Sky Full of Bacon

Happy anniversary, my sweet…

…and thank you, good friends, for the champagne with which to toast it.

Since the first time I went to Blackbird, which was between my ceasing to post on Chowhound and the launching of LTHForum, and is therefore a meal tragically lost to history, the only time I had been there to eat (as opposed to, say, butcher hogs in the basement) was for the mulefoot pig dinner. Mike Sheerin, the chef Paul Kahan brought in from WD-50 in New York to take over primary chef duties as his empire expanded with The Publican, had only been on the job a few months, and of the five main courses at the mulefoot dinner, his was the one that I was least excited by, which I took to mean nothing more about his abilities than that it was built on enoki mushrooms, which don’t do anything for me.  But even with complaints about other parts of the Kahan empire possibly getting stretched thin talent-wise as Big Star opened, the word about Blackbird remained rock-solid, its perch at the top of see-and-be-seen downtown dining undisturbed.  So it was time to check out what Sheerin was up to.  When my 20th wedding anniversary began looming, knowing that it would fall as it always does during the National Restaurant Association show (when tables are at a premium), I decided early on to go to Blackbird, and planned to book a table the next day.

The next morning, Sheerin became Chicago’s only representative among the 2010 Food & Wine Best New Chefs.

Ivar the World’s Greatest Waiter recommended this bottle from a producer “in the family,” as he put it.

But I snagged a table, just in time, and we went with David Hammond and his wife last Saturday.  And as impressed as I’ve been in the past with Kahan & co. as an operation, I think the thing that maybe impresses the most about him now is that he’s hired someone who has reinvented his flagship restaurant right under his nose, and seems to be fine with it.  (And it’s not like it’s because he’s not around, either; Kahan was on the floor in stained chef’s whites for much of our meal, a perfect symbol of Blackbird’s chic-meets-meatpacking-district ethos.)

I summarized what I thought was Kahan’s approach to food in something I wrote a year and a half ago (based, admittedly, on more experience with Avec than with Blackbird, and on what he and others said about The Publican’s intended approach):

What Kahan wants to do is serve food that tastes like the best example of that food you’ve ever had, and his restaurants aren’t shy about using every trick in the professional chef’s handbook to make that happen. Dishes are heavily salted (though rarely obviously salty), and you often hear the chefs talking about adding acid to a dish, both techniques for delivering a trumpet blast of flavor in your mouth that seems more intense and dramatic than you could produce at home. Still, there’s a line they don’t cross, the point at which a flavorful meat ceases to be itself; dishes are never dressed up with extraneous flavors, weird combinations for combination’s sake.

That still seems like a decent summary of the sensibility at work at Avec and The Publican, say. Salty, porky, bright and snappy deliciousness that invites you to order another beer or glass of wine and makes you full and happy. But Blackbird under Sheerin seems to be taking a subtler, more delicate turn. Even when you ate something cured or brined or pickled, it was balanced with something else, so it wasn’t a trumpet blast on its own. A couple of times, it even approached the level of playfulness with food that you associate with places like Alinea or Graham Elliott, which would be in line with Sheerin’s training at WD-50— though only a couple of times (and it is worth noting, the most extreme example was the very first course of the tasting menu, as if to get that over with quickly and get back to Blackbirdian no-nonsense-ness as quickly as possible). Overall, though, what you mainly take away is a sense that although Blackbird didn’t need wholesale reinvention, it did need sharper differentiation from its siblings Avec and The Publican, and that’s where it’s gone under Sheerin— a little less mad pork love, a little more elegance and refinement.

Here’s what’s on the tasting menu right now. I’ve stopped routinely taking photos when fine-dining out, because so many people do it better than me, especially in low-light conditions. In this case, an early table and placement near the window provided the perfect circumstances for my abilities, so I’m happy to stop talking and revel in food porn to give you the best idea of where this seminal restaurant is now.

Cuttlefish “noodles” with strawberries and a bit of candied olive.  (The menu also says rhubarb, though I defy you to find it.)  This was the most playful, tricky thing, reminding me of Schwa’s jellyfish pad thai; but I just didn’t really like the fish-and-strawberries combo.  The candied olive was more interesting, though so tiny a piece in this tasting portion that I can’t say I entirely got to taste it.

Peanut gazpacho with cured hiramasa, rhubarb (this time, visible), pine, peanut brittle and green peppercorn.  This was a gorgeous cold soup, creamy and complex yet easy to like.

Swan Creek suckling pig with apricots stewed in Lillet, a little relish of snow peas and water chestnuts, and beer vinaigrette.  So far as I’ve seen, Kahan’s restaurants don’t seem to have much use for Asian flavors, but Sheerin seems to like sneaking Asian vegetables in and letting them just be themselves.  The pork was deeply satisfying, unctuous meat and crispy skin, and the winey apricots a perfect accompaniment, although this was one dish where you really felt like a tasting portion was cruel torment, it cried for a softball-sized hunk to tear into.

