Sky Full of Bacon


(Can I really be the first person to use that headline in regards to Maude’s Liquor Bar? Where has our educational system failed?)

When I interviewed Jared Van Camp of Old Town Social last summer for my week’s stint at Grub Street, he mentioned that a number of restaurant groups had a French-flavored place in the planning stages. I’m not sure which he was necessarily referring to but suddenly we have buzz about three of them— Maude’s Liquor Bar, Paris Club (the revamping of Brasserie Jo), and Grant Achatz doing fin-de-siecle Paris as the first concept at Next. (You could probably add the Belgian Leopold as close enough, too.) It’s not hard to understand why French food would be the next place to turn for small-plates eating and drinking concepts— if any cuisine is ready to be liberated from stuffy fine dining practices, it’s French. So Maude’s, under Chef Jeff Pikus (an Alinea alum, not that there’s much sign of that on Maude’s menu) presents us with French food refracted through the American gastropub trend, with lots of emphasis on cocktails and pork— neither, of course, out of character for Gallic dining. The result, though, seemed more successful the closer it hewed to classic French food, and the less so the closer it got to greasy, porky American gastropub food.

I will say that I was charmed by the room, the moreso as I was slightly expecting to find it too cool for school. It’s as dark as Girl & The Goat across the street, but where that seems cavernous, this was intimate and a little funky, white tiles around the bar, a thrift-shop mismatch of lighting fixtures and eclectic comfy seating. The effect is not so much of a literal evocation of France as of later caricatures of the fin-de-siecle period; it’s a little like being inside the curlicues and squiggles of a drawing by Ronald Searle.

There’s a drink menu of wines, beers and liquors by brand name, but you probably want to hunt out the cocktail list on the back of the food menu. There’s a short list of classic cocktails and then their own collection of “smashes,” drinks muddled much like a mint julep, though the fact that they don’t actually tell you anything beyond the names makes these something of a crapshoot. But someone had liked the Smokey Violet, which I ordered to find that it was neither smokey nor violet but, indeed, green and minty as a julep. (I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that I was given the wrong drink, but since no precise description of the drinks exist, it’s impossible to know for sure.) Kristina Meyer in The Reader said the drinks all tended toward the sweet side, and that was the case here, but I thought it (whatever it was) was a complex and highly refreshing drink. What might be of more concern, though, is that it didn’t seem very alcoholic. Not that I’m looking for a particularly stiff belt, but in February, I’m not exactly looking for the sort of mild, summery drink that goes with sitting on the open-air patio and knocking back five of them with little effect, either.

There was a special of a trotter (pig’s foot) stuffed with sweetbreads and mushrooms, so we ordered that and a cassoulet; brussel sprouts and frites as sides; and a lyonnaise salad. First let me praise the best things; the frites, fried in an oil mixture including pork lard, were terrific, and the brussels sprouts, quite huge by the way, were served in a meaty broth which accented their bitter char, and were excellent.

The lyonnaise salad was, I thought, fairly good. All frisee, it reminded me of the director Lawrence Kasdan’s long-ago comment that eating sprouts was like going down on an alien. But the flavor of the tart bacon dressing on the greens was very well balanced. I’m not sure it was an improvement to serve the lardons as three whole slabs of grilled pork belly, and it definitely wasn’t one to serve an allegedly soft-boiled egg on top which had barely any liquid left in its center. This wasn’t a bad version of a classic dish, but it was one that fixed parts of it that weren’t broken.

The cassoulet… we were divided at our table over this. My companion thought it was a bad cassoulet, I thought it was a pretty good bean dish saddled with a name that promised too much. Cassoulet seems to be a problem for restaurants; nobody wants to do it the hard, two-day way, so they come up with various methods for cooking the parts separately. (My friend Kennyz, for one, prefers this, since the beans aren’t turned to mush in the process.) I’ve had some where the flavors melded beautifully (The Southern) and some where the ingredients seem to have met each other for the first time on my plate seconds earlier (Hot Chocolate, long ago) and some where the meats seemed kind of separate but had so much robust individual flavor it hardly mattered (Leopold a couple of weeks ago). As cassoulets go, this one was pretty good navy bean soup, by which I mean, the beans and the pork (shank, to judge by the look and the gelatiney shimmer) had melded together beautifully, but the dish stopped there, halfway to the variety of tastes and textures that is cassoulet to me. Next to Leopold’s, which had a robust sausage and a savory hunk of rabbit (understudying for duck), this was just ham and beans. (Note: Since Heather Shouse refers to the cassoulet as “sausage-studded,” it must change regularly, as ours was most certainly sausage-impotent.)

