Buzz List for September 9, 2018

Etta's got a hold on critics, Chicago chefs on TV, finding a Pretty Cool happy place, and what was that all about, besides pizza?

Etta/Facebook
IMAGE: Pig picnic at Etta

1. VIDAL VS. BUCKLEY

One thing I usually like about the Chicago food scene is that it’s friendly and not New York-competitive. But a full-fledged media feud broke out this week, of such galactic importance that no fewer than two Eater articles recount it. I’m in it, so I’ll just lay out the main players—Steve Dolinsky, interviewed by me about pizza; Michael Nagrant, who went off on Dolinsky over what he views as past ethical issues (not related to the book so far as I could see); and Piece, a pizza place very vexed that it does not get the Dolinsky book/tour love. Eater has the links if you really care to read more of the back and forth on Twitter (reminder: life is finite), though they skip over this exchange in the original interview:

“The impetus [for writing the book] was, I read another listicle, you can probably guess where, of the seven hottest pizza places, and one of them was right around the corner here, AMK Kitchen. And we had gone two nights before for pizza with the kids, and it was awful… I’m thinking, A, this list has no credibility, B, I’m curious to see where else they went, and C, did this person writing it actually eat in these places, or is it just hearsay?”

Not to give my side too much of a one-sided airing here, but to me this gets at the heart of what bothers me about a local internecine fight over journalistic ethics. We have big well-funded websites moving into the food space and dominating it. And they often do things that a few years ago would have been serious ethical violations—generating “best” lists where no one has actually been to any of the restaurants, doing promotional copy but wanting writers to use their real bylines as if it were a real review (I quit one gig over this), teaching a whole generation that content farming off Google is journalism. Not to mention driving prices down, stalling for months on freelancer payments, and other things that just make the world worse for everybody.

So much of what’s going on now is independents experimenting with new media before we’re all completely stomped out by the big dinos. Finding new markets to make a splash in, new ways to hustle to keep your brand and checkbook afloat. Old notions of what’s proper for writing about food, which were often self-serving for traditional media in the first place (they had the budgets to dine twice before writing, etc.) have to allow for some different approaches, including that many of us are not traditional reviewers and simply interact with the scene in different ways. Tearing each other up over things like buying Twitter followers—silly, but incredibly common and easy to take as “what you have to do in this new medium”—just serves the well-funded players who have no ethics, no transparency, and certainly no commitment to Chicago, and couldn’t care less what any of us think about them. Personally, anyone still covering the little guys and the real city gets a deep dish helping of benefit of the doubt from me, as doing God’s work however they get it done and keep afloat.

So, in the end, Steve Dolinsky has a new book, based on his actually eating at nearly 200 local pizza places, which immediately makes it different from almost any Chicago pizza list you’ll find online. (Dolinsky has been doing reports on some of his faves in different categories at ABC7; start here.) I trust that you’re an adult and can read and evaluate something for yourself, so check it out. Try some new pizzas. See what you think!

2. TELL MAMA

The menu at Etta looks like a feast of comforting things, and so does Phil Vettel’s review, running down one thing he wishes he was eating right now after another. It starts with the already-famous pig picnic, “a shared entree that perfectly embodies Grant’s simple, flavor-forward ethos. Long slices of tender pork shoulder and shredded and crisped pork belly arrive in a double-handled pan. On side plates arrive the accompaniments: wide lettuce leaves, puffy, hearth-baked bread, cucumbers, yogurt, cherry tomatoes, chimichurri and what Grant calls ‘serrano condiment,’ which is made of hot peppers macerated in salt and oil and fish sauce. Attack with gusto, adding ingredients to the meat as your taste and pain threshold allow, and don’t forget the pan juices lurking beneath the pork.” There are also salads.

“Is Etta just Pacific Standard Time northwest?” asks Mike Sula, and it’s a question that occurred to me too. (Or is PST… Etta River North?) But he likes the way they use their hearth anyway: “There’s a smoky ghost in the air, and [chef Danny] Grant lays a char on much of the menu, which is alive with bright flashes of sweet, acidic, and glutamic flavors. The omnipresent meatball starter features crusty-topped, blackened pork orbs flecked with chile and smothered in a thick tomato sauce with a lattice of browned pecorino atop. A crock of ‘bubbling’ shrimp simmers in a crucible filled with tomato, mint, bread crumbs, and butter that almost takes on a cheeselike texture in the heat, though that treatment does no favors for the petite oysters obliterated by liquid tomato butter.”

