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April 30, 2006

Still Angry

Dominic Armato (Sausage courtesy of Hot Doug's, legislative ban courtesy of Joe Moore and the Chicago City Council)
Yeah, it took four days.

I'm still angry. And it embarrasses me that of all the things I could be angry about, a little duck liver is what got me. But it's an unusual combination of passion and principle for me, added to the fact that I invested in this one. I educated myself. I wrote letters. I called people. And then a unanimous vote went the other way.

For those who might have missed it, the city of Chicago has banned the sale of foie gras by all food purveyors within the city limits, effective sometime in June. So in an effort not to go overboard with the rant, here are the reasons why this is ridiculous, in concise fashion:

  • The assertion that gavage (the process by which ducks and geese are force fed) is painful and torturous to the animals is borne of anthropomorphization, and completely unsupported by all scientific evidence is, at best, very weakly supported by the very limited available scientific evidence, AND is heavily outweighed by other more compelling scientific evidence that suggests the contrary.. (* - See below).
  • The American Veterinary Medical Association, the veterinary (though unrelated) version of the AMA, which is comprised of scientists who have devoted their lives to animal welfare, researched this very subject. Not only did their animal welfare committee unanimously decide not to draft a resolution condemning gavage, but they also reported that in conducting their research on the subect, they determined that not only was there no indication that foie gras fowl were being tortured, but that the birds were, in fact, generally very well cared for, and certainly treated much better than the chickens at factory farms that produce the bulk of the nation's meat supply. In fact, members of the committee went so far as to say that "force feeding" was a misleading and prejudicial term, and suggested that "tube feeding" be used instead, since gavage very closely resembles the tube feeding techniques used by large numbers of veterinarians.
  • Given the manner in which most meat in the United States is produced, the argument that foie gras is cruel but chicken, pork, veal, beef and fish are okay is the height of hypocrisy.
  • To therefore single out and ban foie gras because it's a rare food that nobody eats and only "rich people" can afford is both bullying and classist (and as a side note, Hot Doug's sausage, pictured above and since renamed the "Joe Moore", costs $7... that's rich folks food, all right).
  • Given the precedent that the fine city council of Chicago has set for what constitutes cruel and illegal meat production, those who wish to ban all meat products can now argue that to be consistent we must ban almost all supermarket and restaurant meats throughout the United States... and they'll be absolutely right.
Of course, the last won't happen. Chicken isn't going away anytime soon. There may be a few members of the city council who believe that it's morally wrong to eat animals, and that all meat production in the US is cruel and should be illegal. They'd be wrongheaded in pursuing this ban, but at least they'd be consistent. But this isn't what most members of the city council believe. To vote for the ban on foie gras and then buy a chicken at the local supermarket goes beyond inconsistent. It's hypocrisy, plain and simple. So all the city council has shown is that they don't have the courage to simply say what they all know... that the arguments they're referring to in the defense of their vote could be made for all of the meats they eat, and the only reason they didn't vote no is because they were too lazy/cowardly/sleazy to do the right thing.

I count my alderman, Manuel Flores, among them.

I give Mr. Flores full points for speaking to me. Twice, in fact. We talked for a good 15-20 minutes both before and after the final approval of the ban. In our first conversation, he seemed genuinely concerned. He talked about the fact that he considered himself a normal meat eater. He was aware of the fact that all animals, in the process of being turned into meat, are put through processes that many would consider wrong or inhumane or torturous. He seemed concerned about a potential slippery slope. He conceded that he had never worked with birds or visited a foie gras farm. And he stressed, more than anything else, that he felt it was ridiculous that the city council was even considering such a piece of legislation. What I learned from my first conversation with Mr. Flores is that he is very intelligent.