Foie gras torchon with black garlic dip, green strawberry, and shrimp salt (whatever that means), served with a glass of Sauternes.  Interesting, using the tar-strong black garlic to challenge the more familiar fatty pleasures of foie gras; not the most likable thing we ate, but points for thinking hard and not taking the easy route.

Wood-grilled sturgeon, garlic-braised snail, smoked fresh pickles and napa cabbage.  I think this was my favorite thing of the evening, and I’m someone who often finds fish entrees nice but no more; the firm sturgeon was grilled perfectly with just the right degree of smokiness, and the snail was very well done too, but what made this dish at least as much as the fish were the pickles, lightly briny and sweet (was rice vinegar involved in the brine? I suspect so), and the napa cabbage, with its crunch and slightly brusque flavor.  The contrast of all of these was so much more than the sum of their parts.

Another fine fish dish, a delicate golden trout with shaved asparagus, ground ivy (!), white sesame, and a little banana puree which was subtle and liqueur-y, plus an unbilled cameo by lavender, I guess.  Interestingly, if you ate the shaved asparagus on its own, you didn’t really get an asparagus flavor, it could have been zucchini or something.

Duck breast with porcini, favas, Worcestershire brown butter and cinnamon crisps; now we were into the savory meats part of the tasting menu, and I liked this a lot although the cinnamon thing seemed out of place, like French toast at the wrong meal.

While the accompaniments for this little chunk of wagyu beef could have stayed home, this was all about the deeply flavored, mineral-y beef.  Interestingly, the description mentioned marrow here, but we were mystified where it could be in the dish; we finally decided it must be holding the “caraway crumble” together.

This was also my first exposure to Blackbird’s new pastry chef, Patrick Fahy (aspiring pastry chefs, go read Fahy’s bio at the Blackbird site; the answer to How to Get a Job at Blackbird is, apparently, work everywhere, usually two or three at once).  I loved the first two, “fruit of the cocoa sorbet” (tasted more like citrus to me, but what do I know), with great little candied cocoa nibs (and having tasted uncandied nibs, trust me, they need candying), cilantro allegedly somewhere in there, and a banana sauce which, again, managed to avoid being too banana-y; this was a wonderful palate cleanser dressed up to go out.

Even more impressive, not to mention playful, was this construction.  The sponge at left is a spongecake, apparently cooked in the microwave so it explodes (“Three minutes ago this was batter,” said Ivar the World’s Greatest Waiter); the white square is a white honey parfait with wonderfully tart and gooey passion fruit in the center, and the spiral is caramelized white chocolate.  This was a mindblower, lots of textures and flavors that went beyond expectations, a total delight.

I’m not a great fan of coffee desserts, or coffee anything besides a hot cup first thing in the morning, so I just kind of admired this last one technically; Fahy’s experience at Lutz here in Chicago comes out in the classic-looking hazelnut dacquoise with espresso and chicory flavorings, but it was the apricot kernel sorbet, with its little crunchies of something (don’t know what the kernels actually were), that I liked best.

And finally, a little plate of, I think, apricot jellies (really wonderful) and dark chocolates with a liqueur center of some sort (not my thing, usually).  We also finished with teas from Roderick Markus; I skipped the $150 pu-erh and had a simple, but really quite impressive and three-dimensional, Japanese green-tea sencha.

(Now, one question: should you do the tasting menu?  Clearly it’s less something that Blackbird developed organically (as it is at a place like Alinea, where the entire evening is carefully structured as a series of novel experiences in small portions) than something they started offering in response to customer expectations that every restaurant have one.  And everything on it (except maybe the cuttlefish) can stand up to being a full portion.  So at the very least I don’t think doing so is essential to the experience, well, unless your vision of the experience involves writing and posting a lot of tasty photos, as mine inextricably does.  If you’d rather just tear into a big hunk of that pork or the sturgeon, I wouldn’t blame you.)

First, some trivial news, then some deeper thinking.

When Howard Hawks set out to make his first western, Red River, he took his cast and crew to the location, and they rented a herd of cattle for the picture. A big herd, not some make 20 steers look like 200 herd, but thousands.

And then it rained. And rained, and rained. For five weeks straight. And by the first day they could finally shoot anything, they were over budget by millions. No wonder that the next time he made a western, Rio Bravo, he shot most of it on a soundstage.

Well, that’s not a perfect analogy for the delays before the next Sky Full of Bacon, but it will do. I shot the second of the two main interviews in early April, when the farm where I was shooting was still too cool to plant, and planned to come back at the beginning of May to get some more vibrant shots of planting in spring. Only, as you may have noticed, we had a seriously rainy May. And you need at least a couple of dry days before you can go out there and plant. And it took pretty much the whole month to get that. I was ready to shoot one day and then the farmer had a cold and had to cancel. And so the two month gap between episodes quickly stretched to three. I can only chuckle mordantly at the thought— hey, Mr. City Dilettante Videomaker, you wanted to find out what it’s like for farmers to have your whole work and life dependent on the weather? Well, this is what it’s like!

