Sky Full of Bacon

UPDATE: So this was a cool night (and how rare for me, these days, to have two social events to go to on a Monday night no less…) About 25 people showed up for the salon, interestingly including Bruce F., star of the very first Sky Full of Bacon (the guy with homemade Earthboxes on his garage). Besides myself and the guy making a full-length food documentary below, there was a guy from a comedy troupe called Ladyparts, who have done sketch comedy online— so we kind of had all the ranges represented, short viral video, medium-length pieces (that’s me), and a feature documentary. There was a good discussion about how much response you can really expect from users and (from Bruce) whether you can really lead people to activism (I said, I’m not really pushing an agenda per se, but I’m never sorry to hear that somebody is following up on what I’ve shown by making headcheese or buying La Quercia prosciutto), and also about to what extent online media is a substitute for actually experiencing things yourself; one woman got to the heart of the matter by observing that the camera and the video was my vehicle for experiencing things more fully, for opening doors to those experiences, which is certainly true, and I replied that at the same time, the experience is transferable— if you watch my video and then go into a place and talk them up using what you learned from the video as a starting point, you will quickly gain much of the same access and intimacy with a restaurant or chef that I got by filming for several hours.

Afterwards I went to Phillip Foss’s birthday party at Pops For Champagne; the party was partly a costume party to allow anonymous reviewers to stay anonymous, though I didn’t see any actual reviewers with secret identities there; nevertheless, it prompted my costume, which consisted of a nametag which said “Hello, My Name Is Phil Vettel.” Certainly minimalist next to Foss’s own costume, a full Roman centurion kit.

Anyway, the party was partly underwritten by Miracle Berry, a lozenge made from miracle fruit, which somehow deadens the bitterness receptors or something, so that lemons taste like lemonade. An interesting effect, also slightly perturbing (first step on the slippery slope to some kind of future Alinea in which they simply wire up your taste receptors and induce flavor sensations by keyboard), and it only did so much for our cocktails (apparently the cucumber cocktail Foss invented and named for his blog, The Pickled Tongue, was fairly unpleasant without the miracle berry, pretty good with). Interesting to try, but I doubt I’ll be dosing myself in the future with them. Saw many interesting food media folks, Gourmet Rambler (Tatiana Abramova), Eliza Grossman (of ElizaBites), Lisa Shames, as well as chefs including Troy Graves (Eve), Brian Ellison (Frontera/Topolobampo), and others, as well as fishmonger to the star chefs Carl Galvan. As the evening went on a crowd arrived from the big Art Smith-Common Threads-Oprah event (see Steve Dolinsky’s tweets for the glittery red carpet report), and I talked to Graham Bowles for a few minutes about Grahamwich (he told me where it’s going to be, but it’s a secret). He also strongly endorsed The Purple Pig. Thanks for the invite to Phillip (whose generosity toward a good cause rivaled the Common Threads event’s, in spirit if not numbers; read more and give a little here.)

* * *

I’m one of the guest speakers at a salon in Logan Square Monday night, so I’m putting this up to direct anyone who comes from there to the good stuff here! To watch the videos, click on Video Podcasts at right; the last full-length one was Pie As a Lifestyle, you can watch it right now:

Sky Full of Bacon 13: Pie As a Lifestyle from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Some interesting posts of the past include this guide to Supermercado Taquerias, the Gebert-Nagrant Sessions, this one about beekeeping, and this two-part series on making my grandmother’s piccalilli.

Since I found myself in the unexpected position of having two finished videos in the hopper (one of which was waiting for its radio half on WBEZ, and thus holding up the other), I said I was going to put them up two weeks apart. But as it happened, hardly anyone saw the cheese one until well after the broadcast last week, and it was still getting publicity at the tail end of last week, so I’m going to delay the premiere of the Healthy Food Lithuanian for one more week. You’ll just have to find something else to watch— like this video by one of the other presenters at Monday’s salon.

Finally, I’ll be making another public appearance with tasty food in tow very soon; watch for details. Oh, and I wouldn’t mind a bit if you voted for me in the Time Out Chicago Eat Out Awards (third category from bottom)…

Kati Rolls in Chicago? asked this LTHForum thread. What are Kati Rolls? Well, you take something every Indian restaurant has, like paratha (a flatbread), and you roll up whatever else you have in it, and suddenly you have a Kati Roll. So in theory, most of the Indian restaurants in town serve something fitting the profile of a Kati Roll. But as the thread points out, in some places, you have specifically Kati Roll fast food joints, which people are evidently pining for, to judge by that thread. I guess it’s a little bit like the difference between a place that has a hamburger on the menu, and a hamburger joint; and certainly I’m in no position to judge anyone else for waxing nostalgic about hamburger joints, so I guess the answer is… Chicago has plenty of places to get things that are functionally Kati Rolls, but we don’t really have a Kati Roll fast food joint in that sense, as apparently New York does.

