Sky Full of Bacon

Continued from here.

Carr Valley Cheese, LaValle
Carr Valley is apparently actually larger than Roth-Käse or any of the others we visited, but scattered across several plants, so it has the feel of a smaller cheesemaker— at least when you visit its original building, built over the decades around a core that dates back to the early 1900s. Unfortunately, Sid Cook, its master cheesemaker, was out of town and only made an appearance in a video dating back to 1996. But we had a nice tasting of everything from cheese curds to some award-winning washed rind cheeses; I particularly liked the cow-sheep-milk blend Benedictine, a triple cream called Creama Kasa and another called Casa Bolo Mellage.

We did learn one amusing factoid about cheese at Carr Valley: you know why the traditional colors for the wax casing on cheddar are clear or white for mild new cheddar, red for a more aged cheese, and black for sharp, very aged cheddar? Because if they sat around without selling for long enough, red will cover a white wax coating, and black will cover a red one….

Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain
Cheesemaking was already finished for the morning by the time we made it to Cedar Grove in the town of Plain (a bit redundant as a name for a place in the midwest, it seems to me). And hey, we’d seen cheesemaking already anyway, so owner-cheesemaker Bob Wills took us to see his other pride and joy: an elaborate water purification system which runs the waste water from the cheesemaking process (rich in nutrients, since it started as milk) through a series of tanks where natural processes purify it to the point where it can safely go into the drains. Interestingly, he says not only does it cut the costs of dealing with water on its way out the plant… it seems to have made everyone in his plant think harder about water and use it more carefully and less wastefully, cutting his water bills on the way in, too. And in the summertime, they come out here and snack on the tomatoes and grapes.

Wills is a strong advocate for cooperation between cheesemakers, and often allows other cheesemakers to use his facilities to make cheese and to experiment with new recipes, treating his plant as a kind of entrepreneurial incubator. (He contrasted the Wisconsin cheesemaking attitude with what he saw on a consulting trip to Honduras, where each family cheese plant was protected by armed guards.) He made it clear that letting Willi Lehner, say, work in his facility and observing him at work was as much a benefit for him as it was for Lehner.

We tasted some cheese at his counter— he just grabbed it from the fridge and started cutting it up— but to be honest, by this point I can’t remember what we had, other than a water buffalo mozzarella which he had just made for the first time. (The farm, the only water buffalo herd in Wisconsin, is right across the street.) The texture was too hard, but he admitted he’s working without actually having been to Italy to try authentic examples of the cheese, so keep an eye on this one, it will no doubt get better.

Otter Creek Farm, Avoca
I was especially excited to visit Otter Creek, since I’ve been buying their cheese at the Logan Square Farmer’s Market for some time (and wrote about it here). I didn’t know the half of it. The owner of Otter Creek, Gary Zimmer, is a tireless character preaching his style of farming, which to the extent that I could take it all in a rush of enthusiasm, seems to be organic, rotational farming carried out very intensively to ensure the presence in the soil of all the minerals necessary for health and growth… and involving moving the cattle around a lot so they’re eating the right nutrients at the right time of day and year.

The knock on organic farming is that it doesn’t yield enough to feed the whole world— a comment usually delivered by agribusiness types in a way that insinuates that organic proponents want to cause mass starvation. Yet Zimmer claims that he gets yields from his intensive organic farming that significantly improve on conventional agriculture; and seeing the operation, I’m inclined to believe it, it’s the very opposite of lackadaisical hippie farming. (I was under the impression that the farm was biodynamic, and asked about that— and got a quick response about how waiting for the perfect moon to plant under is no way to get the best yields.)

Zimmer’s manager in much of this is his son-in-law, Bartlett Durand, who also has a shop selling local foods nearby, and he treated us to a vertical tasting of their seasonal cheeses, produced from the milk at different times of year, in a tasting room consisting of a Packers blanket thrown in the back of his hatchback. This was the first time I’d tasted more than one side by side and you could definitely taste its evolution— from more floral in spring to more dense-tasting and sharp in fall. We also tasted their spring cheddar studded with ramps, which has a wonderful wild flavor to it quite different from the usual flavored cheese made with supermarket vegetables in it. One especially interesting thing we learned from him: happy cows don’t moo, mooing is basically grumbling. By that measure, Otter Creek is an unusually quiet and contented farm.

This Otter Creek Farm property (there are several) belonged to one of the architects from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesen. Could you guess from this barn?

The last part of our cheese junket wasn’t another cheesemaker or farm— it was the Dane County Farmer’s Market held each Saturday around the capitol square. I’d always heard it was bigger and better than any of our Chicago markets, much as I love them. But I never realized how much bigger— any one side of the capitol square would make an exceptional market in Chicago, it was the first market that ever exhausted me before I exhausted it. We saw many of the cheesemakers we’d met or tried there, as well as an astounding array of produce vendors, sausage makers, bakers, doughnut makers, everything. It was really a revelation.

Trisha, a chef in our tour group, worked this day at L’Etoile, proving they really do shop the market as she pulled the official L’Etoile little red wagon.

Hook’s table, with easily 30 cheeses to sample.

Hammond buys cheese from Willi Lehner.

* * *

More posts from other folks on this trip:

Driftless Appetite: The New Rock and Roll
Madame Fromage: Otter Creek
And Cooking With Amy, hilariously, zeroed in on the same monster kohlrabi I did.

I will update this further as I spot stuff…

The cliche, of course, is that urbanites are full of radical ideas and unconventional thinking, while people in rural areas are as complacent as cows. In reality the stereotype more likely runs in the other direction: the societal pressure of city life largely imposes homogenized behavior on us urbanites, but give a man a little land and the freedom to play around on it, and in no time he’ll have built an entirely new way of living powered by cow dung and leftover whey. (You think I exaggerate. Just wait.) I’m always amazed by the practical fecundity of rural entrepreneurs, who sniff out new ideas from farms half a world away and promptly put them to work on their land, over and over. Admittedly, the rural folk I tend to meet are ones who tend to stand out for something interesting they’re up to while raising food, and are surely outliers to some extent, but still, you could drive around for three days meeting cheesemakers and milk producers, and learn something completely new and different at every stop.

Which is exactly what I did last week. David Hammond and I were guests for a 3-1/2 day cheese junket with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, via its PR firm Stephan & Brady, along with about 15 other journalists and bloggers plus a couple of chefs or wine professionals. (Since milk is largely a local product across the country, the growth market for Wisconsin dairy farmers is to have more and more cheese made and exported from the state. So basically the cheesemakers get publicity courtesy of the dairy farmers who want there to be more of them.)

We visited seven cheesemakers within 90 minutes or so of Madison, and though the facilities and processes were largely the same, the approaches were so different and interesting in every case that it never got old, or at least, after starting with the same basic equipment, it soon went off in its own direction reflecting the philosophy of the cheesemaker involved. A good example of how these cheesemakers reflect different philosophies peaceably: at one cheesemaking plant, Cedar Grove, we were treated to a pretty firm attack on the whole raw milk craze by certified Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills, who clearly thinks the sanitation issues (and financial pain of throwing out whole batches that test as contaminated) far outweigh any positive benefits.

At the very next stop, Otter Creek Farm, we… tried raw milk ourselves, fresh from the tank and the cows half an hour before. (No one either died or felt suddenly reinvigorated.) And we were treated to an equally vigorous opposing presentation of the virtues of this most natural of products.

