Buzz List For January 28, 2019

Special chicken edition, plus Restaurant Week side by sides, a hot reservation in Ravenswood, and covering Chicago from the wrong time zone

Kyōten/Facebook
Box of fish at Kyōten

1. RESTAURANT WEEDOUT

Restaurant Week—which never just lasts a week— started on Friday night and will run until the 7th. Unfortunately the best part of Restaurant Week is absent this year: Anthony Todd’s painstaking analysis of which deals are actually worth the money (now $24 for lunch, and $36 or $48 for dinner). It’s unclear why his spreadsheet, which ran at Chicago mag last year after several years at Chicagoist, wasn’t produced this year, but it was always the most fun way to approach the promotional week(s)—oh, surely nobody would actually charge you more during Restaurant Week, you say, but yes they did, and Todd’s righteous smackdowns were looked forward to every year.

In its place we have a number of pieces which try to identify some better or worse deals. At Chicago magazine, Analisa Trofimuk tells you how to identify the better or worse deals… but is frustratingly sparse with actual suggestions from the data. Time Out has actual suggestions, and they’re useful for zeroing in on a particular reason to go to place, if likely all places you know about. Eater Chicago identifies a good deal and a bad deal for five different cuisines, though friend of Fooditor Kenny Z argued with their math.

Meanwhile, at the Tribune, they’re doing a mini-review each day of a restaurant on the list. Jennifer Day does the dual-duty Publican review/Restaurant Week evaluation: “The third course is the stuff of winter sustenance — and boy, does the Publican have that down. First, the meat: A perfectly crisped chunk of veal brisket gives way to a melty, buttery center. The brisket comes perched atop a pile of fluffy polenta and strewn with butternut squash caponata, pepitas and baby kale — a classic study in texture and flavor.” Phil Vettel does Coco Pazzo, while Louisa Chu checks out Parson’s Fish & Chicken. Hopefully somewhere along the way they will get to some of the lesser-known (or newer than 25-year-old Coco Pazzo, anyway) places among the participating restaurants.

2. KYŌTENDENCY

Kyōten has been such a favorite among my foodie friends that I was a bit startled to realize that Jeff Ruby’s new review at Chicago mag is the first major publication review it’s gotten locally. (Bloggers got there first: Michael Nagrant reviewed it, and so did Gary Leff, a San Francisco foodie.) Anyway, Ruby’s take is that yes, Chef Otto Phan is all that: “Lord, I wish my wife looked at me the way you look at your rice. It’s a large-grain variety, you explained, that you discovered while eating at a restaurant in Fukuoka. ‘No one in the U.S. uses it,’ you boasted while casually moving it from rice cooker to bowl. Then you seasoned it with aged red vinegar. Caressed it. Stared at it longingly… I found it all a bit silly — until you placed the first offering of your 20-course omakase on a striking marble slab.”

3. CHICKEN RUN

A dozen years ago Mike Sula reviewed all the Harold’s Chicken restaurants in Chicago. But you know, things change, and here’s Jeff Ruby doing it again, looking at all of the corporate-allied outlets, 20 in total, ranking them from best (“The Muhammad Ali–fixated decor makes perfect sense, because No. 88 floats like a butterfly, even during the heavy lunch hour, and the sweet, salty, and tangy flavors sting like — well, you get the idea”) to most dispiriting (“Mushy, puny chicken, indifferent staff, and a TV that no one bothers to turn on”).

And what did he get for it? Grief! Well, that’s the inevitable fate of all list-makers, but in this case the grief he got in particular was for a decision made early on, to stick to only the stores recognized by corporate. This seems justifiable—Chicago mag actually covered Harold’s HQ’s efforts to impose order on their empire some years back—but I think it flies in the face of the chain’s history, which was less unified Catholic church than Establishment church surrounded by breakaway schisms. Various people who’d worked for Harold Pierce (or, I don’t know, played poker with him or something) wound up owning Harold’ses which would over time take on their own character. So the true, questing student of Harold’s should use Ruby’s piece as a starting point—but not be afraid to explore other locations, like 53rd street, which seems to get a lot of love (no doubt at least part due to proximity to U of C).

Or whatever. Me, I prefer Uncle Remus, but the one in the Wal-Mart on North Ave. is no more. Oh, and check out the side piece on taffy grapes, which are unknown on the north side but common on the south side (not just Harold’s; they’re found at almost any fast food spot).

