Sky Full of Bacon

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.

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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,

* * *

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, 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…

In the 90s, work took me to New York enough that there was a time when I at least knew the pizza scene (which never impressed me that much) and the deli scene (far better; I never came back without a swing by Zabar’s) and a few other things. But kids came and suddenly leaving one big city to visit another made a lot less sense, so I actually had not been back to New York since, I think, 1998. (That’s me, waving the Statue of Liberty good bye with a bag of lox and bagels under my arm.)

But I had to go there for an award recently, as you may have heard here, and I decided to drag the whole family along. Of course, the big question was, what to eat? Except for deli, maybe, I felt completely out of the scene (is Luchow’s still around?) Needless to say, it was essential that I maximize my time in NYC to the utmost, eating exactly the things most different and unique from whatever I eat here. Expertise in about 10 meals total, that was my goal.

On the other hand, I wasn’t there to drop the big wad and eat fancy-schmancy; why spend college tuition at Per Se when you haven’t even been to Alinea here at home yet? So first off, I wanted a couple of nice, not too expensive meals. The kind of meal for which, in Chicago, I would have suggested Mado a year ago. Which made me think, who better to ask for a Mado-like recommendation than not-that-long-ago-New-York-line-cook Rob Levitt, at The Butcher & Larder?

“We’re always happy at Lupa,” Rob said in his laconic way. So that was dinner our first night, and you know what? I will always be happy at Lupa from now on, too. I get the feeling some New Yorkers consider this longtime entry in the Mario Batali empire to be a bit past its prime, but I couldn’t disagree more— this is the laidback neighborhood restaurant par excellence, as good a meal for around $200 for four as I’ve had anywhere. Warm and inviting, but with an Italian menu seriously devoted to doing great and authentic things and not being afraid of offputting ingredients.

I loved a pasta with bottarga, the slight fishy-brine cast it had. Myles had a flank steak that he declared the best steak he’d ever eaten. Glazed carrots, snap peas with mint and wild mushroom, bacalao turned into an awesome piece of panko-crusted fried fish, a delicately jiggly panna cotta with pineapple soaked in something… everything was simple, superbly executed, singing of its fine ingredients and no froufery.

Rob’s other recommendation that we took, Peasant, was more problematic. On paper it seems a Madoesque no-brainer— simple direct-from-farmer ingredients prepared in a woodfire rotisserie or the like, letting the clean flavor of the ingredients shine.

And things were prepared beautifully— in the sense of being cooked exactly right, to the perfect texture and consistency. The problem was, most of it was just kind of bland. I couldn’t help but think that at Mado, they would have found the sprig of something while it was cooking or the twist of something as it was plated that would have taken it to the next level, but nothing here seemed quite sharpened in that way. Starters were very good— one of burrata and tomatoes, one of calamari in wine and vinegar— but after that, seemed to lose their way, with a pizza of nettles and ricotta, roasted pig, roasted sea bass, and two desserts all kind of lacking something.

And the restaurant seemed to be lacking something, too. That shot of the guy next to the oven may look like your dream of buon’ Italia, but the dining room itself was weirdly cold and a bit unwelcoming, with those damn aluminum Navy chairs from the Design Within Reach catalog, dim lighting (and absurdly tiny type on the menu), a chill in the air I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Service was pleasant but distant— a kind of dipping oil arrived, for the fish I think, and there wasn’t so much as a word about the fact that you might actually want to use it for that purpose (where it helped the fish enormously). Compared to our warm embrace in the bosom of Lupa, this wasn’t one to treasure and remember— and measure Chicago by.

Those were our two high-end meals (my third was at the Beard Awards) but we ate many cheap eats things gleaned from Chowhound and the like, and even I didn’t have this soup dumpling or that pizza like I’d hoped, I felt very good about how many different bases we touched in a very short time and the extremely high batting average of what we ate. Arriving around noon, I needed a place near our Times Square hotel, and if there was nothing great near there that I could find, the diversity of choices along Hell’s Kitchen’s Ninth Avenue strip was pretty exciting. We grabbed our first lunch at Empanada Mama, whose empanadas range from classic to Hot Doug’s-esque (I liked the seafood-based Viagra Empanada; my 9-year-old loved the peanut butter and banana Elvis Empanada). Only an arepa, with which you could have won a Stanley Cup, disappointed. (We would have a much better arepa at an otherwise okay roasted South American chicken place called Farmers Rotisserie Chicken.)

