RIP Steven Shaw

Looking on to Facebook this morning I came across some terrible news. Steven Shaw, one of the creators of eGullet, had passed away suddenly yesterday. I only met him a couple of times but that doesn’t lessen the blow of the loss. Steven leaves behind a wife and young son. A true tragedy.

eGullet was my first introduction to the world of online food discussion. I don’t remember how I came across it initially. I think I was trying to find some information online about some new restaurant in Chicago and the Google-hold lead me to eG’s Heartland forum. I couldn’t believe that there was a whole site devoted to just talking about food and restaurants. I found my people!

My first post was terrible, but eventually I got the hang of it, and I found myself part of a new community. I met people that never would have been in my life otherwise and had some pretty neat experiences as a result. Most memorable was the annual Heartland Gathering that culminated in a bunch of us serving as background for a Bourdain segment at Burt’s Place.

Steven (and yes many others) were responsible for this. In the long, boring story of online food discussion eGullet is a significant (if not the most significant) part.

Like just about every other online food community eGullet changed and fractured. I’ve certainly moved on, not having posted there in I don’t know how many years. But that shouldn’t take away from what was built and what it led to.

RIP Steven. Wherever you are, I’m sure you’re enjoying a terrific meal…hopefully in your fish pants.

Odds and Ends – 3/12/14

I’ve been in the midst of a pretty great stretch of eating. Here are some expanded thoughts on a few things that I’ve tweeted recently…

Perennial Virant - I gave this place a lot of grief when they opened for a completely confusing menu format and food that just wasn’t all that interesting. But since then, Perennial continues to get better and better. My last few meals there have been nearly flawless in terms of both food and service. We went most recently on a snowy night (weird, right?) and I was ecstatic to hear that they were serving cassoulet as a special. Given Paul Virant’s cooking style I figured this dish would be a slam dunk and I was right. Perfectly cooked beans, smokey sausage and tasso ham. Warm, rich, comforting…everything a good cassoulet should be.

L2OWe haven’t been to L20 in forever but we decided to go to do a joint birthday dinner for me and my wife. The menu format has changed a bit since my last visit. Gone are the a la carte options (except caviar service). Now there is a choice of a four course prix fixe (with two choices for each course) or a longer tasting menu. We did the prix fixe, which also includes an amuse, a pre-dessert, and mignardises, so it does turn out to be a nice amount of food. Everything we had was fantastic, and the attention to detail that’s almost always been the hallmark of L2O was well in evidence. I hate whipping out my phone to take a picture at a place like L2O, but my first course was so stunningly gorgeous I had to get a (mostly terrible) shot

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This is a “salade” composed of brioche, foie gras, truffles, cured tuna, and haricot vert. Not only was this dish beyond intricate, but more importantly it was delicious. This theme carried through the rest of the meal.

The Publican - Here’s another place I haven’t been to forever. I grabbed a quick meal here with a friend last night before the Bulls game. What I like about The Publican is that when they nail a dish it can turn into something truly special. Unfortunately the current menu is a little longer than I’ve seen in the past so picking the “right” dishes can be crapshoot. Kanpachi crudo wasn’t as good as other raw fish preps that I’ve had here. The Little Gem salad with pig ears was as good as ever. There were three new dishes though that really stood out. First was a warm truffle salami that was served in a balsamic reduction. The second was a tripe amatriciana that was meant to be spread on some pieces of grilled ciabatta. Third was a chicken liver rigatoni. All three of these dishes demand your attention. They’re all beautifully balanced, taking competing flavors and putting them together perfectly. The balsamic working perfectly with the savory elements of the salami…the tripe a perfect mix of sweet, sour, spicy, and tripe-y…the pasta evoking every chopped liver I ate growing up, right down to the threads of onion mixed in. Go eat all of these. As soon as you can.

Gluten Free at the One Month Mark

We’re about a month into the great Gluten Free Period, so here’s an update.

First of all, the official diagnosis has been downgraded from “Celiac” to “Unknown”. Even with this new information (or lack thereof), we’re sticking with a gluten free diet for now until we get more information. More tests coming…you know how it goes.