* * *

But it’s not wasted time— as I mentioned in passing, a redesign of this site is in the works, and will debut soon. Also, I’ve been lining up shoots for the summer, so I’ll have an interesting assortment of footage banked to keep the videos rolling out more regularly.

One guy I talked to, I honestly don’t know if it will ever happen or not. He’s a genuine prophet of a different kind of agriculture, there’s a page or two on him in The Omnivore’s Dilemma though he’s not otherwise media-overexposed, I didn’t think. What’s more, what he talks about is all through that book, and I’m betting he, with 30+ years experience living it, didn’t get it from Pollan.

So I sent him a packet, letter and a selection of the videos, and gave him a call. He started out by flatly saying no, too busy during the time frame, too many people who want to interview him and turn it into 90 vacuous seconds. I assured him what was different was, I try to go in depth for 20 minutes, not cut it down to soundbites.

Then it got interesting. He was more open to the idea at some future point, but at the same time, even 20 minutes is hardly anything, he’s working on a book and has been talking (to whom if anyone, I have no idea) about a Carl Sagan-like series on the subject, 10 hour-long episodes, that kind of thing. And then his point of view exploded in multiple dimensions and he went off on how organic farming for overpriced restaurants for foodies in big cities (in other words, exactly what most of my videos have been about) isn’t the solution, it’s a distraction from the real problem which is soil erosion, which is the result of 10,000 years of the wrong kind of farming and the scientific method which reduces nature to problems to be solved (that, by the way, is all over Pollan too) and it’s no good to tell people a little bit of it, they need to get the whole thing, because they need to see that we need to change everything from growing annuals to growing perennials, change the whole basis of agriculture or we’re doomed.

So this is one of those guys with a Big Idea. And guys with Big Ideas sometimes are cranks and sometimes change the world, and it’s not necessarily clear which is which at first.  Or maybe it’s a distinction without a difference.  And, well, I can see how people like him lose patience with the media turning their Big Idea into soundbites, even as there’s probably no way to win people over without first trivializing your Big Idea enough to get its foot in the door.  A contradiction which, it was clear, he was acutely aware of and didn’t need me to drive home the irony of.

In the end he gave me a little room for hope.  I could write up a proposal of what I was up to, and show how well I understood the topic, and he’d grade it and I had to get at least a B+ (yes, he really said that, with a chuckle— but not joking).  And then maybe, at a less busy time of year, it could happen.

You know, I may do it.  I don’t mind being put through hoops for this guy, because hey, how much would you go through to get a chance to hang for a day with Wendell Berry?  Or Thomas Jefferson?  Or John Brown?  I have no problem swallowing my ego and doing some extra homework to make that happen and be in the presence of somebody who might just change the world.  What does give me pause is… how far do I have to become an acolyte to win the chance?  Do I have to become a convert— or, contemptibly, fake it— to convince him I’m worth his time?  It’s a dicey thing for me because I do tend to make videos about subjects I’m highly sympathetic to, so the temptation to go from sympathetic observer to salesman is there.  And as much as I think his research and work is important, I can’t say I really expect the whole world to switch to what he’s working on any time soon, on his terms precisely.  I could see it making a big difference.  But I don’t think he would see his work being 20% adopted, even, as being any better than ignoring it completely.

In the end I asked him, if he feels that he already gets all the mainstream publicity he can stomach, is there somebody else in the area who’s doing something that he thinks is worthwhile?  The reply was withering— they’re all doing industrial monoculture agriculture, they’re all the problem. So apart from the people working at his place, he has no followers in his own country.  A video could, one supposes, help with that, help interest others in his vision of farming.  But for a prophet, accepting the diminution of your message even into 20 minutes may be too much of the world for you to bear— even to gain the world.

My camera went away on a school camping trip with my wife and younger son, so let me just paint a couple of pictures in your head:

• A middle-aged Latina in her restaurant’s kitchen, posing proudly in front of a whole roasted pork leg, its skin gleaming brown and stretched over a heaping arch of meat like the Thanksgiving turkey in a Norman Rockwell painting, the warm scents of pig and island spices in the air.

• A crowd of people jammed into a tiny corner grocery on a summer Saturday night… to listen to Paraguayan folk songs, belted out by a sweating singer and accompanied on guitar with the easy confidence of old friends who’ve played together for many, many years.

Actually, I only saw one of these on a Wednesday afternoon at lunch. But the other one will be coming up soon, at the same place.

