Sky Full of Bacon

Last year I told myself we wouldn’t win a James Beard award… but deep down, a tiny part of me thought we might. This year, I knew perfectly well that being nominated against actual TV networks with actual budgets was reward enough, and a considerable feat of legitimizing, so I just went to New York to show up and have a good time. The Beard awards were held in a massive Roman tomb called Gotham Hall, formerly the lobby of a particularly ostentatious bank which survived the Depression (it was built in the Roaring 20s) but failed in the S&L crisis in the 80s. It was loud, I met John T. Edge and told him my video was inspired by all he does, I saw other swelegant people…

But enough of that. Let’s go eat.

I went to New York with the idea that I’d fly in Thursday night and be relaxed the next day. Ha! A hail storm and lightning and who knows what delayed my flight to the point where instead of hitting my hotel around 10 p.m., I hit it around 2 a.m. The next morning, groggily, I awoke with much of the morning gone. Rather than throw my entire dining schedule off, I decided to do the rest of my waking up on a subway train to Brooklyn and start my day by being at the legendary DiFara Pizza, alleged to be the best pizza in New York, when they opened at noon for lunch.

I’d heard enough about the demand at DiFara and ordering strategies (there was a time when, somehow, ordering on Facebook and then going to Brooklyn was the advised strategy) that I wondered if even then, I might be too late. Nonsense. I was the only person in line at 11:45, one of only two when the door opened, though they came quickly after that. DiFara has two shapes of pie, square and round; I ordered one of each. As soon as I heard that sizzling, I knew I needed video.

I’m always baffled by people who talk about “New York pizza.” I’m not sure what that is. If it’s round, with a doughy crust and a rounded edge but fairly flat otherwise, that style, the “Original Ray’s” style, is not just New York pizza, that’s exactly what you find all over America, Sbarro’s and Costco and so on. I’m not saying New York isn’t better than those, it plainly can be. But that’s American pizza, mall pizza, basically. Then there are New York pizzas which adhere closer to the Neapolitan style, but to me, those aren’t New York pizza, there are Neapolitan pizzas, like any other directly imported ethnic food in New York.

So which was DiFara? The round pie is a lot like a “New York pizza,” though the main different thing is that he tries to get some char on the crust, which you’ll never see at Sbarro. The square pie— that’s more interesting. It’s thicker, and it’s covered with more cheese, which swims in the acidic tomato sauce. (And, again, is charred on the edge, which is what lifts it from delicious to magnificent.) If anything, with its acidic 1950s tomato sauce (no trace of sweetness) and industrial cheese flavors, and its excess of both, it reminded me of… Chicago pizza. Kind of like the deep dish at La Gondola or somewhere, except that, again, the crust was blackened along the edges. So is DiFara the best pizza in New York? Well… it’s the pizza that most reminds me of Chicago pizza, so draw your own conclusions.

Dammit, she was second in the place but somehow she got the corner piece with two burnt sides. Life is so unfair!

Last year I plotted out my primary choices with the precision of Rommel planning a tank corps attack. This year, I didn’t have time, but I did have my guidebook from last year with lots of cryptic notes in it. A few hours after DiFara but before the award dinner, I was wandering around Chinatown, Little Italy, somewhere and I checked my book for somewhere to get a Chinatown snack. I saw a scribble that looked like “Jui.” I walked to where it seemed to indicate and I knew at once it had meant “Joe,” that is “Joe’s Ginger,” one of the Joe’s Shanghai restaurants famous for xiao long bao, the soup dumplings much sweated over by some LTHers.

Now that’s a soup dumpling, when you can see the liquid inside it and the dumpling sags like a water-filled balloon. Best soup dumplings ever? Typical for xiao long bao? I have no frickin’ idea, but they were very good and tasted like good examples of 1) soup and 2) dumpling, so they were fine by me. I also ordered, just to keep them company, something I think was called turnip cake. I’ve had turnip dim sum at places like Shui Wah, where it’s a flat square of mashed fried turnip; so I wasn’t at all expecting this:

You would think that these were the Italian pastry known as sfogliatelle, with its paper-thin armadillo-like shell, but this was their turnip cake, no lie. Did a rogue sfogliatelle maker from up Mott Street escape from little Italy and find refuge a few blocks south in Chinatown? I don’t know, and I hope showing his handiwork hasn’t just outed him to La Cosa Nostra, but if anything I liked these even better than the soup dumplings, the crispy exterior hiding a center of savory shredded turnip (which suggested another cross-cultural resemblance, to sauerkraut balls) dotted with bits of pink ham and green onion.

Afterwards, wandering the streets in this area, I saw carts selling “Chinese cake,” which were cute, but very plain, little muffins freshly baked on the cart; I ate a couple and then left the bag prominently on top of a full trash can where the neighborhood homeless were likely to find them and have a treat.

Last year I hit both Zabar’s (an old fave) and Russ & Daughters (first time), so this year my Jewish breakfast slot went to Barney Greengrass, The Sturgeon King, on the upper West Side. A tiny dining room (decorated, incongruously, with New Orleans-themed wallpaper) is served by fast-moving waiters who I had read described as slightly caustic and sarcastic. On the contrary, despite the speed at which they moved, they were unfailingly helpful to a first-timer from out of town jammed into a tiny table. At brunch the next day, Steve Dolinsky mentioned how good the service was in New York, because you can make a real living of it here, and with only one exception (the Grand Central Market, where they seemed bored and uninterested) service was excellent everywhere I went this weekend.

But you were asking about Barney Greengrass. Velvety, meaty sturgeon kissed lightly with smoke, good cream cheese and a toasted bagel, fresh-squeezed orange juice— exactly how you would want to live and still stay in touch with your East Side origins in the moneyed precincts of the upper West Side.

Afterwards I popped into a butcher’s next door called Schatzie the Butcher and bought my wife a logo t-shirt while admiring the very nice quality meats and chatting up the main guy that day (Richie, son of Schatzie). Here again was the most welcoming side of New York; if you want to live in this city, I highly recommend getting the several million dollars to live up here.

I walked up to the outskirts of Harlem to see the massive Cathedral of St. John the Divine and then over to Morningside Heights for another bagel place, Absolute Bagel. Here I found the more expected Noo Yawk atmosphere of brusque, Yiddish-inflected service. The only surprise was, the owners who were talking like that… are Thai:

I brought a bunch of these bagels back with me, so they maybe weren’t at their peak when I got to eat them, but I don’t think they are the best in the city, as some claim— puffier and breadier than I like, without the full chewy snap of the very best bagels, like Zabar’s. (Which is still to say they beat 99% of bagels in America. Or Thailand, for all I know.)

Alan Sytsma, my boss at Grub Street, had suggested a Montreal smoked meats place called Mile End, but it seemed unlikely I was going to trek to Brooklyn again for a sandwich. So fate smiled upon me and on my way to Eataly, I found a street fair. By which I mean, I ran smack into the first stand of the street fair, which was… Mile End, its smoked meat-wenches assembling smoked meat sandwiches before my eyes:

And then I saw the next stand, directly opposite… the famous (and shortly to be, James Beard Award-winning) Momofuku Milk Bar, selling their famous crack pie with no line:

There was more, but there was no way I’d get to eat anything at Eataly if I didn’t stop there. The crack pie— well, it’s good, but it’s one of those things where the city sophisticates go nuts for something that’s existed all along in the boonies— it’s basically just a really, really dense lemon chess pie.

The smoked meat from Mile End— I’d say it’s every bit as good as the smoked meat sold here at Fumare in the French Market. Which means it’s very good indeed. In fact, my theory is that smoked meat is the best thing to happen to pastrami in years. When I make pastrami it’s smoky and meaty and peppery and coriandery, but when you eat commercial pastrami, it tends to be salty with undernotes of saltiness and saltitude. It’s one dimensional. Montreal smoked meat, like homemade pastrami, restores the other dimensions and reminds you that it’s meat, first, salt and other spices second.

Eataly I did a slideshow about here at Grub Street, so I’ll just focus on what I ate at Mario Batali and Joe Bastianch’s Ikea of Italian food after an hour or so of shopping to make some room next to the smoked meat and the cracked pie. I went to La Verdure, the vegetable counter, feeling that I could use some vegetables and also that seeing what they did with fresh vegetables was probably more revealing than a panini or pizza of the quality of the entire venture.

They were, not to put too fine a point on it, two of the best Italian dishes I’ve had lately. I had romano beans in a deep, rich, roasty red sauce, served as bruschetta:

and a salad, I guess, of braised escarole with currants and pine nuts:

both tasting like every bit of flavor had been brought out and amplified through the cooking process. Really, I would be much closer to a vegetarian if a counter serving stuff like this was near me, dishing it up fresh every day. I can’t wait for Eataly.

