Sky Full of Bacon

For nine days, I will be in the enviable position of being both a James Beard nominee and a Saveur Best Food Blogs nominee. (Then odds are I’ll be just the latter and Andrew Zimmern will have a Beard medal…) So if you’re coming here to find out what the heck this nominee Sky Full of Bacon is, well, I do food videos. The one up at the top of the page is the most recent, done in tandem with a print article in the Chicago Reader, but I’d really recommend checking out some of the independently-made ones such as Big Chef Small Farmer, about the chef-farmer relationship:

or The Last Days of Kugelis, the poignant story of the closing of the oldest Lithuanian restaurant in the world:

I also write stuff on this blog; scroll down to see a pair of posts on a recent trip to Detroit and to eat middle-eastern in Dearborn, Michigan.

Meanwhile, the Beard nom is for Key Ingredient, a series done for the Chicago Reader in which we challenge a chef with an oddball ingredient. Here’s the latest one, with Carlos Gaytan of Mexique (read the print piece here):

You can find the whole series here.

Here’s a quick, photo-heavy recap of a couple of more things eaten while on a very short Detroit-area trip.

If Mike’s Famous Ham Place didn’t exist, you’d think the Sterns would have invented it— yet astonishingly, it’s not in their book. It’s hard to think of a place that does a better job of pushing all their Road Food buttons— location on a nothing strip of Michigan Ave. in Detroit, beautiful artwork of ham on the outside, an extremely short menu (ham sandwich, ham and eggs, split pea and bean soup), only a counter to sit at, extremely large portions, and the sweetest, cutest Greek couple running it:

Not to mention the charming touch of sticking a chunk of the glazed crust as a garnish on top of your sandwich. My son and I each ordered one of these— for breakfast— and we each could only eat half. Partly because as soon as I started taking pictures, they wanted me to try the soups, too:

Everything was just as good as it looked, just as good as you could imagine it would be. “There are lot of peectures of us on the eenternet,” the wife said, smiling in a slightly-mystified, but good-natured way. Yes, and now there are five more.

Mike’s Famous Ham Place
3700 Michigan Ave
Detroit, MI 48216
(313) 894-6922

Yes, Chicago, there is an automated parking system even more cumbersome and incomprehensible than yours. Welcome to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where parking near Zingerman’s takes 5 minutes to figure out, even for locals, apparently. Next time, find street parking, is my advice.

And there will be a next time because Zingerman’s is, of course, Zingerman’s— a deli and fine foods shop to make any big city in America jealous, located in a college town in the midwest. Actually Zingerman’s is a complex of shops and bakeries now, but the original deli is still there even as the space in between two of its buildings is being excavated for a third (meaning that you order in one building, and they walk your food over to the other through a construction site, the sort of thing that would appall you in Chicago, but just seems adorable here).

As packed and tiny as it is, the deli was a little overwhelming at first, but I made an instant bond with a young woman at the counter when I ordered a quarter of a pound of something I had never eaten even at La Quercia’s plant or the Eckhouses’ house— La Quercia’s Acorn Edition. (I probably shot some of these very hams, two years ago.) This is their acorn-fed Becker Lane pork, sold only by the half or whole pig and shipped when each different piece is ready (so you get fresh pork right away, but won’t see the prosciutto for a couple of years). It’s madly expensive that way, even moreso sold by the hand-slice (at $125 per lb.) (And because it’s sold by the whole ham, the Eckhouses had no way of tasting it themselves until Zingerman’s let them try some of theirs on a visit.) But I guess I established myself as a big spender with that order, and sending her off to hand-slice $30 worth of prosciutto off the bone gave me time to examine my other choices more carefully:

The rows of cured sausages intrigued me, the fact that many of them were from the supermarket brand Columbus less so (even if they were its higher end line), but when she returned with my prosciutto-more-expensive-than-gold, I asked for some help selecting more unusual things, and wound up with a pretty good Spanish-style chorizo from Fra’ Mani and a really excellent wild boar sausage from Creminelli.

Then on to cheese; having tasted practically every cheese in Wisconsin recently, I wanted to skip past those and look at some of the lesser-known things from Vermont and elsewhere, and I spotted an intriguing name: Twig Farm Fuzzy Wheel. “I can’t believe you spotted that,” she said, pulling a tiny remnant from the shelf. “That’s the last piece, but it’s terrific.” She gave me a tiny piece of the buttery-funky cheese and I cried “Wrap it at once, before it is wasted on these rabble!”

