Sky Full of Bacon


The beer issue of the Reader evidently got so big that it squeezed out this week’s Key Ingredient with Nick Lacasse at the Drawing Room; watch for it next week. In the meantime, I’ll be subbing for another Nick (Kindelsperger) at Grub Street Chicago, so look for me there starting Monday and through the end of the week.

Wouldn’t want you to be without video, though, so here’s a promotional video I made for Heather Shouse and her food truck book at the Goose Island “food truck summit” in April:

And enjoy these outtakes from the Michael Carlson shoot.

So after spending much of the week debating the morality of the $6 tamale, I knew that I would have to go back to Green City Market and try the savory ones that everyone was raving about and at least some people considered worthy of the $6 price tag.

I approached the stand carefully, scanning it to see if a blurry photo of me with “DO NOT SERVE” was tacked up anywhere. Actually, they shouldn’t be too upset with me, considering the number of people I know who twitted something this morning about going to get “$6 tamales.” Blogging about overpricing— the new way to boost your business!

The coast was clear and after a brief wait in line, I was the proud owner of $12 worth of tamales. I will note that a woman came up, said “They’re six dollars— for one?”, and left while I was standing there.

Though it’s possibly the least appetizing-looking thing I’ve eaten in some months, I liked the spicy (hardly) chorizo one quite a bit. The chorizo had good flavor, there were some bits of zucchini mixed in, and best of all the grease from the chorizo had soaked into the masa in an especially appealing way.

The brisket one had the rich flavor of pot roast and the toothsomeness of masa… but that was kind of all it had. I wanted another flavor note to sneak in there— like the spices that would have been added to a Mexican pork one at a $1.50 tamale place.

I liked these pretty well, but I still found them a little small and sparse (if there’s anything you can be generous with, it’s zucchini in July), and I can’t say I see spending $6 on them regularly. Maybe it’s just me and tamales, which I think are fine, but would not rank among my favorite things, partly because of the soft, no-teeth-needed texture, which doesn’t appeal to me all that much in general (when Kennyz was raving about how well the polenta was cooked at Davanti, I just sort of nodded, yeah, whatever, it’s polenta). I’ve certainly heard from enough tamale-lovin’ folks this week to believe that Las Manas is doing something right for somebody— I’m just not them.

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Scott Harris is an American who built a fantasy Italy for Italian food. Giuseppe Tentori is an Italian who built a fantasy America for Japanese food.

This, at least, is my initial glib impression of two of the past year’s more celebrated new spots from known restaurateurs.

I think I’ve eaten at the Francesca chain once or twice, not in a long time, and not with enough excitement that I have hurried back. Scott Harris’ sudden intensive interest in Taylor Street— he opened Aldino’s, he closed Aldino’s, he opened Davanti Enoteca and Doughboys pizza joint, he reopened the old red sauce joint Gennaro’s and had to change its name to Salatino’s, and I don’t even remember what the story was on a Taylor Street Nella Pizzeria Napoletana— was more interesting if slightly unnerving in its drive to conquer. Except maybe for a couple of old places, Taylor Street is more a tourist strip than an authentic Italian neighborhood, so I wasn’t particularly worried that he’d lose the “character” of a street marked at one end by a giant mall-style Pompei. I liked that he was trying a lot of different things there to sort of give the plastic neighborhood a more varied character, and not just trying to launch new concepts.

Though you could be forgiven for looking at Davanti Enoteca and thinking it came out of a kit marked “Italian restaurant, model 1998.” The cutesy brick interior with pizza oven and Italian movie posters in the bathroom (I found the placement of Klaus Kinski disturbing) and so on really had the look of mall Italian. Nor was it all that impressive that before opening it, Harris and his partners and chef and taken a tour of major Italian food regions… in America. As some smartass wrote at Grub Street, “Hmm, what Italian-food-producing region of the globe is missing from that list?” Davanti Enoteca seemed like a place with its eyes lifted right to the middle.

