(First image snapped at the way-better-than-I-expected Cantigny Museum in Wheaton.)
(First image snapped at the way-better-than-I-expected Cantigny Museum in Wheaton.)
I will have more to say about 2010 and the food world shortly (if you recall this time last year, I won’t be alone), but the year’s end calls for a ten best list. (I don’t know who these people are who publish them in mid-December; I was still checking out new restaurants last week, hoping for one last glimpse of transcendence.) If you look at other people’s lists, whether of 10 or 100, there’s one obvious point made which is that this was a great year for casual yet culinarily serious joints, big on pork, beer and ampersands. But where some seemed content to make up lists entirely of these mid-upscale joints (understandably, they’re easy to leave contented), I still have my populist LTH/Chowhound side, too, and I want to make sure to take note of our city’s (and nation’s) richness of ethnic dining and other kinds of small joints, that can’t afford a PR firm… or an ampersand. If that means some much more acclaimed spot gets bumped to the second ten, well, what a great city we’re in that the second ten can have places on it like The Purple Pig or Old Town Social or The Southern or Kith & Kin.
Anyway, here, in reverse order, are my ten best, which as always must be things that were new to me in 2010:
10. Beef shawerma at Taza Bakery. Middle-eastern food had grown increasingly boring. And it seemed boring for the folks making it, too. Then I had the beef shawerma at this place on Devon just east of Kedzie, in a big fluffy blanket of freshly-baked bread called tannur, and it was full of flavorful meat and tart sauce and crisp vegetables, and it reinvented and reinvigorated a staple lunch. And the people aren’t bored, they’re standing there making bread all day long, you can watch them at it.
9. Wild boar or Stromboli at Gaztro-Wagon. Speaking of meat rolled up in bread… much as I like the guys involved in the whole food truck thing and wish them well, I have to admit that not being a barfly, food trucks are not personally critical to my lifestyle. But take Gaztro-Wagon merely as a sandwich startup in a storefront on the way to my kids’ school, and it was one of the best pieces of news of my food year— always interesting combinations served gooey hot in delectable soft and chewy sort-of-naan, for nearly always less than $10 a throw. As with Phillip Foss’s Meatyballs, Franks N Dawgs, or Hot Doug’s, granddaddy of them all, it’s the kind of high-low innovation that makes this city such a great place to eat… too often despite the best efforts of city bureaucracy.
8. Charcoal chicken at Taqueria Ricardo. I actually found Taqueria Ricardo late in 2009, but held off posting about it until I could compose a comprehensive guide to the semi-hidden world of supermercado taquerias, the taquerias inside Mexican grocery stores around Chicago. Several are quite good but by far the most elaborate and interesting and varied in town is this one on Diversey near Kostner, where they make genuinely, no-charcoal-or-gas-involved wood-grilled chicken and even rabbit, along with excellent seafood soups, taco al pastor, and a wide variety of other Mexican dishes.
7. Blackbird. I wanted to finally check out Mike Sheerin’s food at what is, to my mind, the most influential Chicago restaurant locally (even if others have more of a national profile), little suspecting that his era at Blackbird would come to an end fairly quickly. But whatever it becomes under David Posey (seen in this week’s Key Ingredient, incidentally), I’ll remember the unexpected refinement and delicacy of dishes like his marvelous sturgeon and escargot or peanut gazpacho, not to mention the mindbending desserts of Patrick Fahy. And I’ll eagerly await Sheerin’s own venture The Trencherman.
6. Tôm yam lûuk chín néua pèuay and other dishes at Aroy Thai. After falling into a rut with much-beloved Thai places like Spoon and TAC, dishes like the fiery, pungent soup tôm yam lûuk chín néua pèuay brought back those heady days when we LTHers were first discovering the world of Thai secret menus and non-Americanized Thai in all its spicy glory. I’ve been back almost half a dozen times since.
5. Doro wat at Queen Makeda. It took going to Washington, D.C., but I finally had a genuinely great African meal at this invitingly homey (despite the big TV playing C-Span) Ethiopian restaurant a few steps from Ben’s Chili Bowl and other tourist magnets.