One suggestion for a place that comes somewhat close to a Kati Roll joint is a place called J.K. Kabab House on Rockwell just north of Devon. I’ve noticed it over the years but never actually eaten there, so Wednesday, I popped in and chatted with the proprietor for a few minutes; my first inclination was to order a chicken boti roll, but he steered me toward the day’s special of a lamb kebob instead:

Roll it up and, voila, a Kati Roll, I guess. It wasn’t the most profound Indian meal I ever ate, but it was surprisingly light (paratha can be a grease sponge, but this wasn’t), fresh and tasty hot off the grill, all in all happily satisfying. There was something kind of fast foody about it— a little insubstantial; like the paratha mix came from the Indian equivalent of Bisquick, perhaps, or maybe it was the obvious high fructose corn syrup in the raita (a yogurt-based dip), which made it more like Kraft creamy Italian or something. But somehow I didn’t mind that, it was like getting an authentic taste of what the teens at a mall in Delhi or Chandigarh are eating. If these started popping up in American malls, I’d be happy.

So while I was looking for J.K.’s, I saw a new sign I hadn’t noticed before, for a place called Afghan Grill Kabob. And I knew where I’d be eating the next day.

Afghan Grill Kabob is fairly posh as Afghan restaurants go, well-coordinated decor with a small stage set up for nighttime performances (a soundcheck suddenly blared middle-eastern hiphop at one point in our meal). Afghan food, in my experience, is like Turkish food— some dishes are essentially identical (eggplant dip with a tart yogurt sauce on top) but even if they’re not, the pleasures are subtle ones, it’s comfy earthy food, not blow your socks off with either bold flavor or aggressive spicing.

So to see a pair of spicy condiments, one green with jalapeno, the other red with chilis, set on the table was a surprise. We started with an eggplant dip, a salad similar to Jerusalem salad (chopped finely enough that one of my co-diners called it “Jerusalem salsa”), and some beef mantu, which seemed bland and a bit wan next to examples I’ve had at other Afghan restaurants. We had two main courses; one was lamb kebobs, a bit overcooked (which, to be fair, seems to be the middle-eastern norm) but a perfectly decent rendition of the usual kebobs on a giant mound of rice dish, and one which they called chicken biryani, though the hostess took pains to explain that it was not Indian-style biryani. Instead it was quite large chunks of chicken tossed with rice in a tomatoey sauce which made it look something like a middle-American baked spaghetti dinner. It also had surprising heat for Afghan food— and we were told that there was a level of heat up from that that we could ask for.

It wasn’t the best Afghan meal I’ve ever had, but it had its moments; I’d check back in the place in a few months or so, see how it’s coming along. It did make me think a bit, though, about the preconceptions we food adventurers come to places like this with. Of the two new places I just tried on Devon, Afghan Grill Kabob was clearly the more authentic restaurant of the two in a sense, and its food gave off all the attributes of homemade-ness that I’m supposed to treasure. But I have to say, as I write about the two meals, it’s the fast food version— the Kati Roll— that’s calling my name right now. I don’t think it’s because there’s a part of my brain that’s been sucker-trained by the fast food industry; after all, the most obviously fast-foody part of the meal (the raita) was the part that turned me off. But I do think there is something naturally appealing about something light and quick that is well-executed and satisfying, and on the rare occasions fast food achieves the well-executed part and avoids the “sugared-up crap” part, we’re not wrong to like it. Anyway, I’ll try Afghan Grill Kabob, but I have a feeling my next Kati Roll could be next week. Or sooner.

J.K. Kabab House
6412 North Rockwell
Chicago, IL 60645
(773) 761-6089

Afghan Grill Kabob
2657 W Devon Ave
Chicago, IL 60659

Here’s the illegal cheese video that goes with David Hammond’s radio piece:

Sky Full of Bacon Short: Making Illegal Cheese from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Check out other videos on subjects from local eating to Lake Michigan whitefish fishing by clicking “Video Podcasts” at right. And watch for a new one next week on the last days of one of Chicago’s last Lithuanian restaurants.

Or read restaurant reviews, cooking posts, and who knows what all by scrolling below. Welcome!

UPDATE: The radio piece is here.

UPDATE 2: Thanks to Serious Eats, Justin Kaufmann at WBEZ’s blog, and Chuck Sudo at Chicagoist for linkage.

“It’s a Southern Big Star,” was my first thought upon entering the revamped, de-glitzified Chaise Lounge, now renamed The Southern.  I shot footage of chef Cary Taylor there last summer, then went to eat there in December, and while we were there I could see the way its multiple identities were running smack into each other: the glitzy, Miami-nightclub-inspired look attracted a young, hard-drinking but not terribly sophisticated crowd who weren’t going for the upscale food (other than the Dietzler beef hamburger), while the Pimp My Ride vibe was scaring off the Wicker Park diners who should have been championing Cary’s food (a point confirmed by owner Jim Lasky, who said, ruefully, that one of the things he’s heard the most since redoing the place was “Now I can actually come in here!”)