And then there was the trotter, which had been praised by some at LTHForum but was, for both of us, a disaster. Below the shank there’s virtually no meat on a pig’s foot; it’s all gelatine. So stuff the skin with sweetbreads and all you’ve created is a turducken-like monstrosity which functions as a delivery system for vast amounts of greasiness, sealed in by the skin. And even if that were appetizing, there was something bitter and antagonistic about the broth that the sweetbreads and the chunks of hen of the woods mushroom were swimming in, that made it hard to even nibble on the parts. This seemed to be filling a American gastropub slot for porcine excess that was certainly alien to the way pork is eaten in in France— except perhaps in the kind of overblown, Bocuse d’Or-ian stunt cooking where you sculpt some dead creature into an unnatural shape, and how it tastes is largely irrelevant.

One problem, that may not have been fatal to the trotter but surely didn’t help, was that it came at the very end. I’m about ready to rebel against the whole way small plates are being served in this town, the “order everything at the beginning and we’ll bring it to you as it’s ready” way of doing things, because I think chefs are shooting themselves in the foot for the sake of logistical convenience. The order of our dishes was the fries first (so they accompanied nothing and filled us up quickly), the brussel sprouts (likewise a side dish without a main), the cassoulet, the salad (at least that had some resemblance to the French practice of eating salad after the entree)— and then the grease bomb. Almost none of this was in an order that made for a satisfying flow of dishes; we started out snacking on fries like teenagers and ended stuffing ourselves with entire pig parts like Mr. Creosote. (Or would have, if we’d finished much of it.)

At the end of it my dining companion said that if he returned, he would stick to something straightforward like steak and frites, and probably be happy; the kitchen did a mostly fine job on the things that were simple like the brussels sprouts (really, one of the best vegetable dishes I’ve had in a while, and calling it simple is not meant to damn it with faint praise), but was led astray by attempts at modern gastropubbby reinterpretations like the trotter, which were just too much and too off-kilter in conception. For all that, and despite the pain of the most expensive dish being the biggest flop, I liked Maude’s overall, a little sophisticated, a little comfy, a little decadent, a lot porky (for better and worse), and having some sense of its strengths and flaws, I’d order accordingly next time— and hope that the kitchen, surely reeling from being slammed as the hot new place of the moment, will follow its strengths over time, as well.

Here’s the latest Key Ingredient by Julia Thiel and me, which includes a video by me, as it always does, every week, that info’s for you LTHForum:

In other news, set your calendar for a week from Saturday, when Julia and I will be on the Nick Digilio Show on WGN Radio, talking competitive chefs and other stuff.

When Rob and Allie Levitt left Mado to start a butcher shop, I was concerned that we’d lost one of the best restaurants in town (and I mean that in a 2 or 3 at most sense, not an airily wide-ranging sense) and would gain a business that couldn’t make it on volume, was just too specialized. Which just shows that Rob sees more in a piece of meat than I do— literally; one of the first things you notice at The Butcher & Larder is just how many product offerings they can make out of the same carcass. But also, he saw more customers out there who would want that sort of thing and be willing to pay for it, and he was evidently right, to judge by his tweets around Valentine’s Day which were more about what he was out of than what he had.

What’s fascinating to me is how readily a decent-sized customer base has taken to their non-supermarket way of selling stuff— we have what we carved out of the animals we have, and if we don’t have what you came in for, we’ll sell you what we do have and tell you how to make it. I’m sure Mado wasn’t the highest volume local-farmer, nose-to-tail restaurant in town, but no other place impressed upon me so strongly what eating by the seasons and making use of everything you get in really amounted to, and not just because I made a video about them. You saw it in their vegetables, too (alas, something you can’t get at The Butcher & Larder), the simplest treatment of what came from the market this week opening your eyes to the flavors of something like sunchokes or beets in a way that nothing ever had before. Meat palace Mado was also the best vegetable restaurant in town, in my book, because of the respect with which they treated the natural, evanescent goodness in everything.

