Buzz List For December 17, 2018

The Beards are back for 9 more years, hot takes on our possible lack of mojo, and a new restaurant from a chef with a past

Brass Heart/Facebook
Halibut, Corn, Huitlacoche at Brass Heart

1. CHICAGO, CHICAGO

So the message of last week is… we’re excited to host the world for the James Beard Awards!

And don’t you dare tell us what to think about our food scene!

So first, Mayor Emanuel announced that the Beards would be staying here till 2027, by which time the only remaining food media will be influencers on a hologram-based social media service called Nertz or FlumpIt! or something. But listen, we’re excited to host the world, as long as you don’t mention that we don’t seem to be winning a lot of Michelin stars or Beard awards lately.

Because that’s what John Kessler, longtime Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviewer turned Chicagoan, did in a piece at Chicago mag, “How Chicago’s Dining Scene Lost Its Mojo”:

While stars and shiny medallions don’t tell the full story, their loss does point to a new reality: Chicago’s dining scene has lost its luster.

National critics — who used to write starry-eyed reports from Chicago after meals at cutting-edge restaurants like Alinea and Schwa — have been suggesting as much for a while now. In a 2015 ranking of America’s food cities, the Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema placed Chicago seventh, just behind Philadelphia and Houston. In his annual listing of the country’s best new restaurants for GQ last year, Brett Martin felt the need to vent about a “city I find myself liking less and less to eat in,” asking, “What is the matter with Chicago?” Chandra Ram, the editor of Plate, a trade magazine for chefs published here, piled on: “Chicago was considered the most exciting restaurant city in the country for a few years, then … we just let it go. There is a lot of greatness to Chicago’s restaurant scene, but … we are missing out on the wave of creativity you find in New York, L.A., Portland, Ore., San Francisco, Austin, and other cities.”

He hits several specific points which I’ll talk about below—our farm to table isn’t as strong as we think it is, our immigrant food scene can be kind of tired, etc. But it was interesting watching the reaction to his piece roll over Chicago food media. I joked to another foodie that the initial responses fell into three camps:

1) He is so right about people other than me
2) We do too cover Korean food!
3) I am in New York now and laugh at you little ants with your petty concerns

But by the end of Tuesday, there seemed to be a lot of agreement that he had some valid points, we need to tell our immigrant/neighborhood food stories more and get more people checking those places out, and food media folks deserve a hug just for hanging in there in the age of Tronc. Hey, I got lots of new followers in the general lovefest, so I can’t complain. Some notable comments that day:

@chibbking: For the record I agree with the claim Chicago’s mom / pop spots don’t get the love they do in other cities. Sure a few do (Zaragoza, Chaparitta, Uruapan) but there’s a whole lot more. This isn’t anyone’s fault but it’s the truth. Whether you like me saying it or not. That’s all.

@paulfehribach: I wonder whether the issue is simply our diner base not buying in. The food culture is as segregated as the city, the ghost of Papa Daley still haunts.

@kennethaz: In other cities if the publication of record [did] what @nickdk does at the Trib, there would be lines out the door at the places he covers. In Chicago it’s a collective shrug. We are not like the sheep in NY, SF and LA. Chicagoans don’t let themselves be influenced so easily

@winewithfood: Chicago has some great food, and a lot of places that people bloviate over that just isn’t particularly exciting. [E]very town does, but probably 20 out of the 25 best meals I’ve had over the last few years certainly haven’t been here.

Steve Plotnicki: Advantages that Atlanta has? The guy must be kidding. I struggle to get reviews [for his site] of the restaurants in Atlanta as it might be the last city in the country that foodies would travel to in order to eat… Not that he doesn’t make some good points which include Michael Nagrant’s quote about the corporatization of dining. But that is happening all over the country, not just in Chicago. The reason it isn’t happening in Atlanta is there is nothing good enough to capitalize the same way.

Dave Miller: I won’t agree with every point about every piece written but when someone challenges me and my industry- I think it’s good to self reflect and listen. It was a good challenge to me to keep fighting to be better and to cook seasonally. Yes, we are a culture that supports each other but we should also be a culture that challenges each other. We should be open to criticism if it’s real/unbiased. Otherwise we will stagnate.

