Sky Full of Bacon

So did we all just agree to pretend that we knew words like “izakaya” and “robata grill” a year ago? Restaurant owners are opening them like mad and food writers are using them like they’ve known them since grade school, but while I certainly knew that there was Japanese food grilled on sticks before last week, the word for it tended to be “yakitori”— as it still is at by far the best and seemingly most authentic of them I’ve been to, Yakitori Totto in New York. But I think in general “yakitori” came to be associated with chicken sticks in mall food courts, so new words were imported for trendier spots. Nonetheless, after eating at three different American versions of this general category of cuisine, I’m not sure I’m not more confused about what the real Japanese version of this is like than I was before. There’s often good food to be had, on sticks and off, but “izakaya” seems to be quickly becoming as non-specific as, say, bistro or trattoria.

Yuzu Sushi & Robata Grill doesn’t say izakaya but the promise of a robata grill— well, the first time I heard the term I feel I was promised a giant robot cooking my food, but it turns out to mean kind of a campfire cookout using a particular (and expensive) form of oak charcoal called binchotan. Only the high end places in town actually use that (Sushi Samba Rio and the new Roka Akor, apparently), and so far as I can tell, Yuzu is just using a standard restaurant grill. Yuzu’s up-to-the-minute trendiness cred is nonetheless furnished by sushi chefs in hipster hats, obscenity-filled rap blaring over the speakers, and, well, the trendy fruit in the name.

What this turns out to be in reality is a reasonably priced neighborhood sushi joint with some cooked items, and on those terms it wasn’t bad at all. The sushi wasn’t overly dressed up— yes, it had a sliver of lime on top, but at least they weren’t drowning good fish in unneeded flavors or pushing gooed-up maki rolls. A curry puff was like most Japanese curries, sweet and lacking complexity next to Indian curries, but enjoyably comfy.

The grilled items off the robata grill went two for four, I thought. The steak and scallop were simple and just what they should be. A rectangular hunk of pork was too thick and coated in too much sesame-paste sauce, and chicken was a little dry and underexciting. I wish there were more and more unusual offerings, a la Chizakaya, especially since I would have had bigger portions for less of them here. Yuzu isn’t a place to go out of your way to visit, but it’s a little more unusual and interesting than the generic neighborhood sushi place found all over town.

Yuzu Sushi & Robata Grill
1715 West Chicago Avenue
Chicago, IL 60622
(312) 666-4100

When you gaze across the dining room of Tokio Pub you can imagine yourself in any fashionably dark and sleek Asian-hipster locale in the city. Only once your gaze reaches the window and sees parking lot stretching like a Texas ranch beyond does it become obvious you’re in Streets of Woodfield, attached in fact to the branch of Shaw’s in the parking lot (better to be Shaw’s spinoff than Big Bowl’s).

I came here as a guest of the publicist, ostensibly because they were having Maki Month or something like that. For me, maki rolls are guilty until proven innocent, all cute names and sweet flavors obliterating any Asian fish flavor; and I wasn’t encouraged here by the fact that their menu features tacos (I still don’t get that). So I gravitated as much as I could to the grilled items off their, yes, robata grill, the menu says so.

Surprisingly, the maki were admirably restrained, not overdressed, simple and with clean fish flavors. Also surprisingly, a drink with the ghastly-girly name of Blushing Geisha (I asked the bartender to instead call it a Stammering Samurai) was a nicely tart, well-balanced gin cocktail (with prickly pear juice and lime sour). Like the decor, this part of the menu transcended the cartoonish concepting and seemed pretty genuinely cool and good. If you ever have a need for a hip place to get a drink and some snacks in Schaumburg, I can’t imagine there’s a better choice. Or many at all, but still.

Unfortunately, the robata grill items had been American-suburbanized-supersized-gloppified. All the cuts were too huge to grill well or eat off a stick comfortably; all except the spicy shrimp were coated in a thick honeyish glaze straight out of the orange chicken at Panda Express. There was good meat under there, but it didn’t need to be, the way it was mistreated. The virtues of small, freshly grilled slices of meat are so obvious, I can’t imagine how anyone saw that and thought, what this needs is to be dripping high fructose corn syrup by the quart. Bummer. The meal ended with dessert sushi, which I preferred to think of as a Moto-like joke course, looks like sushi, tastes like Fro-Yo! Anyway, the creme brulee was fine.

