Sky Full of Bacon

Because Lord knows I have been today, watching episodes of a podcast called “Scotty Got An Office Job.” Scott Iseri is a theatrical sound designer and freelancer who got an office job (and has now, apparently, lost it, though I have some doubts as to whether that episode was a put-on) and immediately started making deadpan little goofy comedy shorts, mostly surreptitiously on his laptop’s built-in camera. They’re of the you’ll-either-find-this-hilarious-or-stupid variety, and so far his sense of absurdity (personal and office-related) has me hooked. Here’s a good example:

Unlike a lot of internet comedy things… they’re really, really well edited. (I know that’s a strange thing to say about something that was basically in one take, but see a bunch and you’ll see how crisp his comedy timing and filmmaking timing is.) The easiest way to see the lot of them is here.

The following is something I wrote for my kids’ school’s newsletter, outlining some interesting spots for daytrips in the greater Chicago area, together with a few food recommendations either personally experienced or at least gleaned from LTHForum. Several of the places are discussed further in this LTHForum thread. If anyone from the school (or anybody else) sends me more ideas, I’ll update it.

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We are big fans of summer road trips, the kind you can do in a day, see something that may not objectively be worth the drive, but makes for a great day of helping your kids discover the world and see life out of Chicago. Here are some places we’ve enjoyed within an hour and a half or less from Chicago, along with restaurant recommendations (this is small town America, so it’s mostly diners and drive-ins; vegans, you’re on your own).

AURORA— Aurora Regional Fire Museum has historic firefighting trucks and other equipment in a 19th cent. firehouse. Lunch: El Pollo Giro, 991 N. Aurora at Rte. 25.

GARFIELD FARM—19th century farm museum near Elburn. Mostly Wednesdays and Sundays only; best time to visit would be 1840s Days, June 27-28. Lunch: Bien Trucha, 410 W. State, Geneva.

GLENVIEW—Wagner Farm, Cook County’s last working farm, is now a museum; my son Myles does 4H there.

KENOSHA, WI— Kenosha has quite a remarkable array of inexpensive or free museums largely unknown to Chicagoans near the lakefront, including a new Civil War museum dedicated to the service of the Great Lakes states, the Kenosha Public Museum (a small natural history museum), and a dinosaur museum. There’s also a lighthouse you can climb and streetcars to ride for a quarter. Breakfast or lunch: Frank’s Diner, 508 58th St., Coffee Pot, 4914 7th Ave. Lunch/picnic stuff: Tenuta’s Deli, 3203 52nd St.

LAKE COUNTY FAIR—Carnival rides, animal and crafts competitions and more; look for us in the 4-H sheep barn. July 28-Aug. 2, Grayslake. Lunch: corn dogs at Squire’s Dog Haus on fairgrounds.

LOCKPORT/LEMONT— The Illinois & Michigan Canal has historical sites and walking/biking trails all through this area; the best-preserved lock is near Channahon. Lunch: Vito & Nick’s Pizzeria/Bowling Alley, 1015 State St., Lemont.

OTTAWA— One of the largest artworks in the world is in Buffalo Rock State Park a little southwest of Chicago—who knew? Effigy Tumuli is a series of earthworks shaped like giant river fauna; fun to climb over and try to make out what the shape is. Ottawa is the nearest town; for lunch try Row House Cafe, 728 Columbus St.

RACINE, WI— Racine has a very nice small zoo on the lakefront, 2131 N. Main, and there are some interesting playground areas for small kids on the beaches nearby. There’s also the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings at S.C. Johnson, which have some public access. Lunch: Kewpee, 520 Wisconsin Ave. Then swing by Bendtsen’s, 3200 Washington Ave., to pick up some kringle.

ROCKFORD— Excellent children’s museum, the Discovery Center Museum, 711 N. Main St.; also a nice small dinosaur/natural history museum, the Burpee Museum, 737 N. Main, and a public waterpark. Lunch: Not much, there’s a local chain called Beefaroo, various locations around town.