So they ripped out the glitz downstairs and made it into a rough-edged bar-restaurant with some tall tables, and revamped the menu to favor smaller plates to nosh on while drinking.  It seems paradoxical but somehow becoming more of a bar actually makes it easier to see The Southern as a restaurant, maybe because you don’t have to choose between dinner or drinking, but can just nibble as you go.  And as at Big Star or Avec or The Bristol, go in for a drink and you’ll soon find yourself tempted to just get a few plates, and then a few more.

A couple of things on the menu when we went in December are still on it— the duck orleans, aka cassoulet, and the mahi fish tacos, for instance— but the left side of the menu has been reconfigured for carb-driven bar snacks, starting with the authentically ubiquitous Southern nosh cheese straws, and the equally ubiquitous Chicago restaurant trendy pigout food of the moment, poutine.  We started with delicate hush puppies accompanied by a comfy smoked trout dip (smoked trout from Susie-Q Fisheries, seen in Sky Full of Bacon #12):

This was very good, and okay, despite my repeated Twitter attacks on that gloppy mess poutine, I have to admit that the version here was pretty hard to resist while it was hot (though our dining companions said they gave the edge to the version at The Gage).  I still don’t think poutine is quite grownup food, but I guess someone who loves biscuits and gravy really has no standing to attack it.

But there was one dish that was really beyond reproach, that we all just instantly fell in love with, and when Lasky boasted that he thought it was the best dish in the city at the moment, well, you’d give the notion some serious consideration.  It’s called johnny cakes on the menu (though the jonnycakes were eggier and more crepe-like than the classic form; Cary said the change was made to make them easier to get out of the kitchen at their peak of freshness, I presume since it means they can be fried much more quickly).  Anyway, it starts with some wonderful pulled pork, lightly but definitely smoky, and then you put it on the johnny-crepe and add a little sweet-sour note from Cary’s housemade chow chow:

I’ve noticed some recent comments from local chefs about how the pork thing has been done to death on the Chicago restaurant scene, but pork ain’t over as long as dishes this good keep popping up.

Cary sent us a few dishes to give us a picture of other sides of the menu.  I liked his fried green tomatoes quite a bit; he salt-cures the tomatoes for an hour or two before frying them with a cornmeal batter, and they were served with thin slices of goat cheese and and a sprinkling of a lemon-caper-parsley garnish; a handsomely elegant twist on an iconic dish.  Shrimp and grits we were just fair on; the grits (from an artisanal supplier that was not Anson Mills) had a great texture but the dish seemed overwhelmed by red and bell pepper; I prefer gooey creamy grits with a splash of heat, this seemed almost the reverse.  The roast oysters were an interesting version, not that I’m much of an oyster afficionado, but he did a nice job of giving them some heat and a saltine crumble topping while keeping the integrity of the briny oyster itself.

Oh, and we had the hamburger, too.  Which is pretty great, I have to admit; that Dietzler beef is sheer concentrated beefpower.  Finally we got to a couple of entrees— the much praised duck orleans, or black-eyed-pea cassoulet, and a special of striped bass with bits of salty Virginia ham and deep-fried and steamed okra around it.  All of that was good, but their show might have been stolen by the collard greens, which also had the salty country ham in its vigorous pot likker.

Collard greens, in Wicker Park. I just want to point that out— somehow we don’t blink when an upscale taco bar or an upscale Greek place opens in Wicker Park, but a Southern place— I think that may strike some people as the most exotic thing to happen on Wicker Park’s culinary scene since Baccala was serving lamb tongue.  But I love Cary’s approach— highly authentic in some cases, respectfully upscaling classic dishes without pushing them till they break in others— and I loved an awful lot of this food.  I don’t know if it will be an easy sell or not, but to my mind The Southern is easily the most accomplished upscale Southern restaurant this town has had, and if you’d line up at Big Star for a taco shell with some pork on it, you need to discover what The Southern can do with roughly the same idea just a few blocks away.

The Southern
1840 W. North Ave.

I’ve pretty much made my peace with Thomas Keller since starting to regularly make his vegetable stock (as described here). I accept that he is the world’s worst home economist, always urging you to toss away things that frugal housewives would carefully hoard and use to their last bit of life. I accept that he is more particular than I will ever be about straining and clarifying, and that he will always add a step of work if there is the teeniest bit of value to be gained from it. So I make his vegetable stock the way he makes it, and strain out my pricey leeks and fennel after 45 minutes like he says to, and then when he’s left the room, I simmer the vegetables some more and get from them the flavor he would have left behind, because it wasn’t quite pristine and clear enough for him, and then I have two vegetable stocks— a beautiful clear-tasting Keller one for delicate soups, and a slightly down-and-dirtier one for not so delicate ones, and each jar of vegetable stock cost me a buck or two, not three bucks or four. Everybody’s happy.

