Sky Full of Bacon

1. Just say the words over and over to yourself: foie gras jelly doughnut.
2. If you’re not reading Chicago restaurant publicist Ellen Malloy’s “RIA Unplugged” blog, you’re missing some of the best commentary on the food biz as a biz. Obviously she can’t name names (sometimes you can guess), but she gives frank insight about the good and bad of the chef side of the business and how it interacts with the media and the public (and makes her job easier… or not).
3. Wittier than Bruno, Remi Gaillard is a French prankster who does things like stage a one-man reenactment of Saving Private Ryan on a beach filled with holidaygoers; this one about a chicken is strangely moving:

this McDonald’s drive-through one is obvious but, hey, you’ve always wanted to do it.

4. Title says it all: the Homesick Texan blog explains How to Make Cowhead Barbacoa. (Thanks to Erik M.)
5. Stevez at LTHForum has a great account of his food adventures in the Carolinas, notably at the famous Allen & Son BBQ spot (“On the way out, this vision stopped me dead in my tracks. It was the wood all set up for the next morning when Keith would arrive around 4:15 to light it up to burn down to coals for the next day’s cook just as it’s been done for generations. I felt like I was looking at the altar of a holy shrine”).
6. How bad TV shows happen: the food stylist who does the Food Fanatics blog has a great audition… and then gets a callback.
7. Sustainable sushi is a site about exactly what it’s about, with a species guide and a blog. I particularly liked this post about a replacement for unagi (be sure to read this one too, about why rattlesnake didn’t make the cut).

BONUS OF TERROR: a couple of Terrors back, I mentioned that Chuck Sudo was making guanciale.  I was graciously gifted with a handsome chunk of it:

which I diced, fried up, and used in bucatini all’amatriciana last night.  It was a resounding hit with the family, full of rich Old World meat funkiness, yet delicate enough that it didn’t put the kids off.  Thanks Chuck!  And it just goes to show how easy cured meats can be, and why they should be in every home cook’s repertoire.

There was a time when you could just open a new neighborhood restaurant and let the broader world discover you, slowly.  That time is not now; now a place like Browntrout is hyped in between the week’s other debuts (Nightwood! Cibo Matto! Rootstock!) in media the whole world can read.  Even a fish has to sink or swim, it appears; there are no more little neighborhood finds.

Even so, I’d like to create a little protected habitat where Browntrout has a chance to get bigger before it’s devoured.  There’s some real promise here, in a year this could be the Mado of fish, and yet my meal also went seriously off rails at a certain point.  What was good was good enough that I’d like to see it mature a little, find its footing (which is obviously even harder if you’re a fish), and become what’s in its chef’s head.

Browntrout (BYO at this point) aims to only offer sustainable, high quality and organic ingredients; it divides the menu into sharable small plates and bigger entrees which, once you get into sustainable, high end fish, are not cheap. I stuck mainly to the small plates in order to have more to try.

What was good— very good— is the plate shown above, a trio of small servings of fish meant to be nibbled as nosh.  At the top was a housecured, orange-scented golden trout, which was served lox-style with bagel chips and as delicate and rich as very good lox.  The middle was a smoked trout salad, and the bottom a piece of yellow perch, fried with a sort of remoulade/tartar sauce accompaniment.  The first two of these were really wonderful, showcasing the delicacy of good fish beautifully; the perch was more ordinary, and the remoulade or whatever it was could have used more bite, more body, more oomph.  Still, for $13 this was a substantial (and substantially terrific) plate which Avec or The Bristol would be proud to serve up.

We ordered this as an appetizer, and were grilled fairly extensively about the precise order of the other dishes we wanted; our waiter seemed very concerned that the order and timing be precisely calibrated, somewhat beyond the easygoing vibe of the restaurant (which, that night, had several of Bin 36-vet chef Sean Sanders’ relatives wandering about).  The reason for the jarring appearance of a control freak note to our experience only gradually revealed itself as we waited… and waited… and waited.  The night grew dark, my opportunity for picture taking vanished, we found ourselves making faces we recognized from the “before” parts of a Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, we were apologized to enough times that we were ready to say “Stop apologizing and just go kick somebody’s ass in the kitchen!”