Now, guess who actually makes Otter Creek’s cheeses for them? Bob Wills, at Cedar Grove.

Here and in a followup post will be the seven stops we visited; you wouldn’t be able to just walk in and get the same tour, but nearly all of them have a store which you could visit, which might give you at least a little opportunity to see how it’s made, just a few feet away in many cases. Or you could taste their cheeses via shops such as Pastorale and Provenance in Chicago, or in Madison at the Dane County Farmer’s Market and the cheese shop Fromagination, located on the capitol square.

Crave Brothers, Waterloo
Crave Brothers— not a cute foodie name, they really are brothers whose last name is Crave— has a thousand dairy cows at a farm big and industrial enough that we drove our bus through the barn, as if it were Cow Country Safari.

This is a big operation with little of the romantic image of the Old World cheesemaker to it; the endless rows of high-production Holsteins who are milked three times a day (other farms consider two more humane, though the cows may not really mind since they will try, on occasion, to get back in line for another go-round) make that clear enough. And George Crave said that they got into making the cheese they do— mostly fresh mozzarella, including private label for, it was hinted, a certain yuppie grocery chain— purely as a business decision, going to distributors and asking them, what did they want a new supplier for, that would provide the margins the Craves wanted? That said, there’s nothing wrong with well-managed bigness per se, since for one thing it afforded them an opportunity to partner with an energy company on a system that processes the manure the farm produces and burns the methane, producing enough power to run their entire farm and several hundred homes besides.  This not only uses that much less of some other power source, but gets rid of the giant-poop-lagoon problem common to large animal operations.

Business is good, clearly, to judge by the winery-like tasting room in which we had dinner. But in time they felt the urge to make something more artisanal like some of their neighbors, and they began working on an authentic Münster-style cheese. What they got, however, was stinkier than they thought the market could bear, and so they went back to work creating what struck me as kind of a deodorized American take on stinky cheese— Les Freres, a soft cheese with a kind of nuttiness and something resembling funk, yet without the foot smell of a truly stinky cheese. That makes it sound like it’s dumbed down, but the combination of this nutty, gently funky cheese baked with wild mushrooms was actually pretty wonderful. Likewise, their mascarpone, put into various desserts, was mild on its own but elevated the sweet flavors with its cheesey tanginess, and made for excellent sorbet and a lemon cream filling, among other things.

Bleu Mont Cheese, Blue Mounds

We got plenty of romance the next morning, starting at Bleu Mont, run by Willi Lehner, famous for his cheese cave— the only “cave” of its kind in Wisconsin which is actually underground. Carved into a hill, it looks like a hobbit house, befitting the somewhat elfin Lehner, a thoughtfully serious man of Swiss parentage whose property is dotted with solar panels, a new wind turbine (the previous one fell in a storm) and other signs of determined self-reliance.

It was in Lehner’s cave that I got my first blast of what I’d come to know as the smell of artisanal cheese: a sort of sweet, Band-Aid crossed with wet plaster scent in the air. Lehner had experimental batches of various things around the edges of his cave, but his main cheeses were two aged raw milk cheeses, one called Alpine Renegade and one a bandaged cheddar, which he sells at various ages at the Dane County Farmer’s Market. I especially loved the latter, hard and tart and concentrated, studded with crystals and with a distinct chalky-cave taste around the outer edge, and bought a chunk from Lehner at the farmer’s market a few days later, which I will nibble at carefully for weeks to come.

Uplands Cheese, Dodgeville
Lehner’s only facility is his cave; he makes his cheeses at other plants such as Cedar Grove, and his milk comes from Uplands, another dairy whose artisanal dedication is obvious (for one thing, from the ribbons and medals on the wall; their signature cheese, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, has won best of show three times at the American Cheese Society, which is twice more than anyone else ever). As a farm they feed their cattle by rotational grazing, which means among other things, that when growing season is over, so is milk production. So we saw them close to the end of their cheesemaking season— not a concept that would have any meaning at a big industrial facility, but plainly essential to their vision of how to make the best cheese.

Andy Hatch is Uplands’ current cheesemaker and something of a star (he’s on the cover of the Wisconsin Cheese Originals cheesemaker pinup calendar). (Easy there cheese groupies, his wife was packaging cheese for shipping as we toured the plant.) Because the milk that goes into the cheese changes with the seasons, each week’s batch is carefully watched and tasted individually (via core samples) to decide when it’s ready to be released:

I liked Pleasant Ridge Reserve, but after the Beethoven mouth-blast of Lehner’s bandaged cheddar, its subtlety and undeniable balance seemed admirable but less of a knockout to me. Maybe that’s what the judges in a competition like, though— subtlety.

I was more intrigued, in fact we pretty much all were, by a camembert-looking cheese to be called Rush Creek Reserve which should be available in another month or so. We hinted broadly at our willingness to be early tasters of it, but all we got was stickers— the labels for the packaging, coming shortly.

Emmi-Roth-Käse, Monroe
After two examples of artisanal cheesemaking at its most artisanallish, Roth-Käse, a venerable Wisconsin cheese company (founded 1863) recently acquired by the Swiss conglomerate Emmi, was a blast of industrial reality.  My first impression— possibly a bit crabby as we were behind schedule for lunch— was that they seemed much more interested in sanitation than, you know, cheese. (To be fair, I think our guide was stalling while waiting for the first half of our group to move on.)  But certainly it’s a big, shiny steel cheese plant, proud of its technology (though we never did see the robots who move cheese wheels around in the two-story cave) and dedicated to producing a consistent industrial product.

Even so, there was evidence of a human touch here and there. After passing through the various cheesemaking areas, we descended into the hall with the caves, which boomed with echoes of industrial noise and released blasts of steam like the Seventh Circle of Cheese Hell. And there, in the depths, the rinds were washed by hand by an employee who hoisted two of the huge wheels at a time, dropped them on a table with a resounding boom, wiped them with the culture and then dropped them back onto the shelf— all in a flash, and with a kind of brawny Teutonic relish that seemed to have walked out of an Upton Sinclair novel.

And then there was lunch. Our main course was fondue (ah, spared from going to Geja’s for another decade), but before that, we had a tasting of some of Roth-Käse’s cheeses along with a variety of accompaniments— a plate of different foodstuffs, and a series of glasses containing everything from New Glarus beer to a small production kirsch one of the chefs had brought back from a recent Swiss trip. It was fun to try, though I have to admit, I didn’t come to any deeper conclusion about cheese pairings than that just about anything sweet goes well with just about any cheese.

Ironically, the gruyere that is the plant’s main reason for being was not particularly admired, by me or anyone else. But I very much liked Valfino, a soft cheese (at top) which took a first at the American Cheese Society last year, and the horseradish havarti at bottom. Best of all were the two blues— a creamy Buttermilk Blue, top, and Moody Blue, which is very lightly smoked. Both were terrific (and I was happy to note that both are available at Whole Foods).

This gracious lunch concluded with our chef demonstrating another of his skills: yodeling.

Continued here.

*  *  *

Here are some links to things others on the trip have written about it:

Hammond on Lehner
Philip Potempa of the Northwest Indiana Times filed daily from the bus while the rest of us goofed around; here he is on Friday and Saturday.
Rustic Kitchen (who promises more to come)
Madame Fromage: Cheese Coma and Notes From a Cheese Media Tour
It’s Not You, It’s Brie: Day One
Sippity Sup: Wisconsin Milk
There will be more of these in the next installment, too, I’m sure…

Okay, so understand that I know no one in Madison, Wisconsin. No one. I was there on a cheesemakers’ junket (fully underwritten by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board; consider that disclosure) on Friday, and the first moment I had free to wander the city, I went over to a highly praised cheese shop, Fromagination.

