Sky Full of Bacon

I have written here more than once of one of my favorite New York dining experiences, maybe the only place that would get me to utter the dread phrase “Chicago doesn’t have a [blank] as good as [name] in New York”— Yakitori Totto, the second floor walk up kinda divey totally awesome yakitori/izakaya/robata place. I don’t expect to ever find its exact equivalent, since you can’t open a new place with a been-around-for-20 years vibe, by definition, but I’ve held out hope that someone could at least make robata items as interesting and varied as what Yakitori Totto grilled on its tiny bincho grill.

Which is one reason I took an interest early on in the impending opening of Sumi Robata Bar from Gene Kato, long of Asian glitz joint Japonais. But Kato was serious and focused about his craft, as this video I did suggested:

Like that other guy I was making videos about at the same time, Kato was determined to create a working space to his exact vision. Which, as it turns out, starts in the basement in the other half of the restaurant:

The basement is called Charcoal Bar, a cozy little black-walled inner sanctum. Like The Office at Next/The Aviary, it’s a bar trying not to feel like a commercial enterprise, and while I have no great need for insider exclusive experiences, I was instantly won over by the intimacy of this little space where (if you snag one of the six bar seats like I did) you can just hang out with mixologist Matthew Lipsky as he does crazy things like chip a perfect ball of ice for his Old-Fashioneds. That was actually someone else’s drink; I ordered one called the Narcissus, which combined aged rum with a whole egg, among other things. As he was straining it it looked like pancake batter, but the creaminess of the egg and the fruit and alcohol blended into a remarkably light yet wintry drinks, one of the best cocktails I’ve ever had.

Then it was upstairs to Sumi, where Kato and sous chef Justin Romine make delicate little things for you. Not all are grilled; some of the best were just simple cold things, like a cured cucumber which was crazy good (Anthony Todd said he wished bars had that instead of peanuts to build up your salt thirst for beer) or the housemade tofu with salmon roe, a gorgeous little bowl with creamy tofu that was almost like butterscotch pudding.

But the grilled things were all pretty wonderful, too— a miso-marinated lamb rib, offal like chicken gizzards (alas, they were out of chicken tail that night), vegetables like shishito peppers or asparagus. We wound up taste-testing a fish they’re thinking about adding to the menu, I forget the exact Japanese name but it was a beautiful little round white fish whose skin crisped up fantastically:

Even the thing that seemed kind of sheer audience-pleasing, a slider consisting of a sausage on a bao bun, was startlingly well-made (we joked that we’d be seeing it again at the Green City Market BBQ). In an age of giant restaurantosauruses, Sumi Robata Bar is a little jewel box of a place devoted to the most direct and simple way of presenting beautifully crafted food straight from the kitchen to the diner sitting right in front of it as it’s made. It’s remarkably satisfying to see someone realize the vision in their head so completely and successfully, and not only is this by far the closest thing to the Yakitori Totto in my head that has opened in Chicago, I feel certain it will be among my favorite new restaurants of the year— and one last note: I usually expect to get hosed at a small plates place like this, small plates adding up faster than you expect, but in fact we ate everything we wanted and got out, not counting most of the drinks, for about $50 per person. That’s not cheap but it’s up there with Kai Zan for delivering a lot of Japanese quality for a highly reasonable price.

* * *

The cocktail booklet at The Barrelhouse Flat is a beautiful thing, not merely laid out beautifully (though it is, in the finest imitation-1890s look desktop publishing can create) but compiled with a historian’s love for lost worlds; and the cocktails I tried were extremely well balanced and bright tasting, filled with interesting things which worked together cleanly and precisely; they taste like everything is there for a reason. The space, at least the downstairs (I understand the upstairs is somewhat different, but it was booked for a party), is a little spare, or would be if the lights were up, but it at least suggests the period as well, and I saw signs that the service could be inviting if you talked to one of the booklet’s authors directly (I got someone else and the service was, sadly, airport-bar-blank).