My deli purchases in tow, I examined the bake shop. I’ve only ordered from the bake shop once, to be sent to someone else; the prices are so high once shipping speedy enough to keep things fresh is included. My feeling about the bakery is, well worth picking up if you’re here but not necessarily so great to be worth shipping for someone in Chicago. A nice crusty hunk of brown miche was tasty, but locally you could get better for less at La Farine; likewise a pecan-raisin bread, which was very nice but not better than Fox & Obel’s. What was really excellent was the hot cross buns made for Easter, which had real brioche-like texture and tooth. In the end we checked out with $200 of fine stuff and a picnic which would keep us from stopping at some fast food joint on the way back, plus new deli T-shirts for the kids; a stop well spent.

And how was the $125/lb. Acorn Edition prosciutto? Well, it’s pretty wonderful, but I’ll tell you. From ordinary mass-produced prosciutto to La Quercia is a leap in complexity and subtlety, you feel like doors have been opened and your prosciutto palate has been expanded in all directions. From La Quercia’s standard product to the organic green label is another such leap, introducing a cheesy funkiness that’s rich and profound. And from the organic green label to the Acorn Edition is even more of that cheesy funkiness, that lactic bite dialed up to 11— but it’s not a qualitatively different or more complex experience. So for me, as much as I enjoyed finally tasting the Acorn Edition, the organic green label, which you can buy a whole ham of (around 15 lbs.) for $270, is the best deal and the one that gives you the greatest experience for the price. Not that I regret my $30 package of ham one bit— in fact, I may go have to have one of the few remaining slices right now.

Zingerman’s Deli
422 Detroit Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48103
(734) 663-3354

ANNOUNCEMENT FIRST: I will be giving a talk on food as depicted in films of the Depression as part of the Greater Midwest Foodways Association’s Foodways of the Great Depression conference, Friday at 4 at Kendall College. More information here.


I have a certain knack for blundering into trouble spots— I managed to have business in LA for both O.J. verdicts, and don’t even get me started about the vacation we took when I was a kid to the Bay of Pigs— so it’s not surprising that my first trip to Dearborn, Michigan that paid any attention to the town itself (I’d been to the Henry Ford Museum/Greenfield Village before, but ignored its surroundings) should occur on the very same day as a supposed preacher threatening to burn Korans (thus torching Christianity), Muslims threatening to riot (thus torching their own community), and a prosecutor and judge enforcing a blatantly illegal example of prior restraint (thus torching the U.S. Constitution). As a result, the Dearborn I visited was a powderkeg about to explode.

And I’m Queen Noor of Jordan.

Shatila Bakery.

Seriously, it was impossible to reconcile what the nervous nellies on TV were saying with the place that I was actually in. I ate dinner twice on the Arab-American commercial strip along Warren Ave., and it was many things— booming, thriving, vibrant, lively— but likely to explode in trouble was not one of them. Dearborn’s middle-eastern strip is inspiring, it makes Chicago’s look like a strip mall with a 7-11 and a Family Pride cleaners. There are literally dozens of places, from little holes in the wall to lavishly glitzy spots that look like they belong in a mall in the Emirates or Dubai, and to judge by the signage, more are opening all the time. And they were full of life and activity, families dressed up and out for dinner or ice cream, women in headscarves shouting over countertops to clamoring customers. The funny thing to think is that, most likely, much of the non-Arab population barely knows this all exists; straight west of where we stayed, on Michigan Avenue, there’s a standard suburban strip with things like Buddy’s Pizza, which may have been good Sicilian-style square pizza in 1946 but is mall-standard Pizza Hut-style pan today. Warren Ave.’s ferment of middle eastern entrepreneurial activity was as much an alternative universe to that generic present day reality as Henry Ford’s idealized 1900s small town full of inventors is.

Peter Engler, who’s made some study of Detroit (but leaning more toward coneydogology), advised me that there were a number of older Chowhound threads about the area, and that led me to our first stop, a bakery and deli called New Yasmeen, which had been recommended in a Saveur article c. 2004 for offering Iraqi stews not otherwise seen in North America.

I’m intrigued by any dish at a middle eastern place that is outside the ordinary and universal menu of shish kabob-shish taouk-hummus, so I zeroed in on some stews toward the end and started asking about them, one in particular with a whitish cast which I suspected, correctly, to be a yogurt base. I tried to order it, the guy helping me hesitated, I insisted— and then a manager who looked like Armin Mueller-Stahl came over and pronounced: “It is not good.”

