Buzz List for June 12, 2017

Arguing over duck liver tart at Elske, Curious, A Chef's Playground is curiously off, farewell to MK, why Michelin stars close, and Chick-Fil-A 1, Eater 0.

Huge Galdones
Duck tart with dried parsley, buckwheat crust, at Elske
1. ELSKER SKELTER

Jeff Ruby is the only Chicago food critic who seems to be able to stir up controversy on occasion, and he did it with his review, really two reviews, of Elske, a notable omission on Chicago mag’s best new restaurants list. First he reviews the prix fixe menu, something chef David Posey should be familiar with from Blackbird: “While the food is not strictly Danish, the lack of any other defining influence left me feeling adrift. Some dishes, such as a peppy beef tartare with pickles and crispy onions atop a ketchupy rémoulade (Elske’s take on a grillpølser, or a Danish hot dog), ventured into cutesy-gimmicky territory. Others, such as a wedge of duck liver tart with a nutty buckwheat crust, salted ramp juice, and a sprinkle of dried parsley powder, were austere and ultimately listless.”

It got better with the a la carte menu: “The servers were far more relaxed—more hygge, if you will—with the à la carte structure. They delivered shareable items three at a time, each dish echoing the other in a nuanced way that felt—oddly enough—more gracefully choreographed than the prix fixe did.”

Dissing the restaurant’s most-Instagrammed item, the duck liver tart, brought outrage that Ruby was unfit to review tasty stuff. But here’s the thing: if a lot of people have taken the trouble to tout how much they loved something, it’s because it hit them in a different way than things they’ve had before—and that means it’s more likely to hit someone the wrong way, too. So I’m not surprised if someone found the duck liver tart off-putting. But more than that, I asked around and I found that nearly everyone who loved Elske—a sample that includes myself—had ordered a la carte, not the tasting menu. Ruby’s impression that the a la carte version of Elske shows the restaurant off better seems, in fact, to be the general conclusion of diners who have been there.

2. CULTURAL AIRPORTIATION

The debate over cultural appropriation continues to spread like kudzu over social media. Several people shared this article, which I found generally to be nowhere near as original or eye-opening as it claimed, and also irresponsibly ill-informed about one person in particular, Rick Bayless: “The point is that Bayless’ restaurant is the lucky one in the O’Hare Airport netting [sic; she means grossing] something like $7 a sandwich because he is a product of both his hard work and the privilege he received in our American environment. If you examine the cultural power structure of America (okay, the world) and (food) media in general, you’ll find that Bayless merely took every opportunity our culture offered to him, acted on it, exploited it, and worked hard to get even more advantages.”

Ah yes, the social advantages of… the guy no one has heard of who comes to Chicago from Oklahoma to open a restaurant. “Merely” insanely hard work, smarts, years of research in Mexico and, not least, giving opportunities to lots of Mexican employees, many of whom have gone on to open their own restaurants—none of that counts next to the enormous social advantage of being… an Okie with no connections. They just gave him a freakin’ airport for that, free, and the food made itself because God knows, airport food never sucks. Got it. Good thing we have experts to explain stuff to us.

Bo Fowler of Owen & Engine had a great comment on the piece: “Is there systemic racism and sexism? Yes, absolutely… I just hate seeing the spirit in which we cook and share, be lumped in a ‘appropriation argument.’ I think it’s just reaching more than we need to. For me as a chef I hope I provide comfort, a place to celebrate the moments of your life, and cook something delicious. I always say restaurants are a place to get away from real life. We get to provide an environment in which we share big and small moments with people around food and drinks! How great is that! So yeah, forgive me if I don’t want you to reach into my joy for cooking.”

3. HMM, CURIOUS

Mike Sula’s review of West Town’s Curious, A Chef’s Playground starts with a lengthy discussion of his dining companion’s suspicion that the fish dish would fail to measure up: “My pal predicted the experience would require a postprandial visit to the Mickey D’s drive-through to obtain a proper Filet-O-Fish… the first time I uttered the name of the restaurant where chef Laurel Khan chose to mark her return to Chicago, he cringed and immediately decided he’d hate it.” As it happens, though, the fish “to everyone’s surprise was perfect: moist, flaky flesh jacketed by a cheesy brown crust.” So why the upfront bashing? Don’t invite curmudgeons to eat there, I guess is the lesson that we’re to draw. Anyway, I found intermittent charms in the one-woman shop he describes, which reminded me of long-ago eclectic dining spots like Savoy Truffle, even if Sula’s own final verdict is “there’s too much else amiss at Curious to gamble on its small ratio of peculiar but winning dishes.”