I was thinking about this as I sat down to lunch at The Butcher & Larder:

This was beer-braised pork shoulder. And what’s funny about it is how little Rob evidently cares about the trappings of contemporary dining versus simply doing the right thing by meat. If you got a sandwich like this at another locavorish kind of place— City Provisions, say— you’d get some arty little crispy chips with it, or you’d order a side of beet salad, or something. Or there would at least be some fancy toppings on it, a little shaved fennel pickled in red wine vinegar. They’d make a nice-looking combo out of it. At The Butcher & Larder, you get a generic bag of supermarket potato chips and a pop, just like you’d get at some sub place on the south side. I can’t help but think there will be Yelp reviews shortly getting indignant about this, wondering why there aren’t truffle chips like at Grahamwich. But then you bite into the sandwich… and the cares of the world, the jostling and striving, melt away. It’s just pure porkerifficness, bathed in beer and a few spices, but most of all, in the time to do it right.

As at Mado, Rob Levitt believes you either get it or you don’t, and if you don’t, there’s somewhere else out there for you, and someone else out there waiting to buy from him.

* * *

I have a The Butcher & Larder problem, though. Which is that for years I have casually referred to Paulina Market as the Greatest Butcher Shop in the Universe. And I’ve lived here for 20+ years without ever once having to contemplate a rival for the title.

Of course, the world is a big place with many different things, and there’s no reason that I have to choose between two such different businesses, just because they sell roughly the same thing. Paulina was an old-school German meat market, back when that’s what my neighborhood was, that successfully escaped being pigeonholed as an ethnic market and made the jump to simply being a superior meat market for those who were savvy enough to know that when you wanted a steak to cook out, you didn’t go to the Jewels, you went to Paulina.

And I’ve gone to Paulina for decades, and taken my kids who they’ve watched grow up (and who eagerly look forward to free samples of bologna— I avoided bologna for 20 years, but if you want to know how good the most routine of lunchmeats can be, go to Paulina and try what they make in house). Now, along the way I’ve obviously become conscious like many people of the issues involved in how meat is raised, and I’m a big partisan of non-industrial pork and a somewhat more qualified one of artisanal beef. So to some extent I’ve followed my values to buying more meat from the farmer’s markets and the like.

But those aren’t my only values; I also have ones about supporting ethnic diversity in Chicago, and patronizing businesses that come to know their customers, and spending my money at places that do things the right way because they’ve always done things the right way. And so every week I go to Paulina for some of the things that they make in an old-school, non-industrialized, real ingredients kind of way: their bologna, their baked ham, their summer sausage, their hot dogs. What Rob Levitt had to rediscover and reintroduce to his customers on one side of the great mass industrialization of American food, they’ve been keeping alive from the other side, from before it happened.

I sent a friend a couple of recipes for things I’ve been making from what they offer at Paulina for literally two decades now. They barely qualify as recipes, they’re so simple, and Paulina does the hard work in both cases. But they’re both great winter meals that you’ll be glad you added to your repertoire.

Simplified Choucroute Garni For a Busy Night

6 Paulina Thuringer sausages (they’re precooked, fyi)
1 container Paulina sauerkraut
2 lbs. small red potatoes

Cut potatoes in half, cut sausages in thirds. Dump kraut in big stockpot, mix potatoes and sausages into kraut, pour enough water to 2/3 cover it all. Sprinkle with pepper (no salt, there’s plenty in the kraut). Heat with lid on until potatoes are soft, stirring it around carefully to mix what’s on top down into the bottom from time to time. Serve with a dab of brown mustard on the side.

Split Pea Soup With Paulina Ham Hock

1 Paulina ham hock aka pork shank
1 or 1-1/2 packages of split peas, or navy beans, or canned chickpeas
1 medium onion
1 carrot

Dice carrot and onion, doesn’t have to be too fine. Cover hamhock and vegetables with water in a stockpot or dutch oven. Simmer for an hour or two. Add split peas or beans and cook till soft (obviously, if you use dried beans, use the appropriate process to soften them up first; split peas will soften in about an hour or so).