I haven’t been whited like that in years, so when I still appeared undaunted, the first guy finally offered me a (quite generous) taste. It was fine! It tasted tart, like yogurt. On behalf of my fellow Nordic European-Americans, I’m sorry if any of my fellows came in here, tried these more exotic dishes, and bitched about them. We ordered a wide variety of things and they were all perfectly decent examples of their types, good spinach pie, nice lemony hummus light on the tahini, though really, the only reason to make a special trip here is if you want to try things you won’t see anywhere else.

Afterwards we went a few doors down to a place Peter had mentioned— or rather, the much glitzier new home of Shatila Bakery:

This was like a food court of middle eastern goodies, with separate counters for middle eastern pastries like baklava, French pastries (including a few hybrids like zatar-flavored croissants), ice cream and even a counter devoted entirely to knafeh, the dessert of gooey white cheese covered with orange-dyed shredded wheat, then doused with a sugary syrup:

While my wife got us the coconut ice cream (which came highly recommended and was, indeed, wonderful, jam-packed full of coconut), I went to get a few of the middle eastern pastries to try. But I was quickly advised that at the per-piece price, I’d spend a fortune, and so the headscarf-clad young lady spent ten minutes assembling me a beautiful boxed assortment of the good stuff for about the same price. They were delicate and fresh, far better than the musty old examples you often find here. While all around us, families laughed and ate ice cream and baklava. I wanted to wake Henry Ford from his eternal rest and tell him— “Here! This is the ice cream parlor your perfect small American town needs now! It will fit right in!”

On my way out I did a little scouting for the next day but in the end, the kids rebelled against middle eastern two nights in a row and I sent the rest of the family off to Buddy’s Pizza (which is why I can have an opinion on it). Instead, I beelined for a place advertising meat grilled over live coals, something I’ve seen only once in Chicago, at Al-Bawadi:

The place was called Assayad, it had touches of a curiously nautical theme, and everything I had, from the pickles

to the fattoush salad and hummus

was unusually bright and freshly-flavored, probably better than their equivalents anywhere in Chicago.

But what about the charcoal-grilled meats? I ordered kufta kebab (getting whited again, with the waiter saying “Shish kebab?” and me having to reply, firmly, “No, kufta kebab”) and it was kufta kebab kissed with a little of the smokiness of a Polish sausage. Even better, it was laying on a piece of very thin flatbread shmeared with muhammara, red pepper puree. It was great. If I’d had more people than myself, I’d have explored more of the menu— a section on fish casseroles looks intriguing— but for a first visit, this left me completely happy for a total that returned change from a $20.

So now I’ve definitely got a recommendation for travelers in Assayad that’s newer than a Saveur article in 2004. But even moreso, my recommendation would be to keep exploring, the scene is so big and varied and vibrant that I have no doubt there are many more exceptional things to be discovered here, and together they constitute a booming commercial sector that leaves Chicago’s small pockets of middle-eastern in the dust (even though Dearborn’s total Arab-American population of around 30,000 is less than a quarter of Chicago’s). There’s nothing like it here— although, curiously, I notice that Assayad’s menu claims that it has a few other outposts including in Clifton, New Jersey, Houston… and Chicago. I can’t find any trace of an Assayad branch here, and so far as I know Al-Bawadi remains the only charcoal-grill middle-eastern restaurant in town. But who knows?

New Yasmeen Bakery
13900 W Warren Ave
Dearborn, MI 48126
(313) 582-6035

Shatila Bakery
14300 W. Warren Ave
Dearborn, MI 48126
(313) 582-1952

14246 W Warren
Dearborn, MI 48126
(313) 908-7807

I’m with Michael McDonald, who posed this challenge– I’ve seen aloe vera at Whole Foods, but haven’t the foggiest idea what you do with it if you want to eat it. So Bill Kim found out for all of us; watch it and then read it here.

And if you haven’t seen them, check out the videos I made for Eater at Next and Aviary linked in the post below. There’s also this piece I did on the fly for Eater…

Did I say that I was tired of Next/Aviary coverage? I meant, bring it on! All week long!

Okay, I think I said I was tired of people going nuts and acting badly in response to all the ticketing-mania. It was kind of good to have a week off from stories of people obsessively refreshing their browsers to go eat 100-year-old French food. But there’s still a great story or two in this culinarily ambitious new venture for one of the best chefs in [insert geographic level of choice here], and so I jumped like someone who just got their Next password when Ari Bendersky of Eater recruited me to film him getting a tour of everything— and it really was everything— in the Next/Aviary complex last Friday. Here was a chance to dig at least a little deeper than just stories about what a hot ticket Next was and to get beyond treating it like a culinary Justin Bieber. (All kudos to Ari for his cultivation of Achatz et al. as sources and for his ongoing first-in-line coverage of the openings; I’m just the camera guy he dragged along.)

