Buzz List for June 18, 2018

Pacific Standard Time is at the tone, you gotta go Passerotto, Girl & the Freeway, and a Detroit road trip

Michael Gebert
Blueberry sundae at Pacific Standard Time

1. IN-N-OUT

In January Kevin Boehm spoke at Fooditor about what it would take for Boka Group to try their hand in another city—mentioning that they’d had plenty of offers to reproduce Girl & the Goat in Vegas, say. Well, now they are, taking their best-known celebrity chef, Stephanie Izard, to the land of celebrities itself, L.A. We’ll see if L.A. needs a Chicago import, but Izard certainly has the charm to win them over—and I feel confident that Boka Group won’t make the mistakes that so many New York invaders have made in Chicago.

In other restaurant happenings, the Diner Grill will finally reopen after a fire a year and a half ago—Louisa Chu tells its story here; don’t miss the part that explains how the owner’s dad acquired the recipe for the place’s chili from a hooker. Wishbone, booted out of its pioneering West Loop spot where it long served as the de facto Harpo Studios cafeteria, has a new home in Bin 36’s old location at 161 N. Jefferson. Greektown is losing Roditys (have I been there? It’s hard to keep them all apart in your head). And The Blanchard, once a terrific French restaurant (it won the Jean Banchet Award for best new restaurant in 2015), has closed; I went to a preview dinner of the new chef’s menu and, well, it tasted like a place that was trying to make up for a large money loss, but chef Ryan Burns’ menu had reportedly come into its own, garnering three stars from Phil Vettel, so someone should find him a place to cook French food not saddled by its past.

2. 50 SHADES OF HEGEMONY

I am always happy when someone publishes a new guide to restaurants in the city, to break the hegemony of Michelin which is neither for Chicagoans (it’s a tourist’s guide) nor particularly how we eat now. Chicago Magazine’s special issue of their 50 best is on newsstands now. Like Phil Vettel’s 50 in the Tribune, much of it tracks closely with their reviews of upscale places which you’ve already read, but there are some very well-chosen lower-end places—beginning with La Chaparrita, squeezed between Momotaro and Everest—to give you at least a soupçon of the overall scene. Number one is, of course, what else-inea, but I was very happy to see Lula Cafe snagging the number three spot from newer, better funded places (including their own Marisol), a worthy tribute to the most influential hipster cafe in town. Anyway, you can see a preview of the top ten here; for the rest, check newsstands.

3. THE TIME HAS COME…

Phil Vettel says form is function in Erling Wu-Bower’s kitchen at Pacific Standard Time: “California food and cuisine inform Wu-Bower’s vision; what helps him execute that vision are twin wood-burning hearth ovens, visible from the dining room, which produce one delight after another. (It’s the rare PST dish that hasn’t been at least kissed with fire and smoke.)” He has similar praise for the desserts from Natalie Saben, ex of Grace: “My favorite dish is her huckleberry sundae, pairing huckleberry sherbet with honey ice cream and shards of spiced meringue and dehydrated cake. Her chocolate tart with peanut ice cream is draped with milk-chocolate ganache, resembling (to me) a chocolate mullet.”

4. …EXECUTE ORDER 66

Yes, they actually do offer you ranch dressing for your pizza at Pacific Standard Time… and it’s shockingly good that way. Mike Sula has a lot to say about that before he gets to the skinny about this California meets midwest locavore restaurant: “Certain dishes—a good number of them, in fact—draw upon various Asian cuisines… And yet, just as often PST puts out a straightforward expression of the pristine, resolutely seasonal midwest: new English peas with a dense burrata and just overcooked farro are blanched just right to preserve their plump, green essence without shriveling their shells. Or by now ubiquitous asparagus simply scattered alongside a near-raw piece of Creamsicle-colored trout with a delicate crust of toasted ground rice and cashews, thin as a chip.”

5. KOREAN ENOUGH

Michael Nagrant’s review of Passerotto engages with something chef Jennifer Kim said in this Fooditor piece (well, after it’s done talking about Deez Nuts): “Kim’s mom questioned if she was Korean enough to make Korean food, and as anyone knows, you don’t cross a Korean mom, or any mom really. But, like I said, Kim is fearless… Kim has things to do, like starting where she left off at Snaggletooth by offering an array of raw and lightly-cured seafood plates. Quivering bay scallops, which look like mini-marshmallows, swim in a sweet, salty, and funky, mix of citron, XO, and soy onion puree. The plate is spiked with purple chive blossoms. It looks like modern art, a pre-fixe-menu-worthy course, and has the soul of an Italian crudo, but the umami punch of Asian cuisine.”

6. POLL-ISH FOOD

Titus Ruscitti reveals some insight into his working methods as the most dogged explorer of farflung joint food in town: “I decided to post a poll to my twitter followers about which food spot I should investigate next. You see I have this list in my iPhone notes of about 30+ restaurants that I plan on checking out at some point or another. So when I posted the poll I picked four of them and after 24 hours the results were in. The winner turned out to be closed that next day so I made my way over to Pilsen to check out the runner up of the poll. El Sazon specializes in Antojitos Mexicanos.” Other places he’s been lately include a Chipotle-style spot specializing in Latin American food, Rice Bowl, and a nostalgic visit to mall food court spot Joy Korea.

