Sky Full of Bacon


Two return visits:

I liked some of the things I had at Chizakaya, but was pretty sure one dinner there would do me. For one thing, it was a “small plates” place where the plates were so small that I had to eat most of the menu to be full, so there were few surprises left for a return visit. For another, I basically came out of that meal feeling that it wasn’t a serious way to eat— that I had noshed all evening on silly stuff (the scraps of chicken skin for $3 silliest of all) and had never eaten what a grownup would recognize as food.

But Mike, you say, you ate things on sticks at that yakitori place in New York and you loved it. What’s the difference? Good question, and I’m not sure why I can rave about one and feel so dubious about the other. I guess part of it is context— Yakitori Totto feels like a real Japanese bar, and we ate things real Japanese barflies ate, while Chizakaya feels like another Lakeview concept, and at some point I just wanted them to quit goofing on Japanese junk food and make a real plate of something. One dish that really felt like Japan in a bowl would have done the trick, maybe, but instead it was just greasy stuff on sticks all night. Tasty, some of it, but I didn’t respect it, or me, in the morning.

Then Michael Nagrant invited me to go try lunch there, lunch being focused on ramen and other soups or so the email from Tasting Table suggested (actually, it appears that they’ll pretty much make you anything on their menu at lunch, and the soups are just as available at dinner). We ordered two. One is based on oden, which is a broth with lots of things like fish balls to pick up and eat; this was sort of oden turned into a soba noodle soup, more noodles and broth, fewer things to pick up:

Mostly, this tasted like your typical udon soup, but there was a woodsy-buckwheaty note to it that was a little deeper and more evocative than the sweet, soy-broth flavor you usually get. For a few bucks more than, say, the udon at Mio Bento, it’s an upgrade, if not a radically better one.

The ramen was another story. Unlike some of my friends, I haven’t been to any of the hyperauthentic ramen places in L.A. or anywhere that have been scouted out by ramen bloggers, so if I say that this is the best ramen I’ve ever had, that’s not an opinion with a depth of experience behind it. But it was the best ramen I’ve ever had, the first ramen with the porky funk and the largeness of soul to make me understand why people wax so poetic about a noodle soup— why this is a dish capable of profundity. The organ-meaty funkiness of the broth and the velvety smoothness of the noodles, not to mention the sweet-salty porkiness of the slab of pork belly or two hidden in it, all made this a richer experience than I’d ever expected ramen to be. So Chizakaya, written off as lightly likable some months back, turns out to have more to it after all.

* * *

Nagrant had just been to the recently refurbished NoMi in the Park Hyatt, now under Chef Ryan LaRoche (who had been in the kitchen for a couple of years under longtime chef Christophe David), and I was going that night (with my wife, as guests of the restaurant <–disclosure), so I was eager to hear about his experience. He was impressed with LaRoche’s menu, which within the constraints of hotel dining (after the fancy exotic stuff, there’s a page devoted to plain cooking, for those who just want a steak or lobster) he felt was daring and inventive. He was less impressed with a service experience that left him worried that a top-drawer restaurant had gone too casual for its place in the world. (See the next issue of Chicago Social for more details, I guess.)

My only experience with NoMi was this special dinner, which gave a nice picture of the expertise in the kitchen but clearly not of everyday dining there. But at least it meant I had context for how the renovation, if not radically changing the space, had taken it from a borderline-sepulchral high end art museum feel to a jazzier 60s fantasy-airport lounge look. The kitchen was now open to the room, with a busy raw bar at one end and the de rigueur hood ornament of the modern kitchen, the red Berkel slicer, right out in the room:

LaRoche’s past experience includes Tru and L’Atelier Robuchon, but from his menu, he seems pretty eclectically devoted to most of the major virtues you want to see on a menu right now. There was housemade prosciutto as well as an unabashed shoutout to Benton’s Country Ham on the menu, while asparagus, rhubarb and especially peas all played prominent roles on the menu at this moment. The first thing we had, the unassumingly named “avocado toast,” was the kind of combination that could provoke a loud WTF?, prosciutto and creamy uni, sea urchin:

The first bite I had, unfortunately, tasted only of the spicy mustard on the toast, but the next bite delivered all the promise of the dish— saltiness coming not from the sea creature but from the ham, a lushly gooey mouthfeel with just the cleanest hint of the sea coming from the uni… score one for the bizarre-sounding combination, with bonus points for the fact that my wife, who I’m sure has never gulped down a slimy-looking uni shooter like I have, ate one of sushi’s best-known dare foods without even knowing it was anything to be grossed out by.