The food, on the other hand, is like a greatest hits of other hot places at the moment— Longman & Eagle, and Maude’s/Au Cheval, that mixup of haute and offal and farm to table and late night comfy drunk food that Longman pulls off and Au Cheval overdoes— and which at The Barrelhouse Flat costs you a fair amount of money to not work at all. Wanting to try them at their most extreme and Au Cheval-esque, I ordered something called Breakfast at Dinner, which somehow combined a biscuit (first-rate), a corn pancake (dry and stiff), a thimble of sausage gravy (runny and thin), some pickled onion and a reddish, Chinese restaurant-style sweet-sour sauce… and $15 from me for a portion of mostly flour-based food that’s about half the size of the $5.99 biscuits and gravy at any diner (and a fraction of what $15 gets you at Au Cheval, for what that’s worth). Which I admit is complaining that the food isn’t good and such small portions, but really, this was just a WTF dish, not just made for drunks but apparently by someone with alcohol-impaired judgement, too. When it was gone— which wasn’t long— I ordered some brussels sprouts which were, at least, competently roasted if a bit over salted. But that was $21 in for a pretty odd, unsatisfying meal, money much better spent on drinking here.

* * *

After a Key Ingredient shoot downtown I popped into Farmhouse for a quick lunch, and again marveled at how much better food is downtown than when I was a cubicle jockey subsisting on Wall Street Deli and Oasis Cafe. Farmhouse is a beer and farm-to-table focused joint; on the beer side you have a bartender who’s eager to tell you about the local brews they pour and give you tastes. I didn’t actually want to drink a beer at lunch but he was happy to give me samples to taste which made lunch that much more convivial than water would.

On the food side— I’d call it Longman Lite, but that sounds like a dig and really it’s the opposite. It’s great that the food and atmosphere of a long afternoon’s slacker lunch in Logan Square has been adapted to the hour-lunch needs of office workers, slightly stripped down and lightened up yet without losing its fundamental pleasures. I had a shortrib sandwich, full of soothingly tender Slagel or Q7 short rib topped with housemade onion jam and blue cheese— a great combination, a little sweet yet with tang and funk. For a side, instead of fries I was able to have a cast-iron pan full of nicely charred brussels sprouts (apparently the official vegetable of winter 2012-3). I hear good things about the guys behind Farmhouse, who are apparently doing very well and plan to open a second in Evanston, another place with a woefully underserved captive audience. They’re doing God’s work.

* * *

I used to use Super Bowl Sunday as an opportunity to get into places that are hard to get into, like Avec. They’d be half empty and grateful for anyone who showed up. This worked for a while, but over time it became harder to find a place that fit the bill— Avec brought in a projection TV, Purple Pig just outright closed without notice that day, etc. etc. And frankly, I don’t find it that hard to get into anywhere any more— except for Next, there’s always some time you can walk in, you just have to rearrange your life to fit it. So this year I just tried to think of somewhere downtown that I hadn’t been that I would enjoy not having its usual crowd, at least. The winner was Sable. That made one of us who won something.

I’ve never had the waitstaff at a place tell me so many times that the menu was going to be fun, the food was meant to be fun… to just have fun. By the third or fourth time I understood that repeating “fun” like a mantra was a way of lowering expectations for the food— if I thought this list of early 2000s upscale comfort food clichés was “fun,” I might not be that demanding about wanting any of it to be particularly good.

Bacon-wrapped dates, a beet salad with goat cheese, short rib sliders, fried chicken and waffles, a charcuterie plate inexplicably dotted with supermarket berries in the dead of winter, a gooey chocolate dessert— there was nothing on the menu I hadn’t had before, and unfortunately, nothing that was better than any previous time I had had it, either. Most were, in fact, kind of lackluster— next to Sable’s short rib slider, with its too-sweet sauce and few wan onion strands on top, suddenly the housemade onion jam and blue cheese on Farmhouse’s scintillated like culinary genius.

The actual star here is evidently not the kitchen but mixologist Mike Ryan’s cocktail repertoire at the bar, steeped in cocktail history and documented in a voluminous cocktail list. And I’m sure these bar-snacky not-quite-dinner items (you’re hard pressed to find a green vegetable side dish here, for instance) go down more easily if you’re sitting talking the arcana of classic cocktails with him, and food is merely something to go along with your cocktails.

Disclosure: I was known to Sumi/Charcoal Bar and was sent a couple of items by the chef, but otherwise paid for everything. I was just a regular schmoe at the rest.