7. LIT CRITS NIX WICKER HIPS

Neon Wilderness, a bar coming to Wicker Park, bills itself (in this Eater piece) as inspired by Nelson Algren, the midcentury writer who lived in and wrote about the hood in its gritty, mostly Polish days (including in a book of short stories of that name). To which Bill Savage replies in the Reader, “This Algren scholar could only groan at the thought of an ‘Algren-inspired’ bar… the title of Algren’s 1947 collection of short stories (written between the early 30s and the mid-40s) has become a watered-down cliche, evoking on-the-edge-but-not-really-dangerous nightlife, where the beer lights reflect off the sidewalk puddles, the down-on-their-luck barflies are all colorful raconteurs, and any stray sex workers of course have 24-carat hearts. Finish your day job in the Loop’s concrete jungle, then head out to the neon wilderness for a drink.”

8. SOUS MATES

A nice profile of Thai and Danielle Dang after Hai Sous has been open a year—and in the wake of the discovery of all the criminality their old partner Attila Gyulai was up to at Embeya: “We got screwed and we are continuously having to deal with that. It’s going to be a long time before we really get ourselves out of it. That’s all terrible, but something great came out of it. Now I know that the point of this is different. The point of this is to create a positive culture. The point of this is to inspire our staff to love their jobs, to push themselves, and for us to be fair. It’s not about being millionaires and opening multiple restaurants. We’re not trying to be grand restaurateurs. We’re trying to do the right thing.” (NewCity)

9. KEEP ON TRUCKIN’

One thing I find it really hard to keep a handle on is what food trucks are active and worthwhile these days; this Time Out listicle is at least a start on the lay of that land and seems up to date (though didn’t Beavers Doughnuts just change its name?)

10. GRAM IT BLACK

I often wonder if there’s a great taco blogger out there writing in Spanish in Chicago, making amazing discoveries that go unknown to Anglophone foodies. Anyway, that came to mind when I saw this Chicago mag piece on Black People Eats, an Instagram account devoted to African-American restaurants around the city, covering places that never get noticed on the north side.

11. HOUSTON, WE…

I’m a little late on this one but David Tamarkin’s tribute to the big gay tent of Michelle Fire’s Big Chicks in Uptown, “I Think We Have a Gay Bar,” is terrific. My wife served with Fire on our elementary school’s board and she is, in every way, the real deal.

12. BELLY CULPA

If people paid attention to northwest side burgers as much as they do downtown ones, BRGRBelly would be as famous as Au Cheval. Anyway, I’m impressed by this Facebook note, in which they admit that a Mexican concept they tried (in the Beefbelly space) wasn’t very good, and they’re trying again.

13. DETROIT CITY

You hear stuff is happening in Detroit, like it was happening in Chicago in the 1980s when rent was cheap, but you don’t know where to start. Samantha Klein Lande tells you all about it at Food Network.

14. TRONC AGAIN, I SEE!

Michael Ferro strikes again; that sketchy McCormick family deal (do they still have that much money? guess not) fell through, leaving Ferro as majority stockholder in Tronc as it sheds the L.A. Times to Patrick Soon-Shiong (who had tart comments about the silliness of “Tronc” as a name). Meanwhile another of his victims, the Reader, has been sold by the Sun-Times to Chicago Crusader. Who? The Crusader is a weekly black-owned publication in Chicago and Northwest Indiana, but little known until now in white, downtown media circles. A more racially mixed Reader would be interesting as heck, especially after the controversy over short-time editor Mark Konkol’s one and only cover story, but it’s hard to say if this will be a new day for the Reader or a way of easing it into retirement in all but name.

WHAT MIKE ATE

Geeky movie reference: I went to an old movie festival once and saw some silent films, and some were pretty good or had interesting sidelights on culture or whatever. And then an early film by John Ford came on—and from the instant it started you knew you were in the hands of a master.

That’s how I felt about Pacific Standard Time. It’s no secret that Erling Wu-Bower with Paul Kahan somewhere in the background is a recipe for a top restaurant, but this was a step beyond his stints at Nico or Avec—flavors distilled to the simplicity of their essence, ingredients popping with everything they could be. Wu-Bower came out and mocked his own approach—”I put great strawberries with great cheese, wow, I’m a great chef”—but Mark Mendez used to say the same thing, and the value of not… screwing… good things up before you do anything else to them is the most underrated quality in chefs.

And there’s plenty of subtle ingenuity in sharpening those flavors (and often giving them a touch of heat) that follows. The menu will change seasonally soon enough, but for now, the snapper aguachile, “Harry’s Berries” (strawberries from California), burrata with sungolds, ham and poblano pizza, pita with aji tuna and green chickpea hummus, and the gorgeous, lush black cod are all top dishes.

Without really planning it I had two Korean meals at new spots. One, Mocozzy, an LTHForum find recently reviewed by Mike Sula, is a charming mom and pop doing classics like dolsot with a good crispy crust; their pajeon, seafood pancake, is the best I’ve had in town.

The other was Passerotto, Jennifer Kim’s Korean-flavored, Italian-inspired new restaurant. There were five of us and we ate almost everything—and we’d have eaten more than one of a couple of them if we could (we did get a second order of the ddukbokki with their gorgeous lamb ragu, the best example of what Kim’s Korean-Italian fusion means in practice).

Other highlights included the scallop (described by Nagrant above) and Honam lamb tartares, and her take on hwe dup bap (similar to poké). We tried both of the big platters (soondubu, a seafood stew, and shortrib kalbi) and they were nice—we’d have loved more of the kimchi on the side of the latter, made according to her grandmother’s recipe and with a subtle sweet heat that blazing staple usually lacks—but our table, at least, wished for more Korean funk on those dishes.

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