But damn if it isn’t better than its Buca di Macaroni Garden looks. (Okay, that’s a low blow, it doesn’t look like Buca, there are no framed photos of Vic Tayback and Joey Travolta.) As my dining companion observed (you can read his whole take here), they seem to have put together kind of a menu of greatest hits from Mario Batali and other name chefs here, but the quality and modest pricing certainly don’t disgrace the inspiration, far from it. The best thing we had, a seafood pasta, cost about 2/3 what a seafood pasta I had at Lupa cost, and was probably about 2/3 as good which is very good indeed. It merely had crab in it, not something as novel as bottarga, but the pasta had the right texture and the saucing was not too heavy and it was pretty much everything you’d hope it would be at that price. Other things showed similar precision— meatballs bore the heck out of me, but the ones on our plank of polenta goo had real complexity, and a dessert with farro and cream was just sweet enough and no more.

Is there some sort of genius reverse psychology behind the lines Davanti draws every night, a Vizzini-the-Sicilian level insight that “People will only go to an Italian place if they are convinced it won’t be too exotic by seeing transparently faux decor— but because they’re Chicagoans, they know that only a place serving superior food could get away with suburban-level decor, and so the decor’s fakiness is proof that the food must be for real”? It’s as good a theory as any for how such admirable food wound up in this look.

* * *

The first time I ate at Boka, I wasn’t wowed by Giuseppe Tentori’s Asian-tinged food, delicate fishes topped with citrusy notes and whatnot. The second time I was; the one thing I remember of that meal was a bento box of different Asian seafood bites that was like a magical treasure chest with one surprise after another. (I also remember that there were 12 of us and only I was so transported by it. Philistines!) So when Tentori and Boka Group announced plans to open GT Fish & Oyster Bar, other people may have seen a rival to Shaw’s for business lunch for the big fishes, but I mainly saw a chance for that delicate, Japanese-influenced hand with seafood to shine. GT may put on the upscale Yankee crab shack look (it’s actually quite smart, a cross between Ye Olde Crabbe Shanty and Little Black Dress), but at its best it’s that light hand with the delicate flavors of seafood that makes it, for a Kansan still learning to appreciate seafood in all its variety, a place I want to return for continuing education, for glimpses of oceanic transcendence.


Only the chicest New England sailors use black rope.

The delicate hand was best seen in the first things we had. I keep trying oysters to see why people like oysters, and I keep getting closer to understanding; the simplicity and purity of these icy, evanescently briny invertebrates was bracing. (This is as good a place as any to disclose that one of our party knows Tentori well and we were sent a few extra things, including some of the oysters.)

While a clam chowder, not really what I planned on having in late June until peer pressure won me over, was a beautiful example of upscale-restaurant soup, a clean broth, al dente bits of potato added just before serving, lots of clam, housemade oyster crackers that seemed to have been handcarved in the back:

Main courses I felt were more hit or miss. Many combined seafood with pasta and the pastas were admirably delicate and feathery. But I had crab-stuffed agnolotti with caviar in a coconut broth, and to me the sweet, syrupy coconut broth dominated the dish cloyingly; I had to let as much of it as I could drip off to reach what seemed a proper balance of the coconut sweetness and the salt of the caviar. You couldn’t complain about the lobster in the lobster roll, it overflowed with big, tender hunks of lobster. But it didn’t quite come together as a sandwich for me, maybe it was a little too upscale in conception for what is, after all, Maine’s answer to a Wisconsin bratwurst. Shaw’s gets the cheap eats side of the lobster roll better with a buttery toasted bun.

Desserts were, well, Tentorian in their similar directness and lack of frouf, like this panacotta with graham cracker crumbs and a little fresh fruit:

Even if I felt the meal was mixed, I’m okay with that, because I’m happy (especially at highly reasonable lunch prices) to go for the ride with Tentori and wait for the dishes that achieve that perfect zen simplicity of taste and perfect presentation. I’m also impressed that Boka Group, which could have been expected to replicate the big bold flavors and slammin’ downtown feel of its runaway hit Girl and the Goat, is capable of following it by reversing gears and opening a spot driven by subtlety and a chef’s very different personality— or that they’d even want to, instead of chasing a smash hit into the ground. In some ways they are Lettuce 2011, they have a similar conceptual golden touch at the moment, yet their places feel like their chefs and don’t have that overarching Lettuceness that turns up everywhere from Foodlife to Shaw’s. Shaw’s, with its clubby, wood and black leather big business feel, is a seafood restaurant I’ve always respected but never loved; I wasn’t its target. GT Fish & Oyster, with its lighter, more intellectual touch in every department, could even make me love oysters. Someday.