Unfortunately, this only served to clarify what I learned about him in our second conversation... that he is a coward. When he called back, I wasn't certain where he voted. The Chicago papers reported a unanimous vote, the New York Times reported a 48-1 vote, and I also understood that the vote may not have been a full roll call, but rather a voice vote. So I decided not to ask at first, and just wait and see what he had to say. So I asked him what happened. He initially tried to write it off as the unfortunate result of procedural issues. He told me about how, well, it passed the committee, and for something not to be made into law after it passes committee, something "really big" has to happen, and they felt that they had more important things to do than go through the the process of trying to stop it, many of which he tried to tell me about, and none of which were the topic of our conversation. I expressed amazement that their default position, when they felt that a bill wasn't worth their time and attention, was to PASS it rather than SKIP it. So I pressed him. I wanted to know where he stood. And he told me that with the materials he was given, he thought that foie gras production was, in fact, inhumane.

This was where he tried to assure me that there was no fear of a slippery slope. He wouldn't support a ban on any other meat products. He told me all about how he eats meat... how he likes meat. This is where I told him that this bothers me more. If he had told me that he felt most meat production in the US was cruel and should be banned and that he had an opportunity to work on the first step, I'd still be angry that he'd supported the bill, but at least his position would have been consistent. But I told him that to anybody who was even moderately educated in meat processing, as I knew he had been, to ban foie gras and then go eat chicken was hypocritical and stunk of ugly politics... banning something simply beacuse it's easy and there aren't enough people who care enough to object strenuously enough. Votes won't be lost over foie gras. His response was interesting. At this point, he stopped using the word "inhumane".

He said that he felt foie gras was "different".

So now I wanted to know. I wanted to know if he really, truly believed that there was something exceptional, something unusual about foie gras production. I wanted to see if maybe there was some chance he was acting on principle, however misguided I believed it to be. I wanted to know if he really believed that foie gras was "different", or if he was just using that as a crutch to excuse his vote. So I asked if he had, in fact, received and read the paperwork from the AVMA that I'd sent to him. I reminded him that the animal welfare committee of the AVMA, a scientific institution comprised of experts and scientists in the field of animal anatomy, all of whom had devoted their lives to the well-being of animals, had said that the foie gras fowl they observed were extremely well cared for, that there was no scientific or even anecdotal evidence that gavage was torturous (or even uncomfortable), and that the foie gras fowl were, in fact, treated far better than most chickens in the US. He said yes, he was aware of the AVMA's report. So I asked him if he disagreed with the AVMA.

He wouldn't say.

Over the next five minutes, I tried three or four times, rephrasing the question, trying to determine if he simply felt the AVMA was wrong... simply believed in his heart of hearts that they were mistaken. I asked him if he thought the AVMA was wrong. I asked if he felt they were mistaken. I asked if he felt they were incorrect. He wouldn't do it. He would only say that he thought foie gras was "different". He would say that yes, he thought foie gras production was worse than chicken or veal or pork production and worthy of a ban while the others weren't. But then when reminded that the AVMA had concluded that this wasn't the case, he couldn't simply say, "well, I think they're wrong."

In some ways, I understand this reaction. Having already stated that he didn't see any problem with eating chicken, he was in the position of having to admit that either he believed the largest and most respected organization of animal scientists in the United States was dead wrong, or that he'd just voted to approve a bullshit piece of legislation. The only remaining question was whether he actually disagreed with the AVMA and didn't want to admit it, or was simply sticking to the easy talking point of "foie gras is different". His lack of willingness to simply say he thought the AVMA was wrong told me most of what I needed to know, but there was something else he said that clinched it for me. Shortly after telling me that he thought foie gras was "different", he said to me:

"Well, perhaps this wasn't the Chicago City Council's finest hour..."

He then proceeded to assure me that there would be no slippery slope. That my assertions that he had just set precedent... real PRECEDENT... were unfounded. He assured me that reasonable minds would prevail in the event that broader legslation was introduced.

And that was it for me. I told him that it wasn't intended as a personal attack, but that I was angry with him, I was angry that he had supported this ban, that anything more I had to say wouldn't be constructive, and I thanked him for his time.