I never did find out what the tacos were about. Maybe by the rule of inverse expectations at play here, they’re pretty good.

Tokio Pub
1900 E Higgins Rd
Schaumburg, IL 60173
(847) 278-5181

Izakaya Yume is in what at first glance seems a hardly more prepossessing location for authenticity— a strip mall at Golf and Milwaukee. But in fact this stretch of Niles is a little hidden-in-plain-sight ethnic food-shopping enclave— catecornered is Himalayan Restaurant, the Nepali place David Hammond, Jennifer Olvera and I visited in Hammond’s recent radio exploration of suburbia’s ethnic gems. Korean is dominant in this stretch, with Polish a close second, and Izakaya Yume appears to be a Japanese restaurant run by Koreans. It was less like other izakayas I’ve been to— no food on sticks, at least for grilling rather than making them pretty— and it’s basically all fish-oriented, no beef skewers or chicken fat, but however much it matches an authentic Japanese izakaya or not, it’s an authentic something, and making very simple Asian food very well for prices that are scandalously cheap.

A few free starters aside, we began with a sashimi platter, but urged the chef— formerly of Japonais— to pick us out interesting things and not assume that we wanted the safest choices. He decided to give us about half of his standard sashimi platter for two, and to round it out instead with a small mackerel cut into pieces, showing us a small tray of the gleaming black fish to close the deal.

If describing food is hard, describing slices of raw fish is harder yet, so there’s little to say except that it was all of excellent quality, pristine and impeccably fresh, sliced with skillful delicacy. At $21.99 for a good twenty pieces (plus a terrific little octopus salad), it was a steal.

A discordant note came when we saw him preparing oysters for a large party. My dining companion shriveled in horror as the chef washed the liquor out of the oysters in his sink, then replaced it with soy sauce. I could tell he thought this was sacrilege, losing the best part of the oyster down the drain. Ten of them went off to the large party… and then the chef plated two more for us, on the house. My friend tried to smile, kind of like the one Christina Ricci makes when she gets sent to happy-time camp in one of the Addams Family movies.

They were all right, but even I, oyster-clueless as I am, don’t get why you’d want to ditch the liquor. Anyway, next up we tried to order a couple of things off the grilled menu, which features about 7 or 8 fish (plus a few more as specials). The chef urged us to only order one. We looked at each other and felt pretty confident we could polish off two filets of fish between us, but for the moment, accepted his advice. I mean, the mackerel we ordered was only $12.99, how big could it be?

Like the Hungryman’s Special at Red Lobster, that’s how big. It basically was two full filets a foot long from the meatiest part of a good-sized fish. Again, the preparation was simple and perfect, grilled to a crisp but just a nudge past flaky inside, the oil collecting at the bottom for when you wanted especially crispy-greasy bites.

The price in the end was $90, but considering that $40 of that was a bottle of sake, this was an utter bargain for the quality and quantity of the fish and the chefly attention paid to our meal. (It helped that it was a quiet Tuesday night; I have a feeling on a busy Friday night, the painstaking attention paid to each dish would really slow things down.) Roka Akor, in River North, may by all reports be the Japanese restaurant of the year, but for those of us not on an expense account capable of encompassing a $14 truffle shaving add-on to our $144 wagyu steak, it’s far more exciting to find a discovery like this making genuinely first-rate food at delivery pizza prices. The only thing some might find no bargain is the seating; for some reason, the bar seats are down at kindergarten classroom level, making it hard to see what’s going on far, far above you with the chef, and harder to get back up to a standing position once you’re full. I don’t know whether those chairs are authentic to the izakaya experience either, but they’re a price I’m willing to pay for whatever authentic experience this was.