Although we were there for barely two hours total, as usual with Achatz (notice how casually I worked that in) it was a whirlwind two hours so mentally and conceptually packed that you can barely keep up, and me-the-editor is left cursing me-the-cameraman for not getting a shot of this, or this, or one of those. We went in planning to make three short segments about Next and Aviary to run this week at Eater; we came out with clear ideas for five (and a weekend for me to cut as much final material as a full Sky Full of Bacon podcast). The first ran yesterday and was Achatz giving us the visual and atmospheric inspiration behind Next:

Eater Chicago

Today’s takes us inside the kitchen with executive chef Dave Beran. If you have any doubts about whether they’ve made a complete commitment to 1906-era L’Escoffier-style cooking, you won’t after seeing the full Gallic culinary-barbarity of the duck press and the rows of seafood and brigades of cooks breaking it down for cooking, which could have walked right out of a Parisian scullery… save for the multiethnic staff and the fluorescent lighting. And to think that they’ll spin on a dime in a few months and be making Thai street food— it’s either madness or a tribute to their astonishing discipline and thoroughness, in a few months we shall see. (Well, a small fraction of us will see.) As for what the rest of the week holds… come back to Eater each day for more, that’s my advice.

Eater Chicago

Not that I’m an expert Achatzologist, by any means, but having been behind the scenes now at both Alinea and Next/Aviary, there’s no question that this is not one of those examples of a chef downscaling his product for today’s more casual way of dining. Though in some small ways Next is less luxe than Alinea, everything about the operation bespeaks Achatz’s commitment to ordering his universe just so— and to hiring people who think like he does, in terms of the self-chosen paradox of achieving perfection in a profession that’s all about variation in product and pulling your butt out of the fire at the last minute. Talking to Dave Beran, for instance, he was constantly adjusting things— you’ll see him unconsciously straightening the spice rack twice as he speaks to us— and he interrupts a discussion of the crayfish they buy to zero in on and remove, in an instant, the one crayfish in an army of a hundred that isn’t quite up to the standard set by the other 99. (Why? I couldn’t begin to tell you how it fell short.)

Eater Chicago

Likewise, Craig Schoettler, the chef of Aviary (that title in itself is a typical Achatzian touch; no mere bartenders making mere drinks here) seems almost enraptured by the industrial sleekness of Aviary’s work stations, the sharp angles of its perfectly cubic ice cubes. (Will that translate into better cocktails? That question has to wait for Aviary to open, maybe later this week.) As with Walt Disney, would you want to be the worker who has to realize such a vision of ordered perfection on earth every day? I wouldn’t; I’m not that type. As with Disney, is it worth spending a fortune to experience such a vision a few times in your life as a customer? Surely. (The Disney comparison is a problematic one for Next— it would be easy to push the evoking-another-time-and-place side of Next too far and make Next feel like its version of Paris 1906 comes from Epcot’s mall of nations. If anything Next lands on the side of minimalism to avoid that comparison, as you’ll hear Achatz explain in the first video. But the comparison to another visionary trying to bring the totality of the idealized world in his head to paying guests is entirely complimentary— Achatz only creates E-tickets.)

Eater Chicago

As for Achatz the individual— I don’t know him, I’ve just had a chance to point a camera at him a couple of times. But to paraphrase the Wine Spectator, video’d twice with consistent notes. I was thinking about him when I shot with Jared Van Camp at Old Town Social; Jared’s smart as a whip, he’s opening restaurants at a plainly ambitious clip, and his outstanding charcuterie is a reflection of how hard he’s thought about how to improve it. In its own way, he’s approached it as scientifically as Achatz has anything at Alinea, because you really have to with charcuterie, bad charcuterie can kill you. But at the same time— he’s a let’s-have-a-good-time guy like his old boss Paul Kahan; his idea of a restaurant from 100 years ago would be a gemütlichkeit German place, not an exacting French one. Where Achatz has a relentless drive in him that you don’t see much in life, except at the top of anything. At one point we asked him how the dishes at Next were being received and he made a special point of saying that other chefs had praised a certain dish—the one dish that has often been reviewed as just being okay. But Achatz wasn’t going to give an inch; if he has to he’ll will it into being just as great a dish as everything else on the menu.