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Two tales of trying to get a cup of coffee in this town:

Royal Coffee, 6764 N. Sheridan

I had never really paid attention to this place even though it’s just a couple of blocks from my kids’ school; the name “Royal” did little to suggest that it was, not a 50s coffeeshop when “Royal” was a common small business name, but an Ethiopian restaurant (and the royalty in question was the Emperor Haile Selassie, presumably). It is in fact the retail outpost of a coffee importer, and you get some advocacy for non-blended, single source Ethiopian coffee on the walls and menu, but more to the point, you get the coffee, which is really terrific and does taste like it came from one place without getting muddied up with other flavors.

Besides coffee, various food items are offered, paninis and muffins (probably from somewhere else) and so on, like at any coffeehouse. Up to this point, it’s a pleasant, clean and brightly lit coffeehouse, nice if you’re in the neighborhood.

But the interesting thing to look for on the menu is the page with the small selection of Ethiopian dishes. There’s not a lot, and I can’t swear that they make this stuff here (though it’s the kind of big-pot-of-stew stuff pretty much anyone could make). But what we had was pretty likable; Cathy Lambrecht and I ordered a vegetarian sampler for about ten bucks and got four bowls of different stews with injera (a spongy flatbread which you use to scoop the stews up). The red lentil one was my favorite, full of deep meaty flavor (though it’s meatless) and multileveled moderate heat; at the complete opposite end, the mild, comfy corn one was also good in a corn pudding-like way.

Cathy also wanted to order kitfo, the chopped beef tartare dish which is common throughout that part of the world. I wasn’t wild about a big plate of raw beef, but indulged her— and as it turned out, it wasn’t a big plate of raw beef, because it seemed to have sautéed before serving. The result, served with a white cheese, was a bit like eating the meat made with a packet of McCormack Taco Seasoning without the rest of the American taco, but it wasn’t bad.

African cuisine can be hard to get into— you have both food and dining rituals you are likely unfamiliar with— so I didn’t mind at all this light immersion into it in the setting of a bright, welcoming coffee house with a friendly, fairly attentive server. And the coffee’s very good; some time when I need to hang out by my kids’ school, I’ll be back, exploring Africa with laptop and coffee mug.

Brothers Coffee, 4720 N. Kedzie

I read some reviews of this place online— it sounded like a hopping coffee shop with an Arabic flavor. I formed a picture in my head of a place which combined Wicker Park barista skills with a middle-eastern souk feel, drawing a busy crowd of North Park University students perhaps; so one Sunday morning, I headed there with my son.

The reality proved to be an empty storefront consisting of a counter with the usual third world grocer offerings— phone cards and the like— which gradually became the proprietor’s living room as you moved toward the back. The bustling coffeeshop of my imagination was nowhere to be seen. Leaving his TV and cigarette the proprietor walked up to greet us, perhaps slightly mystified as to why we were there, but welcoming and friendly nonetheless.

There were the usual Bunn coffeemakers and warmers, but they were not in use that day, nor was the small espresso machine. I ordered a coffee, which he proceeded to draw from a countertop coin-operated machine which promised Jerusalem Coffee. The result was the most sugar-filled drink I have ever tasted. It was like drinking warm brown insulin. I know they like coffee and tea sweet in the middle-east, but do they really drink it this way in Jerusalem? Arthur C. Clarke once wrote a story about the discovery of life forms on the sun and the melancholy realization that there was life which we could never know, because it existed at temperatures that kept us at an unbreachable distance. That’s how I feel about the coffeehouse culture that can drink coffee this sweet— it will forever be a closed book to me.

I told the guy sorry, I just can’t hack this stuff, I’ll pay for it but maybe you could make, you know, a pot of American coffee in the American coffee pot? For some reason this was not possible because it would take 20 minutes. Instead he made me Turkish coffee. At least here I knew the drill— you have to wait for the grounds to settle into silt at the bottom if you don’t want a mouthful of grit. But was it to be that simple? Of course not. He had some kind of cardamom-flavored coffee— this was proudly shown to me, to let me know I was going to have something special— and where the coffee grounds would eventually sink, the tiny bits of cardamom would not. You couldn’t drink it without getting a mouthful of seeds and stems, basically.

When he wasn’t looking I poured most of it into the other cup, as if I’d drunk it and enjoyed it, and paid my bill. (My son had hot chocolate, uneventfully.) For $5 I’d had an education in the limits of cultural exchange, I guess, if not yet my morning coffee. But I remain baffled where the place I’d read about online was, and how others had found something to enjoy in a place that had completely defeated me.

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