Izakaya Yume
9626 N Milwaukee Ave
Niles, IL 60714
(224) 567-8365

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I haven’t been anywhere worthy of a post on its own, but I have little fragments of semi-interesting things piling up, so… EVERYTHING MUST GO! We’re clearing out the inventory!

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Would you like a free box of our organic produce? emailed a company called Door To Door Organics. Sure, said I:

The stuff was very pretty, almost too perfect for farmer’s market stuff. Maybe they just prettied my box up because they hoped I’d take pictures. (UPDATE: they say no, they’re all this gorgeous!) Anyway, nice looking and tasting stuff, and I think the quantity I got was a “Bitty Local Farm Box” which goes for $26.99. That strikes me as on the high side given what was in it (seen below, plus there was some parsley and kale), but I may be deluding myself about what the same quantity would cost at Whole Foods— that’s surely a $4 box of tomatoes, $4 worth of peppers, etc. at yuppieville retail prices. (The two small ears of corn were kind of silly, given that that’s probably the cheapest thing in the box at the moment.) I feel like you could beat this price with an individual farmer’s CSA by a good ways, but I have a feeling they’re doing more active management of what you get, so you’d get more consistently useful boxes than some of the ones I got from Genesis last year when I did their CSA. So for the right person, this seems to be the right service.

I’ve done a few things with several of the things I got, like poking garlic all over the eggplant and tossing it on the grill to make baba ghanoush as an appetizer for my wife’s birthday dinner:

So anyway, seems like a good addition to the organic food delivery scene, and if you’re interested, I have two offers. “Bacon2011” is a promo code that will get you $10 off an order; and I have the awesome power to award a freebie box to the first person to comment that they want it in the comments on this post. UPDATE: THE BOX IS SPOKEN FOR Go for it!

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SKY FULL OF BACON EXCLUSIVE MUST CREDIT: I learned, this weekend, the followup to the infamous Paris Club stinky barn smell story. So far as I know this hasn’t been reported anywhere.

As you may recall, Paris Club, the hot new Sons of Melman place in the old Brasserie Jo space, was reported to smell like manure… sometimes; it was supposedly because the recycled wood in the place came from a barn. Mike Sula sensed a vast conspiracy on the part of people attending a VIP preview to cover up the stench, but others questioned whether it was there all the time, or only under certain circumstances (David Hammond and I walked through at 10pm and didn’t smell it), or existed at all.

Here’s what I was told. First off, the wood didn’t come from a barn at all, but from a factory, I was told. Nevertheless the recycled wood was a suspect at first and various things were tried, such as cranking the heat up as high as it would go to see if they could bake the smell out.

But then suspicion shifted to the venting from the toilets. (Which is no doubt why they didn’t send out a press release announcing the solution of the problem, even though I’m sure this kind of post-opening emergency fixer-upping is more common than we know.) They came to this conclusion for the very logical reason that the smell tended to appear only during a certain window of time— apparently after enough people were there to have used the toilets sufficiently, but not so many that the smell of people, perfume and dinner being served proved stronger. In the end, they expensively ripped open the walls and rebuilt some of the ventilation system, and the “barn” smell went away… leaving only the scent of Axe and desperation, I’m sure.

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Why, when I’m making appetizers for two different parties, do I add to my workload by insisting on canning some beets along the way? Because I had the beets, dammit. And besides, just think of the time I’d save using the hot water from the canning afterwards to loose the skins on some tomatoes for bruschetta. Yeah, right.

Anyway, I was making something for the LTHForum picnic out of David Thompson’s new Thai food cookbook, Thai Street Food. It’s a big gorgeous book but I have to say, as a practical cookbook, I’m having some trouble. Things have always worked out in the end, based on some winging it and the fact that even bastardized, winged Thai food is better than most things. But the things that seem easy for him to find and do, are not easy for the casual reader.

