Mindy Segal makes stuff with sorghum syrup in the new Key Ingredient, and as Julia says in the print piece, this could be the first one to actually go on the menu… at least it was on there last week and probably still is.
Is there a Chicago school of haute cuisine? You could make a case for at least two— the Alinea molecular gastronomy one, and (moving down from the hautest hautes) the porky-whole animal one. Neither originated here (the first descends from El Bulli and French Laundry, the second from Fergus Henderson et al.) but they’ve both been taken to here with enough enthusiasm to seem ours.
So for someone like me, who’s been chasing the latter quite enthusiastically for a couple of years now, and come to half-identify it as what fine dining is in 2011, it’s a bit of a shock whenever you find yourself back in the real haute cuisine, the one truly global one— the food of Finedininglandia, taught in the same schools and served to the same international travelers regardless of whether the hotel you’re in happens to be in Orlando or Singapore. Where both of the other styles radiate personal expression and philosophy from the menu, doing for food the Romantic things that Berlioz did for orchestra conducting, Finedininglandia seems to float above any considerations of place or nationality. Its stock in trade, like that of the fast food franchise on the cross-country highway, has been assurance that what you expect to get is exactly what you will get, no matter where you are in the world.
As you may recall, I shot a Key Ingredient video at the Elysian Hotel in between two fairly momentous moments in the history of its two restaurants, Ria and Balsan, which share a kitchen and head chef. The first one was that Ria had been awarded two Michelin stars, putting it in the top ranks of Chicago restaurants. The second was that, just a few weeks later, chef Jason McLeod “left.” The initial rumor about that was that the Elysian was in trouble and had to cut costs in many areas; the second was that sous chef Danny Grant had been the real star all along (if the hotel was spreading that one to combat the first, it was rather graceless of them). I know exactly what you do about what really happened, which is… nothing.
What was more interesting to me as a question was, was Ria really one of the five best restaurants in Chicago as Michelin would have it? Had it transcended the hotel genre as spectacularly as one of the only other ones at that level, Avenues, with its Alinea-like tasting menus? Or were two Michelin stars in fact the ultimate validation of it as the technically excellent, identity-free restaurant for the traveler who doesn’t want to feel like he’s somewhere?
I couldn’t help suspect, looking at the clubby, sedate dining room in Ria, that it was exactly the sort of internationally anonymous temple of stuffy dining that Michelin would love— and would politely bore me over a very expensive evening. Much more appealing was Balsan, the peppier and more stylish lounge— and part of Ria’s problem drawing crowds may have been that people had discovered that because the same top-drawer kitchen was cooking for both, Balsan was a great value— Ria’s two Michelin stars at a discount.
So I gave Balsan a try with my 12-year-old, who was very excited to get to go out for something so grownup. And you know what? It’s a great restaurant for a hotel. Despite being shoehorned into a weird space with quirks like bathrooms being an elevator ride away— par for the course for hotel dining— it’s a chic, intimately comfortable little room full of energy (even when it’s not full of people). And the food, as much as the menu seemed driven by Finedininglandia’s something-for-everyone ethos (there’s housemade charcuterie and a wood-burning oven for pizzas and a raw bar and small plates and entrees and a hamburger if all else fails), was always expert, and once or twice even personable.
My son was out to try things he’d only heard of before, so we started with a torchon of foie gras, served with housemade grainy mustard (which I thought fell a nudge shy of full flavor) and a chunk of local honeycomb. Next we had what, in retrospect, could easily make a meal of budget chic for someone on a date— the tarte flambee from the wood-burning oven. With housemade bacon, a great nutty gruyere from Uplands in Wisconsin (points for buying regional) and the kiss of wood smoke, this was one of the best “pizzas” I’ve had in years, a welcome sight the next day in the fridge:
Two small plate choices— not that small in either case— followed, both more like doubles than home runs, and just enough shy of perfection to make one wonder if the kitchen was too big for one chef to oversee at a truly exceptional, multiple-Michelin-star level. Gnocchi with Asian mushrooms was the better one, but the gnocchi, aiming for soft and velvety, came perilously close to mushy:
I loved the octopus in an octopus salad— almost as much as I loved the fact that my son wanted to try octopus— and it was prepared beautifully, with a hint of char, but the salad around it was a bit overdressed with its tart dressing. I was happier eating the octopus out of it, and not letting the salad sting my tongue.