After my two lunches I met up with Janet Rausa Fuller (ex of Sun-Times, fellow nominee) and her sister for drinks at The John Dory Oyster Bar; I didn’t mind that they’d pretty much eaten all the oysters and the Parker House rolls by my late arrival. We took a good little while making our way to dinner, and then had to wait for it a little longer:

Totto Ramen is a new ramen shop from the owners of my beloved Yakitori Totto last year. Not that it’s anything like Yakitori Totto’s 2nd floor yakuza bar feel; more like college town hole in the wall:

We were joined while waiting by Chuck Sudo of Chicagoist, who had dined at Ippudo Ramen earlier in the day, but apparently had no problem with a second bowl.

With the help of the specials board the menu maybe gets to ten items. We ordered the sea urchin appetizer, not that I care for uni that much but with the help of a blowtorch, this was a nice bowl of food:

The ramen— seen here with extra pork belly and a big blob of miso in the middle— was superb, a complex yet delicate broth and noodles combining velvety smoothness with a little backbone of chewiness. As with xiao long bao, I don’t know from best or less than best, I just know really good, and this was it. On the service note, with that line outside I knew we wouldn’t be invited to linger, but again, the deftness with which they hustled us out without making us feel hustled was a tribute to New York levels of service.

I had breakfast proper the next day at a little cafe called Penelope, which could fit right into Wicker Park or Logan Square (and like most of those places, charged a little too much for its partial delights, but I knew it would going in and it was fine), and after some sightseeing met Steve Dolinsky over in Hell’s Kitchen at a place he wanted to try for a magazine piece he’s doing, Salinas.

The best thing was the back room with the open roof; on this sunny, clement day it seemed like one of the best places to be in New York, which made me a little sad that no one in New York seems to go out for brunch until two o’clock or something— we had it to ourselves for most of the meal. The chef came out to sell us on the virtues of his dinner menu, which is to say, the chef came out to tacitly acknowledge that brunch wasn’t anything to get that excited about— some fried balls, some paprika-dusted vegetables, a curiously bland pa amb tomaquet, a jamon grilled cheese sandwich (this was actually quite good). Based on brunch Vera doesn’t have anything to worry about for best Spanish restaurant I’ve been to this year, but I’ll take him at his word that dinner has higher aspirations, and suggest that if it’s an evening when you’d want the stars and the fresh air, the charming back room at Salinas seems worth a gamble on the food.

Uncle John’s hot links, glowing bigger than life from the screen at the James Beard Foundation Awards in New York City.

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Note: if you’re here for the map showing you how to get to Ciya Sofrasi, scroll down till you see something that looks like… a map.

* * *

We arrived in the afternoon— Christmas Eve, though there was little to remind us of it— and the taxi took us to our hotel, a square three-flat on a steep hill facing an ancient city wall… as well as facing a tumbling wooden shack in front of which sat a brand new Toyota. Dark was coming quickly and when I went out to find somewhere for dinner, I took pictures of the turns I made so I could follow my pictures back to our hotel. With drizzle constricting my vision and twisty streets unmarked by street signs and only rarely lit by lamps, it didn’t feel like one of the major cities of the world— it felt like Tibet or something, one of the barely-reachable places, like the village ten thousand feet up where Indiana Jones finds his old flame Marion running a bar.

Even feeling lost and damp, though, I was taken in by the twisty streets and the low-level do-a-little-of-everything commerce, like the Lower East Side in the 20s or something. I quickly saw places I wanted to try to eat at— if I could find them again. Our first meal wound up being in a restaurant run by a Kurd, and it set the pattern for many— it took about ten seconds to have the proprietor or someone else talking English to us and telling us a fractured, semi-comprehensible story of his time in America doing something on behalf of some relative who had some business here, in amid parenting advice, famous Americans they knew of, and every other subject that could come up. Turks, we quickly learned, are as friendly and chatty as the Irish, and they seem to badly want you to like their country.

I hoped I could find this charcoal kebab place again.

The meal also set the pattern for meals— every meal, it seems, is grilled kebabs, rice, and bread. Pointing them all out would be like telling you where to get a Coke in America, so I’ll stick to the more interesting and anomalous ones from here— in particular, the restaurant that everyone seemed to know because it is the one Turkish restaurant that isn’t like all the others. It was a pleasant and welcoming evening… even as I held private doubts as to whether we could stand a week in such a remote and claustrophobic place.

The next morning the rain was gone, the sun was shining… and Istanbul was beautiful, bright blue sky, dark blue sea, clean air (surprisingly little car traffic in this part, actually), a white city by the sea that could not have been more gorgeous, and my love was cemented. It was also, though we rarely thought of it, Christmas. We allowed ourselves to be seduced by a hotel at the south end of the Hippodrome and paid $15 a person for a breakfast buffet, not worth so much for what we ate (yogurt, dried figs, a croissant) but worth twice that for the view from the high point of Sultanhamet of the sea just a few blocks away— and the impeccably old world service by waiters who looked and acted like they were in a Poirot mystery on PBS.

Istanbul is the third largest city I’ve ever been to, after LA and New York (and much larger than Rome which preceded it), but it’s not a place people think of as a natural destination— to judge by the number of people who went “Hmm, why Istanbul?” when I told them about going to Istanbul and Turkey generally. Even if you’d think of going to there yourself, you might not think of it as an interesting destination for your kids. Yet it was all of that, and what’s more, one of those instantly enticing, vibrant and welcoming and youthful cities that always reminds me of Dr. Johnson’s line “If one is tired of London, one is tired of life.” That is what cities are— a grand bazaar of possibilities— and where I left Rome thinking “checked that one off,” I left Istanbul wondering how I’d get back.

The call to prayer, heard from a side door of Hagia Sophia.

Of course, part of it is that the tourist part of Istanbul hardly seems to belong to a city of that size; the area from Topkapi Palace to the Hippodrome is like Central Park in Manhattan, a rare open expanse in a city of crowds and twisty streets. By the numbers the “real” Istanbul is surely the rapidly growing, only moderately urban-planned areas outside the old city, the could-be-anywhere Blade Runner sprawl of glass skyscrapers and cell phone shops that you see stretching out forever as you go up the Bosphorus. The 2000 years of civilization before that are just baubles around its edges from the water. But hey, I visited that Turkish Blade Runner and thought it was pretty fascinating, too.

I’m still not crazy about Turkish desserts, especially anything with rose water.

The logical place to stay for a tourist is in the Sultanahmet neighborhood adjacent to the main tourist attractions (and convenient enough to most anything else). As it happened, technically we were in it, realistically we were below it, facing the exterior of the ancient city wall on its south side— and that would prove to be a good thing.

The hotels in the more touristed and populated area are probably fine, but the restaurants (in a strip right by Hagia Sophia and the Sultanahmet tram stop) tended to be the sort of mediocre, overpriced places that cater mainly to Australians and English looking to get drunk and rowdy; not surprisingly our worst meal and our most expensive one were one and the same, and in that area. (Islam’s prohibition on drink seems to be unknown to Turkey, which not only has bars but breweries and wineries.) Leaving that area and entering the claustrophobic twistiness was nearly always a better idea foodwise, and in time I came to love it too.

We spent Christmas day at Hagia Sophia— hey, I actually went to church on Christmas, for once— and then taking a two-hour Bosphorus ferry cruise, but at night we returned to our neighborhood and I tried to scout out some of the things I’d discovered walking around the night before. To my joy I found again the little shop where they were grilling kebabs over charcoal in the window— if one must have kebabs, these were the kebabs to have—

I found it again!

and then another where they made pizzas— or something pizza-like, though instead of round, the Turkish style seems to be a few inches across and literally two feet or more long. I returned clutching these prizes and this was our Christmas dinner.

The Spice Bazaar.

Sultanahmet has two famous bazaars, and what I’d heard before we went was that the Grand Bazaar was a vast tourist trap, while the smaller Spice Bazaar was more accessible and interesting. Yes and no. It’s absolutely worth it to go through the process once of being sold spices by a fast-talking salesman overwhelming you with bright colors and smells, and we came back with lots of vacuum-packed spices. That said, the Spice Bazaar is kind of, done one spice stand, you’ve done them all.

We went to the enormous, disorienting Grand Bazaar early in the morning when it was least crowded, which undoubtedly made it easier to like, but as full as it is of silly knickknacks, knockoff designer goods, Nike t-shirts and who knows what all (I went in in just a sweater, and was immediately descended upon by guys convinced I was there for a leather sportcoat), it’s also a place where you can find someone with a shop full of early 20th century tin-plated kitchen pots, surely as good a collection as any history museum in Turkey, and learn more than you ever dreamed about it in 10 minutes from the owner. Like Istanbul, the Grand Bazaar is life in all its clamoring variety, so vast and endless you suspect it must contain some sort of time-space distortion that allows a whole city to fit within a single building. I enjoyed roaming it and the markets extending around it for blocks immensely and would happily do more of it— early in the morning.

