Sky Full of Bacon

1. Don’t play this French animated music video until you’re ready to have its catchy song about having “un café” stuck in your head:

2. Best thing on LTHForum lately: a woman asks how to make better pasta sauce than her husband’s Americanized recipe, and the result is a mostly friendly little symposium on good techniques.
3. I’ve never been a big fan of framboise, the Belgian raspberry lambic beer sold here, along with a similar cherry one, Kriek; they’re a little too much like drinking pancake syrup, in part because they’re usually made not with fruit, but with an industrial extract. The one I did like a lot one summer in Bruges was peche, the peach version, which was much subtler, but it’s harder to find over here. Anyway, Lottie + Doof finds a good use for framboise: sorbet.
4. Good Food has a special short podcast about pie running alongside its regular podcast; the best one so far is this talk about forgotten pie recipes (hmm, seems like I saw a video podcast that touched on the same subject), though I’m not convinced all of these are as lost to modern cooks as they say. Still, it includes mention of the mock apple pie made with Ritz Crackers which Cathy Lambrecht actually made once:

5. Nick Zukin (aka Extramsg) has a post that amusingly explains why granola-y Portland (Oregon) seems so hostile to molecular gastronomy, and how one place might sneak it by them as molecular locavorism.
6. Go have an English countryside zen moment by looking at these pictures of what’s growing there in early summer, at a blog called Nordljus.
7. These two posts at the Vietnam-based blog Noodlepie seem to make an appropriate pair: in one he pleads guilty to being exactly the New York Times’ parody of the obsessed blogger, in this one he rips ex-Timeser Mimi Sheraton for her parachute-journalism piece on the best pho in Hanoi.

ONE MORE: If you haven’t heard about the Speakeasy event at the Palmer House organized by Phillip Foss and featuring top chefs including Mike Sheerin (Blackbird), Koren Grieveson (Avec), Ryan Poli (Perennial) and David Carrier (Kith & Kin) among others, with hooch by all the local distilleries and set in the spectacular vintage Empire Room on August 5, go here to find out why you should attend this benefit for Paramount Room beverage manager Shawn Koch in his fight with a rare form of brain cancer.

To answer the two obvious questions: the lambs wear the “lamb tube” to keep them clean for judging and to keep flies off; and the two birds with Phyllis Diller hair are some sort of exotic chicken breed.  The other kids were calling them “hippie chickens” but Myles, with his exhaustive knowledge of 40s Warner Bros. cartoons, prefers “Maestro Chickens” (for the way classical music conductors are usually drawn with a big mop of white hair).

Myles and his first lamb, Triskaidekaphobia, in 2008.

I was talking to the restaurant publicist Ellen Malloy the other night at the debut of Chuck Sudo’s Goose Island beer, and of course the Lollapalooza kerfuffle came up (I mention this in part to get out of the way the fact that I will have a guest column at RIA Unplugged about that today). And one thing I said was that part of what I like about food as a journalistic subject is… you don’t have to take it so seriously. It’s just food, not politics or something.

But, of course, food isn’t just food, and sometimes it actually is politics. And sometimes those politics strike close to the heart of a parent with two sons doing 4-H. I wouldn’t have thought that that would be one of the more controversial aspects of my life, the fact that my kids go do farm chores a couple of times a week up at Wagner Farm in Glenview, but that’s exactly what it proved to be twice during the last week.

The first thing was an article I saw a link to, about how colleges allegedly discriminate against lower-income whites, Asians, etc. Frankly the article was kind of rightwing-screedy and not entirely convincing, but the interesting nugget in it was a reference to a study that seemed much more solid, and a few days later Ross Douthat wrote about that in a more credible fashion at the New York Times:

Last year, two Princeton sociologists, Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, published a book-length study of admissions and affirmative action at eight highly selective colleges and universities…

…cultural biases seem to be at work as well. Nieli highlights one of the study’s more remarkable findings: while most extracurricular activities increase your odds of admission to an elite school, holding a leadership role or winning awards in organizations like high school R.O.T.C., 4-H clubs and Future Farmers of America actually works against your chances. Consciously or unconsciously, the gatekeepers of elite education seem to incline against candidates who seem too stereotypically rural or right-wing or “Red America.”

It will be grimly ironic indeed if my kids, raised on a street where lesbian moms come close to outnumbering two-heterosexual-parent households and no Prius is complete without its Obama sticker, who go to the hippie school and have a stay-at-home Dad who lives in his own weirdly erudite world of obscure silent movies and ethnic food, can’t get into Snootmore because they mistake us for 1950s Mormons.

