Buzz List for March 12, 2018

A new Chicago Top Chef, an Open Table scandal, a corn dog mystery and Zagat gets got

Binchotan grill at Sushi-San


…who is, as of Thursday, the winner of Top Chef season 15, the second winner from Chicago after Stephanie Izard who won season 4 (that is, not counting Rick Bayless who won the first season of Top Chef Masters), and the second chef from Spiaggia to make it to the final two, after Sarah Grueneberg in season 9. Guess you should go to Spiaggia, though as a Sun-Times article says with less than total conviction, Flamm has no plans to leave the Tony Mantuano stalwart… yet.


A rogue employee at Open Table was terminated when it was discovered that he or she was booking reservations for high-traffic nights like Valentine’s Day on sites like Reserve, with the intent of hurting restaurants using rival services. That at least is the official story, as recounted on Eater.

But Nick Kokonas, who’d never miss an opportunity to bash Open Table in favor of Tock, his own service, doubts the “rogue employee” theory, and digs into Open Table’s practices in this Medium piece. He raises some suspicions and makes some very interesting observations, based on Open Table’s own internal documents (which they were lax about keeping out of public places). This is probably not the last we’ll hear of this story—unless OT lays out some fat settlements fast.


Google has sold Zagat, which has been very good here in Chicago (at least) under Matt Kirouac’s stewardship, to The Infatuation, which has a Chicago presence but has mostly stuck to listicles and random (in both choice of subject and how often they’re published) reviews. Will The Zagatuation suddenly become a notable voice on Chicago’s scene? Who knows, but this Bloomberg piece on how Google acquired something with a meaningful food brand and then squandered it is worth reading, as to why we can’t have nice things in the era of Google-Facebook-Apple oligopoly.


His latest reviewing gig (Redeye) having come to an end, Michael Nagrant has come roaring back as an independent with his eponymous site. He’s quickly filling it in with material from his archive stretching back close to two decades, but be sure to check out the new material which includes a very lively and thought-provoking review of Dave Beran’s Dialogue in L.A. (which turns into a disquisition on where the excitement went in Chicago dining), a review of everybody’s new Italian deli fave Tempesta (which it gets to by way of sexual harassment and Mario, somehow), and a look at what’s going on on our shrinking food media scene and why it led him to do this. Why it led him to do this, frankly, is because there’s apparently no place at our remaining advertiser-supported food media publications for someone who thinks this deeply, thought-provokingly, and sometimes crazily about food.


Nobody I’ve sent to S.K.Y. in Pilsen hasn’t come away impressed, indeed pretty much loving it, and Maggie Hennessy loves it enough to rate it 5 stars at Time Out: “The entire pan-Asian menu at chef/owner Stephen Gillanders’s first solo venture—named for his wife’s initials—reverberates with a similar alchemy of meticulous skill, humor and heart. Aromatic, nuanced cocktails and craveable desserts make this striking Pilsen newcomer a must.”


“These days, Kaze Chan is the featured attraction at 10-week-old Sushi-San, where the Lettuce Entertain You group is doing for sushi what it did for ramen noodles at nearby Ramen-San nearly four years ago,” says Phil Vettel. Which means what, precisely, and is it a good thing?

In fact he means to compliment Sushi-San for giving Kaze Chan (formerly of Mirai, Kaze and Momotaro) a star role: “The star roll is the aptly named umami scallop, where scallop, masago, mayo and tempura bits taste the way a warm hug feels… Finally, there is the omakase (which of course is called the Oma-Kaze here), a reservations-only experience that has exactly four seats, at a counter directly across from Kaze Chan.” In the end he decides, “Overall, Sushi-San is a two-star restaurant, depending on one’s capacity for high-volume hip-hop music. But the interaction with Chan makes the $88 option worth an extra star.”


Nouvelle soul food is the order of the day at Currency Exchange Cafe, says Mike Sula: “There’s a pair of cakey, moist, buttery drop biscuits topped with turkey sausage patties and over-easy eggs dripping with peppered sawmill gravy. There’s a trio of crispy Belgian waffles mounted with amber-colored chicken legs glazed with chipotle-maple butter. Another, unconventional variant on chicken and waffles features sweet potato waffles topped with country-fried chicken with cornflakes in the batter.” But whatever you do, get the greens, cooked in, among other things, the trendy mineral water Topo Chico.


If Titus Ruscitti is often food media’s guy behind the guy, another is Brian Eng when it comes to Chinese food. All of which is to say that this week, worlds collide, as Titus follows up on one of Brian’s tips, the Taiwanese food at Chinese Cafe in International Mall in Westmont, better known until recently as the home of Hanbun: “One thing you’ll see on pretty much every table is these long things of fried dough called Youtiao or fried crueller. They’re Chinese doughnuts and holy crap they’re huge. Pictured next to them up above and also below is a Taiwanese Sticky Rice Roll. A popular breakfast snack consisting of little broken off parts of doughnut, hard boiled egg, and pork floss which is dried meat that’s finely chopped. Stuffed in a roll of sticky rice. Breakfast just got interesting.”