3. FREE BIRD

Located in the St. Jane, formerly Hard Rock Hotel, “Free Rein… marks the best new lunch in the Loop in at least two years,” says Graham Meyer in Crain’s, with chef Aaron Lirette bringing unexpected sophistication to lunch: “Lirette’s lunch menu poses as a modest, straightforward meal, with headings such as ‘cheeseburger’ and ‘beef tartare’ signaling familiarity. The second line, however, lists three ingredients in the comma-separated-values style of ultrafine dining: ‘scallion kimchi, carrot dressing, togarashi cracker.’ And those three ingredients don’t exhaust the plate.”

4. BURKE’S LAW

Monnie Burke’s, a huge new bar in Pilsen, seems like it comes a little closer to the Lincoln Park-style gentrification that other places have been blamed for. But Maggie Hennessy explains how the name is meant to ward that off: “The industrial interior and no-frills decor hint of a nondescript suburban sports bar—less surprising when you learn the minds behind Monnie’s (Oak Park mayor Anan Abu-Taleb and wife Margi Abu-Taleb) also own suburban microchain Pizza Capri and Maya del Sol in Oak Park. The restaurant’s namesake is co-owner Margi’s aunt, a social worker who taught at Loyola University and was active in Cesar Chavez’s 1960s farm worker movement.”

Anyway, Michael Shrader (late of Gideon Sweet and Old Irving Brewing) heads the kitchen, and Hennessy finds some high points: “Far and away my favorite dish, though, was the black mussels, which I will no doubt order as an entree next visit. The tender, just-cooked bivalves bobbed with meaty wood ear mushrooms in a savory lemongrass-scented red curry broth with a refreshing top note of lime. We dunked more toasted ciabatta in the silky broth, fishing for shell-absconding mussels.”

5. COOL STORY BRO

I wasn’t the only one thrown by Mike Sula calling Pretty Cool Ice Cream “the anti-Happy Place”—co-owner Dana Salls Cree was too—but it turns out he means an Instagram-ready pop-up of that name, and otherwise Pretty Cool is, as everyone pretty much agrees, a Happy Place: “There’s no scooping at Pretty Cool, which traffics strictly in novelty pops that are at once inventive and nostalgic. The variety is dazzling: mustered like soldiers in the frozen display cases, the offerings include chocolate-covered custard bars (caramel-potato chip, coffee-pretzel-toffee); dairy-free ‘truck pops,’ unlikely to encourage ‘Turkey in the Straw’ earworms (cherry-pineapple, pink lemonade); vegan ‘plant pops’ (banana-horchata, matcha-mint); kid-size ‘pony pops’ (cookie monster, bubble gum); fruity buttermilk-based bars (roasted nectarine, black raspberry); and lysergically colored party pops coated in vivid magic shell and sprinkles.”

6. MY NAME IS YUGEN

Crain’s has more details on the Mari Katsumura restaurant opening in the ex-Grace space, starting with a name—Yugen—and an approach that is “purely Japanese ‘with foundations in home cooking and nostalgia, things that moms and grandmas would make.’” More interesting to me is that someone must be coaching owner Michael Olszewski on how to come off better in the press than has been typical to date. There’s one move that’s very savvy to the moment in particular: the restaurant will be led by an all-female team, including his daughter Morgan who just got her Loyola MBA. The big guy says, “’I wanted to focus on women running the business,’… ‘I think there’s a great opportunity to show everyone what these women can do to go above and beyond what was done at Grace. This is the future.’”

7. CHEFS ON TELLY

Lots of Chicago chefs have been on TV recently. Mfk. doesn’t seem a likely candidate for Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, since to my knowledge they have never offered a giant po’boy deep-fried in spaghetti sauce, but here they are; see how many Chicago food scene figures you can spot among the diners (hi, Joe Campagna!)

You don’t get to see mfk. chef Alisha Elenz in that episode, but you will see her in the premiere of a new Food Network show called Bite Club, with Tyler Florence, which launched September 9. She joins Chris Pandel, Zoe Schor (Split-Rail), Brian Jupiter (Ina Mae Tavern) and Diego Lopez Amat (Mercat a la Planxa) as they compete to cook alligator meat (Louisianan Jupiter might have an edge). And Old Habits’ Nick Jirasek, always fun to hear from, did Filipino egg rolls for WGN’s Lunchbreak.