The markets continue all around both Bazaars for blocks.

Though honestly, you won’t have a bad meal by simply picking the nearest neighborhood kebab spot that doesn’t look totally discofied for tourists, the monotony of this dining could get to you after a while. The source for online intel on Istanbul eats is a blog called Istanbul Eats, and following their suggestions led us to the two best places by far that we ate at— which also happen to be the two places we ran across that had recently had major articles about them in New York-based media; funny how that works out, isn’t it.

The first was Sehzade Erzurum Cag Kebabi, featured some months back in the New York Times. Doner kebab— the lamb stacked on a cone which is common enough in Chicago middle eastern restaurants, and basically the same as gyros— is everywhere, grilling in the usual doner machine. What’s not common at all— apparently unique in Istanbul in fact— is the pre-industrial version of the same thing, cag kebabi, in which the lamb is stacked by hand, the roll is roasted next to a fire and the pit master shaves off pieces for you, taking care to select meaty bits, fatty bits, charred bits and tender bits according to some algorithm only in his own head.

We ate there twice and did the same thing both times— we each ordered the standard two skewers, with a tomatoey red sauce, salad, a bowl of water buffalo soft cheese, and a big piece of floppy flat bread. Then, when we were done, we ordered two more pairs of skewers and shared them between us.

I used the word pit master advisedly because the care the owner, Ozcan Yildirim, takes makes him brother to any barbecue pit master, to anyone with a love for meat over fire, cooking anywhere in the world. When my kids think of Istanbul, I’m pretty sure the first picture that comes to mind is this:

Sehzade Erzurum Cag Kebabi
Hocapasa Sok. 3/A, Sirkeci

The other place worth calling out is not as immediately lovable as Sehzade Erzurum Cag Kebabi, but offers more depth— which is why it got a lengthy piece in The New Yorker instead. Owner Musa Dagdaviren might best be described as the Rick Bayless of Turkey, though instead of finding traditions in a neighboring country, he finds them in the much less cosmopolitan east of Anatolia, bringing traditional home dishes to restaurants for the first time. He’s serious enough to have started a scholarly journal about traditional Turkish food, and when he finally publishes a cookbook, it will change the world’s perception of Turkish food (hopefully Phaidon will translate it as they have with other big national cookbooks). Traveling outside Istanbul among other Americans and Europeans later in the trip, we found that nearly everyone had heard of Ciya Sofrasi— because in a country of meat skewers, it seems to be the only restaurant serving vegetarian dishes. (His original restaurant is alleged to be vegetarian— which doesn’t stop lamb from turning up here and there. He also has a kebab place across the street.)

If you find this, you’re standing in front of Ciya Sofrasi.

Heard of Ciya Sofrasi, I should say, but found it hard to find. Ciya Sofrasi is on the Asian side, in a district called Kadiköy, near the Haydarpasa train station which is where, once your journey on the Orient Express terminated on the European side, you would arrive by ferry to continue on to… India? Siam? I don’t know.

Haydarpasa. You stay on till the next and final stop.

Anyway, Kadiköy is very much the modern Blade Runner place I was talking about, cell phones and skyscrapers and busy markets, and except for the ferry terminal none of it was on our map or indeed any map I could find. Even the best written directions I got took a couple of tries to match to reality, which is why I decided to put this map online to make it easier. You get off the ferry, cross the street to another cluster of bus stops…

look for the street that is full of fish markets, and start walking. After many fascinating markets…

You will hit a patch of restaurants, all of which will try to lure you in, American, Ingleesh? Very nice menu for toorists.

Keep walking and eventually you find…

There’s no menu you could likely read, but the food is all laid out behind glass. Just point and point and sit down and they’ll bring it to you. Don’t try to choose, don’t look for a certain dish as they change a lot, just point.

Salads; the thyme salad in front seems to be a particular favorite.

No idea what this was.

The stews all kind of look like this, but they’re different.

This leek-based one was my favorite.

Candied fruits for dessert.

Musa Dagdaviren is on the right. I don’t think he understood a word I said, but I hope he understood that it was genuine admiration.

In some ways they’re all very similar, and it’s not that there are lots of different flavors that jump at you, their satisfactions are those of things well stewed together. But here and there one thing will leap out, and they’re all as satisfying as soul food, and a break from kebabs for a night, for no more than about $1.20 on the ferry. Make your way back through the markets, consider whether you really need an Ataturk cover for your iPhone, and go back by the next ferry. You’ve been to Asia for dinner.

Ciya Sofrasi
Guneslibahce Sokak 43, Kadiköy, Istanbul

Whenever we saw this portrait of Ataturk, it prompted (very quiet) jokes about “the father of our country, Bela Lugosi.”

* * *

Cappadocia is the sort of place where they set up a wood-burning spiced wine stand next to a 600-year-old limestone city.

We spent a few days outside of Istanbul in Cappadocia (home of strange limestone formations and houses carved out of them, as seen in the original Star Wars), and Pammukale (home of other strange limestone formations that look like Antarctica, and a nice Roman amphitheater).

We went on tours arranged by this company, located right by the Sultanahmet tram stop, and while I’m generally firmly against tourbus travel, it was the only sensible choice here for this remote country and I recommend their services wholeheartedly. The tours were small (usually a 14-seat bus 2/3 full) with a guide who was engaged with the subject and happy to talk about other aspects of life in Turkey; while the home base took care of everything (including an itinerary change from the road) without a hitch. (Turkey, incidentally, has inexpensive regional airlines with brand new fleets, so we flew the long distances, very reasonably.) There is the usual shopping stop during the day, but of high quality (a pottery workshop, an onyx factory), and a lunch stop at some restaurant which was never spectacularly good but turning out pleasant enough homestyle food in an atmosphere of camel tapestries and swords on the wall that could have been anywhere from Morocco to Mongolia, seemingly. (The only thing I might say is that two days of limestone formations in Cappadocia might have been a bit much; if you want to cut it shorter, pick the one day in which you get to see the deeply creepy underground Christian city. To have come to that, literally a religious community burying itself alive in a hole in the ground, from the staggering worldly splendor of the Vatican a few days earlier is to get the most visceral feel possible for Christianity’s journey in the world over the millennia.)

The food in central Turkey— setting aside that it was truly winter at that elevation, where it had been fall in both Rome and Istanbul— was much more like things I’ve had in Georgian or Armenian restaurants than the meat-focused kebab cuisine of Istanbul, consisting mainly of simple stews and carrot-based salads. That said, I can tell you an infallible way to have a good meal in Cappadocia, even in the emptiest, most desperate for tourists time of the off season: look for a wood burning oven. If they have it, they’ll be making the stew inside a clay pot, which is a better show than a dish (they crack the tops off at the table; they’re sealed with dough):

but also they’ll be making pizzas, again, two foot pizzas. I’m not a huge fan of the Turkish basturma, the air dried pastrami-like meat which is very sharp tasting, but if there’s anything to be done with it, putting it on a pizza is it. And especially with kids, who were not inclined to be happy with a lot of vegetables or a plate of cold manti, no matter how much their father insists they’re just like ravioli (no they’re not, they’re cold and covered in yogurt), a Turkish basturma pizza is a godsend.

* * *

Dandurmas, with some kind of syrupy yet also stretchy topping.

Although I dissed Turkish desserts above, there was one we had just briefly on our last day (splitting a single cup between the four of us) that led to an amusing coincidence. It is maras dandurmas, a kind of ice cream made with orchid flour which makes it weirdly stretchy in the same kind of way that a lot of molecular gastronomy hydrocolloids do to food. After we got back I was shooting the new Key Ingredient, with Brandon Baltzley, and he mentioned (as you see in the film) dandurmas. But the film doesn’t show the exchange that followed right after:

ME: I just had that three days ago.
BALTZLEY (giving me an are-you-shitting-me look): Really? Where?
ME: Istanbul.

Sometimes life works out strangely neatly. So I’ve tried dandurmas twice in my life, on two different continents… in the same week.

Some years ago I went to Florence and Siena. The image of dining in Italy that Americans have is idyllic— every Olive Garden ad bloodsucks that image of the table of hearty food and warm family in our collective head— so it often surprises people when I say that I found it almost impossible to find anything good to eat on that trip. Well, for dinner; for lunch we would stop at the central market or the bakeries nearby, and that stuff was always cheap and fantastic. Here was the bounty of amazing-tasting simple stuff that is Italy’s birthright. But let them actually cook it into a dish… there was the pasta place so bad we waved other tourists away, like the damned warning the living that there was still time to save themselves, and there was the Florentine steak place we picked out of Michelin which forever defined Michelin for me (snobbish, insanely expensive, twenty years behind the times). Honestly, one of the best dinners we had in Florence was Chinese food. It was almost as good as the old school Cantonese in Wichita.