SOUTH HOLLAND—The Forest Preserve District of Cook County has several nature centers with exhibits and walking trails; one of the nicest yet least-known is in a large reclaimed preserve on the southeast side. Lunch: Schoop’s, 695 Torrence Ave., Calumet City

UNION— The Illinois Railway Museum has one of the largest collections of real live trains in the world, many you can walk inside or even ride around their property. Lunch: there’s an on-site restaurant, or Allen’s Corner near Hampshire on Hwy 20 is a good old-style country diner.

VOLO— Tiny Volo has the Volo Auto Museum, but the coolest thing is a swamp—specifically, the huge Volo bog, which has a floating walkway through it as well as a nature center. Lunch: Sammie’s, 799 E Belvidere Rd, Grayslake.

WAUCONDA— There’s a Lake County historical museum whose main exhibit, oddly, is about a big postcard printer in Chicago; also some historical stuff of the Capone era, a tribute to Waukeganite Jack Benny, etc. Lunch: Frank’s Karma Cafe, 203 S. Main St.

An Orange Cream Hershey’s Kiss to everyone, as we tick off some happy milestones (feel free to jump to review of Taxim below if this insider stuff isn’t interesting): first off, the new podcast about La Quercia just passed 1000 views after about two weeks of being publically viewable.  And it’s chugging right along, so I expect it to be one of the more widely picked up and viewed in the end.

The first of the There Will Be Pork videos just passed 1000 too, and the second one is almost there.  (I knew those would draw a smaller audience because many would be turned off by the meatcutting and slaughter footage, but it’s satisfying that they’ve finally reached that milestone, or will shortly.)

And not too long ago, the urban foraging podcast passed an astounding 6000, which so far as I can tell makes it the most-watched piece of online food video journalism anybody in Chicago has done, especially impressive in that it’s just little old me and most of the others have the backing of some larger media outlet.  (Big big thanks to the many media outlets who have supported me even though I’m not in house, especially my most constant supporters Mike Sula and Kate Schmidt at the Reader, Helen Rosner at Menu Pages, Chuck Sudo at Chicagoist and Michael Morowitz and Rob Gardner at The Local Beet.)

All in all, that means Sky Full of Bacon is closing in on 20,000 views in its first year, which if not beyond my wildest dreams, is certainly firmly among them. Also highly encouraging is the fact that the videos keep steaming along; they don’t die off in interest after a month or two.  In fact, as planting season came round again and interest in Earthboxes and that kind of container gardening continues to boom, the very first podcast, How Local Can You Go?, popped up again and has drawn about 25 new views a week.  That’s really motivating to me, knowing that these things have a life that just keeps on running.

Here’s the ten podcasts so far ranked by views to date on Vimeo (each one also has a certain 100-ish number of iTunes views, but this is the easy way to track actual viewings by actual people):

1. 07: Eat This City (6,086)
2. 03: The Last Brisket Show (3,344)
3. 01: How Local Can You Go? (1,752)
4. 04: A Head’s Tale (1,462)
5. 02: Duck School (1,056)
6. 05: There Will Be Pork pt. 1 (1,020)
7. 10: Prosciutto di Iowa (1,006)
8. 05: There Will Be Pork pt. 2 (991)
9. 08: Pear-Shaped World (888)
10. 09: Raccoon Stories (737)
(to see them, click Video Podcasts in Categories at right)

Thanks to all who have participated, supported, and last but not least, watched and enjoyed.

P.S. Dozens of you have asked about the Sky Full of Bacon totebag I’m seen holding below in the post about the Printers Row Lit Fest. Dozens? Okay, so the actual number was zero, but anyway. Since it’s farmer’s market season, what could be cooler than a bag from your favorite food podcast? Get them here.

The theory is that Taxim, the new Greek restaurant in Wicker Park, is kind of the Greek equivalent of the early new Italian restaurants that helped get Italian food out of the meatball-and-red-sauce rut. That’s what Mike Sula reported in the Reader:

If a single historical figure could be blamed for that orthodoxy—the one that upholds the ideal of Greek food as bechamel-blanketed pastichio and high-viscosity avgolemono soup—it would be European-trained Greek chef Nicholas Tselementes, who in the early part of the last century sparked a culinary revolution in his homeland, exiling simple, fresh ingredient-driven dishes made with olive oil, garlic, and native herbs in favor of a French-influenced hybrid employing butter, cream, and flour. Tselementes wanted to purge Greek cuisine of Turkish and other influences… Since then a kind of collective denial of eastern Mediterranean Greek cuisine has persisted in Greece and abroad, while Frenchified Greek cuisine, aided and abetted by the tourist trade, has been exported all over the world.