4. Tete de cochon, and many others, at Longman & Eagle. Lots of places shoot onto national lists and win Michelin stars in their first year, but for a neighborhood tavern to have done it really says something about how the cutting edge of our dining scene is shifting away from traditional fine dining. A lot of people expressed surprise when Michelin honored them, but not me, from a slightly shaky start this gastropub or whatever it is had gotten rapidly and impressively better every time I visited (at least four times this year), climaxing (almost literally) with the tete de cochon, which made Girl & The Goat’s pig face a pale reflection. But it’s no mere porkateria, other favorite dishes have run the gamut from scallops to charry grilled anchovies, all pulled off as if they were the house’s specialty.
3. Willi Lehner’s bandaged aged cheddar. I had lots of great cheese on my cheese jaunt (see here and here), but the one that summed it up for me was this one of Willi Lehner’s, as atmospheric and dense with history as a 12th century monastery. I’m sure tasting it in his actual cave was a big part of that, but it’s just as marvelous at home.
2. Ruxbin. As I wrote: “Ruxbin is not another Schwa— it’s a more down-to-earth neighborhood restaurant, with dishes that sound like fairly plain American bistro food, with a touch of Asian fusion. With its thrift-shop look (like some Korean-American cross between Avec and Chicago Kalbi, with a little Amtrak sleeper coach thrown in), it looks more like the kind of place you’d find in a college town than in money-flashing 2010 Chicago. But besides the similarities to Schwa of being tiny, hard to get into and BYO on Ashland, you get the sense of a comparable degree of intensity, focus, and something like perfectionism in the food.”
1. L.C.’s BBQ/A&M Grill. We had a bunch of barbecue places open this year, and I even like one of them (Lillie’s Q) a lot, but if there’s one thing no restaurateur can do, no matter how savvy and skilled, it’s make a barbecue joint with real history behind it. I tried two places like that this year in which the food came with a side of deep culture and heritage; in Kansas City, it was my new favorite Kansas City barbecue joint, L.C.’s:
While in North Carolina, it was A&M Grill:
There’s so much more than food going on at these places… but there’s also the food, which is wonderful.
• Galley Boy burger at Swenson’s Drive-in (various locations around Akron)
• Goat-pork-veal sugo and a couple of other things from Girl and The Goat
• Eggplant salad, trout and dessert at Ruxbin
• Many many cheeses on my cheese tour (see links above)
• Butternut squash soup, a taste of trout, and goat cheesecake at L’Etoile in Madison
• Shortrib agnolotti at Ceres’ Table
• Some of the new menu at The Violet Hour (we had them as canapes, so I’ve kind of forgotten what they were already, but… they’re good!)
• Beef shawerma at Taza
• Blue cheese-frizzled onion burger at DMK Burger Bar, which is expensive, but easily my favorite of this year’s nouveau burger joints (besides Edzo’s of course)
• Butternut squash-sage thing at The Purple Pig
• BBQ Meatyballs sandwich
• Stromboli from Gaztro-Wagon
• Pizza from Armand’s, old Elmwood Park place now on Western
• The sauerkraut pie I made out of Pig
• Lemongrass tofu banh mi from Nhu Lan by way of Michael Nagrant’s place
• Sonoran hot dog, Big Star
• Corn and pork cake, Ming Hin
Finally, let me note what a great year this has been for Sky Full of Bacon, full of interesting opportunities from the Reader’s Key Ingredient series to doing Grub Street for a week to things like Baconfest or my cheese junket or being the only Chicagoan represented at the Chicago Food Film Festival. I’ve met lots of interesting people in the food world, eaten lots of terrific things and enjoyed the modest amount of acclaim that my modest work merits. It’s a wonderful life that seems to get better and more interesting with every year, and thanks to everyone who stops by to check it out… like you.
Happy Holidays to all.
You’ll see what I mean, along with his more immediate interest in showing you how to make something with freeze-dried saffron. Watch it here, get the whole story here. Next week: balls!
I liked Scylla fine, I ate there twice (here and here), but didn’t necessarily think Stephanie Izard was obviously more talented than half a dozen other very talented people working at the time, and it was Top Chef more than Scylla that suddenly propelled her into name brand chef stardom.
