Sky Full of Bacon

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.

The full article is here.  (The above video is by me.  You know, in case that information doesn’t appear somewhere you regularly visit.)

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.

(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

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

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.

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