Sky Full of Bacon

I sometimes feel like all I do is post positive reviews about happy dining experiences. It’s not strictly true— this is a pretty nasty slam, for one— but there is the conundrum that I tend to go places that I know I’ll like and I tend to like them just like I thought. I don’t have the expense account which offers Julia Kramer, say, so many golden opportunities to have a bad night eating out. I can only dream of that life, but alas, I’m cursed with actually choosing well and enjoying my dinner most of the time.

But even if I do have a bad meal, I don’t really feel inspired by lousiness to post at length, most of the time. For instance, I had an okay meal foodwise at Rootstock a few months back, coupled with willfully unwelcoming service which ruined that place forever for me— we could hardly get our check and pay to save our lives, while one of the owners (who was also, at least sort of, our server) was literally sitting down at our shared table, chatting up the people at the other end and studiously ignoring us. But there, that’s all I have to say about the meal— a pretty good neighborhood joint where I’d been before turned out to be from the sort of neighborhood where they make it clear they don’t want you. Rootstock, crossed off. What was that, about 75 words? Does anybody need any more? This is what Twitter is for, not a blog.

Harder yet is when a meal was nice enough, but not inspiring— especially when it was not as inspiring as an earlier meal at the same restaurant. Reading that Ruxbin was named one of the ten best new restaurants of 2011* by Bon Appetit, I was happy for them based on my first meal there last year, which I loved. But at the same time I couldn’t help thinking about a more recent meal there, which just didn’t recreate the magic. Here I felt much more acutely that this is a young restaurant still on its learning curve and capable of misses as well as hits. A deconstructed Caesar salad looked dramatic and way cool, and tasted pretty good, though possibly not as good as if it had been made the traditional way, all mixed together; a cured salmon platter, too mixed together, reminded me of John DesRosier’s Jackson Pollock painting-dish, except his didn’t look like the dog had painted it:

We had two entrees. One, a slightly Latin-flavored pork loin with bits of fried chickpeas, was competent and uninteresting, like a dish from ten years ago, way behind the porkocentric dining world of 2011 where you expect so much more boldness and porky punch (and a more interesting cut than loin). Much better was a bowl of cold soba noodles with various weird fine-diningy touches around it, like horseradish granita and a green soy gelee. I expect cold soup is a hell of a hard sell at dinner, but that’s what I liked about it, and why I felt it was the one dish this time that had some of what I’d loved about the dishes from my first visit— then, the little intrusions of Asian flavors and textures into what seemed modern American food; this time, the delicate hand with a broth that seemed clean as water, yet full of complexity and interest.

So am I writing Ruxbin off? Not at all. I think it’s just a place with a short menu made by young cooks, and at the moment, the odds of loving what you order off that limited selection prove lower than they were a year ago. I hope that doesn’t hurt them when Bon Appetit-reading crowds make it busier than it already is (my advice; walk right in before 6 pm or after 9), and I hope that the next menu they devise turns out better— and better justifies the extravagant praise.

* Not sure where 2011 comes in, as Ruxbin has been open about a year. Also, though Andrew Knowlton says chef Edward Kim eschews the “kimchi taco” route, there was a kimchi empanada on the opening menus.

* * *

One thing about lists like that from national publications is that nobody can know the whole country’s food scene, and so the list tends to focus on major cities, buzz begetting buzz. Although Madison, Wisconsin, like Austin (which places on BA’s list), is a capitol-slash-college town, it never quite seems to break into that circle of attention. Too bad; Nostrano, which I visited opening night but didn’t eat at until this week, would have been a great “discovery” candidate for the list. Even in Chicago, where owners Tim and Elizabeth Dahl previously worked (him at Blackbird, her for Boka Group), Nostrano would be among the best openings of an impressive year, maybe not revelatory in that it largely hits the familiar hot buttons of current dining (specialty cocktails, charcuterie, salads with duck egg on them, porky goodness), but holding its own in pretty much any of those categories.

Like the late Mado, it’s a casually sort-of-Italian place built on delivering big, fresh flavors out of stuff from the farmer’s market (which is literally a few steps away on Wednesday and Saturday mornings). I started with the charcuterie platter, which had a country pate, a bold liver mousse with stewed cherries, a rillette (I forget of what, and it was on the bland side anyway), and some grilled fresh sopressata (I think). I loved the mousse in particular, while the country pate stood out for the flavorfulness of the superior pork.

Because we clearly had a meat deficiency after driving around Wisconsin, Tim Dahl sent out a plate with some other charcuterie they’d made recently, a finnochiona, a coppa (too salty for me), and best of the bunch, something that started out to be pepperoni, but didn’t get smoked because Dahl liked it fine as it was. I did too, it had all the cured meat flavor you could wish and you wouldn’t have wanted anything to get in the way of it.

You get an extra ten points as far as I’m concerned when entrees are better than appetizers, and Nostrano earned them all with bold, complex, and almost aggressively flavorful main courses— braised pancetta with Roman-style gnocchi, rapini and rapini pesto, and grilled quail stuffed with garlic sausage with a blueberry agrodolce. These were Technicolor musical number dishes, nothing shy or delicate about them; I loved them.

Before they moved I thought Elizabeth Dahl was one of Chicago’s best pastry chefs— ironically, another, Stephanie Prida, was dining a table away that night— and this time Dahl’s desserts reminded me of Prida’s in that they were not unlike conventional things you’d had before, but in each case, a twist lifted them above the ordinary. A panna cotta came with an entrancing elderflower sorbet; caramel gelato dunked in espresso came with what the menu called “bombolini” (but were indistinguishable from the sfingi of the good sisters at the Taste of Melrose Park), piping hot from the fryer.

The only knock I have against Nostrano came right at the beginning. As my son and I walked into a mostly empty restaurant, we were greeted with… some long explanation about how they were a little short staffed that night and they weren’t seating people for another period of X minutes and… I don’t know, I’d just driven up with my son from Chicago and I honestly couldn’t listen to that at that moment. I didn’t care, I even said I wouldn’t care if we sat down and just looked at the menu for 15 minutes with a glass of water, but I didn’t need to take on the cares of somebody else’s restaurant, nor did I really want to be kicked out onto the Madison square to hang out in the company of derelicts and leftover rabblerousers from the endless recall elections. (This would be a review of Graze if they had sent us out to wait.) It was an unfortunately angst-ridden opening note for a place that looks, and mostly did feel, laidback and happy to please.

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