Now it is many years later, Chowhound and LTHForum and Sky Full of Bacon and Grub Street Chicago later, and I think I understand better how to avoid crap places and suss out promising ones, in any culture. First, of course, is just to go where someone you trust says you should go; more on that anon. Second is learn how to recognize the signs of crap for tourists— the Coca-Cola-branded signage promising menu turistico, the lavish gelato bar (Americans are drawn to vast arrays of sweets like bees to flowers), etc. I’m not going to say we scored 100%, there were a couple of meals where we wound up spending $50 to feed the four of us hospital cafeteria sandwiches, but I also had several scores where we picked a place, a humble bar or bakery, and spent a relative pittance to have fresh-tasting, beautiful homecooked food served up by a smiling Italian mama or gent straight out of a 50s movie. Like this place:

This was the bakery just around the corner from our friendly B&B near the Colosseum, facing the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano, and I could find its address for you, but I don’t want to recommend it (unless you stay at the same B&B), I want you to be able to find yours near where you’re staying. A bustling little bakery, freshly made sheet pizza (pizza al taglio) with simple toppings like ham and mozzarella or potato and rosemary, desserts, a few tables crammed into a space right in front of a door, traffic in and out, stuff like this in the morning:

And it cost nothin’ and I felt like a million Euros for being able to recognize it and direct my family there just a couple of hours off the plane. Same thing when we went to the Vatican, we stopped on the way for a coffee and pastries before our time in the Sistine Chapel (allow me to highly recommend going at Christmas, not because they do all that much different then— it’s not really a place that needs extra religious-themed decoration— but the crowds were a fraction of what they’d be in the high season). The place we stopped was just a little cafe, nothing special:

Luckily I didn’t see the Coca-Cola sign till after. Anyway, coming back at lunchtime we had a recommendation for a nice, if expensive lunch, and we got to it and they were still setting tables and vacuuming, wouldn’t open till 1 or 1:30, so we walked half a block back to the cafe to have something to tide us over for a half hour or so. And we sat there, and guys like this:

were feeding an obviously local crowd with stuff like this:

And it all smelled really good and was dirt cheap and I thought, are we chumps for waiting to eat a $100 lunch for four when this stuff is being served up all around us? Yes, we were. So we stopped being chumps and just had them make up plates of enough food for six or eight, and it was maybe $35 (and half of that was Cokes), and we dug in, and were happy as could be.

Or when we went to this place (again, because a lunch choice wasn’t open yet, after seeing Bernini’s St. Theresa):

And while we were waiting the guy came by with the fresh mozzarella and the mama opened the box and jabbed toothpicks in a couple of them and handed them to us to try:

And on and on like that. One thing I learned along the way: nobody knows how to microwave like the Romans do. Because that’s how a lot of this food was heated up in these little cafes and bars; they don’t have room or time for a big oven, they just pop it in the microwave, yet it was never hardened and rubberized like food is when American restaurants microwave stuff. I suspect part of it is that our microwaves are simply too powerful, compared to theirs; we death-ray our food by comparison. For once the fact that everything in Europe is smaller and underpowered was an advantage. Whatever it is, they know how to use technology without destroying the tradition the food comes out of.

* * *

Now, one place I would unquestionably recommend, just as it was recommended to me— actually, two different parts of the business were recommended to me separately, and I didn’t realize they were the same place until we got there. It’s Roscioli, which you might call kind of the Zingerman’s of Rome— a group of businesses devoted to presenting the best artisanal foodstuffs, which may seem redundant in Rome, but in a city where that humble bar-ball of mozzarella on a toothpick was something special, Roscioli’s are a cut or two above even that. Jared Van Camp recommended the main store for its stunning collection of cured meats from all over the region, as well as the chorus line of prosciutto and jamon iberico legs poised above the salume:

Looking at their website, I saw that Roscioli also served dinner— as it turned out, kind of a popup dinner spread throughout the store. Dining among the olive oils and salume was an irresistible idea, and so we went:

It’s not, I think, that there’s some great chef here, but there’s a good chef making the same stuff you’d have elsewhere, but with ingredients sourced at Roscioli’s level of quality, like a gooey alien-egg of burrata topped with shaved white truffle (you pick the amount by the gram):

Or this platter of mostly housecured meats, including a fantastic testa and a speck-like ham:

Cacio e pepe, the most everyday Roman dish, elevated by the outstanding quality of the parmesan:

Which brings us, though, to a conundrum. Roman pizza, wherever we had it, was great just because the bread was so fresh and simple and delicious, whatever you put on it got a gold frame for its own flavors. But I didn’t feel that way about Roman pasta at all. The best pastas we had were at Roscioli because the best things went in the pasta. Other pastas we had were fine, satisfying enough, but without Roscioli’s sourcing, they were no better than things I’ve had in many places in Chicago, and the pasta itself was always serviceable, not one of those things that makes you go, aha, so that’s why pasta. This was the case at Luzzi, a frequently-recommended-in-guidebooks spot near our B&B, where the wood burning oven’s simple products infinitely outshone our homey (in the not entirely flattering way)* pastas:

I frankly feel there’s more devotion to making great pasta in or about to unveil itself in Chicago (Nellcote, Balena, etc.— at least that’s what their press releases promise) than we saw anywhere in Rome; if there’s someone in Rome obsessed with making the world’s greatest authentic preindustrial pasta, a Poilane of pasta, we didn’t eat his stuff.

Anyway, meanwhile Michael Morowitz had recommended a place called Antico Forno. The trouble was, that just means “old-style oven,” there are “Antico Fornos” all over Rome. What he meant was just up a side street from Roscioli:

This was Antico Forno Roscioli, a bustling bakery with lots of food to go (and almost nowhere to eat). There was sheet pizza:

and an amazing array of baked goods for the Christmas holiday just a couple of days away:

We bought it and sat on the steps of this chapel a block away, like the poor with their crusts of bread:

Except we had this, the greatest ham sandwich of my life, as I mentioned in my ten best list for last year:

Another recommendation from Morowitz was a tiny bakery in the Jewish quarter— more the Jewish block— which he said specialized in a kind of chocolate ricotta cake. Alas, after standing in line for twenty minutes, crowded into it like a phone booth, the ricotta cake was sold out (not sure why the Jewish bakery was as busy as all the others right before Christmas, but it was). I came away with slightly burnt biscotti:

And the irony of remembering that I had seen exactly the thing I’d come here for earlier that day… at Roscioli.

I bet they do a great job with it, too.

Another pizza place that was widely recommended to me, notably by Tony Mantuano who says it inspired the pizzas at his new Bar Toma, was Pizzarium, which I wrote about more fully at Grub Street. It’s just a walk-up stand in a fairly modern neighborhood on the outskirts (easy to get to, though, since it’s just up the street from the Cipro metro stop), but renowned for the excellence of the sourdough crust, which more than Bar Toma’s, reminded me of Great Lake’s (and has a similar overnight retarding period before it’s baked).

There were all kinds of toppings— I regret passing on one that had mandarin orange slices on it— but again, simplest was often the best; the tomato bread with burnt spots was magical. Pizzarium, like Rome generally, demonstrated to me anew that the secret to eating well in Italy is to spend as little as possible… in exactly the right places.


A few extra notes:

* Better in all departments (especially the warm Italian mama welcome) was I Clementini in the same neighborhood:

That said, one night when we were tired we did return to Luzzi and stuck to pizza, and were all happy.

Gelato is everywhere, but everyone seems to agree that one place, off the Trevi Fountain, is a standout, Il Gelato Di San Crispino:

This despite being a bit surly and having few places to sit. I’d agree— for the fruit gelati, especially the pear (praised in the NY Times) and some of the fig ones. Dairy ones seemed less outstanding to me— fine, but not unique.

So next week I will again be subbing on Grub Street Chicago, so watch for me there. In the meantime, though, I am finally back at my desk after various midwestern journeys, here to report on things strange and marvelous:

Yah’s Cuisine

The very last thing I shot for my barbecue video was the standup with Peter Engler in front of the original Leon’s Bar-B-Q location on 79th. Afterwards I asked him to suggest somewhere to eat in the area and he smiled mischievously and said, you may not want this after talking barbecue, but… how about vegan soul food? I know there has been a little discussion of such places on LTHForum but I must admit I hadn’t really paid much attention to the vegan scene on the other side of town, unaccountably…

Would it be too much to say that I’m itching for an excuse to get back? No, it would not, and this was even with Peter apologizing that it wasn’t nearly as good as the first time he went (the proprietress Yah herself was absent that day, and anyway, it’s probably all fresher and hotter on weekends). Even so, I loved the nutty corn cakes, the greens with a surprising depth of pot likker for being untouched by pork, the fresh watermelon-ade. Seriously, a contender for my top ten list this year even on an off day, and that much more of a reproach to the wan home-cooked vegan plates of blah mostly served on the north side. There’s meatless magic happening here.