Tentori explains where seafood comes from to David Hammond.

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This week’s Key Ingredient is straight out of True Blood: blood and grits.  (Fine yuppie Anson Mills grits, naturally.)  Read it here.

Saturday I took my kids to the newly-paved Green City Market (oh, they paved Green City and put up a lot of arugula). There’s a tamale stand this year which I’ve wanted to try, but it’s usually had a long line attached to it.  For once, though, it was almost clear— probably because it wasn’t even 10:00 yet and it didn’t really seem the hour for a spicy pork or brisket tamale. But scanning the menu, there was a strawberry-mint tamale at the bottom. Especially for my youngest son, I knew this would go over well, as he’s been known to eat them at the best traditional tamale spot I know of, Tamales Lo Mejor de Guerrero in Rogers Park.

There was also something else of note on the sign: a six with a dollar sign in front of it. Could these really be six bucks apiece? The woman in front of us was getting a whole bundle of them, and it seemed unlikely she was buying a good $48 or more worth of tamales. Tamales are plebeian food, sold in batches of 50 at Christmastime— and not for $300. I placed my order— and sure enough, got a single pink tamale for $6.

Okay, so it’s a really good tamale. Less so for the basic ingredients of the tamale, corn masa and lard, than the freshness of real strawberry and mint worked into it. Setting price aside, it was an absolute pleasure to eat. But even someone like me, who walks into Green City scattering $20 bills to the wind for his weekly green vegetables, cannot entirely set price aside. Late that night, I tweeted what had been floating around the verge of my consciousness all day:

140 characters is no place to expect subtleties to come through, but I don’t think this was entirely condemnatory. It was, instead, the honest admission that there were two voices in my head, one of which said, “Mmm, what a nice organic artisanal sustainable tamale” and the other of which said “Six dollars for one tamale?!? You foodies are freakin’ nuts!”

I very quickly got back some responses— mainly from other vendors at the market— defending the price of the tamale as justified by what goes into it:

@skyfullofbacon fortunately not everything is mass produced- investigate making fresh masa with great local ingredients. $6 is a bargain.

Hey, I didn’t just fall off the organic turnip truck, I know how the market is and I believe that that $6 is a proportional reflection of ingredient cost like any other food item. (Admittedly, using the term “sucker” would tend to belie that.) But still, $6 for a tamale… I sent this response:

is there any price at which you wouldn’t feel a little silly buying a tamale?

and got this back:

@skyfullofbacon id feel silly thinking I got a bargain on a $1 tamale that was made with crap ingredients and crisco.

A fair answer but not a direct one, and one that points to another problem I have, which is that if you get too doctrinaire about only eating artisanal/organic/whatever, you’re not even going to know what a tamale is, because you’ll never explore our ethnic scene where authentic recipes and industrial products are inextricably entwined.  In other words, nobody’s going to appreciate a $6 tamale without getting there via a $1.50 one, is my belief.

So who’s right here?  I honestly am confused about what I think, and value.  I’m all for upgrading ingredients and patronizing the good stuff, but maybe it’s just that I don’t value tamales as much as I do BBQ or pie or whatever, so the price difference sticks out to me more.  (To judge by the lines, other people do value them, so they don’t really need to worry about me.)  What do you think?  Would you pay $6 for this tamale— and even consider it cheap given the quality?  Or does it seem preposterous to pay that for such peasant food?  I would love to hear your responses in the comments below.

*  *  *

So on my way out I stopped by T.J.’s, who sell poultry and meats.  There was a question I couldn’t resist asking Tim, the farmer, after having eaten at NoMi a couple of weeks ago.  “Do you know about the $75 T.J.’s chicken at NoMi?”

He did not know about it, and at first didn’t even realize that NoMi was buying from him (aha! Scandal!) until he realized that it was the same account as the Park Hyatt, to whom he sells a number of things, whole chickens included.  “Have you had it? Was it good?” he asked.  I explained that it was sous-vide cooked to a velvety tenderness that was, indeed, pretty wonderful, and that given the price of the other entrees in the $30-40 range, the chicken for two was not wildly out of line pricewise.  That said, he told me his favorite way to cook a chicken was to grill it, dusted with Lawry’s seasoned salt and basted with garlic butter.