On the other hand, I think Kevin Boehm (Boka, Perennial) is pretty brilliant as a restaurant impresario, and the two-year-long opening of Girl & The Goat was the restaurant equivalent of the PR campaign David O. Selznick managed for Gone With the Wind, a textbook example of how to create and sustain buzz. So I could easily have believed that the food at G&TG (like GWTW, it calls for initialization) would wind up seeming the lesser partner in a superbly orchestrated glittering restaurant experience bringing together all of 2010′s most desired features (celebrity chef, downtown energy, pork).
Instead, I was genuinely impressed for the first time by Izard’s cooking. She’s come into her own as a Blackbird-esque master of bold, acidic flavors that pop like Pop Rocks in your mouth; many of her dishes seemed well conceived, complex, novel and balanced. (Well, she did have two years to work on them.)
But note the “seemed” rather than “were.” I say that because the way Girl & The Goat prefers you construct your meal— and by “prefer” I mean pretty much stands there and demands it, bulldozing over any desire you display to the contrary— I never felt like I had a chance to really taste and appreciate the best of what Izard had to offer. Instead I had fleeting tastes of almost half the menu, usually only a bite apiece, which ultimately blurred together and seemed far too similar— so that I not only didn’t get to really appreciate the best of what she made, but its novelty was nearly always lost in the arrival of something 75% like it right before or after. It’s one thing to be a small plates restaurant, but divided by four, this was almost a dinner of canapes— as one of my dining companions said later, “only if you were born to a family of Smurfs would these plates be suitable for ‘family-style dining.’”
I had deliberately chosen Sunday night in order to have a more relaxed evening, relatively, but it might as well have been Saturday at 7 to judge by the firm hand with which our waitress moved things along according to her script. We were informed that there were three sections of the menu marked for vegetable, fish and meat, although there was meat on everything and fish in the vegetables (so what, exactly, was the ontological nature of the distinctions? No time to ask such things). We would be ordering two to three dishes which we would be sharing and we would order them all at once and when we hit the slightest snag at about 6 or 7 items, and needed a moment to consult over the last couple, she announced “Would you like me to read you back what you have so far?” which in fact was probably the least helpful thing she could have done at that moment, and then made us sit through an unbidden recitation of everything we’d said thirty seconds earlier. Finally, somehow, we managed to come up with a couple of additional items, and like a cartoon character, in a cloud of dust and squiggly lines she was gone.
Goat, pork and veal sugo: primi for one, not four
Normally I don’t mock service in a review but in this case, it’s important to know what you’re up against. The scenario outlined, and all but mandated, will work fine if there are two of you dining together. You’ll get 4 or 5 things, a few bites of each, and probably be very happy. But if there are four of you, as there were four of us, in the name of all that is holy you must resist. Your goal, now, is not to try half the menu in tiny portions as they would have you do, making the best less memorable by mixing them with obvious second and third choices, like the Greatest Hits album of a band that really only had three good songs. It is to find what you think are the two or three things that you would like to eat, and make sure you get them.
If that means all four of you wind up ordering the sugo, say (which would be a perfectly sane choice), then by all means, everyone have the sugo. It’s not that big a plate for one, but it’s a cruel taunt divided by four. You will earn your waitress’s disapproval, but you will have had the meal I wish I had had— an actual chance to eat Izard’s hearty, dig-in-happily food, not to have been served a big savory pasta as an amuse-bouche.
And it is worth risking getting The Goat’s goat, because Izard at her best is very good indeed, in the same porky-big-flavors vein as The Purple Pig et al. but, I think, a bit more sophisticated and accomplished. The goat/pork/veal sugo is an excellent example: a number of very good places could have made the silky pasta, the deep and soothing ragu, but very few would have put tomato-sharp gooseberries in the middle of it, so that a dish that’s comfy enough to take a nap in comes with its own wake-up call. Same for a salad of green beans and beets combined with little crunchy something-or-others and bits of mild, probably oil-cured white anchovy, so that the vegetables’ freshness and crunch is beautifully complimented with the bracing freshness of the sea:
Or a tartly spicy, yet not stereotypically Mexican, braised beef tongue with “beef vinaigrette” (not exactly sure what that is, but I like the thinking) and salsa verde; any meat could have gone in that, but the accompaniments were complex and fascinating, like a mysterious beauty you see once across the floor of a cantina, and then she is gone. All these things, and probably others that night, had big bold flavors that were nonetheless accessible and totally pleasing.