Yah’s Cuisine
2347 E 75th St
Chicago, IL 60649
(773) 759-8517

Village Inn, Middlebury IN

No, not that Village Inn, but an unrelated actual small town restaurant. Heading to a film festival in Ohio, I finally had a chance to use a book I got last Christmas called Cafe Indiana. The woman who wrote it, Joanne Raetz Stuttgen, has two of them, one for Indiana and one for Wisconsin, both identifying small town cafes and diners where the food is made the old way and the people are especially nice. I mapped out several spots along 80/90 and lunchtime struck near Middlebury, not too far from the Ohio border.

Lunch was freshly made, no industrial shortcuts, but it was pleasant, not dazzlingly good. But then we ordered pie…

I ordered blueberry sour cream, my friend Irv ordered rhubarb cream. They were wonderful. The crust wasn’t as perfectly flaky as Hoosier Mama’s, say, but the combination of bright in-season fruit and a slight tartness in both cases was homey, yet with a touch of sophistication, an almost musical counterpoint. One of the best ten-mile detours I’ve ever taken, and while there I learned about something else I’d never heard of— Bob Andy Pie. I asked what it was, and neither of the waitresses seemed to know— they said it was kind of like pumpkin pie. I wondered, persimmon? Paw paw?

Of course, the internet knew— Bob Andy is a simple custard pie with cinnamon that rises to the top making an attractive layered look, common in the Amish country of Indiana (which is exactly where we were). Like Hoosier Mama’s sugar cream pie, it’s a “desperation pie,” one you make when you’re out of fruit or anything else that might make a better pie.

Guess what I’m about to make.

Village Inn
107 S Main St
Middlebury, IN 46540
(574) 825-2043

Further Adventures in Massillon and Wooster, OH

For some unknown reason, there are two different old movie festivals in Ohio, and I’ve been to both some years. The one in Columbus has always also been an interesting food trip, the one in Massillon, on the outskirts of Akron, has been more an exercise in defensive eating, Massillon home mainly to fairly generic burger-and-salad-bar family restaurants. But slowly I’ve found things in Massillon worth eating, like the Swenson’s Galley Boy, an old-school double-decker drive-in burger native to the Akron area with mayo and bbq sauce on it— but more than the sum of its parts. I also found an Akron BBQ chain that has opened just down the street, Old Carolina Barbecue, and if not the greatest barbecue I ever had, is certainly real enough to be satisfying, its Southern Pride smoker (the same used at places like Smoque) visible from the dining room.

But the most interesting find was one some friends of mine, who seem to have been bitten by the food bug after being exposed to me (and Swenson’s) last year, turned up. Taggart’s Ice Cream wasn’t a secret to me, since it’s one of the few places in the Massillon area (actually Canton) listed at Road Food. The ice cream is all well and good, but my friends discovered the real gem on the menu, the total retro surprise tucked away in the sandwiches column: a genuine “ladies who lunch”-style cream cheese-olive-walnut spread sandwich on rye bread:

I had a grandmother— not this one, the other one— who used to make cream cheese and black olive spread. I kind of loved it but it was also one-dimensional, tasting as much of building materials or adhesives as food. With more pungent green olives in this one, and who knows what other culinary tricks, this brought one of grandma’s Depression-era staples to life. It couldn’t have fit the old movies we were seeing better. Another olive spread sandwich, Countess?

Other friends turned up another culinary attraction nearby— the university town of Wooster about 20 minutes to the west. It’s funny, I had gotten so used to Massillon being stuck culinarily in the 70s that it almost bothered me to see the world I normally live in, the foodie world, encroaching on my annual escape from obsessive foodieism. But Spoon Market was a very nice deli that would do any neighborhood in Chicago proud, full of things like La Quercia prosciutto and Jeni’s ice cream and serving fried kale chips alongside deli sandwiches.

But the real must-stop in Wooster is Tulipan, a Hungarian cafe and pastry shop. Reports on the goulash and paprikash for lunch were good, but the thing to go out of your way for— besides the note-perfect mittel-European setting, again, most appropriate for all these old movies made, so often, by refugees from central Europe— was the pastries, like this classic, and really splendid, walnut torte, not too sweet or gooey, a reproach to all the overdone yuppie cakes and cupcake trucks of our time:

Oh, to have a shop around the corner like this one… One of the mysteries of Chicago is why there isn’t much Hungarian food here; but it’s all over the area near Cleveland, and in my experience, always worth checking out, for dessert if nothing else.

Taggarts Ice Cream Parlor
1401 Fulton Rd NW
Canton, OH 44703
(330) 452-6844

Spoon Market
147 South Market Street
Wooster, OH 44691
(330) 262-0880

122 South Market Street
Wooster, OH 44691-4839
(330) 264-8092

* * *

And on to the best things I ate in the last quarter (for previous lists, click the category “Best Things I’ve Eaten Lately” at right). As always, Key Ingredient dishes are not included because they’re one-offs and you can’t go eat them; and I probably could include a couple of things from the Green City Market BBQ or the LTHForum picnic, but those too are kind of one-shots and anyway, I was concentrating on enjoying myself, not memorizing the profile of everything I tasted. Hey, it happens.

• Corn cakes and greens at Yah’s Cuisine (see above)
• Corn cakes of a different sort at bacon dinner at L’Etoile, Madison WI (report to come)
• Olive nut sandwich, Taggart’s Ice Cream Parlor, Canton OH
• Sour cream blueberry pie, Village Inn, Middlebury IN
• Octopus salad and grilled mackerel at Izakaya Yume
• Cold soba noodles, Ruxbin
• Grilled quail stuffed with garlic sausage, Nostrano, Madison WI
• My homemade strawberry-mint-basil jam (inspired by a Dale DeGroff cocktail)
• Burger and fries at Walt’s in Wichita
• Ham spread and cracker at Brobeck’s, Kansas City area (I forget which burb)
• Baozi buns at ING
• Short ribs and other stuff at Perennial Virant
• $6 chorizo tamale, Green City Market
• $1.50 tamale, Garibay Tamales
• World’s simplest lobster roll, New England Seafood Market
• Biryani-like something or other at Chaihanna, Buffalo Grove
• Sausages from Bavarian Sausage, Fitchburg, WI, as cooked by me in speedy choucroute garnie

I sometimes feel like all I do is post positive reviews about happy dining experiences. It’s not strictly true— this is a pretty nasty slam, for one— but there is the conundrum that I tend to go places that I know I’ll like and I tend to like them just like I thought. I don’t have the expense account which offers Julia Kramer, say, so many golden opportunities to have a bad night eating out. I can only dream of that life, but alas, I’m cursed with actually choosing well and enjoying my dinner most of the time.

But even if I do have a bad meal, I don’t really feel inspired by lousiness to post at length, most of the time. For instance, I had an okay meal foodwise at Rootstock a few months back, coupled with willfully unwelcoming service which ruined that place forever for me— we could hardly get our check and pay to save our lives, while one of the owners (who was also, at least sort of, our server) was literally sitting down at our shared table, chatting up the people at the other end and studiously ignoring us. But there, that’s all I have to say about the meal— a pretty good neighborhood joint where I’d been before turned out to be from the sort of neighborhood where they make it clear they don’t want you. Rootstock, crossed off. What was that, about 75 words? Does anybody need any more? This is what Twitter is for, not a blog.

Harder yet is when a meal was nice enough, but not inspiring— especially when it was not as inspiring as an earlier meal at the same restaurant. Reading that Ruxbin was named one of the ten best new restaurants of 2011* by Bon Appetit, I was happy for them based on my first meal there last year, which I loved. But at the same time I couldn’t help thinking about a more recent meal there, which just didn’t recreate the magic. Here I felt much more acutely that this is a young restaurant still on its learning curve and capable of misses as well as hits. A deconstructed Caesar salad looked dramatic and way cool, and tasted pretty good, though possibly not as good as if it had been made the traditional way, all mixed together; a cured salmon platter, too mixed together, reminded me of John DesRosier’s Jackson Pollock painting-dish, except his didn’t look like the dog had painted it:

We had two entrees. One, a slightly Latin-flavored pork loin with bits of fried chickpeas, was competent and uninteresting, like a dish from ten years ago, way behind the porkocentric dining world of 2011 where you expect so much more boldness and porky punch (and a more interesting cut than loin). Much better was a bowl of cold soba noodles with various weird fine-diningy touches around it, like horseradish granita and a green soy gelee. I expect cold soup is a hell of a hard sell at dinner, but that’s what I liked about it, and why I felt it was the one dish this time that had some of what I’d loved about the dishes from my first visit— then, the little intrusions of Asian flavors and textures into what seemed modern American food; this time, the delicate hand with a broth that seemed clean as water, yet full of complexity and interest.

