Sky Full of Bacon

The Nagrant-Gebert Sessions, Part 2: High/Low or Just Good/Bad?

My conversation with fellow food writer Michael Nagrant about the last year in Chicago restaurant openings and trends continues (from here):

MICHAEL NAGRANT: I don’t know if the recession prevented Town and Country from happening, or Dale Levitski prevented Town and Country from happening.  I mean I feel for the dude losing his mom, and I can see how the anguish would be crippling, but that being said, I also have a lot of suspicion about someone who’d rather accrue $4,000 in back rent and squat than leverage the reputation he has and get a job to pay the bills while he gets his ideal thing going.

But, yeah I hear you and agree.  The 2008 Brasserie Ruhlman/Trump Tower explosion etc was a total Michael Milken/Gorden Gekko/Edward Lewis (Richard Gere’s character in Pretty Woman) corporate raid by New York restauranteurs and chefs trying to leverage the reputation our homeboy chefs earned on the cover of every magazine in 2005-2007.  The cool thing is instead of Julia Roberts getting screwed, the economy screwed the carpetbaggers.

Speaking of the eighties, your fervor for these high low concepts has sort of a Roman Polanski reporting on his five minutes looking through the peephole to the girl’s locker room at the local junior high feel.  Well, ok, maybe more like you just did a couple lines of coke from Jack Nicholson’s golden bowl-type enthusiasm (I kid), but still, I’m not sure I’m as positive about the actual execution.

I agree with the theory and ideal you outline, about the possibility of exploring authentic culture deeper and offering value in the process.  However, I feel like the general reality has been that those folks practicing this new form of restaurant ownership are subconsciously or otherwise using the low part of it as an excuse to lower their expectations.

Bill Kim worked at Charlie Trotters for a while.  I can’t believe he got by without tasting his food on a nightly basis.   And yet, there’s this wild inconsistency of plates served at Belly Shack and Urban Belly in terms of salt, mouthfeel, and balance.  Thing is, when it’s on, it’s really something.

But, where’s the discipline?  I feel like the real value of these high level chefs opening lower end concepts up is in their ability to enforce the discipline from the high level at the low level.  The most remarkable thing about places like Blackbird, Trotter’s, Alinea, irrespective of how you feel about the powders or the close tables and loud music or the relatively now old school fusion (guess which is which) is that the food experience is military precision consistent.  The dish that goes out unsalted or underseasoned at these spots in my experience is a very rare thing.  You may not agree with the flavor combinations or may dislike the intellectual underpinnings, but rarely have I disagreed with the technical execution at these spots.

Then again, Big Star gets that right, in fact, again I agree with you, pork belly taco, nice fusion of the worlds, though I’ll quibble that that since a pork belly McGriddle is pretty much a fait accompli at this point, maybe it’s not so impressive. Also, Paul Kahan’s tacos are a lot tastier than Wolfgang Puck’s pizzas, and soup for that matter.  I’ve never understood it, but while I respect Puck as one of the most innovative chefs of his time and a back upon which many stand, he has a Kevin Costner like ability to suck it up when unveiling mass-market concepts.    But, look past the food at Big Star and you start focusing on the vinyl stools and fake rough hewn pine look or whatever and ache for the real character one really would have found in Bakersfield in the 50’s.

If Merle Haggard walked in to Big Star, the record player would screech to a stop and a group of hipsters in Ryan Adam’s t-shirts would converge on him and beat his ass.  The sleek unfinished comforting womb off Avec has somehow given way to the concrete and Home Depot factory second finishes that look like a cold unfinished family basement.

Interesting on Powerhouse….as I said then, the place looked like a steakhouse as imagined by the Ramada Inn interior design team.  However foodwise, and I’m not sure if you ate there when John Peters was in the kitchen or when he’d left, but while it was very straightforward, it was a technically precise elevated level of comfort food I was really excited by.  In that same vein, my new foodie fan boy obsession right now is Kith and Kin – David Carrier’s of Trio, French Laundry and Andrew Brochu’s of Alinea, Pops new spot.  The only thing revolutionary about it is that they’re serving what you want to eat every day seasoned at incredibly perfect levels, aka Michelin chop mom food.   It’s sort of this perfect marriage of what I’ve been looking for from Bill Kim, Blackbird team etc…I mean you even get a sort of reinvention of form in that you get what seems like your everyday Montreal Poutine augmented by French Laundry quality gravy, all for like $6.   Of course, the disclaimer for those who don’t know, I had an essay in the Alinea book, and so maybe I’m prone to liking Alinea shoot-off dudes, though I never knew or met John Peters or David Carrier – they were before my time.

The culture guy friend of yours who doesn’t know about Alinea, yeah, I mean talk about humbling.  I’d say 9 out of the last 10 people I’ve mentioned the word Alinea cookbook or restaurant to, look at me like I’m from Mars, including a person who lived two blocks from the place. Again, I don’t know if this is the entrée to the media discussion or discussion about how food journos make a living in the next decade.  But when Gourmet Mag’s best restaurant in America isn’t on people’s radars, can we even expect to make a living talking about food that doesn’t involve me getting a surf punk color and cut and wearing sunglasses on the back of my head?

MICHAEL GEBERT: To answer a few of these things in not too long a manner: the unfortunate thing about these high/low joints, and now I’ve been to Xoco too, is that they all seem to be struggling to hit half the menu being worth a damn.  (For instance, I think the potstickers at Urban Belly were one of the most egregious cases of critical— and LTHForum— emperor’s-clothesism this side of Cho Jung.  Honestly, I could buy a bag of shu mai from Trader Joe’s, stick ’em in freshly made ginger soy sauce, and claim they were Slagel Farm organic goat-testa potstickers from Urban Belly, and nobody would call me on it. It’s mainly the soups that wowed me there.)  At Trotter prices, that failure rate would be unacceptable.  But the point is, they’re not at Trotter prices (although they’re not necessarily so revolutionary in pricing, either; I wouldn’t say that Xoco is any cheaper than Frontera, really, and if Avec dished you up three tacos, I don’t think it would be that much more than $6).

Maybe a lot of the difference in our outlooks is that so much of my food adventuring happens at lunchtime.  I’m pretty damn grateful for Belly Shack existing, ready to serve me something interesting and with a certain affected chicness at 12:30 on Tuesday.  You are, of course, right about the inauthenticity of Big Star’s interior, which is about as honky-tonk as a dorm room at Brown, but again, that’s a complaint about the execution, not the philosophical issues involved in being a Baudrillardian simulacrum of a Texas roadhouse by way of Sprockets.  Anyway, I hope we get ten more of them this year, and five will have something worth going back for, and two will, hopefully, be really good.  Let a thousand pork belly tacos bloom.

I ate at Powerhouse at what should have been John Peters’ highpoint, but I thought it was a well-executed, largely unmemorable meal, like dining in the best non-Disney-property restaurant in Orlando (which I also did, some years ago).  I have more hopes for the comfort food at Kith & Kin, even if it does sound like a tea shop opened by two lesbians with lots of cats.  As for your future career tasting 20-gallon tubs of slop and going “Whoa, now THAT’S what I’m talkin’ about,” perhaps that is the segue to our food media discussion….

TOMORROW: The Food Reviewer, Dinosaur or Last Man Standing?

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