I was a little startled when I first encountered him this time; his voice was ragged and he looked tired and not especially happy to have to talk to two more journalists. He looked like what he obviously is, someone’s who’s been working 20 hour days since he can’t remember when to make a new business perfect. But it’s amazing how quickly that sensation went away; in seconds he got into the subject of his restaurant and I had a palpable sense of color flowing back into his face, energy rising through his body, even delight twinkling around his edges. Okay, that sounds like something writers just say to get flowery, but dammit, I have video of it as it happens. You can see him recharging himself as he turns to his subject, the only subject that matters, the absolute and total vision of your dining enjoyment as a paying guest in the environment conceived at every possible level by Grant Achatz.

Eater Chicago

My favorite part of this week’s challenge was seeing where One Sixty Blue grows herbs and even some vegetables in the summer— its parking lot. It gave me an excuse to do black and white again (a parking lot in color is urban blight; a parking lot in black and white is the gritty romance of the big city). Otherwise, check out what chef Michael McDonald does with two colors of miso, here and in the print piece:

This being Key Ingredient #20, I’ll recap how the last ten dishes were, as I did after #10:

McLeod/Asafetida: very lush, I think I knew what the asafetida was contributing (a mouth-filling umami), a delicate and expertly made seafood dish
Pandel/Jujube: a little strong for a servable dish (maybe not at The Bristol, though!), but the citrus-bitter jujube balance was dead-on as a solution
Biggers/Beef tendon: I loved the smoked duck salad half, and the tendon soaked up lots of flavor even if I’m still not sure why you want to eat something like a rubber band
Van Camp/Red bean paste: with bacon and an egg on top, totally robust and comfy, like a Longman & Eagle dish (but that’s a different Jared)
Taylor/Fish eyeballs: Hard to say what the fish eyeballs added that oyster liquor, say, didn’t, but it was a good southern-style curry
Segal/Sorghum syrup: Not a carrot cake fan, but this was really a great dessert, and I really liked how sorghum was subtler than molasses in it
Steuer/Banana: good flavor, though rare duck wouldn’t be my choice for a jibarito, which to me wants greasy, slightly crispy meat. Also, banana softens up instead of stiffening like plantains.
Izard/Confectioners Sugar: Totally a Girl & The Goat dish, big hearty flavor with a lot of sweet and savory happening at once.
Zweiban/Tamarind: as I wrote at the time, the first one I’ve really thought of making. Simple roast chicken with a slightly bitter/orange marinade, what’s not to love?
McDonald/Miso: I liked the spring roll a lot, charred shrimp with a little Asian tinge, but I thought the dipping sauce was overkill.

For me, Next-o-mania had curdled by week’s end, and I was thinking of crawling under a rock till it was all over, even as I had contributed my own small bit to it (or maybe because). I hasten to say that I hold nothing against Next the restaurant, or even the brilliantly orchestrated campaign that had made it the hottest ticket in town (so hot it melted down their cutting-edge reservation system). But the way people reacted to it quickly turned ugly— the tickets being scalped on Craigslist, the complaints that the system didn’t work flawlessly under its initial test of fire, the robotic determination to get this ticket right now even if you have to spend your whole week clicking and refreshing like a mouse in a behavioral experiment. As my friend Michael Morowitz put it, as usual more succinctly than I, “Scarcity and exclusivity have completely replaced flavor and authenticity as the key sirens for foodies.”

Add to that the smaller, but equally absurd, mania that popped up around some doughnut shop that opened, but could barely stay open without selling out of $3 doughnuts in minutes, and it was hard not to feel that the foodie scene had jumped the shark last week, lost any connection to the chef-and-farmer-honoring values it occasionally claims to have. I mean, if you pay a scalper a fortune for Grant Achatz’s hard work, how is that honoring his art? How is that respecting him? And if you ignore all the other fine and interesting chefs in town— one of whom just won a Food & Wine Best New Chef award, but could hardly get noticed last week— because getting into Next is all you care about, how is that respecting the diversity and ingenuity that have made our food scene so great? It’s not— in either case, it’s just getting your Hipper Than Thou ticket punched.  It’s getting into Studio 54, so you can say you’ve been, and nothing more.  At that point the food, the whole artful experience that Next has presumably created is incidental.