The much better arepa from Farmers.

I heard that Zabar’s had a cafe now, so for breakfast before the American Museum of Natural History (good new dinosaur exhibits, some unique things, but overall I’d give the Field the nod, especially for having more spacious dinosaur halls and much better direction/signage), we popped in there. Turns out the cafe is basically aimed at getting commuters in and out; they won’t really make you a bagel and lox fresh, and point you to a refrigerator case where a premade bagel and lox is sitting there getting cold and rubbery.

Not the refrigerator case in the cafe.

I did not return to Zabar’s after close to 15 years to have an experience like the cafeteria in a highway rest stop. Quickly, I figured out how to force a decent experience that would work for breakfast with no means of, say, spreading cream cheese. I ordered the requisite number of bagels, fresh, sliced, with cream cheese. We took them and then I went next door to order lox by the pound. Here, instead of the impersonal rush of the cafe, we enjoyed the full Zabar’s experience, the deli guys sweet-talking 85-year-old ladies and Dominican nannies in their inimitable way (“Dolling, have some sable, just for you I cut this because you’re so beautiful”). It’s one of my favorite places on this earth, for me the essence of what the big city, the urban and urbane, deeply Jewish big city I read about in Mad promised to a Catholic kid in Kansas. I have been away from you too long, Zabar’s, but I have never forgotten you. We put our ethereally supple belly lox on our bagels and sat in the park watching dogs go by. It was one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had.

The high end burger craze has hit New York like everywhere else and Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack seems to be the one that everyone has fallen in love with. I hadn’t planned to make a special trip there, but when we came out of the museum at about 12:15 and it was right there on the corner, well, the logic with two kids in tow was pretty much inescapable. Maybe we just hit them at an executional off moment, but I was not overly impressed, which is to say, sure, it’s better than hitting a fast food burger, but— you know how somebody will tell you that Oklahoma City finally has a really great French restaurant, and you know it wouldn’t be make the top 50 in New York? Well, the reverse is true, too, with hamburgers. My handformed burger was medium, if medium means the average of one charred side and one nearly raw one; even more strangely, the shakes were not really cold enough and kind of runny. (I will give the deeply crinkly cut fries high marks, though.)

Oh, and one other thing, they say they have Chicago style dogs, but the dog itself is nothing like a Chicago dog— and neither is cutting it in half and frying the insides.

On the other hand, a place that did live up to every bit of its hype was Doughnut Plant. I confess to doubts as I stood in its very slow line and prepared to pay $2.50 per yeast-raised doughnut, while our reservation at the Tenement Museum (fascinating, terrific, reserve your tour in advance) creeped closer. But all doubts went away when we bit into the toothsome, almost brioche-substantial yet light and chewy doughnuts. The creme brulee doughnut, at $3.00 for a small little ball with an admittedly excellent custard inside and a crisp crust on top, seems more like a gimmick, but the straight up doughnut was worth every penny of its ridiculous price, assuming that you’d pay $2.50 for what might well be the best doughnut you’ll ever have in your life.

Doughnut Plant was, truth be told, our second breakfast that morning; the first was a newly opened little place we spotted just down the street from our hotel on 49th between 8th and 9th called Donna Bell’s, a Southern bakery with things like crusty drop biscuits. Not sure I’d go a long way out of my way for them, but we certainly enjoyed finding something so down home Southern in the middle of Manhattan, and they seemed very eager for us to enjoy their products.

With two breakfasts in tow and dinner at Peasant not that far away, we just needed a snack for lunch. I had printed out this Chowhound guide to a post-Tenement Museum Chinatown tour, and took the first advice on it: chive dumplings at tiny, grungy Prosperity Dumpling, along with two orders of scallion pancake (more like focaccia, but whatever), for a whopping $4. These would be great cheap eats anywhere but especially in Manhattan, wonderfully flavorful dumplings fresh off the wok and swimming in grease. Yum!