One thing that I’ve learned has tripped up better cooks than me is a common ingredient in the recipes— coriander root. In theory, this should exist, since coriander is cilantro and plenty of cilantro is sold around here, so how far away can the roots be? Ah, but it’s one thing to buy cilantro from a farmer and another to convince him to rip his plant out for you. Only one chef has managed that for authentic Thai recipes, Grant Achatz…

…except he’s not the only one, as Jason Vincent of Nightwood explained bemusedly; he’s been buying it from the same place, City Farm, for a while and is bemusedly irritated to keep reading that only Achatz can manage the trick. Anyway, we talked about this a bit at the Key Ingredient shoot and he offered to give me some but I forgot about it by the time we left. (We = my kids, who were tagging along, and amusing themselves during the shoot by filling up my phone with photos of Jason Vincent’s baby.)

So I just used the lower stems of coriander. Anyway, looking through Thai Street Food for a cool thing to make for the LTHForum picnic (needless to say, a high stakes event where I have a reputation to protect), I found a recipe for cured, deep-fried pork, using the cartilaginous end pieces of the rib…

…or as we call them in Chicago, the rib tips. Which have been on my mind a fair amount lately.

Suddenly I had an idea out of another cookbook entirely. Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck Cookbook is full of jokey dishes that look like one thing and taste like another. Here was my chance to make something called “rib tips and sauce”— which wouldn’t be barbecued, and would taste more like Chiang Mai than Chattanooga. You start by mixing sticky rice, salt and garlic in a mortar and pestle:

Well, here was problem number one. The idea is that you pound the salty-garlicky rice into a paste, and cover the pork with it so perfectly that it is sealed up inside it, no air, and you can set it out in the hot sun for a few days (!) to get nice and funky but not spoil. Yeah, okay. But don’t pound the rice so much that you make it glutinously tough! And that was where I ran into trouble— I couldn’t get it to make a paste, but it already seemed like it was toughening up. So I abandoned plan A and went for plan B— coat the pork in the stuff and leave it in the fridge for most of the week. It might not get the full funk, but it would at least cure.

Then I had to make my own version of the dipping sauce common with things like Thai fried chicken. I roasted chilis, garlic and shallots (for which I’d fortunately paid Argyle street prices):

Another snag: my supposed seedless tamarind paste from Argyle street turned out to be, at best, “partly deseeded.” After spending entirely too much time pushing seeds out of it, I went to Patel Bros. on Devon and bought a jar of liquid tamarind goo. Which was probably much more concentrated, because the stuff was puckeringly sour when I first mixed it up. But I added a bunch of honey, and some more chilis and garlic, and in time, I had a pretty good imitation of Spoon’s version of the same sauce. I fried up the rib tips, and then it was time to assemble my dish with the thing that truly made it Chicago rib tips…

a little piece of white bread underneath the rib, soaking up the sauce.

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Something I learned at the LTH picnic, may be a hitherto unknown factoid for all I know: the reason Mario’s on Taylor Street, the legendary Italian lemonade joint, closes a week or two after Labor Day isn’t just that the season is over then. But Mario, the dad who started it, apparently keeled over while making the lemonade one day, a September 16th as a matter of fact. And so his widow decided, from then on, to honor his memory by closing down after the weekend closest to that day.

Mario’s has peach– for a very few days before closing in memoriam Mario for this year. I’ve been skeptical about it in the past— they tend to make peach when peaches get cheap, regardless of whether they’re much good or not— but this year peaches have been great, so I have hope. Go get you some!

And if you haven’t seen:

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Now here’s something nobody’s done yet in a Key Ingredient: made sushi. Four courses of it, in fact, each one tasted after it’s made in a break from our usual format. The chef is B.K. Park of Arami, the ingredient is chufa, and the article is here.

And if you haven’t seen it, watch the trailer for upcoming Sky Full of Bacon videos here.

P.S. Not that anyone comes here for a 9/11 remembrance. But I do have a small story, which has something to do with how 9/11 led to LTHForum, that has to do with my son Liam. I told it in this interview between Michael Nagrant and myself and some of the other founders of LTHForum, several years ago. Jump ahead to about 17:50, where we’re talking about how we became foodies…

Liam eating a pickle in front of Baltic Bakery on the 47th-a-Thon, 2006.

