Sky Full of Bacon

Further adventures in free lunch:

File photo.


I had eaten at Quartino once before, and for a place that fell pretty heavily on the concepted/Disneyfied side at first glance— an imitation old school meat market type place inside a brand new skyscraper, serving as a different sort of meat market for expense account types— I was pretty impressed by the food. And, for that matter, the decor; the thick white tile design and the well-crafted charcuterie and pastas seemed to be doing an equally good job at convincing you there was some genuine heritage to a place that was a hole in the ground five minutes earlier.

This time, it was a lunch PR event for chef John Colletta’s new book, 250 True Italian Pasta Dishes:

In addition to a platter of their house charcuterie, which is very nicely made, we were served a number of dishes allegedly from the book. I say allegedly because, well, there was a definite disconnect between the mass appeal, Better Homes and Garden-ish look of the book and the dishes we were served, which included a lot of ingredients like guanciale or oddly shaped pastas you don’t readily find at the Piggly Wiggly in Huntsville, or even Whole Foods. In fact, the whole affair seemed a bit of a strange meeting of different worlds; the chic, masters-of-the-universe big city restaurant producing a cookbook for an audience that clips recipes from Sunset and Parade, promoting that book by feeding its food to writers from The Onion (that’s who we sat with) and other urban-hip publications. (And sure enough, close examination suggested that the recipes bore only modest resemblance to the dishes we were served— the best of them, a complex bolognese-like pork ragu that bespoke many hours of stewing, seemed to be an entirely different dish from the quick, tomatoey thing pictured, for instance.)

Having attended two of these events (thanks to Mr. Hammond) with roughly the same crowd of local food niche media, I continue to wonder, does this kind of PR make sense? Is a message reaching any sort of target market for this book (obviously the kind of urban-hip people who buy chic-looking Italian cookbooks like this one will judge Colletta’s by its middle-America cover)? It seems like these folks get invited out for things like this because they are the folks you can get to turn out for an event like this (and I saw many of the same hearty eaters from my last adventure in PR events). But with the media changing so rapidly, I really wonder if the way of really reaching the audience for this book, whoever they are, hasn’t changed too— or should, anyway.

But to return to me heartily stuffing my face… authentically from the book or not, several of the dishes were outstanding, particularly that pork ragu with orrechiete. I came home with the book, but mainly it made me  interested in returning to Quartino sooner than the next Super Bowl with Chicago in it.

Hearty Boys

The Hearty Boys are caterers. The Hearty Boys had one restaurant, HB, now sold to somebody else. The Hearty Boys are gay. The Hearty Boys had a TV show for one season. One of the Hearty Boys introduced me at the Printer’s Row Literary Fest earlier this year.

That concludes a complete inventory of my knowledge about the Hearty Boys, Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh, before I was invited to a party at their house for 1) an artist who used to work for them, Matt Lew, and 2) their new upcoming restaurant, Hearty. They knew even less about me, I’m sure.

In any case, I had a pleasant time chatting with assorted food industry and food media folk while noshing on assorted catering stuff that, again, was alleged to represent what was going to be offered at the restaurant when it opens on November 4. Hard to tell from such little noshes what entrees will really be like… but I gotta say, they’re very good caterers. The stuff was all fresh and lively, not merely generic alcohol-soaking stuff, nasty little puff pastry bites or stuffed mushrooms or whatever. (The most interesting item: an assortment of hardboiled eggs stuffed with various things like beets; this actually will be an item at the bar, a rather ironically named egg “flight.”) And nothing wrong with the alcohol either… they were primarily mixing Aviation and Brown Derby cocktails, and I like the idea of focusing on classic retro cocktails a lot.

So: I wouldn’t say I came away with too clear an idea of what they’ll be serving, but I will be interested to see when they open next month.  As for the social side of the party-Hearty… I remember reading a book where a Russian emigre to the hipster scene in early 80s New York comments that “American men were all so neatly dressed that I thought they were all gay!”  At this party, I definitely felt like I was standing up for the traditional heterosexual values… of rumpledness and schlubdom.