A salad with more of the prosciutto and chili-tinged shrimp seemed less inspired, but some pea ravioli with feta and little bits of pickled rhubarb was exactly the ultra-light spring dish you should have at this moment. Then there was our entree— the $75 chicken, which has drawn comment from several who have looked at the new menu. We ran into sommelier Aaron Sherman (whom I first met some years ago at Avenues) on the way out, and he said one of the things they had done with the wine list was thin out the most extravagant and absurdly expensive things on it— but still, if you have a need to drop $2200 on a bottle of Romanee-Conti, a reason why your business would be best served by spending that money, it’s on there.

Likewise, the menu has three increasingly extravagant shared dishes— a whole chicken, a whole lobe of foie gras, and a whole steer— no, not quite, but some crazily huge hunk of beef, on an ascending scale from $75 to, I think, $190.  Nagrant had goaded me to at least find out what could make the chicken worth $75— especially since it comes from T.J.’s at the Green City Market, from whom I’ve bought many things including a few Thanksgiving turkeys. I’m sure their chicken is as good a candidate as any to be glorified into a $75 chicken, but what happens between the market and my plate that makes it into such a remarkable beast?

Yet $75 for two was really not more than any other pair of entrees, so we didn’t feel that we were sticking the hotel too rapaciously by ordering it and finding the answer to the mystery of this chicken. Well, in short, if they have trouble getting people to pay that for it, maybe they can have it underwritten by the American Sous-Vide Equipment Manufacturer’s Association, because it was a marvelous advertisement for the ability of sous vide cooking to turn out meat that is uniquely velvety, sensuously soft and delicate. There was a truffle sauce poured over the top, surely helping sell the price, and it sat on a vegetable “marmalade” (which I take to mean, cooked long enough to develop their sweetness; it certainly wasn’t jam-like), but really, all that chicken needed was its own meltingly soft and silky self to wow you and leave you making little gurgle noises of enchantment. It was certainly the best fine-dining chicken I can recall having… since the last time I dropped a wad to get a chicken just to see what made that chicken worth so much more than other chickens, a poulet Bresse at Alain Ducasse in Paris.

The new pastry chef is Meg Galus, who came over from Cafe des Architectes.  I have to say I respected the desserts more than I loved them.  Actually,  I liked mine, a rhubarb soup with ginger marshmallows and lemon gel in it, a lot; light, imaginative… it’s just it’s the sort of thing that should be a small shooter on a tasting menu.  Working my way through an entire bowl of red punch and marshmallows, the novelty ran out before it was done.  While the chocolate mousse was well executed, but I was waiting for some spin on it and the bland ice cream (vanilla? not sure) wasn’t it.

And as for the service?  For us, it hit just the right note, friendly and easygoing but conscientious throughout (I felt like I had hurt the bread guy’s feelings when I turned down his offer at one point, as he appeared the instant I stopped chewing the previous roll).  NoMi, perhaps a bit intimidating in the past, is aiming to be more accessible, and at least for us on our night, it hit the balance pretty well.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Paula Haney of Hoosier Mama is up this week with millet, aka, the main ingredient in bird seed and the little yellow things in 12-grain bread:

Old Sky Full of Bacon viewers will know that this is not Paula’s first appearance in a Sky Full of Bacon-produced video:

No video next week, as it’s the Reader’s Best of Chicago issue, which I will have a couple of things in, so watch for that!

