Sky Full of Bacon

This week’s Key Ingredient is one of the most fun visually, just because the ingredient is… so damn big. But you don’t have to smell it, at least.

Read it here.

And thanks to Nick at Grub Street for the shout-out for my Perennial Virant review (in contrast to Pat Bruno’s, which appeared right after– Kevin Boehm told us Bruno had just been in).

Paul Virant during the quickfire challenge between Chris Pandel and himself at Perennial Virant, July 25. I posted a slideshow and recap at Grub Street Chicago.

Next is fascinating, perfectionist, imaginative and eye-opening— and, ultimately, a kind of cul-de-sac; nobody really thinks that Parisian dining from 1906 will spread nationwide. It’s a fantasy dining experience with a necessarily short life. But because Next and Grant Achatz are daring and endlessly fascinating, the restaurants that represent where dining is really going right now are pushed out of the limelight, half overlooked even in the best of cases. Paul Virant opening a restaurant on the doorstep of the Green City Market, returning to the city to do battle with the best chefs in town after years singlehandedly putting some place called Western Springs on the map, could have been one of the great stories of the year. Instead it’s— oh what, Paul Virant’s cooking fresh vegetables and artisanal meats? That’s nice. Have to check that out some— HOLY CRAP NEXT JUST RELEASED TWELVE MORE TABLES ON FACEBOOK!

I feel almost alone in my belief that the most exciting news about a name chef opening a new place in 2011 has always been Perennial Virant. As much as that other food may dazzle in its ingenuity, represent the pinnacle of a kind of competitive perfectionism, the food that speaks to my soul is the food that makes comparatively simple use of the best ingredients. As I wrote reviewing Vie a couple of years ago, “in my experience there’s no Chicago restaurant at work right now better than the meal I had last Saturday night, for its dedication to getting the best, richest, most purely satisfying flavor out of the best ingredients. And if you can think of other things a restaurant should be doing first, well, we just have different priorities, I guess.” I often feel there’s a disparity in what I want from fine dining and low end food— fine dining is intellectual, sometimes to the point of seeming bloodless, low end food makes your soul sing. Vie does a better job than anywhere of bridging that gap— not just applying haute skills to homey dishes, but using homey products, all that stuff he pickles and preserves and cures, in a way that has the complexity and sophistication of haute cuisine. I love fine dining, and I love barbecue and diner food and stuff like that, but best of all… I love not having to choose between their respective pleasures in the same meal.

Yet the first reports I heard on Perennial Virant, from people I give all due respect to, were not all that good. So I didn’t rush to try it immediately, hoping that a little time would help it find its footing. I went earlier this week for a PR event, a cookoff between Virant and Chris Pandel of The Bristol (who is also, like Virant, being pulled into the orbit of the Boka Group). While there I ran into LTHer Crazy C and her husband, and wound up joining them for dinner. Charlotte (that’s what the C is for) was back for the third or fourth time since the restaurant opened, and she had no doubts about the caliber of what Virant is doing here— even as she was dismayed by that day’s news of the departure of Boka Group pastry chef Kady Yon for the Public Hotel, home to The Pump Room.

The menu, maddeningly, is divided into small, medium and large, though it was hard to see, either in price or the actual dishes, any particular difference between medium or large. We didn’t worry about it and instead focused on what we knew were Virant’s strengths. A silky pork pate had its fattiness precision-cut by the sweetness of Virant’s housemade strawberry jam. Something called Ted’s Cornmeal Cake— Ted’s Cornmeal is apparently sold by Three Sisters at the Green City Market— combined crumbly cornmeal and gooey burrata into a dish that seemed like decadence on a farm in Iowa. A robustly smokey lamb andouille sausage was combined with small shrimp and cabbage cooked in a complexly flavorful broth. Gnocchi were too soft, almost mashed-potatoey for me, but a dish of smoked short ribs with pickled onions and spaetzle was terrific, like if barbecue had a baby by a German soldier.

Before dinner I told Kevin Boehm that one of the things I liked about GT Fish & Oyster was that it was priced, and had an atmosphere, where everything didn’t have to be perfect to make you happy. I’m not sure any restaurateur ever quite hears something like that as a compliment, but when everyone’s raving about a restaurant where you have to slam the computer keys to get in at all, and price and expectations are high enough that anything below perfection will disappoint, something about the relaxation of fine dining has gone out the window. And what I liked about GT is also one of the things I liked about Perennial Virant— I felt I could come back here next week, have a bunch of new things, and be just as happy with what I had that night. There’s no pressure on me as a diner to love it or else; the love for great ingredients at Perennial Virant is generous, unconditional love.