They handled it very nicely, we wound up with both a salad comped and some free cookies, can’t complain, but still, given the simplicity of the items involved, it was hard to imagine how the kitchen— not at all overstressed on Sunday night— could have possibly taken so long to produce these items.  I’d be nervous about Browntrout for pre-theater dining (we’ll be late for Cornservatory!) or even for the lunch which has gotten some attention lately.

Nor did the items we have entirely justify the wait on a flavor basis.  Best, by far, was a burger made from Tallgrass beef.  I’ve only had one Tallgrass steak, at the Harry Caray’s by O’Hare, which was bad enough that I wanted Bill Kurtis to narrate it like a crime scene (“But when he cut into the steak… what he found was not the juicy, flavorful steak he’d hoped for… but a gnarled and gray nightmare that had only just begun”).  This was, let me estimate, one frazillion times better, maybe oversalted a tad but a richly flavorful burger that was like meaty meatiness all wrapped in meat.  I was just tvetching (kvetching on Twitter) about the popularity of the very good, but at that price it should be, Rosebud Steakhouse burger; here’s one in the same ballpark pricewise which to me beat it for depth of flavor.

Less exciting was a pea salad, “peas three ways,” which mainly revealed that the actual peas are the only parts of a pea that have much flavor; eating the shoots and leaves was kind of like munching ivy off the side of your house, and the salty dressing did little to bring it all to life, being desperately in need of a sweet note, or any note that would have made the leaves and branches palatable.  While the final dish, a special of an escargot “tart” in a veal demiglace, was executed perfectly well for something assembled out of foodservice ingredients (puff pastry tart shell, demiglace in a jar), but seemed a dining-in-1955 dish that was way out of step with the rest of the restaurant and the approach promised by the fish trio at the beginning; it might have strolled over from Lutz’s a few blocks away.

Still, the things that were good, especially that fish plate, were very good indeed.  If Browntrout can build on that kind of treatment of excellent fish, get more confident and coherent in what it’s offering, and not least, get that kitchen working at “After Gordon” speed, it could become a really impressive restaurant, truly a fish Mado (or whatever it is they actually hope to become).  For that to happen, maybe it needs to be ignored for a bit by the whole planet, and just serve its neighbors for the time being as it finds its footing.  So if you’re a neighbor, check it out, enjoy it, get to know its obviously committed husband and wife owners; but if you’re the kind who hops from hotspot to hotspot, delivering quick and permanent judgements, maybe you should let Browntrout go for a little while, and see what it’s grown into a season or two from now.

4111 N Lincoln Ave
Chicago, IL 60618-3027
(773) 472-4111

Assorted thanks re the most recent podcast, including the lovely Helen of Grub Street (formerly Menu Pages), who also linked my Pierogi Fest post, Chuck Sudo of Chicagoist whose guanciale will soon be tasted and reported on, podcast star Carl Galvan who tweeted it far and wide, assorted Local Beet-ians who posted and tweeted and then inspired this celebrity chef re-tweet, Art of Pleasant House for ranking me with good things to eat, Fruitslinger slinging some link jam, and Serious Eats for these kind words:

Fish is complicated. You can have this one, but not this, and eating that Chilean seabass, oh dear, that might give you awful karma forever. In this beginning of a two-part series on fish, the always enlightening podcast Sky Full of Bacon visits Supreme Lobster, one of the country’s largest fish distributors. SFOB producer-writer-editor Michael Gebert goes behind-the-scenes to understand how the company moves thousands of pounds of fresh fish a week. He talks to sales rep Carl Galvan, who’s so passionate about selling the good stuff, he keeps his chef clients updated on Twitter (@chicagofishdude).

So much of the seafood discussion is difficult for consumers to navigate but this 22-minute video offers a clear perspective on what happy seafood is out there.

My head was still swimming with fish from the new Sky Full of Bacon podcast (that was a direct link to it, by the way, that will skip you past the ten zillion pierogi pics to follow), from the frenzy in which I shot the last interview on Tuesday, finished editing Tuesday night, watched it the next morning and wasn’t happy, restructured it completely and rewrote and rerecorded the voiceover on Wednesday, and posted it Thursday morning. It was done, I needed to forget it and move on, I needed new adventures. In short, I needed the Pierogi Fest in Whiting, Indiana.