But let me back up, because as the headline suggests, this post is actually about two places. I needed to meet with my friend Wyatt about the upcoming redesign of this website. He suggested Panera, because they have wi-fi. This seemed heretical to me— talking about Sky Full of Bacon at a chain restaurant!— so instead I checked an LTHForum thread about places with wifi that aren’t Panera, and found Macondo, a place in my neighborhood I’d been meaning to try (and which, surprisingly, had had no other mention on LTHForum, though plenty of other press).

Basically, when Las Tablas, a South American restaurant long resident on Lincoln and in a couple of other spots around town, built a newer restaurant down the street, they turned their old location into a coffeehouse serving empanadas, bunuelos and other light-ish breakfast and lunch items. Now, I’ve never been that excited about Las Tablas, it seems to me the most gringo-friendly, tamed down of the various South American places I know (not the downtown steak-on-a-sword places, which are pure gringo bait, but neighborhood places like El Llano, where you might actually see a South American dining). I wouldn’t say Macondo exactly breaks with that tradition; the empanadas are pretty much exactly what you’d expect, basic stuff like ground beef or cheese with chipotle spread, deep fried. The frying is done well, the inside tastes exactly like you think it will, and no more. But it’s a pleasant place, the service is very friendly, the wifi is free, they have some books and CDs and stuff for sale which suggests a certain earnest desire to spread their home culture to the gringos of Lakeview. A South American alternative to Starbucks or Caribou in my neighborhood. Cool.

* * *

But that tempered enthusiasm did remind me of something more intriguing I’d seen a while back, while I was out scouting Supermercado Taquerias. It was a Latin American grocery, on Laramie in the middle of nowhere in particular, which seemed to have at least a few menu items for sitdown service as well.

I’m not sure at first why I thought it might be South American; the menu pretty quickly revealed itself to be mainly Cuban and Puerto Rican. But I had had decent luck with that combination not too long before at La Bombonera, so I went inside and found the proprietor sitting at one of her tables with some papers and a shiny aluminum MacBook pro. Behind her was a kitchen, which took up nearly half of the room; the grocery part was limited to only a few shelves of Puerto Rican packaged goods. With few things to choose from (and little enthusiasm for Hamburguesa or Hot Dogs con Fritas), I ordered a Cuban sandwich.

While she was making it, I poked around a little. There was a warmer case with a few empanadas and some round fried things in it. I asked what they all were and she pointed to one which she called alcapurria, basically a kind of fritter made of starchy green plantains with ground beef on the inside. Now, the eating of flavorless starches (like yucca) is one of those things that sometimes deters me from eating non-Mexican Latin American food, and filling it with unseasoned ground beef seems only a modest improvement, but she seemed enthused about it, so I gave it a try.

It was surprisingly flavorful, the hint of banana mixing provocatively with the fried-ness and the meat. More than that, it was exotic, maybe even soulful, two things you could not say the textbook-perfect empanadas I’d had a couple of days earlier had been. A moment later my Cuban sandwich came out; now, no Cubano in Chicago is textbook-perfect, there’s always a compromise on what kind of bread you use and so on (nobody bakes the authentic lard-based roll, apparently), so in judging Chicago Cubanos, it’s not a matter of how closely they approach a Miami ideal but how well they succeed despite obvious heresies. And this, well, I kind of think this was the best Cubano I’ve ever had in Chicago, right up there anyway, maybe a long ways from the best example of a Cubano (try La Unica for that, probably), but that roasted pork was so good, moist and full of roasted and well-seasoned flavors, that even as there was too much of it, as there was too much cheese, as the supermarket French bread it was on was significantly off the model, it was just a great sandwich. (You could skip all my existential angst and just have the lechon sandwich, and enjoy the pork qua pork.)

So this modest little grocery, easy to drive by (I might not have ever noticed it if I hadn’t parked to try the taqueria across the street), had proven to be a real find— but there was still more to it than I realized. The owner, Palmira, was happy to chat (posed proudly behind her roast pork leg); she was Puerto-Rican, her husband Paraguayan, and they had owned a restaurant called El Arpa on Peterson for some years.  Like Ramon Delgado of La Bombonera, having gotten out, they wanted back in, but without the responsibilities of managing a large place and staff. So they started this grocery to cater to Puerto Rican and South American customers missing the authentic taste of this or that product they grew up with. Fairly quickly, however, the few prepared foods blossomed into a kitchen that largely overtook the grocery, and now she roasts a fresh pork leg nearly every day, presumably mostly for evening takeout (since I was the only customer at lunch).

But food isn’t the only cultural taste of home they’re keeping alive; a couple of Saturday nights a month, they move the tables out of the way and local musicians play, not so much in performance for an audience but in the kind of gathering, like in a pub in rural Ireland, where anyone in the community can join in and play or sing. There will be one of these this Saturday, the 22nd, of Argentinian music, from 7 to 12, and another on June 12 featuring Palmira’s husband and a Paraguayan friend who will be visiting.