But under their system, I had just a glimpse of each of them (which tells you what impression they made even in a tiny quantity) before leaving them behind in order to devote palate attention and stomach space to chickpea fritters with romesco and feta, which would be fine as bar food but were too gooey-junk foody for the start of a meal, or two modest, unmemorable scallops in pumpkin plop, or the much-lauded pig face which just seemed like rather average breakfast food to me:
or the absurd, disastrous stone crab claw and pork belly special, $21 for a tiny amount of very good stone crab claw ill-matched with sodden pork belly swimming in a vanilla-grease sauce, which has reminded me of my vow never to eat anything savory which advertises vanilla, it just doesn’t work, you might as well make cream soda gravy.
In other words, it’s a restaurant of hits and misses, like (almost) every other. But because of the system forcing me to fill so many slots with second and third tier choices (my instincts about which would be the best dishes were fairly on-target), I just had a lot more acquaintance with the misses than I needed to. If I’d ordered just a few things for myself, I’d have had a success rate of at least 67%, rather than one struggling to break 50%. And though G&TG was certainly effective at getting us to spend freely this way, I wound up the evening having tried so much of the menu that I had little curiosity about the remainder to motivate me to return.
What would get me back isn’t the chance to try ten more things, but to retry things I wish I had gotten more of the first time. So far as I could tell in my brief acquaintance with them, some of them are really quite good— and worth butting heads with The Goat a little to have your way.
Another I liked a lot: grilled seppia (aka cuttlefish) with smoked tomatoes and sea beans.
We tried three of four desserts and all of them were in the tradition of Jessie Oloroso’s work at Scylla, surehandedly integrating oddball ingredients like crispy parsnips or a marshmallow made with Ommegang’s Three Philosophers ale. This part of the meal had the highest batting average, if not the highest highpoints.
The latest Key Ingredient stars Chef John Des Rosiers of Inovasi in Lake Bluff, and a houseplant. Read the piece here.
46 minutes, the counter on my viewfinder said.
That’s how much footage I shot at Alinea one Sunday afternoon, watching Grant Achatz and Craig Schoettler (soon to be the head guy of Aviary) make a cocktail using a weird Indonesian nut for the Reader’s new series of chef challenges (which if you haven’t seen yet, you can see here).
46 minutes and I was exhausted. Keeping up, mentally and physically, with Achatz’s kitchen wears you down quickly.
The first thing I saw was the kitchen. Square and, it felt, neatly divided by a group of exactly equidistant counter spaces running the length of the room. It’s the most perfectly geometric place I’ve seen since a visit to the Air Force Academy a decade or so ago.
And every few feet along the invisible grid of the room, there was someone in chef whites cleaning furiously— perhaps 20 of them in all. It was like a shot in an old Disney cartoon of elves working, where the whole frame is filled with evenly paced, purposeful motion. Here’s a short, inartful assembly of outtakes from the Reader video which convey this initial impression:
A few moments later Achatz greeted us and took us on a tour of the restaurant— or rather, a tour of the Alinea experience as orchestrated by him. You enter through a hallway of bordello-red lighting with forced perspective that makes it hard to know exactly where you go— a kind of mental palate cleanser from the street outside, Achatz told us. Just as you’re feeling lost, the doors open— there’s a motion detector on your side to time this moment exactly— and you face the stairway which ascends between the three dining rooms.
“It’s kind of a parallel to the cuisine,” Achatz said, cryptically. Leaving us to ponder the Carollian question, how is a staircase like a plate of roast pheasant?
One way, apparently, is that it’s meant to break with the formality of the traditional fine dining experience and to make it more homey. “Like if you guys were coming over to my house, I’d open the door, welcome you, ‘come on in,’ rather than being that barrier between you and I,” he said. “That kind of physical barrier, to me, was always a little bit snooty and formal. So I wanted to eliminate that.”
Another puzzle to contemplate: three-Michelin-star, fabulously expensive Alinea as a break with all that’s too hoity-toity in dining. Alinea as an extension of Achatz’ den, pass the chips and guac please. Yet it starts to make sense to you because it so obviously makes sense to him. I’ve never seen a chef so at home in his restaurant, not in the way that a commanding officer is at home on his battleship, but in a free and playful way.
