Buzz List For October 15, 2018

Bomb dropped on somms, never the Twain shall Free Rein, Tikka-outtahere, and an un-Pleasant tale of a non-customer

Free Rein/Facebook
Ricotta cavatelli with morcilla, Free Rein

1. MASTER SCHLEMIELIER

If you call yourself something as pompous as the Court of Master Sommeliers, Americas, when you screw up you’re gonna fall hard. And the Court screwed up like a debate team getting caught sneaking a peek at a rival high school’s notes while at the state championship. In fact that’s pretty much exactly what happened: five weeks after awarding 24 new Master Sommelier titles, the most ever awarded at one go, and then, as one wine-savvy GM put it to me, “Sending them home to have their restaurants throw them f—ing parties,” they said oops!, and took 23 of the titles back, including from Chicagoans Dan Pilkey (ex of Sixteen, among others) and Jill Zamorski (ex of Alinea Group).

The oops! was that it was discovered that one of the judges apparently tipped some of the aspiring somms off to what they’d be tasting the next day while hanging around the hotel. (The only person who kept hers was a woman who’d already passed the tasting part.) The culprit is suspected to be San Diego-based Master Sommelier Reggie Narito Jr., who saw four of his own students pass and was himself removed from the organization’s website this week; he was a visible figure in the “Somm” documentaries and other media about the wine world.

This is an enormous mess for an organization whose position, as the arbiter of who gets to flash the little pin on the floor as a certified wine expert, depended on faith that they had their act together. The fact that judges could apparently earn a side living as coaches, as Narito seems to have, is bad; the fact that the test was basically a big party at a hotel or resort where other forms of laxness may have occurred over the years, humans being humans, is arguably worse. The Court was left with only bad choices: cover it up and risk the whole thing crashing down, or boot a whole class for the sins of a few. The only real choice was the latter, but not surprisingly, those who had their titles stripped are not happy about it.

As Joseph Hernandez related in a Trib piece, 19 of the 23—the exact number of people who were not coached by Narito, one notes, though it is not clear that they match up perfectly—sent a letter protesting the loss of their honor: “to retest the 54 candidates [including those who didn’t pass] as a whole, effectively exonerates the guilty parties, and at the very least rewards their lack of moral courage. … The onus lies with the Board to conduct a full investigation into the scope of the cheating and issue an apology clearing those not involved in the allegations, fully reinstating their status as Master Sommeliers.” And indeed, all 19 signed the letter using the “MS” after their names.

Beyond that, though, one has to wonder if the Court can survive now that the curtain has been pulled back. My friend the wine-savvy GM says that the view within the profession has always been cynical—you don’t win the pin to be a better somm on the floor helping customers, but to jump to a high-paid 9 to 5 job working for a big wine or champagne house, whether or not you have any idea how to manage sales and inventory. The opportunity exists for some new group to sweep in with a customer focus representing a more modern approach to wine (including a less medieval-sounding name). Why not certifications by different regions, or for people who know the biodynamic wine world, or simply for outstanding service on the floor? Let a thousand noses bloom.

Friend of Fooditor and wine writer John Lenart has some pithy comments on Twitter starting here.

2. REIN MAKER

Phil Vettel liked GreenRiver and he likes Free Rein in the St. Jane hotel, where chef Aaron Lirette and others decamped to: “Keep an eye out for the cognac-cured, truffled foie-gras torchon, a special last month that’s about to join the regular menu; it’s a gorgeous composition… I loved the pork-belly roulade and its bacon-jus glaze, but its replacement — a sturdy pork-collar dish with guanciale-amaretto sauce and a sweet-potato-pecan puree so lovely I need to learn how to make this in time for Thanksgiving — is even better, finished off with amaretti crumble.”

