Buzz List for January 29. 2018

Reader kisses S.K.Y., whose Restaurant Week is weak, food movies look too good, and steakhouse lessons

Michael Gebert
Hamachi at S.K.Y.

And so, a recap of food news that will not include any mention of a chicken chain using a female spokescolonel, no matter that others regarded this as important news…

1. RESTAURANT WEEK IN REVIEW

Restaurant Week is the moment when food media is at its most booster-y, with one exception these past few years—Anthony Todd’s analysis of which Restaurant Week deals are actually worth paying the $22, $33 and $44 prices for, and which ones make it hard to actually come out ahead by the deal (surprisingly common, as perverse as it sounds to make a promotional week designed to attract a new audience a bad deal). It’s at Chicago magazine this year, and Todd’s analysis shows where it’s possible to pay more than you would otherwise (even if it takes a really bad combination to actually do it). I noticed a couple of things just going through his list—the One Off restaurants tend to be not just good deals but very good deals (time to finally try Nico Osteria!), but the Lettuce Entertain You ones are mostly bad deals. C’mon guys!

2. VEGETARIAN WEEK IN REVIEW

Nick Kindelsperger has been out eating vegetarian burgers and he loves the Impossible Burger: “I swung by M Burger to see for myself, ordering both a regular cheeseburger and an Impossible Burger… You could certainly taste a difference — the meat one tasted, you guessed it, beefier — but the Impossible Burger actually did have a more caramelized crust, plus surprisingly juicy innards. It instantly made every veggie burger in Chicago look dated.”

Well, you know, if you need that, go for it, though it bugs me that it’s not really a veggie burger—it’s a grain burger, mostly wheat and soy protein. In any case, I like beef burgers, so as the veggie month wraps up, I’m more interested in vegetable dishes that are just good vegetable dishes. For that, check out the slideshow.

3. ‘SCUSE ME WHILE I KISS THE S.K.Y.

Mike Sula finds that more often than not, S.K.Y. redeems pan-Asian (he calls it “Vaguesian”) with knockout flavors: “Gillanders frequently pushes the right buttons, as with a quartet of black truffle croquettes encasing a matrix of gooey aged white cheddar and jalapeño and releasing a fungal ambrosia that rises to your nostrils. Lobster dumplings, sweet and snappy, bathe in a pool of “jade butter” colored with fermented jalapeño paste. Seared diver scallops mingle with maitake mushrooms in a dashi mounted with brown butter. Corn-bread madeleines slathered with olive-oil-whipped butter are so moist they barely make it to your mouth.”

4. ROOM 222

“The best new restaurant you’ve never heard of”—something about that headline sounds familiar. But Crain’s applies it to Taste 222, a new West Loop spot funded by an ex-McDonald’s CEO: “Oriental rugs, living room-worthy lounge seating off to one side, an elegant bar with leather-topped stools, unobtrusive background music, comfortable lighting, efficient staffers who seem happy to be there, plus excellent food and drink at gentle prices—it’s a surprising combination in this neck of the woods.” The chef is Judson Todd Allen—more about him shortly—and Joanne Trestrail says “The results could be called comfort food plus—everything we sampled had a little something extra going on.”

5. ROAMIN’ FOR RAMEN

I think I said Titus Ruscitti was on a tear last week, so, he’s still on a tear, checking out a new Japanese ramen chain, Kitakata Ban Nai, that opened up in Hoffman Estates (he helpfully says that if you’ve already shlepped to Mitsuwa, it’s only 10 minutes more): “The broth is almost clear but still plenty of flavorful and the Toro Chashu (pork) is as tender as the cheek meat is over at Santouka. This wasn’t the most potent bowl of ramen I’ve tried but it was one of the more balanced bowls I can remember. Everything in it was above average with the meat being top shelf.” There’s also a roundup of small Mexican places on the south side (though I tried El Campestre once and wasn’t impressed), and a Hawaiian lunch wagon, Aloha Wagon.

6. MORE ALOHA

And if you want to see more about Aloha Wagon, or find out more about what Hawaiian food is generally, check out Steve Dolinsky’s piece at ABC 7. Just don’t go to this place David Hammond went in Hawaii recently.

7. CA PHE INA

In her breakfast column, Ina Pinkney visits one of my favorites, Ca Phe Da, the cafe attached to HaiSous: “The coffee selection, featuring beans imported from Thai Dang’s family’s 30-year-old roasting facility in Vietnam, includes regular brew, slushies, coffee with vanilla custard, my creamy favorite, and iced. Any of them will do with the coconut custard bun, the lychee Danish or the brightly colored teal brioche pandan with coconut jam.” She also visits Fannie’s Cafe on the northwest side and Nighthawk AM in Lincoln Park.