So am I writing Ruxbin off? Not at all. I think it’s just a place with a short menu made by young cooks, and at the moment, the odds of loving what you order off that limited selection prove lower than they were a year ago. I hope that doesn’t hurt them when Bon Appetit-reading crowds make it busier than it already is (my advice; walk right in before 6 pm or after 9), and I hope that the next menu they devise turns out better— and better justifies the extravagant praise.

* Not sure where 2011 comes in, as Ruxbin has been open about a year. Also, though Andrew Knowlton says chef Edward Kim eschews the “kimchi taco” route, there was a kimchi empanada on the opening menus.

* * *

One thing about lists like that from national publications is that nobody can know the whole country’s food scene, and so the list tends to focus on major cities, buzz begetting buzz. Although Madison, Wisconsin, like Austin (which places on BA’s list), is a capitol-slash-college town, it never quite seems to break into that circle of attention. Too bad; Nostrano, which I visited opening night but didn’t eat at until this week, would have been a great “discovery” candidate for the list. Even in Chicago, where owners Tim and Elizabeth Dahl previously worked (him at Blackbird, her for Boka Group), Nostrano would be among the best openings of an impressive year, maybe not revelatory in that it largely hits the familiar hot buttons of current dining (specialty cocktails, charcuterie, salads with duck egg on them, porky goodness), but holding its own in pretty much any of those categories.

Like the late Mado, it’s a casually sort-of-Italian place built on delivering big, fresh flavors out of stuff from the farmer’s market (which is literally a few steps away on Wednesday and Saturday mornings). I started with the charcuterie platter, which had a country pate, a bold liver mousse with stewed cherries, a rillette (I forget of what, and it was on the bland side anyway), and some grilled fresh sopressata (I think). I loved the mousse in particular, while the country pate stood out for the flavorfulness of the superior pork.

Because we clearly had a meat deficiency after driving around Wisconsin, Tim Dahl sent out a plate with some other charcuterie they’d made recently, a finnochiona, a coppa (too salty for me), and best of the bunch, something that started out to be pepperoni, but didn’t get smoked because Dahl liked it fine as it was. I did too, it had all the cured meat flavor you could wish and you wouldn’t have wanted anything to get in the way of it.

You get an extra ten points as far as I’m concerned when entrees are better than appetizers, and Nostrano earned them all with bold, complex, and almost aggressively flavorful main courses— braised pancetta with Roman-style gnocchi, rapini and rapini pesto, and grilled quail stuffed with garlic sausage with a blueberry agrodolce. These were Technicolor musical number dishes, nothing shy or delicate about them; I loved them.

Before they moved I thought Elizabeth Dahl was one of Chicago’s best pastry chefs— ironically, another, Stephanie Prida, was dining a table away that night— and this time Dahl’s desserts reminded me of Prida’s in that they were not unlike conventional things you’d had before, but in each case, a twist lifted them above the ordinary. A panna cotta came with an entrancing elderflower sorbet; caramel gelato dunked in espresso came with what the menu called “bombolini” (but were indistinguishable from the sfingi of the good sisters at the Taste of Melrose Park), piping hot from the fryer.

The only knock I have against Nostrano came right at the beginning. As my son and I walked into a mostly empty restaurant, we were greeted with… some long explanation about how they were a little short staffed that night and they weren’t seating people for another period of X minutes and… I don’t know, I’d just driven up with my son from Chicago and I honestly couldn’t listen to that at that moment. I didn’t care, I even said I wouldn’t care if we sat down and just looked at the menu for 15 minutes with a glass of water, but I didn’t need to take on the cares of somebody else’s restaurant, nor did I really want to be kicked out onto the Madison square to hang out in the company of derelicts and leftover rabblerousers from the endless recall elections. (This would be a review of Graze if they had sent us out to wait.) It was an unfortunately angst-ridden opening note for a place that looks, and mostly did feel, laidback and happy to please.

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I’m not saying the only consolation of driving 14+ hours to my hometown of Wichita and spending the entire week in 100+ degree weather is the food along the way. No, wait, I pretty much am saying that, at least since we exhausted the list (two items long) of tourist attractions I wanted to see last year. We managed to find another excellent one this year, or rather my sister-in-law did. But otherwise, family aside, the only thing to do was eat.

I wanted to visit L.C.’s BBQ in Kansas City again for dinner; there’s always a danger with barbecue of being wowed by one, irreproducible experience. As it turned out, it wasn’t as good as last year, but in ways that paradoxically confirmed its superiority. Huh? What am I smoking? Well, the thing with barbecue is, it’s always variable. And this year compared to last, the variation was that the burnt ends, luscious little meat and smoke nuggets, weren’t as done as last year, and hence were a little fatty and chewy. But you could tell what they’d be in another hour or two— and meanwhile the ribs, which hadn’t stood out last year, were terrific. A second visit, even though not perfect, convinced me that L.C.’s remains in the front rank of pit barbecue joints, and in contrast to so many new Kansas City places popping up, is still gritty and real enough to treat my kids to a real-life episode of Cops as we pulled up.

My original goal upon reaching Wichita the next morning was to eat at an old favorite, Takhoma Burger, which had apparently reopened in a former Tiki Dancing bar just south of downtown on the somewhat sketchy strip of South Broadway mainly familiar to me, as I was growing up, from news reports of massage parlors being raided. (My friend Scott once called up the Tiki Dancing place to ask what Tiki Dancing was. He was told he’d have to come in to find out which, as he was 16 at the time, was not possible.) Alas, it was no more, so a quick call to my mom produced the alternate suggestion of a Walt’s on Tyler.

Ersatz diners in Wichita are so common that the real old school diners feel compelled to look like the ersatz diners. The difference is, no real diner would have billboards for its “Wok’n’Roll Bowls,” as the annoying Spangles chain does.

I say “a Walt’s” because various places called Walt’s, of varying quality, have popped up around town over the years, started by different descendants of the original Walt. This one, though, is in a gleaming diner building imported from the east coast (I couldn’t tell if it had been bought new or well-used already) and the loosely-packed fresh-meat burger and fresh-cut fries were textbook perfect, every beefy thing you want a diner burger to be and rarely find in Chicago. I tweeted that it was one of the 10 best burgers in America, perhaps an enthusiastic exaggeration, but certainly not an absurd claim.

Presumably the oldest surviving hamburger chain in Wichita is the Kings-X chain; Jimmie King was an original White Castle franchisee in Wichita (where the chain started) and went out on his own some years later. Kings-X was always a slightly downmarket but good enough family restaurant chain with classic old school burgers with grilled onions. When a yuppie area on the east side took off, the younger generation built a new restaurant called Jimmie’s Diner which successfully managed to draw yuppies for, again, a real diner’s imitation of an imitation diner.

We stopped there for lunch after a matinee of Captain America. The burger was not up to Walt’s, though still better than 98% of Chicago family restaurant burgers, I’m sure. The odd thing about it, though, was that it tasted exactly like a Five Guys burger. Did Kings-X burger’s always taste like that, even before Five Guys existed, or are they imitating that chain (which has reached Wichita) instead of their own heritage? I don’t know, but it was strange.

Another old chain, food’s decent enough but I always loved the logo. I grabbed an excellent cherry limeade here.

My last burger stop was on the near West side, in what you might call the hippie-biker-artist part of town. T.J.’s had come highly recommended over the years, and it did not disappoint. The patty is bigger than a canonical 30s style thin patty, but I was impressed that they nevertheless managed to get a Schoop’s-like outer crust on it without murdering the inside. I ordered a chili burger just to have something different, and the chili was old-school beanless with some nice heat, again bridging tradition with modernity.

To be honest, though, I have to admit by this time I was pretty worn out by burgers, fries, black and white checkerboard tile, jukeboxes, pictures of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe sitting at the counter, etc. One thing I noticed driving around town this year was that there are lots of new barbecue places. Two Brothers is the one we tried (my in-laws ordered takeout one night) and it’s perfectly solid Kansas City-style BBQ, but I wonder about all these other places. Maybe next time that will be my quest– to see if Wichita can finally compete with Kansas City as a BBQ destination, too.

* * *

More interesting to me this time, though, was that Asian food has exploded in Wichita. Much of it, admittedly, is pure fakery, like a bunch of new Mongolian barbecue places. But a Chowhound thread pointed me to a place that was supposed to be a Thai-Lao Cafe— like the Malaysian restaurant I ate in last year, something we can’t get in Chicago. And like that Malaysian restaurant, located in a former pancake house where my sisters used to waitress, the Lao restaurant was located in a pretty ironically nostalgic location, a one-time Davy Crockett-themed arcade on the south side:

We went inside and the atmosphere was something between a VFW hall and the place the GI’s would have gone for R&R in Full Metal Jacket, a sort of tropical disco feel with the Lao extended family hanging out watching Dancing With the Stars or something at a long table littered with beer cans:

The menu looked straight Thai to me and I had to work my way through the entire family in search of Lao dishes. The son called Mom over, Mom barely spoke English and seemed unsympathetic to my desires, Dad finally came over and was much more amiable about helping me pick out things that he claimed were at least a little more like Lao dishes, though he said they didn’t have many of the Lao ingredients on hand. When we had made a decent list, he reached under the counter, and came back up with a dusty 1980s cash register, which he plugged into the plug next to the coffee maker to ring me up. Not a lot of food traffic, I thought, which made his greeting query (“You call for pickup?” even more curious. But no more curious than a (painfully) white family, 9-year-old son included, sitting there at the Phnom Penh disco waiting for takeout must have seemed to the occasional Thai or Lao person wandering in; pretty sure they’re not getting a lot of traffic from the east side of Wichita. It was pretty good authentic Thai, in the ballpark of our best places here, but if there was anything Lao about it, I wouldn’t know.

