Buzz List for April 30, 2018

The awful truth about 42 Grams, Chicago Cut's cut, an exception to overgrown Chicago, and tasting international McD's

Michael Gebert
Jake Bickelhaupt and Alexa Welsh at 42 Grams in 2014

1. 42 GRAMS STORIES

The stories had gone around for months, and the basic situation seemed confirmed by the fact that the Twitter bio of the co-owner of now-shuttered 42 Grams, Alexa Welsh, included the phrase “DV [Domestic Violence] Survivor.” On Friday, Ashok Selvam at Eater Chicago reported that “According to co-owner Alexa Welsh and court documents obtained by Eater Chicago, the restaurant shuttered after she was attacked by her ex-husband, 42 Grams chef and co-owner Jake Bickelhaupt. On June 4, 2017, according to the Cook County state attorney’s complaint, Bickelhaupt struck Welsh in the head with a bottle, causing lacerations that required two staples… Police were called by a diner at the restaurant who saw Welsh shortly after the attack.”

Bickelhaupt announced the end of the restaurant the next day, while Welsh was still in the hospital; the day after that he was arrested on a charge of domestic battery, and in July he pled guilty, and was released contingent on mandatory drug and alcohol testing and the completion of a domestic violence program.

Domestic violence was an appalling and tawdry epilogue to a tale that had, at one time, seemed idyllic. It started with Sous Rising, an underground dining series from the couple of Bickelhaupt, who’d worked at Charlie Trotter, Alinea and Schwa, and Welsh, who had no previous experience in the restaurant world but brought her corporate experience to the job of host and manager. I was an early guest and found the experience charming, and was happy to report for the Reader some months later that they would be opening an actual restaurant version of it called 42 Grams, a name derived, they said, from the meeting of two souls.

From there the rise was meteoric; great reviews locally (three stars from Phil Vettel, five from Amy Cavanaugh at Time Out), then national attention leading to a two-star rating from Michelin, a unique rating then for a tiny, personal restaurant (and one that was BYO). A documentary about the couple, called 42 Grams, went into production. (The conversation that led to my Reader piece was filmed; you can hear me interviewing Welsh and Bickelhaupt in the final film.)

But there were signs that all was not sweetness and light. Bickelhaupt, highly competitive with other chefs, had a tendency to shoot off on social media late at night after service and, one suspects, some of the wine customers brought. One time I urged Welsh to curb him for his own good after he attacked another chef with a similar approach, Phillip Foss, for leaving his own restaurant—to dine at 42 Grams that night.

The 42 Grams film, when it finally came out (it’s on Netflix right now), showcased Bickelhaupt’s perfectionist pursuit of excellent food—at the price of how he treated other people, notably Welsh. Even so, many people said that they found the epilogue, in which it reveals that the restaurant had closed and the couple divorced, a surprise after an hour and a half of celebration of high end food and the intensely dedicated couple, both of them, who made it happen. (I missed Richard Roeper’s review at the time, but it seems right on point now.)

Personally, I was wary of 42 Grams by the time the film came out, and declined invitations to participate with Welsh and director Jack Newell in a discussion after a screening of the film at the Siskel Film Center. By that point, what did I really know and which story about the restaurant was I supposed to believe? It seemed like participating would force me to publicly credit a version of the restaurant’s legend I couldn’t trust was accurate.

In the last few months, a worthy debate about how you write about the restaurants of men with records of bad conduct against women, like Mario Batali and John Besh, has begun. Another local writer and I talked about 42 Grams at lunch recently; we didn’t know how much we really knew, and I’ve certainly heard variant versions of other local legends, like Curtis Duffy getting tossed out of Trotter’s, so all rumors come with pinches of salt.

But we both believed what we’d heard enough that we didn’t want to have anything to do with reviewing or offering further support (Bickelhaupt has been doing pop-ups under the name Konro). If you work for a publication that covers the scene comprehensively, you have to really figure out what it’s ethical to cover or not; if you’re just an independent like me, you can simply steer clear and find another story about people you feel better about. (You know, kind of like how I found that story about the sweet couple who ran a pop-up in their home.)

Now a lawyer-vetted version of the story is out from Eater, who have the protections of a well-heeled corporation behind them legally (the fact that it came out Friday at 5:17 pm is enough to tell you that there was probably lots of back and forth, New York to Chicago, on it). This is Chicago’s first real case like this, and it will probably be a public mess for a while, with at most a weak promise of leading to better treatment in kitchens (as if a tiny husband and wife kitchen has much of anything in common with big restaurant groups). To me, it mainly shows us what we ought to know already, which is that restaurants are in the business of selling us stories about food, and even the most idyllic story could be right at one time, and appallingly wrong at another.