As I expected we’ve been eating a lot more at home, which means I’ve been doing a lot more cooking. I don’t mind cooking, in fact I actually like it quite a bit. But I’m a lazy, lazy man so we wind up ordering in and going out far more than we should. As a public service to anyone reading this who is eating (or trying to eat) gluten free, here are a few of the better recipes that I’ve come across and have made:

Garlic Shrimp With Asparagus and Lemon
Mustard and Brown Sugar Glazed Salmon
Shrimp and Scallop Risotto (note: this is not actually risotto)
Spaghetti with Green Olives and Tomatoes

They’re all pretty basic a relatively quick since even though I’ve enjoyed getting back to cooking, I don’t really have any interest in making anything too involved after work. They’re also all relatively healthy. Lots of people are going gluten free by choice thinking that it’s a healthier way to eat. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s a ton of gluten free junk food out there, but it does actually seem easier to eat gluten free and healthy at the same time. Follow the old advice: only shop on the edges of the supermarket.

Going out has been a bit trickier. Fortunately there’s a ton of information online about how different restaurants handle serving gluten free meals. OpenTable even has a devoted page. Anytime we’ve gone to a restaurant I’ve been sure to contact them in advance, let them know what I was looking for, and confirmed that they could accommodate. Here’s where we’ve been, and here’s how they do gluten free:

Arami – They have a gluten free menu if you ask for it, their sushi rice is made with rice vinegar (so it’s safe, not all sushi rice is), and they’ll substitute tamari for soy sauce for dipping. Overall they’re very aware of what can cause issues and have been super helpful and accommodating.
Little Goat – They also have a gluten free menu if you ask for it. It’s actually a pretty large menu with tons of good stuff.
Nico – If you ignore the pastas, there’s actually some gluten free food on the menu. Crudo, risotto, all excellent.
Vera – Most of the menu is already gluten free.
Tanta – Like Vera, quite a bit of the menu is already gluten free. Our server though was pretty well versed in what would work and what wouldn’t (and when he wasn’t sure he always got a clear answer from the kitchen).
Lou Manati’s – They make a gluten free thin crust that’s really good. Marissa actually likes it better than their regular thin crust.

So going out is pretty much what I thought it would be. A little more advance research/communication, a little more quizzing of our servers. Note that I haven’t even gotten into issues of cross-contamination. This is a huge issue for those with a true celiac diagnosis. If you do have celiac and you’re reading this, please don’t take my list as absolute gospel for safe places to eat.

Like I said at the beginning, we may not need to stick to this for much longer. Obviously if we don’t that will make life easier. But if we do, I think we’ve done a pretty good job so far and we’ll continue to learn. And that’s been the positive aspect to to this, it’s been a great learning experience. Not just about celiac itself, but how people live with it and about how the rest of the world is adapting and catching up. I’d also add that sometimes in “foodie culture” there can be a dismissive attitude towards some food allergies. Sometimes this is well deserved, especially given the fad nature of some dietary restrictions. Unfortunately gluten free has become one of these fads, and my fear is that it will lead people to take the needs of those with celiac less seriously. Please don’t. Celiac is serious business. It literally erodes your intestines. When people with celiac get “glutened” it causes intense and unpleasant issues that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. So on the one hand, don’t dismiss allergies without doing your research. But on the other hand, please don’t go gluten free because you think all the cool kids are doing it. See a doctor, see a dietitian, do what’s right for your body.

We’re About to Become “Those People”

When my wife and I first started dating, she didn’t have terribly broad culinary horizons. She existed mostly on pizza and pasta. Some nights she would just sit at home and eat brie and crackers. Over the last 12 years she’s learned to love a lot of different foods (but I still can’t get her to eat poultry or chocolate).

It’s time for her diet to change again. Last week she spent a night in the hospital with some pretty serious digestive system issues. Thankfully tests for anything “serious” were all negative but we got one last test result today…she has Celiac. Starting now we’re eliminating gluten from her diet.

Obviously there are a couple of ways to look at this. On the one hand, this really blows. Her days of going to any restaurant and ordering whatever she wants are now over. She’s eaten her last Lou Malnati’s deep dish pizza (her favorite) and her last pretzel at the United Center during Bulls games (our usual halftime snack). But on the other hand, and more importantly, she can start to feel like herself again now that she knows what the problem is.

Fortunately we know a ton of people who live a gluten free life and so she already has a community to reach out to. We’re going to Nico on Saturday night for a birthday celebration and the restaurant has already confirmed that they can accommodate her dietary restrictions. There is no doubt that our lives are now permanently changed, but there is no way we are giving up on the love of food that we share. It may take more work. It may take more cooking at home. But we fully intend to do what’s best for her health while maintaining a lifestyle that we both enjoy.