Disclosure: I was a media guest at the Quickfire, and chatted with both Virant and Kevin Boehm at different points in the evening, but paid for my entire dinner.

This week’s chef is Nick Lacasse at the Drawing Room; the ingredient is whelks, the article is here. Fun fact: as I was waiting for Julia for the shoot, a bunch of big black cars drove up and Mayor Emanuel emerged to go to lunch next door at Le Colonial. An odd time to be standing there with a tripod and a camera, but no particular interest in filming the Mayor…

Meanwhile, nothing here last week other than pig beauty shots because I was doing Grub Street Chicago. Here’s a link to the five days I did it, for posterity: M T W Th F

More practically, here are links to a few of the most interesting pieces:
Mark and Liz Mendez Talk Food at Their Wine Bar, Uva
Do Not Underestimate the Power of Next
Clandestino, Author Plan Vincent Price-Inspired Dinners
Blackboard Eats Launches Chicago Edition Under Editor Louisa Chu
Slideshow from Green City Market BBQ
Big Jones Fills Stomachs The Old-Fashioned Cajun Way

As noted, I’m up to my eyeballs doing Grub Street Chicago this week, but at least I can put up some photos of the pigs from the last month and a half before we go to the Lake County Fair next week. There hasn’t been that much that was all that different. We had a “Show Your Animal Night” to encourage bidders at the fair, so we had to groom them, which including shampooing the pigs, cutting the cows’ hair, and cleaning the lambs and keeping them clean in their psychedelic lamb tubes:

* * *

After that, it’s just been regular rounds of feeding the pigs and cleaning the pens…

and exercising them by leading them out of their pen into a fenced field nearby. We use our Temple Grandin training to give the pigs pretty much only one choice of where to go, and once the first pig goes, the rest are curious enough to follow and run free.

After exercise, time to cool down:

On a hot day, they love the hose.

* * *

Feeding has gotten increasingly complicated. We have milk for some pigs to help them grow faster, and we sequester other pigs to keep them from eating it all. You have to nail weight within a certain range— it would be too easy to simply stuff a pig sick to sell him for more at the per-pound price— so we get increasingly anxious as the fair approaches, is our pig too fat, too lean, will he make his weight. The near-daily emails adjusting the regimen all sound like this:

1. Heavy weights are going back on show feed at a higher rate- no oats this week
2 Feed a bag of show pig feed to the big pen , mix with about 4 cups of oil
4. Snoopy, Gip and Phin are getting overdrive this week- this will be hand fed to them so lets make sure it gets done and not done more than once a day for snoop and twice a day for gip and phin- we need to communicate with each other.

Here’s last Saturday’s weigh-in:

Right on target!

Myles and Liam with Thor, 247 pounds:

The beer issue of the Reader evidently got so big that it squeezed out this week’s Key Ingredient with Nick Lacasse at the Drawing Room; watch for it next week. In the meantime, I’ll be subbing for another Nick (Kindelsperger) at Grub Street Chicago, so look for me there starting Monday and through the end of the week.

Wouldn’t want you to be without video, though, so here’s a promotional video I made for Heather Shouse and her food truck book at the Goose Island “food truck summit” in April:

And enjoy these outtakes from the Michael Carlson shoot.

So after spending much of the week debating the morality of the $6 tamale, I knew that I would have to go back to Green City Market and try the savory ones that everyone was raving about and at least some people considered worthy of the $6 price tag.

I approached the stand carefully, scanning it to see if a blurry photo of me with “DO NOT SERVE” was tacked up anywhere. Actually, they shouldn’t be too upset with me, considering the number of people I know who twitted something this morning about going to get “$6 tamales.” Blogging about overpricing— the new way to boost your business!

The coast was clear and after a brief wait in line, I was the proud owner of $12 worth of tamales. I will note that a woman came up, said “They’re six dollars— for one?”, and left while I was standing there.

Though it’s possibly the least appetizing-looking thing I’ve eaten in some months, I liked the spicy (hardly) chorizo one quite a bit. The chorizo had good flavor, there were some bits of zucchini mixed in, and best of all the grease from the chorizo had soaked into the masa in an especially appealing way.

