Sky Full of Bacon

Trillin’s Ultimate Answer, Pawpaw Marshmallows and the iBurger

What do I do when I have a new gig at Grub Street and some advertising freelance work to get done? Why, I commit myself to make two movies for the Chicago Food Film Festival in three weeks, naturally. And wind up making three.* (You can see more pics of the fest here.) This is the story of my life in the last few weeks, which is why things I might have spread out over multiple posts are going to get lumped together in a comprehensive post here. Let’s go, we have too much time and very little to do!

I mentioned these marshmallows— made in Indiana, hence the Paw Paw flavor— in a Grub Street post, the maker (240sweet) thanked me, and one thing led to another, and… I wound up with a lovely box of three different marshmallow flavors. I could have questioned whether artisanal marshmallows were even possible, marshmallows are marshmallows, how many ways can you whip sugar and egg whites, but the paw paw flavor was pretty great, full of the banana-on-steroids natural flavor of paw paws, and they’re big enough (and marshmallows go a long way) that I’ve been quite the ambassador for marshmallows lately. (Indeed, I just got some strawberry ones from 240sweet at Dose Market, which may be the best ones yet.)

I was also gifted (as the kids say today) some black cardamom by Judy Shertzer of Terra Spice, after we did a Key Ingredient with it starring Top Chef’s Beverly Kim, and for Thanksgiving I used it in my pumpkin pies and in Beverly’s chai ice cream recipe, which was great (although the chai I found had more cinnamon than hers had, and that flavor dominated). It’s not the easiest ingredient— I had to crush the pods to get them to work in my grinder, then strain them to keep the woodier parts out— but it added a unique, kind of haunting smoky taste.

Bob Andy pie.

As long as we’re talking pie, remember the Bob Andy pie I mentioned a while back that I heard about, but didn’t try, in Indiana? So I made one, to take to a party on Halloween night. It’s super-simple, and kind of plain— just an egg custard with lots of cinnamon in it. But warm and with great cinnamon from Spice House, it was really good, and for all its simplicity, it comes with a built-in cool presentation trick— the cinnamon floats to the top, making a great two-tone look:

There’s been a lot of raving about a burger place on Armitage, the blank heart of yuppieville where I once lived and now never go, called Butcher and The Burger, owned by Allen Sternweiler who had Harvest on Huron where Graham Elliot is now. Serious Eats raved here (I actually ran into Zemans during one of his visits).

The first thing I noticed there was more evidence for my theory that the iPad is, secretly, a computer for women, non-techie women. The things were everywhere, in all their sleekly demure sexiness, an always-on aid to conversation for whatever it is that moms and ladies who lunch in Lincoln Park talk about. One of the iPads in the room was also the cash register-slash-ordertaking device. Unfortunately, I felt that the burger had many of the same attributes of the iPad— great design, lack of real power for the user to wrestle with and make his own.

The list of things you can put on your burger is impressive, except that, screw it, I don’t want any of that stuff; I want a burger, redolent of deep beefiness, onion, cheese, mustard, the basics, not some Sonoran Desert flavoring or Curry-Coconut game mix or any of that froufed-up foolishness. The beef is from Q7 Ranch, near Chicago, and I’ve bought it myself at the similarly named Butcher & Larder and made burgers that tasted of doubleplusgood meat, beefy beef beefitude. This meat just didn’t, weirdly, somehow. For a char-grilled burger, it tasted subduedly pan-fried; I wanted something on it to jump out at me and growl of carnivorous instincts, char or mustard or something, and it didn’t. It was as demure as a patty that thick can get. Surely I’ll give it another try at some point, out of suspicion I’m missing something, but I didn’t find this burger really worth the hassle of parking on Armitage, standing in the kind of inconvenient line that makes you move out of someone’s way 50 times before you finally get to order, and squeezing into a tiny table.