Edzo’s Burger Shop

Eddie Lakin, LTH poster, blogger here and here, and chef here and there, is opening a burger place in Evanston.  You can read all about it at the second of those two links.  No, really, you should.  It’s pretty interesting, reading all the mundane but nerve-wrackingly necessary stuff that goes into making a restaurant happen.  I talked with Eddie about the possibility of chronicling his progress toward Burgerdom as a Sky Full of Bacon podcast, but we were both too busy to be in each other’s faces for the amount of time it would have taken to do that, so go read his blog and gain a new appreciation for what it all takes.

Anyway, by now he may just be a few days from opening, but last week I went up to his place to try what he was making and offer feedback as he worked at training his staff (Mexican cooks he inherited from the space’s previous incarnation as a pita and hummus joint) in the finer points of burgerdom.  What’s going to be really cool about Edzo’s is that he’s really studied the different classic burger styles that exist around the Chicago area and is aiming for, yes, exactly the kind of fresh meat, thin patty burger that a certain blogger posted about here, among other places.  Here you can see how he’s going for the Schoop’s-like crisped lacy edge:

It was still a work in progress as of last Tuesday, but I offered my feedback (as did the others there that day) and I think Eddie’s well on his way to changing the burger paradigm on the frozen-burger-puck-plagued north side.  There are lots of little signs of his personality and willingness to try new fun things at Edzo’s, and of the many new, quality-burger joints to have opened in the last year or so (Five Guys, Counter, Epic, etc.), I think Edzo’s will be the one that defines a particular Chicago style and has the potential to be the Hot Doug’s of burgerdom.  I can’t wait!

Edzo’s Burger Shop
1571 Sherman Ave.
Evanston, IL

Whoever said there’s no free lunch never had a food blog; in the last couple of weeks I’ve had plenty of opportunities to partake of free food, and to observe the circumstances under which free food is flung at writers who might maybe say something nice about the flinger.  Draw your own conclusions about the level of corruption to which I have undoubtedly sunk, as I recap (in two parts):


Kevin Boehm, developer or impresario or whatever you want to call him of these hoppin’ Lincoln Park spots as well as the upcoming Stephanie Izard restaurant, invited David Hammond to pull together a group of a dozen prominent LTHForumites for a tasting of his three restaurants. At one point LTHForum was considering a no-freebies-ever policy (which even at that point was not strictly true, though the freebies tended to be pretty low cost at that point) but as this thread suggests, with more of us moving into more official journalistic endeavors which pierce the veil of reviewer anonymity and so on, they seem to have decided, screw it, let’s eat! That there is still some uncomfortableness about this choice, however, is made evident by the fact that when this goes up, I’ll be the first of the dozen to post about the dinner, now two weeks past.

Anyway, we had about five courses at each of the first two restaurants, and then dessert at Landmark, by which point we were quite stuffed by the competing dinners before. The first spot, Perennial, occupies the kind of space you’d expect to find a coffee shop in, a sort of V-shaped space in the corner of a hotel, and if the room seems awkward at first it actually proves to be a pretty lively combination of fine dining with the bustle and urban liveliness of a diner on a corner overlooking the park. (Ironically, the hotel is the least lively part of the building— apparently the developers went bust and are now under indictment, so Perennial is sort of the restaurant for a hotel that doesn’t exist. I didn’t ask if any of the bartenders were named Lloyd.)

Perennial is pretty committed to fresh local ingredients, as you might expect from a place across the street from Green City Market (and in fact I saw chef Ryan Poli there on Wednesday), and that was the strength of what we had. One of the best things of the night was the first— a simple corn fritter in a corn soup, which tasted like really, really in season corn. Unfortunately I felt like most of what followed just missed because of this or that executional issue— squab with foie gras and a tomato marmalade (excuse me, Iron Creek tomato marmalade, to namecheck a Green City vendor) had great flavor and others found it perfect, but I found my squab to be on the uncooked side of rare; Roman style black truffle gnocchi had great accompaniments, not least a generous slice of truffle, but the gnocchi (formed into a loaf and then sliced) seemed gummy. And a dish of lobster with French-style lentils with bits of Berkshire pig trotters in them, seemed like two dishes that were better eaten separately.