* * *

But I said we hung out with eagles. My sister-in-law found this privately run bird sanctuary west of town; with 100 degree weather the guy didn’t want to exercise the birds during the day, but he said if we came out early in the morning, he’d give us the tour. So we saw and interacted with hawks, kites, falcons, and…

He says he has the only bald eagle tame enough that you can pose for pictures with it. I’m always awestruck when I see a bald eagle in the flesh; it’s like seeing a president in person.

* * *

My old LTHForum colleague Aaron Deacon suggested Brobeck’s as another possible Kansas City BBQ destination, and being located right off 435 on our way to Iowa and Chicago, we decided to give it a try, even if it was white suburban barbecue in a strip mall.

It’s really good white suburban strip mall barbecue, though— like Smoque, getting about the most you can out of a Southern Pride. Burnt ends were terrific, ribs and smoked sausage quite good, and the sample of ham salad offered at the start worth a lunch trip (well, not from Chicago maybe, but from the KC area, sure). One thing that amused me: besides their own sauces, they offered dispensers of other popular sauce brands like K.C. Masterpiece and Gates’. To me that’s Coke offering you a shot of Pepsi to put in your Coke, but I guess these sauces have such a following that it makes sense in Kansas City.

Noticeably missing, though: Arthur Bryant’s.

Finally, we stopped over in Iowa City. Being a college town, Iowa City’s culinary scene seems dominated by pizza, and the Yelp reviews for any of them are not spectacularly good, but the best of the bunch seemed to be an old place called Pagliai’s.

Last year we ate pizza in the Quad Cities area; this, though another hour further from Chicago, seemed much closer to a Chicago pizza, the same rolled-out crust you see around town, a thin tomatoey sauce like D’Agostino’s, and where the Quad Cities pizza’s idea of sausage was crumbly breakfast sausage-style, as it is through much of the midwest, this had nice lumps of pretty good Italian sausage. A very decent pizza— and at least it wasn’t another damn hamburger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The much better arepa from Farmers.

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

Not the refrigerator case in the cafe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except… I never had the sturgeon.

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

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

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

Here’s a quick, photo-heavy recap of a couple of more things eaten while on a very short Detroit-area trip.

If Mike’s Famous Ham Place didn’t exist, you’d think the Sterns would have invented it— yet astonishingly, it’s not in their book. It’s hard to think of a place that does a better job of pushing all their Road Food buttons— location on a nothing strip of Michigan Ave. in Detroit, beautiful artwork of ham on the outside, an extremely short menu (ham sandwich, ham and eggs, split pea and bean soup), only a counter to sit at, extremely large portions, and the sweetest, cutest Greek couple running it:

Not to mention the charming touch of sticking a chunk of the glazed crust as a garnish on top of your sandwich. My son and I each ordered one of these— for breakfast— and we each could only eat half. Partly because as soon as I started taking pictures, they wanted me to try the soups, too:

Everything was just as good as it looked, just as good as you could imagine it would be. “There are lot of peectures of us on the eenternet,” the wife said, smiling in a slightly-mystified, but good-natured way. Yes, and now there are five more.

Mike’s Famous Ham Place
3700 Michigan Ave
Detroit, MI 48216
(313) 894-6922

Yes, Chicago, there is an automated parking system even more cumbersome and incomprehensible than yours. Welcome to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where parking near Zingerman’s takes 5 minutes to figure out, even for locals, apparently. Next time, find street parking, is my advice.

And there will be a next time because Zingerman’s is, of course, Zingerman’s— a deli and fine foods shop to make any big city in America jealous, located in a college town in the midwest. Actually Zingerman’s is a complex of shops and bakeries now, but the original deli is still there even as the space in between two of its buildings is being excavated for a third (meaning that you order in one building, and they walk your food over to the other through a construction site, the sort of thing that would appall you in Chicago, but just seems adorable here).

As packed and tiny as it is, the deli was a little overwhelming at first, but I made an instant bond with a young woman at the counter when I ordered a quarter of a pound of something I had never eaten even at La Quercia’s plant or the Eckhouses’ house— La Quercia’s Acorn Edition. (I probably shot some of these very hams, two years ago.) This is their acorn-fed Becker Lane pork, sold only by the half or whole pig and shipped when each different piece is ready (so you get fresh pork right away, but won’t see the prosciutto for a couple of years). It’s madly expensive that way, even moreso sold by the hand-slice (at $125 per lb.) (And because it’s sold by the whole ham, the Eckhouses had no way of tasting it themselves until Zingerman’s let them try some of theirs on a visit.) But I guess I established myself as a big spender with that order, and sending her off to hand-slice $30 worth of prosciutto off the bone gave me time to examine my other choices more carefully:

The rows of cured sausages intrigued me, the fact that many of them were from the supermarket brand Columbus less so (even if they were its higher end line), but when she returned with my prosciutto-more-expensive-than-gold, I asked for some help selecting more unusual things, and wound up with a pretty good Spanish-style chorizo from Fra’ Mani and a really excellent wild boar sausage from Creminelli.

Then on to cheese; having tasted practically every cheese in Wisconsin recently, I wanted to skip past those and look at some of the lesser-known things from Vermont and elsewhere, and I spotted an intriguing name: Twig Farm Fuzzy Wheel. “I can’t believe you spotted that,” she said, pulling a tiny remnant from the shelf. “That’s the last piece, but it’s terrific.” She gave me a tiny piece of the buttery-funky cheese and I cried “Wrap it at once, before it is wasted on these rabble!”

My deli purchases in tow, I examined the bake shop. I’ve only ordered from the bake shop once, to be sent to someone else; the prices are so high once shipping speedy enough to keep things fresh is included. My feeling about the bakery is, well worth picking up if you’re here but not necessarily so great to be worth shipping for someone in Chicago. A nice crusty hunk of brown miche was tasty, but locally you could get better for less at La Farine; likewise a pecan-raisin bread, which was very nice but not better than Fox & Obel’s. What was really excellent was the hot cross buns made for Easter, which had real brioche-like texture and tooth. In the end we checked out with $200 of fine stuff and a picnic which would keep us from stopping at some fast food joint on the way back, plus new deli T-shirts for the kids; a stop well spent.

And how was the $125/lb. Acorn Edition prosciutto? Well, it’s pretty wonderful, but I’ll tell you. From ordinary mass-produced prosciutto to La Quercia is a leap in complexity and subtlety, you feel like doors have been opened and your prosciutto palate has been expanded in all directions. From La Quercia’s standard product to the organic green label is another such leap, introducing a cheesy funkiness that’s rich and profound. And from the organic green label to the Acorn Edition is even more of that cheesy funkiness, that lactic bite dialed up to 11— but it’s not a qualitatively different or more complex experience. So for me, as much as I enjoyed finally tasting the Acorn Edition, the organic green label, which you can buy a whole ham of (around 15 lbs.) for $270, is the best deal and the one that gives you the greatest experience for the price. Not that I regret my $30 package of ham one bit— in fact, I may go have to have one of the few remaining slices right now.

Zingerman’s Deli
422 Detroit Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48103
(734) 663-3354

ANNOUNCEMENT FIRST: I will be giving a talk on food as depicted in films of the Depression as part of the Greater Midwest Foodways Association’s Foodways of the Great Depression conference, Friday at 4 at Kendall College. More information here.


I have a certain knack for blundering into trouble spots— I managed to have business in LA for both O.J. verdicts, and don’t even get me started about the vacation we took when I was a kid to the Bay of Pigs— so it’s not surprising that my first trip to Dearborn, Michigan that paid any attention to the town itself (I’d been to the Henry Ford Museum/Greenfield Village before, but ignored its surroundings) should occur on the very same day as a supposed preacher threatening to burn Korans (thus torching Christianity), Muslims threatening to riot (thus torching their own community), and a prosecutor and judge enforcing a blatantly illegal example of prior restraint (thus torching the U.S. Constitution). As a result, the Dearborn I visited was a powderkeg about to explode.

And I’m Queen Noor of Jordan.

Shatila Bakery.