So there’s a lot going on inside this tiny grocery with an unpronounceable name. I asked Palmira where that came from; she said the Tainos are the native Americans of Puerto Rican, and she has a granddaughter born around the same time she opened the store, who’s half Puerto Rican-Paraguayan— and half Irish. So Palmira calls her Tainayri, the little Indian, to encourage her to know all her different ethnic heritages. Not bad advice for any of us living in a place where a whole vibrant culture can be hidden behind the signs of the bodega on the corner.

2965 N. Lincoln Ave.
(773) 698-6847

Tainayri’s Bodega
2525 N. Laramie

Pizzeria Serio, a new Neapolitan-style pizza place on Belmont promising “serious brick-oven pizza,” has a promising look, brick walls, a dark wood bar (not licensed yet), fire glowing in the back and flatscreen glowing in the front. Promise starts being dashed, though, the moment you look at the short menu and its list of pizza choices. How can you claim with a straight face to be seriously devoted to authentic Neapolitan styles of pizza-making when your only toppings are the exact same ones that would have been offered at Fat Joe’s Pizza & Subs in Spearfish, South Dakota in 1967?

Enjoy your pizza with such typical fruits of the Italian countryside as presliced foodservice mushrooms, rubber-tire black olives and styrofoam-crunchy green pepper slices! Close your eyes and catch a hint of the Naples waterfront as you order a meat lover’s special consisting of pepperoni, Canadian bacon and sausage! That’s less old country than Old Country Buffet.

It’s not that every woodburning pizza place needs to break new ground in exotic ingredients. But Pizzeria Serio’s location is within a circle bounded by Spacca Napoli, Frasca and Sapore de Napoli, all of which make at least creditable brick oven pizza in a variety of styles. Frasca’s pretty much a sports bar dressed up as an Italian restaurant, and you can get a plain old pepperoni pizza there, but they also do white pizzas with rosemary and pistachios and so on; they are aware that such things exist and adroitly balance their menu between foodie and conventional tastes. Pizzeria Serio seems not to know that such things are possible on a pizza— let alone that they exist all around it, serving the same neighbors whose willingness to order such things has been amply demonstrated for a good five years now.

And because the frame of reference is so American, the pizzas come out in an unmistakably American style that wrecks the balance of the Neapolitan pie.  The crust really is pretty decent, clearly made with 00-style flour for that chewy-airy effect. I could wish that it had been cooked harder, or higher, or whatever it would take to produce some bits of char, which to me is the point of Neapolitan pizza, but then I’m a char-head and if that’s not what you’re aiming for, fine. But then every pie, even the margherita which is otherwise the one authentic-seeming item, is covered with easily twice as much acidic tomato sauce as a Neapolitan pie would have, a blast of harsh tomatoeyness that tips the balance of taste away from Naples and toward Little Caesar’s.  (Technically, it’s apparently supposed to be a “New York-Neapolitan hybrid,” which I can only take to mean, “we know we’re putting too much tomato sauce on for a Neapolitan pie.”)

At that, though, the pizzas were far better than the salad my wife ordered, which was the one thing that really lived up to the name of opera serio by being tragic. If you’re going to serve salad out of the same box of Earthbound Farms baby lettuce that all your customers buy at Whole Foods two blocks away, you ought to know what they know by now, which is that the dark purple lettuce with the ruffled edges wilts and turns black first, when the rest of the box looks fine. Pieces of this sodden black seaweed were all over the healthier greens in this salad, making it a nasty eating experience even if it hadn’t had all the other signs of indifferent salad making (too-large chunks of too-hot onion and a mound of eraser-rubber foodservice mushrooms tossed in a harsh vinaigrette). It’s the sort of wan contemporary salad that makes you appreciate the indestructability of the old Italian-American restaurant salad, crisp white iceberg and oil and vinegar adjusted by the patron, with a basket of crackers and breadsticks to nosh on if all else failed.

What’s unfortunate is that Pizzeria Serio has the equipment in place to do so much better, so why it should be aiming so squarely at a somewhat humdrum conventional American style topped with firmly mediocre Sysco truck ingredients is a mystery. Again, set aside a place aiming for true artisanship, like Spacca Napoli, and look at a place like Frasca, which is run by a restaurant group with various bars in their portfolio. One of their pizzas, the Capone, is like the platonic ideal of a Pizza Hut supreme, the ingredients are merely sausage and onion and tomato sauce and cheese, and yet the sausage is bright with fennel and the sauce is well-seasoned and for what it is, it sparkles. Nobody’s going to name Frasca one of the best Italian restaurants in town, but it understands the scene it competes on and makes a respectable, contemporary showing with flavorful, well-crafted food. Nothing at Pizzeria Serio reached even that mid-tier level of bright flavors or quality. If they’re going to make it in an area with this kind of competition, they need to get serious about what they put on that crust.