I'm no mindreader. But to me, all of this says the following. I suspect that Manny Flores finds foie gras production distasteful. Many people do when faced with the reality that their meat products don't just magically appear under cellophane or on a sandwich. I also suspect that Manny Flores was (rightfully) annoyed that the city council had to deal with this. And I suspect that he knew full well that in any rational discussion, the assertion that foie gras was somehow substantively different was completely unsupportable. But I think that, as a politician, he felt that banning foie gras simply wasn't that big a deal, and that it was easier to just let it go and throw Joe Moore a bone and deal with a small handful of annoyed foodies and restauranteurs than the highly organized animal rights activists that he told me had been banging down his door. In short, I suspect that even though his brain told him this piece of legislation had absolutely no business being passed, he decided to simply take the easy way out.

Of course, I don't know the man. This is just my impression. But my impressions get a vote, and they don't vote for cowards.

UPDATE : I wrote this while quite angry, and there's one phrase that I think was more definitive than it should have been. I don't want to be guilty of the same exaggeration and selective referencing that characterizes much of the anti-foie argument. To say that the assertion that gavage is torturous is "completely unsupported by all scientific evidence" is not accurate. There is a small amount of weak evidence around which this case has been made. So to amend, the assertion that gavage is torturous to ducks and geese is very weakly supported by the very limited available scientific evidence, AND is heavily outweighed by other more compelling scientific evidence that suggests the contrary. That, I think, is a more accurate way of saying what I'm trying to say. Bottom line, to present the belief that gavage is torturous to ducks and geese as scientific fact is, at best, wishful thinking, and at worst, misleading and dishonest, and I make the change because I don't want to be guilty of the same myself.

April 26, 2006

Foie Gras

I'm beyond livid.

Chicago Bans Foie Gras

More later when I'm calm enough to write something.

April 24, 2006

Casumziei Ampezzani

Dominic Armato
In my zeal to talk up the Kitchenaid pasta rollers, I neglected to mention that I tried an interesting pasta this past Movie & Pasta Night.

The name is half the fun. At the risk of playing Mario Batali, casumziei are beet ravioli, with Ampezzani meaning that they're from Ampezzo, which is a little region in the north of the Veneto, situated in the Dolomite mountains. As such, had I been on the ball, our accompanying film would have been some classic blaxploitation flick. But I was too busy oohing and aahing over the pasta.

It's a little unusual. I've always felt that, while every region has its distinctive style, most of Italy plays by roughly the same set of rules... except for Sicily and the Veneto. The fact that Sicily's food is so unique doesn't surprise me one bit. It's separated from the rest of Italy by a ton of water, and... show of hands... who hasn't conquered Sicily at one time or another? The Veneto, on the other hand, I just don't get. If I were a well-informed Italian culinary historian, I'm sure I could explain why in exacting detail, but suffice it to say that the the foods of the Veneto are just different. And I love 'em for that.

Anyway, as with just about any good pasta, Casumziei Ampezzani is extremely simple. It's a very traditional dish that I don't have a terribly creative take on, and unlike the dried pasta, I haven't yet gotten around to writing the 10 commandments of fresh pasta, so no recipe for this one. But, here are a couple of recipes posted elsewhere, for the curious. The filling is roasted beets, ricotta and milk, and the sauce is melted butter and poppyseeds. A lot of poppyseeds. We're talking a "take a drug test and make your employer think you're a raging jacked-up coke fiend" amount of poppyseeds. A little bit of one of those northern hard cheeses is grated over the top, and there you go. Whether or not this one does it for you pretty much depends on how you feel about beets. I know a few folks who just don't do beets, and they're absolutely insane, but this probably isn't for them. That said, I think this is one of those "essence of" dishes, where if you try it and don't like it, okay... I surrender... beets just aren't your thing. If anything slathered in that much butter still doesn't do it for you, it's a pretty good indication that the love just isn't going to happen. Either way, they're pretty.