We finished with the hanger steak off the large plates, a somewhat hidebound old classic but beautifully done, mineral-tangy beef with a nice char, parsley butter and a heaping pile of fresh-cut fries (slightly dried out, it seemed, to the texture of steak fries; not sure if that was just life under a heat lamp or a deliberate effect to distinguish their fries from a hot dog joint’s).
So a very creditable meal, certainly, if one whose personality had only poked through once or twice. Would I rank it in the top 5 restaurant experiences to be had in town? No, because I’m looking for personality and daring and this meal had only flirted with such things. Grant’s background includes a stint at North Pond, and he professes (see this interview) a farm-to-table philosophy which I can believe based on certain things (such as the hanger steak), but which I nevertheless came to feel is somewhat hidden from the average patron.
But would I recommend it for someone looking for a swank night out? Without hesitation; its best was very good indeed, its low points were only the most modest of dips, its atmosphere felt very big city, its bill didn’t leave me feeling like I’d paid the Hotel Dining Sucker Tax. And then…
I knew nothing— still don’t— about the pastry chef at Ria/Balsan. (No, wait, I know her name, Stephanie; Jason McLeod said it toward the end of the Key Ingredient video.) But Stephanie, whoever you are, you’re like animal acts in vaudeville— no act is good enough to be on the same bill with you and not be at least a little bit overshadowed. We had two of Stephanie’s desserts and they were both eyes-wide-open, oh-my-god good. One was that wonder-turned-cliché of 20 years ago, the molten-center chocolate cake. I would have called it a sign of desperation on the menu if I hadn’t tasted it, because what made this one was the ice cream that went with it, a little football of milk stout ice cream. The beer funk balanced the dark chocolate beautifully, jolting new life into 1992’s favorite dessert.
The other was what’s apparently their signature, the Paris Brest. I have no idea what the name means (wouldn’t that be a train, Paris to Brest on the coast of Brittany?) but the dessert is an eclair shaped sort of like a bagel and filled with a toffee-ish cream with little crunchy bits of something. And it’s wonderful, just wonderful, like biting into a toffee cloud.
Okay, I just Googled it and it’s a fin-de-siecle dessert whose wheel-like shape commemorated a Paris-Brest bicycle race. A praline-flavored bicycle tire. God, no wonder Michelin loved this kitchen’s food.
I was excited about a barbecue place opening a walkable distance (not the most pleasant walk in the city of Chicago, perhaps, but technically possible) from my house. But before I could act on my excitement, the reviews for Pork Shoppe started pouring in. LTHers struggled to be kind; Heather Shouse in Time Out felt no such need. I passed it often, and passed on it, regretfully, last fall.
But I didn’t do so because I believed that the last word had been spoken. The one thing that everybody had praised guardedly— a pork belly pastrami, inexplicably served cold— was different enough to make me think that there could be potential in this place down the line; if any food has a learning curve, it’s slow-smoked barbecue. Finally the day to check in at Pork Shoppe arrived at the beginning of February.
I’ve been back twice since.
Is this the greatest barbecue place in Chicago? No, but it’s significantly better and more consistent than the place described last fall must have been, with enough unique things about it that it’s well worth giving another chance (the last LTH post was in December; only three out of more than 100 have been since August). The kitchen seems to have gained in skill, and they also seem to have listened to the criticism— since for one thing, you’re now asked if you’d like the pork belly pastrami warm or cold. (I still don’t understand why it’s even a question with a meat this fatty.) Such determination to learn and improve deserves reward in the form of a second chance.