@ScavSheriff: My Food City hot take is that Chicago was a great Food City and then Barbara Ann’s closed and now nothing will be as good again, so no matter where you eat there, you’ll be sad you’re not having the link and tip combo from Barbara Ann’s.

This whole thread on Paul Fehribach’s Facebook page is too involved to quote bits from, but is worth working through as well. And you can see Kessler defending himself on Chicago Tonight here.

Then came Wednesday and Thursday—and strong pushbacks to Kessler’s piece. Nick Kindelsperger of the Trib:

Throughout the article, he shows a remarkable amount of disdain for the dining public in Chicago. He laments continuously that there is a lack of a conversation about good places to eat. At one point, he admits that the “Chicago area abounds with international finds,” — but wait, I thought we needed better immigrant restaurants? — but they “don’t engender that obsessive discourse among the dining public.” That, it seems to me, feels like a failure of the food media, not restaurants. If what we are writing isn’t capturing the attention of the public, then perhaps we need to try harder.

Of course, I don’t think that’s even remotely true. I wonder if he’s ever watched “Check, Please!” or seen Steve Dolinsky on ABC7.

Graham Meyer, who if anybody has, ought to have had his fill of mediocrity given his downtown lunch beat at Crain’s, says our niceness is a virtue:

What Kessler means in terms of dining is that Chicago’s desire to celebrate its achievements, to “cheer on the pretty good,” stifles the ability to identify flaws and improve. I don’t think the critical focus on the positive—by professionals or amateurs—reflects the same boosterism as pride in the city’s firsts and bests. I think cheering the pretty good is the optimism at the root of Midwesternese, the tendency to point to good things and say “that’s interesting” about the rest. On the rare occasions I’ve heard back from restaurants I reviewed, I’ve been thanked for honesty without cruelty, a slogan for Midwestern opinions that would be hard to beat.

Kessler’s diss on our immigrant food scene in particular came in for attack. Ashok Selvam at Eater:

Particularly odd was the section on “immigrant cooking.” Of Chicago’s historically international districts, Kessler had this to say: “Not that I haven’t enjoyed exploring Argyle Street, Devon Avenue, and Chinatown, but man, they all feel so tired.” That felt like a sucker punch to the already systematically marginalized immigrant communities of Chicago. As a child of two immigrants, I count myself as a member of this group. Immigrant cuisine is survival cuisine — one that isn’t designed to be fetishized by Instagrammers. Asking for better options is understandable, but it’s ignoring the why that kills me.

Jonathan Zaragoza:

To say that entire neighborhoods “feel tired” is not only irresponsible and lazy writing, but it’s low-key racist to the hardworking business owners of these communities. If you’re truly putting the responsibility on the diners shoulders, why paint with such a broad brush? Isn’t the point to get the dining public excited about the spots that are killing it?

Jennifer Kim of Passerotto:

Food linked to one’s specific culture has deep emotional and spiritual roots; it’s our connection, our history, a part of our existence. We don’t subsist for people to jump in and experience small snippets of our culture, and then have the privilege to jump back out, feeling like a more “cultured and worldly” person. We aren’t a tourist attraction.

All right, now it’s my turn to go through the piece’s points. I should point out that I have gotten to know Kessler pretty well this year and, in fact, if he’s written about a place lately, like Xocome Antojeria or Ghin Khao or Pan Artesanal, good chance I was there with him. (Ironically, we also went to Passerotto together—he liked it!) Anyway:

• Intro: We do seem to be in a bit of an in-between time, waiting for the next great thing. And while my main love is the place that does little miracles at modest prices, I do feel like we’re thin on high-priced swagger at the moment. California got Vespertine and Dialogue and Single Thread all recently; we could use that next big-balled place that makes you go, whoa. That said, as many noted, that same national media that apparently sniffs at Chicago this week also published this not long ago. Media can have a herd mentality, and nothing comes in for grief quicker than yesterday’s darling; the trendiness wheel will turn on its own.

• “We have not figured out local and seasonal cooking”: On the one hand, I think we’ve been doing it so long that it’s integrated almost invisibly into our scene—as when it’s in sandwiches at the airport, for instance. And maybe we just do it differently than places with better climates—more preserving, less fresh stuff. But nothing wrong with challenging ourselves on it, asking if we’re doing enough and where to take it next. And I think media has kind of become bored with telling that story over and over; Smyth is a standout and gets the coverage, but Arbor gets wildly overlooked, and Daisies doesn’t get as much interest as it should. Who knows who else might be out there doing something interesting?