I’m not going to touch the more partisan political implications of all this red state-vs.-blue state anger and paranoia, but let’s just say that nothing I’ve learned about food over the last several years makes me the least bit surprised that 2010’s movers and shakers get freaked out by the thought of actually having farmers’ kids walking among them, even as they ooh and goosh over the produce at their farmer’s market every Saturday morning. As Mark Mendez says in my latest video, people are so disconnected from where our food comes from, from the whole culture that produces food. Go back four generations in almost anyone’s family and you’ll hit a farmer, but we who buy denuded squares of meat in yellow styrofoam trays and expect to be able to buy cherries and asparagus for Christmas dinner are pretty much completely alienated from anything resembling natural reality. We can tolerate a lot, but raising animals to feed people— that’s the one alternative lifestyle that’s just too, too strange.

And that alienation has to have some effect on us as a society; politicians who grow up believing that you can just order anything to happen are going to look at the world differently from those who grow up acutely aware that whatever Man plants, Nature will do what She pleases about it. I’m not saying a few years of planting tomatoes only to see the squirrels ravage them would have turned Rod Blagojevich into Thomas Jefferson, but it might have taught him at least a few valuable lessons about the limits of human vanity.

So from an early age I’ve tried to get my kids involved with the natural world. And they themselves chose to do 4-H; Myles, my 11-year-old, is now in his third year of raising a lamb, and my 8-year-old, Liam, has joined him at it. I’ve never done a full video project about that experience, because it’s just too hard to do that and be a parent of a kid in the program at the same time, but you can get something of the flavor of their experience from two videos I made the first year, the one at the top and this one:

I feel they’re learning important things about responsibility, about leadership, about presentation skills, about caring for animals, about the natural world, about working with others collaboratively, about all kinds of things that you’d think would be valuable at Snootmore and in life. And if Old Snootie doesn’t want that, well, I don’t consider that a damning comment on my children’s values, let’s put it that way.

* * *

But then I learned that I wasn’t making the Jeffersons of tomorrow, oh no. I was cruelly breeding heartless psychopaths!

Two articles about the 4-H activities at Wagner Farm in Glenview, and the Lake County Fair next weekend (where they’ll show their animals and then auction them off) appeared in an online citizens-media offshoot of the Tribune, Trib Local. One is my friend Cathy Lambrecht’s real-world account. The other, which appears to have since been deleted (possibly because it related to a specific protest Saturday morning— um, that’s really fostering citizen media there Trib Local, deleting active, popular stories), reported on/advocated for efforts by some animal rights organization to get/force Wagner Farm and the Glenview Clovers 4-H club to free the livestock and turn them over to some supposed “animal sanctuary.” Despite differing starting points, both pieces were quickly overrun by comments of the same vegetarian/stop-the-cruelty bent. The latter piece was simply riddled with misconceptions and sensationalized falsehoods:

“The children and their families think that the Wagner Farm animals live out their entire lives on the farm,” said Garrett. “We doubt that the 4H children, let alone the Glenview community, have any knowledge of [their animals being slaughtered].”

Of course, asking a parent in the program would have immediately exposed the absurdity of this claim. The program is about raising livestock, and with many rural kids in the program, no kid is in doubt about what that means. For my part, before we let Myles enter the program, we had a long talk about what would happen to his animal at the end, and he understood and accepted that. Here he is last year, talking about it:

I think that’s a kid who has thought seriously about the issues, and still is. There’s nothing blind, deluded, or unthinking about his involvement in the program.

In true internet fashion, teh real crazy comes out in the comments. Really, by allowing my kids to learn where their food comes from, I’m doing something that proves I’m an unfit parent:

4-H teaches kids to harden their hearts, to overcome their natural empathy toward animals, to become inured to inflicting violence and death on the innocent. What a terrible thing to do to chilldren, and to animals.

This does not make “enlightened” kids – It makes hardened, numb kids that grow up to be hardened, numb adults, that continue the sad and vicious cycle on their own kids as well

Where does this sort of behavior lead us?

Killing, wars, and violence toward other, that’s where!

It’s only possible to view ordinary farming— actually, rather better than ordinary farming on any measure of humane treatment and ethics toward animals and the planet— as such an alien, violently atavistic practice if you’re already completely alienated from any reality that has to do with where your food comes from and who makes it for you.

So I invite you to do what my kids have done: become less alienated from your food. Meet the 4-H kids for yourself, talk to them about their experiences, have a good old-fashioned time at the Lake County Fair. The fair’s website is here; the auction will be Saturday at 1, but the animals should still be at the fairgrounds till Sunday evening, I believe. There are rides and corndogs and all kinds of old-timey fun.

Oh, and if you want to follow Michelle Hays’ advice:

the poster on the vegetarian article is asking people to write to the Glenview Park District to remove the program from Wagner Farm and to take the animals to a “sanctuary.” I followed the link and did the opposite.

Here’s where you can weigh in.