Achatz explains that he wishes he could repaint the walls a new color every night. Instead, he has LED lights which can change colors to cast a different atmosphere on different visits.
As intense and intent as the work in the kitchen is— and this was several hours before service— there’s a feel there not so much of a laboratory, which is the clichéd comparison based on the technology present, as of a kind of artistic workshop, an atelier (there, I just named Achatz’ next restaurant) where fine objects are being wrought by skilled craftsmen.
Part of the reason for this is that, unlike almost any other working kitchen, Alinea has windows. Very nice windows, actually, which let in not only a cool blue winter light but offered, this day, a spare view of a bare winter tree and the brick two-flat next door. It’s an urbanite’s idea of a view, wouldn’t impress the folks at Courtright’s, but there’s no question that something that simple gives the work in the kitchen an entirely different feel. It honors the work, tells it that it’s valued and deserves to be carried out in a pleasantly natural atmosphere.
A chef friend who saw the video zeroed in on this immediately: “First thing I noticed is that there are windows in the Alinea kitchen. I feel a little less sorry for those cooks now. Hehehe.”
A few moments later Achatz and Craig Schoettler launched into the dish— and for the next 20 minutes or so I scrambled to keep up with them as they made it. Part of this was that there were two of them; I was constantly having to anticipate which of them would be where my camera should be. But it was also that they moved as fast as their minds, and I had to keep up. We were barely halfway through the shoot for our first chef challenge before Achatz was deconstructing the very idea behind it, breaking it into pieces to see if something more interesting might be made out of the same parts:
And then our time was up; dinner was less than two hours away. After some pleasantries, we were back on the street, out the other end of his forced perspective telescope. The gray world outside seemed dull and clumsy next to the gleaming white vision of cooperative artistry happening on the other side of that nondescript door. Next to my 46 minutes inside the mind of Alinea.
Check out Key Ingredient each week at chicagoreader.com/food.
The new edition of “Key Ingredient” is up here and features Curtis Duffy of Avenues, funky Chinese black beans and an absolutely gorgeous dessert. Watch it here:
The first one, with Grant Achatz, got over 1500 views the first week. We’re shooting two this week, and it’s funny what’s different each time (the chefs and their approaches, very different in personality even when, like Achatz and Duffy, they’re similar in approach) and what’s been the same— they each seem to take right around 45 minutes to shoot, and wind up at right around 4 minutes and 50 seconds when they’re done.
Lots of people are thanking me so it’s time I did some thanking about all this: thanks to outgoing Reader editor Kiki Yablon for thinking of me and calling me up for some info even when she couldn’t tell me why yet, to Julia Thiel my writing partner in crime, and to everybody else at the Reader who helped us in the mad scramble to get the first one done (Paul Kate Geoff Mrs. Paul Mike Whet) and going forward. Oh, and to Chicago’s great chefs who are so game for doing this on short notice and no matter how weird it sounds.
Today I am very excited to announce that one of the founding goals of Sky Full of Bacon has been met. No, this is not another setup for a gag like the Mexican April Fool’s prank video. It’s the real thing, which is: the first in a series of videos for the Chicago Reader (who are launching a redesigned food section this week) called Key Ingredient. In the videos and the attached articles (written by Julia Thiel), we will throw a weird ingredient at a Chicago chef, and he or she will invent a dish from it. The opening cheftestant is one Grant Achatz of Alinea, and his ingredient is the kluwak kupa:
You can read the article and get the recipe here. Though the device of challenging a chef with a mystery ingredient is not a new one, I think the way Key Ingredient does it is distinctly different from, oh, say, a TV show with a bombastic pseudo-samurai chef and cooks running around in a panic. The point here is to let the chefs reveal how they think, how they approach an ingredient (even one as out of left field as the kluwak kupa). It’s high on character study, low on screaming. At the same time, the video side is short and sweet, considerably faster-paced than my usual Sky Full of Bacon videos; it’s a quick sketch, not an in-depth portrait.