• “We need more exciting immigrant cooking”: Many got hung up on the line about Argyle Street, Devon Avenue, and Chinatown being tired. (I strongly disagree about the latter, at least, by the way.) What they miss is the next line: “Good restaurants in the suburbs, or even those in urban neighborhoods outside the well-known ethnic corridors, don’t attract enough city dwellers to sway the conversation.”

Kessler and I have talked about this, and what it’s really about is that the real innovation and fresh blood in international cuisines is often well outside city limits—Indian in Schaumburg, Korean in Niles and Morton Grove, Japanese in Mount Prospect, middle eastern in Bridgeview and further south. And it’s just hard to get people in the city to travel that far, and their own communities don’t seem to produce food media about them. But that’s partly geography—he says that stuff was closer to get to in Atlanta, and you know what? It’s really close to get to in Columbus, Ohio, which has tons of Indian and African food just blocks from the university area. But that says more about sheer distance than a city’s outlook. Even Jonathan Gold, when I asked him if people in Santa Monica and Venice really drove to the SGV for Chinese food, only said “If they aren’t, at least they know they should be.”

Some of the comments in this vein came down to hey, immigrant restaurants aren’t here just for you, Mr. White Critic Man. Fair enough, and great if restaurant owners want to feel solidarity as a group, but food writers aren’t here to be your uncritical supporters, either. Good criticism hopefully rewards the better restaurants, but it also helps everybody—people who are led to a really good experience with a cuisine will eat more of it in the future than people who went to a lamer place and went away thinking, ennh. I saw a number of people accusing Kessler of ignorance or even bigotry toward immigrant restaurants; this is the point where you owe a writer looking at his actual work, and Kessler’s has almost entirely been about championing the best places he’s found from many different cultures. (LTHForum predictably preened that he needs better guides to the city. No, they need to go to Xocome Antojeria already.)

Here’s how I see it, with a longer perspective than Kessler’s. When I started playing around on Chowhound, and later the original LTHForum in the early aughts, the city’s top reviewers basically wouldn’t even look at anything outside a strip of yuppieville from the Gold Coast to Lincoln Park. We really worked then to expand how people looked at the scene, and it’s all way better now. (One good thing that’s finally happening, Nick Kindelsperger says, is that at long last the Trib is giving real stars, not second class cheap eats forks, to standout immigrant restaurants.) So, things are better—but they can always be better still, and do more to bring immigrant restaurants into the foodie conversation.

• “The West Loop…” You know, it is what it is. I think there’s plenty to like there, even Boka Group restaurants! (Congrats, guys, you know you’re on top when you’re the prime target.) But if you don’t, there’s plenty of other neighborhoods with little restaurants to explore, too. And honestly, I think who this applies to more than anybody isn’t Chicagoans—it’s out-of-town writers who don’t leave Randolph street and think they’ve been here, which is why Steve Dolinsky and I did media restaurant tours out in the actual city for Choose Chicago during last year’s Beards.

• “Our street food culture is stuck in the past.” This one, guilty and we all know it. It’s not where innovation comes from here—mostly, it’s where lame fusion concepts come from. The street food situation is a long-running self-inflicted injury. As for whether we should have more lines for things like Italian beef—hey, it took me more than a decade here to really love it, but as I’ve observed, it is also something sort of on its way out. You have to admit that our street/blue collar food culture is more backward than forward-looking, with some notable exceptions.

• “You have to be on Team Chicago.” Incredibly guilty, as the jury in The Producers declares. There is a boosterism thing here, that I associate with smaller towns, not big shoulders Chicago. And I’m guilty of it too! (No bad reviews in The Fooditor 99.) It’s why I worry that we don’t do bad reviews any more—we’d rather pretend a place doesn’t exist, or write a wishy-washy “seems promising” review rather than come out and say it sucks. But you need some rigorous standard-setting from critics. That’s what big towns do (“If I can make it there…”).