Bryan Burroughs’ book Public Enemies, which leant its title but not much else to the recent Johnny Depp Dillinger movie, is one of those books that changes how you see the place where you live. We’re used to the idea of the urban gangster, Capone et al., but the bank robbers he focuses on were really a rural phenomenon created by the automobile— in fact, exactly what you would get if you took earlier horseback robbers like Jesse James or Butch Cassidy, and gave them a Ford. The automobile gave them the ability to swoop into a small town, rob it blind, and then be miles down some country road before the sleepy local constabulary even knew what hit them. And often, the place they’d be heading to would be another kind of small town, which had a crooked sheriff who spent most evenings at the card game in the back of the local garage owner/fencer of stolen goods, and would arrange for the robbers to hide out for a few days till the coast was clear.

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I imply nothing about the past of the town of Hampshire, a tiny town a little ways south of I-90 past the last outlet mall west of Chicago, which for all I know was as clean a place as you could wish. The Dillingeresque activity around Chicago tended to be closer to the lake and the Indiana or Wisconsin borders, anyway. But seeing as perfect a slice of small town America as Hampshire’s short commercial strip, and then barreling out of it past corn fields, it was hard not to imagine myself one of those fedora-brimmed tough guys, making off at high speed with the loot. Only, my loot was bacon.

I’ve bought Dreymiller & Kray products before at various places (they’re at Fox & Obel, Treasure Island and others in the city), but the one time I tried to go there, I made the mistake of hitting Ream’s in Elburn first, and they were closed by the time I got there, shutting the door at 2 on Saturdays.

Not exactly preserved in amber, Dreymiller & Kray nevertheless still has the look of the 1930s era business it is. But the current owner and his longtime staff have been working on expanding into the Chicago market, and I had a chance to talk with them at Baconfest last spring. They’re doing a nice job of balancing still being the vintage small town business they are with taking advantage of their heritage and products as something marketable in the big city. And so you have a business which displays a menu from chichi Terzo Piano at the Art Institute with their bacon on it… and also displays handknitted potholders for sale on behalf of some local church or school group.

I picked out a nice assortment of their products, from bacon to brats, and then got to talking with Keith, a longtime employee who I remembered from Baconfest. He called my attention to some of the fermented sausages they started making after Ed, the owner, visited Italy. Like other charcuterie-makers, they’ve had to wrestle the health inspectors a little to get them to permit them to sell these unfamiliar products without processing in the same way as conventional meats, but he says they’ve mostly accepted that after 80 years, Dreymiller & Kray know what they’re doing. I salute these noble public servants for their obvious good sense.

I asked about one especially picturesque old wooden door and if it was still in use. “Every day, that’s the way to our smoke house,” Keith said. “Want to see it?”

My fellow meat enthusiast and I eagerly accepted this invitation and Keith led us back into the halls of the deceptively long and narrow building. He explained that the store opened in 1929, but the founder was a bit casual at first about the smoking, and about a year later, he burned the whole block down. He set up temporary shop in the hardware store across the street for several months, and the current building, including a much more fire-resistant smoke house, was opened in 1931.

I wish I could show you how splendidly atmospheric the smoke house is… but of all the smoke houses I’ve seen, from Susie-Q’s to Calumet Fisheries to Smitty’s in Texas, this has to be the pitch-blackest, virtually impossible to photograph unless you had a bank of klieg lights. So he explained its operation as I peered into its inky depths. The racks, which are suspended from the ceiling on a track system (also used to move sides of beef around the building), can hold a total of 800 pounds of bacon at a time, which will spend a full 24 hours cold-smoking in the smoke house, being brought up to 140F at various points to meet government regulations. (They keep temperature records on every batch, and are inspected daily to ensure that things are running properly.)  The coals are fed into a moon-shaped firepit at the bottom.  Last year, they made 23,000 pounds of bacon, which by my estimate, would be about 230 pounds per resident of Hampshire annually if they weren’t selling most of it elsewhere by now.  I’ve had it before and it’s really nice stuff, good quality pork (ruby-red like the stuff I make at home) and with a subtle smoke and salt flavor.  If you haven’t bought bacon from a butcher shop that smokes their own— Paulina, of course, being another one in Chicago— you really need to see how much better and cleaner it tastes than standard industrial bacon.

As the volume has risen, they’ve added new technology to their old butcher-shop ways. This is their walk-in cooler, and the machine at right is a tumbler which, by jostling the pork bellies around, cures them in about two days, instead of the week or two it used to take. He also demonstrated their high-volume vacuum sealer, which they clearly are happy to have, since they vacuum-seal just about everything in the shop except the knitted potholders.

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Thanking him for our tour, we left with a bunch of fresh sausage and bacon and a chunk of the finocchiona, and headed for Elburn, about 20 miles south. Ream’s, a somewhat bigger meat market renowned for its wide range of sausages and brats, has been written about a fair amount elsewhere, they even have a Dolinsky icon by the door, and in any case they were too busy on a Saturday afternoon to put up with somebody like me cross-examining them about their business as Keith at Dreymiller & Kray had done. But we added to our meaty loot here with various brats and wieners, and I noticed that they too were now dabbling in cured fermented Italian sausages, and bought some slices of their finocchiona, too.