Chicagoans tend to have a pretty dire notion of northwest Indiana but, as I knew from a visit last summer, Whiting is a proud and tidy little town, full of cute little houses with perfect square lawns and flowerbeds and, during Pierogi Fest at least, flying the Slovakian flag.  And, it seemed clear, a cheerful sense of the absurdity of a festival devoted to dumplings.

Knowing her to be the source on small town food events, I called Cathy2 beforehand.  She warned me that during the Friday night parade and lawn mower drill team performance, Pierogi Fest could be packed beyond one’s tolerance for crowds; she felt it had become more of a tourist event than an organic local festival.  Well, I couldn’t go Friday night anyway, so I aimed for what I hoped would be a midafternoon lull on Saturday.

Timing was pretty perfect, actually; the ice cream and root beer stands had long lines but the pierogi stands were fairly quiet.

The fest stretches through four or five long blocks of Whiting’s picturesque main street (119th), with probably 8 or 10 pierogi stands as well as a variety of other refreshments and assorted local vendors of the sort you see at any street fest, everything from tchotchke sellers to tarot readers to a National Guard recruiter, as well as a stage area devoted to folk dancing and music.

Clearly there were going to be more pierogi than I could take in on one trip.  I needed a strategy, and so skipped the first couple of vendors in favor of a name I recognized:

Lynethe’s, on 119th just a few blocks east of here, is well known as one of the best spots for pierogi, especially since John Kass wrote about it a few years back.  Ironically it’s actually run by a Latino who had worked for the previous Eastern European owner, but it remains a pillar of the Whiting pierogi scene and was doing some busy frying even during this lull time:

So I figured Lynethe’s would be a good choice for a control, especially since I’ve cooked them at home (and still have some in my freezer from last summer).  I ordered a sauerkraut one and a potato with cheese:

Lynethe’s belongs to the fried-crisp school of pierogiology.  The sauerkraut I liked a lot, the potato oozed way too much orange cheddar, like Cheez Whiz Pierogis, I wanted just a note of tart bryndza-type cheese like they have at Smak Tak.  Still, a good baseline for what would follow.

Buscia’s is a non-restaurant vendor cooking up pierogi in an assortment of 50s-style electric pans.  They are apparently there to represent Whiting’s transgender community:

Seriously, I was totally drawn in by the promise of bacon buns in a combo, so I ordered the combo.  The pierogi were a little mushy and just so-so; hamburger forgettable, potato decidedly better:

The bacon bun could stand to learn a thing or two about being lighter and fluffier, it was pretty much artillery standard, but it had great bacony flavor and was one of the best things I tried.

I walked past other, more improbable food vendors…

But this bunch, from a bar called Coach’s Corner, lured me in with some quick-witted banter and infectious enthusiasm.  They were serving “chevaps,” which is to say cevapcici, ground meat sausages freshly grilled, and despite hardly thinking that I needed the minimum order of five, I tried them.

“You take pictures of your food before you eat it?” one of them asked.

“Well, you don’t want to take pictures of it after you eat it,” I said.

These were great, and I loved the simple butter-cream cheese stuff that came on the side.  I’m definitely going to have to go back and give Coach’s Corner, 6208 Kennedy Ave. in Hammond, a try.

I haven’t been able to track down Victor’s Grill, if it’s a standing restaurant, and it may just be another homemade spot, but it looked promising, so I stood in its line for a few minutes (business was starting to pick up as lunch was digested).

These were kind of heavy, wrapping-wise, but the fillings were pretty good.

I wandered some more past the stage area and reached the block with the beer garden in it.  Although business had picked up a little at other stands by now, I wasn’t prepared for the line at Dan’s, which stretched down the street and around the picnic tables:

What accounted for this wild popularity?  Did everyone know that Dan’s was the place, or was this one of those psychological things where a line attracts more line because, hey, if there’s a line, it must be good?