I’ve had a few social occasions with restaurant PR folks lately, and some of the conversation inevitably went in the direction of, what is this media world coming to and how can we all make it work so that it’s mutually beneficial and informative for journalists, restaurants, PR people and diners, rather than frustrating or intrusive or cheesy. (If you wonder why they ask me these questions, I suppose this series is one answer.) Some will, no doubt, ask why it’s the journalist’s job to help the PR industry at all, rather than to maintain an adversarial or at least wary, arm’s length relationship, but when it works well, it opens doors to new possibilities for writers. And when it doesn’t it doesn’t, so I’m all for better PR that works better for everybody, and this is my perspective on that. The following is a made-up conversation, but its pieces pretty much come from reality:

So how do you think restaurant PR can adapt to the era of blogging?

Are we an era? That’s a tough one because in a cost-benefit analysis way, I’m not convinced that any local restaurant blogger has an audience that’s particularly big enough to be worth going after— if that’s how you want to measure things. On the other hand, the PR business routinely spends money on an audience I’d have just as hard a time justifying the ROI on, which is the usual list of attendees for the Thursday night cocktails and nibbles event at such and such restaurant, which doesn’t really get the big names (with a few exceptions) because their organizations have policies against that sort of thing. So spending money on bloggers is not worse than that, but I’m not sure I think it’s any better on a pure audience size/conversion to reservations basis.

But I think that’s the wrong way to look at it anyway— a mass media way which is about getting the biggest raw number possible. That’s not what it’s about now.

So what’s it about now, and how do you justify spending money on it?

What has the PR industry always told its clients that it was getting for them? Buzz. This nebulous thing, which can seem like BS except, when somebody really has it, you see how amazingly it works. In Chicago it means places are packed on day 1 and can stay that way for years. But you’ve never been able to quantify it before, right?

Well, now buzz has corporeal form. You can go on Twitter and some of these food-news blogs and see it in action in real-time. So no one may have a massive raw audience, but some people are simply part of the conversation, they’re closer to the center of all this activity and what they get jazzed up about gets others jazzed up. And if you can target them and get them excited, then it will trickle up. I mean, Chicago didn’t become Weird Pork Parts City because Phil Vettel declared it one day. It became that because chefs got into it, and then there was all this talk going around that random animal parts were cool. That’s what’s so interesting about Twitter, though it’s certainly not the only place this happens, but it’s this incredibly democratic space where buzz moves around between people, not irrespective of status, but pretty damn freely. It should be exciting that there are so many ways to get into that conversation now.

Now you’re saying you’re at the center of the media universe?

Ha!  No, thankfully.  Actually I had a very interesting encounter at a PR event a while back; I met this woman who was a producer for one of the TV stations.  And she told me the big new local talk show she was working on and I told her about Key Ingredient and getting a Beard nomination… and it was obvious that neither one of us had ever heard of the fabulous and very important thing the other one was doing.  So no, I don’t think the media universe is waiting each day to see where Sky Full of Bacon says to eat now.  The media universe has no center now, it’s decentralized and has all these different spots where stuff is burbling and fermenting— where we’re all legends in our own minds.

So all you have to do is just keep an eye on what each of these dozen or two dozen amorphous groups are buzzing about.  Easy!

Oh, yeah, piece of cake. As a blogger, do you like being contacted with our usual pitches, or is it just annoying?

That’s a hard one to answer.  I like your pitch if I like your pitch, I make fun of it to my friends if I don’t.  (Sorry!)  I mean, I understand the issue of resources here— there’s a million of us termite bloggers and you can’t know what’s right up the alley of every single one.  At the same time, some of the things people send out— I mean, I got SO MUCH stuff about National Hamburger Month.  And I couldn’t help but think, did you look at my blog?  Do I look like I’m ever going to get excited that some chain restaurant on the Mag Mile invented a bacon egg and guacamole burger for Cinco de Mayo?  I’m going to drop doing a video about biodynamic charcuterie in the inner city and jump right on that, yeah.