Well, until Keller came out with what was supposed to be his casual home cooking cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home. Somehow, not remembering my failed attempts to cook out of The French Laundry Cookbook, I convinced myself that it was not only a cookbook I wanted to have, but it would be a worthy Christmas gift for my sister, who’s a fine cook but let’s just say about 10,000 times less hyper about food than I am.

I snapped back to reality when Aschie30 wrote this LTHForum post about how difficult Keller makes the act of making something as simple and homey as chicken and dumplings. True, she finally decides that all the extra work was worth it, but in the process she certainly puts the lie to Keller’s opening claims that this is the casual food “I love to sit down to with my family and friends.” Charlie Trotter successfully put away the chive shears and managed to produce a book of modestly-scaled recipes which achieve his cuisine’s baseline virtues without a staff of 20, but Keller has not. I mean, this is a book which devotes an entire oversized spread to making your own soup crackers. Keller writes a book for casual home cooking like Wagner would have written one on musical entertaining at home.

At the risk of discovering that the main thing I’d strained was my family’s patience, I decided to have an all-Thomas Keller Valentine’s Day dinner, and thus settle the question in my mind: does Keller’s perfectionist approach to casual cuisine yield benefits worth sweating for, or is he freakin’ nuts? (It would have been an all-Ad Hoc at Home dinner, but I finally decided I liked the sound of a dessert from The French Laundry Cookbook better.)  But in any case it involved four main recipes from Ad Hoc, plus two additional recipes which produced something to be used in one of the main recipes; plus four separate recipes to produce the parts which would come together to make the dessert.

Braised Beef Short Ribs (p. 41-2)

I settled on short ribs because I figured a braise would give me some leeway to handle the extra steps in whatever other dishes I made— and because it seemed like something I could buy happily from the grassfed beef guy selling at the Logan Square Farmer’s Market.  I know all the reasons why I’m supposed to eat grassfed beef, but it’s just too harsh for my taste eaten in straightforward form (like a steak).  A nice braise though, lots of wine and aromatic vegetables, that’s where the stronger flavor of grassfed beef would work for me, I figured; and so I was eager to experiment with something like short ribs.  The pieces I got were certainly gorgeous looking:

Meanwhile, I spent about an hour making a wine glaze using Keller’s usual assortment of vegetables (onion, carrots, leeks, no celery) plus thyme.  Heedless of cost as usual, he says to use an entire bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon or other red wine; I finished off three leftover opened bottles of random red (two shiraz, one merlot), saving at least $10 right there:

And in typical Keller fashion, given his belief that vegetables have given up most of their flavor by the 45-minute mark, this is just the first of two sets of nearly identical vegetables and spices that you add to the braising liquid— throwing both away at the end.  Nonsense, said I, and so I rescued the second set of carrots at the end and served them alongside the meat.  They were fine, you should try them sometime, Tom!

Meanwhile, I browned the short ribs, and then, because Keller is so horrified by the prospect that meat might wind up with a little piece of limp parsley adhering to it, you’re supposed to wrap the meat in a shroud of cheesecloth and bury it in the liquid.   I did that, then cut out the little parchment paper doily that is another of Keller’s signatures, and put this in the oven to braise for a couple of hours.

As it did I prepared:

Puree of Garlic Potatoes, p. 223

I wondered how much Keller would gild the lily of something as straightforward as garlic mashed potatoes, a dish whose entire recipe is basically in its name.  He did so in two ways.  First, his method of adding garlic flavor was to make:

Garlic Confit and Oil, p. 266

Put some garlic cloves in a pan, cover with half a bottle of canola oil, poach in the oil until they’re soft and gooey.  The two bucks’ worth of canola oil seemed profligate— though I suppose it could be used later in something— but the resulting garlic was really nice and mellow, subtle once it was mixed into the potatoes.  And not much work, really, for a Keller extra step.  I would do this again, certainly.

The other was to have me cook the potatoes by dropping them, whole, into cold, heavily salted water, then bringing them to a simmer, then peeling them hot.  What does this add compared to peeling them with a peeler and cooking them skinless?  Not much that I could tell.  (I guess you could argue that it’s actually less work to peel them this way, but only if you have titanium fingers and don’t mind peeling something boiling hot.)

Brioche, p. 272

I hadn’t planned on making anything from his book breadwise, but then I spotted the brioche recipe, which is actually rather easy (if you have a Kitchenaid mixer) and though the quantity it makes is fairly huge, I knew there would be another use I could make of much of it, which I’ll post about separately.  So I used some of it to bake round brioches in a muffin tin.  The kids loved the buttery bread.