And I immediately saw someone I knew.

In the city where I know no one.

It was Tim Dahl, former pastry chef of Blackbird, who appeared wittingly in Sky Full of Bacon #6 (the second half of the mulefoot pig saga) and unwittingly at the beginning of Sky Full of Bacon #8 (the one about Oriana’s Asian pears, which he had commented on during the mulefoot shoot and used in his dessert). “Tim Dahl!” I said.

He turned to me with the look of a man on the ten-most wanted list who has finally come face to face with the FBI. I reintroduced myself and said I had heard he was opening a restaurant here with his wife, Elizabeth, formerly the very wonderful pastry chef of Boka/Landmark.

“We’re opening tonight. In ten minutes,” he said, sort of shaking like he was attached to an exercise machine. “And— we— don’t— have… cheese!”

I let him get his cheese and wished him luck as he went out the door, vibrating like a tuning fork.

An hour or two later we were being seated in the private room of L’Etoile, just around the corner. L’Etoile has long been Madison’s best and most influential restaurant, to Madison restaurants what Mount Rushmore is to reasons to visit South Dakota. Food media always talks about Alice Waters, because they always talk about people on the coasts and barely know the midwest exists, but Odessa Piper, who started L’Etoile in an old brownstone in 1976, is probably just as important a figure in terms of working as a restaurateur to foster better farmers, cheesemakers, everything from the fertile farmland around her. If she had been in California and Waters in Wisconsin, she’d be the one you’d have heard of.

But if the above photo doesn’t exactly look like a cozy post-hippie university town place in an old brownstone, it’s because Piper sold L’Etoile in 2005 to employee turned current chef Tory Miller and a couple of backers including his sister, and in August it moved to much glitzier surroundings opposite the capitol building. (Madison, like Austin, Texas, manages the neat feat of being both a laidback post-hippie college town and a den of legislative inquity, which if nothing else, seems to be good for the restaurant scene.)

So I knew why L’Etoile mattered to the history of midwestern dining; what I didn’t necessarily know was whether it still did, or whether the many farmer’s-market-shopping chefs and restaurants that had followed it, not only in Madison but all around, had surpassed it. Certainly Miller still talked the talk, since the menu was dotted with the products of artisanal cheesemakers we had met during the trip, and he spoke about his own interest in the cheese scene and a cheesemaker who was our guest at dinner, Brenda Jensen of Hidden Springs Farm, who shared with us one of her newest cheeses, a sheep-cow blend called Meadow Melody.

The first bites immediately made it clear that L’Etoile was serious about great farm produce— starting with the butter. How many restaurants make their own butter? Not many outside of Wisconsin, I expect, but if they tried this butter, they would— it was fresh the way buffalo mozzarella made 20 minutes earlier tastes fresh. An amuse-bouche— something like an apple compote, on a housemade pretzel cracker with chives— was like a shot of concentrated apple cider, another— a shooter of butternut squash soup, made with a rosemary-pepita gremolata (I don’t actually know what all the words in that sentence mean) glowed with golden warmth and deep notes of citrus and rosemary. I’m going to try to reverse engineer it this week, and if I make something half as good, it will be one of the best things I make all year.

All of which made the next courses a bit confounding. We had two possible first courses on our preset menu; one was deep-fried gnocchi made with goat’s cheese, apples, bits of buttermilk blue cheese and a sage-brown butter/apple cider reduction sauce. I liked many parts of this— the twin sauces were wonderful, the gnocchi were light and airy— but I wasn’t convinced that they belonged together; a big sweet crunch of apple or the creamy sharpness of blue cheese easily steamrollered the ethereal gnocchi in the mouth. The other was Tuscan bread soup with housemade pork meatballs. The waiter had raved about the broth’s complexity, but what I tasted seemed far too Kellerized, an obsessively thin and clear broth where cloudy, rough-edged robustness would have served the classic dish better. What more than saved this dish, and again reminded you of how skilled the restaurant could be with good ingredients, were the marvelous pork meatballs, which brought funk to this dainty broth like George Clinton at a debutantes’ ball.

If I ever do a Mike G’s Rules #2, one of them will be: Don’t Order Steak In a Chef-Driven Restaurant, It Will Be the Most Boring Dish on the Menu. But I was lured in by extravagant claims made for the beef from this particular farm, and you know what? Yeah, it was good beef, a nice mineral tang, but loaded mashed potatoes, a cabernet jus and some broccoli still made for a dish as safe as a bank vault. Far better was a rainbow trout, served on a sweet potato puree, bits of smoked ham and a bourbon-based sauce— with onion rings. Crispy, hearty yet delicate, a dish that revealed new sides of itself as it danced in your mouth, this was the entree that proved that Miller could make not only good parts but good entire dishes.

A cheese course followed, not exactly surprisingly, giving us a chance to taste the most rarefied products of several we didn’t visit. Dunbarton Blue— the same cheese Tim Dahl had been buying earlier that day— is a beautifully balanced blue, though a couple of days later at the farmer’s market, I wound up preferring and taking home a different one; Hook’s 15-year cheddar is concentrated cheese pucker, almost mushy in texture but profoundly sharp; Edelweiss Emmentaler, likewise, tastes like concentrated essence of Swiss, while Marieke gouda, perhaps my favorite of the group, has an almost liqueur-like rounded flavor.

And then there was dessert, and again the hit was so glorious that it made the miss seem small, but also, that much more confounding. Caramelized apples with Hook’s 15-year cheddar and a green apple sorbet were wonderful, essence of fall’s tartness and comfort, so why were they saddled with being plopped on a dry oat streusel that had the consistency of a gravel driveway? It was like a vegan restaurant’s whole-grain-hairshirt idea of dessert. Yet a cheesecake made with Fantome Farm chevre was exquisite, weep-worthy, light as marshmallow fluff yet with the intellectual rigor of goat cheese, and set off by the lightest touch of fruit— tender vanilla-poached pears, a nectar-like peach sauce. The best cheesecake I’ve ever had? One of the best desserts I’ve had in the past two decades? Yes, yes, amazing.

We couldn’t have eaten another bite if we’d wanted to, but having shared my story from earlier in the day at dinner, a small group of us decided to go over to Tim and Elizabeth Dahl’s restaurant just off the capitol square, called Nostrano (which means something like, simply, “Ours”) and have a drink and see how the first night had gone. The chef himself was in a decidedly mellower mood, exhausted but clearly happy with his first night, at which they’d served some 80 people over the course of the evening (capacity at one time being about 50) without blowing up or falling apart.

We asked Dahl about the direction of the menu. It’s Italian-ish, and hugely driven by the farmer’s markets, which, he said, happen nearly every day in the vicinity, beyond the Wednesday and Saturday schedule of the main market literally right outside their door. Charcuterie is a big part of the menu— he said that all his cooks were eager to make a bunch of different kinds, and he’d had to limit them to one each right now, they can make something new next week— and so is a cocktail program a la The Violet Hour, complete with mixologists in Violet-like vests, housemade bitters and the like. What struck me the most was how restless Dahl seemed to be, not only talking about how he got tired of making some of the signature desserts for Blackbird and Avec over and over but how he wanted to change the menu at Nostrano week after week, to be producing new things all the time. Some of that is simply pent-up energy— Dahl had been a generalist before joining Blackbird as a pastry chef because that’s the position that was open— but some of it, too, must be someone just itching to make things with all the great stuff he sees being sold by farmers around him.