I think we’re tough enough to take some tough love here, restaurants and media alike, and learn from all of it, agree or disagree, rather than killing the messenger. And if he gets us more riled up to push for our city’s immigrant food scene overall, at its best, well, good for that, too.

2. GOT BRASS

A good example of what full-throated criticism does that helps everybody, if not necessarily by making them happier, is in Jeff Ruby’s mixed review for Brass Heart. He identifies what works, says why other parts don’t—and if Brass Heart is better in six months or a year, he’ll be a little part of the reason why: “At Brass Heart, when this artistry comes together in a cohesive whole, you get dishes like Ham and Eggs, a hunk of sausage made from acorn-fed pata negra pigs and served alongside a bulging poached quail egg on an island of toast in a jamón Ibérico consommé. Puncture the egg with your spoon and it sinks into the soup, one-upping the decadence of the ham wallowing in it… Alas, the procession of zillion-megawatt meteorites is interspersed with miscalculations and filler. The course before that magical halibut involved cappelletti chewier than bubblegum, stuffed with oversalty pheasant, and served in a broth so aggressively earthy it almost tasted like dirt.” See also this exchange.

3. LIGHTNING ROUND

In something I wish they’d do more often, the Trib knocks out ten shorter reviews of neighborhood places of note. Too many to individually note, but highlights include Amerikas, a new Cuban restaurant in Oak Park from the folks behind one of the better places to eat in Skokie, Libertad (“The most memorable dish on the menu is coliflor, a gorgeous roasted-vegetable plate [with] a sweet-spicy sauce of chile de arbol and hibiscus”); recent Fooditor profilee Bayan Ko; hidden Italian gem Pisolino, which has been in The Fooditor 99 the last two years (“all the elements of that classic neighborhood pizza and pasta joint you wish would open up around the corner”); and Bucktown’s Tricycle (“The menu, at first glance, may seem a little tired — rumaki and lamb lollipops? — but nearly every dish we had seemed to satisfy a craving we didn’t know we had”).

4. ULTRALIGHT BREAM

Michael Nagrant’s writing style and the in-your-face sushi at Otto Phan’s Kyōten are a match made in excess heaven, as his piece “The Rise of Sushi Yeezus” shows: “Phan’s personal sushi style is bigly. As per his Instagram boast, he really does have the large rice, using a plump grain that’s reminiscent of Arborio risotto-style rice. His fish slices are slab-like. Phan’s offerings are tailor-made for our Super Big Gulp-chugging, trenta-coffee slurping, and ghost-pepper-popping food culture. Phan’s sushi flexes. It is muscular, brutal, and an unapologetic destroyer. It is early-career Mike Tyson sushi. Sometimes this works. Sometimes it feels like I’m going down on John Holmes.”

5. RICA ACT

Louisa Chu advises you to go beyond the ricas at Rica Arepa to the weekend specials like the sancocho, a soup “that counts among its ingredients not just chamorro, the beef shank simmered nearly spoonable with whole chicken legs, plus a bounty of yuca root, squash, corn on the cob, potato, cilantro, scallions and unexpectedly minty oregano. With a solar squeeze of lime and a vital arepa on the side, each bite is a celebration of life.”

6. BAITA WAY

Joanne Trestrail reviews Eataly’s latest pop-up, a winter ski lodge menu called Baita: “One of the most famous apres-ski dishes in snowy parts of the world is raclette, a classic treat of sharp-flavored melted cheese with toasted bread. Here it comes with arugula and a choice of things to be topped by the gorgeous goo—pickled vegetables, potatoes or prosciutto ($11 each; $28 for all three). Feeling splurgey as well as cheesy? Add a 4-gram shaving of in-season truffle ($15 black; $32 white).

7. SU-SU-SUDIO

“Give yourself ample time to drink in the butter-bathed Provencal fare and compulsory charm of Roscoe Village newbie Le Sud,” says Maggie Hennessy in Time Out. “Executive chef Ryan Brosseau (Table, Donkey & Stick) livens up southern French classics with the same modern essentialist approach I love so much at TDS. Under the discerning eye of beverage director/sommelier/nice-ass guy Terry McNeese (De Quay), timeless cocktails get clever upgrades while wines from untapped regions lie in wait among the highlight reel of French bubbles and reds.”