Most of Chicago food media has instinctively leaned toward the side of Grace GM and chef Michael Muser and Curtis Duffy in their dispute with owner Michael Olszewski, this publication included, so the Sun-Times’ Dan Mihalopolous has become Olszewski’s conduit to public opinion. In the latest piece, Olszewski accuses the Grace duo of making off with Grace supplies like wagyu beef and truffles, to use them at cooking events in other cities. In other words, as I tweeted last week, “the Grace owner’s complaint is that when the Grace chef cooked Grace dishes at national events promoting Chicago’s three Michelin star Grace, that was not a benefit to Grace that Grace should provide supplies for.”

Whether or not you could argue that last point, every time Olszewski talks to Mihalopolous he makes himself sound like he doesn’t get how you play the internationally-famous-chef game to attract diners from around the world, and makes it harder for himself to attract top talent to the restaurant he insists he will be reopening any day now—per Mihalopolous, “Olszewski said he has interviewed ‘several world-renowned chefs’ from Greece, France, New York and Norway in his quest to replace Duffy.” None of whom have bit yet, evidently.


Many old time foods, still common even a decade ago at working class fast food joints, are becoming rarer in pricy, trendy 2018 Chicago, and Nick Kindelsperger explores the near-disappearance of one of them—the corn dog. He takes a trip to Springfield to visit a place where the corn dog survives (and may have been, though probably wasn’t, invented): “That’s where you’ll find Cozy Dog Drive In. Before you even pull in, you’ll notice two anthropomorphized corn dogs twirling atop the sign (they look like plumper sausage cousins of Superdawg’s iconic mascots, Maurie and Flaurie). As any self-respecting establishment with a history dating to 1947, the interior is a mishmash of old newspaper clippings hung on the walls, beat-up license plates from all over the country and other hot dog paraphernalia. It feels lived in and honest, which is exactly the sort of place you want it to be.”


The Trib has been promoting Louisa Chu’s egg roll piece with the teaser, why do Chicago egg rolls taste like peanut butter? I’m thinking you can guess the answer to that one, but it does set Chu off on a fun quest to find the origin of this piece of fried Chinese-American nostalgia—with a surprising twist at the end supplied, in Cantonese, by a 95-year-old restaurant owner (hint: they aren’t just “Chicago” egg rolls).


It’s been in the works for a while, but Big Jones is closed for the next few weeks to overhaul an antiquated kitchen, improve the dining room, and change the menu to reflect better how Southern food has evolved, reports Anthony Todd: “Fehribach wants to reimagine his menu with more tastes of the modern global South. ‘When you go to the South now, you get fried chicken tacos, or pho with fried chicken. Southern cuisine has always been a melting pot, a big Creole gumbo of cultures, and we want to be more on that end of things.'”


When I worked on McDonald’s at Leo Burnett, I had a New Yorker cartoon on my door that showed some old guys in a board room going, “Apparently we’re not attracting enough of those annoying little brats everyone hates.” At Chicago mag, Peter Frost reports on how teenage Instagrammers are everybody’s desired restaurant audience: “Now a growing coterie of well-heeled Snapchatting teen girls (and it’s always girls) are staking their claim as influencers. In the time it takes for the photos to vanish from recipients’ feeds—24 hours—enough buzz has been created to spur a new onrush of young diners eager to spend their parents’ money at the hot spot du jour.” (Chicago)


The liveliest presence on Windy City Live and one who made daytime TV worth catching for food content, Ji Suk-Yi, has been cut from the local ABC program in a cost-cutting measure, says Robert Feder. You can watch her farewell address here.


Billy Corgan’s Madame Zuzu tea shop in Highland Park will close this month, apparently due to something with the lease or space; he says it will reopen somewhere, sometime. Cemitas Puebla has closed its Hyde Park location, leaving only Fulton Market, and according to Eater (it’s unclear if they’re quoting from somewhere else or communicated directly with the company, who seem to be referring to themselves in the third person), “‘ownership has decided to focus on building a stronger beverage program which did not fit with the family friendly atmosphere that 57th street so lovingly provides'”—which does not exactly sound like a Mexican sandwich shop in the long term.


Thoughts to the family of Rick Bayless, on the passing of his mother, Levita Bayless Anderson, who owned the family restaurant for 37 years. (NewsOK)


Remember when we used to go sit on folding chairs at somebody’s apartment for the chance to be part of the in crowd who tried underground dining experiences like Clandestino or The Rabbit Hole? That was 2010, this is now, so I was happy to get a taste of that experience while sitting on the considerably nicer chairs of some Friends of Fooditor for a dinner by Mirepoix Gangster Kitchens. Aka Sixteen sous chef Mitchell Robert, doing fresh-tasting and imaginative multi course menus in your home for a reasonable tasting menu price. Check it out and do downtown dining in your own dining room.

Son #2 was jonesing for soul food and I was jonesing to not leave the house, so I didn’t have much hope for GrubHub resolving this problem—yet an hour later we had very creditable fried chicken with a crispy-crackly crust, greens and mac and cheese from Ms. T’s Fried Chicken, which is somewhere in Lakeview, and now in my rotation.

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