Little Gem Lettuce Salad, p. 142-3
with Honey Vinaigrette, p. 143

One of the things that I came to find frustrating about looking through the book was that Keller would often be quite specific about the fruits or vegetables he wanted you to use— for instance, this salad requires Little Gem lettuce, Ruby Red grapefruit, blood oranges (at least he didn’t specify Sanguinellos over Moros), Satsuma oranges and a pomegranate.  Well, that’s fine and dandy if you’re Thomas Keller and can basically get your hands on anything with a phone call, but here I am in a major city and the closest I came at my local Whole Foods was a Rio Star grapefruit (at least I knew that would be similarly sweet), blood oranges, no pomegranates (but I finally found a lone box of pomegranate pips), and some tangerines (actually, I later realized that WF had a small bunch of Satsumas, when I remembered what they were— the little oranges with dark green leaves— but the sign for them was missing).  As for the lettuce, only because of a passing reference to Little Gem being like butter lettuce was I able to find something that would substitute reasonably well— I assume.

This is annoying not only because it’s unrealistic, to think that the shopper even in a major city will be able to find all of these things at once, but because you can’t believe it’s how Keller would really assemble a dish— he’d see what was available and adjust accordingly, making things a little more sweet or tart based on what he could find.  And even the slightest clues as to how to do that myself would be of far more use than telling me that I have to find some specific lettuce variety that may be easy to have trucked over to your restaurant in Napa, but which I’ve never seen in my life.

That complaint registered… this is a fantastic salad.  Maybe I just lucked out and despite having the wrong grapefruit, the wrong tangerine, etc., the balance was pretty much perfect anyway, but the sunny juiciness of the fruit and the tart note of the vinaigrette and the tenderness of the lettuce— just wonderful, especially at this time of year.  Even my sons, whose ideas about salad are pretty much that they like ranch dressing and NOTHING ELSE, gobbled it up.  This will undoubtedly be a keeper… and I will undoubtedly evolve its mix of flavors depending on what I find in the store from one time to the next.

Meanwhile the meat seemed tender— well, the middle parts seemed tender; the upper stripe of meat was either over or undercooked, I frankly couldn’t tell with this grassfed meat— and so it went into a pan in the oven while I reduced much of the sauce to a glaze.

So the grass-fed beef: good rich flavor, I need more experience braising it to really know how to do it right, but on the whole I was happy with it this way. That said, I can’t say that I particularly thought all the little Keller touches— making the wine glaze first, then the braising liquid with stock, putting the doily on top, etc.— added up to much, I made just as nice a short ribs braise from The Balthazar Cookbook with less fuss.  So final score for dinner from Ad Hoc at Home: salad great, brioche fine, potatoes worth the effort of making the garlic confit if not the pain of peeling unskinned, boiled potatoes, braised shortribs fine but no great difference from anybody else’s recipe for a dish like that.

Then came dessert from The French Laundry Cookbook:

Velouté of Bittersweet Chocolate with Cinnamon Stick Ice Cream (p. 286-7)
with Chocolate Sauce (p.280)

This was a satisfying recipe first of all because you could methodically prepare its parts over the preceding week without the stress of a last minute rush to get it made.  The velouté is sort of somewhere between a mousse and a meringue, and you make it in plastic wrap inside a ramekin or other round object and freeze it.  The ice cream you see underneath it below is cinnamon ice cream, made by steeping a stick in your custard; it’s subtle, almost ethereally cinnamony.  The flat disc is a cinnamon cookie, which you par-bake a day or two before.  At the bottom is a basic chocolate sauce.  When the time comes you bake the veloute on top of the cookie until it’s got an outer skin and a gooey inside, then assemble it quickly.

This is another great recipe, an easy way to wow your crowd; it looks complex but really it’s no harder to put together than a cheeseburger.  Ironically, I don’t think a recipe like this would have made it into Ad Hoc at Home, it’s too restaurant-showy, yet designed as it is for efficient production in a busy kitchen, it’s actually easier, and even more practical perhaps, for the home cook than many of the recipes in Ad Hoc at Home which take something simple and then fuss and fret it into a lot of extra work.

So where did I come out of all this on the subject of Thomas Keller?  I think there’s a lot of value in going through his overelaborated ways of making things, because it forces you to think about what goes into your dish, where extra efforts are worth it and where shortcuts are shortchanging you.  I think you will often decide that Keller is overdoing it for not enough return— but not always; here and there his way of doing it really is a better way, a way that takes an old familiar dish to the next level.  In a world where most cookbooks promise ease, there’s something to said for the master who challenges you to try harder and do more.  You may not always like his book, but you will learn a lot from it— including what matters more to you in the kitchen, time or perfection.

Audio documentarian David Hammond started doing a piece on the growing (but commercially illegal) trend of raw milk cheese, for WBEZ’s Worldview. Then he invited me along to shoot the process— making this the first multimedia event in audio, video and camembert.