Take hamhock out and let cool while you puree soup. Cut band of skin off hock and start hunting for the pieces of meat hidden inside, cutting or scraping away big hunks of fat; dice meat and toss it back in the soup. Give them another 20 minutes to melt out some gelatin and blend flavors. Salt to taste.

The Butcher & Larder
1026 N Milwaukee
Chicago, IL 60642
(773) 687-8280
www.thebutcherandlarder.com

Paulina Market
3501 North Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, IL 60657
(773) 248-6272
www.paulinameatmarket.com

I had a fantastic piece of sashimi the other night, really gorgeous, everything that you could want in a piece of raw fish: supple, creamy, melt-in-your-mouth good, with just the lightest hint of other flavors to accent it and turn it into a composed bite.  I ate at Nabuki, a new sushi restaurant in Hinsdale which both Phil Vettel and Pat Bruno have praised.

Unfortunately, the first sentence in that paragraph has nothing to do with the second.  I bring the first one up because after eating at Nabuki, my dining companion and I were talking about how you tell great sushi from okay sushi, his feeling being that it’s all kind of the same. All I could say was, you know when magic happens, and so you know when you’re just eating raw fish, too.  The magical piece of sashimi was at Perennial, the so-called fish taco.  The fish was ethereal, offering qualities of delicacy and subtlety that no other food could offer, and the tortilla-flavored foam, in addition to being funny (the most proletarian of foodstuffs rendered absurdly precious), was the only thing that could match it for texture and evanescent effect.

By comparison, I had high quality fish at Nabuki, prepared skillfully in what has to be the chicest lounge ever to hit Hinsdale’s quaint-bordering-on-stodgy 1950s-New England downtown. But from the start of our meal (which I should point out was partly comped as a media dinner, though we wound up paying about half of the total, mostly bar tab and full-amount tip), I got the sense of a place holding back, taming down Japanese food (and sugaring it up) for an audience that might freak out at anything that more than dipped its toe into sushi waters.

This is nothing unusual in American sushi restaurants— fat sushi rolls lubed up with mayo and coated with sticky-sweet sauce are sushi to way too many young trendies in places like Wicker Park. But I doubt even the trendiest-shallowest of them in the city would go so far as to assure us that there was no seaweed in the rolls, or to push us to so many items that had no fish stronger or stranger than tuna or salmon on them, or to make a point of assuring us that a special of aji (which is sometimes called “jack mackerel”) didn’t have a mackerel taste. Or to, honest to God, make sure we knew that sashimi was raw fish before we made the ghastly mistake of ordering any. (This after we were self-identified as media, and thus presumably somewhat experienced in eating things beyond Hot Pockets.) Hinsdale may be a wealthily conservative burb, but I assume these people do travel and eat out in the city, do they really need this level of handholding? Are they really that prone to flipping out in terror and going running down the street, past The Gap and Yankee Peddler, if their lips touch nori or taste the fishiness of mackerel? In 2011? I don’t believe it.

It’s too bad because there is potential here, even if I’m obviously a lot less forgiving of this underestimation of their audience than Vettel (“The deluxe sashimi platter is $25 but worth it for the high-quality fish; it would be better with more adventurous fish choices, but Nabuki is, at 3 months old, still learning what its audience will tolerate”). The aji was a presentation stunner (that’s it at the top) and also the best thing we had, a meaty fish in a citrusy soy sauce. A bit too much citrus to my taste, maybe covering up the fish’s own very mild taste, but within reason and not oversweet. In the middle of it was speared a smoked fish, which we were invited to nibble on as well; maybe it’s an encouraging sign that the special was by far the most exotic thing we would see all night. Develop ten more like it and kill an equivalent number of things on the current menu, and maybe…

By comparison, the rolls were in no danger of causing overexcitement. One from the specials menu— escolar seasoned with what almost tasted like Cajun blackening spice, and torch-cooked— was just kind of strange, but went over well enough, and wasn’t candied up. Another, though, was safe to the point of tedium— the most conservative and generic fishes (tuna and salmon) with nothing like nori to provide contrast, as drizzled with gooey stuff as a coffee cake (which it, indeed, resembled).  That’s the problem with taking one item out of the basic structure of an Asian dish because it might be too weird for some people— you’ve taken out its backbone, the piece that gave everything else character and definition.