So compared to L’Etoile’s glitz and Keller-broth-meets-Batali-meatballs contemporary vibe, Nostrano looks like a dose of specifically Chicago-style porky comfort, Italian simplicity and cocktail renaisssance. But it’s also rooted in the farm to chef connections made in Madison by L’Etoile, and while that restaurant morphs into something bigger that’s as much Santa Monica as Madison, Nostrano means there’s still a comfortable little place in an old brownstone in Madison, where they make wonders out of the stuff farmers and cheesemakers truck into town every week.

1 S. Pinckney St.
Madison, WI

111 S, Hamilton St.
Madison, WI

Here’s part 2 of my DC-area trip… the part in which this Kansas-born inlander attempts to develop a greater appreciation for the seafood Marylanders grow up eating.

We had one day in Baltimore. Plan was, take the kids to the aquarium, afterwards my wife would feed them at something kid-friendly in aquarium area (I believe they went to Potbelly), I would hike over to the Lexington Market to try Faidley’s.

Faidley’s, here I come. Oh boy, this is going to be good. But wait, it’s strangely quiet at the fried foods counter…

All the rest of Faidley’s, raw bar and seafood counter and so on, is operational. But the part why someone would come there during August which is, you might notice, a prominent tourism month… it’s closed. Without a word on the website, which I had visited the night before.

Thanks a lot, Faidley’s.


The rest of the market doesn’t look that great but I decide, hell, I have to eat something. I get a crab cake from another stand, foreboding hanging over me. If I knew my crabcakes, if I loved crabcakes, I could rail against the pathetic thing I was given in artful literary fashion. Let’s just say, it tasted like a ball of Stove Top Stuffing, deep-fried.

I found another stand and ordered another one, just to complete my humiliation. It was all right, actually. It actually had crab in it, for one thing.

Given more time, I could have done better than this, I’m sure, but I had to meet up with the family again, so this was all I could do, and hope for gelato or something to wash away the taste of betrayal.

* * *

I also had dreams of a day spent toodling around the Maryland countryside. The reality proved to be racing across it as fast as we could to spend a day at Rehoboth Beach, where most food seems to come in $15 tubs. (Grotto pizza isn’t bad at all NY-style; the much-heralded French fries taste exactly like Five Guys.) So my ideal of the little, rickety crab shack in the middle of nowhere eluded me. We did manage to visit picturesque, just-interesting-enough-for-half-a-day Annapolis and hit the popular, by no means small and untouristed, but still reasonably authentic and reliable Cantler’s:

This still seems a stranger way to eat than we experienced at Queen Makeda’s, and by the end of it I had a long gash in my thumb full of Old Bay Seasoning, but I guess once a decade, this is fun and reasonably tasty.

Cantler’s Riverside Inn
458 Forest Beach Road
Annapolis, MD 21409-5912
(410) 757-1467

Top Chef would have us believe that Washington, D.C. is a great restaurant town, but foodies I know have some doubts on that score when it comes to high end dining, and my own suspicion is that it’s the kind of city full of people who pay little attention to what they’re shoveling in, though being seen in the right places to do so may matter a lot to them.

Step down from the high end, though, and I fully believe it’s one of the best food metro areas in the country, simply because it’s an immigrant magnet— and that’s the D.C. I explored over part of the last couple of weeks. I had some help from LTHers including Dominic Armato (whose Skillet Doux is the Top Chef blog, speaking of that, and who though now in Phoenix, spent a few years in Baltimore wisely exploring the food in the region every chance he had); nothing I checked out was terribly new to folks in the area, in fact most of them had enough Washingtonian and City Paper clippings on the wall to start a Five Guys franchise. But it was new to me, and their help, and the occasional Road Food or Chowhound post, guided me well, mostly, on where to go and what to have there. The following covers most of what we ate in DC itself, though I’ll have at least two other posts on other parts of the trip.

One thing for which I certainly needed little convincing was that I should finally try Ethiopian food in D.C. Five years ago I’d walked past the Ethiopian restaurant row on Utah going between my first lunch at Florida Avenue Grill and a second one at Ben’s Chili Bowl, but it wasn’t the right time for it– it’s not something easily ordered solo, but my kids wouldn’t have tolerated it then. Since then, though, they’ve eaten Ethiopian in Chicago– they dig ripping up the injera bread and eating it, or sometimes, making things out of it, as Cousin Olivia did:

So one morning we did the Natural History Museum on the mall (not as good as the Field, but it has two ace attractions, the Hope Diamond and an Easter Island head) and then headed up for Ethiopian at Dom’s suggestion of Queen Makeda.

We were directed immediately to a kind of salon on the first floor where, this being Washington, C-Span hearings on gulf shrimp droned in the background. That aside, the service was tremendously warm and welcoming, and the food was, indeed, the best and brightest Ethiopian food I’ve had. I wouldn’t say it altered my perceptions of things, since most of it simply tasted like really good Indian food, bright curries, except for the doro wat in the middle, which was more like a Mexican mole in its dark richness and complexity. But it was a terrific meal, and has encouraged me to give African (one of my own dark continents when it comes to ethnic cuisines) more of a try.

Queen Makeda
1917 9th St
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 232-5665

Afterwards, we went to the Smithsonian American Art Museum. This has a nice collection of American folk art, Elvis icons, religious art made of tin cans, etc., but amidst it all there is one magnificent work that jumps out at you like a deer on a highway:

The wall tag refers a bit condescendingly to the amateurish perspective. Well, amateurish in the same way that all pre-Renaissance Italian painting is, say. But that only adds to the intensity of this portrait, which throbs with a kind of neurotic energy in every brushstroke. It’s called Stag at Echo Rock, and it instantly became one of my favorite American paintings— and no one knows who painted it, nor has any other work by the same hand apparently been identified.

There was also a special show of Norman Rockwell paintings, from the collections of a Mr. Lucas and a Mr. Spielberg, and I finally got to answer a question I’ve always wondered about. In Rockwell’s painting of the man standing in front of the Jackson Pollock-type drip painting, did he do a Pollock-type drip painting himself— or did he fake it, carefully outlining and filling in each blob? The answer is, he dripped the Pollock (you can see the three-dimensional drippings), and painted the Rockwell part (masked off before or after the dripping was done).

On the way back we spotted a gelato place. Not just any gelato place, but NPR-approved gelato! Pitango gelato makes organic free-range cruelty-free gelato, or some such, there were various magazine articles and such on the walls about the farms the stuff comes from. All I really cared, though, was that the flavors were very fresh and very tasty (oh, and cold and wet, which matters in DC in August). I had mojito with flecks of mint, and I think white grapefruit with it, and it was first-rate.

413 7th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20004

Speaking of curry-like things, another place we tried was an Afghan kabob joint in Crystal City (Arlington), Kabob Palace. By sheer dumb luck, we happened to arrive five minutes before the sun went down on a night in Ramadan, so we got tables (there were nine of us) before it filled up and got to partake of the various Ramadan freebies being set out as we waited for our food.

These guys know which side an Afghan restaurant whose delivery area includes the Pentagon’s naan is buttered on.