The most interesting thing is definitely the pork belly pastrami, though I have to admit, having tried and liked it once, I also kind of felt like I never needed it again; it’s just so fatty and salty that one blast of its voluptuous excess will last a long time in the memory. There’s also beef pastrami, which is to say more conventional pastrami; since pastrami is usually steamed, this has to be smoked long enough to be soft enough to eat, so some may object to the brittle, falling-apart chunks this turns into, which again yield a pretty serious saltiness. On its own terms, I thought this was first-rate, and both of the pastramis show where Pork Shoppe’s commitment to better and more sustainable meats yields a cleaner, meatier taste even under lots of smoke and salt.
A complaint about the regular brisket and pulled pork was that it was soft, a likely consequence of being held after smoking in warming bins (where barbecue kind of steams itself soft). That’s almost inevitable in restaurants— one time at Smoque, Barry Sorkin advised me to wait for a batch coming fresh from the smoker, and that showed what a difference that made even for Smoque’s very good restaurant barbecue, which squares the circle of restaurant practicality with barbecue better than almost anybody’s. When the descriptor “pot roast” is used somewhere in a review, that steaming effect is why. But even the great places in Texas that have ferocious lunchtime turnover sometimes call pot roast to mind (City Market in Luling did, for instance, and so did Black’s in Llano on one of my two visits), and unless you’re absolutely fetishizing ripping meat with your teeth, it’s just not something to get crazy over. The brisket had a rich beefiness that was quite satisfying; I didn’t get a comparable porky bliss out of the pulled pork the one time I tried it, but it was decent, and I’d try it again to see if it was better another day. There’s also a lunchtime special of Texas brisket tacos which I’m going to try one of these days, probably before I get around to trying any more Korean tacos.
Fries are fresh-cut; the cole slaw was described by Kennyz as being like a housewife’s potluck dish, with sweet dressing and fruit in it, which he seems to think is a bad thing, but which I like just fine, as long as you’re not really trying to think of it as cole slaw. There are three sauces, all better and more complex than supermarket sauces; even the medium, let alone the “tangy,” has a fair amount of heat. Service is friendly and welcoming; the location is easily reached once you’ve driven by the line at either Hot Doug’s or Kuma’s and decided there’s no way you’re standing in that. There haven’t been many alternatives in the vicinity before (Burger King doesn’t count), but there is one now.
2755 West Belmont Avenue
Chicago, IL 60618
In what I can comfortably say is the grossest Key Ingredient yet, Cary Taylor of The Southern uses fish eyeballs in a recipe for an oyster stew, and demonstrates a few finer points of butchering your own fish.
Cary had a lot of interesting things to say, not all of which could go into the video, so be sure to read the article which fills in a lot of details as well. (See, there are two parts to these, made by two different people in collaboration. Freaky, I know. Anyway, if you’re wondering WTF this recurring part of these announcements is about, and you won’t be the first by any means, email me for details.)
My sons have done 4H for three years. This despite the fact that we live in the heart of Chicago, which always prompts a chuckle from the auctioneer at the Lake County Fair when we show our lamb (“Not sure what kinda farms they got in Chee-cawger”). But they fell in love with the idea of raising an animal and winning ribbons for it many years ago, and as participants in the 4H program at Wagner Farm in Glenview (the last working farm in Cook County, now run by the park district) we have raised, and yes turned over for slaughter, three lambs, Triskaidekaphobia, Arachnophobia, and Ewe2. (Who was neither a ewe nor our second lamb, but the boys had just discovered rock and roll that year.) You can see some of the history of our experiences raising lambs in these videos— and in the accompanying story about protesters at Wagner Farm; not everybody is happy to keep a little piece of agricultural reality alive in Cook County.
This year they’re going to raise a pig. And because this is qualitatively different from raising a lamb, for reasons some of which will begin to be stated below, and the year promises to have several interesting features to it (including one very interesting guest speaker next month), I’ve decided to keep a chronicle here of our adventures with our pig from now until the fair in at the end of July. To read them all, click the “Our Season of Pig” link under Categories at right. Here’s the first one.
Swine Management 101
“Pigs are better. Pigs are smarter than lambs,” one of the girls in my car says.
“A crust of bread is smarter than a lamb,” another girl says.