So that’s why you should watch and read Key Ingredient (and check out everything else happening in the revised Reader food section… which will be news to me too, I had nothing to do with it otherwise). But for me the deeper significance is that, although it’s not the first time I’ve done video for publications, it’s not even the first time I’ve done video for publications and gotten paid, it does represent the first time that I believe a publication has taken on my kind of video as a sustained strategic effort to serve readers in the new online media environment. My hope from the beginning with Sky Full of Bacon was that by demonstrating a capacity to do good journalism, not just slick video, in video form, full of my own passion and knowledge and inquisitiveness about food, somebody would see an opportunity in it to expand their media brand online as video becomes an inevitable part of every journalistic enterprise— not an add-on to print but simply part of how you tell the story. It’s happened a number of times in one-offs, but this is the first one that’s a regular branded feature. (Yes, this probably means regular Sky Full of Bacon videos will be at least as infrequent as they were in 2010, but I promise they won’t halt entirely, when there’s a genuinely great subject for a longer form piece.)
But hey, I’ve still got several days a week open, so feel free to email or call me. Yeah, the world is full of people who shoot food video, but if you want video that really has the taste of the world of food and speaks to your foodie readers/viewers/whatevers, the name is Bacon. Sky Full of Bacon. Enjoy The Reader’s Key Ingredient, and there will be a new one in the same place, next week.
P.S. Thanks to those who not only linked it all but mentioned my involvement (more prominent in the print version, by the way, which was kind of them), including Nick, Ari, and many Twitterers including Sula and Sudo. I really appreciate the support and admire that there are so many class acts on our side of the Chicago foodie world, too.
Great Smoky Bacon, Country Ham and Sauerkraut Pie (p. 158)
I’d intended to stop with my two efforts at barbecue, but since I was making a country ham for Thanksgiving dinner at David Hammond’s (using this recipe from Charleston Receipts, which I first learned of from Villas), the next day I got curious about what Villas might suggest for baked country ham leftovers. He had me at “sauerkraut pie.”
This recipe comes from the Smoky Mountains region (the mountains are what’s Great and Smoky, not the bacon per se) where they raise not only pork but, apparently, a lot of cabbage, and make sauerkraut out of it. You start with a lard crust (I chickened out and made half lard, half butter; I also way overworked it, unfortunately), which you partly bake, then coat with dijon mustard:
Meanwhile you fry some bacon, soften some onions in it, and then add some rinsed sauerkraut and seasoning. (I was betting I could hide the sauerkraut sufficiently for my kids to eat it. I won the bet.) That all gets sauteed a bit, then you add it to the crust:
Top it with leftover country ham and some parsley, and bake it like a quiche, basically. This was very satisfying, though it certainly seemed more like German or French food than Southern. Not that I’m complaining on a cold fall day about a dish that made the house smell like bacon, onions and sauerkraut.
* * *
Country Ham and Turnip Hash (p. 172)
Less successful was breakfast the next morning. (Funny that it looks so much like the other dish, though it’s quite different.) Boil some turnips, chop some country ham, dice some green pepper and onion, season it and add cream… the first problem is, Villas says make this into a cake (which you will be flipping as a whole later). Not happening, this is wet goo.
No big deal, you just fry it and flip it like hash browns. But the challenge with any country ham dish is, does it concentrate the saltiness of the ham, or does it ameliorate it, the way the apple chutney spread on the ham biscuits I made did, or hiding the ham amid caramelized onions and sauerkraut did the night before. And frying what was quite a large quantity of ham made for a powerfully salty hash. I ate mine, my wife ate most of hers, the kids, irredeemable Yankees that they are, barely touched it.
Oh well. One flop, but hey, we’ll be down to the bone soon, and I’m already eyeing Villas’ recipes for soup, most of which, not surprisingly, seem to be built on the scraps or bone of a country ham. Creamy rutabaga and country ham… can’t wait.
* * *
And the persimmon pie, you ask? That wasn’t from Villas, that was just what I felt like trying to make this year, given how ubiquitous persimmons are becoming at retail during this season. I bought some the week before and waited for them to ripen, and waited, and waited… only one was really ripe, to the point of being like a mushy tomato, by the time it was time to make pie. But pureed and baked much like a pumpkin pie, they made an interesting and novel dessert, pumpkin pie-like but with an orangey note and lightness of their own. I’m eager to try again, but this time, giving the persimmons all the time they need to ripen perfectly before I bake.