So faced with the madness of foodieism last week, I felt like renouncing the world and returning to my monastery, which is to say, ignoring the upscale food world and returning to taco joints and Indian buffets (this is not an ascetic monastery, clearly).  Except for one thing: my kids would be at a 4-H sleepover that night.  Which meant my wife and I would have a rare night where we could go somewhere grownup, stay out late, order things the kids wouldn’t touch, all that stuff.  The harder I try to get out, the more they pull me back in!

I made a mental list of places to try getting into on Friday night, but in the end the first one we drove by didn’t look too packed— many potential patrons were no doubt at home, obsessively refreshing the Next site— and so we found ourselves at the upstairs bar at The Bristol.  My last dining experience at The Bristol (not counting Chris Pandel’s Key Ingredient) didn’t exactly work for me, but I have never doubted that it’s an estimable place, perhaps the closest replacement in my heart for its old neighbor Mado, and would never have written it off after one meal.

Upstairs, which I visited for the first time, is basically a bar slash waiting area, where you can order more or less the top, more appetizer-y half of the menu.  We let it go at the charcuterie platter, which was more than enough to get us through our wait and a single cocktail.  I was slightly disappointed to see that other than lardo there was nothing cured— like, say, the prosciutto Chris Pandel made that I had seen hanging in Old Town Social’s meat vault— but it was soon forgotten as we devoured the velvety chicken liver mousse, the rustic pork pate, and the slivers of lardo atop beets on toast.  I’ve had a lot of charcuterie platters of late, and they usually have their good points and not so hot points, but this was not only very good across the board, but seemed to know why it was.  It was focused in a way they often aren’t.

Seated downstairs— which meant uprooting ourselves from the far left end of one bar to the far left end of another— we continued our meal with beef heart confit and olive marmalade on toast, topped with lightly dressed arugula.  This was a quintessential dish of the moment, of the theme Chicago 2011, pure comfort food made with the discomfiting ingredients that have been made so hot by chefs like Chris Pandel, who somehow domesticated the grody bits so completely that they’re often the first to sell out.  This was beef-plus, roast beefy flavor with a side shot of adrenaline.  The mania for dishes like this is a mania I can get behind.

We ended with two pastas.  One— agnolotti— was pillowy comfort, and as lovable as a puppy.  The other— tagliatelle— was, frankly, bizarre, hard to eat, a mouthpuckering tart and fishy combination of anchovies, anise, and bits of pancetta, weirdly reminiscent in ways I could never quite put my finger to of some Thai dish I’ve had.  Yet unlikable as it was, it never occurred to me to consider it merely a botch; instead I kept eating it, trying to understand it.  It was like one of those occasions where you walk out not liking a movie, and six weeks later, you’re still thinking about it and are convinced it was actually damn near great.  This too is a quintessential dish of Chicago 2011— something that culinarily challenging, served at the bar with a beer.

And that’s the other thing about Chicago 2011— that so many of the best restaurants are serving things like this not in the studied perfection of Next, but in the loose, improvisational manner of The Bristol.  Liked it?  Cool.  There’ll be five other things in the next week or two, and maybe one or two of them will be just as good.  For people wrapping themselves into fits about whether or not they can get into Next before Paris 1906 is history, there’s no antidote better than the fact that you can drop in to a place like The Bristol and have marvels, and a beer, on the spur of the moment.

Boy, you’d never know from this week that there were any other restaurants besides Grant Achatz’s hysteria-provoking Next— not even the one whose chef and last week’s Key Ingredient challengee just won a Food & Wine Best New Chefs thingy— but there are, and one of them is Province whose chef, Randy Zweiban, is up this week. As it turns out, tamarind wasn’t an unfamiliar ingredient for him, but this one is well worth watching because it’s probably the most accessible recipe yet, and it was damned good; if you were going to make one Key Ingredient dish yourself, I’d make this one (get the recipe and the full article here, no ISI canister required).

Meanwhile, sure enough, I wound up covering Next, too, with a video, but this was actually shot back when we shot the very first Key Ingredient (indeed you’ll notice that the last shot here is the first shot of that episode). Achatz was giving us a tour, and talking about how, if he could, he’d repaint the walls every night, change everything around. I asked if that was where the inspiration for Next, with its quarterly theme-changing, came from. He said no, and then he explained where it actually came from (sorry about what sounds like a burglar alarm ringing in the background; that was Alinea’s super-vacuum cleaner in operation as we went around):

UPDATE: And if you get the new issue of Time Out Kids, be sure to read page 36. Big thanks to Jenn Galdes and Karrie Leung for helping me set up two of the three kid-interviews.