So somehow, and I don’t envy you, you have to reconcile the fact that you have to talk to a wide audience and yet, let’s face it, sometimes your client just isn’t doing anything that amazing that bloggers or anybody else is going to get excited by. But still, you can’t write the new media world off because one, the other things don’t necessarily exist any more, and two, you just never know how it will pay off. I mean, three years ago I did a video about generational change at Sun Wah.  And this week, the New York Times does a piece about generational change in Chinese restaurants, and out of all the restaurants they could have picked in the whole country, they pick… Sun Wah.  Even if they never saw my piece, you know they saw the piece by somebody who saw my piece.  That’s how the world works.

What do you wish chefs and restaurants would do better when it comes to dealing with people like you?

You know, the one that amazes me is how little use restaurants and chef sometimes make of what I do. I know they’re all bugging you for publicity but then, when I show up and shoot something about them that makes them look more interesting and thoughtful than the two second soundbite they got on national TV, they don’t even think to tweet it or anything. Honest to God, I think some of them don’t really think it’s actual media because I don’t have twelve stylists and key grips trailing behind me. Well, you don’t need all that stuff any more! I’m the food truck of publicity, I show up, shoot for an hour, and get gone, but seriously, when the Food Network wants to find out about you, what do you think they’re going to look at? The two second soundbite or the clip where I let you talk, intelligently and extemporaneously, for five minutes? They don’t care how big a crew shot it.

So take advantage of it, for cryin’ out loud. And apply that lesson generally. Any time you get so much a mention somewhere, put the word out on it yourself. It helps build your brand, it lets other journalists know you’re a good source, it scratches the journalist’s belly a little to be noticed and thanked, it could lead to the New York Times.  Don’t ask for more PR until you’re milking the PR you already get for all it’s worth.

What do you think about what Ellen Malloy’s doing with putting a lot of PR content online for journalists to just pick stuff up from? Is that going to replace traditional PR?

I don’t think things replace other things all that much. It’s more likely that the new thing will grow the market in some new direction while the old one has to evolve to fit a changed environment. But she is doing one of the main things the internet always does, which we called “disintermediation” back in the dot-com days— giving the end user the ability to do it himself instead of having to go through somebody to get it done. In this case, she’s putting a lot of stuff online so journalists can go find story ideas poking around her site for two minutes and throw questions out to a bunch of people instead of spending the whole afternoon making phone calls. I think that’s obviously helpful in a lot of situations.  That said, I can’t say I’ve used it much myself, because I don’t do that kind of story— ohmigod Mother’s Day is coming up I need to find out who is doing what for Mother’s Day, fast.  That’s a mainstream media need more than it’s mine, but sure, it’s a smart solution that some people will use a lot, and will replace a few 22-year-olds fielding phone calls.

It’s also not the only solution that’s out there waiting to be discovered and built out, either.  There’s plenty of room to make this process better.

I suppose it hardly matters, the future belongs to Groupon anyway.

Well, I wouldn’t bet on any billion-dollar-value dotcom even existing in a few years, and Groupon’s lack of repeat business is somewhat worrying (though I don’t think a low return customer rate in itself is tantamount to being a Ponzi scheme).  But I have a somewhat different take on Groupon anyway, which is that fundamentally it’s less of a sales promotion service than a media company.  Traditional media were, of course, built on the idea that they were the only way to reach a big group of whoever— middle class department and grocery store customers if you were the Trib, counterculture young people who went to concerts if you were the Reader, etc.  Then suddenly there was ten times as much content and no clear sense of what anybody was really reading— I could buy ads in a million places aimed at restaurant goers, but what proof did I have that anyone would see them there, that I was reaching the best group in the best place?  An explosion of choice paralyzed the market and turned ad rates into a commodity.