I heard someone ask these very questions of someone ahead of me and the answer came back, “This is the only place where they’re not frozen.  They’re totally fresh.”  Well… I’m not convinced that that was the reason, because I’m not convinced you can tell the difference, frankly.  Still, it wasn’t like I was too hungry to spend 15 minutes in line, so I did.

It is an impressive operation, a dozen bins filled with a dozen flavors, certainly the widest choice here by a comfortable margin.

I tried cabbage, sauerkraut and mushroom, and cherry (which squirted hot cherry juice all over me as I bit into it).  The wrappers were a little rubbery from the holding method, but the fillings were outstanding, it wasn’t hard to see why this place was popular.  As I picked up my order, I heard someone say that the spinach were the best, so now I have a reason to go back next year.

I’m often disappointed by Chicago’s small street fests because it seems like the same vendors are there at each one dishing up the same pork skewers.  Pierogi Fest, though it had some commercial catering ringers, clearly draws real local cooks and earns a lot of local support as a result.  I loved it, the small town feel, the enthusiastic goofiness of pierogimania, the women who clearly should not have been wearing “Hey, Nice Pierogies!” T-shirts yet did so anyway, everything.  It’s a great Chicago-area event and well worth checking out on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the perfect day for it.

“The always enlightening podcast Sky Full of Bacon… So much of the seafood discussion is difficult for consumers to navigate but this 22-minute video offers a clear perspective on what happy seafood is out there.” —Serious Eats

Eat more fish, eat less fish… dive into the confusing world of fish today and see for yourself how fish gets to your table and how chefs are exploring new and more sustainable choices.

Sky Full of Bacon 11: A Better Fish from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

You hear a lot about fish these days— about eating it for your health, about overfishing and the health of the oceans, about farmed vs. wild. In this Sky Full of Bacon video podcast, I dive deep into the world of fish as it meets us at the dinner table. I go on a tour of one of the country’s largest fish distributors, to see how they move through thousands of pounds of fresh fish a week, and talk with sales rep Carl Galvan, who’s passionate about getting his chef clients to look past the standard menu fishes and explore new and more sustainable options. And I talk to chefs, fish sellers and experts from Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium about sustainability, and some exciting projects that offer promise for a future that still has fish in it. It runs 22 minutes, and it’s the first of a two-part exploration of fish issues that will conclude next month with my trip on a Lake Michigan whitefish boat.

Here’s Supreme Lobster’s website (Carl’s market report is linked on the main page), and you too can follow Carl’s Twitter feed here.

Here’s the website for Cleanfish, the sustainable fish broker I talk to. In the video Cleanfish’s Alisha Lumea mainly talks about their farmed fish projects, but one of their wild projects is just now coming into season— Nunavut Arctic Char from an Inuit community in far northern Canada. Read about it and watch Cleanfish’s own video here, and follow them on Twitter here for lots of sustainable fish news.

Here’s the Shedd’s Right Bite program.

Of course, there’s a lot of stuff about overfishing out there. Here’s a documentary about it that’s in theaters right now, and here’s a good piece from The Atlantic’s current issue that suggests a market solution to it.

Here’s my post about the meal at Taxim that included eating black cod liver; Philip Foss of Lockwood also posted about cooking with it here.


About Sky Full of Bacon
Sky Full of Bacon #10: Prosciutto di Iowa
Sky Full of Bacon #9: Raccoon Stories
Sky Full of Bacon #8: Pear-Shaped World
Sky Full of Bacon #7: Eat This City
Sky Full of Bacon #6: There Will Be Pork (pt. 2)
Sky Full of Bacon #5: There Will Be Pork (pt. 1)
Sky Full of Bacon #4: A Head’s Tale
Sky Full of Bacon #3: The Last Brisket Show
Sky Full of Bacon #2: Duck School
Sky Full of Bacon #1: How Local Can You Go?

Please feel free to comment here or to email me here.

Followup to this post.