…the video part, that is. Not that I haven’t been busy on Key Ingredient videos, so you’ve had hours (literally) of video of mostly high end chefs to watch. But I’ve wanted to get back to subjects other than chefs, there is more to food than them, as interesting and creative and talkative as they are. And I’ve been shooting stuff during the past year, I just haven’t been finishing it. But here, with all due caveats about how you never know what life will bring you, is a preview of what I have planned for Sky Full of Bacon over the next several months:

(It seemed kind of pompous with that music when I first finished it, so I added a line that really seemed to say what Sky Full of Bacon is about…)

The South Side BBQ piece grew out of some initial interviews I conducted on behalf of Time Out Chicago, which led to this and this. But there was a lot more than I could use in those pieces, and I’ve steadily added to it over time, digging more into the history of Chicago’s own indigenous barbecue style. In the process it turned into what I’ve tried to keep Sky Full of Bacon videos from being— a great big comprehensive study of a subject which keeps growing and getting too long and complex to finish. (That’s what happened to the second Gorilla Gourmet video, and why it was never completed, and why I conceived of Sky Full of Bacon as being smaller, one-subject pieces which wouldn’t grow out of control. Hey, it worked till now…) Nevertheless, I have the bulk of it cut into what I think is pretty watchable fighting weight, and I hope to have it complete within a few weeks.

The farm one is shot as well; the butcher one, only in part. So things may change. But I feel good that even with Key Ingredient continuing for however long it continues (at some point it will get old, but as you’ll see this week, there’s always a new wrinkle to how chefs approach the challenges), I’ll also be able to complete at least a few pieces of my own on longer and quirkier subjects. So, as always, thanks for your interest and, on occasion, your patience, and watch this space for more news soon.

Duck Season! Chef Season! The chef is Jason Vincent of Nightwood, the story is here.

I got nothin’ to post this week, not that I expect anyone’s sitting waiting for it, because I have been so deep in the first real Sky Full of Bacon video in a year (the South Side BBQ one). There is light at the end of that tunnel! It’s pretty cool. See you next week.

The last full Sky Full of Bacon video I made was about the annual Labor Day Weekend Taste of Melrose Park festival. Of course, since I finished it in late September, that didn’t do you a lot of good then. It does now, so watch the video, then hit the fest this weekend which is always fun, inexpensive, and full of good tasting stuff:

As my friend Michael Morowitz Tweeted at the time, “Your street festival is lame. Here’s one that isn’t.”

My kids, on location with me during a recent Sky Full of Bacon shoot.

I’m trying to get ahead on Key Ingredients so I can work on other things— like actually making a Sky Full of Bacon video this year— so no time for lengthy disquisitions; just to have something posted this week, I’m going to lay a bunch of links on you. Enjoy!

1. At, a corporate brochure in lofty language from 1909, for a Chicago wholesaler called Sprague, Warner & Co., which started around the Civil War as a grocery store. Many fascinating pictures of its state of the art plant along the Chicago river, where everything from storing cigars to roasting coffee was done. If you don’t recognize the name, later Sprague, Warner & Co. formed the core of a conglomerate called Consolidated Foods, which would ultimately rename itself for its best-known brand: Sara Lee.
2. This Eater interview with Nick Kokonas gives some interesting behind the scenes stuff about Next. The second part is the most interesting to me because it talks about the reaction to the Thai menu. As behooves the most lavishly praised restaurant in the history of the universe, he doesn’t bitch too much about what minuscule criticism that menu has received from certain corners (cough) amid the general lovefest, and he diplomatically covers his tracks a little so you can’t ID anyone too easily (other than perennial critical punching bag Pat Bruno). Too bad; I’d love to know what criticism at LTHForum, say, he finds informed, and which he finds absurd.
3. Speaking of Next et al., this very interesting NY Times piece about Hollywood’s maitre’d to the stars (who was laboring in obscurity in some fading ethnic restaurant until a power broker spotted his old world manners and gave him his big break) raises the same question I had about Grant Achatz’s ultra-exclusive bar The Office— did such things ever really exist, or did we only think they did because of the movies?
4. Okay, so there are tons of “funny” themed cooking shows on YouTube. That aren’t that funny. The food isn’t that funny in this one. But the theme is… (h/t Michael Morowitz)