So, if you work in a restaurant and you’re reading this, I apologize in advance for bugging you over email or when we come in about your gluten free options. We’re not being difficult for the sake of being difficult (this was diagnosed by a GI team at Northwestern based on biopsies).

Hopefully as we deal with this new wrinkle I can help educate others (as I learn) about how to still eat well in Chicago while dealing with a pretty significant dietary restriction. If anyone else out there is dealing with this, I would love to hear any tips and strategies that you have.

shrimp

Next: Chicago Steak – Um, Yeah

Next: Chicago Steak was  born when owner Nick Kokonas took to Twitter to declare that nobody does steak right these days. I’m not sure where Nick is eating his meat because I’d like to think there are plenty of excellent steakhouses out there. Hell, we’ve got a couple right here in Chicago. I’d also put Carnevino in Las Vegas up there. Well, after dining at Next: Chicago Steak I’d have to say that Kokonas & Team isn’t doing it right either.

I’ll start with some of the good because this menu isn’t a complete disaster by any stretch, and a few of the courses were really quite good. The broccoli salad served with oysters as part of the “a la carte” course (more on this in a bit) was delicious. A salmon served in puff pastry with shrimp mousse was a real highlight, the pastry in particular. The steak which serves as the centerpiece of the meal is as good as you would expect, particularly when paired with the three different sauces that come out with this course (though you better like your steak rare…really rare). The finishing bite of Chocolate Mint was intended as an homage to Frangos, but really tasted more like an Andies (which I consider to be a good thing).

But then there were problems…

For the first real course of the night (following a rather bizarre crudite presentation) four different plates came out to our table. One person at the table wasn’t eating shellfish so she got fried sweetbreads. I got a shrimp cocktail that contained two (2) shrimp. The third guest got that oyster and broccoli salad, which contained two (2) oysters. The fourth guest got a surf clam dish that was meant to reference clams casino. We were then encouraged to share the dishes between us. Now, I like to think I’m a math guy. I spend a lot of time each day with Excel spreadsheets. Maybe it was the opening cocktail clouding my mind, but I was having a hard time wrapping my brain around how three of us were going to share two shrimp. I didn’t even want to think about how we were going to deal with the oysters. I didn’t have a knife at this point so I managed to cut the shrimp with a spoon so I could distribute allotments to my dining companions. At this point I’ll remind you that our meal was $350 per person including wine, tax, and tip. $350 and I’m sitting there trying to divide two shrimp for three people with a spoon. Also, the surf clam was cold and the sweetbreads were mostly breading. Basically this course was a disaster, and we told our captain as much when he came to the table afterwards. He said that the individual dishes weren’t really meant to be shared, it was supposed to be “a nod” to a la carte ordering in a steakhouse. You know what else would have been an effective “nod” to a la carte ordering? Actually letting people order that course a la carte.

Other issues

  • The lobster thermidor was a dish largely tasting of cream, but not much lobster (even though there was plenty of lobster in it).
  • The wine (standard pairing) that was paired with the steak was completely wrong. A super fruity grenache-like grape from Sicily didn’t work with the steak at all. I can’t imagine Joe Catterson letting something like that happen
  • There’s a champagne float served as an intermezzo before dessert. The brioche ice cream served in the float had this odd flavor that I couldn’t place for a while. Then it hit me. Remember that ice cream you would get that came with a little wooden stick that you used to eat it? The ice cream would take on some of the flavor from the wood when you ate it. That’s kind of what the float tasted like.

The service at Next is clearly getting worse, and at an alarming rate. Before the salmon course, a runner came out with what I assumed to be a stunt fish. A giant salmon wrapped in pastry. She said something to the effect of, “This is the salmon, your next course. Um, yeah”. The “um, yeah” part is a direct quote. Truly a fascinating insight into the preparation of the dish. Also after the debacle of the a la carte course described above, there was no effort by anyone at the restaurant to make up for something that had clearly gone wrong (though we had been told our feedback was passed along). A runner later on the meal made a snarky reference to our troubles sharing the earlier dishes, almost under his breath. I heard him, and I didn’t think it was funny. Finally, the last beverage pairing came out to the table well after our desserts had been served (another course where the table was forced into a sharing situation…two of us got cheesecake brulee and two of us got Baked Alaska).