We got all kinds of kabobs, goat chops, etc. as well as some vegetable sides, and all of it was of very high quality, fresh spices and well-grilled. We stuffed nine people for less than $50. No wonder this place is as busy as an Afghan bazaar (once the sun goes down). There are actually two places of this name in the same block, I think the other one is a slightly nicer, more upscale version, but the action is at the brightly-lit, 24-hour one we went to.

Kabob Palace
2315 S Eads St
Arlington, VA 22202

Finally, several people mentioned Eden Center, a mostly Vietnamese strip mall in Falls Church. By myself, I might have eaten my way down one side and across the other, but with a party of nine, I settled on Huong Viet based on the recommendations for dishes I could find online— and except for one caramelized fish dish which weirded my sister and brother-in-law out, overall it was a fine meal, as good as any Vietnamese meal I’ve had here; a tamarind soup with canteloupe and other sweet notes in it was especially fine and novel to me. We wandered a few of the shops afterwards but they were all closing up kind of early; we just had time to freak the kids out a little with durian candy and the likes, and to buy them chocolate pockys to keep them sugared up.

Huong Viet
6785 Wilson Blvd
Falls Church, VA 22044
(703) 538-7110

So I would call it a successful venture into the mostly ethnic side of the DC area. Posts about Baltimore, crabs, country ham and North Carolina barbecue to follow.

I hope to get some posts and pics up about our recent two-week trip to the D.C. area, but it won’t happen until next week. Until then, this will have to tide you over: a work of foodie archeology. In 1998 my wife and I went to France for two weeks, what is now almost a 12-year-old boy then on the way (so only I got to drink), and needless to say a big part of the point was to eat at fine places. We dined at Alain Ducasse, which I think still holds the record for the most we’ve ever spent on dinner (around $750 for two) and was not, by today’s standards, worth it; sure, it was an exceptionally well-crafted meal, but by now, for that kind of money we just expect so much more showbiz and intellectual excitement– there was no liquid nitrogen, no hot and cold dishes, nothing like that, just poulet bresse (the best chicken I’ve ever had, but still, chicken is chicken), asparagus and morels, high-toned stuff like that in a vaguely oppressive atmosphere— and so far as we could tell, everyone submitting to it was American.

What was worth it, however, for only slightly less money, was a meal at Marc Meneau’s L’Esperance, in Vezelay. Vezelay is a cool, atmospheric medieval town— its basilica has a most excellent, folk-art-like work of medieval relief sculpture which my wife’s sister the art historian has studied at length— and lunch at L’Esperance was magical. To be honest the food was perhaps a little behind the times— I will not attempt to explain why that enchanted me here, while I fault Ducasse for not being from the future already— but the lovely small-town-garden setting was, well, just so French. It will always be one of the great meals of my life…

…and as it happens I know exactly what we ate, because we sent the art historian sister-in-law a postcard describing it, course by course. Here it is, my very first food post:

What a novel idea— writing down what you ate, to share with others! How eccentric of me, it will never catch on.

Actually, seeing this again for the first time in 12 years, I note two things: I didn’t actually write it, my wife did (it was a collaborative effort worked on as we waited for food to arrive), and it wasn’t actually the first one, apparently we sent her a postcard from an earlier meal (probably La Clos de la Violette in Aix-en-Provence). But it’s the one I remember and so, like the cave paintings at Lascaux or the oldest surviving Usenet message, it’s the one I choose to honor as the beginning of all this food stuff to follow.

Of which more and better will follow next week, I promise you.

Ketchup Boy and his older brother pose in front of the world’s largest bottle of ketchup, Collinsville, Illinois.

Before and after eating burgers in Wichita (recounted here), I sampled a number of other interesting, and at least one surprising, thing in the midwest. Strap in and let’s go:

Frank’s Pizza, Silvis, Illinois
Silvis is the town that wasn’t big enough to become one of the Quad Cities. Cathy Lambrecht suggested this as somewhere to eat a few hours out of Chicago toward Des Moines, and it lived up to what I expected for vaguely Italian midwestern pizza. The building was cinderblock-American Legion-lounge in feel, the place was packed on Saturday night with locals, the pizza was entirely decent old school, but the giveaway that you’re not in Chicago any more is the sausage. In Chicago it would be clumps of flavorful fennel and red pepper filled sausage, but in the rest of America, sausage on a pizza is something like bland breakfast sausage crumbled to tiny gerbil-food bits. Honestly, it’s like a sausage Maid-Rite in texture and taste. This is why I never ate sausage on a pizza until I moved to Chicago. The cheese was pretty good, though, and the pie is cut in strips, a weird way of slicing pizza found in some south suburbs (eg. Calumet City) as well.

Fiorella’s Jack Stack, Kansas City, Missouri
I had a long list of Kansas City barbecue places I wanted to try… which got shorter real fast when I saw how few were open on Sunday. So that pretty much put us at the outlet of this venerable KC spot located in the dazzling grand hall of the old railroad Freight House in downtown KC. Decor and barbecue quality are usually not very closely related, however, and that was kind of how I felt about Jack Stack. I admire the restoration of this great old building, and the clubby steakhouse atmosphere is pleasant, if atypical for Kansas City barbecue; but they should have one upscale place like this, and if one popped up serving this food in River North, say, it would be a great asset to Chicago. But as Kansas City barbecue goes, it was just fair— the rub on the ribs was salty, other things like “burnt ends”* were surprisingly bland. Beans were great, but that’s a small thing. We would have better on the way back.

* No longer true burnt ends, ie., the too-charred-to-sell edges, which places like Arthur Bryant’s used to set out for free for you to nibble on or season your sandwich with; but chunks of end piece brisket.

Cafe Asia, Wichita
Not many ethnic cuisines where Wichita outdoes Chicago, but by having at least two Malaysian restaurants, that puts Wichita two ahead of the none in Chicago. This one was especially an ironic visit for me because it used to be the home of Georgie Peorgie pancake house, an all-American restaurant run by Koreans where my sisters worked for years in high school and summers home from college as waitresses. Judging by the age of the clientele when they worked there, most of their Sunday-morning-after-church customers must be in the grave by now, so I wasn’t surprised it was something else; but it hasn’t changed that much, except that now there are a few Malaysian dishes on the menu, which is to say, fairly mild but pleasant (and huge) plates of curry-scented noodles, very much like what the 80s-90s chain Hi Ricky! in Chicago used to serve.

L.C.’S Bar-B-Q, Kansas City, Missouri
The place I really wanted to try in KC was L.C.’s, located southeast of downtown toward Independence. It was worth the wait, a smoke-encrusted brick building on an unlovely highway whose floors were greasy enough to ice skate in your gym shoes on. In short, the real deal— and of the three main things we tried, one was fair (a sliced pork sandwich), one was very good (ribs, with lots of smoke flavor and a hammy taste and color a little like Black’s in Llano, Texas), and one was Thank-You-Jesus fantastic: the burnt ends. Again, these were cubes of brisket with at least one exterior side, not bits of pure char, but the flavor of these smoky chunks in the slightly spicy, tangy sauce was as good as anything I ever had in Texas, where brisket is also king. This easily jumped to the top of my KC barbecue recommendations, as representing a place that most definitely is not living on past laurels (as many of the others can be said to be) but is the vital heart of barbecue right now. Fries were really good, too.