4. BAYAN KOME BACK REAL SOON

What’s the toughest reservation in town? Getting into tiny Bayan Ko is up there, Maggie Hennessy’s review suggests, but the combination of Cuban and Filipino flavors is worth it: “The flavors play together beautifully and occasionally collide on a single plate, as is the case with the Bayan lechon, with hunks of crisp fried pork belly, garlicky mojo and a tangle of sweet Filipino papaya slaw. Bayan Ko represents soulful second-generation cooking at its finest, and I can’t wait to return.”

Speaking of Bayan Ko, they were also featured on Steve Dolinsky’s segment on ABC 7 this week. Which won’t make it any easier!

5. SAY TEA

Have you heard of cheese tea? I tried it at Hello Jasmine in the Chinatown food court, and the combination of fruity tea and slightly salty, creamy foam was appealing, even if the name wasn’t. Mike Sula has lots more to say on the subject in talking about a new Malaysian place called Bingo Tea Malaysian Cafe: “Bingo’s tea menu… spans fruit teas (dragon, yuzu lemon honey, black grape), milk teas (buckwheat matcha, caramel black), and more subdued honey drinks. All are customizable with a variety of additions (boba, red beans, lychee jelly), but presiding above all is the ‘milk cap,’ or ‘sea salt milk foam,’ which is how the principals behind Bingo have rebranded cheese tea. You can top pretty much any drink with it, hot or cold, but I think its best expression is its most minimal: slowly descending into one of the black, green, or oolong teas, no sugar added. Don’t poke a straw through it. Sip through the lid’s aperture so the liquid passes through the foam, offering a hint of cheesecake and salt ahead of the tea’s tannins.”

6. SCHNITZEL MITN FIDL

Friend of Fooditor Dylan Maysick (he wrote this piece last summer) is the proprietor of Diaspora Dinners, an underground dinner series devoted to exploring Jewish cooking and cuisine, which earns him a profile this week at the Reader by Mike Sula. One of the best things I tried when I went was eggplant schnitzel: “‘We would have never ever gotten there without the rules,’ he says of the last dish, an animal-free nod to the ever-present veal schnitzels he encountered on a trip to Israel the previous year. ‘Trying to work around restrictions is the birth of creativity.’ The kosher dietary restrictions are partially what appeals to him about the global adaptability of Jewish food. And yet, ‘I didn’t grow up eating much ethnic food.'”

7. FINGER LICKIN’ POP

Never say that Fooditor doesn’t get results! Before the conversation that led to last week’s roundtable about women in the restaurant industry, Dana Cree of Pretty Cool and Christine Cikowski of Honey Butter Fried Chicken were talking about using savory chicken coating bits in an ice cream pop. (Cree already has a potato chip coated pop, which is mighty fine.) And… here it is on Instagram already! Pretty Cool will have it through Super Bowl Sunday.

8. TRUE WEST

Crain’s recommends the three-course power lunch at Truluck’s, an upscale chain with a Chicago location in the Gold Coast: “It’s expense-account-worthy, special-occasion dining, with steak and seafood prices soaring upward into ‘if you have to ask . . .’ territory, but it could be just the ticket if you have a client to dazzle. The surroundings are cushy; well-spaced tables, comfortable chairs and deeply ensconcing booths enable private conversation.”

9. RAMEN SPEED

The Izakaya at Momotaro just had a ramen popup with cult internet ramen guy Mike Satinover. Now The Izakaya at Momotaro has its own bowl of ramen! As Nick Kindelsperger explains, they’re neither serving Satinover’s ramen nor denying a connection between these two facts: “‘The bowl came from the influence of Mike,’ says [Izakaya chef Eric] Bentz. ‘The goal was to make it good, but not like his.’ So, yes, Bentz uses three kinds of miso paste, as Satinover does, but instead of stirring the miso pastes in at the end, Bentz caramelizes them in rendered chashu pork fat to give each sip a dark and mysterious depth. (Neither method is inherently better; they just produce different versions of the dish.)”

10. LAND SHARK

It’s a new week so it must be a gazillion new reviews at Titus Ruscitti’s blog. At Landbirds, the place built around Great Seas-like wings, “These wings are big and plump and fried to perfection. That enough makes them desirable but when the special sauce goes on they become just that – special.”

Mamina Kuhinja is a mysterious-looking Serb takeout joint in Edgewater, while Umacamon Japanese Kitchen is strip mall Japanese in Rolling Meadows, which he says is notable for a regional specialty called Champon Noodle Rice. Even if you’re unlikely to go to either of these, it’s worth reading just for the spirit of exploration that’s determined to figure out what they’re trying to offer from their homeland.