In addition to the execution and service issues I’ve described, I really feel like the whole concept of this menu is flawed. As I’ve talked about before, Next is at its best when it provides a singular experience. Something so far outside of what you could get at other restaurants in town it almost creates a feeling of a must see spectacle. So that was always the problem with the theme of “Chicago Steak”. Is there a more generic restaurant experience than going to a steakhouse?

But Next could have taken on these issues head on. One path would be to faithfully execute an old school steakhouse: dark lighting, tableside preparations of steak tartare and Caesar salad, your choice of cut of meat, maybe some braised short ribs, and a glass of brandy after dinner. The other path would have been to completely modernize the experience, making it almost unrecognizable as a steakhouse. So instead of shrimp cocktail you get something like Achatz’s Virtual Shrimp Cocktail.

Instead, Next: Chicago Steak falls somewhere in between, but really nowhere actually. Much like the ridiculous parades that were part of the Bocuse d’Or menu, Next just can’t seem to fully commit. And when you go halfway with anything you’re going to wind up with an inferior product. And a $350 per person inferior product isn’t just a failure for the restaurant, it’s insulting to those who have stuck with this restaurant and this team.

Stuff I Liked, and Didn’t Like, in 2013

2013 is at a close. We laughed, we cried, we made fun of Eater, we made fun of Michelin. It’s impossible for me to come up with any sort of top ten list, so here’s a bunch of stuff that I liked (and didn’t like) in 2013.

Stuff I Liked

  • Damn near everything I ate at Vera
  • All things Brendan Sodikoff
  • Finally trying actual food cooked by Brandon Baltzley
  • Grace (even when they’re not making me chicken soup)
  • Next: The Hunt and Bocouse
  • Telegraph’s Sicily wine dinner
  • The continued push, focus, and excellence of Arami
  • The return of BK Park
  • The glorious insanity of Eataly
  • The quiet excellence of Sumi Robata Bar
  • Eating poke (lots of poke) in Kauai
  • The Dutch and Del Posto over Thanksgiving
  • Ceviche and chicken at Tanta
  • Early morning breakfast tortas at Torta Frontera
  • Mortadella pizza at Coalfire, troisi pizza at Pizzeria da Nella
  • Senza getting a Michelin star
  • Seeing Nick Kokonas get confused for a server at The Aviary
  • The solidification of Twitter as the primary source for relevant restaurant news, discussion, and criticism

Stuff I Didn’t Like

  • Manufactured hype
  • Manufactured hype
  • Next: The general customer-facing experience
  • Getting in internet fights over food
  • My most recent meal at Avec
  • The continued popularity of mediocre Japanese food in Chicago
  • Sun Wah being revealed to be juuuust a bit too dirty for my tastes
  • Eater pretending to be OpenTable
  • Judging one level of food to be more worthy of discussion than another (the old high end vs. low end debate)
  • Automatic slobbering over anything involving bacon
  • Automatic slobbering over any sort of protein wrapped in bacon
  • Automatic slobbering over any sort of protein wrapped in bacon and then fried
  • Stupid burgers
  • The food wasteland that is Terminal 2 at O’Hare
  • This thing

I think that about wraps it up. To all of you who have taken the time to read my nonsense, I thank you. A happy and safe New Year to all, and here’s to an even better 2014!

 

Where I’m Eating (December 2013)

Updated version of my original list…

Fine dining – Alinea, TRU, Grace

Sushi – Arami, Juno (added)

Randolph Street area – Vera, La Sirena Clandestina, Publican (removed Avec and Province)

My neighborhood places – Crisp, Pastoral/Bar Pastoral, Del Seoul, Fish Bar, Eleven Lincoln Park (added), Flub A Dub Chub’s (added), Riccardo Enoteca (added)

Pizza – Pequod’s for deep dish, Cafe Luigi or Armitage Pizzeria for NY style, Pizzeria da Nella for Neapolitan. My favorite overall though is Coalfire (specifically their mortadella pizza)

Chinatown – Lao Hunan, Lao Sze Chuan, “Little” Three Happiness (though this is mainly to indulge my wife’s love of their rice noodles with beef & broccoli)

Tacos – La Lagartija

Loop lunch – Hannah’s Bretzel, Cafecito, Ba Le, Benjyehuda, Taza, (removed Pollito’s)

All the rest – Anteprima, The Florentine, Sable, Senza, Maude’s Liquor Bar, The Bristol, Taxim, Tanta (added), Sumi Robata Bar (added), Perennial Virant (added), Telegraph (added)