Later that day we arrived at the Ritz-Carlton in St. Louis— and if there’s a more crowded, blighted stretch of major interstate than I-70 west of St. Louis, someone should open a Denny’s every 50 feet on it like they have here. We were there for a legal event my wife was attending which included a number of meals, so I didn’t really get to try anything of note in St. Louis. The banquet that night turned out to have a downhome theme— and so, after eating sublime brisket at L.C.’s, we dined far more expensively on much more ordinary brisket claiming to represent the same culture. Ironically, for all we know the chefs may have grown up on places like L.C.’s, in a city like St. Louis it’s very possible, but thanks to advanced culinary training, everything you love about a place like that has been expensively boiled out of them and replaced by bland professional proficiency at making whatever the hotel needs that night. Progress.

Two ideologies, one American and individualist, the other rooted in a pitiless foreign dogma, challenging one another not via arms, but through a peaceful competition, to achieve a dream that mankind had known since its earliest days…

…I refer, of course, to online debates as to whether plain American road food made by democratic ordinary joe cooks can be considered fine cuisine, or if that honor is to be reserved for the products of severe, hierarchical French kitchens.  Not long ago Steve Plotnicki, that up-to-the-minute bellwether of the state of hoity-toitiness in America, fired a Sputnik of absolutism across the night sky of LTHForum by stating:

Fact. Hamburgers and steaks aren’t art. The closest you can get to a hamburger being art is the DB Burger as it is a composed dish. Toppings on a hamburger just don’t rise to the level of being an actual culinary composition.

In short, a hamburger can’t be art unless it’s so Frenchified that it’s no longer recognizable as itself.  On the contrary, I believe that a well-made hamburger and fries is as perfectly constructed and balanced a peasant meal as any product of rustic French tradition— combining the rich pagan satisfactions of beef over fire with a delicate combination of sweetness (ketchup), salty vinegariness (mustard, pickle), umami (ketchup again), onion bite and dairy lushness (cheese).  Add potatoes (more saltiness, more friedness, more ketchup) and you have the meal which rightly defines America.

Which is not to say that its virtues aren’t often observed in the breach.  Last year we drove the Family Truckster to Wyoming, a state where lunch could be summed up with the single phrase “Where are we going to eat a hamburger today?”  Without exception, the hamburgers were as indistinguishably functional as the gas we bought at the gas stations, sheer fuel made with frozen patties and served with a side of pale blond foodservice potato-stubs.

The first three days we were in Kansas, we also ate hamburgers— but this time it was by choice, and what a difference it was to be in a state where frying a hamburger is a noble calling.  Kansas and Wyoming are both cattle country, but for whatever reason, it’s the beef states of the midwest which take the hamburger most seriously.  60 years of fast food has taken its toll; you wouldn’t say that every small town still has a drive-in where the meat is ground fresh and patted by hand.  But a lot of them do.

When I was growing up in Wichita, my two favorites, arrived at by a long process of sampling, were Bill’s Big 6 and Livingston’s Diner.  Bill was a survivor of the Bataan Death March, which earned him indulgence for whatever racist or crackpot stuff came out of his mouth in later years, not to mention the unbelievable jet black toupee perched atop his head; it was his place and if you didn’t like it, you were free to go somewhere else.  Bill and Mary Lamb retired some time back and, in all likelihood, Bill has joined his band of brothers in Valhalla; Livingston’s is still around, but I didn’t make it there and, if I did, it would probably be for a chicken fried steak anyway (for me, the standard by which every one in the 30 years since has fallen short).  Instead, my first visit was to a mini-chain which first appeared while I was in high school, Bionic Burger, and quickly formed the third of the great burger triumvirate of my youth.

Bionic Burger actually had its origins in Oklahoma, the rude and untutored wilderness to civilized Kansas’ south, and its Okie origins showed in those days in the sketchily ramshackle restaurant on the dirt-road south side of town where the fat, overalled cook would sit rolling balls of meat and setting them on squares of paper.  When a burger was ordered, he would slap the paper onto the grill with his hand, and peel it back to reveal a jagged-edge patty on the grill.

Bionic Burger has cleaned things up a bit since then; the one I went to, besides being located in an old Long John Silver’s on the tonier northeast side, now puts the burger-making process out of sight (and to judge by the results, uses some kind of patty-forming device).  Still, this is an exemplary burger by every standard, fresh-ground meat with a bright taste of salt and pepper. the right kind of white bun (springy top but not so much bread that it interferes with the meat; few bakeries seem to get this right in Chicago), and thick fresh-cut fries which came out with a little too much vegetable oil sticking to them, and in much too big a quantity (word of advice: almost anywhere in Wichita, a regular order for one is enough fries for two), but still better than a Five Guys’ franchise’s best day.  Though Kansas and Oklahoma may be distinct political ecosystems (Kansas is libertarian Great Plains, Oklahoma Bible-belt Southern), on burgers they are of one mind.

The next day we went to Hutchinson, about 45 minutes to Wichita’s north.  For being the closest town of any consequence, it’s surprising how rarely I ever went to Hutch in my childhood, but it didn’t take long to see why: it’s a pretty depressed place, dusty and out-of-date looking like a lot of Rust Belt towns in Indiana or Michigan.  But then you’re driving in a neighborhood of modest houses and beatup cars, and suddenly come upon this:

Believe it or not, obscure and rather down-at-heel Hutchinson is home to the second or third best collection of space stuff in the world, ranking with the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  How, you ask?  Well, back in the 60s the director of the local planetarium started collecting stuff that NASA had discarded, and consulting for space movies and TV programs (often in exchange for the props after they were done with them), and later, as the Soviet Union crumbled, he began wheeler-dealing with the Soviet space program, too.  Sadly, he eventually went to jail for mixing his official and personal space junk dealings, but the result is a museum you’ve never heard of that has both a genuine German V-1 and V-2, the exact replica of Chuck Yeager’s Glamorous Glennis from The Right Stuff, a full size lunar lander they helped build for NBC’s space coverage, spacesuit and camera replicas from Apollo 13, a Soviet Vostok space capsule (used), Gus Grissom’s Mercury capsule that sank when the hatch blew and was recovered 30 years later, and much more, a surprisingly comprehensive tribute to the greatest battlefield of the Cold War.  Really, it’s astonishing how good a museum this is for being in the middle of nowhere (quite literally, given that we’re talking central Kansas), I can’t recommend a detour here highly enough for anyone crossing the US on I-70, say.

Along the way, Hutch decided to make an attraction out of its only other point of note, the massive salt mines located 650 feet below the surface which, besides providing road salt to Chicago for decades, are also used for safe underground storage by Hollywood of treasures like the negatives of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.  The only thing more improbable than finding a Vostok space capsule in Hutchinson, then, is to find the Batman suit with nipples from the George Clooney Batman movie 650 feet below it:

The kids, frankly, loved the subterranean creepiness of the salt mine even more than the space stuff. Anyway, back to burgers.  In between Bruce Wayne and Yuri Gagarin, we came into town along an industrial strip, and were immediately smitten by a place called Oliver’s Burger and Bait:

This was no cutesy cracker-humor name, either; the actual bait shop is located in a shed out back, and at one point during service the waitress had to go open it for a customer.

I wouldn’t say Oliver’s was a great burger (I actually had a chili burger, for variety; the chili was canned), but it was a perfectly decent one, and more than that, it was a demonstration of what is so appealing about the midwest.  From the moment we walked in, city slickers all, and found the staff and the regulars joking good-naturedly, we were made at home, inquired after (“Didn’t think I’d seen y’all in here before”) and quickly included in the friendly joshing by which they pass the day.  In the end, we walked out not only cheerfully fed, but in possession of the gift of a T-shirt for my 8-year-old (“Burger and Bait: If we’re not cookin’ we’re hookin’”), last one in stock, on the house.  Thanks, guys, for making us feel at home.