April 23, 2006

Yeah... I Went Back

Calvados-Infused Smoked Duck Sausage with Apple Mustard,
White Truffle Cheese and Foie Gras "Butter"

From Hot Doug's

April 22, 2006

Hot Doug's ... or ... Why All Meat Should Be Encased

Dominic Armato
Today, I tasted sausage for the first time.

Not literally, of course, but boy howdy, does it feel that way. What I had for lunch this afternoon was encased meat product like no other.

I first heard of Hot Doug's from my dear friend Kirsten a couple of years ago. She regaled me with tales of delicious, creative sausages. She teased me with the promise of duck fat fries. Then she mentioned that, oh yeah, they just had a fire and were closed indefinitely. This closure was the first in a line of occasionally legitimate excuses that kept me from visiting Doug Sohn's "Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium" until today. First, it was incinerated. Then, I was busy. Then, I forgot about it for a while. Then, it was featured on "Check, Please" and the place was a zoo. Then I traveled to China six times in one summer and was too jetlagged. Then I was busy getting married. And now? Now I weep for two years of lost link opportunities.

Since I'm way behind the curve on this one, I can't tell a dedicated food reader anything that he or she hasn't already read. But for those who haven't had the pleasure of hearing Doug's story, he now resides -- post blaze -- on a deserted-looking stretch of California just north of Belmont. A lively neighborhood, it isn't. Hot Doug's is across the street from Midway's nondescript grey bunker of an office building and an empty lot, and kitty corner from some sort of public utility building. It's a small joint, cute and clean with a perpetual line out the door. Seating is available indoors, where there is a window counter and perhaps ten tables, or outdoors, in the six foot wide walkway separating Doug's from the townhouse next door. Just inside the door, Doug himself stands posted -- Elvis Costello on an encased meat diet -- taking orders from and merrily jawing with every person who steps through his door.

Cajun Pork Sausage with Bleu Cheese Dijonnaise, Fried Okra and Spicy Smoked Almonds
The menu is essentially divided into two sections. The permanent menu consists of the classics: Chicago-style dog, Polish, brat, etc. But while the standards all appear to be (and are reported to be, by reliable sources) exceptionally well-prepared, the specials are what separate Doug's from the pack. Here, on a small 12x12" markerboard, is where you'll find link concoctions such as Calvados Infused Duck Sausage with Apple Mustard, White Truffle Cheese and Foie Gras "Butter", Beef and Lamb Gyros Sausage with Artichoke Tzatziki, Kalamata Olives and Feta Cheese, or White Wine and Dijon Rabbit Sausage with Sauce Moutarde and Tilsiter Cheese. Rounding out the menu are drinks and fries, which you can get fried in duck fat on Fridays and Saturdays. That and tater tots, which, in a gross and rare miscalculation on Doug's part, don't seem to be available in the duck fat variety.

Like everybody else, I'm all too familiar with the beautiful agony of looking at a menu and being absolutely paralyzed by all of the tasty-looking possibilities. But this decision was especially torturous. I decided to order two sausages, which was more a function of my resolve to try two options than it was of my actual hunger. Though I felt compelled to get at least one standard for benchmarking purposes, I couldn't resist the specials. Both the venison and the duck called out to me, but I absolutely couldn't walk out the door without trying a pork product. As such, since the venison appeared to be a fleeting special, I ordered the two you see pictured here... the Cajun Pork Sausage with Bleu Cheese Dijonnaise, Fried Okra and Spicy Smoked Almonds, and the Merlot and Blueberry Venison Sausage with Three-Berry Mustard and Stilton-Apricot Cheese. And, of course, duck spuds.