The brisket one had the rich flavor of pot roast and the toothsomeness of masa… but that was kind of all it had. I wanted another flavor note to sneak in there— like the spices that would have been added to a Mexican pork one at a $1.50 tamale place.

I liked these pretty well, but I still found them a little small and sparse (if there’s anything you can be generous with, it’s zucchini in July), and I can’t say I see spending $6 on them regularly. Maybe it’s just me and tamales, which I think are fine, but would not rank among my favorite things, partly because of the soft, no-teeth-needed texture, which doesn’t appeal to me all that much in general (when Kennyz was raving about how well the polenta was cooked at Davanti, I just sort of nodded, yeah, whatever, it’s polenta). I’ve certainly heard from enough tamale-lovin’ folks this week to believe that Las Manas is doing something right for somebody— I’m just not them.

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Scott Harris is an American who built a fantasy Italy for Italian food. Giuseppe Tentori is an Italian who built a fantasy America for Japanese food.

This, at least, is my initial glib impression of two of the past year’s more celebrated new spots from known restaurateurs.

I think I’ve eaten at the Francesca chain once or twice, not in a long time, and not with enough excitement that I have hurried back. Scott Harris’ sudden intensive interest in Taylor Street— he opened Aldino’s, he closed Aldino’s, he opened Davanti Enoteca and Doughboys pizza joint, he reopened the old red sauce joint Gennaro’s and had to change its name to Salatino’s, and I don’t even remember what the story was on a Taylor Street Nella Pizzeria Napoletana— was more interesting if slightly unnerving in its drive to conquer. Except maybe for a couple of old places, Taylor Street is more a tourist strip than an authentic Italian neighborhood, so I wasn’t particularly worried that he’d lose the “character” of a street marked at one end by a giant mall-style Pompei. I liked that he was trying a lot of different things there to sort of give the plastic neighborhood a more varied character, and not just trying to launch new concepts.

Though you could be forgiven for looking at Davanti Enoteca and thinking it came out of a kit marked “Italian restaurant, model 1998.” The cutesy brick interior with pizza oven and Italian movie posters in the bathroom (I found the placement of Klaus Kinski disturbing) and so on really had the look of mall Italian. Nor was it all that impressive that before opening it, Harris and his partners and chef and taken a tour of major Italian food regions… in America. As some smartass wrote at Grub Street, “Hmm, what Italian-food-producing region of the globe is missing from that list?” Davanti Enoteca seemed like a place with its eyes lifted right to the middle.

But damn if it isn’t better than its Buca di Macaroni Garden looks. (Okay, that’s a low blow, it doesn’t look like Buca, there are no framed photos of Vic Tayback and Joey Travolta.) As my dining companion observed (you can read his whole take here), they seem to have put together kind of a menu of greatest hits from Mario Batali and other name chefs here, but the quality and modest pricing certainly don’t disgrace the inspiration, far from it. The best thing we had, a seafood pasta, cost about 2/3 what a seafood pasta I had at Lupa cost, and was probably about 2/3 as good which is very good indeed. It merely had crab in it, not something as novel as bottarga, but the pasta had the right texture and the saucing was not too heavy and it was pretty much everything you’d hope it would be at that price. Other things showed similar precision— meatballs bore the heck out of me, but the ones on our plank of polenta goo had real complexity, and a dessert with farro and cream was just sweet enough and no more.

Is there some sort of genius reverse psychology behind the lines Davanti draws every night, a Vizzini-the-Sicilian level insight that “People will only go to an Italian place if they are convinced it won’t be too exotic by seeing transparently faux decor— but because they’re Chicagoans, they know that only a place serving superior food could get away with suburban-level decor, and so the decor’s fakiness is proof that the food must be for real”? It’s as good a theory as any for how such admirable food wound up in this look.

* * *

The first time I ate at Boka, I wasn’t wowed by Giuseppe Tentori’s Asian-tinged food, delicate fishes topped with citrusy notes and whatnot. The second time I was; the one thing I remember of that meal was a bento box of different Asian seafood bites that was like a magical treasure chest with one surprise after another. (I also remember that there were 12 of us and only I was so transported by it. Philistines!) So when Tentori and Boka Group announced plans to open GT Fish & Oyster Bar, other people may have seen a rival to Shaw’s for business lunch for the big fishes, but I mainly saw a chance for that delicate, Japanese-influenced hand with seafood to shine. GT may put on the upscale Yankee crab shack look (it’s actually quite smart, a cross between Ye Olde Crabbe Shanty and Little Black Dress), but at its best it’s that light hand with the delicate flavors of seafood that makes it, for a Kansan still learning to appreciate seafood in all its variety, a place I want to return for continuing education, for glimpses of oceanic transcendence.