We’ve driven so far out of Chicago that we’ve reached the point where towns and farmland alternate, the rhythm of passing KFCs and Merlin’s Muffler shops suddenly opening up to the blankness of the night sky. It’s pitch black at 6:45 pm, which means that not only do I not know where I really am, but wherever I am has all kinds of sinister associations from movies; we are one flat tire away from wandering into the wrong abandoned barn on a moonless night and being killed by the Children of the Corn. Add to this the fact that I don’t even have my own children with me, but someone else’s— for reasons of which boys wanted to all go together, and which girls didn’t— and the “what the hell have I gotten myself into” factor is ranking about as high as the time I lost my mountain-biking partner in the Gooseberry Mesa in Utah. (He later designed this blog, so he must have survived.)
Our destination is Woodstock, Illinois, which in daylight looks exactly like its quaint small-town self in the movie Groundhog Day, but at night is a dark void without feature or especially clear road signage. Finally with the help of a couple of phone calls, we find the McHenry County Fairground and I take the last parking space in the front lot, which requires driving my Prius up a mound of snow and leaving it parked nose in the air at an angle, like a pickup truck in an ad. Which is ironic since it’s about the only vehicle in the entire lot that isn’t a pickup truck. I’ve never felt as much of a fraud in 4H as I do at this moment.
We find the door and enter the large hall, which is painted a shade of green last seen on wood-paneled station wagons, and enter under the watchful eyes of past fair queens.
We are here for Swine Management, which is a required annual course for anyone raising a pig to show at the fairs in the state of Illinois. (There’s also an online test in ethics, which is good for life— not necessarily the most effective choice when it’s being mainly taken at the age of 10. This may explain a lot about the pretty awful state of industrial pork production.) The girls in my car, who’ve taken Swine Management before, have helpfully explained that it is the most BORING thing on earth, and the setup— a Powerpoint presentation given by a man with no P.A. system, who surely can only be heard by half the very large room— seems designed to drive home her point. Nevertheless, the 4H kids do much better than I would expect at paying attention to a fairly arcane agribusiness discussion of historical trends in pig design, selecting pigs for maximum profit, and feeding and caring for them in a way that will score highly with the judges and bring a good price at auction. I find it pretty fascinating too, as most glimpses inside an entirely different way of life are.
When I said pig “design,” I wasn’t exaggerating for comic effect. The first part of the talk is devoted to discussing the changes in pig body types over the years, which are something like the changes in cars over the same period— first round and lardy, then long and streamlined, then shorter and boxier, then more sleekly rounded around the shoulders and back legs. People who are put off by the idea of caring for an animal only to have it killed for meat act as if one day you have a pet and the next you have pork chops, but a discussion like this has nothing to do with pets— this is the pig as industrial product from the very start, selected for its efficiency as one interchangeable part in an industrial process.
Except, of course, in 4H it’s not. These are kids, raising one pig apiece, and I have to think my sons will form a closer and potentially more emotionally upsetting bond with this relatively more intelligent and personable animal than with the lambs who, as mammals go, were about as cold and blank as a lizard. 4H is creating modern farmers (in some kids, anyway, probably not in mine) by harkening back to an older way of farming that can’t really exist profitably any more. Like the ethics test, this one early experience of hands-on, personal animal husbandry will have to last a lifetime.
The protesters at Wagner Farm last year imagined that the kids were ignorant of what would ultimately happen with their animals. But when this slide depicting the inspection of hanging carcasses came up on screen, there was only the slightest murmur rippling through some of the younger kids in the crowd. Pigs are business, pigs are meat, and everyone here knows it, no matter how young they are. That’s the first difference between farm kids and city ones.
After the presentation, we went to the McDonald’s across the street, and the kids hungrily scarfed down the epitome of industrial food while talking eagerly of the season of the pig ahead.
Myles, deliberately making his deranged Children of the Corn face.
Ten years ago an unknown guy named B.R. Myers wrote a scathing article about modern literature, the gist of which was, modern writers have gotten so wrapped up in making beautiful sentences full of poetic (but often repetitive or self-contradictory) imagery that they’ve lost their grip on the whole book— on such trivia as story, character, social observation, etc. He went after nearly all the heavyweight names who came to the forefront since the 1980s— E. Annie Proulx, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Rick Moody, etc. etc.— as well as the incestuous reviewing-workshopping industrial complex they belong to. And the sarcastic spotlight he threw on their excesses could be devastating:
Like Proulx and so many others today, McCarthy relies more on barrages of hit-and-miss verbiage than on careful use of just the right words.