So Groupon reinvented the business and nailed down all the loose pieces of the traditional media model.  Not sure if anybody actually reads this stuff?  We know exactly how many get our deals and how many buy, and no ad agency is going to have to give you a BS presentation about your front of mind awareness going up 7%, when your cash register is stuffed full of the things.  Don’t want to pay money up front? You don’t have to pay a cent up front, you’ll just pay out the nose on the back end, Groupon turned the 15% commission on media buys into the 75% on actual results one.  The clue is how much emphasis Groupon puts on writing fun copy— they’re entertaining their audience just like any other media company, not merely selling like the deal of the week offers that preceded them.  Now, I question its long-term sustainability for various reasons, but it’s definitely one of the models to look at to see where the world is going— if the mass media audience is fragmented, build your own and sell it.

This week’s Key Ingredient is apparently not poisonous in the quantities we ingested. So far.

Meanwhile, check out some improvements made to the blog here. The sidebar at right now has several new features including recent comments and tweets. But the coolest of all is the new Videos screening room, which gives you immediate access to all past Sky Full of Bacon podcasts, which will launch and play instantly in full glorious big-screen high definition. Check it out here.

All these changes were done cheerfully and very quickly by Artur Bobinski at Kenton Wen Design, and I happily recommend his services for building or tuning up WordPress blogs or other such projects. We did it entirely via email and I enjoyed excellent service and prompt turnaround for a very reasonable fee.

The so-called aquarium smoker— I say so-called because the main manufacturer, Avenue Metal, doesn’t actually call them that, and the term was probably invented by Chowhounders/future LTHers in this thread— has seemed a bit of an endangered species to barbecue-minded foodies, facing the double threat of local restrictions on open flame and smoke smell, and the fact that gas-fired cookers with smoke boxes are easier (and, in the best hands, can produce excellent barbecue, as at Smoque).

So there was some excitement when the proprietor of a new spot, Smoke Signals, sent out press releases announcing the best BBQ in the universe or something, and featured a glass pit prominently in the middle of his shop. (I believe it is an Avenue Metal-made pit; I learned you could spot theirs by the design quirk of the hexagonally-rounded corners.) So far reports don’t seem to suggest that his ‘cue lives up to his claims, but you know, give him six months or a year, who knows? I’m glad to see someone trying, anyway.

The real news is, his isn’t the only place with a new glass pit in town.

I’m kind of surprised no one’s spotted Mary Lee’s Smokehouse, because it’s in a fairly high-profile location— on Cermak just east of Chinatown, opposite Cafe Luciano’s. And the signage isn’t shy. I’ve hit it twice now, and if it’s not a great barbecue place yet, it clearly is modeling itself on the places that do it best, and doing an entirely creditable job by the classics:

My sons and I ate a combo of rib tips and links at Ping Tom park on a nice day and enjoyed the light but definite smoke flavor and the spicy hot link just fine. There are a couple of other wrinkles to Mary Lee’s that are worth checking out, though I haven’t managed to have them yet due to being there at the wrong times. One is that they cook steak in the smoker— has anyone done that before? They sell a ribeye steak, which you can have either off the regular grill, or the smoker. Needless to say, I think you’d be a fool to do anything but have it off the smoker; alas, the second time I went, they were sold out from the night before, so I have yet to try that, or the chicken which the menu seems proud of.

I also knew I’d be eating rewarmed barbecue that day, my fault for hitting a bbq joint at noon sharp, but having failed in my quest for steak, I figured rewarmed tips and links was still better than most other things close by. (I wasn’t thinking about Chinatown.) And I discovered something else about tips and links that have been cooked in the same smoker as steaks… they taste like steak! A definite beef-juices-hitting-hot-coals flavor coated the porky pork. Feel free to think that that’s either kind of cool or gross, I can’t decide myself. But I finished them. Sauce was very good in the typical sweet-spicy Chicago style; note that if you follow the standard LTHForum advice to order sauce on the side (which I mostly agree with), they’ll charge you something like $1.50 for a sauce container. I let it slide the second time and just let them dunk everything in the sauce.

So check out Mary Lee’s, timing your visit as to how much you want your pork to taste like beef, I guess. I’ll be back for pig-tasting steak one of these days.