Pizzeria Serio
1708 W. Belmont

1. Chicago charcuterie blogging! Jared van Camp of Old Town Social is the latest chef to pick up the blogging toque; this is a cool post about making boudin after a visit to New Orleans.
2. And more Chicago charcuterie blogging! Low on the Hog is a blog currently making nduja (part 1, part 2
). (h/t Art at Pleasant House)
3. Interesting piece on Good Food about whether Los Angelenos appreciate their eclectic and rich culinary bounty, or if they’re too afraid to go east of downtown to check it out, and go to bed too early to have a genuinely lively scene. I’ve wondered that too, or whether it’s just the nature of big cities that people mark off big chunks of territory as no-go (you could certainly make the same claim about Chicago and the south and west sides, for instance— or about the hours at which we roll up downtown’s sidewalks). Anyway, it’s at about 30 minutes in; there’s also rather ironic contrast with the piece right before it, about an oh-so-hiply-green restaurant where they accept your vegetables in trade (but turned up their nose at Jonathan Gold’s kumquats the first time he tried it).

Macarons being the hot pastry of the moment (I’m writing something about them for publication right now), here’s an account from a couple of years ago of the new line from, and working in the kitchen of, the golden rock god of Paris macaron-makers, Pierre Herme.
5. How do you pair beer with Vietnamese food? Hell if I know, but I’d love to hang with the guy in
these photos for a couple of hours and find out. (h/t Jeff Pikus)
6. A Chinese food blogger
talks about how China’s internet censorship affects food blogging, complete with a recipe for cornmeal cakes which played a role in the Boxer Rebellion.
7. Cool video made for the 50th anniversary of the Annecy (France) animated film festival— featuring, naturally, a cake:

A while back I was talking to a chef who had just been written about by a national publication, and one of his comments, not in anger but just in wonderment, was “They left out so much!”

Which is what we all do, no? Chefs or video-makers, we all leave lots of scraps behind. And nobody moreso than me, since a lot of times I just start shooting and wait to see if a subject will reveal itself. (A benefit of having no particular deadline, I suppose.)

Back around the beginning of the year, Mark Mendez, the executive chef of Carnivale, expressed interest in being involved in a Sky Full of Bacon in some way. I said sure and was on his doorstep almost immediately. I shot about four hours of video, most of it interview, and only over time did my subject appear— using a giant restaurant like Carnivale to explore how realistic a lot of the Michael Pollan-esque goals for reforming our food system are. Because if small farmers and better agricultural practices can’t serve a restaurant that seats 600, they’ll never serve a country of 300 million.

So four hours— and in the end his part will be ten minutes. (In the end it also meant I had to sit on his part for a few months, because there’s not really much point in talking to farmers for the other side of the story until you have something green to shoot for B roll. I’ll actually be shooting the last bits of that this week. UPDATE: Nope, probably next week if it rains a lot this week.) Along the way as Mark and I talked (and he’s a great talker), there were any number of other things that came up that didn’t fit into this narrative, and I decided to pull out one I really liked and put it up as a standalone outtake— and a little bit of a preview. It has to do with an experience that he found really inspiring, and a chef he respects: Roland Liccioni, who was then at Le Francais. It’s about 2-1/2 minutes, so enjoy— and watch for the final piece, soon.

Chef Mark Mendez talks about Le Francais from Michael Gebert on Vimeo.

P.S. Speaking of chefs, the greatest meat market in the world, Paulina Meat Market, is continuing its spring-summer series of in-house demo/tastings, “Meat the Chef,” this Saturday with Carol Wallack of Sola. If I recall correctly, Jean Joho will be next month. It’s from 10 to 1, 3501 N. Lincoln at Cornelia (not Paulina).

I like the comfy, quiet neighborhood in which I live, Roscoe Village, except when I need to find food within a few dozen yards of my house, at which point my choice basically becomes, which of three bars do I want to 1) eat a hamburger at, 2) watch ESPN at (in the way I watch it, which is to say, I pretend to watch it so they never suspect I’m a Soviet infiltrator who could care less about sports) and 3) enjoy this month’s beer special of Bass or Shock Top or, if they’re really going cutting-edge, Goose Island 312. At that point I might as well be living in Moline in 1987, for all the blessings of culinary civilization at my disposal.

I understand that the good people of Logan Square have somewhat similar complaints, for a hip-and-happenin’ neighborhood they long seemed to be a magnet for places that looked like they should be interesting but weren’t, but at the moment they easily have me beat with two hot new gastropubs opening within a few months: Revolution Brewing and Longman & Eagle. I ignored both for a while, fearing crowds, hype, the long drive down Western from Belmont to Diversey, etc.  But then I was impressed by Longman & Eagle’s entry at Baconfest (dehydrated bacon on a waffle), and decided to check it out one night— liking it enough to return later in the week with a friend.