Only the chicest New England sailors use black rope.

The delicate hand was best seen in the first things we had. I keep trying oysters to see why people like oysters, and I keep getting closer to understanding; the simplicity and purity of these icy, evanescently briny invertebrates was bracing. (This is as good a place as any to disclose that one of our party knows Tentori well and we were sent a few extra things, including some of the oysters.)

While a clam chowder, not really what I planned on having in late June until peer pressure won me over, was a beautiful example of upscale-restaurant soup, a clean broth, al dente bits of potato added just before serving, lots of clam, housemade oyster crackers that seemed to have been handcarved in the back:

Main courses I felt were more hit or miss. Many combined seafood with pasta and the pastas were admirably delicate and feathery. But I had crab-stuffed agnolotti with caviar in a coconut broth, and to me the sweet, syrupy coconut broth dominated the dish cloyingly; I had to let as much of it as I could drip off to reach what seemed a proper balance of the coconut sweetness and the salt of the caviar. You couldn’t complain about the lobster in the lobster roll, it overflowed with big, tender hunks of lobster. But it didn’t quite come together as a sandwich for me, maybe it was a little too upscale in conception for what is, after all, Maine’s answer to a Wisconsin bratwurst. Shaw’s gets the cheap eats side of the lobster roll better with a buttery toasted bun.

Desserts were, well, Tentorian in their similar directness and lack of frouf, like this panacotta with graham cracker crumbs and a little fresh fruit:

Even if I felt the meal was mixed, I’m okay with that, because I’m happy (especially at highly reasonable lunch prices) to go for the ride with Tentori and wait for the dishes that achieve that perfect zen simplicity of taste and perfect presentation. I’m also impressed that Boka Group, which could have been expected to replicate the big bold flavors and slammin’ downtown feel of its runaway hit Girl and the Goat, is capable of following it by reversing gears and opening a spot driven by subtlety and a chef’s very different personality— or that they’d even want to, instead of chasing a smash hit into the ground. In some ways they are Lettuce 2011, they have a similar conceptual golden touch at the moment, yet their places feel like their chefs and don’t have that overarching Lettuceness that turns up everywhere from Foodlife to Shaw’s. Shaw’s, with its clubby, wood and black leather big business feel, is a seafood restaurant I’ve always respected but never loved; I wasn’t its target. GT Fish & Oyster, with its lighter, more intellectual touch in every department, could even make me love oysters. Someday.

Tentori explains where seafood comes from to David Hammond.

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This week’s Key Ingredient is straight out of True Blood: blood and grits.  (Fine yuppie Anson Mills grits, naturally.)  Read it here.

Saturday I took my kids to the newly-paved Green City Market (oh, they paved Green City and put up a lot of arugula). There’s a tamale stand this year which I’ve wanted to try, but it’s usually had a long line attached to it.  For once, though, it was almost clear— probably because it wasn’t even 10:00 yet and it didn’t really seem the hour for a spicy pork or brisket tamale. But scanning the menu, there was a strawberry-mint tamale at the bottom. Especially for my youngest son, I knew this would go over well, as he’s been known to eat them at the best traditional tamale spot I know of, Tamales Lo Mejor de Guerrero in Rogers Park.

There was also something else of note on the sign: a six with a dollar sign in front of it. Could these really be six bucks apiece? The woman in front of us was getting a whole bundle of them, and it seemed unlikely she was buying a good $48 or more worth of tamales. Tamales are plebeian food, sold in batches of 50 at Christmastime— and not for $300. I placed my order— and sure enough, got a single pink tamale for $6.

Okay, so it’s a really good tamale. Less so for the basic ingredients of the tamale, corn masa and lard, than the freshness of real strawberry and mint worked into it. Setting price aside, it was an absolute pleasure to eat. But even someone like me, who walks into Green City scattering $20 bills to the wind for his weekly green vegetables, cannot entirely set price aside. Late that night, I tweeted what had been floating around the verge of my consciousness all day:

140 characters is no place to expect subtleties to come through, but I don’t think this was entirely condemnatory. It was, instead, the honest admission that there were two voices in my head, one of which said, “Mmm, what a nice organic artisanal sustainable tamale” and the other of which said “Six dollars for one tamale?!? You foodies are freakin’ nuts!”

