Buzz List for May 14, 2018

Behind the goats at the Beards, Biscay Vice, arepas are hot, fawncy Bonci and chefs got tools!

Bar Biscay/Facebook
Squid with peas and piperade toast at Bar Biscay

1. BEARDS AND RICE

Well, you know by now that Chicago’s only winners in the James Beard Awards were Abe Conlon of Fat Rice for Best Chef Great Lakes and Sun Wah BBQ’s America’s Classics award, already announced. But weren’t we all winners, here in Chicago? Yes, we are, when the awards come here and our city’s top restaurants throw a continuous party all weekend long for restaurateurs from other cities, showing the welcoming, big-hearted spirit of our restaurant scene. (If you think any city would do that… well, no, they didn’t, in the past.)

The media take is that the Beards reacted to the bad behavior scandals in restaurant circles by going out of their way to honor women and people of color in kitchens—and the whole occasion, which can be a bit Upper Manhattan-White-Patrician-World-of-Publishing at times, seemed cheerier and more democratic for the fact of Rodney Scott, a barbecue master, winning Best Chef Southeast over white tablecloth restaurants, or Gabrielle Hamilton of New York’s Prune (a standout writer as well as chef) taking Outstanding Chef (though that’s not unusual—three of the last five winners have been women), or Eduardo Jordan winning Best New Restaurant for Seattle’s JuneBaby, making him the first African-American to win that prize. As Joseph Hernandez said at the Trib, “the biggest winner of the James Beard Awards gala Monday night seemed to be diversity… Monday night’s ceremony at the Lyric Opera in downtown Chicago seemed to mark a new intentional shift toward more inclusion.”

That said, I’d have been happy to see either of the women co-nominated for Best Chef Great Lakes (Parachute’s Beverly Kim or Elske’s Anna Posey) win, but rewarding Fat Rice was the best choice this year. For years in the midwest we watched as hipster Asian got attention on the coasts (Momofuku Ko, Mission Chinese, Pok Pok), but Fat Rice has always been as good as all of them and probably more scholarly than any of them.

And as good as it is, it’s always faced some resistance at home to giving casual hipster Asian the highest marks—Phil Vettel has never revisited his original two star review (though he’d clearly rate it higher today, given that he ranked it #19 on his Top 50), while Michelin ranks it merely among the “good value” Bib Gourmands. I’ve been a fan of it and writing seriously about Conlon and co-owner Adrienne Lo and their mission since before it existed, ranking it #1 in the first Fooditor 99, and I was gratified when the Jean Banchet Awards gave it restaurant of the year in 2016—which was shortly followed by Conlon’s first full nomination for Best Chef Great Lakes last year.

Personally, as I skated from party to party last weekend (thanks to all you kind restaurateurs, for inviting non-tuxedoed me!), four heartwarming moments where I just happened to be in the right place at the right time stood out. First was taking out of town journalists around on Saturday to see parts of town that were not the West Loop; I took several to Armitage to see places like Giant, the Scofflaw and Osteria Langhe, and it was a real pleasure showing them a Chicago that was sophisticated yet neighborhoody in its roots. (Steve Dolinsky and I did this, in conjunction with Choose Chicago.)

Second, as I mentioned in the print version of Buzz List last week, I was at River Roast when Joseph Hernandez got the news that Tronc had decided not to fight the union drive. Third, I was at Press Room, the West Loop bar where a number of us had set up to watch the live feed of the awards—along with a table full of Fat Rice folks who didn’t have tickets. When Abe won, the whole room exploded with cheers for a truly beloved local restaurant. (He gives good thank you speech, too—beginning with a heartfelt shoutout to Adrienne.)

Finally, I was at Leña Brava after the awards, watching Rick Bayless cut a rug in the middle of the room while Andres Padilla roasted kid goats over hot coals. I found a quiet corner by the bar, and chatted with Jason Hammel and Beverly Kim. I’d heard that Conlon had gone back to Fat Rice for a celebratory party there. Instead, he and Adrienne appeared, with Conlon’s parents in tow, all in black tie, and beelined for this corner of chefs so I was able to congratulate them in person as Abe thanked me for my support over the years. Some, I know, disapprove of journalists being out and sociable with chefs at these things, and I think that’s a legitimate view depending on what you’re looking to do—but I think knowing many of them a little has been a significant part of writing about them in depth over time. So I’m not sorry I got to see this moment of triumph, up close and personal, six years after I first wrote about that pop-up restaurant couple looking to open a dumpling and noodle place.