While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)
This may get Hass’s darkly meated heart pumping, but it’s really just bad poetry formatted to exploit the lenient standards of modern prose. The obscurity of who’s will, which has an unfortunate Dr. Seussian ring to it, is meant to bully readers into thinking that the author’s mind operates on a plane higher than their own—a plane where it isn’t ridiculous to eulogize the shifts in a horse’s bowels.
Myers, at the time a thoroughly obscure professor in Korea, was attacked by the literary establishment for being a nobody, which kind of proved one of his points. But his manifesto struck a chord, became a book, and he is now a contributing editor for The Atlantic and the author of a well-received book on North Korea.
What he’s not, however, is a foodie— he’s a vegan. And I think that shows in his attack, a decade later, on foodies, which comes on the heels of a similar foodie shitstorm in The Atlantic a year ago, when Caitlin Flanagan ripped into Alice Waters. Obvious bait as it is (it’s not like Corby Kummer in The Atlantic wasn’t one of the pioneers of exactly this sort of the-best-place-to-get-roasted-hazelnuts-in-Sardinia food porn), let’s take it.
It’s not that many of Myers’ points aren’t true so far as they go— he starts out quoting, and somehow simultaneously agreeing with and disapproving of, Tony Bourdain’s attack on excesses in modern food culture. But on the whole he comes off like one of those mainstream-media liberals like David Weigel put on the conservative beat to parse for readers the difference between thoughtful conservatives and rightwing kooks— but who quickly reveals he doesn’t really believe there is any.
Myers’ distaste for meat-gorging blurs together groups with obvious philosophical differences: the eat-anything gross-outers like Andrew Zimmern, the expense account world travelers like Jeffrey Steingarten, and the earnest sustainable-farming/food-spiritualist types like Michael Pollan. Thus Pollan’s pushing for a better way of raising meat than ugly industrial CAFOs is turned into an elitist gourmand pursuit:
The moral logic in Pollan’s hugely successful book now informs all food writing: the refined palate rejects the taste of factory-farmed meat, of the corn-syrupy junk food that sickens the poor, of frozen fruits and vegetables transported wastefully across oceans—from which it follows that to serve one’s palate is to do right by small farmers, factory-abused cows, Earth itself. This affectation of piety does not keep foodies from vaunting their penchant for obscenely priced meals, for gorging themselves, even for dining on endangered animals—but only rarely is public attention drawn to the contradiction.
If you’re trying to recall exactly on what page of The Omnivore’s Dilemma the contradiction of Pollan eating coelacanth or snow leopard appeared, that’s because it didn’t. Myers brings up the damned ortolans-for-Mitterand’s-last-meal story by Michael Paterniti from 15 years ago as if endangered songbirds turned up as the secret ingredient on Iron Chef every week, but of course that tale— whose point was its rare and utter decadence— is about as far as you can get from Pollan talking about eating more green vegetables and less processed corn. (To be fair, Bourdain brought it up first when he ate ortolans. That makes two ortolan meals in a mere 15 years in print. One more and it’s a trend.) Can he really think foodies haven’t been worrying all this time about how you move better farming practices from a tiny elite subculture to a place in the mainstream marketplace?
Now the equation of eating with worship is often made with a straight face. The mood at a dinner table depends on the quality of food served; if culinary perfection is achieved, the meal becomes downright holy—as we learned from Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), in which a pork dinner is described as feeling “like a ceremony … a secular seder.”