I tried this theory on Stevez of LTHForum, and he didn’t quite buy it; his wife is Greek-American and he says the Greektown classics are what all the old ladies make when they’re cooking for themselves, too. It’s not just Greek food for tourists, in other words. But he did buy that it might at least be similar to Greek regional foods unknown in the US, but similar in many ways to Turkish and other neighboring foods (not that you’ll make any friends in Greece saying their food is like Turkish).

Whatever the provenance of its style, Taxim is the first new Greek restaurant in Chicago to get excited about in a long, long time. Chef David Schneider came from places like Green Zebra, not The Parthenon or Santorini, so he’s blessedly free of the Greek orthodoxy that insists on all the flamingly cheesy cliches of the cuisine; he’s broken Greek food back down to first principles, and even something as simple as the baba ghanoush-like melitzanosalata feels reinvented back into the fresh and distinct flavors— charcoal-grilled eggplant, olive oil, garlic, toasted pine nuts— that are usually blended into a gray mush.

We mainly worked our way through the appetizers because, well, that’s pretty much what you should do in almost any restaurant these days, and it paid off.  A “rampopita”— spanakopita made with ramps— was exponentially more flavorful than spinach would have been.  A stew of lamb, fava beans and housemade yogurt was deeply comfy.  Most exotic was a special, urged on us in no uncertain terms by our James Spader-circa-Tuff Turf waiter, of grilled sable liver with grilled zucchini; the funky, slightly fishy liver, the pita crisps and the soft zucchini melded beautifully, lushly magnetic-repellent.

We were fairly full after these four dishes and split our only entree, the duck gyros, which has been (understandably) the most talked-about dish to date.  Duck, prepared basturma style (basturma is basically pastrami; I’m not sure what it means in this context as it’s certainly not nearly so salted or dry as pastrami) is then grilled on a gyros spit and served inside a flatbread with pomegranate sauce and the housemade yogurt (again):

It makes for probably the best wrap you’ll have this year, although I must admit I ate about half of my share by simply picking the roasted duck out of the wrap and gnoshing on it directly; it was delicious enough to not strictly need anything more than that.

The wine list is mostly Greek and following our waiter’s guidance we variously ordered (or were given a glass of) white, rose and red Greek wine; all of it was pretty good, none of it said “minor wine-producing nation.”  To our surprise, the restaurant was empty when we arrived at 6, but by 7:30 or so it was getting pretty full; it is Wicker Park, after all, 8 pm is the early bird special (and as we were leaving even The Violet Hour didn’t have a line yet).

It’s not quite as modest-priced, and it’s more upscale in appearance, but in many ways Taxim seems to me like this year’s Mixteco Grill, the place that catches fire for a fresh and appealing take on a familiar cuisine.  It should be packed soon, go now so you’ll want to go later, when it’s harder to get into.

1558 N. Milwaukee

Here’s Mike Sula’s video of chef David Schneider preparing the flatbread which wraps the duck gyros above:

Making Pontian satz bread at Chicago’s Taxim Restaurant from mike sula on Vimeo.

If you’re new to the site, either because of the La Quercia email or hearing about Sky Full of Bacon at the Printers Row Literary Festival, you can see the La Quercia video here or all the video podcasts here.  Then check out the blog for eclectic food commentary, and get my Twitter feed here. And, if you have a blog of your own, you’re invited to embed the podcasts at your site—just click the Embed button to get the code.  Welcome!

Some pics from Printers Row:

Fairland Cafe, Wichita.  Photo by Scott Phillips, c. 1980.