I’ve been to so many openings and events on the high end this past month or so, and as good as most of them were— ramen at Slurping Turtle and the mozzarella tastings at Bar Toma, to name two, I recommend happily— the new restaurant that I really want to explore and know more about is the cheapest one, but a great one, Tony Hu’s latest Chinese regional spot, Lao Hunan.

I went there with Dominic of Skillet Doux (aka Dmnkly of LTHForum) and his sister, and we followed (with one exception) this post by Peter Engler, which gives you a good sense of what some highlights are right now, though the reality is that the menu is growing rapidly. Two things set this Tony Hu place apart from Lao Sze Chuan, Lao Beijing and Lao Shanghai— one, this is an unusually fiery cuisine, even by the standards of Lao Sze Chuan, indeed one dish was nothing more than peppers:

The other is that it’s decorated in a style which can only be called Mao Kitsch, servers in mock Red Army uniforms, a big image of Mao on one wall, famous Hunan citizens on the other. (Of course, the only famous Hunan citizen to us is Mao.)

I don’t know what I think about glorifying a tyrant who caused a couple of the greatest famines in history in a restaurant; as I said to someone at another dinner, “It’s basically the Hitler restaurant,” but at the same time, maybe kitschifying Mao takes the sting out of him, does what Springtime for Hitler did. If we can mock the object of a personality cult, you have no power over us any more, I guess is the positive spin to put on it. Dom had more interesting comments on the Chinese predilection for famine-dictator kitsch in restaurant settings:

…the only knock on the place so far is that its Mao-inspired decor and uniform clad waitstaff are odd and/or offensive, depending on how comfortable you are with dictator chic. I have a hard time arguing with that conclusion, even if I’ve been desensitized by eating at more than a few similarly-themed establishments back in the mother country over the years. On an old blog, I once chronicled a visit to “First Work Team,” a theme restaurant intended to inspire nostalgia for the days when famine was killing off tens of millions of Chinese by serving unseasoned mashed tubers to diners sitting on bare concrete floors. No joke.

I suppose it’s sort of the Chinese equivalent of this Monty Python sketch— “You were lucky to have unseasoned tubers!”

I can’t say I have that clear a sense yet of what Hunanese food is from this one visit— in general approach it still seemed very much like other Tony Hu food, this fish dish like what you’d get if you added fish to Lao Sze Chuan’s dry chili chicken. The most unusual thing we ordered was the one completely untried dish, Home Fed Chicken Xiangxi Style. It’s a black chicken, beyond that I don’t know what made it “home fed,” or what that gave to its character, but it was a deeply funky dish, almost like stinky cheese, not a flavor that entirely reassures you about safety when consuming poultry. I’m sure it was fine, but I only ate a little of it, even as I sort of despised myself for wishing for startling new experiences, and then being repelled by them when they happen.

There’s probably a lot of that on the menu, or will be as it expands in the next few months (at the moment it’s still sort of transitioning from the restaurant that was in the space, and hundreds of new dishes are promised). It’s the first restaurant in a long time that really made me want to do research before I went back. Mike Sula called it one of his favorite openings of the year, and even as I’m now in the business of chronicling hot new places in yuppieville, of which there are an amazing number, I can’t see how this isn’t one of the most interesting, thoughtful and accomplished restaurants to appear on the scene in 2011, and by one of, I mean five, not fifty. In any case, there’s one title it already has, as far as I’m concerned: Calvin Trilin has written about his persistent fantasy that Mao would come to visit and Trillin would get to take him for Chinese food in New York, and blow his little dictatorial mind. Well, Calvin, I think we’ve finally got just the restaurant for your fantasy-dining Mao, here in Chicago.

* I made the Pleasant House film and the cutdown version of my old Mado/pig’s head video… but the second one only got made after I finished a cut of the Rob Levitt part of the upcoming butcher movie, but then the festival rejected it because it didn’t have appetite appeal… inasmuch as it consists mainly of Rob cutting bright red meat, including with a band saw. Oh well, you’ll see it in a month or so, and keep an eye out for other news about it as well.

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