And the entrees we had were so safe they should have been plated on orange reflector vests. A tuna tartare with avocado and caviar (which is to say, tobiko, not beluga) was, again, stunningly plated, but just as stunningly devoid of flavor— too much avocado, a mushy baby-food texture, a little heat but no salty bite from the “caviar,” again with the sweetness on the chips. This was a gorgeous plate with nothing upstairs; I kept searching it for flavor like a private eye rifling a file cabinet. A filet, supposedly marinated in wasabi (all but undetectable), was, if you looked at it out of context, a very well-crafted dish— a perfect tender medium-rare with a blackened exterior, atop a pile of mashed sweet potato with a veal stock around it. It was just as good when I had it at any upscale American or Italian or Continental restaurant in Chicago in 1993; what was supposed to make this very standard, something less than contemporary American dish at all Japanese was a mystery to me. Maybe it’s what Japanese golfers order when they play the Hinsdale Country Club.

The irony is that there are quite authentic Japanese restaurants not very far away at all in the suburbs— at least considering what I drove to get here, I wouldn’t regard Sakuma in Streamwood as all that far away, to name one— but this one seems philosophically aimed about as far away as it could be from them. Maybe there’s an audience in Hinsdale for this and it’s aimed squarely at local tastes, but I like to think that the crowd spending this amount of money— and it’s priced fully for the quality of ingredients used— has the experience and the taste to want more. I’d like to think that what its audience won’t tolerate is the potential of fine ingredients— or a capable chef— being lost amid sugar and timidity.

Nabuki
18 East 1st Street
Hinsdale, IL 60521
(630) 654-8880

Here’s my dining companion’s considerably mellower take.

You’ll see why the title, when you watch this week’s Key Ingredient, featuring Jason McLeod of Ria/Balsan, and the stinky ingredient asafetida:

Tell me this doesn’t ring a bell: you’re driving in the middle of central Texas and you spot a beatup old roadhouse. You go inside and there’s a tough-looking crowd at the bar. They eye you as you take a seat, but the blonde waitress is friendly and cheerful, so you figure it will be all right. You order a beer off their list of handcrafted regional microbrews, and start looking at the menu— and there’s lamb spiedini and short rib agnolotti and all kinds of authentic Italian food. Knocking back the first sip of your dry-hopped Belgian-style ale, you think, yup, I picked a good ‘un this time.

What? You’ve never run across the authentically Italian shitkicker bars of central Texas?  The ones with great beer lists?  Well, yeah, you wouldn’t, because no such thing exists, at least outside of Three Aces on Taylor Street.  Only this particular moment could have produced it— the head-on collision on a country road late at night between trendy Mediterranean-influenced dining and the desire to escape white tablecloth dining strictures and kick back. Big Star plopped Bakersfield beer and taco joint into Wicker Park, but ultimately, with its minimalist gray walls and Bill Evans on vinyl, it’s about as lowdown as the faculty lounge at Chico. Three Aces has rough wooden walls and a dark look and the feel of a place where you could authentically get your ass kicked, but then in the back, there’s a chef— Matt Troost, who tantalized us with a brief tenure at Fianco (see my interview with him here)— turning out small plates of exquisitely handmade Italian food to wash down with your Three Floyds or Bell’s.

And the food is very good. Duck fat chips were delicate and compulsive to eat, with just a hint of animal-ness to remind you they were no ordinary chip. A grilled salad of romaine lightly inflected with anchovy and ricotta couldn’t have been cleaner and simpler tasting, but gorgeous. Short rib agnolotti, though they were cooked a little too al dente for my taste, were comfily satisfying, with just a hint of provocation from a vaguely Latin spice. Lamb spiedini— two skewers of ground lamb with an onion confit and housemade stout mustard— were bursting with wild, rangy lamb flavor, although the mustard itself was more bitter than enjoyable (my dining companion had just had a similar thing at Three Floyds which she liked much better).