2. BISCAY BY ME

“Miami Vice”—finally someone (Jeff Ruby) uses the first descriptor that came to my mind for Bar Biscay’s pink and blue-lit interior. But he says, “a place like this needs rock-solid food, and Bar Biscay has it in a big way… Tiny bamboo skewers of white anchovy with grilled asparagus and haricots verts conjure the brininess of the seafood of Galicia. The deeply rich grilled chicken livers with a red wine glaze suggest the simple tavern snacks of San Sebastián. And the intense whipped Cabrales, a sharp blue cheese made in Asturias on Spain’s northern coast, hits the back of your throat like a delicious punishment that’s only barely reprieved by the accompanying caramelized red onions and toast disks. I loved it all.”

3. PRIME CUTS

Do I detect a whiff of faint praise in Phil Vettel’s review of Stefani Prime, the local restaurant chain’s new outpost in Lincolnwood? “You don’t come to a Stefani restaurant in search of culinary innovation or the Next Big Thing. You visit for utter reliability, a high-quality product that isn’t fussed over, and the unaffected, friendly professionalism of the front of the house,” he begins. “The fettuccine gets points for theatricality” and is big enough for two, while the first and last comments on the tomahawk steak are about its size—36 ounces. (It’s big enough for four, Vettel says.) I’m no steakhouse guy, but when Vettel has reviewed other ones, he’s dug into the meat porn more than the value for money angle. At least his praise for classic appetizers seems enthusiastic—”Executive chef Nolan Narut is doing very good work here. He shows a deft touch with shrimp de Jonghe… striking the perfect balance of breadcrumbs and butter sauce.”

4. AREPA MOMENT

Arepas, the south American equivalent of gorditas, thick patties of griddled corn meal stuffed with all kinds of things, have been around on South American menus for years, but there’s a bit of a mini-boom right now, and Nick Kindelsperger explains why: “Many of the people currently serving it are only in Chicago because they had to make the difficult decision to leave their home. ‘Venezuela has a bad government, so we decided to move here,’ says [Bienmesabe owner Pedro] Ron. ‘(The United States is) a different country, and it has very different weather, but I had the opportunity to start a business here.'”

Kindelsperger visits a couple of different arepa stops, and describes the experience of eating one at Rica Arepa: “My favorite kind is known as the pabellon. This creation combines ultra-tender braised beef, creamy black beans, sweet fried plantains and tangy cheese in one phenomenal package. Sure, it starts to buckle under the weight after a few bites, and keeping your hands totally clean during the eating process is basically impossible, but here in Chicago, home of the Italian beef, we are used to dealing with unwieldy sandwiches.”

5. MOCOZZY STAR

Mike Sula reviews a neighborhood Korean place making standout versions of Korean food—no, not Passerotto yet, but a mom and pop in Boystown called Mocozzy who are apparently masters of the crispy rice part of dolsot bimbop: “46-year-old Kim Young Hee heats her dolsot to a ferocious temperature, which produces an extraordinarily thick nurungi that, when you dig at it with your spoon, lifts from the bowl to be distributed among the softer rice and vegetables in chunky mouthfuls of crispiness… Anyway you take it, what’s key here is the rice, which after all is the foundation of the Korean table.”

6. TEA FROM TWO

Joanne Trestrail at Crain’s checks out tea service as a way to do business at two Chicago-area spots. At Evanston’s Cafe Coralie, “the fixed menu ($22 per person) includes a pot of tea (14 kinds to consider) and a three-tiered tower of tasty, crustless finger sandwiches, macarons, madeleines, tiny eclairs, petit fours and more. Buttery molded canele cakes will restore your faith in humanity, or at least in people passionate about pastry.” But at London House’s $50 tea service, “Everything but the acrobatic doughnuts was tiny, overcomplicated (duck pastrami with piquillo pepper aioli, orange segments and capers on a wee base of dry bread, for example) and struck us as not impeccably fresh.”