When I first moved into my neighborhood, many years ago, there was exactly one place to eat (at night, anyway): a hipster burger place called Planet Cafe. A few weeks later I was exploring the area further up Lincoln, and spotted a picturesque Italian restaurant, rambling over two or three storefronts and bathed in a warm, welcoming Tuscan light, called La Bocca della Verita… the mouth of truth.

At the sight of it my heart ached with jealousy— why didn’t my neighborhood have one of these? The oh-so-life-in-the-big-city neighborhood Italian joint, presided over by the sturdy Italian mama and making comfy plates of what we then all called Northern Italian food. (Though we didn’t really know what that meant, except things did have basil scattered on them, and didn’t come buried in the lead weight of old school red gravy.) For me, at that time, it represented everything about what life in the city was supposed to be– cosmopolitan, continental, yet cozy at the same time. It was right up there with used book stores and the three-story Rose Records and checking out tiny theater troupes for $7 a ticket (anyone else see The Book of Blanche?) and art movies at the Fine Arts, among things that were What I Moved To This City For.

But as Tony Soprano said, remember when is the lowest form of conversation. So I’ll simply note the disappearance of nearly everything on that list except La Bocca della Verita. When I moved here, youthful Kansas emigre, I didn’t know Italian food from Franco-American spaghetti, so a return to La Bocca della Verita after many years was fraught with opportunities for you-can’t-go-to-your-old-new-home-again disappointment, except my expectations were fully primed for exactly that. And they were mostly right. If I know what the delicacy of Italian food is now, what subtlety is, I also know when it’s being made without them. And the food my younger son and I had was, what’s the nicest way to put it, pleasantly clumsy. Gooey gnocchi with trumpet blast tomato sauce. Gluey spaghetti carbonara with guanciale which was flavorful… including the flavor of smoked pork, which guanciale doesn’t normally have. Baked cod in a pool of lemony, garlicky liquid being the best of the evening, but still, most reminiscent of the days when I would be taken to lunch at Riccardo’s, an ancient downtown advertising hangout, and quickly learned to stick to fish as the thing they could damage the least.

I could name better renditions of everything we had. I could imagine someone else getting all Medici on this kitchen. But… it won’t be me, because their welcome to this bustling restaurant could not have been friendlier. The sturdy Italian mama’s smiles and consideration for my son’s wellbeing (even if it meant offering him a 7-Up refill he definitely didn’t need) were pleasures of life and community beyond mere gustatory pleasures. I don’t live in this neighborhood, I am no longer the starry-eyed youth, but for one night again, I felt the palest ghost of long-ago excitement at having places like this— real Italian restaurants, run by real Italians, everybody welcome— just a stroll away on the streets of my new metropolis. So here’s a kiss for La Bocca, and let cold hard Veritas take the night off.

La Bocca della Verita
4618 North Lincoln Avenue
Chicago, IL 60625
(773) 784-6222

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Perhaps it’s Michelinmania, but everybody’s doing lists of The Best Restaurants in Chicago these days. Having launched one such list already, and just being one guy who can only eat at so many places, and what do you care how I rank The Purple Pig, I’m never going to have Gebert’s Top 25 or whatever. But what I will do is write up, as I did last year, a quarterly list of the best things I’ve eaten lately, which is hopefully soon enough that if you felt so inclined, you could try many of the same things I had. (Note: I have not included any of the Key Ingredient dishes, as they were one-offs which you probably couldn’t have. Although there’s at least one you could have something close to— Mindy Segal’s carrot cake at Hot Chocolate— and you’d be very happy if you did.)

Pork tamale from Tamales lo Mejor de Guerrero.