The last burger I tried while in the greater Wichita-Hutch area was one that apparently has been around for decades, but which I had never heard of.  As the name suggests, Bomber Burger is located way down south in the heart of Wichita’s military-industrial complex, near the Boeing military plant that’s the city’s largest employer, and McConnell Air Force Base, no doubt serving burgers and brewskis to the crews who literally built and flew the bombers that were the other side of the aeronautical struggle with the Russkies.  Well, someone growing up on the white collar east side of town had little enough reason to ever go to that part of town, though I might have recognized one or two of the old roadhouses (the kind with dancers) down on K-15.  (For more information see my friend Scott Phillips’ crime novel set in the 70s Wichita demimonde, The Ice Harvest.) If the Cold War comes dressed in noble aspirations at the Cosmosphere, here’s the Kansas blue collar democratic ethos in its most raucously independent-minded mode:

Spangles, incidentally, is a local burger chain of no particular distinction.  Not sure why Bomber Burger should have chosen them as an enemy to replace the Soviets, but it’s so typical of the redneck-libertarian Kansas spirit to do something like that, and if you were going to be offended by Bill’s Big 6, you really don’t want to go to Bomber Burger and start reading the walls, where ex-wives, non-Phillies fans (maybe the owner’s from there originally?) and President Obama come in for equally sardonic treatment. Me, I had a great old time, not least because I dragged my sons and their girl cousin there and sat them at the bar (“Now children, this is what we call a ‘shitkicker’ bar”).  Much of the conversation, rougher (note the “no guns” symbol above my son’s head there) but still in its own way as welcoming as at Oliver’s, had to do with how the fellow seated next to me had acquired the nickname “Dirty Amish Hippie.”  (Somebody called him that in a fight in a bar, and he laughed for ten minutes straight, ending the fight.)

Ah, to be back among my people.

Anyway, the Bomber Burger is a real bomber, a fat 1/2 pound or so compared to the thin patties typically served in the area, but it was made with the same automatic, why-would-you-do-it-any-other-way freshness and handmadeness of the other burgers we ate, and the burger and fries were every bit as good as the atmosphere.  After three days of burgers, there wasn’t time or stomach to try Walt’s or Takhoma Burger or Ty’s or Livingston’s or West Street, here’s a guy with a whole list of burger joints which I mostly haven’t tried yet, but at least I was certain that the iconic American meal continued to be in very good hands in my hometown— and, whether or not it was art, to certainly represent a high level of craft.

Thanks for the burgers, and the welcome.  Dos vedanya until next time, y’all.

Bionic Burger
6121 East 21st Street
Wichita, KS 67208
other locations

Oliver’s Carry Out: Burgers and Bait
228 E 4th Ave
Hutchinson, KS 67501

Bomber Burger
4860 South Clifton Avenue
Wichita, KS 67216-3066

Actually not my second voyage to Columbus, Ohio by any means— I go every year, almost, for a silent and classic film festival— but the second one I’ve posted about here with the finds I found in between obscure 1931 Paramount films.  (My posts go back even further here, here and here at LTHForum.)  Columbus is actually a pretty good food town, a university town with a number of ethnic cuisines (along with lots of fast food and bland American bars and restaurants to satisfy unadventuresome undergrads), and every year I poke around and find new, interesting things.  If you have any reason to go there… go there!  It’s a fun place.

Japanese is oddly big in Columbus.  I don’t know if there’s really a Japanese population there or if they’re just especially fond of the 1970s Benihana-type steak places.  But I heard there was a good izakaya (bar food, basically) place on the far northwest side and so I hunted it up.  It’s called Kihachi and, indeed, it’s a really pleasing place that feels like an authentic family restaurant, not tourist bait, and made me some very nice simple dishes.  I basically ordered off the specials list, with a little guidance from my waitress, and I was very happy about a plate of tender grilled pork cheek meat; an eclectic combination of things like mountain yam and baby octopus in soy sauce; “box sushi” (sushi pressed very very square in a box; it reminded me of the Thingmaker I had as a kid) made with mackerel; and a very interesting special in which a shrimp paste was pressed in between pieces of lotus root and deep fried.  It was sort of like a cross between Chinese restaurant shrimp toast and eating a bar of soap, but past the first, Avon-y bite, it was quite good.

When I last posted about Nancy’s Home Cooking it was a few days from closing.  About six months ago a woman with a catering business reopened it and if it’s not quite the place it used to be, either in terms of dead-on country diner food or the crowds that once thronged there, well, it’s still a perfectly fine place to have breakfast in a town surprisingly short on such.  I also visited Buckeye Donuts one morning, the place that every college town has where you can get your late night post-drinking carbs (at least until you realize you’ve put on a double helping of the Freshman 15), and the doughnuts are pretty good old school examples of the art.  As for the greasy spoon breakfast— well, the clientele is probably in exactly the right state to appreciate it, most of the time.

One of the things I’ve been meaning to check out for a long time is Columbus’ North Market. Though the new building it’s in doesn’t have the charm of Cleveland’s West Side market, the food choices are exceptional, a handpicked selection of meat shops, bakeries, ice cream makers, Vietnamese banh mi stands and all kinds of stuff that really represent the best of Columbus.  My only chance to go there was after a lunch, so I only managed to try the locally-acclaimed Jeni’s Ice Cream, but I was pretty much wowed by it.  There are lots of gelato and sorbet makers out there doing interesting things with exotic, tart and pungent flavors, but it’s much rarer to find someone doing flavors like Thai Lime-Cilantro in an ice cream.  Yet Jeni’s does great things with these flavors that take full advantage of the mouthfilling creaminess of dairy as well; I loved the Thai and very much liked a lavender berry one and a salty caramel as well.

As much as I try to take advantage of the festival’s meal breaks to try new places, though, I also use them to, you know, see other human beings, old friends who I pretty much only know from, and see at, this festival.  And sometimes that means I go where they want to go.  Frankly, it’s a pleasure sometimes to go off the foodie clock and just enjoy whatever they choose… which is how I wound up at the Columbus branch of Buca di Beppo, the dreaded, Ed Debevic’s-style cartoon concept version of Italian-American cooking.  Actually, you know what?  I thought the food was pretty decent, definitely better than the travesty of blandness that is Olive Garden.  Yeah, the red sauce is too sweet, but that’s true of a lot of Italian grandma’s red sauces too.

But the concept… mamma mia, what a shonda for the goyim!  Every square inch is covered with tacky photos, Sophia Loren next to Vic Tayback next to Pope John XXIII; the WASPy Ohio-born servers affect a high school theater My Cousin Vinny-esque chumminess as they try to upsell you (as you might expect, the menu starts out fairly traditional but the newer specials emanating from Laboratory Beppo are increasingly heading into Spicy Cajun Chicken Chipotle Pasta On a Stick territory); and the meal starts with a Goodfellas-tracking-shot-like trek through the warren of small dining rooms and into the kitchen where one family sits at the chef’s table, mortified to learn that their special honor means being displayed like wax figurines for every shlub entering the restaurant, while they sit there wearing the same expression Joe Pesci had in his last scene in the same movie.