First, watch my 8-1/2 minute video about making cheese with amateur cheesemaker Coleen Graham. Then listen to Worldview on Monday, February 22 as David explores the issues involved in raw milk cheesemaking and reveals the results of a taste test to determine if cheese-eaters (including myself) can tell the difference. UPDATE: The radio piece is here.

Sky Full of Bacon Short: Making Illegal Cheese from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

Note: the question was raised in an earlier post why Coleen is referring to raw milk itself being illegal to sell in the state of Illinois when in fact it’s not. The reality is that it’s legal to sell if customers bring their own containers (so the farm is not a bottling operation) and transfers it to those containers themselves, and as long as the farm does not advertise the availability of raw milk to the public. (See here for more information.) My guess is that in casual conversation, Coleen regards these conditions as discouraging any practical form of commercial raw milk trade so completely that it is, in effect, illegal.


About Sky Full of Bacon

Sky Full of Bacon #13: Pie As a Lifestyle
Sky Full of Bacon Short: Edzo’s Burger Shop
Sky Full of Bacon #12: In the Land of Whitefish
Sky Full of Bacon #11: A Better Fish
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.

There have been so many interesting openings lately that I’ve been trying new spots every chance I get, but when my wife’s sister (the one who lived in France, the one to whom we sent my first course-by-course description of a meal— a postcard detailing everything we had at L’Esperance in Vezelay, the one now exiled to the provinces of teaching in West Virginia) was coming to town for a conference, I knew where we wanted to go to give her a guaranteed knockout Chicago meal in non-stuffy circumstances: Mado.  It’s the closer of Chicago neighborhood restaurants.

Taking her made me think freshly about the ways in which a meal at Mado is different from the usual fine dining experience.  Appetizers at so many restaurants are the most creative parts of the meal, which is appealing, but it also means they’re often the richest, which unbalances the flow of the meal— you’ve had a bunch of butter and frying and rich meats such as crab up front, making the main course seem heavier and duller.  At Mado, though, the combination of the charcuterie platter and a few simply dressed seasonal vegetables from the antipasti plate has a light and clean feel that segues perfectly into richer main courses.  Some of that, of course, is simply the Italian way of doing things, but kudos to Mado for internalizing it so thoroughly that it has become their natural way of pacing a meal even when the dishes themselves don’t seem Italian in any way.

The charcuterie platter had three things on it— our old favorite testa, housemade ham (a touch boring, frankly, and quick to dry out; the same meat would probably be better served some other way) and ciccioli.  I couldn’t particularly explain how the ciccioli differs from testa but it was the best of the three, a wonderfully nourishing mix of cold meat and subtle spices.  In the dead of winter, I wondered if the antipasti would amount to much, but both a sweet carrot dish with a touch of middle eastern spicing, and beets with, I believe, sheep cheese were as good as any antipasti I’ve had there.  We also enjoyed the brandade (though I’d say Cary Taylor’s at Chaise Lounge was better) and a crock of velvety chicken liver as well.

Well fed by this point, we only ordered two mains, though one was a double portion: the shepherd’s pie, a Valentine’s special for two, and a porchetta with white beans.  Of the two, the shepherd’s pie was the revelation— nothing unusual about it, God knows nothing deconstructed, but so rich with deep braised lamb shoulder flavor and root vegetables and fresh rosemary scent throughout the potato top; great ingredients (even turnip chunks sang!) prepared to bring out their all.  It was as comforting and as profound as comfort food gets, and so too the creamy polenta (ordered only because it seemed like something the youngest son would eat if he ate nothing else), simplicity itself but sharpened up with something grownup like parmesan to transcend its gooey, fit-for-babies texture.  The mascarpone grits (basically the same thing) at Kith & Kin seemed especially diminished after this.

It’s a shame to only order one dessert for yourself at Mado, because they tend to be on the subtle side, low on sugar and avoiding the pyrotechnics that make dessert an easy way to send everybody out happy.  You are much more likely to like dessert at Mado if you can try several things at once and, again, get an appreciation for how good they are at letting ingredients stand out on their own without cheap tricks that aim straight for the sweet tooth, bypassing the brain.  We had a sour cherry pie with chocolate creme fraiche, an almond cornmeal cake with spiced apples, and rice pudding with golden raisins and nuts, along with a bit of the migas bark, and going back and forth between all of them was far more than the sum of their seemingly modest parts.  As we finished up, amid a happily full house, I could see that we’d done right by a guest in her one shot at a big city meal before returning to her college town.  Mado closed the deal.

I wasn’t planning to blog but a bunch of stuff has happened that warrants a comment, so away we go:

I’ve been nominated for an award! Out of the blue, a nomination for the Time Out Eating Out Award for Best Indie Restaurant Blog, alongside some fine competition— Audarshia, tireless newshound behind 312DiningDiva; the hilariously filthy Chicago Gluttons; and the yummy, soothing-when-you’re-hungover Chicago BrunchBlog. Many other places I strongly approve of are nominated too, so why not go there and vote up and down the list (my category is third from the bottom).  Thanks to Fruitslinger/Waffleizer for alerting me.