“Well, I guess I better get myself one of those $75 chickens and try it out,” I said.  He pulled out a massive, almost five-pounder, and told me the price.  I gave him $16.75.

“I’m not charging enough,” he said.

Read the followup to this saga here.

*  *  *


$3 doughnut.

$75 chickens and $6 tamales, it’s time to round up this quarter’s list of the best things I’ve eaten at any price, while you still have time to try them for yourself.  To see previous installments, click on “Best Things I’ve Eaten Lately” under Categories at right.  (And as before, Key Ingredient dishes don’t count.)

• Grilled meats from Assayad, Dearborn MI
• Twig Farm Fuzzy Wheel, and La Quercia Acorn Edition prosciutto, from Zingerman’s
• The soups at Mike’s Famous Ham Place, Detroit
• Pasta with bottarga, and snap peas with mint at Lupa, NYC
• Doughnut from Doughnut Plant
• Dumplings from Prosperity Dumpling
• All kinds of things lost in alcoholic haze at Yakitori Totto
• Grilled short ribs, Bento Box
• Ojinguh bokkum (stir fried squid), Hal Mae Bo Ssam (Morton Grove)
• Ramen at Chizakaya
• Any soup they make at Butcher & Larder
• $75 chicken at NoMi
• Sweet potato pie, Jimmy Jamm’s
• Northeastern strawberries from Nichols Farms
• A nice tortellini or ravioli something or other I can’t remember exactly now from Owen & Engine
• Goat biryani, Ghareeb Nawaz
• Spinach and kale and Chicken balti pies at Pleasant House Bakery
• Riccio di Mare e Granchio at Davanti Enoteca
• Oysters and clam chowder at GT Fish & Oyster Bar
• $6 strawberry tamale at Green City Market

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I knew Hot Doug’s would be a hilarious shoot. I didn’t know what Schwa would turn out to be… but it was pretty damn funny too. A kitchen table at Schwa would be the best show in town.

Note the new credit style on this one, to match the redesign of the print Reader a few weeks back. I swear to God, that took longer that cutting the video did. I’m not kidding when I say this is handmade, one-person video production here…

* * *

Meanwhile, this being episode #30, time to run a recap of the last ten dishes, as I did after #10 and #20. You can refresh your memory about the past episodes by clicking on the “Key Ingredient” link under categories at right:

Bill Kim/aloe vera— this looked like a mess while he was making it (soggy tortilla chips and soba noodles?), but came together surprisingly well, and the Jello-like aloe vera was texturally very interesting
• Carlos Gaytan/dried shrimp— one of my favorites because he took an oddball ingredient and made something that was robustly flavored, reflective of his culture and yet innovative in its own way. I’d love to go have it for breakfast for real sometime.
Doug Sohn/chicken feet— chicken feet could be the new bacon, fried up like Doug did them. Lifted a chicken dog (not my favorite thing at Hot Doug’s) to a decadent new level.
• Barry Sorkin/Vienna Beef hot dog— I’ve made fun of dragon turds for years, but let’s face it, you’re never going to go wrong with bacon, gooey hot cheese, and smoke (or Smoque). I actually made this one for a party shortly after, and they were devoured with wide eyes of amazement.
Cleetus Freedman/Bourbon— baked ham in a bourbon glaze, tasted exactly like what you think it’s going to taste like, just not much of a challenge challenge…
Marianne Sundquist/pork cheek— and the same is somewhat true of a pork ragu. It was nicely done, but not a groundbreaker for the series
Abra Berens/silver needle tea— another one I really liked, even though the tea salt thing didn’t really work— both it and the tea granita were too salty. But it was so clean and refreshing and showed such interesting thinking about how to use these things, and I actually made the salad later and really enjoyed how simple it was
Sandra Holl/apricot kernels— the bitter apricot kernel flavored did kind of disappear into a standard custard, as she observers in the video. But I really liked the extra bite of bitterness that the kernels brought to the brittle
Paula Haney/millet— The millet tabouleh was surprisingly likable, and the meat pie was great (mainly tasting of their bright ras-al-hanout seasoning). The parfait was very pleasant and I liked the rice puddingy millet in the dish, and the puffed millet in the chocolate, but the crispy millet thing was like eating tiny ball bearings. Millet’s just not pleasant in quantity
Michael Carlson/Malort— the first dish, with the Malort gelatins, was very striking. I didn’t taste it so much in the second dish, and I’m not a fan of that style of plating (the meat always gets cold) but the cocoa nib-infused consomme with Malort was maybe the best and most Malorty thing of them all; unfortunately it doesn’t really get explained in the video for time reasons.