I was less wild about duck fat confit with jonnycakes in a bourbon syrup; the jonnycakes were overcooked on one side and the whole dish was too sweet. Though the crust on a very thin pizza was nicely bubbly and charred, I thought the porchetta shaved onto it didn’t deliver the porky punch I expected and was somewhat unappealing in rubbery curls of gray meat. Still, the “pizzette” menu seemed extremely well put together and full of novel combinations.

And you might need the pizza, especially if there’s more than one or two of you, because it’s a short menu of small plates and we were scratching around in it by the end looking for a few more things that really appealed to us. Penny Pollack recently asked in an interview, “How many gastro-pubs can you have and how different can one be from another? How much craft beer can you drink? How many BBQ places? How many burger places? How many small-plate places can you have?” I don’t know, how many froufy continental places could we have in 1994, or ’84 or ’54?  How many “Northern Italian” restaurants dishing up caprese salad and angel hair pasta?  Yes, it seems a little cookie-cutter when the latest ampersand place with a pork-heavy menu opens, but fundamentally it’s a great thing that handcrafted cuisine of such quality is so accessible that you can stop in for a beer (an expensive one, admittedly) at a place that looks as neighborhood tavern-y as Three Aces and still have food of the quality that they’re serving here.

At the same time, this is an ambitious menu for a bar but less so for a restaurant, and considering the promise Troost showed at Fianco— which I don’t want to overromanticize; it was more promising than fully accomplished— the short, snack-leaning menu at a faux-Texas bar doesn’t seem as if it’s stretching his abilities to the utmost, or would reward repeated visits just to see what’s happening in the kitchen. At the moment a lot of chefs like Troost are finding success and happiness combining artisanal cuisine with the higher drink margins of the bar business. Being at a profitable Three Aces beats the hell out of watching Fianco close for whatever reasons of not making its numbers, I’m sure. And I didn’t mind the casual atmosphere, and not having to change out of my jeans, a bit (my tolerance for dressing up goes way down when there’s two feet of snow out). But I wonder, a couple of years out from this trend, if chefs like these will be itching to do more for an audience more focused on food than drinking. As likable as these places are, at some point, I think, dining’s going to want to get in its pickup and take a drive back into town.

Three Aces
1321 W. Taylor Street
Chicago, IL 60607
(312) 243-1577

Haven’t done one of these in a while so some of these links are kind of old but still, I think, interesting.

1. I mentioned Kevin’s BBQ Joints the other day when he linked to my old Texas BBQ video, but I really want to call it out further, because barbecue is the food that seems to inspire the most secondary literature, and Kevin is out to link every last bit of it he can find, apparently. Some highlights scrolling down: an interview with John T. Edge picking his favorite BBQ joints (I’ve been to three!), a video from when Smoque first opened, a video about the Texas sensation Snow’s (more or less invented by Texas Monthly), and tons more.

2. Robyn Lee of Serious Eats rages in multiple artistic media against the crappiness of a sandwich. We’ve been there.
3. Michael Nagrant has a really nice piece about a Mexican family who make barbacoa. That’s right, barbacoa, not birria, yes there are other good family Mexican restaurants besides Birrieria Zaragoza.
4. Let private enterprise into space and look what happens: they get silly with cheese in space.
5. Saucisson Mac (who I finally met at Three Floyds) says it all in his title: 2010, The Year in Sausage.
6. Best things from pals at LTHForum in recent weeks: Hammond has an extraterrestrial encounter with cheese, Cathy Lambrecht admires an unknown artist in Dwight, Illinois, and Sharon Bautista had already been to my first suggestions for a new coffee shop, so I found this ringer for her.
7. Cool Korean street vendor making some kind of dessert by spinning honey into thousands of strands by hand (h/t Michael Morowitz):

The new Key Ingredient stars Pat Sheerin 95 floors above Chicago, making stuff out of the stuff that makes beer. Read it here.