Now? What was a seder for the previous three thousand years if not a meal turned into a religious ritual? Myers simply seems insensible to one of the oldest human urges around eating; it would be like me writing about dance, as incapable as I am of telling one form of running around the stage like third-graders from another. He mocks the idea that the ritualistic killing of meat could have meaning (“Anthropological research, I should perhaps point out, now indicates that Homo sapiens started out as a paltry prey animal… he could at best look forward to furtive boltings of carrion until the day he became meat himself”), as if scientific reality could unravel a myth as central to so many cultures as the sharing of a large roasted beast, one of the main ways humans define and enforce community. He’s aghast at the idea that butchers could be admired citizens, as if no other humble hands-on pursuit of the pre-industrial village has ever been honored by a society numbed by the modern, industrial way of doing the same thing. Tell it to feminist quilt-makers, buddy.
In the end he sits by himself with his rice bowl, denouncing the ebullient feast at the next table over by pronouncing that the foodie’s “single-mindedness… is always a littleness of soul.” Which is one way of denying the good time those people are having, I guess. But to do that he has to reduce all of food writing to one faction, the excess and weird ingredients crowd whom he pictures as solitary grunters at a marble trough:
In Bourdain’s world, diners are as likely to sit solo or at a countertop while chewing their way through “a fucking Everest of shellfish.”
Funny, that’s not how it looks on Bourdain’s TV show, where the exact same meals (Bourdain is very sustainable that way, as any sensible freelance writer should be) are shown as large communal affairs full of people happy to share their culture and cuisine with the gaijin trailed by a TV crew.
I think this piece is unfortunate because if Myers had stuck to the kind of thing he made his name with ten years ago, and not gone off on what is, at bottom, a vegan’s anti-meat rant, there’s a perfectly good case to be made on literary grounds against much of foodieism. He starts to take on the faux-spirituality food crowd, but he seems too repulsed by the whole thing to draw distinctions— there’s a great piece to be written by some post-feminist with the balls to write it about how name-brand women writers like Barbara Kingsolver can respectably take on domestic subjects like food only if they’re cloaked in enough politics of meaning and personal self-fulfillment to not leave you prey to coming off like Debbie Homemaker. He correctly identifies the Hemingwayesque faux-machismo of eating exotic things, too, but doesn’t really delve into it either, because he might have to praise someone like Steven Rinella in The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine, for the lack of affectation with which gourmet food leads him into hunting and fishing subcultures.
In short, there’s a great literary critique to be written that might clear a lot of underbrush in our foodie culture. Get started now, The Atlantic will be looking for another one of these soon enough, I suspect.
As good as Jared van Camp’s dish was in this week’s Key Ingredient, the coolest part was getting to see inside his very expensive, fully HACCP compliant meat curing room, and all the amazing things going on in it. If we could have done smellovision, I would have. You get to see it at the beginning.
By the way, Jared gave Julia and me big hunks of the bacon he made to take home (a most excellent practice I recommend all Key Ingredient chefs follow), and I brought some to WGN Radio for Nick DiGilio to try when we were on his show. You can hear the podcast of our segment, about 35 minutes, here.
To paraphrase Casablanca, “I’m a foodie. That makes me a citizen of the world.” I’ve eaten a fair amount of fancy food lately— my Restaurant Week is the down month of January, you don’t get a discount in prices but you definitely knock off a chunk of the crowds— so it’s now time to return to my peoples, the ethnic cuisine of Chicago. Here’s a few I’ve been to lately, searching for greatness and usually not finding it, but at these prices, you can’t afford not to keep looking:
Mr. Daniels, 5645 W. Belmont
I have a theory that for certain cuisines, inauthenticity is a sign of authenticity. Not for Asian, for instance, but definitely for Eastern European, where the hearty comfort food they’re used to has been infiltrated by all kinds of things from outside— hamburgers, Turkish doner kebabs, curries, Italian food. An Americanized Polish place might serve only obvious Polish food, but when you see a menu like this:
…you know you’re at a place that’s making food for recent immigrants. I was first attracted to this sign by the mention of “nalesniki,” which are basically blintzes, but I’ve never seen that word for them on a Chicago menu before; the only place I’ve heard it is at my mom’s, since her Mennonite grandparents used it. (I thought it was a Ukrainian term for blintzes, the same way she uses “vareniky” for what anyone in Chicago would call a pierogi— her family was German-speaking Mennonites from the Gdansk area who settled for a century or so in the Ukraine.) Anyway, Mr. Daniels’ menu is almost frightening in its cross-cultural eclecticism, ranging from doner kebab (ubiquitous in Europe these days) to hot dogs where “everything” includes mushrooms (that must be a Polish thing) to zapiekanki (which appear to be a sort of pizza bread with what ominously appears to be ketchup on it). It was either going to be great or awful, but memorable in either case, I figured.