* * *

Finally: while I’m not happy about how LTHForum got into the situation that ended this week with its sale to three of its members, that’s water far past the bridge by now and out of the imaginable outcomes, this is surely the most promising for its future and deserves to be looked at as a fresh start.

When I left over three years ago, we were wrestling with how to take something that was state of the art for 2004— if that— and adapt it to a world in which blogs had displaced message boards as the hot user experience. Now it’s several years later yet, and LTHForum is as far behind the contemporary Twitter-Facebook-Foursquare social media world as the old BBS-style Chowhound seemed behind the times in 2004. So there’s a lot of room to improve the LTHForum experience to adapt to the way the world works now, and in the process open up a site that has gotten a bit hermetic at times and make it social not only inwardly but with the outside world. And I’m as curious as anybody to see what can be made of it for 2011.

So I wish them luck, and urge them not to be afraid to shake it up— it’s been very much the same for much longer than it should have been, which is less a criticism than a recognition that just as there was on BBS-style Chowhound, there’s a lot of creativity there waiting to be given new forms in which to explode.


Possibly the first picture of a plate of food I ever took, from the long-gone Julia’s Lithuanian on the Westernathon, March 8, 2003. I’m not even sure why I took pictures, since you couldn’t post them on Chowhound— and still can’t.


This is an extremely deep metaphor for what happens here.

It’s the 3rd anniversary of my first video, and that makes it time for my annual State of the Bacon address, on how things have worked out and what might lie ahead. Needless to say, I feel pretty good about a year that brought a Beard award, and getting national press as one of Saveur’s Sites We Love, and just this week, this in the Reader’s Best of Chicago:

In some ways that’s the coolest of all, though it doesn’t frame as nicely as a Beard award. But there were no nominees in these categories; this is, as we say in the ad biz, unaided recall, top of mind awareness, people who, asked to name a top food blog, said Sky Full of Bacon with no prodding. To come in third behind a well-publicized arm of a national publication and a site with hundreds of users of its own, as one of the sites people think of first in this category, is a pretty great testament to the fact that my work here has gotten through and made a splash on the local food scene. That people actually watch and read this stuff.

When I started writing for publications about food, one of the things I knew I would need to do, as a dad with kids and thus much less free time than the many young people checking out new restaurants and bars every night, was find ways to stand out beyond simply doing every assignment I could land. I knew I needed a project that would help me be seen as having a particular point of view and the capabilities to bring it to readers and viewers. I chose doing videos about food because I felt it was something I could do that few others were doing and that would get attention— and I thought I could do it well.  Two of my particular ambitions for it when I started were getting an ongoing gig of some kind (or more than one) using video, and winning a James Beard Foundation award for it, which in turn would hopefully serve to open other doors when I could call myself a Beard Award winner.

So this is a big year in that both of those ambitions were realized. The phone finally rang with an editor at the other end, wanting to talk about the prospect of a series of chef challenges— Key Ingredient for the Chicago Reader. And literally our very first work— the first three videos/print pieces in the series, from last November and December— won a Beard. Add to that other notable work (such as the Eater videos about Next and Aviary, which have now had over 10,000 views) and milestones (such as getting published by probably the magazine that I most dreamed of writing for when I started all this) and I believe that I have sort of completed the first stage of this process, graduated from one level of food writerdom.

Now I just have to take those accomplishments and figure out how I use them to go to the next level. Whatever that is.


The next level.

Alas, there is a melancholy part to this anniversary, which is that the other Reader-cited “blog” (not exactly) that I helped start, LTHForum, is at an unfortunate crossroads in its own existence. In a few days it will be sold as an asset in the bankruptcy of just one of several founders— possibly to a group of LTH insiders (who also have some responsibility for LTH being in this mess, but nevertheless, are presumably its best hope for continuing). Or possibly to… who knows?  Will it exist a week or two from now?  No one can say for sure.