8. LOOKIN’ SNAPPY

Maybe a second try at putting a modern old-fashioned burger stand in the Snappy Service System space on Ashland—formerly Flip, Authentaco and for many years, La Pasadita—will be the charm. Owner Felipe Caro has teamed up with a veteran cook from Jimmy’s Hot Dogs on Grand to make classic, less expensive burgers than Flip’s, as well as hot dogs and fresh-cut fries. (Block Club Chicago)

9. CHAUHOUND

Piece’s presence in one of my Twitter timelines alerted me to this diary of a Chicago visit by a writer named Danny Chau at something called The Ringer. He makes some good choices—he loves jibaritos, and I admire the hell out of any tourist going to Goree, the Senegalese restaurant in Kenwood—and some not terribly interesting ones (Au Cheval, and, uh, Piece) but it’s as interesting as a picture of how our city is perceived from outside as it is for any specific food insight.

10. I AM CORNDOGIO

I was just noting that what I liked about a recent pop-up was that it was focused on one, not very commercial cuisine (vegan Israeli). Chicago mag points to three more taking a focused approach (including the now famous Ramen Lord).

11. McCHEESE VAN DER ROHE

Kudos to whoever at Chicago Mag headlined this architectural review of the new River North McDonald’s with its eco-aspirations: “The New McDonald’s Is an Architectural Nothing Burger.”

12. ORIOLE IN S.K.Y.

Want to try two of Chicago’s top newish restaurants at once? S.K.Y. in Pilsen will be hosting the chefs of Oriole for a dinner benefiting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The dinner will be Monday, September 24, and 100% of your $275 (tax and gratuity included) ticket will go to the cause; find out more here.

WHERE MIKE ATE

With Food-I-Tours behind me I’m now in full next-edition-of-The Fooditor 99 mode, trying places that haven’t seen much review action for possible inclusion in the 2019 edition. Some notes that might get expanded on in the new book:

The Presidio. Inspired by the food of the Bay Area, they say—you might almost call it Pacific Standard Bucktown, though it predates PST by a couple of years. Sitting on couches in the front lounge seemed downright Marin County-decadent (if you’re lucky enough to snag a spot there), and the smaller snacks included a panzanella (not actually called that on the menu) with buttermilk dressing that was end of summer perfection. Entrees were more mixed—the double patty burger was good (but frozen fries devalued it a little), pappardelle was fine, the sort of slightly tempura’d, stir-fried broccoli on the beef and broccoli plate was great but the steak didn’t need the heavy hand with a marinade—just giving it a nice sear it would have been better.

Red and White Wines. With cement floor and simple tables, the decor at the wine bar side of this Wicker Park wineshop way undersells the quality of dining to be had here. Service, helping you make your way through their wines by the glass list, is warm and accommodating, and though the dishes are basically simple—we had a couple of very nice Vermont cheeses, some cured salmon, another plate of end-of-summer perfection in prosciutto and melon, and a piece of black cod with caponata that couldn’t be improved on—they would make you happy anywhere.

Happy Camper. We order pizza enough that I’ll basically try any new offering that pops up on the major delivery sites. (Sorry for ordering delivery, Steve.) This is an outgrowth of Homeslice, and it was a decent pizza with a nice rise and some modern toppings… and would be a fine choice somewhere that didn’t have as good pizzas as Chicago does.

Mason. Went to a media preview (note disclosure) for a supper club-ish place downtown, which on the positive side is cozy rather than cavernous and did first-rate Oysters Rockefeller and Dover Sole, but had a marked tendency to go for sweet flavors where they don’t belong—like the Bordelaise ladled over the Beef Wellington. 

Ghin Khao. Nick Kindelsperger called attention to this west end of Pilsen Thai restaurant. I liked the enthusiastic, if slightly defensive, Northern Thai owner who worked at some name places like Fat Rice, but would call the food promising rather than must-try—the menu is short and pretty simple stuff, the best was a beef and rice plate that would make a good lunch but isn’t exactly eye-opening. I hope he makes it, and expands his repertoire, in a tough neighborhood for a place that doesn’t have pad thai on the menu (apparently why he was defensive).

Twain. This one will get mainstream reviews shortly, but after dining at a few concepts that didn’t fully live up to their concepts’ promises, I really liked Tim Graham’s inspired-by-midwest-cookbooks comfort food—pigs in a blanquette and chicken and dumplings were rib-sticking good, and ham and cheddar is like an artisan tapas plate at a church picnic; though “Egg Harbor Bread” baked in house sounded more exciting than the simple white bread proved to be, at least until the pepper-butter spread went on it.

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