Merlot and Blueberry Venison Sausage with Three-Berry Mustard and Stilton-Apricot Cheese
My three compatriots and I took a seat at one of the outdoor tables, and a few minutes later our sausages and a mountain of fries followed suit, borne by one of Doug's staff. For reference, one order of duck fat fries = huge, and four orders = freaking enormous. We started out by giving the duck fries a try, except for Rob, who got regular fries because... well... I have absolutely no idea why he or anyone would pass on the duck fat fries. But as it turned out, the singular order of standard spuds provided us with an excellent opportunity to compare and contrast. The duck flavor was, somewhat surprisingly, rather mild, but the duck fries clearly had a depth of flavor that the standard fries lacked. That said, they were all fantastic... crispy and fatty and beautifully caramelized. And here, after the initial fry tasting, is where our lunch became an experience. All four of us inadvertently took our first bites of our respective sausages at exactly the same time. There was a brief pause, and then a spontaneous quadrophonic outburst of muffled moans and sighs of utter culinary bliss.

The sausages were incredible.

I mean, they were really, really, really incredible. The rolls had an unusual amount character for soft bread. The toppings, while bold in theory, were remarkably restrained in practice. The three-berry mustard, for example, could have easily been overly sweet. Any number of cheeses could have been chosen that would have absolutely overpowered the meat. And the spicy in spicy smoked almonds could conceivably cover a broad range. But all of the accompaniaments, while bursting with flavor, never crossed the line into distracting. They all knew that the star was the sausage. And, oh boy, the sausage. Flavorful, juicy and moist with just the right amount of fat. They were made from meats of impeccable quality, all beautifully seasoned. And perhaps most surprising, and pleasing, was the fact that they were exceptionally light and tender, with none of the tough, dense, chewy texture that I've come to expect from other sausages. We were, all four of us, absolutely floored, and planning our next visit by the third bite.

Dominic Armato
Though he's a graduate of Kendall College, my understanding is that Doug doesn't make his own sausage (though I'm not certain, so those in the know, please correct me if I'm misinformed). From what I read, he simply considers it too much work. Managing the store keeps him busy enough that he can't devote the time to the sausage that the art deserves. This would seem to fly in the face of the detail-oriented fanaticism that I tend to appreciate in my food purveyors, but in Doug's case, I only found myself respecting him more. There is one location, and there won't be any more. It's open only for lunch, from 10:30 to 4:00 Monday through Saturday. He could easily open up outlets in Lincoln Park or Wrigleyville, hire an army of minions, charge $15 a sausage, stay open 24 hours and make an absolute mint. But the man knows what he wants, enjoys what he does, works semi-normal hours, has a life and seems to be perfectly happy with it the way it is, thank you very much. Frankly, the guy could be open for two hours a week with a line around the block charging $20 a sandwich, and I'd be a regular. Thankfully, he doesn't make it so difficult, because it's a big, ever-changing menu, and I have a lot of lost time to make up for.

Hot Doug's
The Sausage Superstore
and Encased Meat Emporium

3324 N. California
Chicago, IL 60618

April 21, 2006

The Temptation of Technology

Dominic Armato
I love my old, traditional pasta machine, both from a utilitarian and an aesthetic standpoint. It's simple, it's cheap, it performs an important function that can't be replicated by other tools, and it's essentially the same as the ones they made a century ago. It's the perfect pasta maker for somebody who's generally opposed to single-function or needlessly overpowered kitchen gadgets. Add to this the nostalgic memories of rolling out pasta on my parents' machine and hanging it over the backs of kitchen chairs to dry, and it's no small wonder that I've resisted upgrading from the simple, traditional hand crank model for so long.

The problem is, these days, I make a lot of pasta. At least twice a month, and usually more like every week, I make pasta for a crowd of anywhere from 6-12 healthy eaters. It's always on a weeknight, so I'm trying to crank out a huge pot in 90 minutes or less. And since it's me, I can't just do something simple every time. So, trying to hand-crank four pounds of fresh pasta in such a narrow window is difficult at best, and more often a sweaty, tiring chore.

So I finally caved.