I haven’t told the story of how that happened, and don’t intend to start now (though I’ll answer questions), but if this next week brings down the curtain on LTHForum as that community’s outlet, I will still be proud of the impact our community had going back to Chowhound days in awakening Chicagoans to the real diversity of ethnic cuisine all over the region. As I am also proud that in the end, when I felt I needed to walk away, I didn’t just sit there and nurse a grudge but took what I had learned there and raised it to the next level with my own new creative pursuits.  (And with a URL people could actually remember.)

Thank you, if you read this far, for going along on that journey with me for these past three years, and for reading and watching. The best is yet to come, I promise.


A poster mentioned on LTHForum the other day the clever logos that “someone” used to do a few years back, repurposing various forms of food-related vintage art. Needless to say, that someone was me, at least for the first few years; here’s one that I never got around to running before I left, and thus has never appeared at LTHForum.

No new Key Ingredient this week as it’s the Reader’s Best of Chicago issue, but I have a few items in the best of— read them here, here and here. And— I had no idea until I saw it— I was nominated (but didn’t win) here. Actually, if you look at it, I started fully half the nominees, and have done work for the winner— hey, Audarshia, if you’re taking a vacation any time, I got ya covered…

Food trucks may be all the rage, but I’d like to put in a word for someone putting down food roots: Art Jackson, his wife Chelsea, her brother Morgan Kalberloh, his brother (Michael, I think), and the various other folks involved in the operation whose front face is Pleasant House Bakery. (They’re the subject of one of the best-of items mentioned above.) There’s a lot more to their whole operation than this modest cafe, but it’s the entry point, and one of my favorite new places to eat lunch, though it took me till yesterday to actually get there with a camera that had a battery in it (oops).

I first heard of Art when he commented on my very first video (here). We emailed back and forth about a subject that I had in mind for a video, urban foraging, and he wound up appearing in my 7th video, Eat This City, opposite forager extraordinaire Nance Klehm:

It was obvious that foraging wasn’t a stunt for Art, a way of punking the city, as it can be, but reflected a deep-felt belief that he should be growing and eating the fruits of his own neighborhood, even if that neighborhood was a gritty urban one like Pilsen. Fast-forward a couple of years, and that’s exactly what Art is doing:

This is Pleasant House the cafe, at 934 W. 31st St. The menu at the moment is short. There are three or four pot pies like the one above, maybe one pasty, some sides like mashed potatoes or, at the moment, English peas with mint, and some housemade sodas (the ginger is pretty great). There are also some English style meat products for sale most days, like bangers or back bacon, made by Darren who writes one of my favorite charcuterie blogs, Low on the Hog. (Bizarrely, he’s been in one of my videos too, albeit briefly— he was working at Leopold when it opened.) Bangers aren’t my favorite as a style, but I really liked the back bacon, if you see that, grab it.

There’s more to Pleasant House than this cafe— indeed, Pleasant House seems to be less a storefront than a state of mind. The name comes from Art’s grandfather’s farm in Yorkshire, but besides serving as the name of Art and Chel’s blog, it’s also come to stand for his parents’ farm west of Chicago, and the rapidly growing networks of vegetable plots on which they grow some of the vegetables they use (which was two when I wrote the Reader piece, but was already up to four by the time I had lunch there yesterday). It’s also their homemade soaps and beauty products, and will grow to include desserts one of these days, and… who knows what’s all in Art’s head, but he clearly has a vision, which he’s pursuing full time, of a sustainable life in which you grow what you use and you use the heck out of what you grow and try to be as self-sustaining with good and beautiful things as possible.

But how’s the food you ask? I’ve tried three of the savory pies. A steak and ale one is fine, but it’s what you expect, nice braised beef and vegetables. I say zip past that conservative choice and try the “chicken balti,” so bright with curry (and the coriander chutney that comes on the side) that just breaking it open released wafts of enticing aroma. But my favorite, indeed probably my favorite vegetarian thing in the city at the moment, is the kale and mushroom, as robust and comfy as a meat pie, but with all the self-congratulatory virtues of leafy green vegetables. A dish like this, and the vision and support system behind it, is what lifts Pleasant House’s savory pies way above the trend du jour (meat loaf, cupcakes) and makes it one of the great things in the city that is changing the way we eat. Eat this city at Pleasant House.

Pleasant House Bakery
934 West 31st Street
(773) 523-7437

http://pleasanthousebakery.com/

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.

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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!