On Saturdays, Ream’s has a little stand out front selling their hot dogs and one of their various housemade sausages. Today’s was a cheese brat which had apparently won some competition somewhere. Considering that just two days earlier I had had Old Town Social’s cheese wiener at the Green City Market BBQ, this was shaping up to be a heck of a week for cheese filled tube steaks, and though the cheese wasn’t as good as the Brunkow that Old Town Social used, this was still a pretty wonderful lunch.

When we got home I did a Kane County finocchiona taste-off. Dreymiller & Kray’s, the more finely ground one on the right, had a strong lactic taste from the fermentation culture, and an actual hint of fennel (visible in the photo); it seemed more homemade. Ream’s, the coarser slices on the left, had little fennel flavor but a nice meatiness that tasted like the pork it came from, and seemed more professional, vaguely. Both were plenty good. Just try and take ’em away from me, copper!

Dreymiller & Kray
140 S. State St., Hampshire
(847) 683-2271

Ream’s Elburn Market
128 N Main St, Elburn
630 365-6461

Graham Elliott Bowles beams down from the Muthaship to bring some funk to the food at Lollapalooza.

Everybody loves to hate on Taste of Chicago, me as much as anybody, but if it has one legacy that runs deeper than $6 cheesecake on a stick, it’s the wave of festivals and events that have blossomed in recent years to bring the diversity of Chicago’s cuisine to the outdoors and a party crowd…

…on a stick.

The Green City Market Chef’s BBQ last week was one example, and this week’s is the food that Graham Elliott Bowles (of, as you surely know if you’re reading this, Graham Elliott) coordinated for Lollapalooza.  Last year he cooked for the band Jane’s Addiction, whose frontman Perry Farrell is also the organizer/big cheese of Lollapalooza, and sold a few of his signature dishes (like the lobster corn dog above) at a stand for festivalgoers.  That inspired a bigger idea this year, of trying to replace the Connie’s Pizza and other standard mass-produced fare entirely with food of a level of creativity comparable to the music on stage.  Considering that the music on stage includes Lady Gaga, that’s a tall and possibly too bizarre to be appetizing order, but nonetheless, he made some calls to fellow chefs, got the band back together and will have food including:

pork bao from Sunda…

tacos from Big Star…

Kuma’s burgers (since this was a sample size for this event, it used quail eggs)…

…and shrimp with a mango salsa from The Southern.  (I didn’t have a good picture of that, so here’s one of Nick from Grub Street Chicago trying to capture the ineffable essence of the Kuma’s burger.  If he runs a picture of one showing the egg, it’ll actually be of my burger, seen above.)  It’s hard to judge which was my favorite when one is something I’ve had several times before (the Kuma’s burger), and they’re all in a league above standard festival fare, but I really liked Sunda’s bao, no, it’s not as authentically funky as something you’d get in Chinatown, but the delicacy of the bao, sweet pork flavor and crunchy fresh vegetable toppings evoked happy thoughts of the Peking duck at Sun Wah.

But wait, there’s More… cupcakes from More.

Here are my homies Elliott, Perry and Hammond.  Farrell, alarmingly fit, is seemingly not built for foodieism, but he plainly cares about that stuff all the same, and far from maintaining rock star distance, came up to Hammond and me to preach the gospel of festival food that doesn’t suck.  As he put it, you take a girl to Lolla to listen to the music, you’re not going to impress her with a hot dog. It’s hard to argue with the rock and roll logic of that.

I also talked with Cary Taylor (SFOB #11) of The Southern, who said it represented a financial risk for his restaurant— between the seven places providing food, they’d spent $7 G’s on licenses alone, thank you Mayor Daley— but the opportunity to get known to 90,000 festival attendees was just too much for his restaurant to resist.

People talk about “rock star chefs” but there’s something that still strikes you as funny at first about mixing rock and roll and haute cuisine.  Or me, anyway, as I try to imagine how ZZ Top keep their beards from getting stuck in the custom-made utensils at Alinea.  But obviously to a generation that grew up with both rock and the food culture of the 80s and 90s, they’re all just part of America today, so why should your music be chained to bad baseball park food, or the clout-connected institutional food choices you associate with the Auto Show?  Why shouldn’t food go up to 11, too?  Grab a spatula and go my son, and rock.

P.S. Here’s Nick’s piece on the preview at Grub Street, and yes, that’s my hand Vanna Whiting a couple of the food items.  I like his picture of Bowles about to bust into Jailhouse Rock, too.

P.S. Well, and now here’s Audarshia’s account of the dustup that followed, and an LTHForum thread about how corrupt we all are for attending this party.

I was trying to explain to my wife what the Green City Market BBQ was like and after several analogies of varying effectiveness, I finally said “It’s like the food prom.” Which is about as good a way as any to describe what happens when all these chefs come out, their food duded to the nines, for an awesome summer party. This year they raised the prices‚ doubled them in fact, and still not only sold out (though it took to the last day this time) but seemed to pack this section of Lincoln Park more fully than last year. (Disclosure: my wife and I went on press passes.)