Taxim, the back-to-basics Greek restaurant which I reviewed very favorably a few weeks back, has taken a bit of a turn in its relationship to internet food posters.  A number of posters at LTHForum have basically said, ennh, what’s the big deal?  Ronnie Suburban was moderately positive but didn’t agree with the Taxim good, Greektown bad tack many supporters have taken:

I am a big fan of Greektown (the opposite side of the dining universe from Taxim) and have learned over the years how to order for maximum satisfaction when I’m in that part of town. What I’m used to with Greek food is gigantic bold flavors, immaculate freshness and not a hint of daintiness. When I was in Seattle last year, I had a really great meal at Lola (Tom Douglas’ contemporary Greek cafe), so I know I can appreciate this cuisine on a more refined basis. But upon first glance, perhaps Taxim is too distilled for me.

Kennyz was considerably harsher:

…it was with enthusiasm, after having read such wonderful praise here and in the Chicago Reader, that I entered this evening’s meal at Taxim. When I left, my enthusiasm balloon had pretty much completely deflated. Taxim bored me to tears.

You can read all that here.

So I went to Taxim for lunch the other day with another blogger and it was interesting that we came down again on the same two sides of the divide as this thread.  What I found the subtle complexity of down to earth Greek ingredients, he found boring next to the mouth fireworks of Greektown.  What’s odd about that is that we’re each usually a bit toward the other camp– he’s big on the quality of underlying local ingredients, I’m more likely to ding a place for failing to put enough pizzazz into a dish.  But in this case he was the one underwhelmed as I often am, and I was the one admiring the simplicity of earthy cooked lentils and bits of tart Greek cheese, say.

I joked to another food writer that as Greek restaurants go, Taxim was the best Turkish restaurant in town.  I think that’s not so much a joke because chef David Schneider frankly admits the strong Turkish influence (not to mention that Taxim is a district in Istanbul), or the hearkening back to a pre-French-influenced Greek cuisine more like other Mediterranean cuisines.  I’ve always liked Turkish cuisine, but part of what I like about it is that it is mostly comfort food, it’s not aiming for the spice of other cuisines even in the nearby middle east (not to mention a little to the east like Indian).  A really good Turkish dish is usually just simple and clean-tasting– like the spinach and yogurt dish at Cafe Orchid— and I find that really satisfying; I loved the “hummus,” for instance, with its flavors of fresh chickpeas and bright, good quality olive oil, and found both it and the pita a cut above the norm.  But if you’re expecting your dish to come flaming to your table, either actually or metaphorically, Taxim is going to seem muted and quite possibly dull by comparison.

I’m sure it’s a total cliche to say that the annual BBQ to benefit Chicago’s chichiest farmer’s market, the Green City Market, is the real Taste of Chicago.  But it is what you wish that massive event could be— the best chefs in town knocking out inventive picnic food and drinks on a gorgeous (okay, slightly rainy) summer night by the lake. Of course, even at a few hundred folks this event had its share of things served lukewarm and so on, so multiply it to the Taste’s million or so milling munchers of pizza on a stick and you can only imagine how impossible it would get. At the size it was, things managed to move well, only a couple of booths had significant lines (Rick Bayless’s is so popular no one goes there), and I tried lots of wonderful stuff (and happily, the chefs I knew all acquitted themselves well).

Here are some highlights from early on, I stopped taking pictures after the sunlight disappeared:

Philip Foss of Lockwood cooked this brisket sous vide for 40 hours or something. It also spent some time on a grill, because I definitely got a burnt end, which was yummy.

Naha’s elk, really nicely put together though you did lose the game meatishness a little in the salad. The salad was terrific, though.

Prairie Grass’s crostini with grilled portabellos and goat cheese, worth giving up precious pork stomach space for.

That’s Stephanie Izard back there smiling her 1000-watt smile (even out of focus, good for 300 watts) behind her excellent goat and goat cheese combo, the first public taste of her impending, someday The Drunken Goat restaurant.

Crofton on Wells’ rabbit dog with apple cider ice. One of my top 3.

Three Floyds brewery guys cranking out what was billed as “pork fat hot dogs.”

Paul Kahan of Blackbird dishing up the most daring dish of the night– the blood sausage corn dog– which was a surprising and total success, another of my top 3 (and same for nearly everyone I talked to).

Bill Kim of Urban Belly making something like bulgogi on sope-like pieces of masa; the Asian flavors were good (and hot) but the masa was so hard it hurt my tooth.