I got the pasta roller attachments for Kitchenaid mixers, and I have to say, they're pretty awesome. I haven't tried the cutters yet, but the roller works great. I'm a little supicious of the thickness settings, however. The thickest setting would make it difficult to start a stiff dough, and on the other end, I can't conceive of ever using the last THREE settings. So, there's a full third of the dial that is way thinner than pasta should ever be. I thought it might be for working on other types of dough, but the directions explicitly state that the rollers are for pasta dough ONLY, so that's clearly not the intention. I plan on determining whether mine was somehow adjusted improperly. But even so, it's really nice to work with. It's way faster. It's obviously way easier. And I'm getting better pasta from it as well. With the crank hand now free, it's infinitely easier to guide the dough, and I'm getting sheets of much more uniform width and thickness.

Thumbs up, even if they are a little pricey.

April 20, 2006


Dominic Armato

Among the culinary lessons I learned from my grandmother, who was a painter, were these:

Working meatballs too much while mixing them makes them tough, you don't need a meat tenderizing hammer as long as you have an empty wine bottle, and the artichoke is the most beautiful vegetable of them all by a wide, wide margin.

April 19, 2006

A Good Idea

Dominic Armato
I love Thai chiles, but I hate the way they're packaged.

Maybe hate is too strong of a word. But it drives me nuts that I rarely need more than two of these little fellows, and yet it's impossible to buy fewer than fifty of them at a time. It isn't a cost issue. They're dirt cheap. It just always feels like a waste. I hate using 2% of a package and then just trashing the rest. Which is why I'm embarrassed that I didn't do this myself.

Back in December, I was over at my folks' place to do a little cooking, and in typical fashion I bought a huge package of Thai chiles so I could mince a couple into some dipping sauce. Then, a couple of weeks ago, a bag of dried chiles turns up on my desk at work (deposited there by my father). Apparently, my mother took the leftover chiles, spread them out on a cookie sheet and sat the cookie sheet on top of a radiator. The result is the beautiful pile of dried chiles you see here.

I love 'em. For starters, they're potent. And the flavor is really nice. Rather than the earthy spiciness you get from most store-bought dried chiles, these have kind of a sweet-tart, almost fruity character. I mean, they're all hot pepper, but I'd use them differently than I do typical dried chiles. I could see these going very well with something fruity. They're a nice change of pace, and definitely preferable to just throwing them out. Not to mention which, they look awesome. I look forward to trying them out in something.

April 18, 2006

The Beef-Off - Chapter IV - Portillo's

Dominic Armato
In some ways, I'm torn about including a chain in the 2006 Beef-Off. It flies in the face of the grungy Chicago beef stand tradition as well as, frequently, culinary excellence. But Portillo's is a chain that is not only native to Chicago, but is also frequently recommended by friends. Plus, I have a dozen months to fill, so I figured it deserves a shot. Until today, I don't think I'd set foot in a Portillo's since I was seven or eight. But I figured if I was going to put Portillo's on the list, I'd have to set all prejudices aside and judge the beef for the beef.

Portillo's is a Chicago chain, born in 1963, that specializes in typical meaty lunch fare... beef sandwiches, hamburgers and the ubiquitous Chicago-style hot dog. For convenience's sake, I chose the monstrous location on Ontario, situated a short drive from my office. Everything leading up to the beef itself did not inspire confidence. The Ontario Portillo's is smack dab in the middle of theme restaurant central, flanked by the likes of the Hard Rock Cafe, Ed Debevic's, Rainforest Cafe and McDonald's ode to retro-modern architecture. Though it isn't quite so flashy from the outside, this Portillo's is full-on Disneyfied on the inside. It's a tableau of storybook old-timey Chicago, complete with fire escapes, ancient cars with Bonnie and Clyde runnerboards and numerous mannequins in Norman Rockwell poses. The two counters (Portillo's shares the space with another Dick Portillo brainchild, Barnelli's Pasta Bowl... eeugh) are staffed by a swarming army of employees. I counted at least 25 in plain sight, not counting the FIVE employees standing outside to help expedite the drive-thru. The kitchen is a gleaming model of cleanliness and efficiency, churning out huge numbers of meals. It is, quite simply, the absolute antithesis of the typical Chicago hot dog / Italian beef stand. I ordered my standard... beef, sweet hot and dipped, with fries... and this is when the woman taking my order threw me a bit of a curveball. She asked if I wanted cheese. I inquired, in disbelief, if she meant on the beef, which she confirmed. This nearly disqualified Portillo's on the spot. While there are many sandwiches with a fine beef and cheese tradition, under absolutely NO circumstances do dairy products belong on an Italian beef. I'm sure my look said it before my lips did, but I politely declined. I took my number, and a couple of minutes later I sat down with my first Italian beef from a chain restaurant.