Emily Nunn had a post recently about how the one thing a transplant to Chicago can’t do is publicly confess longings for New York; I have no big longings for New York, or it wouldn’t be a decade since I last went there, but I will confess, in a similar spirit of emigre honesty, that there are certain things I used to do in Kansas without a second thought which I find too scary to do in Chicago.  One of these, for instance, is eat in 24-hour diners.  In Wichita, I’d find it charmingly colorful to be surrounded by Woody Guthriesque Okies nursing hangovers, or just taking an interregnum between fading hangover and impending bender; somehow the same people in the same state in Chicago intimidate me more, leave me more fearful of imminent danger.  This despite the fact that I could relate a number of tales relating to criminality in Wichita diners:

Back in the 50s or 60s, there was a place near the newspaper and the police station called the Fairland Cafe— a 24-hour diner/chop suey joint— and one night a gangster got tipped off that somebody planned to bump him off; he hightailed it to the Fairland and set himself up in a back booth, drinking coffee for two or three days as the would-be killers sat in the parking lot waiting for him to come out.  By the last day he was smelling so bad he had to toss $50 bills at the waitresses to get them to bring him more coffee.  Finally the standoff ended when he had a heart attack and left the restaurant in an ambulance, the assassins watching helplessly as he was carried out of their reach.

Even less logically, the presumed hygiene of such a place—which never closes long enough for a really thorough cleaning— bugs me more in Chicago then it ever did in Wichita.  There’s no sense to this at all, it’s not like we didn’t have germs there too, but what can I say; the tattered, rundown place that seems charming on Kellogg in my hometown seems a little squicky to me on Western or Pulaski.  I should point out that most of the time, there’s no factual basis for this; the paneling may be chipped, the counter may be stained, but I have no reason to think the place doesn’t meet basic hygiene standards.  But the dilapidation just nags at my subconscious in a way the same basic place in Wichita wouldn’t have.  What I’d find comfortingly familiar there, seems here to be part of the vast big city conspiracy just waiting to devour and doom the migrant from a distant, more innocent land.  It happened to King Kong, it’s bound to happen to me too.  Meet a blonde and next thing you know, it’s the biplanes.  She gets a movie contract and you get a one-way ticket down a skyscraper.

So although I’ve lived within a short distance of Jerry’s Diner for almost two decades, I have been there— like the title says— only about once every ten years.  I think it’s enjoyed praise on LTHForum for its ham but somehow, whenever I try to think of some place to grab breakfast, Jeri’s has elicited a weaselly “Ennnh… some other time” in my inner dialogue.

Finally I overcame this, or my inability to think of anywhere else on a solo Sunday morning did.  I went into Jeri’s and sidled up to the counter, settling in amid the Algrenesque characters reading the Sun-Times (the paper of diner counters, no question) and eating the same thing they’d ordered every morning for more years than they could count.  The paneling on the walls, in 60s orange and yellow stripes, summoned up some distant memory of a dance studio I’d gone to as a toddler for some kid’s birthday (Bucky Buchanan?  Bill Wheeler?)  Some of them conversed, making hard-luck jokes with the waitresses; others were determinedly introverted, noses down into their papers, not about to have a conversation that might reveal, obliquely, how the dreams and aspirations of youth had led to breakfast, alone, day after day at a 24-hour joint.  One day they wouldn’t come in any more, and that would be that.

I liked the atmosphere in all its down-at-heel urbanness.  I could have enjoyed it all day with Frankie Machine on one side and Augie March on the other while Ed Hunter and his Uncle Am solved crimes in the background and Wanda Skutnik tried not to spill what she knew.  The waitresses and counter man were genuinely warm and friendly, they made it a refuge in a harsh land.  You could love Jeri’s… if it weren’t for the food.

Alas, it was the cheapest, most industrial diner food imaginable.  Flavorless rubber eggs.  Pancakes from a box of Bisquick big enough to sleep in.  Ham product that had the sponginess of reconstituted seatcover.  There was probably a time when I could have eaten this just to enjoy the atmosphere.  Today, it said to me, you don’t belong here.  You with your ironic awareness of Edward Hopper and your foodsnob sensibility, you are not one of us, the fallen, the washed up.

But who knows, maybe some day I will be.  That’s always the promise of the city to the hopeful immigrant.

Jeri’s Grill
4357 N Western Ave 
Chicago, IL 60618
(773) 604-8775

First in a new feature in which we eat cheese, and blog cheese.