Others seemed happier than me (no one else seemed to find their squab undercooked, a couple even used the word “perfectly”) so it may be that the challenge of serving 12 at once threw a wrench into the restaurant. Anyway, I think it has promise and Poli, who came to perhaps a bit too early fame at Butter when John Mariani raved about it, is clearly a capable chef worth watching, but I’m not convinced Perennial quite achieves the level it’s aiming for yet, next to other chefs making noise about their commitment to local ingredients. But the night is young.

Boka I had actually eaten at already, not entirely happily. It’s one of the city’s most beautiful rooms— dark brown, with white sails along one wall— and I had some things that I liked a lot, but by the end, dividing the price tag by the things I really liked, it didn’t feel like that great a deal. Some of it was that the food seemed out of date— Asian fusion, been there done that— but more of it was that things just didn’t work often enough for the price. If you’re going to be next door to Alinea, you need to wow, even adjusted for price (and though expensive, it was certainly nowhere near as expensive as Alinea).

This time, I was much more favorably impressed— though I have to say that that seemed to be a minority opinion at the table. The tasting started with a bento-like box containing four seafood tastes including one sitting in smoked salt. Others felt that the smoke overwhelmed everything but I thought this was exquisite, delicate little hints of the sea that absolutely made the case for Asian fusion as a still lively area of culinary exploration. The other wow dish came from the absolute opposite end of the spectrum— braised Gunthorp pork belly with a quince sauce, a marvelous savory fall dish.

We ended at Landmark, which is as much a club-slash-party space as a restaurant, and a very impressive adaptation of an old candle factory into rooms with moods ranging from urban chic to mock-Arabian sybarism. (Seeing the latter, all I could think was, if you can’t get laid at an office Christmas party here, you can’t anywhere.)

Landmark and Boka’s desserts are done, or now I should say were done, by Elizabeth Dahl, wife of Blackbird pastry chef Tim Dahl (seen in Sky Full of Bacon #6; actually Elizabeth is in it too, but I didn’t identify her because she was just helping her hubby out, not officially part of the mulefoot dinner crew). They have now left to return to Madison to open a restaurant, so no telling what that means for desserts at these places, which were one of the strong points with her there; anybody who can make me like a concord grape sorbet (I really don’t care for concords) is a dessert whiz, and she certainly is one.

The best part of the experience at Landmark, though, was sitting down with Kevin Boehm, the mastermind behind these places. One downside of the cult of the chef is if we ignore the role of clever owners, much as film critics rave about the work of directors who were really on short leashes held by powerful and creative producers. Boehm is one of those energetic 36-hours-in-a-day types who started his first restaurant (a sandwich shop in the “new urbanist” community of Seaside, Florida) with everything he had except for a car to sleep in, and has worked his way to a small empire of name restaurants in one of the major restaurant cities in the world.

He has very clear ideas about what he wants his places to be and what kind of a good time you’re going to have in them.  And even if my personal tastes favor the most chef-driven spots (Vie, Mado), he demonstrates that one of our scene’s greatest strengths is these companies that can create cannily commercial concepts that don’t feel concepted, using the good suppliers and serving food that can hold its head up in any company.  They don’t always work (to name a place belonging to somebody else, I think The Gage, for instance, is an example of a restaurant that buys great ingredients and turns them into Cheesecake Factory food) but at their best, they’re some of our best, and it’s the showman, more than the performers, who’s responsible if you liked the show.

1800 N Lincoln Ave
Chicago, IL 60614
(312) 981-7070

1729 N Halsted St # 1
Chicago, IL 60614-5537
(312) 337-6070

Landmark Grill
1633 N Halsted St # 1
Chicago, IL 60614-8640
(312) 587-1600