It’s a great event, besides supporting the city’s most influential farmer’s market, the one that does the most in establishing connections between chefs and farmers (hey, somebody ought to make a video about that), it’s a fantastic buffet of mostly astoundingly superior food, nearly every dish of which makes some use of things available at the market. Why can’t they set up something like this every Thursday during Happy Hour, and serve food of this caliber each week? Because then, what would we have to look forward to in eternity.

My first stop, mainly because they were near the entrance, was Mado. True to their reputation for aggressively whole animal cooking, their dish was barbecued beef heart, in a chipotle-ish sauce. Rob Levitt admitted he didn’t expect it to be hugely popular, but when we checked back toward the end, he was happy to tell us it was all gone.

One of the great reasons to go, of course, is to try food from chefs you don’t know if you want to go pay for a full dinner from. I ripped into Andrew Zimmerman pretty good when he was at Del Toro (and Rob Levitt was one of his cooks), but he’s at Sepia now, and this pulled duck sandwich with duck skin cracklins was mighty tasty, one of my top three for the night, and enough to make me want to check that place out again under his command.

Phillip Foss of Lockwood was serving up a sample of the kind of thing he might do in a food truck if the ordinance ever passes. It was a sloppy joe served on his Israeli-born wife’s recipe for a kind of puffy bread:

Here’s someone from NoMi making beer can chicken:

I’m not sure who was responsible for this out of the BOKA Group restaurants, since four of them including The Girl & The Goat were credited, but these two came off the grill just as we walked by and so we grabbed them. Pork belly skewers with cherry tomato and grilled melon, another of my top three, simple and wonderful.

Then we saw Tony Priolo of Piccolo Sogno making these chilled beet soup shooters— just the cold non-pork item we needed at that moment, and delightful:

And right after that we saw this peach and honey panna cotta with sprinkles of La Quercia prosciutto on top, from Bin 36. The fresh peach flavor was really nice.

Pat Sheerin of The Signature Room had the freakiest looking dish of the night:

The description bills the grilled beef shoulder first, but anyone getting it couldn’t help but notice the bright green tongue coated with salsa verde.

By comparison this grilled lamb from Balsan and Ria with a corn sauce and a dab of pesto was rather plain-looking, which is probably why someone was out promoting it in front of their stand. The lamb was beautifully tender, I’m glad I tried it, though my wife ate it, then asked what it was, and when she heard it was lamb, was sorry she’d eaten lamb during the time period that the kids are raising a lamb in 4-H.

Here’s Barry Sorkin of Smoque slicing up a Santa Maria tri-tip:

And Mark Mendez of Carnivale with his meatball:

Another chef whose food I was curious to try without spending a big wad yet was John Des Rosiers, of the suburban avant-garde restaurant Inovasi, in Lake Bluff. I was quite impressed with this unusual dish, which started with some long-brined and smoked pork topped with cherries and other fruit, and then included a kind of very light tortilla made in some fashion with cheese incorporated into it which he calls an “Inorito.” Weird (and a little soggy in this humid heat) but very interesting, I may have been impressed enough to make the trek up there some time.

If I had to pick a favorite of the evening, though, it was probably one that came just as I was about out of stomach for meats, Jared Van Camp of Old Town Social’s sausage with Brunkow cheese mixed into it and homemade sauerkraut on top. Yeah, sure, it’s an easy crowd-pleaser, a cheesy hot dog, but it was really well done.

Another chef I approached with some skepticism was Dale Levitski, hard at work here on his dish:

I know people have been impressed with Sprout but what I hear always sounds like weird combinations that, even if they worked, would leave me wishing for a cheesy hot dog after. But I tried Levitski’s herb salad with beef carpaccio:

And it was really a fine thing, beautifully balanced. Okay, I might still need the cheesy hot dog after a whole meal of such light and delicate things, but I was impressed nonetheless.

The evening wound down, the guy from NoMI was down to his last beer can chicken…

There weren’t as many dessert choices as last year, and many of them ran out by the time we were seriously hunting sweets to finish off the meal. MK showed up with an actual ice cream truck, but what they were serving was actually cherry slushies (alcoholic slushies, I should point out), and my wife staked out the first position:

A most refreshing end to a long evening of eating. Because you didn’t think that was everything we tried, did you? I didn’t even have a chance to mention the Dietzler Beef Italian beef from Vie, or the pork belly slider with peach chutney from Blue 13, or the blueberry lemonade from North Shore Distillery….

Donatella Majore had La Cucina di Donatella in Rogers Park for much of the early 2000s, and most of the reviews of her new place suggest that she has followers wowed by her Italian charm who are happy to have her back in new digs in Evanston. The Rogers Parker who invited me to try the place had a more jaundiced take: “It’s BYOB and cheap for what you get, which makes up for the fact that sometimes you can hear her reaming the staff in back. I don’t think anyone works here too long.”