My latest collaboration with David Hammond will, as noted, be up Monday, but in the meantime, check out his hilarious Valentine’s Day sex-and-food radio piece at the 848 page, or listen to the rebroadcast tonight.

The greatest butcher shop in the universe, Paulina Meat Market, alerts me that they’ll be having an in-store event involving meatloaf, Saturday, February 27th from 10 to 2.  Author Connie Fairbanks will be cooking meatloaf from her book Scratch That (an admirable sentiment) and selling and signing copies.

Another event you might want to check out, if you want to hobknob with bigtime chefs and do some good for an arts school (Chicago Academy for the Arts): A Taste for the Arts, Thursday February 18, with chefs including Rick Bayless, Rodelio Aglibot (Sunda), Bill Kim, Tony Priolo (Piccolo Sogno) and David Schneider (Taxim) cooking… what surely must include Tallgrass Beef, since Bill Kurtis will be there.  More here.

This is slightly less than new news, but I keep forgetting to mention that FOB (Friend of Bacon) Art Jackson (SFOB #7) and his wife Chelsea are featured on the cover, no less, of this month’s issue of Dwell for their way cool, spare and white Pilsen condo and how well it works for their cooking lives.  See it here, and check out the slideshow linked as well.

Finally, the above photo is my new Twitter icon. I loved the Pan-Am-Stratoliner 1962 feel of the package; just spotted it at a Dominick’s the other day. Anyway, follow me on Twitter here.

Cheesemaking video will go up Monday. In the meantime, here are some links of terror to tide you over.

1. This commercial is just so desperate to capture the excitement of Star Wars, and it knows it’s not happening:

2. Questions You Were Unlikely To Ask: Where can I get that Chicago classic Garrett’s Popcorn, or at least a Southeast Asian knockoff, when I’m in the Philippines? Kubiertos answers the question.
3. James Lileks discovers a document revealing what the Heinz 57 Varieties actually are. I bet you never knew. I bet they don’t make 15 of them today. (Heinz Peanut Butter? Heinz Breakfast Wheat? Heinz Cream of Oyster Soup? Those were all real.)
4. Seattle cocktail blogger Cocktail Chronicles recounts what he didn’t blog about in 2009, and why.
5. Here’s a post for a wintry day: an Italian food blogger called Briciole visits Hawaii.
6. What’s the difference between me doing something on sustainable seafood and Steve Dolinsky doing something? I’m not sure, but it involves a ticket to Paris (gotta work on that end of the business model). Anyway, he attended the Seafood Summit and reports at his Vocalo blog here here and here, and in a podcast in the middle one, all worth checking out.
7. Here’s the kind of Flickr Group that Flickr was invented for: The Sugar Frosted Cereal Museum. There does seem to be a big nostalgia thing in cereal right now— I actually found Quisp at Strack & Van Til a few weeks back. What’s funny to me about this commercial is how Borscht Belt Jewish it is— Quisp talks like Jerry Lewis (it’s actually Daws Butler, the voice of Yogi Bear and many others), while the scientist is right out of old Dr. Krankheit routines from vaudeville. That’s one thing that’s sure changed about TV since the 60s. Bonus points if you can name the announcer who has the last line at the end. Trust me, you’ve heard his voice many, many times (and no, it’s not Orson Welles).

This will be a restaurant review in a moment, but first a couple of words about upcoming videos.  (Or skip to the second photo below.) It’s been nearly two months since the Hoosier Mama video, but your Sky Full of Bacon correspondent has been busy and two, count ’em two, pieces should be up shortly, both of which, oddly enough, involve subjects skirting the edge of modern American food safety bureucracy.

The first, which should be up later this week, will be kind of a cool collaboration with my buddy David Hammond, who does little audio documentaries about food for WBEZ. In this case, David was interested in non-aged raw milk cheeses, which are illegal in this country because of supposed health risks (which somehow manage not to kill millions of Frenchmen every year), and he connected with a woman named Coleen Graham who makes raw milk cheese at home. (I hasten to point out that Coleen does not sell cheese, raw milk or otherwise; she just makes them for consumption amongst friends, which is legal, assuming you buy the raw milk in a neighboring state where it’s legal.) So David invited me along to Coleen’s house in November to shoot the process of making cheese at home. That’s as far as my video goes, but a few weeks later we went to a wine bar in Itasca to taste the cheeses and see if we could tell the difference between raw milk and pasteurized camembert, and so you’ll be able to watch the video, and then get the rest of the story from David in a radio piece on WBEZ’s Worldview next Monday, February 15th. UPDATE: moved to February 22.