5. After belatedly watching the New Orleans episode of No Reservations, I wanted to look up some New Orleans food blogs. Looka has been around since 1999 (1999! On what, Compuserve?) and is actually mostly about cocktails of late. Along with a post about Teen Wolf.
6. My friend Cathy Lambrecht’s tireless searching out of obscure midwestern tastes—like fried turtle— got some attention at WBEZ, when they linked to a talk she gave to Culinary Historians.
7. I’m guessing, from the unusually high quality, that this is raw footage from a commercial. Anyway, it’s for a sort of Chinese-Polynesian restaurant in Edmonton, Alberta, and it’s a real time machine piece back to Don Draper times:

This week’s Key Ingredient presents a familiar face for Sky Full of Bacon… the first actual chef-y chef to appear in one of my videos, Rob Levitt of The Butcher & Larder, working with abalone:

The piece is here. And here’s Rob and his wife Alli back in their Mado days in Sky Full of Bacon #4, A Head’s Tale:

I was also featured this week in one of David Hammond’s ever-excellent radio pieces, on searching for interesting dining in suburban strip malls, along with Jennifer Olvera, author of The Food Lovers’ Guide to Chicago. Find out more about it here, and if that link doesn’t work, this takes you straight to the audio.

The most minimalist Key Ingredient yet, that is. Read it here.

Of course, Mark Mendez and his previous restaurant were featured in this classic Sky Full of Bacon video last year:

Speaking of videos, check out the nice things said about mine in CBS’s blogger poll, and vote for me!

I sometimes feel like all I do is post positive reviews about happy dining experiences. It’s not strictly true— this is a pretty nasty slam, for one— but there is the conundrum that I tend to go places that I know I’ll like and I tend to like them just like I thought. I don’t have the expense account which offers Julia Kramer, say, so many golden opportunities to have a bad night eating out. I can only dream of that life, but alas, I’m cursed with actually choosing well and enjoying my dinner most of the time.

But even if I do have a bad meal, I don’t really feel inspired by lousiness to post at length, most of the time. For instance, I had an okay meal foodwise at Rootstock a few months back, coupled with willfully unwelcoming service which ruined that place forever for me— we could hardly get our check and pay to save our lives, while one of the owners (who was also, at least sort of, our server) was literally sitting down at our shared table, chatting up the people at the other end and studiously ignoring us. But there, that’s all I have to say about the meal— a pretty good neighborhood joint where I’d been before turned out to be from the sort of neighborhood where they make it clear they don’t want you. Rootstock, crossed off. What was that, about 75 words? Does anybody need any more? This is what Twitter is for, not a blog.

Harder yet is when a meal was nice enough, but not inspiring— especially when it was not as inspiring as an earlier meal at the same restaurant. Reading that Ruxbin was named one of the ten best new restaurants of 2011* by Bon Appetit, I was happy for them based on my first meal there last year, which I loved. But at the same time I couldn’t help thinking about a more recent meal there, which just didn’t recreate the magic. Here I felt much more acutely that this is a young restaurant still on its learning curve and capable of misses as well as hits. A deconstructed Caesar salad looked dramatic and way cool, and tasted pretty good, though possibly not as good as if it had been made the traditional way, all mixed together; a cured salmon platter, too mixed together, reminded me of John DesRosier’s Jackson Pollock painting-dish, except his didn’t look like the dog had painted it:

We had two entrees. One, a slightly Latin-flavored pork loin with bits of fried chickpeas, was competent and uninteresting, like a dish from ten years ago, way behind the porkocentric dining world of 2011 where you expect so much more boldness and porky punch (and a more interesting cut than loin). Much better was a bowl of cold soba noodles with various weird fine-diningy touches around it, like horseradish granita and a green soy gelee. I expect cold soup is a hell of a hard sell at dinner, but that’s what I liked about it, and why I felt it was the one dish this time that had some of what I’d loved about the dishes from my first visit— then, the little intrusions of Asian flavors and textures into what seemed modern American food; this time, the delicate hand with a broth that seemed clean as water, yet full of complexity and interest.