4. SOUTHSIDE AFRICAN

Southside Weekly profiles four African businesses in the African-American south side: “Business isn’t just about selling food they love: they want to build community. ‘During the summertime, we are all out in the parking lot next to the restaurant grilling, playing Nigerian music and just making people feel comfortable in their own spaces,'” says Ade Lala of Southside African Restaurant.

5. FUNKVERGNÜGEN

Mark Steuer’s been working on a restaurant forever, and Chicago mag has the details on Funkenhausen, which really has a meaning (smokehouse) but also has a bit of tongue in cheek.

6. GOODBYE MK

MK restaurant closed Sunday night. The 18-year-old restaurant had been kind of off the food media radar in recent years, as owner Michael Kornick expanded his DMK empire, but I’ve always thought it was a key link to the Charlie Trotter days that reinvented our food scene. Or as I said at the Reader in 2013, a link to the glitzy days of such dated 80s personalities as Leona Helmsley and, uh, Donald Trump…

7. SOUTHSIDEIST

Chicagoist has a nicely eclectic survey of near south side neighborhoods like Pilsen and Little Village, largely but not entirely about food—who knew there was a giant textile store in Pilsen?

8. KEEP ON TRUCKIN'

What’s hot in food trucks these days? I honestly don’t know, since I’m not near them at lunchtime. But Redeye has a roundup of some popular ones these days, some old faves (Tamale Spaceship) and some new (Mike’s Revenge?)

9. STAR BURST

So 42 Grams is over—separate statements from both chef Jake Bickelhaupt and Alexa Welsh said so—and a piece at DNA Info notes that Michelin stars are no guarantee of success, saying 30% have closed within five years.

Of course, for the restaurant industry that’s probably kind of low. I could argue any number of viewpoints, but on the whole, in Chicago I’d argue Michelin has really affected only one restaurant—taking a star away hurt Crofton on Wells. Beyond that, I suspect that the stable restaurants that get stars stay stable (Spiaggia, Tru) and the ones that catch a moment in time—Nosh Sandoval doing fine dining in a gluten free bake shop—will see that moment pass and, hopefully, be replaced by something even more impressive (as it was with Oriole). But for the majority of diners in town, it probably doesn’t matter either way… and certainly isn’t predictive in any meaningful way.

10. CHICK-FULL-OF-IT

Eater National got in, a couple of years late by my count, on the Chick-Fil-A debate with a piece saying you shouldn’t eat there for this or that p.c./hipster reason: “There’s the social question, which is how a Biblically grounded institution… will fare as it expands outside of regions where it’s perceived as a beloved community cornerstone… And there’s the culinary question, which is whether you should brave the (fast-moving) lines at the home of the ‘original’ pressure-fried chicken sandwich, or whether you should patronize more ambitious (and progressive) poultry-purveying peers like Fuku (only in New York) or Shake Shack.” [Which is, one should note, almost only in New York as well.]

Eater, like so much national media right now (we’re not talking about the straightforward news-focused Chicago branch here), is nominally about its subject but really about telling other millennials what the acceptable opinions to have are, so something like this is perhaps the inevitable endgame, turning on the business itself and making it about the 38 Hottest Places You Shouldn’t Be Eating At. But happily, readers didn’t seem very interested in Eater telling them where they shouldn’t eat—don’t miss the responses to this tweet, which tell Eater where it can lump those chicken nuggets.

11. GNOCCHIPSTERS

Restaurants are getting to be fish in a barrel satire-wise, but this is pretty good: “The new Dumpling Fire restaurant in the Pershing Square neighborhood boasts a vegan-friendly menu, an extensive craft cocktail selection, and a playlist full of hip-hop music loved by the neighborhood’s current and displaced residents alike.”

12. CHIP OFF

Congrats to friend of Fooditor Chip Bouchard Vassil, on the launch of his new venture, a PR/marketing/social media agency called Kinship. Learn more here.

WHAT MIKE ATE

I heard some promising early reports from The Albert, the restaurant in the Hotel EMC2 in Streeterville. Alas, like Baptiste & Bottle a couple of months ago, you could have a nice time having a drink in the chic lounge (I liked my cocktail), but the first sign things were not going to go well was that they botched a salad—a gem lettuce salad was big starchy wedges drizzled with a gray truffle dressing that coated the lettuce like Quaker State. (Our lack of interest after one bite each was so obvious that they took it off the bill.)

A pasta dish was pretty good, but neither entree was above banquet food—a chicken dish was overmanipulated into a rectangle of white meat over mealy forcemeat that barely had the simple good flavor of roast chicken, while a lamb dish was well executed but a standard fine dining plate, nothing to stand out. Too bad.

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