortunate comment on our times. Me, I prefer to embrace the Hello Kitty mentality of these little often Asian-tinged wonderlands we’re starting to get, and dig the alien, yet somehow comfy, fakeness.

    Chef Mendez, welcome. This is a problem— you can invent anything from scratch except a 50-year-old restaurant, and so I often feel like at these new places, my reaction is, “This is very well executed!” more than “This is f’ing awesome!” as it might be at a real, old place. The food seems too clean, somehow. But the virtues of really good quality ingredients are palpable, too, and that was a redeeming factor of a couple of things at Big Star, for instance.

  6. heather @ chiknpastry Says:

    Great reads so far 🙂

    I’m not sure whose side i’m on in terms of the high/low discussion. I do wonder to what extent their business increases at the high end spots as a result of the low end spots – it’s an interesting strategy, if it is a strategy…..

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