Mary Lee’s Smokehouse
2 E Cermak
Chicago, IL 60616
(312) 225-4544

Your barbecue zen moment:

* * *

Not to bury the lede, but I’ve been visiting a lot of barbecue places lately… because I’m finally working on a new Sky Full of Bacon video podcast. I don’t want to hear any guff about how long it’s been since the last official one, I’ve made well over two hours’ worth of Key Ingredients in that time, but I promised a segment about barbecue long ago, going back to last summer when I shot interviews with a few well-known pitmasters for a Time Out Chicago print piece, which also yielded this short video. So I’ve been conducting other interviews and I think I will have some new insights into the history of Chicago’s own barbecue style by the time it’s done (whenever that will be).

Anyway, doing so I found myself deep on the south side, down where street names have three digits, and so I took the opportunity to finally try a couple of barbecue places that have been written about on LTHForum and elsewhere, but which I had never been to with favorites like Uncle John’s half as far away.

Exsenator’s in south suburban Markham looks more like small town America than south side Chicago. You expect a cozy cafe serving early bird specials to retirees from the outside, and it’s a bit jarring to find the usual intimidating bulletproof glass ordering system inside. But apart from the building, this is authentic Chicago barbecue with deep wood flavor. There’s just one thing I didn’t like about Exsenator’s, and it’s a big one if you forget the usual sauce-on-the-side advice. The sauce is the other thing that resembles a place where old folks would eat; it’s cloyingly sweet and completely devoid of any spice or complexity. It was like dunking your barbecue in applesauce. In this case, I’d tell them not just sauce on the side, but skip sauce entirely; the BBQ will be fine on its own.

Exsenator’s Ribs and Chicken
3349 W 159th St
Markham, IL 60428
(708) 333-1211

George’s Rib House’s notoriety among local barbecue fans is that George won’t cook with wood— he uses pure charcoal, because wood has worms, he says. So George’s BBQ doesn’t have a wood taste, it tastes like a backyard barbecue. But with these big meaty tips, cooked with care by a multi-person staff even on a quiet Saturday afternoon, you’re unlikely to be dissatisfied. Sometimes you feel like you’re eating around bone more than actually eating meat with rib tips, but not here. Good spicy sauce; fries were mushy, but maybe I just caught an off batch.

George’s Rib House
168 W 147th St
Harvey, IL 60426
(708) 331-9347

There will be more to come, I don’t want to give away the show yet, but you won’t go wrong this weekend hitting any of these three places as a new stop on the Chicago south side BBQ circuit.

Tags: ,

I really like that last week’s chef, Marianne Sundquist, picked a chef who’s not a name— she’s a farmer in the summer and a line cook at Vie in the winter, Abra Berens. As a result, she has her own viewpoint on ingredients, not to mention uses ones she grew herself, in this week’s video. Read the piece (which covers a lot of what she talked about that I didn’t) here.

P.S. By the way, I made her asparagus-radish-pea shoot salad the other day— I even used Klug asparagus like she did, since I had just been to the Green City Market. It was really good, and everyone was interested to see that yes, you can eat raw asparagus:

P.P.S. And watch an outtake here.

The Key Ingredient with Mark Steuer of the then-not-yet-opened Bedford is one of my favorites, because the challenge (by his old boss Mindy Segal) really hits him where he lives and he rises to it cleverly. But something else was notable about that shoot, which was, it was the only one to date where a PR person was on hand, making sure nothing was said out of turn (and in fact stopping Steuer at a couple of points). At the time I just attributed it to owners whose place wasn’t open yet and were thus a little overcautious about their concept leaking out prematurely. After eating at The Bedford, I begin to think overcaution is more like the theme of this restaurant set in a former bank, complete with (very cool) dining room inside a vault. Your money’s safe in a bank vault, and at The Bedford, so’s your menu.