I very quickly got back some responses— mainly from other vendors at the market— defending the price of the tamale as justified by what goes into it:

@skyfullofbacon fortunately not everything is mass produced- investigate making fresh masa with great local ingredients. $6 is a bargain.

Hey, I didn’t just fall off the organic turnip truck, I know how the market is and I believe that that $6 is a proportional reflection of ingredient cost like any other food item. (Admittedly, using the term “sucker” would tend to belie that.) But still, $6 for a tamale… I sent this response:

is there any price at which you wouldn’t feel a little silly buying a tamale?

and got this back:

@skyfullofbacon id feel silly thinking I got a bargain on a $1 tamale that was made with crap ingredients and crisco.

A fair answer but not a direct one, and one that points to another problem I have, which is that if you get too doctrinaire about only eating artisanal/organic/whatever, you’re not even going to know what a tamale is, because you’ll never explore our ethnic scene where authentic recipes and industrial products are inextricably entwined.  In other words, nobody’s going to appreciate a $6 tamale without getting there via a $1.50 one, is my belief.

So who’s right here?  I honestly am confused about what I think, and value.  I’m all for upgrading ingredients and patronizing the good stuff, but maybe it’s just that I don’t value tamales as much as I do BBQ or pie or whatever, so the price difference sticks out to me more.  (To judge by the lines, other people do value them, so they don’t really need to worry about me.)  What do you think?  Would you pay $6 for this tamale— and even consider it cheap given the quality?  Or does it seem preposterous to pay that for such peasant food?  I would love to hear your responses in the comments below.

*  *  *

So on my way out I stopped by T.J.’s, who sell poultry and meats.  There was a question I couldn’t resist asking Tim, the farmer, after having eaten at NoMi a couple of weeks ago.  “Do you know about the $75 T.J.’s chicken at NoMi?”

He did not know about it, and at first didn’t even realize that NoMi was buying from him (aha! Scandal!) until he realized that it was the same account as the Park Hyatt, to whom he sells a number of things, whole chickens included.  “Have you had it? Was it good?” he asked.  I explained that it was sous-vide cooked to a velvety tenderness that was, indeed, pretty wonderful, and that given the price of the other entrees in the $30-40 range, the chicken for two was not wildly out of line pricewise.  That said, he told me his favorite way to cook a chicken was to grill it, dusted with Lawry’s seasoned salt and basted with garlic butter.

“Well, I guess I better get myself one of those $75 chickens and try it out,” I said.  He pulled out a massive, almost five-pounder, and told me the price.  I gave him $16.75.

“I’m not charging enough,” he said.

Read the followup to this saga here.

*  *  *

$3 doughnut.

$75 chickens and $6 tamales, it’s time to round up this quarter’s list of the best things I’ve eaten at any price, while you still have time to try them for yourself.  To see previous installments, click on “Best Things I’ve Eaten Lately” under Categories at right.  (And as before, Key Ingredient dishes don’t count.)

• Grilled meats from Assayad, Dearborn MI
• Twig Farm Fuzzy Wheel, and La Quercia Acorn Edition prosciutto, from Zingerman’s
• The soups at Mike’s Famous Ham Place, Detroit
• Pasta with bottarga, and snap peas with mint at Lupa, NYC
• Doughnut from Doughnut Plant
• Dumplings from Prosperity Dumpling
• All kinds of things lost in alcoholic haze at Yakitori Totto
• Grilled short ribs, Bento Box
• Ojinguh bokkum (stir fried squid), Hal Mae Bo Ssam (Morton Grove)
• Ramen at Chizakaya
• Any soup they make at Butcher & Larder
• $75 chicken at NoMi
• Sweet potato pie, Jimmy Jamm’s
• Northeastern strawberries from Nichols Farms
• A nice tortellini or ravioli something or other I can’t remember exactly now from Owen & Engine
• Goat biryani, Ghareeb Nawaz
• Spinach and kale and Chicken balti pies at Pleasant House Bakery
• Riccio di Mare e Granchio at Davanti Enoteca
• Oysters and clam chowder at GT Fish & Oyster Bar
• $6 strawberry tamale at Green City Market

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