Dominic Armato
You know what? It was pretty darn good.

Though the Beef-Off doesn't focus on the fries, I'm of the opinion that they're an integral part of an Italian beef meal. So in the case of Portillo's, we'll give them as much attention as they deserve. They were crinkle cut off the factory line, and assuredly frozen at some point... not bad, but not particulary good and completely uninteresting. Moving on. As for the beef itself, I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. Perhaps it was a result of low expectations, but I truly believe that this is a worthy beef sandwich. If I had to condense my opinion (which I don't, since it's my blog), I'd describe it as bold but balanced. There was none of the subtlety of the Chickie's sandwich going on here. It had the sweet, it had the spicy, the herbs were present and, naturally, the juicy beef was as well. All of the components were strong, but they were balanced enough that none dominated the others. The beef was both abundant and wonderfully moist. The giardiniera was vanilla but good; spicy and tart with chunks of hot pepper, finely diced celery and cauliflower, and long zig-zag strips of carrot. And though it's generally a component that can only cost an establishment points, I was unusually impressed by the bread. It was an extremely fresh roll that was not only tasty but also seemed to defy the laws of physics. My sandwich had clearly been dipped, as requested. The inner bun was wet and mushy, the middle was moist yet firm, and the outer crust was lightly coated with oily juice. But the crust, despite the soaking, somehow managed to maintain a little bit of crispiness that made for a great overall texture. And in a little touch that I particularly liked, I could be mistaken, but I thought I got a nice olive oil flavor that I really appreciated.

To read the previous paragraph, this must sound like an incredible beef. To be clear, I think it's rather good, but when all is said and done, it won't be winning my highest praise. While I'm unable to fault its technical execution, it still lacks the intangibles that separate the great beef sandwiches from the pack. For one, the beef flavor, while abundant, wasn't as full and rich as some others I've had. What's more, while the beef coexisted happily with the other elements, it wasn't the star. And in a way that I couldn't quite put my finger on, it lacked the subtlety and depth of some other beef sandwiches. While tasty, it was very straightforward with no surprises (other than the bread) and less character than I like in a beef sandwich. Lastly, the first bite / last bite factor was the opposite of what I'd like to see. A great beef gets a little better with every bite, as the oils and juices build in your mouth and the flavor unfolds. The Portillo's beef did just the opposite. For reasons I don't understand, the first bite was the best. It wasn't a big drop-off, but I felt there was a detectable decay that had me slightly less enthused upon finishing the sandwich.

So would I recommend it? Absolutely! In fact, I'd go so far as to say that I think it's a worthy baseline that would be a great intro for someone who was trying an Italian beef for the first time. Portillo's serves a textbook Italian beef, crisply executed. It's more Souza than Mozart, but I like it anyway. As for where it fits into the rankings thus far, it definitely isn't on the level of Chickie's, but while it may break my father's heart, I have to put it slightly above Roma's. I strongly suspect that Roma's has higher potential, but potential only scores points when realized. Thus, after four rounds, the standings are as follows:

1) Chickie's
2) Portillo's
3) Roma's
4) Al's

Addendum: The final Beef-Off results and wrapup can be found in The Year In Beef.

April 17, 2006

Things That Make Dom Cry

On Sunday, I had one of the most disturbing culinary experiences in recent memory.