2. 43 

And in another story which might have something to do with the timing of the 42 Grams story, the 42 Grams space will be taken over by another chef seeking to do intimate tasting menu-type experiences. Matt Kerney, former chef de cuisine at Longman & Eagle (and at one point announced as consulting on the menu for Tied House), plans a spot, possibly to be called Brass Heart, in the space. (Eater)

3. OMEDOTO, KITSUNE

Congrats to Iliana Regan and Kitsune on being named one of GQ’s Best New Restaurants, though it was Brett Martin’s lead-in that people noticed because, well, truth stings: “If I may vent for a moment about a great American food city that I find myself liking less and less to eat in, what is the matter with Chicago? How can a city known for amazing architecture and amazing neighborhoods center so much of its dining energy in the West Loop, where every ‘concept’ in every oversize industrial space looks like a multi-million-dollar version of Top Chef’s Restaurant Wars—cavernous, soulless, hastily assembled, and destined to be gone by next season.”

But Kitsune was one antidote to that for Martin: “This is the idiosyncratic restaurant of chef Iliana Regan, who became a champion of midwestern foraging and terroir at her first restaurant, Elizabeth. Here she applies those principles to Japanese cooking: delicate, wobbly chawanmushi swimming with bits of clam, marinated roe, and bacon; or ramen noodles made with ramps. This isn’t gimmicky, or even particularly visible, ‘fusion,’ but quiet, careful, nourishing invention.”

4. TIED ONE ON

“Change the name of this place to Umami House, and you wouldn’t get an argument from me,” says Phil Vettel of Tied House, the one reviewer who can actually remember when chef Debbie Gold was a Chicago name in the late 90s at Amy Morton’s Mirador. One example: “The duck raviolo is a beautiful dish. Two thin sheets of pasta envelop a creamy, buttery potato mousseline, in turn topped by a runny-yolk duck egg. At the table, a waiter pours aromatic dashi over the egg, which, surprisingly, doesn’t break; guests get to do the honors.”

5. ASTORIA PLACE

Mike Sula fills in more of the story on Astoria Café, the Serbian bakery mentioned in this Fooditor piece—including noting that they have a Chicago deep dish burek. But his focus is on the komplet lepinja: “Traditionally, pretop, the drippings, are leftover from the previous night’s whole roast lamb or pig roast. Suzy roasts her own pork for the purpose each morning, and rather than waste the meat gives her komplet lepinja an extra dose of protein. The correct method of attack for this monster is to tear at the upper crust and dip it into the egg, dairy, and pork slurry—though it’s prudent to work on the sublime crusty edges before things get too messy.”

6. BISCAY BY ME

The thick growth of descriptors in this paragraph about Bar Biscay seems to capture it perfectly, in the way that new things keep coming and you may not know what they all are, but they’re all tasty: “A tangle of clams, bitter greens, creamy gigante beans and crispy shards of serrano ham arrived surprisingly cold, its savory, jolting acidity almost kimchi-like. Rare slabs of hanger steak and thick fries were slathered with chunky, mayo-based sauce gribiche in a rustic take on steak frites that reminded me of a meal you might get in a newspaper cone from a food cart. A springy reprisal from [chef Johnny] Anderes’s Avec days mingled sugary-sweet peas with toothy, salinic ground squid sausage under a pair of canoe-shaped baguette slices packed with sweet roasted peppers.” Four stars out of five.

7. THE FLORENTINE DAGGER

The name always sounded like a B thriller—”I heard he was done in by… The Florentine!”—but it’s a pretty good Italian restaurant with a hidden Loop hotel location: “It’s a place to get down to business, not see and be seen, which might be just right for the lunch meeting you had in mind. It is not, however, a foodie paradise. Our visits included some nice bites but also a few clunkers. Service was similarly uneven; ours was great on a packed-to-the-gills Thursday, wobbly on a less-crowded Friday.” (Crain’s)

8. HAVE AN RC

Titus Ruscitti won me over to Melrose Park’s RC’s Grill with this opening paragraph: “It was the crack of dawn but RC’s was up and running as it’s almost always open with the exception of a few hours each day. RC’s is interesting in that the employees who fit the description of an all night diner waitress perfectly, are all white. Yet almost all of the clientele on my two visits were black. So I’m not sure where the Mexican portion of the menu comes in but it’s quite possible it’s from the owner (RC?) himself.” How can you not want to sidle up to that counter and find out the rest of the story?