Guys from Tru putting truffle foam on a sausage-cracker combo.

Mado made a Memphis pulled pork sandwich… except they used tongue (and, incidentally, baked their own white bread).

Nathan Sears of Vie serving…

…barbecue turkey with pickled greens and stuff on it. This was the other of my top 3, probably my favorite in fact, certainly the one that dazzled the most despite unexciting-sounding meat. Basically it was like soul food, and really likable.

A few other things I really liked but no pics: Cary Taylor of Chaise Lounge’s smoked blueberry pannacotta, no I didn’t taste the smoke either but it was just what I needed after Bill Kim’s spicy dish; a blueberry-ginger Maker’s Mark cocktail which I think was from the folks at Sola; Lula/Nightwood’s white gazpacho with sweetish beets and bits of bacon in it; and, though I didn’t taste it till well after I was stuffed, Fig’s grilled trout (one of the very few fish items).

Sometimes you go into a place which seems like nothing special, and yet they do one thing which lifts them above the pack. Maybe they do a couple of other things well, too— yet, frustratingly, they don’t quite do everything in a way that earns your admiration. At what point do you say, the heck with minor complaints, this is a place worth talking about?

I spotted Rosticeria Los Fernandez on North Ave. in Elmhurst after shooting at Supreme Lobster for the next Sky Full of Bacon podcast. The wide range of things offered on the windows and signage was not necessarily a promising sign. It certainly didn’t look like authentic Mexican, and yet, something about it suggested to me that it had promise. Oh, right, I remember what it was: I smelled it driving by. Hickory smoke.

Charcoal-roasted chicken is, of course, a Mexican staple, notably in Sinaloa, but chicken with the very American taste of hickory smoke certainly isn’t. Still, I’m enough of a barbecue fan to follow the smell of real smoke anywhere. The place seems sort of inspired by Boston Market— you order a 1/4 or 1/2 chicken, and pick out some sides from a steam table. (Turns out the comparison is unavoidable, or at least was when the one LTHer to go there went.) I imagine you could put together a meal here that gave no particular sign of being Mexican. But at the bottom of the menu was also “1/2 Chicken Mexican Style,” and that settled that. I got a half chicken with rice and grilled green onions (cebollitas), a lone jalapeno, a container of tortillas, a couple of bottles of salsa, and a bottle of Mexican Coke:

The chicken was terrific— juicy and kissed with real smoke flavor. At this point, LTHForum rules would send me back into the kitchen to determine if it was a Southern Pride RCX-700 or an Avenue Metal custom aquarium smoker, but I didn’t do any of that and leave the question to future researchers. Instead I just contemplated what I found excellent about this meal— the chicken in both flavor and moistness, the steaming tortillas— and what I found rather ordinary, a list which would include the rice (a throwaway at the best of places, admittedly), the chewy (held too long after cooking, I suspect) cebollitas and, sad to say, both of the housemade salsas: a char-flecked red one and a lettuce-based green one, neither of which had much kick (refrigeration may not have helped them stand out, but it wasn’t the only reason).

So I wish Rosticeria Los Fernandez was better all-around. Still, that chicken was about the best BBQ chicken I can remember having in a long time, anywhere of any nationality around town. Usual caveats about whether I hit a BBQ joint at the perfect moment apply, but if you have any reason to be out there, you should give them a try and help me decide if this is a real find… or a frustrating near-miss.

Rosticeria Los Fernandez
522 W. North Ave
Elmhurst, IL 60125

It may be a sky full of bacon, but Tang got to the moon first.

If you feel like commemorating this amazing and now apparently irreproducible feat, TCM is showing a bunch of moon movies on the 40th anniversary, which is Monday the 20th.  I recommend First Men in the Moon, which is a rather fun Jules Verne pastiche which begins, cheekily, with American astronauts finding a plaque claiming the moon for Queen Victoria; Destination Moon, which was an attempt to forecast in 1950 what a moon mission would really be like; The Mouse on the Moon, a very funny Cold War comedy (sequel to, and better than, The Mouse That Roared); and finally an outstanding documentary, For All Mankind.

And of course, here’s the proof it was all FAKED!!!!