I’ve decided I need to get more serious about cheese. By which I mean, there’s this cheese scene in America, and I basically only buy cheese by type— hard, soft, goat. Put them in front of me and mmmnnnummmnmm, I eat, but I don’t analyze.  I don’t remember what I liked, and why.  I need to take cheese more seriously and thoughtfully. Hence this new feature, in which I’ll write about specific new cheeses in our fabulous cheesy era of great cheese.

But first: radishes. I went to look at my Earthboxes the other day, and wow, French breakfast radishes were practically forcing themselves out of the ground, like mandrakes getting ready for a good scream. I don’t think the miracle of growing had ever been quite so forcefully impressed upon me— a couple of weeks ago, mud, that has somehow been turned into this bright pink and white thing. I think it’s the color that really struck me. I’m used to green coming out of the ground, but this was like something made of bright plastic had grown there. It was like I was harvesting Christmas ornaments, or Barbies.

Anyway, I plucked some out of the ground and washed them, to slice and serve on rye bread (Lithuanian rye, Today’s Temptations) with some goat butter, in imitation of how they are served at The Bristol. And then I unwrapped my three new cheeses from Whole Foods. They were:

At the top, a raw milk cheese, Constant Bliss from Jasper Hill in Greensboro, Vermont. I love their description of it:

Constant Bliss is based on a Chaource recipe, which we modified to suit our production schedule and cheesemaking facility. The result is a cheese which hardly even resembles a Chaource. It is a slow ripened lactic curd made only with fresh, right out of the cow, uncooled, evening milk. We actually begin the cheesemaking process before the cows have finished milking… It is aged 60 days before it leaves the farm, and is a ‘sell it or smell it’ item for retailers… We named Constant Bliss after a revolutionary war scout killed in Greensboro by native Americans in 1781.

Because nothing says cheese like death by tomahawk. At right, with the orange rind, is another Jasper Hill raw milk cheese, Winnemere (or is it Winnimere? There seems to be no consensus online), made seasonally (the season just ended, actually) and washed with raspberry lambic beer and wrapped in spruce bark. At left is Truffle Tremor, a soft and creamy goat cheese with bits of black truffle in it, from the well-known goat cheesemaker Cypress Grove in Arcata, California.

Let’s start with the latter. Truffle is an easy flavor to use to dress up foods, or to overdress them, and it’s often synthetic, so it’s nice that the truffle here is both subtle and seems complex and multidimensional—in a word, real. I don’t think this is a brilliantly made cheese, but it’s certainly a good one, and high quality as flavored cheeses go.

Constant Bliss instantly seems to have greater depths, to have more going on. The simple gooeyness of the camembert-like texture begins to develop, like a Polaroid, into an almost tomatoey ripeness. It’s a strong cheese, not in the stinky sense, but just in that it refuses to go away for a while, hanging around on the tongue showing attitude.

Finally, Winnemere, with its splendidly diseased-looking rind:

You taste little fruity hints of the lambic and the spruce at first. The creaminess settles in on your tongue for a long night of watching B.J. and the Bear reruns on MeTV, when suddenly you smell—hey, is that vanilla? Who vanillaed in here? And you’re looking at Winnemere and it’s going what, I don’t smell vanilla and you’re saying dude, you’re totally vanillaing in my mouth.

Winnimere seems to have attracted a lot of excitement in the cheese world, as most things only available half the year do, and rightly so. It’ll probably be gone in a few weeks, so grab it now and be prepared for it to do whatever it wants to in your mouth.

A lot of activity from folks I know, and a new video series which is doing something a lot like Sky Full of Bacon… but about dairy in the New York region. So this is mostly a local logrolling edition, but plenty of good stuff to check out:

1. The Local Beet wants people to spread the word about its new Farmers Market Finder, and they should, it’s a very cool tool. Just enter your zipcode in the search box at the top right of the main page, and you’ll get a Google map that shows you by color code when the next markets are near you. Click on any of them to get more info. CORRECTION: It covers a pretty good swath of the region already, “the whole state of IL, plus some of NW Indiana, SW Michigan and southern Wisc.,” says local cheese Michael Morowitz, with new markets being added daily.
2. The Dairy Show is a video series by a doctor named Michael Crupain about people doing artisanal, sustainable stuff with dairy in the New York state area. Episode one includes a cheesemaker whose story is strikingly similar to that of the La Quercia folks in my most recent podcast: Episode 1 from TheDairyShow.Com on Vimeo.