So am I writing Ruxbin off? Not at all. I think it’s just a place with a short menu made by young cooks, and at the moment, the odds of loving what you order off that limited selection prove lower than they were a year ago. I hope that doesn’t hurt them when Bon Appetit-reading crowds make it busier than it already is (my advice; walk right in before 6 pm or after 9), and I hope that the next menu they devise turns out better— and better justifies the extravagant praise.

* Not sure where 2011 comes in, as Ruxbin has been open about a year. Also, though Andrew Knowlton says chef Edward Kim eschews the “kimchi taco” route, there was a kimchi empanada on the opening menus.

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One thing about lists like that from national publications is that nobody can know the whole country’s food scene, and so the list tends to focus on major cities, buzz begetting buzz. Although Madison, Wisconsin, like Austin (which places on BA’s list), is a capitol-slash-college town, it never quite seems to break into that circle of attention. Too bad; Nostrano, which I visited opening night but didn’t eat at until this week, would have been a great “discovery” candidate for the list. Even in Chicago, where owners Tim and Elizabeth Dahl previously worked (him at Blackbird, her for Boka Group), Nostrano would be among the best openings of an impressive year, maybe not revelatory in that it largely hits the familiar hot buttons of current dining (specialty cocktails, charcuterie, salads with duck egg on them, porky goodness), but holding its own in pretty much any of those categories.

Like the late Mado, it’s a casually sort-of-Italian place built on delivering big, fresh flavors out of stuff from the farmer’s market (which is literally a few steps away on Wednesday and Saturday mornings). I started with the charcuterie platter, which had a country pate, a bold liver mousse with stewed cherries, a rillette (I forget of what, and it was on the bland side anyway), and some grilled fresh sopressata (I think). I loved the mousse in particular, while the country pate stood out for the flavorfulness of the superior pork.

Because we clearly had a meat deficiency after driving around Wisconsin, Tim Dahl sent out a plate with some other charcuterie they’d made recently, a finnochiona, a coppa (too salty for me), and best of the bunch, something that started out to be pepperoni, but didn’t get smoked because Dahl liked it fine as it was. I did too, it had all the cured meat flavor you could wish and you wouldn’t have wanted anything to get in the way of it.

You get an extra ten points as far as I’m concerned when entrees are better than appetizers, and Nostrano earned them all with bold, complex, and almost aggressively flavorful main courses— braised pancetta with Roman-style gnocchi, rapini and rapini pesto, and grilled quail stuffed with garlic sausage with a blueberry agrodolce. These were Technicolor musical number dishes, nothing shy or delicate about them; I loved them.

Before they moved I thought Elizabeth Dahl was one of Chicago’s best pastry chefs— ironically, another, Stephanie Prida, was dining a table away that night— and this time Dahl’s desserts reminded me of Prida’s in that they were not unlike conventional things you’d had before, but in each case, a twist lifted them above the ordinary. A panna cotta came with an entrancing elderflower sorbet; caramel gelato dunked in espresso came with what the menu called “bombolini” (but were indistinguishable from the sfingi of the good sisters at the Taste of Melrose Park), piping hot from the fryer.

The only knock I have against Nostrano came right at the beginning. As my son and I walked into a mostly empty restaurant, we were greeted with… some long explanation about how they were a little short staffed that night and they weren’t seating people for another period of X minutes and… I don’t know, I’d just driven up with my son from Chicago and I honestly couldn’t listen to that at that moment. I didn’t care, I even said I wouldn’t care if we sat down and just looked at the menu for 15 minutes with a glass of water, but I didn’t need to take on the cares of somebody else’s restaurant, nor did I really want to be kicked out onto the Madison square to hang out in the company of derelicts and leftover rabblerousers from the endless recall elections. (This would be a review of Graze if they had sent us out to wait.) It was an unfortunately angst-ridden opening note for a place that looks, and mostly did feel, laidback and happy to please.

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