8. LANDBIRDSHARK

Seemingly everybody in Chicago food media tried Landbirds‘ lollipop chicken in the last week or two, but Grace Wong has the story on where it all comes from: “Although a few Asian fried-chicken shops have opened in the last year, [owner Eddie] Lee said he chose to do lollipop chicken wings because he felt it was something that was lacking and the sauces were never quite right. He loved the chicken wings from Great Sea Chinese Restaurant, which he grew up eating, but he wanted to make them even better.”

9. SEE CHICAGO USA ON THE CTA

Well, this is timely: speaking of getting out and eating the city’s different communities, “Chicago represents the perfect sweet spot as a U.S. city with a good public transportation system and excellent taquerias,” Streetsblog Chi says, reporting on a CityLab study that rated both side by side. So catch a train and go eat some tacos! (H/t Ariel Cheung)

10. MALL OF AMERICA

And speaking of finding international food in the burbs, Steve Dolinsky is halfway through doing four video reports on an international mall in Niles. No, it’s not Assi Plaza (where, by the way, John Kessler and I ate a few things in the food court before we went to To Soc Chon) but Golf Glen Mall, which has a Greek diner, Indian Bistro Express, Filipino at Ati Atihan and Cid’s Ma Mon Luk, Korean food at Kickin’ and Jang Choong Dong, and more. Start with part 1 here.

12. PATEL!

And speaking even more of immigrant cuisines, two tributes to the values of South Asian markets on Devon: Malika Ameen on Kamdar Plaza, and a piece in Slate on the way South Asian markets eased the immigrant experience, with significant mention of Devon’s Patel Bros.

13. EX-42 GRAMS CHEF TO OPEN RESTAURANT

Jacob (formerly Jake) Bickelhaupt announced plans to open a still-unnamed restaurant in Bucktown. And if you think the harshest thing written about Chicago chefs this week was by John Kessler, read how Ashok Selvam, who reported the earlier story of Bickelhaupt’s assault and battery charge against ex-wife Alexa Welsh, announces the news here.

14. PRINCE ALBERT IN A CAN

Andrew Gietzen is a former Chicago chef now importing high quality canned fish, called conservas, that are popping up on menus around town. Chicago tells you more.

15. ONE MORE FROM THE HEARTLAND

Last week I was a bit skeptical about the nostalgia for the closing Heartland Cafe, a true hippie-era relic, but Edward McClelland makes more of a case for it at Chicago mag, particularly looking back on a day when a candidate for senator named Barack Obama made an early speech there. The gist of his tribute to the place’s quirky charms: “The Heartland stayed open far longer than more professionally run establishments. It was a beloved community institution. It reflected Rogers Park’s image of itself as a community of eccentrics, misfits, and free spirits hiding up there in the attic of Chicago.”

16. FUNNY, YOU DON’T LOOK TRONCISH

Could the Michael Ferro era at Tronc get even worse? Did you doubt it for a second? First, we learned where another $2.5 million of money that could be paying for, you know, actual journalism went: it paid off a fired L.A. Times executive (reportedly former editor in chief Devan Maharaj) who was blackmailing Ferro after he got fired because he heard him say an anti-semitic slur, referring to Eli Broad and other actual grownups on the L.A. cultural scene as “a Jewish cabal.” ($2.5 million for that? I could get it for you wholesale!) Be sure to take in the total impact of that story, which is not just that Ferro is a moron, but that a fired executive in the company immediately leveraged it for his own pocket at a time when the newspaper is cutting jobs. The Mafia would be an ethical improvement on all of them at this point.

But at least it’s about to be sold, right? And the McClatchy crew, they run newspapers, at least, so as good a partner as you’re gonna get. But not as good a partner as the Benjamins that Ferro apparently still thinks he can get (he reportedly wants $20 a share, McClatchy offered $16.50, both well above the $13ish the stock traded for last week). So he refused to vote his shares for the deal. Nieman Lab has a very good story about the future that McClatchy-Trubune could result in, and why Ferro, of course, blocked it—because at long last, his era of error would be over.

BACK IN 2019

Fooditor is off for the holidays and will be back in the new year. But remember, it’s never too early to start eating out of The Fooditor 99’s 2019 edition! Get it in paperback or for Kindle.

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