3. Michael Nagrant’s back in the audio podcast biz after a hiatus, talking to Curtis Duffy of Avenues and Jason Hammel (seen in my “There Will Be Pork” podcasts) of Lula and the new and oh-so-hot Nightwood. I’ve only listened to the latter so far, but Jason is one of the most thoughtful chefs I’ve met (perhaps not surprising when you consider that he was in a writing program under David Foster Wallace before becoming, somewhat casually at first, a cafe owner and chef), and he has a lot of interesting (if not entirely cheerful) things to say about writing and cooking as both art and craft, how personal creative aspirations intersect with the reality of running a business and managing a staff, being a parent in the food biz, and so on.  (Fun fact: Jason’s first food jobs were California Pizza Kitchen and TGI Friday’s.)
4. Honestly, I don’t link to every episode of KCRW’s Good Food, but this New York-based one is another really strong one, including the owner of NYC’s appetizing store Russ and Daughters explaining how controversial “and Daughters” was back then, and a middle eastern store owner in Brooklyn talking about business pre and post-9/11. Hey Evan, we’ve got good food too, come to Chicago and I’ll show you around.

5. David Hammond talks to a couple of wine mavens about what you’re tasting when you’re tasting barolo.
6. Chuck Sudo has started making guanciale (something I also did here). We will cover this story as it develops.
7. And finally, another thing New York has that we don’t, thanks to Daley’s anti-street vending stance: hipster ice cream trucks.  From the Plate of the Day blog. UPDATE: See comments for a lead on a hipster ice cream truck in Chicago after all!

Four years ago I posted a long and pretty much rapturous ode to a meal at Avenues under Graham Elliott Bowles, then newly appointed and acclaimed and also, as it turned out, an LTHForum visitor (with one real discovery claim to fame, the much-loved but ill-starred Cafe Salamera, which he was the first to call attention to). Last year Bowles took his molecular gastronomy-tinged show down the street to a more casual venue, his bustling, loud-music-blaring River North spot Graham Elliott. Like a lot of people, I had mixed feelings. The price point didn’t really mesh with the claims that it was making that kind of food less expensive and more accessible; and some of the dishes were just too jokey (haute imitations of junk food) and didn’t work, although certainly the meal had at least some real high spots. Basically, Graham Elliott seemed a work in progress that needed more time to find its precise niche and even out some of the rough spots. Which is fine, except when you have to do it in the full glare of a highly publicized opening.

I haven’t been back since then, but I’ve meant to, so it was a real pleasure to be invited to Graham Elliott’s first anniversary party. (Yes, you should take that as admission of all the impartiality-voiding issues; we were his guests, of course I wasn’t anonymous, etc. There, are you happy John Mariani?) It was an eclectic crowd, less strategically chosen (not all that much in the way of local food media that I could see, though I did meet Janet Fuller of the Sun-Times), lots of old work colleagues or chefs he likes, and mainly just folks who seemed to have been appreciative of his food at some point.

The cocktail hour included a few hors d’oeuvres, of which a little cup of pea soup was by far the best, bursting with springy pea flavors (and a little crispy pork note in there somewhere, I believe). But the best thing during this time— maybe the best thing all night— was a cocktail, called Almost Paradise, built on vodka, cucumber and a teasing hint of steeped rosemary, with some egg white froth at the top. As David Hammond said while urging one on me, “The perfect summer drink.”

The interesting thing Bowles did for this menu was list some items that were on the menu a year ago and then serve us updated versions of the same concept a year later:

I had had one of these, the deconstructed Caesar salad. Last night’s version was less deconstructed than dada, the crouton having grown into an enormous cheese-filled brioche (amusingly called a brioche Twinkie) looming over the now tiny and defenseless bits of lettuce with the anchovies draped over it like melted clocks. This was a Caesar salad’s nightmare, and though parts of it were tasty, I tended to agree with Hammond that this business of taking apart a Caesar tends to lose what a Caesar is.