That gibes with my memory of some of the posts on LTHForum about her past place. And within the first three minutes of our arrival, she’s ordered him to rearrange how his bicycle is parked, we’ve had a battle of wills over whether we’re going to be squeezed into a tiny two-top in a largely empty restaurant (we win, but we’re denied the best choice of the available four-tops), and practically the instant we sit down, she’s on us to order already, dammit. (Oh, and she rearranged my paper menu to make sure it didn’t get wet from my water glass. Twice. Once while it was in my hand.)

We engage in passive resistance, ordering an appetizer while we consider our entrees despite her clear preference that we order everything now. The place does fill up on a Thursday night, though it’s never completely full (and the table we were denied is empty most of the evening), and as it does, the service goes from harriedly pushy to long delays between courses, negating whatever benefit might have come from pressing us to order quickly. But take a bemused approach to the service and you’ll understand the charms of this place, an open-air Mediterranean cafe on a strip full of packed, utterly boring suburban restaurants (Prairie Moon, Tommy Nevin’s Pub, some sushi place that seems to have been assembled from a Hipster Sushi Restaurant In a Box kit). Modest pricing, BYO, fresh air and a general feeling of realness make for a pleasantly unpretentious night in the burbs… for what my friend can’t help noticing is a decidely older, upscale North Shore crowd.

“Evanston is 20% black and 10% Latino, and I’ve seen one black person here all night,” he observes.

“They must all be at Tommy Nevin’s drinking Guinness,” I say.

So how was the food? It was fine, at this price. A grilled seafood salad at, I think, $11 delivered a heaping plate of a bunch of different things (baby octopus, calamari, scallops, shrimp), all cooked correctly with a hint of char, simple and exactly what you want. My friend had mahi mahi (salt crusted, they said, but filleted in the kitchen), which was also simple and exactly what it should be, except maybe for more exciting sides than a lump of spinach and a lump of green beans. I had linguine with lobster, with lots of properly cooked lobster but slightly boring pasta and rather oily sauce. My orange ricotta cake was minimalist and nicely light; his “vulcan” (a version of the chocolate gooey center cake) was rich and decadent. It’s kind of 1992 Italian food, but that’s fine in a neighborhood place. This is not a crowd desperately seeking the next new thing.

The only real downside, once you take the “charm” in stride, is the plastic cafe chairs, which would be fine for coffee and a croissant, but which I was ready to be out of long before our check for dinner came. If Donatella had said up front “Trust me, you’re going to wish you’d ordered quickly once you’ve sat in these chairs a while,” we might have been more willing to follow her orders.

Donatella’s Mediterranean Bistro
1512 Sherman Ave.
(847) 328-7720

Sometimes you feel like you’re on a movie set in Chicago. Years ago I was walking down Rush Street and I saw a sailor, in his white sailor suit and cap and black cross tie, pop his head out of the top of a limousine and toss a flower to a pretty girl who was walking by, as if he were Gene Kelly in an MGM musical.

I kind of felt like that at the Chicago Reader’s party last night; the setting (an ex-factory loft space filled with oh-so-political art) and the crowd (hipster) was such a perfect picture of Friday night in the big city.  I’m sure many of these kid-free people actually do something like this every Friday night, but it’s been long enough since I was one of them that it felt kind of hyperreal to me.

The party, which my associate Dr. Hammond said was much more elaborate than past Reader events, was to celebrate the Best of Chicago issue, and bring together Reader staffers, Reader contributors, and people honored in the Best of.  But all I saw and met was people I already knew from the restaurant biz, like Barry Sorkin of Smoque or Nick Kokonas of Alinea; the only Reader person I met the whole night was Cliff Doerksen at the very end, literally on the way to the parking lot as I was leaving.  (I congratulated him on his James Beard award, and told him how much I hated him.)

I heard that some Reader folks might have been boycotting it because of the firing of editor Alison True, or simply didn’t feel like going to a party right after that (which may be a distinction without a difference).  I expect the management felt it was important to hold the party anyway, or maybe especially now, to help get past the bad feelings.  Yet they weren’t really there either, in actuality or spirit.  I think they should have taken the risk of the Reader’s notoriously rambunctious staff booing them or whatever, and taken a microphone at some point and made a real statement of… something or other.  Brass balls and alligator-hide skin have never been bad things for a publisher to have, and tend to earn the respect of a rebellious staff.  As it was, it kind of felt like the Reader threw a party but had somewhere else to be that night.

Thanks for the food and drink, though, guys.  This was the best cocktail of the night, Adam Seger’s Hum botanical spirit mixed (by Seger himself) with I think lavender-jasmine tea or some such thing.  Very floral, but Hum is great stuff.  Also enjoyed Smoque brisket, Mundial Cocina Mestizo tamales, some tasty meatballs from Sable, cake balls from Bleeding Heart Bakery, and so on.  (I also couldn’t help but think of the recent scandal over a blogger getting his wedding catered by restaurants he covered.  Those naughty bloggers!)