NYC Chinese food was something I wanted to sample, and so was Japanese food; since my meal at Sankyu, especially, I’ve been really interested in trying Japanese places that offer something other than the typical American-Japanese restaurant fare. Unfortunately, with so many of them hot tickets to get into (like Ippudo for ramen), I didn’t have much hope of being in the right place at the right time with family in tow and patient enough to put up with the wait. (For the same reason, I didn’t even mess with the whole Momofuku empire and the gyrations required to get into any of its places.)

But after the Beard awards, the group I was with (Reader editor Mara Shalhoup’s Atlanta friends, mostly) suggested that if everybody wasn’t completely full, maybe we could pop by for a late snack and drinks at Yakitori Totto, a popular Japanese bar-restaurant located on a second floor in Midtown which I had jotted down as one I hoped to try… yes I said yes I said yes. It took a lot of standing around and phoning other restaurants while we waited, but thankfully none of them could take us and Yakitori Totto finally did and so, at midnight, we placed a hurried last call order and sat down with, in my case, a shochu-yuzu jam cocktail.

Most of the food comes from a tiny grill where a single cook keeps flipping skewers— everything from the expected pork and chicken to shisito peppers and something made from ground rice turned into a sticky ball on a stick. Add a couple of bowls of fantastic savory congee-type porridges and this was a great meal in a kinda hipster, kinda divey late-night atmosphere. If there was a place like this in Chicago I’d become an alcoholic just to hang out there every night. Or a yakuza.

Finally, one of the places I was absolutely going to visit, no matter what, was Russ & Daughters, legendary for its sturgeon. Even if it was Mother’s Day, and Sunday morning, and it was going to be absolutely packed:

I left the kids outside to fend for themselves with a couple of black and white cookies; taking a cue from the Tenement Museum the day before, they immediately declared themselves to be orphaned street urchins. But they were still there when I came out, and hadn’t joined the Dead Rabbits or some other alley gang, so I guess everything was okay.

Now, Russ & Daughters is famous for sturgeon. It was good, the lox was good, but I didn’t love it more than Zabar’s. The sturgeon, in particular, seemed like it didn’t quite have the meatiness of sturgeon I’ve had elsewhere. A nice place, lots of character, but Zabar’s remains my love.

Except… I never had the sturgeon.

I think. I just discovered this looking at their website. What we ate as “sturgeon” had a distinct orange cast from seasoning (paprika?) on the outside. I don’t see that here, on the sturgeon. But I see it here… on the sable. I’m 98% sure that he cut me sable, not sturgeon (and hopefully charged me the sable price).

Jesus, now I have to get nominated for another Beard award next year and have the sturgeon.

So, fantastic eating in four days, covering the globe from South America to Eastern Europe to Japan. Several things that were arguably the best of their genre that I had ever eaten, or top 5 material at least. Does that mean New York is better than Chicago? I don’t think of it that way; both are capitols of eating. But what it does show is how you can zero in on the really great stuff in a distant city these days, thanks to the internet and all the food content on it. That’s why we all do this stuff, that I was lucky enough to win an award for.

Permanently behind the times on new movies now, I watched Julie and Julia courtesy of a Starz preview a couple of nights ago. Streep was a hoot, a caricature of Child that nonetheless captured the woman bursting with life in a Muppet’s voice; as her husband, the normally sharp Stanley Tucci was so sweet and supportive you eventually wanted to smack him with a hammer (he also looks too Hollywood-fit for 1946); while Amy Adams and Guy Who Played Her Husband struggled to have more to their characters than the sloppily-dressed slacker couple in a cellular phone commercial. (I’m a blogger! Can you hear me now?) Still, this was better, and more likable, than I expected, even ever so slightly formally inventive for second-generation chick flick auteur Nora Ephron (whose parents wrote Desk Set for Tracy and Hepburn back in Julia Child’s day).

By giving us a lush 1950s story and a much more cramped and neurotic modern parallel, it’s basically a deconstruction of one chick flick subgenre, the career gal movie. Back in the day, a career gal movie was about a young woman who goes to New York, pursues a career and independence in some field open to women like magazine publishing and advertising, fends off some powerful but married wolf, and winds up happily ever after with some lesser hunk of 1950s actorly cheese. (The masterpiece of the genre, of course, is The Apartment. This is of course because it transcends the genre with a career that sucks, a wolf who isn’t fended off, and an ending that only barely manages to seem happy.)