The second is, as promised at the end of the last video, a remembrance of Healthy Food, the last surviving Lithuanian restaurant in Bridgeport. Lithuanian Chicago is little remembered today, but at one time (c. 1920s) there were more Lithuanians in Chicago than in any city in Lithuania, and Healthy Food, which opened in 1938, was the oldest surviving Lithuanian restaurant in the world. Healthy Food was one of the places on my mental list of places I thought about doing a video about someday, so when I heard that there were closing within the week last December, I raced down there and basically camped out for a couple of days, interviewing the owner and staff and— this was the coup— filming the making of kugelis, the baked potato-bacon pudding that is Healthy Food’s signature dish.  Why was this a coup?  Well, let’s just say that there are certain old world cooking practices involved which the owner said she didn’t let previous camera-toting visitors like Steve Dolinsky film, for fear of attracting unwanted Health Dept. attention.  But since she was planning to close in a few days anyway, she said what the hell, and so I document the making of kugelis in all its pre-modern glory.  If the result frightens you… well, it’s closed anyway, so you not only don’t have to eat it, you can’t.

That piece will be up in a couple of weeks, which brings us to the restaurant review…

To finish it up I needed some shots of the now-defunct Lithuanian shopping strip in Marquette Park on 69th street, which is labeled “Lithuanian Plaza” although since the closing of Lithuanian Plaza Bakery & Deli a couple of years ago, it in fact has no functioning Lithuanian businesses left (at least that were apparent in daytime; hard to tell with some that might still be taverns).  In doing a little research ahead of time I discovered that there was still one remaining Lithuanian restaurant in the city, two blocks south on 71st street.  (There are more in the south suburbs, including a new branch of Lithuanian Plaza Bakery & Deli.)

Reading the one LTH post by Rene G, Seklycia sounded elderly bordering on sepulchral, its entrance disguised to the crime-ridden neighborhood around it (note his photo of the sign cryptically promising “Lithuanian Human Services”), a buzzer allowing admittance to the few who know.  I envisioned the last, preserved-in-amber holdout against the waves of change that had integrated Marquette Park in the 1960s.  Marquette Park’s place in the turmoil of the 60s is usually depicted one-dimensionally, Martin Luther King versus white racists, but I could certainly imagine sympathy for the ethnic immigrants who had created a little neighborhood of their own in pursuit of the American dream, only to see bigger historical forces blow it away.  (I mean, it’s not like Lithuania has any history of being wiped off the map or anything.)  It seemed as if I was coming to the most obscure restaurant in the most obscured ethnic enclave in Chicago, and I fully expected a cobwebbed, funny-smelling grandma’s house atmosphere to match, like Zakopane or the like.

In fact, Seklycia is nothing much like that at all.  The cryptic sign is down, replaced by the jaunty message above, and there’s no bell to ring to go in.  (The neighborhood doesn’t seem bad at all, frankly— mostly daycare centers.) The dining room could be any modest cafe in a small town, and a waitress several decades below 80 cheerfully took my order as modern American pop music played on a tinny radio.  Figuring this was likely to be my one shot here, I ordered the $7.99 Lithuanian combo.  It started with bread, continued with a huge bowl of beet soup (which tasted a bit French oniony, as in, there might be a package of onion soup mix in there) accompanied by a boiled potato, and then— I was nearly full by this point already— proceeded to a massive plate of kugelis (fluffier than Healthy Food’s, quite good), sausage (overcooked and not that interesting; definite win for Healthy Foods here), sweetish sauerkraut (just fine and improved the sausage immeasurably), and a terrifyingly large “zeppelin,” a big wad of ground pork meat inside a 3/4″ football-shaped shell of gooey potato dough, which I could barely face at all— it was like some form of mutant dim sum.  Lunch concluded with tapioca pudding, which I enjoyed shamelessly.  All in all, the meal was just fair, and not a replacement for Healthy Food, but clearly there are at least some good things on the menu.

It was when I went to the bathroom that I discovered that in fact my original preconception of Seklycia wasn’t entirely wrong— the next room was the grandmotherly holdout against history that I had expected the whole restaurant to be, with old ladies playing cards or knitting at tables and, interestingly, a “Bibliothek” full of Lithuanian books.  I no longer saw it as sad and a bit gothic, though.  As the sign says, Seklycia is about 20 years old— which means it’s really not a remnant of the old Marquette Park community but a new business, relatively.  Someone saw the neighborhood as it was in the late 80s, long after all the turmoil and the “white flight” and the irreversible emigration of Lithuanian Chicago to the suburbs, and still had faith enough in it to open a restaurant and make it a kind of center for what community remained.  I find that kind of heroic, and if you ever find yourself in that area, or feel like making a trek to an obscure corner of the south side, you could do worse than to offer Seklycia a little support— and, as the sign says, enjoy Lithuanian gasp.

2711 W 71st St