3. HEY, DON’T BE A MYSTERIOUS STRANGER

Mike Sula tries Tim Graham’s take on midwestern community cookbook food at Twain and is pretty much taken: “The menu is a parade of the irresistibly absurd. There’s a thick, hollowed-out baked russet potato shell—the crunchiest potato chip on the river—cradling a deposit of soft, squishy gnocchi loaded with bacon, smoked sour cream, and gooey cheddar Mornay sauce. For beer cheese soup you’re meant to dilute at your own discretion a thick alloy of sharp Hook’s white cheddar, pureed carrot, and red pepper with dribbles from a High Life pony bottle like a splash of sherry. An abrupt swivel toward Japan is expressed by a surf-and-turf tower of meat loaf with thick, nori-seasoned onion rings and glazed freshwater eel. These rise from a pool of swampy, slightly sweet beef gravy alongside smooth mashed potatoes whipped with red miso, a trick I’m confident will go over huge at any Thanksgiving provided you don’t tell anyone over the age 50 or below the age of ten.”

4. TIKKAWHOOPS

Tikkawala was a hot new thing in Indian food. But it seemed to me like a place that hadn’t figured out what it was about or what it could pull off—the lunch menu (when I went) was much shorter and less ambitious than dinner, and soon they dropped lunch, leaving them offering dinner in a fast food setting in a kind of nowhere location next to a police academy in the West Loop. Which is why I was less impressed than many—my one lunch visit didn’t seem like I was getting the full taste of the place. Anyway, now we learn at the Reader that they’re closing after just five months, maybe to come back elsewhere. Per Mike Sula: “‘We started off with a real amazing menu,’ chef Hiran Patel told me when I talked to him earlier this week before filing next week’s restaurant review. ‘We hit a grand slam and got a lot of attention. It just didn’t make sense in dollars and cents to continue, because everything was from scratch, and we only had four tables and no bar program.'”

5. THE STEAK OF THE NATION

You can’t escape steak in this town, especially in a business publication, and so Crain’s does a steak issue, including a look at the latest crop of meat palaces, from Gibsons Italia (“Like a slick politician, Gibsons Italia deftly manages to please both the old-fashioned and the new-school steakhouse visitor”) to Truluck’s (“Fine steaks, problematic sides. Show-offy staffers should be given permission to dial it down a notch”). While Graham Meyer and Joanne Trestrail converse here about what they’re looking for in steakhouse.

6. PARLEZ VOUS

The Dining Out Loud podcast considers French food as Penny Pollack reviews Bistro Campagne and Michael Nagrant pulls out the stops for organ meats.

7. EASY XOCOME

Titus Ruscitti’s latest find that I need to check out, as soon as I can find time to shlep to 52nd and Archer, is a Mexican antojitos place called Xocome Antojeria: “The fact they called themselves an Antojeria was enough for me. Antojitos being Mexican snacks. Which are abundant at Xocome. After a few visits I observed that the tamales are probably the most popular item on the menu. The super friendly lady who runs the place told me that a woman comes in early each morning to make them. It’s not long after they’re ready that customers start stopping by for bags to bring to work etc. There’s a certain way I like my tamales and the best way to describe that would be slick. When they’re slick they’re extra fresh. Well these were some of the slickest in a hot minute.”

8. CACCIUCCO CAN

“‘I’m not randomly taking two things and trying to make it work. It’s something that’s been in the making my whole life,'” Jennifer Kim tells Bon Appetit about the mix of Korean and Italian at Passerotto. “In many ways, her dishes at Passerotto are simply more sophisticated versions of these early mashups: Cavatelli is tossed in nori butter; lamb ragu is served with chewy rice cakes; gochujang and tofu come together with Manila clams, mussels, and head-on shrimp for a clever marriage of soondubu and cacciucco, a Tuscan fish stew.”

9. FARMERS MARKET

This Bon Appetit list of the best farm to table restaurants in Chicago is a pretty good one—though the obvious omission is Daisies—but I notice that it says “Sponsored by Choose Chicago,” so we’re left to wonder what exactly that means about its editorial independence (also note that though written in the first person, there’s no author name attached to it). Anyway, not a bad list. And no Glad Wrap was involved in making it.