The English pub-y name (which sounds more like the heroes of a Japanese cartoon show to me, but never mind) goes with the usual cultural dissonance of the gastropub movement, which is to say the music was old-timey (I don’t mean Johnny Cash, I mean Charlie Poole), the beer was Belgian, and the food is eclectic comfy-chic-modern.  You could pick that apart sociologically, I suppose, but since it seemed a reasonable cross-section of my own psyche, I found it downright welcoming.

The menu is largely small plates-ish, so the first time I went I ordered a sausage I thought would be an appetizer portion.  Somehow I’d missed the the fact that it was actually listed under sandwiches, and so my plans to try multiple things went down in flames at the very beginning. The sausage (made in-house) was fine, the combination of sauerkraut and apple pleasant enough, but… I whimpered inwardly at the thought of all the fine things that might be mine, but wouldn’t now.  Finally I decided not to eat most of the bread (boring anyway) and then to ask the bartendress for a recommendation of a single dish, of modest size, which would redeem my evening.  She recommended the scallops served on braised oxtail— a classic combo and a delectable dish, perfectly tender scallops atop soothingly comfy and earthy shreds of beef.

That made me curious enough that when a multi-food-writer dinner planned for last Wednesday fell apart like a 70s band on Behind the Music, I grabbed David Hammond and we returned to L&E to work through more of the menu.  Basically we ordered everything that kind of sounded like the scallop dish— a lamb cotechino, a tete de cochon with quail egg, a duck egg with beef tongue hash, potato agnolotti in a bordelaise sauce.  And what we learned was… things that sound that much alike kind of taste that much alike, too.  It was largely our own fault, I’m sure, but there was a definite similarity of braised meat, savory glaze, egg, that made the dishes a little too much alike.  They all seemed fine, but by the time the last one arrived, it was a little hard to get excited.

For that reason, again hoping for a Hail Mary pass at the end of the meal, we tried to break out of the rut (our lamb cotechino, escargots and shaved foie gras rut) by ordering something out of left field— a wild boar sloppy joe, topped with fried sage.  It was the one thing from this meal that’s really stuck with me all week, although since the meat sort of tasted like bolognese sauce on a bun, you could argue that we still hadn’t managed to get very far from the braised meat in savory sauce paradigm.

Okay, so Longman & Eagle has a lot of representation of that one style of cooking on the menu.  As opposed to what, the place at the end of my block with eight different burgers?  That’s still a little more variety and a lot more adventurousness than I can walk to in five minutes in any direction, and the good news is, they seem to be kicking out specials and new ideas at a fairly prodigious rate, so it shouldn’t take too much effort to avoid monotonous ordering, even if I basically botched it twice.  The music is good, the atmosphere, though crowded, seems easygoing, the bartendress the first time and the waitress the second time were both personable and interactive (though I did wait ten minutes at the bar for my beer while a male bartender made the same overambitious artisanal cocktail twice for somebody, rather laboriously each time; not every place needs to be The Violet Hour).  I liked this place and the next time I’m thinking I’ll just grab a burger and a beer down the street, remind me to take five minutes and drive here instead.

*  *  *

Encouraged by my success in finding a likable, livable bar-restaurant in Longman & Eagle, I decided to give Revolution Brewing a try.  It’s a renovated vintage space, a big dark wood bar with an onsite brewery visible behind glass in the back, and it’s very quickly drawn a sports bar, baseball cap on backwards crowd, which has led to some carping that it’s no better than a suburban brewpub of the Rock Bottom type.  (We’ll leave aside the crushingly large ironies in an agent of Anglo gentrification like this filling a Latino neighborhood with revolutionary iconography.  At least there isn’t a big mural of Che behind the bar, like a chic bar in the tourist section of Playa del Carmen used to have.)

I tried exactly one beer, a Wit, so I can’t fairly judge the brewmaking skills, but like Rock Bottom’s beers, it seemed decently made but a little thin.  (I later saw someone get a tasting flight of the beers, which would have been ideal for blogging purposes, but if that’s on the menu, I never saw it.)  As far as food, I planned to try something with a little ambition to it, but looking at the menu, I just couldn’t get excited about any of the entrees— a Flemish stew was more braised food, salad nicoise just didn’t seem to fit the joint— and I wound up ordering, yes, a hamburger, off the list of Kuma’s-esque oddball burger creations.  In my case, it was the Farm Burger, which I ordered out of curiosity, possibly morbid, as to whether beets could really work as a hamburger topping.

The answer is a provisional yes, the horseradish sauce was a smart choice for counteracting the beets’ sweetness with some bite.  Still, before this hamburger was gone, I was already tired of it.  One, because the fried egg on top cooled to an unpleasant rubberiness before I was done.  Two, because the frozen hamburger patty was as bland as any beef I’ve put in my mouth.  I don’t expect every bar, even a gastropub, to serve something artisanal-farm-name-dropped-special, but this was so foodservice-truck-ordinary that it simply wasn’t up to the job of supporting exotic condiments and toppings.  A place like The Bad Apple can put subtle toppings like bernaise on burgers because the meat has such flavor of its own.  Not here.