I know many a foodie who insist that buffets are universally horrible. I say bah. It's true, putting a large tray of something out for picking takes the focus off small-scale quality and puts it on large-scale quantity. And it's pretty much a given that almost anything you have from a buffet isn't going to be as good as if it were prepared for you a la carte. But that said, I've been to some phenomenal buffets. The Thanksgiving buffet at the Four Seasons Los Angeles in Beverly Hills was awesome. If we're in Hong Kong on a Sunday, we'll usually partake of the buffet brunch at the Conrad Hotel. Delicious food, comfy surroundings, great care on the part of the staff not to let anything languish... models for what buffets should be.

Yesterday, we were invited to another hotel buffet. While the Wyndham Hotel in Itasca, Illinois doesn't quite have the cache of the other two I've mentioned, it was Easter, it was family, and hey... how bad could it be, right?

Wellllll, I knew we were in trouble the moment we stepped in the door and were greeted by two enormous lines, one labeled A-L and the other labeled M-Z. The next thing we saw was a disturbing 12 foot Easter bunny constructed entirely of white and pink balloons. As we would later discover, he was one of four such monstrosities strewn throughout the area. There was an area to have a professional photographer take your Easter family photo, there were wandering clowns and magicians, there was a movie theater where you could take a break from the feasting to watch The Incredibles, and there were a number of strolling musicians playing selections such as "That's Amore" and the theme from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast". You might get the impression, thus far, that this was a large production. Let me just say that the Wyndham in Itasca is a large atrium hotel, and nearly the entire ground floor was taken up by the Easter buffet. I don't just mean the atrium. I mean the atrium, conference rooms, ballrooms... everything but the front desk and restrooms. The number of seats had to be well into four digits. Now, there are many levels at which I could potentially appreciate such an epic event, not the least of which is ironic, but I think that said appreciation is predicated upon there being something at least semi-palatable hanging around. It is, after all, a buffet brunch. But really... when the best item at the buffet is the chafing dish at the kids' table full of soggy tater tots, it isn't a good scene.

At the breakfast area, there was leathery bacon and rock-hard biscuits with gravy that I'm certain could be used to layer bricks. A little further down the line, there were three consecutive meat dishes that had been overdone and oversauced to the point that the nature of the beast was completely unidentifiable. Whole poached salmon is pretty fool-proof, but despite the fact that there was a large, flat utensil present for cutting away large pieces, the crowd had evidently decided that the spiky tongs intended for the vegetable accompaniments were more appropriate, and our majestic piscine friend had been reduced to a pile of shredded salmon carnage, his cold, dead eyes pleading "Why, oh why couldn't I have ended up in the hands of a respectful sushi chef?!?"

The omelet station didn't look too bad.

Over at the carved meats station, there were enormous lamb shoulders that were apparently subjected to volcanic heat for weeks to ensure that they were well-well-reallywell-done and bone dry right down to the core. The ham had clearly been sitting in a saline bath since last Easter. The pasta bar... good god, the pasta bar... nothing makes my heart cry like enormous piles of cold, par-cooked pasta... your choice of shape... waiting to be tossed in a skillet for a few seconds with a couple ladlefuls of marinara or alfredo sauce. And the crowning touch... "a microepidemiologist's dream", as my doctorwife put it... a huge pile of the nastiest, greyest, slimiest, sludgiest most deadly-looking raw oysters I've ever seen. They didn't even bother with the pretense of ice, almost as if to say, "go on... we dare you." A five pound sack of iocaine powder could only dream of the killing potential of that pile of ex-bivalves. I saw a woman walking by with a huge plateful of them and quietly hummed Taps to myself.

So I guess there are two things to be learned from this experience. For all of you, the moral of the story is that if this is what you expect from holiday buffets, trust me... there are wonderful ones out there. For me, the moral of the story is that whenever my extended family is planning a culinary outing, much as I love them, I need to be sure that I'm the one making the plans.