The menu hit all the notes of dining c. 2011– house cocktails with ingredients du jour like cachaca and Templeton Rye; bacon scattered on half the dishes; comfort food starters like deviled eggs (“We’re becoming famous for them,” our waiter claimed), Cobb salad and frites; entrees like hangar steak, duck confit and gnocchi, the inevitable burger and mac and cheese. Even as I recognize that I, and everyone who dines out in Chicago at this moment, is a spoiled bastard who deserves a whipping (oh dear, not duck confit again), I have to admit that this menu, exquisitely of the minute but not one second ahead anywhere, seemed perfectly fine but did not set my pulse racing.

Fortunately there’s the menu, and there’s the execution, which on the whole was first-rate. We started with some very good Chesapeake Stingray oysters, served properly on ice, and the deviled eggs with Tabasco and bacon powder, very nice, velvety texture and all that, though I still feel like deviled eggs ought to be a Methodist grandmother’s signature dish, not an upscale restaurant’s. (But then, I remember when fries were a side, not an appetizer, at least for anyone over the age of 16.) The Cobb salad was the most serious misstep— first, it was served iceberg wedge style, which I know is an old school presentation trick but seems a lousy way to dress and eat a salad to me; second, its resemblance to a canonical Cobb salad was vague at best, what with cheddar cheese curds present and egg, avocado, bleu cheese, etc. absent. (Also, I think we were stuck unannounced for an extra two bucks at the end for sharing a plate, which would have been more acceptable if they had, in fact, brought us other plates to make sharing easier. At $15, that better be one hell of a head of iceberg lettuce you’re eating.)

Entrees, on the other hand, delivered to the full of their expectations. Grilled halibut with bacon and favas was cooked textbook perfect, and the brightness of the fresh favas and other bits and dribs of green stuff on the plate made it a nice spring dish, if not one that had me running up to strangers in the street. The one dish that went beyond technical perfection and really had some sparkle and decadence to it was the duck confit, served in a gooily lush bowl of grits and dotted with psychedelically-green, brightly minty salsa verde. Imagine Next’s L’Escoffier meal crossed with the bowl of Malt-O-Meal your mom made you one time when you stayed home sick, and topped with pesto whose ingredients you picked moments before. Can’t imagine that? Well, that’s why it stood out on The Bedford’s menu, where everything else we had can be imagined exactly from its menu description.

Actually, there was one other thing which might suggest some hope for The Bedford loosening up and taking the occasional bank holiday. We didn’t have it, but there was a special of rabbit (which Steuer also tweeted about). And you know, one special like that— rabbit, a dish which had Chicago diners going “eek!’ just a few years ago— goes a long way to overcoming your immediate impression that The Bedford, whose room reminded me of downtown places like Trattoria No. 10 and the late Powerhouse, is aimed too conservatively at a suit-and-tie Loop crowd who haven’t felt entirely comfortable in the Ruxbins and Longman & Eagles and other slacker-vibe weird-animal-parts restaurants that have been where you had to go eat on the near northwest side lately. Two or three more specials like them, some more unusual fishes than halibut and more unusual cuts than hangar steak, and The Bedford’s executional expertise might be matched by a menu that makes you feel curious as well as merely comfortable.

My dining companion’s take, with photos.

This week’s Key Ingredient presents a chef I didn’t know about, Marianne Sundquist of Andersonville’s In Fine Spirits, making a ragu from pork cheeks. The article is here.

“That’s so cool, that you won a James Beard award,” one of the 4-H moms said to me.

“And now you’re cleaning out pig poop like the rest of us,” one of the dads said.

That about sums it up. If you have pigs, you have work to do. And it probably involves poop.

* * *

But first we gathered at the farm to meet our pigs, purchased in the auction shortly before. This was pretty much a day of pure kid and pig joy, the kids making themselves at home with the pigs:

At the end of our pig meet and greet, Julie gave us a little talk about the responsibilities ahead and what it would take to have a good showing at the fair in July:

Behind the kid fun, though, adult things were happening. The moms busily coordinated the feeding and pen-cleaning schedules, keeping it all on a webpage. Julie also told us that one of the pigs was small and underweight, apparently unable to compete for feed with the other pigs; he was being kept separate in what she called “the bachelor pad” so that he would get enough to eat. We were encouraged to bring treats for our pigs when we visited— they love peanut butter-based snacks, but it’s important not to give them such things while they’re eating their feed, because they’ll want to only eat dessert, not the main course. (They also get a special supplement of “18 egg omelets made with 10 pounds of butter” from time to time.)