Well, maybe if I’d gone for the zapiekanki, it could have been. I ordered a Polish plate special and got a perfectly decent, perfectly average sampler of Polish food— much of which, I suspect, came in 24-packs from A&G Market across the street. It started with what was almost certainly Bobak’s sausage— Bobak’s may be a prominent name on the south side but afficionados don’t rank its Polish sausage very highly, there’s something insubstantial about it, like more filler than meat (that may not literally be true, but it’s how it comes off) and a thick skin that, as this one demonstrated, if you score it and then fry it, produces edges sharp enough to cut yourself on. Then a decent couple of pierogi and cabbage roll, and a cucumber salad that seemed undressed and thus no more exciting than eating raw cucumber. The atmosphere, though clean, was Soviet-despairing. I had hopes for something bizarre enough to make a good post, and it wasn’t even that. Maybe one needs to dive off the Polish platter into the truly weird cross-cultural stuff on the menu, but if you want to be the discoverer of Chicago’s best zapiekanki, be my guest.
Ashkenaz Jewish Style Deli, 12 E. Cedar Street
“When my father dies, the first thing I’ll have to do is call Ashkenaz and order a party tray,” a client of my wife’s often said. Ashkenaz is apparently the gold standard for deli to set out while sitting shiva among Gold Coast Jews— well, gold standard as in “the last authentic place of its kind so you don’t have to order from Treasure Island.” Deli in Chicago usually begins and ends with Manny’s, but there are a few of these other old places still scattered around (back in the 50s and 60s there was a famous and celebrated Ashkenaz in Rogers Park, I honestly don’t know if this is related or not). I think I last ate at Ashkenaz when I was first working in advertising in Chicago, which more than qualifies this post to be installment #5 in “Once Every Ten Years.”
Well, it’s no Manny’s but it isn’t bad at all. It’s a tiny place (didn’t there used to be a KFC next door, or a Wendy’s?) with the usual celebrity photos and other nostalgic stuff tacked on the walls. (Not sure why Sinatra gets such placement in a Jewish restaurant; that would have made for a great “guess the restaurant” at LTH, as people kept guessing old Italian joints.) I went for basic, a corned beef sandwich and a latke. They don’t have so much as a panini press for warming sandwiches, but given apparent limitations, they did a perfectly creditable job with steamed Vienna corned beef and rye bread, though the only brown mustard they had was a sweet-hot kind, which seemed weird. The latke was pretty well made, similar to Manny’s cumulonimbus latkes, but rubbery after being microwaved for dining-in. Service was extremely friendly and welcoming. I wouldn’t go miles out of my way to grab a sandwich here, but given the general neighborhood, which is all fast food or overpriced steakhouses and very short on simple, real places like this, I wouldn’t mind coming back and digging deeper into the prepared foods like chopped liver.
Ruby’s Soul Food Restaurant, 3175 W. Madison
Can I make a confession that may blow my food-adventurer cred? I never ate at Edna’s Soul Food before the legendary Edna Stewart passed away in mid-2010. I tried once, but it turned out to be a week she was closed for vacation. And, you know, how often are you passing the 3100 block of west Madison while trying to decide where to eat? I should have found the moment to go there, some lunch time, but I just never did. It’s a big city.
Now Edna’s has reopened as Ruby’s, with what seems to be a perfect replica of the old sign, and the same menu and staff. We popped down there for breakfast on Saturday, and you can easily see, or perhaps feel, why it was a beloved place— despite bare walls and a plexiglass cage for the cashier, the place had the hum of a community meeting place. I loved that part.
What I have to admit I didn’t love, was breakfast. One of the things that sent us here was my son’s desire to have chicken and waffles, now that CJ’s Eatery has closed. Well, there’s no chicken and waffles. Other than the presence of grits as a side, there’s really nothing here for breakfast that you wouldn’t have at any Greek greasy spoon diner.