Seriously, it was impossible to reconcile what the nervous nellies on TV were saying with the place that I was actually in. I ate dinner twice on the Arab-American commercial strip along Warren Ave., and it was many things— booming, thriving, vibrant, lively— but likely to explode in trouble was not one of them. Dearborn’s middle-eastern strip is inspiring, it makes Chicago’s look like a strip mall with a 7-11 and a Family Pride cleaners. There are literally dozens of places, from little holes in the wall to lavishly glitzy spots that look like they belong in a mall in the Emirates or Dubai, and to judge by the signage, more are opening all the time. And they were full of life and activity, families dressed up and out for dinner or ice cream, women in headscarves shouting over countertops to clamoring customers. The funny thing to think is that, most likely, much of the non-Arab population barely knows this all exists; straight west of where we stayed, on Michigan Avenue, there’s a standard suburban strip with things like Buddy’s Pizza, which may have been good Sicilian-style square pizza in 1946 but is mall-standard Pizza Hut-style pan today. Warren Ave.’s ferment of middle eastern entrepreneurial activity was as much an alternative universe to that generic present day reality as Henry Ford’s idealized 1900s small town full of inventors is.

Peter Engler, who’s made some study of Detroit (but leaning more toward coneydogology), advised me that there were a number of older Chowhound threads about the area, and that led me to our first stop, a bakery and deli called New Yasmeen, which had been recommended in a Saveur article c. 2004 for offering Iraqi stews not otherwise seen in North America.

I’m intrigued by any dish at a middle eastern place that is outside the ordinary and universal menu of shish kabob-shish taouk-hummus, so I zeroed in on some stews toward the end and started asking about them, one in particular with a whitish cast which I suspected, correctly, to be a yogurt base. I tried to order it, the guy helping me hesitated, I insisted— and then a manager who looked like Armin Mueller-Stahl came over and pronounced: “It is not good.”

I haven’t been whited like that in years, so when I still appeared undaunted, the first guy finally offered me a (quite generous) taste. It was fine! It tasted tart, like yogurt. On behalf of my fellow Nordic European-Americans, I’m sorry if any of my fellows came in here, tried these more exotic dishes, and bitched about them. We ordered a wide variety of things and they were all perfectly decent examples of their types, good spinach pie, nice lemony hummus light on the tahini, though really, the only reason to make a special trip here is if you want to try things you won’t see anywhere else.

Afterwards we went a few doors down to a place Peter had mentioned— or rather, the much glitzier new home of Shatila Bakery:

This was like a food court of middle eastern goodies, with separate counters for middle eastern pastries like baklava, French pastries (including a few hybrids like zatar-flavored croissants), ice cream and even a counter devoted entirely to knafeh, the dessert of gooey white cheese covered with orange-dyed shredded wheat, then doused with a sugary syrup:

While my wife got us the coconut ice cream (which came highly recommended and was, indeed, wonderful, jam-packed full of coconut), I went to get a few of the middle eastern pastries to try. But I was quickly advised that at the per-piece price, I’d spend a fortune, and so the headscarf-clad young lady spent ten minutes assembling me a beautiful boxed assortment of the good stuff for about the same price. They were delicate and fresh, far better than the musty old examples you often find here. While all around us, families laughed and ate ice cream and baklava. I wanted to wake Henry Ford from his eternal rest and tell him— “Here! This is the ice cream parlor your perfect small American town needs now! It will fit right in!”

On my way out I did a little scouting for the next day but in the end, the kids rebelled against middle eastern two nights in a row and I sent the rest of the family off to Buddy’s Pizza (which is why I can have an opinion on it). Instead, I beelined for a place advertising meat grilled over live coals, something I’ve seen only once in Chicago, at Al-Bawadi:

The place was called Assayad, it had touches of a curiously nautical theme, and everything I had, from the pickles

to the fattoush salad and hummus

was unusually bright and freshly-flavored, probably better than their equivalents anywhere in Chicago.

But what about the charcoal-grilled meats? I ordered kufta kebab (getting whited again, with the waiter saying “Shish kebab?” and me having to reply, firmly, “No, kufta kebab”) and it was kufta kebab kissed with a little of the smokiness of a Polish sausage. Even better, it was laying on a piece of very thin flatbread shmeared with muhammara, red pepper puree. It was great. If I’d had more people than myself, I’d have explored more of the menu— a section on fish casseroles looks intriguing— but for a first visit, this left me completely happy for a total that returned change from a $20.

So now I’ve definitely got a recommendation for travelers in Assayad that’s newer than a Saveur article in 2004. But even moreso, my recommendation would be to keep exploring, the scene is so big and varied and vibrant that I have no doubt there are many more exceptional things to be discovered here, and together they constitute a booming commercial sector that leaves Chicago’s small pockets of middle-eastern in the dust (even though Dearborn’s total Arab-American population of around 30,000 is less than a quarter of Chicago’s). There’s nothing like it here— although, curiously, I notice that Assayad’s menu claims that it has a few other outposts including in Clifton, New Jersey, Houston… and Chicago. I can’t find any trace of an Assayad branch here, and so far as I know Al-Bawadi remains the only charcoal-grill middle-eastern restaurant in town. But who knows?

New Yasmeen Bakery
13900 W Warren Ave
Dearborn, MI 48126
(313) 582-6035

Shatila Bakery
14300 W. Warren Ave
Dearborn, MI 48126
(313) 582-1952

14246 W Warren
Dearborn, MI 48126
(313) 908-7807

Like many foodies, I’ve shopped at Costco for years and one of the things I’ve come to rely on is the cool, refreshing taste of Kirkland bottled water. Yet it wasn’t until I saw a promotion in the front of the store next to the venetian blinds and the caskets that I realized all the Kirkland water came from the company’s own bottling facilities at Lake Kirkland in Idaho. Looking for somewhere to get away from the harsh Chicago winter, the vacation package they offered for a 7 day/6 night stay at The Inn at Lake Kirkland was simply too good a deal to pass up. So this time when I came home from Costco, I didn’t just surprise my wife with Australian Riesling, new cordless phones or a 12-pack of long underwear— it was with an exciting vacation.

The Inn at Lake Kirkland is an all-suites resort nestled by the blue waters of Lake Kirkland, and offering a truly dazzling range of recreation options. Besides a wide selection movies on blu-ray to watch from our in-room recliners and a Time-Life Music tribute band in the nightclub performing the greatest hits of Johnny Mathis, The Eagles and Merle Haggard, there were plenty of water sports options to be had:

But this is a food blog and you want me to report on the food options available, so here goes. There are more than a dozen restaurants on the Lake Kirkland property, and I was largely impressed by both the quality and the quantity they offered. Arriving mid-day on Saturday, we had lunch at the casual Haggler’s and were very impressed by the delicate texture of their woodfired pizza and the robust flavor of the Hampshire Farms bacon on it:

Since we purchased the babysitting package, my wife and I were able to sneak away on a couple of nights. Plasma, the bar and lounge in the south wing, had a throbbing energy augmented by an ever-changing display of some of Costco’s best offerings.

The wine flights offered tastes of 12, 24 or 48 wines rated at least 86 by The Wine Enthusiast and were really a great deal.  We stuck mostly to light appetizers here and one of our favorites was the sample platter of mini-quiches:

But the most impressive meal we had, without question, was at the resort’s four-star Le Rabais. Chef Jimmy Dean Saucisse worked at French Laundry, Per Se and Carnival Cruise Lines, and there’s a clear Achatz influence in some of his exquisitely designed and plated dishes, such as “Grass and Snow,” in which the dish is wittily plated onto a garden rake (Woodbridge & Vinely, $269.99/3-pack in the lobby) and the finishing touches of truffle salt are applied with an Ariens snowblower ($479.99):

For all his artful touches, however, Saucisse understands that the Lake Kirkland traveler is there for a fully satisfying dining experience of good-sized portions, and so there’s nothing twee or excessively retiring about Foie Gras Fourteen Ways (clockwise left to right: teriyaki, smoky chipotle, honey Dijon, cool ranch, mountain spring, rosemary-bacon, Hawaiian, strawberry-kiwi and chocolate-mint; not shown: Texas 5-Alarm, Tuscan sun-dried tomato, New England chowder, wasabi-pecan and habanero):

After a feast like that, I downsized my order from the T-Bone Case to the Iowa Steak Filet Sampler, but I still had enough left over for a tasty midnight snack an hour after dinner:

And as tempted as we were by the many frozen yogurt options, in the end we split a simple platter of profiteroles, which ended the meal on just the right light note:

I’ve come home from so many vacations with a vague feeling of, I don’t know, hunger for something more than we experienced. But in this case, The Inn at Lake Kirkland exceeded my expectations in every way. Everything we were served was outstanding and the attention to detail was simply remarkable. Based on this visit, I can’t wait for my next chance to experience what Chef Saucisse and all his comrades are offering. In fact, my stomach is rumbling at the thought of how long it will be before we can return right now.