I literally physically cringed several times in my first few minutes in the place at the overwhelming shtickiness of the concept… and then I thought, get over yourself, Mr. Foodie Snob, and just enjoy that you’re there with friends.  So I did.  And silently thanked the gods of Rome that none of us had a birthday, because if the clean-scrubbed college kids had come out to sing Happy Birthday to us to the tune of “Funniculi, Funnicula,” I really would have gone all Luca Brasi on their asses.

2667 Federated Boulevard
Columbus, OH 43235-4991
(614) 764-9040

Nancy’s Home Cooking
3133 North High Street
Columbus, OH 43202-1125
(614) 265-9012?

Buckeye Donuts
1998 North High Street
Columbus, OH 43201-1165
(614) 291-3923?

North Market
59 Spruce St.

Buca di Beppo
60 East Wilson Bridge Road
Worthington, OH 43085

Chicago has been such a booming, wealthy city for so many decades that entire eras of its past have been almost wiped out— the wedding cake-Victorian Loop obliterated by the imperial classicism of the 1920s; the cheesy modernism of the 1960s hanging on only in ungentrified suburbs.  But just when I’m regretting the obliteration of great chunks of our past, I remember that there’s a city not far away where they survive unselfconsciously.  Milwaukee has been prosperous enough all these years that it hasn’t fallen into disrepair, like Detroit, yet at the same time it hasn’t boomed with the force of an atomic bomb, the way Chicago sometimes seems to have.  A trip last Saturday with a small group of LTHers to visit an artisanal meat-curing facility was also a chance to travel back in time to several pasts much harder to find traces of in Chicago.

The first stop was Bolzano Artisan Meats, who I’ve posted about before here. Bolzano is Wisconsin’s first cured whole-meat producer (ie., things like prosciutto, rather than sausages), and owner Scott Buer offers “Charcuterie School” to a small group each weekend, in which he explains the basics of how he makes his products.  (You can check it out here.)  Since we were, so to speak, advanced students who’ve mostly made charcuterie ourselves at some point, we skipped the class and went straight to the factory tour.

I knew Bolzano was located in the former home of Great Lakes Distillery, which I imagined to be some 19th century brick factory in a rapidly gentrifying area of lofts and nightclubs.  Turns out it was actually a streamlined 1950s facility in purest Industrial Moderne originally built as a Sealtest dairy, including the former laboratory, armored around with sturdy industrial tile:

—all of which gave “Charcuterie School” even more of a high school feel than I’d expected at first.  The refrigerator cases and smoker are all located in a larger, gleaming white room.  The first walk-in is for meat that’s been cut up and salted (or will be shortly):

while the second is for things hanging and drying out:

There’s also a little shop open on weekends, where you can pick up their goods.

Scott told us how the business has evolved since he sent me his first products some months back.  He’s now working with whole hogs, which since he doesn’t make sausage, has necessitated some creativity in terms of his product offerings; he’s invented some of the cured products he’s offering, such as Suslende, which means sweet loin and is simply a cured loin with some maple syrup added to the cure.  It also requires managing refrigerator space carefully, when you have a products, prosciutto, which takes nine months; it would be easy to fill the fridge with hams and then have nothing to sell for most of a year, at which point you would go bankrupt before anyone got to try any of those hams.

He also told us about the regulatory hurdles he had to overcome.  Fortunately for him, since he’s mostly dealing with the state, who are at least vaguely supportive of agriculture-related businesses, he was able to find at least a certain level of cooperation in exploring this uncharted territory, and wasn’t caught in the Catch-22 of “nobody’s doing it, therefore there are no rules, therefore it can’t be done,” as Chicago food businesses have been lately.

One change that’s unfortunate, if understandable, is that he’s about to switch to only selling sliced product; he’s had too much trouble with people who buy chunks and then can’t cut them properly and come back, looking to get their product sliced.  But I like dicing the pancetta and guanciale from larger than the paper-thin slices, so I stocked up on those in chunk form during this trip, and recommend making your reservation for charcuterie school and picking up a little of everything at their store soon.

Our next stop was the new home of Great Lakes Distillery. They give tasting tours on the weekend, but since we arrived late and it’s all in one room anyway, we just listened to the tour and went straight to the tasting.  They’ve made everything from bourbon to pumpkin brandy, much of which has sold out quickly, so on this day we got to try a straight and flavored vodka, a very floral gin (not sure how this would mix— I guess there’s one way to find out!— but I liked it a lot), some fruit brandies (the pear, which has a really nice real-pear aftertaste, was by far the best), and finally, two absinthes:

One is a straight green absinthe, the other is called red from added hibiscus, though it’s actually clear.  This latter seemed odd to me, too floral, but I’m sure it has its uses.  The green absinthe seemed very good, and about half the price of others I’ve seen, so that’s what I came home with, though whether I’ll ever get to making it in the traditional way (as opposed to using in sazeracs, say) is questionable.  Anyway, another great and welcoming experience, I’d certainly recommend this as well.

Next up were a couple of abortive attempts to connect with Milwaukee’s old Italian heritage in the Brady street area.  We arrived at Glorioso’s, Milwaukee’s best-known Italian deli, just as they were closing, but did note that they’re about to move into a bigger building across the street, so will have to visit them before that happens.  Another more mysterious stop was Dentice Bros., an Italian sausage supplier which Peter Engler thinks may have gone out of business (the owners being quite elderly).  Yet when we found the shop, everything looked as if they had just closed up five minutes earlier— and really, it is often hard to tell between a 100-year-old business that’s still around or one that’s preserved in death like a museum display.  So who knows?

What was still in business after 100 years was Kegel’s, an old German bar and restaurant where it could easily be 1890.  There are others like this in Milwaukee, such as Mader’s and Karl Ratzsch’s, but they depend on the tourist trade to no small part; Kegel’s, on the other hand, feels like it’s still serving a thriving German neighborhood clientele, and the idea that it’s picturesque hasn’t really occurred to it.  We had a beer and two orders of pork shank rolls, another example (like Mader’s reuben rolls) of the odd Milwaukee tendency to take bits of Germanic meat and roll them up in eggroll wrappers and deep fry them.  I have to say, they went with the dark German beer very happily.

Kegel’s, however, was merely an appetizer before our main dining event, Maria’s, which comes close to the platonic ideal of the old school pizza joint— located in a building that looks like somebody’s 50s ranch house, decorated on the outside with world-class neon and plexi 60s signage, and on the inside with a mixture of paint-by-religious paintings and the usual sports geegaws, while a staff of mostly family do what they’ve been doing forever.

Zaffiro’s has a reputation on LTHForum as the Milwaukee old school pizza, and it’s a fine one, but Maria’s easily surpassed it as the one I’m jonesing to get back to right now; I loved the burnt-edged, crispy cracker crust, the simple tomato sauce topping, the sausage bright with fennel.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s about as good as an old school pizza joint experience gets (though I could tell the one Easterner in our group, still under the spell of Pepe’s in New Haven or whatever, was the less enchanted one among us).

We ended the night with another temple of neon, Leon’s, for custard.  Again, LTHForum has anointed Kopp’s among Milwaukee custard emporia, but Leon’s seemed just as good, and it certainly had the 70s-brutalist Kopp’s location in Brookfield beat.  By this hour it was quite chilly out, but that didn’t seem to have stopped anyone from standing in line for custard cones, and it was a fitting end to our travels through many pasts in Milwaukee.