But Ephron, aiming at a better educated female audience than the latest Matthew McConnaughy rom-com, switches the tables around. Both Julie and Julia are married as the movie begins; the real prize at the end is something a mere husband pales next to— a book contract. (I will assume that spoilers are by definition impossible with this movie.) So this is a romance about two women groping their way toward the greatest of all loves, of an author for her name on the cover of a book.

Except one of them is reading and cooking from the life of the other— so one is basically living in a movie which the other is watching. (They can never meet on the same temporal plane, of course, not least because Child lived long enough to sniff disdainfully at Powell’s blog— accurately, to judge by the banal excerpts we hear or read onscreen.) Julia and Paul Child live in a Paris where there’s room to park a motorboat of an American car, buy whole fish at the market in gloves and pearls, and throw parties in your vast apartment managed by a smiling, welcoming concierge. That they may have actually lived this life (except for the welcoming Parisian concierge, a detail I refuse to believe) doesn’t make it any less movie-like, and as fantasy Europes go, it’s as confected and irresistible as Mary Poppins’ London. There is some modest struggle for Julia in getting to her consummation with a publisher, but basically, the movie Julia Child goes through life like a parade float.

Where Julie has all the struggles of the modern caricature— a comically dilapidated Queens apartment, comically awful more-successful friends who use cell phones at the table, a comical encounter with live lobsters. (All credit to Amy Adams for whatever real feeling she can bring to this sitcom life.) The blog will be her way out, and frankly given Hollywood’s typical portrait of technology (all those high tech intelligence agencies still using c. 1988 green screen monitors that type one letter at a time) I feared how badly this movie would get blogging.

Not badly at all, actually. There’s an early scene which exists only to explain what blogging is in the simplest of terms to the older ladies in the audience, but once she’s online, the details seem pretty right. The problem I had was with the purpose the movie purports for the blog— which is to provide a new way in which someone whose pathway from editor of the Amherst literary journal to authorial fame had flamed out can mount a sideways assault on the publishing world.

And so while Julie’s rise is tallied in terms of her readers (“I got 55 comments today! From people I didn’t know!”), what’s dramatized are her encounters with the institutions of the New York publishing world— Child’s own editor Judith Jones (who jilts her), The New York Times (via Amanda Hesser, who comes to dinner playing herself), and finally, an orgasmic cascade of phone messages from big media brand names, Simon & Schuster and Food Network, this movie’s equivalent of the montage in an old musical in which we see the marquees of Alice Faye’s hit shows (“Lois Lovely in Damaged Woman… Lois Lovely in Hearts Over Montana… Lois Lovely in A Kiss For Princess Maria”).

Although plenty of people blog to get a book deal (or even, I’ve heard, to help attract freelance writing and videomaking gigs), by focusing all of Julie’s attention upward toward bigger fish in the New York media pond, her story ultimately misses all the other cultural shifts and implications of blogging in the course of leading her to the exact same publishing climax Julia Child (or Shirley Maclaine or Doris Day or whoever) would have enjoyed 50 years earlier. Some readers send her food items, but there’s no sense of bloggy interaction with her readership; she never learns better from them how to pull off a technique in Child’s book, she certainly never invites a learned reader to join in any of the meals she makes for her same batch of old, pre-internet real world friends. (The real Julie in fact did have events to which readers were invited.)

In short, there’s no sense that blogging might not be a way to crack the old media world so much as a way to get around it— to build your own audience free of media gatekeepers and editorial interference, a new form of communication entirely in which writers and readers interact. For the movie Powell, there’s nothing about blogging that wasn’t true about using your trust fund to publish a “little magazine” in Greenwich Village back in the day— it’s just a way to try out for the only show that matters, the big publishing show in midtown Manhattan.  The irony is that Julia Child, who found herself in Paris and became famous in Boston, is less parochial in the 1950s than the woman who has the whole internet at her fingertips in the early 2000s— but never once thinks that if she hates her tiny apartment over a pizza parlor and her careerist friends, maybe she could try Portland, say, and do her blog just as well from there.  Julie and Julia offers a curious picture of the evolving media landscape in which you can now publish yourself to the whole world— but you still have to do it from the 212 area code to be anybody, just like in Shirley Maclaine’s day.