A while back somebody asked me how the dishes were and I described the end results of the ones so far. This being the tenth one, I thought I’d recap the first ten, and if it we get to 20, I’ll do it again:

Achatz/Kluwak Kupas: like a fermented chocolate, very nice, nothing strange
Duffy/Chinese Black Beans: very faint black bean taste (that’s why I asked him if he thought he’d merely hidden it), beautiful dessert overall
Des Rosiers/Geraniums: nice preparation overall, but winter dry cleaner geraniums didn’t contribute much flavor. Geranium pesto in spring or summer would surely be better.
Foss/Freeze-Dried Saffron: very clean, almost metallic saffron cutting through everything
Posey/Bull Balls: nice preparation but the meat is very chewy. Nobody liked that, though he certainly made it palatable.
Virant/Spirulina: the lemon and the smoking of the sturgeon really worked to make the nori-like taste of the spirulina seem natural, not muddy. Amazingly good, really.
Zimmerman/Lamb Fat: I have no problem with lamb fat at all and this was a great roasty-tasting savory dish, the one that would move most easily onto the menu for me.
Enyart/Natto: Natto actually doesn’t taste bad, but natto+risotto+raw egg was a pretty mushy, oatmealy texture; what made it not seem old-folksy was the heat. Still, more crunch somewhere probably would have been a good thing.
M. Sheerin/Guaje Seeds: He was right, it did need some acid, but it was nice overall and the earthiness of the guajes and beets was a big reason. What I really loved, though, were those popped guajes on their own. I’d eat a bag of those at the movies.
P. Sheerin/Hops: The hop flavor was a little too bitter for me to make a pleasant dish (though it’d be very interesting at a beer dinner, which he actually mentioned in an outtake). However, I loved the malt risotto. Chewy malt and that chocolatey sort of molé, that was great.

What’s been great about doing this has been seeing how these chefs come up with things, on the fly, that you’d never ever have in a restaurant. Sometimes you feel like every combination has been tried (even bizarre things like chocolate and parsnip, have ‘em once and you’ll see ‘em again somewhere) and yet these dishes, even as I think they often look the same (stuff stacked in a little circular paint stroke of goo), have shown that there are totally new things out there… at least to me.

Thundersnow? How the hell did Chicagoans become afraid of a little thing called Thundersnow? Seeing the grocery stores descended upon by locusts, listening as not only yuppie places like Grahamwich but Manny’s— Manny’s!— called off business today (at least it will be today by the time you read this) because of snow, I thought, who the hell are we, people from Atlanta or Arizona or something? Thundersnow? Wake me when it’s frickin’ Killer Asian Carp Snow. Wimps.

I went out in the snow at 10:30 to walk my dog, and it was exhilarating. (I see that some LTHers reacted the same way, bless ‘em.) I was laughing out loud as we tromped gamely through foot-high drifts, the dog and me. Myles once said admiringly of Buster, “He’s like having a baby brother who’s proud.” The dog, though he has made them more bawdy in their humor, has definitely been a good character influence, demonstrating values of strength, persistence, protectiveness and the importance of maintaining good relations with all family members. So come with me on our walk in the Thundersnow, and we’ll talk about things I haven’t gotten around to posting about.

One thing I noticed at all the stores I went to: the first thing that was out, that was always completely bought out and not to be found at any price, was El Milagro masa tortillas. From which I conclude two things: Mexicans must watch and believe all the disaster hype on TV even more than Anglos do (what are they doing on Spanish stations, positively screaming the ice-death of the world?) And they all have excellent taste in tortillas, because you could find other brands, and even El Milagro flour ones— but the corn ones, acclaimed as the best in town by everyone I know (like Mark Mendez, to name one), were gone. Always.

So for a week or so I thought I was ahead of the curve on this whole Grahamwich thing. I didn’t post a photo essay of a sandwich-free counter at 9 am, no sir; I said what I thought about the photos I saw, then I went and took my own. I liked the place overall. But then, suddenly Julia Kramer of Time Out and Mike Sula of the Reader both dogged the place, which left me wondering— was I too nice? Had I been sucked into Graham Elliot’s reality distortion field and drunk the Kool-aid (well, I did literally drink the orange soda), leaving myself desperately uncool when the media narrative changed from worshipful to scathing?

