Buzz List for November 20, 2017

Big Restaurant is watching you, reviews of Proxi, Somerset, Raisu and Beatnik, media is growing, not shrinking, for once, and will Midway ever equal O'Hare for decent food?

Sepia/Facebook
Tea smoked duck breast, black garlic gnocchi, sauce albufera at Sepia

1. 1984-TOP

The story everyone was talking about this week was Mark Caro’s in Chicago magazine, about what they call (in a pun on data mining) “data dining”—the fact that high end restaurants keep tabs on customers to try to make their experience better. He describes a pre-shift meeting at Grace:

“At 4:45 on a Tuesday afternoon in October, less than an hour before the first guests are to arrive, Michael Muser, Curtis Duffy, a couple of members of the kitchen staff, and approximately 15 formally attired servers and hosts are standing in a circle in Grace’s elegant, cream-toned front parlor. All of them clutch five-page printouts that detail everything that’s been gleaned about the evening’s clientele. Amy Cordell, the service captain, leads a rundown, reading a description of a couple with a 7 p.m. reservation. ‘His wife’s name is Cheryl, and she does not like rabbit, and she drinks sparkling water,’ Cordell says. ‘They always sit at table 12. He always sits position 1.’ She gives the names of their two basset hounds.”

Restaurants have always known their regulars, and OpenTable and other services have made keeping and calling up notes easy, so Caro describes that brave new world as it plays out at places from Boka Group to Naha. He also asks, “At what point does all this info cross the line from helpful to creepy?” (Most of it, of course, has been volunteered freely on Facebook.)

I also saw some skepticism on Twitter that this stuff really happens, to the degree that the article describes. Here’s what I think. Does it happen like this at Grace? Absolutely; I’ve sat in on the pre-shift meeting, which is as thorough as an FBI briefing. Same for Alinea, who meticulously document, say, which seat you’ve sat in, so you can either have it every time or never again, depending on preference.

But that’s the high high end. I’d say that for all that Open Table makes this sort of thing more achievable for places down the prestige ladder, there’s less of it than the article might suggest. Even Alinea Group’s Next seems much less adept at it than Alinea—which led to a back and forth with Nick Kokonas on my own Twitter feed.

As a food writer, or “spider” as they are apparently called at Grace, my experience is obviously skewed, but here’s what I’ve noticed. If I’ve done something in media with a chef or a place, I will be recognized even if I didn’t use my name on a reservation. But if I haven’t, it is extremely rare that anyone will show any sign that they know I am such a thing—even when I know their PR agency does, for instance. If I cared about food writers as a restauranteur, I’d take five minutes and enter them all in OpenTable (there aren’t that many), but it doesn’t seem to happen.

Should they care? Honestly, as a member of the rapidly shrinking food media cohort, I get enough special treatment that it kind of perversely pleases me to see from time to time what normal people have to endure; keeps ya grounded. In any case, I’m going to say it’s a habit in high end places—as it has been since long before silicon chips; and not so much in mid to lower level, busier places, despite the ease offered by computers and social media.

2. MEDIA RISETH

We’ve had so much bad news about food media lately, but maybe that’s been the spur for good news, because we have no fewer than three new ventures happening in Chicago:

• What launched as The Onion/AV Club’s Supper Club, with Kevin Pang as editor, has now been relaunched as The Takeout, with a similar blend of interesting, not exactly local but definitely Chicago-flavored food content (e.g., Beverly Kim on how to do Thanksgiving gravy with a soy sauce bent). For now, be sure to read contributor Kate Bernot’s account of life as a newly minted chicken mom (Bernot, who moved from Chicago to Montana a couple of years ago, keeps chickens).

• Jon McDaniel, beverage director of The Gage and Acanto, has launched Second City Soil, a blog aiming to “highlight the personalities, the producers, the restaurants and the wines that are making Chicago one of the most important wine cities in America. To bring together a community that has struggled to find a uniting voice to champion its message and to shout its praises from the highest mountains.”

• And if it works for wine, why not weed? Kitchen Toke is a new magazine devoted to food and cannabis, edited by Chicagoan Laura Yee; the debut issue includes Mike Sula writing about Iliana Regan cooking with it to alleviate the neuropathic pain of her fiancée, Anna Hamlin.

3. SEPIA VS. PROXI

Jeff Ruby says the take on Michelin-starred Sepia is “Great restaurant. Gorgeous. Haven’t eaten there in ages.” Well, my attorney wife has to arrange dinners from time to time and I can tell you exactly who eats at Sepia—attorneys, when the person organizing it wants a safe-seeming choice that’s more interesting than a steakhouse.

Anyway, he decides to compare Sepia to its newer sibling Proxi. Sepia he finds more daring than its reputation: “The anything-goes ethos also gives Sepia the freedom to, say, stuff garlic sausage into rabbit loins, then wrap each meaty package in crisp bacon. It’s the kind of bold move that has mostly disappeared along with toqued French chefs.”

Meanwhile, of Proxi he says, “the experience isn’t half as polished as the one at Sepia—but it isn’t meant to be. Despite the chaos, I find myself eager to return. The place has been billed as the restaurant where the Sepia folks finally let down their hair, but that isn’t entirely accurate, considering it’s always been down. Proxi, which seizes upon Zimmerman’s wanderlust in a way that feels organic, is good in its own right.”