11. STANDARD DEVIATION

Eater of late has been running longer-form pieces on assorted Chicago restaurants, usually by a writer named Kat Odell who is apparently based in New York and L.A., per her Twitter. The latest one is about Pacific Standard Time, and as soon as it appeared with its premise—that as the headline says, “Pacific Standard Time Helped Chicagoans Love Vegetables”—it came in for scorn from Chicagoans.

“Eating greens — along with wood-fired pita, fermented chile-laced strip steak, and lamb chorizo — has proved to be just what Chicago craves,” Odell blithely declared, to which Michael Nagrant responded, “I am so glad that veggie Jesus came down to help the troglodyte meat and potato eating Chicagoans and show us a way to better eating.” Twitterers followed by pointing out the many vegetable-forward restaurants that predated it, such as Bad Hunter, Crofton on Wells, Charlie Trotter (who had a vegetarian tasting menu a quarter century ago) and not least, previous restaurants chef Erling Wu-Bower had worked at, like Avec and The Publican.

Okay, so I guess the cliché of “Chicago, city of deep dish pizzas and Italian beef, now has real restaurants with forks and everything!” has been replaced by “Chicago, city of meats, has discovered you can eat vegetables too!” It’s hard to imagine anyone who’d actually dined here much saying that, and there are other signs that Odell is not deeply immersed in the scene—as in her reference to Wu-Bower’s mother having been an immigrant, which is true (she got it here, I’m sure) but omits the salient fact that Olivia Wu was the freakin’ food editor of the Sun-Times.

More to the point, for all that the piece claims PST is doing something radically new, what it describes sounds like Chicago dining for at least ten years if not more: “a genre of cookery known for its fresh, seasonal ingredients and cross-cultural fusion”; “procuring as much top-level produce from local Chicago farms as the weather permits, and when the wintertime chill kicks in, [looking] to other parts of the country for product”; “the modern-day California bistro filtered through a Midwestern lens”—that all sounds a lot like what people here have been eating everywhere from Lula to Frontera to The Bristol for ages. What it doesn’t do is make clear some way that PST is doing anything novel. And if it is, nobody’s going to write another longform piece about it now; this was their chance.

It’s not just that these things aren’t being written by a Chicagoan—I’m all for outside perspectives—but they’re being written without basic knowledge of our restaurant scene, and I’m not sure I’d say there’s anything in the piece that unmistakably shows the author’s ever been to PST at all. At a time when there isn’t much longform being written about our city, it’s a real shame that one of the few outlets that still has money to spend on it is spending it on stories that only vaguely resemble the restaurants, and the city, that we all know. Perhaps there are some writers here you could consider for the next one, Eater; they might surprise you.

12. MAP OF BEEF

I linked a taco map last week and then I learned about a project to map and rate Italian beefs in the Chicago area and elsewhere. See the map here; the creator posted about how it was put together at LTHForum.

13. MY LIFE: DOING RADIO, JUDGING CHICKENS

I was on Dave Hoekstra’s Nocturnal Journal on WGN Radio last week, talking about The Fooditor 99. Listen to us here.

If you want fried chicken, champagne and a good cause all in one, the Kendall College Trust has ten chefs you’ve heard of cooking up fried chicken this Saturday, to raise money for culinary scholarships. I’ll be among the judges; see the details here.

And while we just had the Jean Banchet Awards, the big fundraiser for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation is the Grand Chefs Experience, which will be Friday night at the Field Museum; details for this ultra-luxury event are here.

WHERE MIKE ATE

It may have been beastly cold out, but I wasn’t going to miss a chance to return to Bar Sotano, and neither was anybody else, to judge by how full it was (but not overcrowded). The Bayless family wasn’t letting it run on its own, either—Lanie was mopping up the entryway as we walked in, and Rick was behind the bar.

Anyway, I’d been once for a preview, but seeing it on a real service night I enjoyed the cozy casual-ness of the place—the drinks, heavy on tropical citrus, are right to my taste, and the menu is Bayless’ most playful and informal. Besides the roasted vegetables on a plate of almond mole, which is the most insanely simple and perfect thing (spear ’em with your fork and drag ’em through the mole), I enjoyed a shrimp “cocktail” designed to taste like a mangonada and a nice, only Mexican-tinged classic bowl of mussels, while the de facto main course, the paella, is comfy and earthy and could not have been more right for that night. In the grand scheme of Bayless restaurants, this is not the most ambitious, but its size, creature comforts and highly agreeable menu are pretty perfectly meshed.

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