Our pig, Thor.

* * *

The news started coming in emails from Julie a few days later, giving us all a taste of the hard side of farming. The pigs had lesions, possibly signs of an infestation, which kept getting worse as the pigs rough-housed in the pen and scratched each other up. They were dusted with insecticide.

It didn’t clear up. The theory turned toward a staph infection called erysiperlas, even though they were vaccinated against such things. They were given penicillin.

Most of them seemed to be doing better, but then:

Dear Livestock Families,

Unfortunately, today we lost Jessica and Jayne’s pig. He appeared well as of last night but was dead this morning. The vet came and autopsied him- he was quite ill with many infections throughout his organs. Most likely the cause was erysipelas. All the pigs have had penicillin and other antibiotics since arrival, but this infection overran the medicine.

The doc gave all the pigs additional antibiotics and an extra boost of selenium.

I am so very sorry this happened and hope you will not all become too discouraged and will be especially kind to our newest pig show persons who got a run of bad luck so early.

Thank you,
Julie

* * *

By the time we came to clean the pens, there were two new pigs— the heir and a spare, as Julie said— from the Foltzes being kept in quarantine for their first few days from the other pigs. Because one of them has blue eyes, Julie declared that we had to name him Frank. Then the question was, what to name the other? Dino, I said. I’m pretty sure the kids had no idea what either one of us were talking about.

There was also even stranger news. “One of our pigs is half boar,” Julie said. At first I thought she meant something about its breed parentage. “It still has one of its testicles,” she clarified. This is a big problem, because a boar, like a bull, gets meaner as it grows. It wasn’t clear how the animal had half-escaped castration, but whether one testicle was undescended, or it was just sloppy work, the Foltzes were embarrassed and the vet would be coming in a few days to finish the job. (It actually wasn’t one of their pigs, but another farm’s pig sold at our auction, but even so, they felt bad about saddling 4-H kids with a surprise problem like this.)

The quarantine (formerly the littlest pig’s bachelor pad, which only made the names Frank and Dino that much more appropriate) added a little wrinkle to our training in pen-cleaning. Because of this spring’s absurdly cold weather, the pigs were being kept in the sheltered pen to stay warm, but to clean the pen, we had to drive them out into another enclosure.

Pis, unlike lambs, will happily go out given the chance, but getting them into the other enclosure is trickier. Pigs can’t be led, they can only be kept moving until they go where you want them to go, kind of like one of those games where you roll the tiny balls trying to get them all into holes. Temple Grandin’s comments about what encourages and discourages animals from moving came back to me as we used large plastic barriers to give the pigs no choice but to run into the enclosure.

It was easy to see which corner the pigs had designated as the toilet, so we scooped up the clumpy stuff from that area and put down fresh sawdust and straw. The girls cleaning the quarantine area had to be especially careful about lifting scoops of poop-soaked hay high enough to pass over the wall.

My boys dug in fearlessly. At their age I was a hopelessly prissy city kid, but they have no such qualms (and, indeed, later in the week Liam would shovel horse manure enthusiastically on his 3rd grade camping trip, telling everyone proudly that this was the second poop he’d shoveled that week. You’ll notice that cleaning up after the dog was not on his list.)

While we cleaned the pen, the lamb 4-Hers began training their animals. See if you can spot the difference between a bunch of lambs and a bunch of pigs.

As if that were possible. First up, Cleetus Friedman is the chef in this week’s Key Ingredient, with housecured ham…

While over at Saveur.com, a piece of mine with photographer Huge Galdones is up taking you behind the scenes of the great west side Italian deli Riviera.

I especially like how the author bio line (the only part not by me) sounds…