• Navy bean soup, cold roast beef sandwich, and the house (Italian) sausage I used on a pizza, from The Butcher & Larder
• Tarte flambee and Paris Brest at Balsan
• Pork belly sandwich at Xoco, especially the second half reheated the next day
• Cassoulet at Leopold
• Brussel sprouts (but not cassoulet) at Maude’s Liquor Bar
• Toscano dry sausage, and others, at Old Town Social
• Rasher and egg sandwich at Owen & Engine
• “Fish taco” (sashimi with tortilla foam) at Perennial Poli
• Grilled salad and short rib agnolotti at Three Aces
• Lobster roll at Shaw’s, which just isn’t the restaurant for me otherwise, but oh man, that’s just dead on perfect
• Kebab sandwich or whatever it is at Mr. D’s Shish-Kabobs
• Leek soup at Rewster’s
• Goat cheese quiche at brunch at Nightwood
• Goat knackwurst at Three Floyd’s
• Chocolate doughnut from Munster Donuts (Munster, IN)
• Slice of sausage pizza at Doughboys
• Slice of ricotta sheet pizza at Italian Superior Bakery
• Coconut chimney cake at Chimney Cake Island
• Potato chips from Grahamwich
• All the tamales at Tamales lo Mejor de Guerrero, an LTH discovery no one thought to make an LTH GNR
• Barbacoa, which I’d never had before at Tierra Caliente, but is clearly the backup choice whenever you doubt that the carne asada or pastor is as perfect at that moment as it should be
• Italian beef at Novi’s Beef, Berwyn
• Chilaquiles at Caffe Gaudi
• Montreal-style pastrami at the place in the French Market next to Pastorale
• Housemade pasta with braised pastrami at Inovasi (okay, that was from the last week of 2010, but I had already done my 10 best list before I went there and it deserves mention)

Like many foodies, I’ve shopped at Costco for years and one of the things I’ve come to rely on is the cool, refreshing taste of Kirkland bottled water. Yet it wasn’t until I saw a promotion in the front of the store next to the venetian blinds and the caskets that I realized all the Kirkland water came from the company’s own bottling facilities at Lake Kirkland in Idaho. Looking for somewhere to get away from the harsh Chicago winter, the vacation package they offered for a 7 day/6 night stay at The Inn at Lake Kirkland was simply too good a deal to pass up. So this time when I came home from Costco, I didn’t just surprise my wife with Australian Riesling, new cordless phones or a 12-pack of long underwear— it was with an exciting vacation.

The Inn at Lake Kirkland is an all-suites resort nestled by the blue waters of Lake Kirkland, and offering a truly dazzling range of recreation options. Besides a wide selection movies on blu-ray to watch from our in-room recliners and a Time-Life Music tribute band in the nightclub performing the greatest hits of Johnny Mathis, The Eagles and Merle Haggard, there were plenty of water sports options to be had:

But this is a food blog and you want me to report on the food options available, so here goes. There are more than a dozen restaurants on the Lake Kirkland property, and I was largely impressed by both the quality and the quantity they offered. Arriving mid-day on Saturday, we had lunch at the casual Haggler’s and were very impressed by the delicate texture of their woodfired pizza and the robust flavor of the Hampshire Farms bacon on it:

Since we purchased the babysitting package, my wife and I were able to sneak away on a couple of nights. Plasma, the bar and lounge in the south wing, had a throbbing energy augmented by an ever-changing display of some of Costco’s best offerings.

The wine flights offered tastes of 12, 24 or 48 wines rated at least 86 by The Wine Enthusiast and were really a great deal.  We stuck mostly to light appetizers here and one of our favorites was the sample platter of mini-quiches:

But the most impressive meal we had, without question, was at the resort’s four-star Le Rabais. Chef Jimmy Dean Saucisse worked at French Laundry, Per Se and Carnival Cruise Lines, and there’s a clear Achatz influence in some of his exquisitely designed and plated dishes, such as “Grass and Snow,” in which the dish is wittily plated onto a garden rake (Woodbridge & Vinely, $269.99/3-pack in the lobby) and the finishing touches of truffle salt are applied with an Ariens snowblower ($479.99):

For all his artful touches, however, Saucisse understands that the Lake Kirkland traveler is there for a fully satisfying dining experience of good-sized portions, and so there’s nothing twee or excessively retiring about Foie Gras Fourteen Ways (clockwise left to right: teriyaki, smoky chipotle, honey Dijon, cool ranch, mountain spring, rosemary-bacon, Hawaiian, strawberry-kiwi and chocolate-mint; not shown: Texas 5-Alarm, Tuscan sun-dried tomato, New England chowder, wasabi-pecan and habanero):

After a feast like that, I downsized my order from the T-Bone Case to the Iowa Steak Filet Sampler, but I still had enough left over for a tasty midnight snack an hour after dinner:

And as tempted as we were by the many frozen yogurt options, in the end we split a simple platter of profiteroles, which ended the meal on just the right light note:

I’ve come home from so many vacations with a vague feeling of, I don’t know, hunger for something more than we experienced. But in this case, The Inn at Lake Kirkland exceeded my expectations in every way. Everything we were served was outstanding and the attention to detail was simply remarkable. Based on this visit, I can’t wait for my next chance to experience what Chef Saucisse and all his comrades are offering. In fact, my stomach is rumbling at the thought of how long it will be before we can return right now.