9. KAMAYAN OVER

Joseph Hernandez tries the kamayan—table-spread Filipino feast—at Sunda and has a good time conjuring up memories: “Bright, sturdy banana leaves covered a table heaving with mountains of rice, which was studded with giant hunks of roasted lechon (pork), mangoes, fish and skewered meats. The smells were heady, with nearby bowls of vinegar-soaked vegetables providing a balancing acidity to the savory glut in front of us. After a few words of thanks and remembrance for our Lolo, we started eating, a cacophony of laughter and messy hands connecting us all to that moment, that feast.”

10. GIMME A BREAK TODAY

There was an awful lot of excitement over the idea that the restaurant in the McDonald’s new headquarters in the West Loop would feature Mickey D’s items from all over the world. Look, I enjoy the perverse appeal of tasting a fast food version of world cuisine, I usually try a hamburger anywhere I go, but if you’re really interested in Japan or Bhutan or wherever, refracting it through McD’s is just going to be American tastes in a mirror. So Louisa Chu tried the first set of items (which sold out on opening day, natch) and… “This is not so much an international menu as an ‘international incident’ menu. The Mozza salad alone could be considered a hostile act. The mushy pasta, simulated balsamic, flavorless cheese and scant greens are at once overpowered by the chicken and neutralized by the flabby breadstick.”

11. CHICAGO’S CUT

Chicago Cut Steakhouse had an innovative idea for attracting investors: it “invited high-profile business leaders to become minority or passive investors… Those investors, in turn, got a 40 percent discount for dining at Chicago Cut and chatted up its attributes to their business clients.” Now some investors are alleging it had another idea: cooking the books. Shia Kapos at Chicago mag reports on the lawsuit several of them have filed.

12. TIP TOP TAPS

Tap rooms are opening like ramen shops in 2015, and Chicago mag talks about two of them this week, both of which incidentally turned up in recent Fooditor articles. Ballast Point’s massive West Loop brewery was mentioned in this discussion of the food scene, and Anthony Todd tells us more about it: “The West Loop location is a 12,000-square-foot space in a restored building. While the majority of the space will be used for the restaurant, there will be a brewing operation, mostly for R&D and small batches. [Corporate chef Colin] MacLaggan also plans to make special dinners that come with custom, tiny-batch beers made just to pair with the food.”

On Tour Brewing was the local beer trying to pitch the owner of Links in this Fooditor piece, and Chicago looks at its West Loop location: “From its vaulted ceiling and expansive, windowed garage doors, to its mountain town vibe, it’s clear a lot of care went into designing the comfortable, free-spirited space.”

13. DILL, WEED

Chicago mag talks to the very young publisher of that nice-looking magazine about Asian food, Dill. Meanwhile that other special interest food-related magazine, Kitchen Toke, gets some buzz from the Reader here.

14. BONED

Pretty sure the first reason I was ever in the West Loop was to eat at the second location of Wishbone, when only Oprah and it were there. Now, after 26 years, it’s being forced out of the hot hot hood, as the Reader explains.

And farewell to RoSal’s, which opened in 1990, making it now one of the oldest Italian restaurant survivors on that onetime Italian strip; they’re retiring on May 13th.

15. PESTOROTTO

Mike Sula makes one of Bill Kim’s recipes from his new book Korean BBQ, Korean pesto. Though as he notes, given Kim’s emphasis on master recipes, he had to make seven recipes to wind up with steak and asparagus, Bill Kim style. (Reader)

16. THE REAL REASON

Here’s the real reason Matthias Merges opened Mordecai in the Wrigley supercomplex—to get a chance to throw out the first pitch at a Cubs game. Play ball!

WHAT MIKE ATE

Boy, what kind of brilliant timing had me put out a guide to new places on the northwest side one day before Frunchroom opened at Six Corners? But I’m not going to hold a grudge, and I’ll tell you, if you miss Snaggletooth, head there right now for cured seafood that will bring back fond memories. There’s other kinds of cured deli stuff to be had, and I’ll try them too soon.

Eris Brewery and Ciderhouse is semi-hidden in a big block of an old bank building on Irving west of the expressway, but the crowd on Friday night suggests the neighborhood isn’t having any trouble finding it. I liked the cider (especially the cherry-tinged “rosé”) a lot, it’s really well made. The decor is full of fun touches—we sat by a staircase which has pieces of old radiators as its rails. And the food—well, it’s a bit like what you’d find in a new place in the suburbs, except maybe for the pozole which is more of an urban touch, but we were happy with both a hanger steak and especially a pork loin plate with German-ish sides, both executed very well. Even if I agree a bit with Brett Martin’s critique of Chicago dining at the moment, Old Irving Park is a neighborhood where I don’t mind seeing one more oversized reused space containing a restaurant.

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