I scanned their reviews to see how they compared to what I said— Kramer apparently never even tried the shortrib sandwich I had liked, and her potato chips were stale, which was too bad because the ones I had, I loved. Sula did have the shortrib sandwich but by then he was probably already down on the place. So I feel okay about the fact that I liked what I had, within the realm of sandwiches anyway (I sort of think the best sandwich and the worst one are still both somewhere in the middle of cuisine, say ranking somewhere from 3 to 8 on a 10 point scale, in which case, the short rib Grahamwich is a solid 6.75; this is not to diss the genre, sandwiches at lunch have a perfectly respectable place in a balanced lifestyle of culinary peaks and plateaus). I don’t think I was a sellout. I don’t think.

Which, speaking of getting overly self-conscious about what you write and your image and all, brings up another thing that happened. A while back I was contacted by a major food media brand about writing for them. I sent samples and the plan was, I would be sent a test assignment. I waited and never got the test assignment, contract, etc. I inquired. Finally I got back word that it was decided I wasn’t the right fit for the gig— without ever doing the test assignment, or sending them anything else beyond what they’d seen when I did seem like the right fit. Now, I could be reading way too much into this— who knows what could have changed at their end— but I couldn’t help but wonder, did someone finally search their name here and find a few stray, possibly snarkily humorous comments about them? And does that mean if I want work, I should start really watching what I say about such potential employers here? (Should I even be nice to John Mariani, in case Esquire ever calls? Oh god!) Okay, this is the downside of this modern age of blogging, in which all this networking and being a wit happens in cold, subpoenable type instead of over vodka gimlets at 21, where a little clever cattiness came with deniability. But at the same time, this is why anybody calls me at all, because I do stuff here, parade the merchandise in public. Suppress my outspokenness, my real me too much and I won’t intrigue anybody enough to want to hire. So I guess this is the price one occasionally pays… if in fact that had anything to do with it at all, and not a million other possible things, of course.

I paid a second visit last week to Big & Little’s, the little shack in River North (if it’s still River North when you can stand and watch Cabrini Green being demolished a block or two away; what else might it be, Old Town? The Tenderloin, once upon a time?) Last time I had fish and chips, this time a burger and fries. Big & Little’s got some instant LTH love, and in other corners, for being a yellow-awning joint with higher standards; they do some fancy, Hot Doug-y things like serve fries with truffle salt or foie gras on them (literally, a lobe of foie melting into your fries like cheese fries), and generally avoid convenience shortcuts. It’s admirable, and the fries are first rate, but I have to admit, I’m not as blown away as some people are. It’s great that the burger was a handmade patty, but it wasn’t salted all that much (which I think is essential to bringing out a burger patty’s flavor), lettuce took away a lot of its flavor (my fault for assuming “everything” would be 30s style minimalist, not Greek diner style), it just wasn’t raised to a peak of perfection as, say, Edzo’s is. Likewise, fish and chips were good, but not awesomely so. Don’t get me wrong, it’s way above average for a lunch counter joint and well merits the lines that form every day at lunch, over less interesting competitors. But the hype has gotten a little overenthusiastic in my book (and no doubt will even moreso as the GNRs kick up again at LTHForum).

By the same token, I’ll tell you about a little place that also doesn’t rise to the level of an Edzo’s, but deserves more attention than it gets, which is basically zero so far (save the inevitable Yelpers). Slim’s, on Montrose just west of Damen. There’s been a hotdog place in that spot forever— I think when we briefly lived near there during our house renovation, I tried it once and was unimpressed; in those days the place to go was the late lamented Mimi’s— but some new guys took the spot over recently and are trying to offer a cut above the typical Vienna Beef-sign joint, claiming to offer fresh meat burgers, fresh-cut fries, etc. The fries were indeed quite good; I was not quite so sure about the patty being fresh, at least it seemed to be preformed, but on the plus side they really fried it to a nice outer char like a Schoop’s burger, which made it easily 2.8 times better than the typical hot dog joint burger in Chicago. As I say, not a go-wildly-out-of-your-way place, but good to know about for an area whose other choices aren’t especially thrilling.

We turned the corner onto Damen, the dog and me, and our way was blocked by drifts that had blown around the entrance to the bar at the end of the street. So we walked up Damen, car tracks in the snow recapitulating the old streetcar lines…

I thought the dog was wimping out before me, for once, but no, as soon as he got to where our trail had started, he fought being dragged back inside. Sorry, my friend. Time to say goodnight.

Thanks for coming along.