7. BUCKAROO BONCI

Michael Nagrant finds the Bonci experience reminiscent of mallrat days, but in a rarefied way worthy of America’s truest royalty: “Where things get different from mall pizza is that in addition to having a two or three day rise (as opposed to all-purpose flour and commercial vegetable oil-infused dough made in the Hobart mixer in the back that morning because Bob took too many bong hits and forgot to make a batch last night) the Bonci pies are topped with D.O.C.-quality prosciuttos, cloud-light ricotta, Calabrian chili etc.. Which is to say, this is like Sbarro for Kardashians. Well, I suspect actual Sbarro might exactly be Sbarro for Kardashians, so what I really mean is Sbarro for discerning foodies who don’t mind spending a little more for very high-quality pizza.”

8. ENCASED OPINIONS

David Hammond lists 5 top hot dog places—well, that’s not the most interesting part, and they’re all probably familiar to you anyway, but he gathers two expert opinions (his own and Doug Sohn’s) to tell you how to evaluate a wiener: “Whether a dog truly rises to the level of greatness, according to Sohn, is determined by what kind of answers he gets to the following questions: ‘Is it a natural-casing wiener? Is it an 8-1 size or is it too small? Is the bun freshly steamed? If it’s a steamed dog, has it been sitting in the water too long? Are the tomatoes fresh? Is the pickle crispy? Is the hot dog hot? You’d be surprised how widely these factors can vary,’ he says.” (MakeItBetter.net)

9. BURMESE WITH A SIDE OF MALAYO

Titus Ruscitti digs into the menu at Chicago’s first Burmese restaurant, The Family House, focusing on its other half, the Malaysian dishes: “Speaking of absolute deals the iconic Malaysian dish known as nasi lemak is one of the best plates of food in the city at it’s price-point. For just $7.95 (less without chicken) you get a plate of tender chicken with fried anchovies, roast peanuts, sliced cucumbers, hard boiled egg, and Sambal chile paste. It’s the closest dish to Asia I’ve had since we returned from our trip there last December.”

1o. GARDEN PARTY

FSR (that’s Full Service Restaurant to you) talks to Friend of Fooditor Arbor (specifically, chef Leonard Hollander) about their garden and how experiencing it at this time of year affects the guest experience: “When we have time at dinner, we like to take people out to the garden during season and actually let them walk through and taste every single thing that they’re interested in. We also work the garden ingredients into a lot of cocktails. Usually, with a lot of first-time stuff, I like to work in the realm of familiarity where people have a grasp point. Whether its making ranch dressing with ramp tops, or using scarlet mustard for a garnish for a pretzel, it’s something where people have a relation point, where it’s not scary for them. I don’t cook super weird food just for the sake of it.”

11. FOOL FOR TOOLS

The piece I did about chefs and their favorite tools—which includes both of Chicago’s Beard award winners, I should note—is now online; it includes a video now, too.

12. UPPER DECAI

Anthony Todd runs through everything that’s open in the new Hotel Zachary and the rest of the Wrigleyville shopping and dining plex, for those still confused by it all.

13. GROUND OPINIONS

I finally got to listening to Michael Nagrant and Penny Pollack’s Dining Out Loud podcast, and… it’s pretty good! I was worried their styles would be too far apart, but they’re just far enough apart—Nagrant waxes lyrical, Pollack brings it down to earth like a Chicago cop. They don’t just do dueling-critic review episodes, but the first one, in which they both go to Radio Anago and nobody likes the gold-plated chicken, is the place to start.

14. PAUTE CUISINE

I guess we’re doing this now: this Sun-Times piece about a cannabis cook to the stars really captures the tone of food writing about wine, ramps, or any other trendy ingredient: “On the menu were lobster tails ($525 per pound), crab legs ($225 per pound) and chicken wings (roughly $20 per wing). Bacon noted that the high costs were dictated by the price of the ‘top shelf’ cannabis she used, which can run up to $75 per gram.”

15. LOVE CORK, WILL TRAVEL

“‘People still think I’m the promotional girl,’” says Chrishon Lampley, owner and creator of Love Cork Screw,” begins Joseph Hernandez’s story, telling you exactly where this is heading with the story of a young African-American marketing midwestern wines to people looking for something fun and unpretentious to drink.

WHAT MIKE ATE

After all the Beard parties I cooked (or ordered takeout) at home the rest of the week, but I did visit Rica Arepa for a pabellon arepa on Saturday after reading about it—it’s very tasty, and they’re very friendly. Check it out, and all the arepas places.

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