10. UNPLEASANTNESS

This is a dismaying story: Pleasant House, the English savory-pie-baking pub in Pilsen, is under fire after a professional activist for something called Chicago United For Equity posted on Facebook that she had observed the restaurant’s interaction with a black visitor: “the friendly server… got into a conversation with this woman about how she couldn’t stay at the table. They went back and forth for a minute, during which I tried to overhear the context and realized that the woman wanted a warm place to sit and figured the restaurant was hassling her about not buying anything. I asked her what she wanted and asked the server to put it on our bill. Several minutes later, another man (not dressed as a server) came over to talk to her, quietly trying to let her know that she had to leave again.”

This leads to many paragraphs attributing racism and favoritism toward white customers, lack of hiring of black people, “white savior complex,” etc. to the restaurant, and ends with demands for a boycott of this restaurant that doesn’t respect the community. In turn Art Jackson, the owner (with his wife Chelsea) of Pleasant House, attempts to give a restaurant owner’s context: “The guest you’re speaking of is a regular non-customer at PHP who we’ve unfortunately had negative incidents with in the past. It’s our job as small business owners to ensure the safety of all of our guests and it’s with that in mind that we do our very best to handle any potentially negative situations as best we can — while always showing respect and compassion first.”

I’m not impartial because I’ve known Art for a long time, and he’s one of the nicest guys I know in the food biz, but it seems to me that Ms. Brar read this incident according to her profession and leapt herself into “white savior” mode, whatever that is, at great length and with hope of whipping up a frenzy, but without ever considering any other possible reading of events.

I’ll tell you my story about Pleasant House and its community in its old Bridgeport location. I was shooting this video and getting a shot from about a block away. An old guy from the neighborhood sees me and starts loudly grumbling something about “F’ing hipsters makin’ movies, drivin’ prices up, driving people out.” Then he asks me who I’m making it for. I tell him it’s about Pleasant House—and all his anger immediately drains away and he sort of apologetically mumbles as he hurries off, “Oh, yeah, nice place. Art, he’s a good guy. Good luck with it.”

11. THE GUSANO TURNS

I noticed Pan Artesanal in west Logan Square under construction when I was writing this piece months ago—it’s almost right across from The Little Pickle—but put that one to press rather than wait for this Mexican bakery and sandwich shop to open. But it finally did, and I’ve been a couple of times—including once with John Kessler, who fills in the details in Chicago magazine.

12. HIPPETY

Hip Hop Wines sounds like a bad marketing concept, but it makes more sense in the context of the career of Derrick Westbrook, who started 57th Street Wines in Hyde Park, is a somm-DJ at City Winery for a series called Samples & Samples, and will be part of Bibliophile, the bookstore-restaurant opening soon in Hyde Park. Joseph Hernandez tells the story.

13. OMIGOSHE

We have three new omakase sushi joints in town, including Kyōten which Fooditor has featured, and Steve Dolinsky is the first one to do a compare and contrast for ABC 7 between Kyōten, Omakase Yume and Omakase Takeya.

14. MILWAUKEE MONTH

Fall is a good time to visit Milwaukee, as are three other seasons we could name, but fall has the advantage that it’s Dining Month at OnMilwaukee.com, which has assorted categories in which it’s named the best picks in town. See them all here as they come out; I can endorse several, including Iron Grate for best BBQ and #3 best taco The Laughing Taco.

15. 31 FLAVORS

Rick Bayless’s 31st anniversary benefit for the Frontera Farmer Foundation was Sunday, so don’t make any plans now, but the theme was honoring people who’ve been with his restaurants for a long time—and check out this Facebook post telling you about some of them. The longevity, I hear, is all due to the Emergency Taco.

16. BIRYANI OR LAURELS

Friend of Fooditor Chandra Ram, editor of Plate, has a book about Indian cooking in your Instant Pot, and the New York Times covered it and others, complete with her recipe for shrimp biryani: “Scented with turmeric, ginger and fresh curry leaves, the biryani was far more complex and fragrant than anything you might ever hope to make in under half an hour on a weeknight. And yet she had.”

17. WHEN YOU’RE ONLY HAVING TEN

Friend of Fooditor Karl Klockars offers up the top ten of Chicago craft beer. I was all ready to argue with it but honestly, it’s a really good list of the ones that really shaped our scene, from a certain county of stout to an Off Color mouse-catcher. (Chicago)

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