It’s hard to say what makes one bar work as a welcoming, lively place with a personality of its own, and another not.  At first glance Revolution, with its onsite brewing capability, would seem to have the edge over Longman & Eagle, with its well-chosen list of craft beers du jour.  But partly because of the ambitious, restless food menu, partly because the room was more intimate, partly because they just seemed more excited about it all, I quickly found Longman & Eagle to be the one that was welcoming and intriguing, while Revolution already seemed to be settled into a check-off-the-list-of-requisite-c. 2010-menu-items, serve-the-tourists groove that sucked the life out of the room.  I’ll probably go back sometime to try more of the beers, and see if there’s a fine brewmaster being ill-served by the restaurant side here, but when I want a night out of the house in a comfy, interesting pub, Longman & Eagle is more likely to draw me.

P.S. Hammond has an interesting observation on the egginess of our choices here.

Longman & Eagle
2657 N. Kedzie
(773) 276-7110

Revolution Brewing
2323 North Milwaukee Avenue
(773) 227-2739



“Blogging and You, The Chef”

Educational Film No. 261

(A sunny, tree-lined street.)

NARRATOR: This is Pleasantville.  A happy little town with a butcher… a baker… and a fine French restaurant for anniversaries and business dinners.  But today, things are not so happy in the kitchen of Pierre, Pleasantville’s best-known chef.

(A French chef, boiling mad in his kitchen.)

PIERRE: Sacre bleu! Zees bloggers! Zey make me so angry! Who told zem zey could write about my food! I am Pierre! Who are zey!

NARRATOR: Pierre has a common problem today— let’s call it “blogger-bitis.”

PIERRE: Demanding zees, taking pictures of zat, zese bloggers, they drive me crazy!  And now some leetle crazy man living in a basement has made fun of my lobster thermidor! By Escoffier’s beard, I will never allow bloggers in my restaurant again!

NARRATOR: Now, hold on a second there, Frenchy! So you think bloggers are crazy men living in basements like beatniks or Communists?

PIERRE: But of course! Who else would write about food? It ees madness, no?

NARRATOR: Maybe you need to come on a little journey with me to meet a blogger or two.

(Pierre is whisked magically from his kitchen to… a doctor’s office.)

PIERRE: Doc Wilson?  He ees a blogger!

NARRATOR: You betcha! Check out his food photos— quite the amateur photographer, isn’t he.

(And then to a classroom.)

PIERRE: Miss Carpenter, ze schoolteacher?

NARRATOR: She has the Chocolate and Tetrazzini blog.  You see, Pierre, having opinions about food isn’t a sign of craziness any more— it’s like any other interest.  Like betting on horses, or collecting guns.

(Stock footage of scientists at work, studying bloggers.)

NARRATOR: Government scientists in your department of social media have been studying bloggers for years, and they’ve found three key points.

One, bloggers are normal, well-adjusted Americans who simply enjoy talking about and comparing the food they’ve enjoyed.

Two, they come in all colors and sizes.  Some may be sleazy ignorant vermin trying to cadge a free meal, but most are decent, law-abiding Americans who know a lot about food, pay their own way and actually have fewer ethical entanglements than professional writers and editors, with their complex relationships with powerful restaurant owners and publicists and need to curry favor with celebrity chefs to sell magazines.

Three, though I know the occasional bad review stings—

PIERRE: You are telling ze me!

NARRATOR: —Bloggers and other online food media are actually the best thing that’s happened to your business in years.

PIERRE: Bah! How can zis be?

NARRATOR: You see, Pierre, as a famous English sissy said, “The only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about.” Bloggers, Tweeters, even Yelpers all spread the news about your restaurant and help make it an exciting place for the people of Pleasantville to go. More voices means more chances for you to be discovered. And it means if someone says something stupid, there are plenty of other places for you to counter that opinion with a smarter, better one.

PIERRE: So… ze blogger, he is not my enemy?

NARRATOR: No, Pierre, he’s not your enemy.  He’s your customer— and he can be your friend, for just a fraction of the ass-kissing and ego-stroking that a professional food writer would require.

PIERRE: I’ll do it! I’ll be nice to ze bloggers from now on!

(Pierre is whisked back to his kitchen— and joined by Doc Wilson and Miss Carpenter, who are eager to document his cooking with camera and steno pad.)

MISS CARPENTER: Blogging. It’s as normal as baking apple pie!

DOC WILSON: Blogging. It’s democracy in action! (Except in my office. I didn’t go through medical school to argue with what you read on flippin’ Wikipedia, bub.)

PIERRE: Blogging! Eet’s… money in ze bank for me!

MISS CARPENTER: Can you make this low-fat? My readers like low-fat recipes.

(Pierre picks up a cleaver and contemplates the sharp edge for a moment.)