4. THE 39 SHLEPS

Clip and save Nick Kindelsperger’s master list of 39 great cheap eats in Chicago—you’ve probably heard of most of them, maybe even had many of them, with classics from Johnnie’s Beef to Calumet Fisheries on the list, but now you have them all in one place to check off as you go. The top price limit is $10, which presumably explains one big omission—no pizza on the list (it’d have to be a slice, and even after doing a Thrillist slice list once I’m not sure what place’s slice you’d name). I also have to say… years ago, when so many of these places were being championed by places like Chowhound and LTHForum, and later by Serious Eats Chicago (which Nick was the editor of), and more recently by Fooditor—part of the reason was because it was a significant populist side of our dining scene largely overlooked by mainstream media like the Trib. And now they’re in the Trib. Stick to your dreams.

5. RAISU SHINE

Mike Sula goes to Japanese/sushi restaurant Raisu, which I liked it a lot recently, and comes to the same conclusion—get past the overdone stuff, like the maki rolls, and there’s excellent fish here: “You’d never imagine the quality of fish Liew brings in judging from these overcomplicated constructions. To hear him speak, he almost disavows them, and when you experience his florid sashimi arrangements with relatively minimally garnished fish, you see why. He arrays thinly sliced, judiciously dressed sweet Hokkaido scallops across a palm leaf, the only baroque touch a fan of lemons and apples perched in a scallop shell. Slices of pristine scarlet bonito knife across the plate sprinkled with sesame seeds and chive, with a topknot of green onion.” (Reader)

6. AS THE SOMER SETS

Somerset is in that precarious position of having to please visitors whose palates may skew more middle-of-the-road and us locals, who, let’s face it, expect a lot from our restaurants these days,” says Lisa Shames at CS. “[Chef Lee] Wolen manages to walk that line skillfully with dishes that might sound simple on paper but are done with such care and precise techniques that everyone’s happy. There’s a cheeseburger and dry-aged rib-eye on the menu, though, just in case.”

7. WAGON THE DOG

That little hot dog stand building at Western and Ogden seems to be something new every year (or more often), and Louisa Chu describes the latest, Aloha Wagon: “This former hot dog stand turned mom-and-pop plate-lunch shop is owned by wife and husband Rebecca Romo and Richard Manongdo. ‘Aloha Wagon was our food truck on Oahu,’ said Manongdo. The family recently moved to Chicago with their three children, but Romo actually grew up in the neighborhood. ‘We live within walking distance,’ added Manongdo. ‘I saw this place was for sale, and it was perfect.’”

8. BEAT IT

Maggie Hennessy was wowed by Beatnik’s cocktail menu: “Summers in Sweden was the drink equivalent of dipping into a crystalline forest lake after a sauna—delicately medicinal gin and aquavit kissed with orangey Italicus and juicy peach—all cascaded over crushed ice.” While food “works as a sort of gastronomical composite of a Beat—a flavorful collision of preparations collected from all over the globe.” (Time Out)

9. ANOTHER STEAK OUT

Steakhouses keep opening, and Phil Vettel reviews three: Gibsons Italia impresses him the most with one perfect pasta and the usual Gibsons creature comforts (three stars), Steak 48 is pretty solid (two stars), but the new Michael Jordan’s in Oak Brook reaches only a barely passable one star.

10. MIDWAY THERE

With O’Hare boasting a decent dining scene led by Rick Bayless, the sad state of dining at Midway is a civic disgrace, and Crain’s reveals the plan to improve it, bringing in local names like BIG n little’s, Arami for sushi, R. J. Grunt’s (though the version of that in O’Hare’s international terminal is the weakest thing there), and Goddess and the Grocer.

11. MY BEER IS A TEMPLE

Friend of Fooditor Julia Thiel has two good pieces on our booming beer scene: she visits Avondale shop The Beer Temple’s new tap room, home to an exceedingly well-curated selection of superior craft beers, and samples the new bierschnaps that Rhine Hall Distillery has made out of Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout.

12. CREE REDUX

Dana Cree wrote about sexual harassment in kitchens for Medium a few weeks ago; she visits the subject again for Food & Wine, with more examples of the kind of sexual “joking” that goes on in kitchens.

13. SOMETHING ELSKE

Thrillst does a bouncy little video about David and Anna Posey and Elske (though what’s with the cutaway shots of a guy who looks like he escaped from a chain gang?)

14. BOEHMING WITH PRIDE

It’s just a promo for a James Beard Awards TV special, but Kevin Boehm of Boka Group tells a couple of good stories in this short video.

15. MELTING AWAY

Congrats to Chicago mag dining critic Jeff Ruby, whose first novel, Penelope March is Melting, is out now, just in time for the grade schooler on your holiday list.

WHAT MIKE ATE

I went to a friends and family dinner at S.K.Y., the Pilsen restaurant (protested a few weeks back) from Stephen Gillanders, one of the Intro visiting chefs (and later the executive chef overseeing the visiting chefs). It’s a chic spot, designed to look undesigned, and the menu likewise underpromises and overdelivers—the names of most of the menu items seem plainer than the bright, sometimes spicy, generally bold and unexpected flavors turn out to be. Trying to think of something to compare it to, I think it comes closest to Proxi—not as explicitly Asian, but definitely in that direction and with similarly impeccable execution. Oh, and on the subject of restaurants knowing their diners… I wasn’t the one invited to the friends and family dinner, but as soon as I came in I was spotted and welcomed by manager Charles Ford, formerly of The Bristol. No computers were involved.

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