And on that level, the cheapness in ingredients that you often run into in black neighborhoods— a fact of life for obvious economic reasons— brought this meal down a number of times. A Denver omelet was pretty well made, onions and peppers fried on the grill before being added to the egg, but then the inside was overflowing with the cheapest orange American cheese. Bacon was the cheapest commodity bacon, with a salt pork and old grease flavor that even the bacon-snarfing kids recognized and didn’t care for. The grits were quite good, the famous biscuits (more roll than what I think of as a Southern biscuit) were nice but, I suspect, day-old. And surprisingly, all this cheapness didn’t come that cheaply; it was $40 for the four of us, which is more than, say, Johnnie’s Snack Shop or Diner Grill near me, and not that much less than, say, Nana. What almost made up for it was the genuinely warm and Southern service. I guess I need to go back and have lunch, finally, fried chicken and collard greens or something, but breakfast was worth it only to say that finally, I’d been.
This week’s Key Ingredient stars a chef who learned to make this week’s ingredient, beef tendon, while working for Iron Chef Morimoto himself.
In other news, we are very excited that we have been loved by Sites We Love at Saveur. Read the many kind words, not all of which we wrote ourselves, and see my favorite picture of me with large meats in a beard-net.
And we, which this time actually means two people, specifically Julia Thiel and myself, will be on WGN’s Nick Digilio Show this
Saturday sometime between 7 and 9 pm UPDATE: Friday night, 10:30 pm talking about Key Ingredient.
Like Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas, I watch the one I gave birth to from afar during LTHForum Great Neighborhood Restaurants season. The big controversy this season is over whether LTH should be giving awards to places that have gotten a ton of publicity (The Purple Pig, Xoco, The Bristol) or are very conventional places like sports bars that already do plenty of business in well-traveled neighborhoods (Toons, Big & Little Seafood). Let me attempt an answer:
Look, when the GNRs were started— and like Stella with her baby, I was right there pushing— it was not just to call attention to some places we liked, but to draw a line in the sand of Chicago food. The media were praising whatever the latest trendy downtown place was; we said the hell with that, the real food of Chicago was in Chinatown, in Pilsen, on 79th street pumping smoke out behind bulletproof glass, in a strip mall in Westmont indistinguishable from any other strip mall Chinese. And I believe we had some influence in getting the media to pay more attention to such things, and to believe that their readers wanted them to. Yes, Moto snuck in the first year, to the puzzlement of Phil Vettel to name one, but that’s the price of the awards being semi-democratic. A few oddballs aside, the GNRs have overwhelmingly been a great list of below-the-radar ethnic dining and old school craftsmanship.
And as long as they stick to that general mission, even though the mission is accomplished by now, they’re a valuable thing. But the very fact that there’s a debate— not about whether these places are good, but whether they belong as GNRs, whatever a GNR is— is proof to me that they don’t. If you have to work that hard to find reasons to justify their inclusion, then they’re muddying the brand and making the list that much less useful to the stranger who picks it up. And let’s face it, a local food chat site is not exactly Michelin, when you’re giving awards to people who actually have Michelin awards already.
So that’s my advice, less culinary than simply marketing. Define the GNRs so that everyone can roughly understand what they mean— a more discerning and quirky list of off-the-beaten path culinary gems with a track record on LTH that no one can argue with. Edzo’s is famous but its history is interwoven with LTH, so that’s fine. Xoco– you couldn’t possibly say the same. The Purple Pig even less so. The more focused the list is, the more use people can make of it for a clear purpose. The more it seems a random assortment of divey taco joints with a few fine-ish dining spots and yuppieville bars scattered in with no apparent philosophy or reason behind their selection over any ten others seemingly just like them, the less useful it is and the more it’s just an ego trip to be able to go present a plaque to some name-brand restaurateurs. I don’t doubt that the finer points of these points will be debated ad infinauseam, but really, in the end it’s pretty simple. If you have to work to make it fit, it doesn’t.