The second was the latest iteration of a play on buffalo chicken wings, with a beer foam. Then it was chicken and Budweiser; by now it’s sweetbreads with a roquefort gelato, “celery 5x” (five different forms), and a foam from Goose Island’s Matilda beer. I’m no fan of the basic buffalo wing flavor, so I was more entranced with the stuff around it, especially the celery and roquefort together.

The third dish was my favorite and, I think, most peoples’ out of the dinner courses—a scallop with Spanish flavorings including olive, almond and a chorizo vinaigrette. This was really a great dish, exotic and pungent yet accessible, and considering that fish dishes had impressed me the most last time out, I continue to think his adventurous but not overbearing hand with fish is one of the restaurant’s main strengths.

The last course was a variation on last year’s beef stroganoff, which I think I had had a taste of; now it was a cube of steak atop some spaetzles and some onion marmalade (which I’m always happy to see), with a little salt and pepper “station” on the plate. This was a satisfying dish for folks who wanted to see some red meat at that point. Where the dinner courses had been petite tastes of different things the kitchen can do, the dessert was a blowout with a gooey-center chocolate-peanut butter cake, a dab of ice cream, a little milkshake and a sugar-topped bruleed banana.

So where do I think Graham Elliott lands at this point? I don’t think it’s been radically transformed, but it seems to have grown into its skin as a place offering a certain degree of the experimental art cuisine you get at Alinea/Moto/etc., but in a more casual, nightclubby atmosphere. It seems like a good niche and while see-and-be-seen restaurants are often more flash than substance, that’s obviously not the case here. In general, the things I thought had been especially weak a year ago (cocktails and dessert) were far better, and the main courses probably batted a little higher overall.

Graham Elliott is very much a reflection of Bowles’ personality, which is less mad scientist and more puckishly playful than his molecular peers. One thing that was really charming about this evening was Bowles’ mom going around from table to table; she talked with us for quite a bit and had obvious pride in her son’s accomplishments. After dinner, he invited us back into the kitchen and showed off the modest space* from which they’d fed 130 people more or less on schedule (they were thrown off by some special requests, which seems vaguely appalling to me when you’ve been invited to a free dinner). I liked seeing the row of jars of pickled stuff, not nearly so much as Vie’s, but some interesting things (hot peppers mixed in with fruit, etc.)  It was an interesting capper to a gracious event which I very much appreciated having had the opportunity to attend.  Happy anniversary, Graham Elliott Bowles.

* Though to be honest, if there’s any Chicago restaurant with a vast and spacious kitchen, I haven’t seen it yet.

The scariest food promotion ever.

Definite sign of the Apocalypse: me suggesting that you follow my Twitter feed.

I went on Facebook and Twitter with skepticism. Facebook I could at least see some rationale for, it was not unlike LTHForum in its social interaction, Twitter seemed totally illiterate and ADD by comparison, a receptacle for the most banal and evanescent of brain farts.

Yet I have to admit after using both for a month or so I actually prefer Twitter. Part of the reason is that Twitter isn’t overrun with quizzes (“Which Nazi war criminal are you?”) But the anonymity and simplicity of simply scribbling something up there and people can either follow or not seems more useful and less fraught with baggage than having to decide, do I want to be this person’s friend, do I want to know this much about them, etc. Give me the zipless tweet, I can just see what’s happening in others’ worlds without having to commit to anything. (It helps, of course, if you only read Twitterers with a certain gift for the droll, 140-character aphoristic Tweet, like my old new media colleague Stephen Strong. I would surely feel different if all my Twitter contacts were 22.)  I still have one big reservation, which is not putting anything that really matters on a platform owned by somebody else; my serious content will always be somewhere I control.  But I see some point to sharing the ephemeral and trivial there.

So anyway, if you want to see what’s happening in my world without commitment, follow me here. I promise to keep the signal to noise ratio fairly high and construct a version of my persona which seems to be enjoying the Chicago restaurant scene on a busy, bon vivant level, even if I have to stay home eating ham sandwiches to do it.