The Hammonds demonstrate their bona fides as good citizens of the People’s Republic of Oak Park.

I salute this woman for seizing her Marilyn Monroe moment and not minding if a total stranger took pictures of it.  Like I said, sometimes life is like the movies.

I liked the idea of Big Jones a little more than the reality of it, the first time I went.  That was almost two years ago and the restaurant was fairly new; it was a good enough meal for the price that I offered some qualified hope for the future:

The menu is still somewhat short and limited to pretty familiar things— gumbo, pulled pork, steak (!)— but maybe, over time, it will dig deeper into Southern traditions and become a Chicago equivalent of some of the innovative new Southern restaurants.

Actually, I feel like I do that too much— write that a place might turn into some other place, eventually. You should review the restaurant in front of you and not what it might become; generally speaking, restaurants get worse, not better. But there is some chance, at least, that one will get into a groove and sharpen their vision and, hey, just get better at competence. It happens.

I paid some attention to the ups and downs of Big Jones on LTHForum, but what really interested me in going again was reading chef Paul Fehribach’s blog, because he was doing exactly what I’ve been doing off and on for the last few years. Like me, he grew up in a midwestern state with just tinges of southern food around the edges, but it was enough to create a love for it as a deeper, richer heritage to explore than one’s own regional cuisine (and Midwest, I love ya, but we both know there’s just a lot more going on in the South). Like me, he’s dug into old cookbooks and adapted local produce to Southern recipes. Okay, he’s probably done about 1000 times more of it than I have, but the point is, I liked where he was coming from. Another chef whose blog was tasty enough to make me want to see if the food was, too.

And in short: yes, it pretty much is. I’m not sure how much more Southern it is than it was before. Sometimes it was, like the really tasty sweet-sour chow-chow in the picture at the top, which went with this head cheese:

Apart from the pickled okra and whatnot around it, though, the head cheese could have come from Mado or Old Town Social or The Purple Pig; there was nothing specifically Southern about it. But at the same time, hey, it could have come from Mado or Old Town Social or The Purple Pig; it tasted of superior meat and delicately exact seasoning, and with the combination of dijon mustard and sweet-vinegary chow chow, it was pretty terrific and a credit to any chef’s charcuterie skills.

So that’s kind of what I think about Big Jones now: the Southern thing varies from dish to dish, but the level of execution is plainly much higher than two years ago, taking very high quality, frequently local ingredients and doing as right by them as anybody in the same price range. I don’t think crawfish gnocchi is terribly common on the bayou, and jerk-seasoned skirt steak with chimmichurri sounded a lot like the kind of dishes you find in upscale Mexican restaurants, where Mexican flavors are forced into the a-steak-and-a-side format of American dining— but both were very tasty, the steak cooked perfectly and the heat and chimmichurri giving it a touch of the exotic, the gnocchi light and fluffy and serving as a great textural base for the slightly fishy red pepper sauce:

And when we did get something that was pretty much classic Southern, it was very well done. As C.J.’s Eatery has evidently closed, I will be in mourning and wearing black this weekend for their shrimp and grits, but it’s at least some consolation to know that Big Jones has a very good upscale version, creamy grits set off by a salty Tasso ham gravy, the grits actually made in-house. I don’t mean cooked in-house, I mean:

traditional grits are produced by soaking dried corn kernels in a solution of baking soda, lime, or wood ash (“lye water”) for a day or two. The kernel’s shell pops off, and the kernel swells to twice its size. Kernels are rinsed more than once, then dried, and finally ground into grits.

Yow, that’s some dedication, compared to simply calling Anson Mills to place an order.  I was less excited by tea-brined pork, which was pleasantly cooked pork, but didn’t get anything from the tea that I particularly tasted; and I wasn’t wild about dessert. We had a couple of some kind of doughnut made with rice flour, which was pretty good, but it came accompanied by frozen cherries, which I think was supposed to make them refreshing but made them sort of like chewing erasers. And a cherry pie with benne (sesame seed) ice cream had good flavor, but not much delicacy.  (It was also a freebie from the chef, I should point out.)  This is a region that likes its sweets, I know there’s more interesting and better things out there. Still, when we tallied up the meal, the several standouts easily outweighed the few others.

At the end of the meal Fehribach came out to talk to us and confirmed much of what I came to feel over the course of it— that he has worked steadily to improve the restaurant since its opening, buying better ingredients, working on more authentic recipes, getting better at his job. One thing he said— it could have been flattery, but I’m gonna take it and run with it— is that he was inspired to try to use only sustainable seafood after attending the Supreme Lobster event at the Shedd and seeing my video about sustainable seafood.