8. 42 FRAMES PER SECOND

Two takes on the 42 Grams documentary, now playing at the Siskel Film Center. Tribune movie reviewer Michael Phillips questions the whole genre: “These are all relatively tame, straightfoward nonfiction narratives about nervy, risk-prone characters with a demon or two. The food’s gorgeous, always. But the footage often looks promotional — as if commissioned by the restaurant’s backers.”

At the Reader, Julia Thiel—who might have been the first person (or at least non-blogger) to write about chef Jake Bickelhaupt, back when he was trying to raise money via Kickstarter (she had her doubts)—looks at how the film chronicles the failure of Bickelhaupt’s marriage with Alexa Welsh, who ran the restaurant with her then-husband: “She doesn’t regret the time she put into Sous Rising and 42 Grams—she’d do it again, she says. But when she watches the documentary, ‘I see the stress on my face, I think of all the shit we were going through when that was filmed. For so long I put my job before myself. I put the restaurant before myself. I put Jake before myself.'”

9. DIVE B’ART

The pop-up imitation dive bar currently at Emporium in Logan Square took heat for mocking a type of working class bar mostly driven out, but Ryan Smith thinks it’s a droll tribute to a vanishing Chicago: “With its cardboard cutout bartenders, hand-painted portraits and photographs of sports, political, and media figures from the 70s and 80s, and witty meta-jokes (I particularly love the sign that reads ‘YOUR BENCH ON THIS AD’), the Light Times Club fondly celebrates true dive bars while mourning their slow death.” (Reader)

10. BIN -30-

So long to Bin 36, which in its day was an innovator in making wine accessible to diners, thanks to ace sommelier Brian Duncan.

11. ABNER DOUBLEDAY, YOU INVENTED BASEBALL

And somebody in Chicago invented the Chicago Chefs Hall of Fame, though its Culinary Museum remains merely a virtual presence. In any case they’ll have a gala event supporting culinary scholarships at the Palmer House on February 17, while honoring three venerable figures: chef Mindy Segal (Hot Chocolate), chef John Hogan (Savarin, River Roast), and Fred Hoffman, owner of places which probably played a key role in the conception of many of today’s restaurant and bar people—The Snuggery and Excalibur.

12. BLACK FOOD AND BEVERAGE

…is the name of a new site devoted to those things in Chicago, which launches with a list of nine African-American food and beverage professionals doing important and innovative work in Chicago food, including Eldridge Williams (The Delta, which Fooditor wrote about here), Stephanie Hart of Brown Sugar Bakery (in the Fooditor 99), and—I said there’d be more about him—Judson Todd Allen of Table 222.

13. TASTING END-U

Is the tasting menu done? An article in England’s Telegraph claims so, saying chefs think “the menu [sic] rob customers of choice, are frequently overpriced and represent an overly formal and hidebound style of dining which no longer suits the times.” Though customers may not be the real issue, as one chef says it’s hard to keep staff for them: “‘If you have a chef on a section for a month doing the same thing, they become robots… They won’t stay. I’ve got chefs from Australia and New Zealand and they haven’t come all that way to learn just one dish.’” (h/t Richard Shepro)

WHAT MIKE ATE

Two pictures from opposite ends:

I went to The Family House, Chicago’s first Burmese restaurant (though the menu is mostly Malaysian with a few Burmese greatest hits). In any case the Burmese food is the star—I really liked the astringent tea leaf salad, laphet thoke, which was recognizably Asian yet couldn’t be pinpointed to any particular cuisine I’d had before, as well as the spicy stew mohinga (though it would have benefited from a more flavorful fish than tilapia). Other non-Burmese dishes, though, were less interesting, tasting like homecooking and not entirely in a good way—a noodle salad would have been better with anything besides Spaghetti-Os consistency pasta. Still, an engaging introduction to a previously unknown cuisine for me.

I’m not a steakhouse guy but when I get a PR invite for one, I take it, not just because they’ll ply me with many beefs (though I don’t exactly argue) but because they’re a different world. To be wildly reductive, chef-driven restaurants are about being hip enough to appreciate that the chef’s a big deal, but steakhouses are about being treated like a big deal yourself. Benny’s Chop House in River North is touting some very nice wagyu they’re one of the few to offer in the country, and it was fun to sample it, so soft you could cut it with your fork. In fact all the food—which included various timeless classics from crab cakes to salmon—was well prepared in the classic style, no cheffy fooling around. (Okay, I wasn’t wild about a side of gnocchi, in case you think I’m turning into a complete pushover.)

But I was at least as impressed by the fastidious and informed service, led by GM Mitchell Schmiedling, who admitted to having Googled both David Hammond and myself to refresh himself on past experiences (you can see him in this video I did from his Charlie Trotter days). I like being remembered, but I really admire the illusion of being remembered. Benny’s is kind of mid-market for downtown steak houses—the Thursday night jazz combo sets the place’s easy-going tone, which doesn’t seep testosterone from the walls like some—but it’s impressive watching them make everyone feel like every dollar was well spent.

 

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