Sure enough, those were Laughing Bird shrimp in the grits, talked about in the video.  Frankly, there’s something a little bland about them, but this is what you want to use them for, something that has plenty of other flavor that would overwhelm delicate shrimp flavor anyway. If you’re paying that much attention to the shrimp, there’s not enough cream or cheese in your grits. That was not a problem Big Jones’ grits had.

Ketchup Boy and his older brother pose in front of the world’s largest bottle of ketchup, Collinsville, Illinois.

Before and after eating burgers in Wichita (recounted here), I sampled a number of other interesting, and at least one surprising, thing in the midwest. Strap in and let’s go:

Frank’s Pizza, Silvis, Illinois
Silvis is the town that wasn’t big enough to become one of the Quad Cities. Cathy Lambrecht suggested this as somewhere to eat a few hours out of Chicago toward Des Moines, and it lived up to what I expected for vaguely Italian midwestern pizza. The building was cinderblock-American Legion-lounge in feel, the place was packed on Saturday night with locals, the pizza was entirely decent old school, but the giveaway that you’re not in Chicago any more is the sausage. In Chicago it would be clumps of flavorful fennel and red pepper filled sausage, but in the rest of America, sausage on a pizza is something like bland breakfast sausage crumbled to tiny gerbil-food bits. Honestly, it’s like a sausage Maid-Rite in texture and taste. This is why I never ate sausage on a pizza until I moved to Chicago. The cheese was pretty good, though, and the pie is cut in strips, a weird way of slicing pizza found in some south suburbs (eg. Calumet City) as well.

Fiorella’s Jack Stack, Kansas City, Missouri
I had a long list of Kansas City barbecue places I wanted to try… which got shorter real fast when I saw how few were open on Sunday. So that pretty much put us at the outlet of this venerable KC spot located in the dazzling grand hall of the old railroad Freight House in downtown KC. Decor and barbecue quality are usually not very closely related, however, and that was kind of how I felt about Jack Stack. I admire the restoration of this great old building, and the clubby steakhouse atmosphere is pleasant, if atypical for Kansas City barbecue; but they should have one upscale place like this, and if one popped up serving this food in River North, say, it would be a great asset to Chicago. But as Kansas City barbecue goes, it was just fair— the rub on the ribs was salty, other things like “burnt ends”* were surprisingly bland. Beans were great, but that’s a small thing. We would have better on the way back.

* No longer true burnt ends, ie., the too-charred-to-sell edges, which places like Arthur Bryant’s used to set out for free for you to nibble on or season your sandwich with; but chunks of end piece brisket.

Cafe Asia, Wichita
Not many ethnic cuisines where Wichita outdoes Chicago, but by having at least two Malaysian restaurants, that puts Wichita two ahead of the none in Chicago. This one was especially an ironic visit for me because it used to be the home of Georgie Peorgie pancake house, an all-American restaurant run by Koreans where my sisters worked for years in high school and summers home from college as waitresses. Judging by the age of the clientele when they worked there, most of their Sunday-morning-after-church customers must be in the grave by now, so I wasn’t surprised it was something else; but it hasn’t changed that much, except that now there are a few Malaysian dishes on the menu, which is to say, fairly mild but pleasant (and huge) plates of curry-scented noodles, very much like what the 80s-90s chain Hi Ricky! in Chicago used to serve.

L.C.’S Bar-B-Q, Kansas City, Missouri
The place I really wanted to try in KC was L.C.’s, located southeast of downtown toward Independence. It was worth the wait, a smoke-encrusted brick building on an unlovely highway whose floors were greasy enough to ice skate in your gym shoes on. In short, the real deal— and of the three main things we tried, one was fair (a sliced pork sandwich), one was very good (ribs, with lots of smoke flavor and a hammy taste and color a little like Black’s in Llano, Texas), and one was Thank-You-Jesus fantastic: the burnt ends. Again, these were cubes of brisket with at least one exterior side, not bits of pure char, but the flavor of these smoky chunks in the slightly spicy, tangy sauce was as good as anything I ever had in Texas, where brisket is also king. This easily jumped to the top of my KC barbecue recommendations, as representing a place that most definitely is not living on past laurels (as many of the others can be said to be) but is the vital heart of barbecue right now. Fries were really good, too.

Later that day we arrived at the Ritz-Carlton in St. Louis— and if there’s a more crowded, blighted stretch of major interstate than I-70 west of St. Louis, someone should open a Denny’s every 50 feet on it like they have here. We were there for a legal event my wife was attending which included a number of meals, so I didn’t really get to try anything of note in St. Louis. The banquet that night turned out to have a downhome theme— and so, after eating sublime brisket at L.C.’s, we dined far more expensively on much more ordinary brisket claiming to represent the same culture. Ironically, for all we know the chefs may have grown up on places like L.C.’s, in a city like St. Louis it’s very possible, but thanks to advanced culinary training, everything you love about a place like that has been expensively boiled out of them and replaced by bland professional proficiency at making whatever the hotel needs that night. Progress.