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May 09, 2006

Jakko Yakko

Dominic Armato
Ohhhh, it's been too long.

Japan is (predictably) one of my favorite culinary destinations, and after having missed our yearly trip in 2005, the cravings were getting pretty intense. So, having just gotten in this evening, despite a distinct lack of energy in the crowd, we opted to press on and grab a little something to eat before calling it a night.

We're staying in Ginza, as we generally do, but this time we're trying out a new hotel on the opposite end of the strip. As a result, all of the usual haunts are a ways away, so we decided to wander around for a few minutes and fall into a random spot. The place we picked wasn't bad. It was one of the ubiquitous office building Japanese restaurants where you can go to smoke, drink beer and put down any number of casual munchies until fairly late at night. I'm not a beer drinker, but I love getting beer in Japan. It's very clean, very crisp, very dry and very, very cold. And this was definitely the kind of establishment where the food was meant to go well with beer. So we obliged with some Sapporo and assorted small dishes, some good, some lackluster, and one that was rather tasty.

A google search on the name, "jakko yakko", turned up absolutely nothing, which leads me to believe that it's probably some house special, or perhaps just a goofy name for a more traditional dish. What you see pictured here was what arrived at the table (minus the one piece my father snagged before I managed to get the camera out). It was comprised of very fresh, cold tofu topped with tiny, crispy fried fish, fried garlic, scallions, and finished with a sweet and spicy soy-based sauce. If you're looking for the fish, they're there... quite whole. They're the tiny curls you'll see in the enlarged photo. The little black spots at one end are the eyes. They looked like little tiny baby smelt, or something of that nature. I've seen such fellows before, but I can't remember what type of fish they are. In any case, it was a great dish, and great beer food... salty, crunchy, garlicky, a little spicy... good stuff. But I'm rather curious to know if there's another more traditional name for this dish. Has anybody come across this before?

May 06, 2006

I Surrender

This may be the most painful blog entry I've ever made.

It has now been nearly six years since Survivor first aired, sparking the reality television craze that shoved scripted shows into the background. I didn't see it as a positive development in the world of entertainment then, and after six seasons of Fear Factor, I'm now more inclined to see it as a scourge.

Which is why it pains me to admit that today, after six years of reality TV-free living, one of them finally got me.

Last night, I dropped off to sleep on the sofa. Sometime in the middle of the night I stirred and stumbled into bed, and in my mostly unconscious stupor, I left the television on. So this morning, when I woke up and wandered into the living room to sit down with my laptop, I was greeted by a Top Chef marathon in progress. By the time I was done checking E-mail and surfing all of the usual websites, it was too late. I knew that Harold rocked, Candice didn't stand a snowball's chance in hell, Dave would do well to find himself some sedatives, Tiffani was talented but annoying, and Stephen deserved to be strung up by his thumbs in a dark cell and forced to subsist on Wonder Bread and Franzia.

I watched six episodes.

I'm still pained when the snarky drama is played up. It's dumb and annoying. And the fact that the producers, according to the fine print in the credits, apparently have the ability to covertly overrule the judges casts a WCW-esque shadow over what would otherwise be a really interesting contest. But that said, I have to admit it. I want to know how this thing plays out. Given my historical stand on reality television, the abuse I will take for this is well-deserved, especially since I'm sure I'll be in no position to make fun of Jake's weekly American Idol dissertations once the inevitable season two starts up.

In the interim, though it's a conventional pick, unless he stumbles it's got to be all about Harold. He isn't always the flashiest, but he has that classy restraint and crisp, clean execution that will only become more valuable as the pressure is turned up. Plus, if you're worried about the producers factor, he's easily the most marketable of those remaining. Tiffani can't match him and isn't creative enough to sneak around him. And while Dave is, indeed, the wildcard, there's no way he takes the pressure of the finals without tanking something in spectacular fashion. By the end of the finals, I predict that he's sloppy drunk at a skeezy off-strip blackjack table at 6:30 in the morning, still in his whites, yelling at a blue-haired septuagenarian dealer to hit his hard 17 and then bawling when he busts.

I need to go take a shower, now.

May 05, 2006

Caffè Gelato

Dominic Armato
Like balsamic, kobe and, with increasing frequency, toro, gelato is one of those culinary words that has been debased by food purveyors who inappropriately use a more exotic name to market their product. The fact is that most frozen confections sold as gelato in the States bear little resemblance to the gelato found throughout Italy. This isn't to make a quality judgement, of course... the distinction between the two isn't necessarily that one is "better"... but ice cream and gelato aren't synonymous.

For some reason, a common misconception seems to be that what gives gelato its richness is a heavier egg content, when in fact the opposite is usually the case. Generally speaking, gelato is lighter on the "rich" ingredients. Though the southern Italian gelati frequently contain eggs, many (if not most) in the north don't contain any eggs at all. And gelato is usually made with whole milk, and rarely, if ever, contains any cream. Of course, the misconceptions persist simply because it doesn't seem possible to achieve gelato's incredible intensity of flavor without the richer ingredients. But there's one factor that makes the difference.

It's all about air.

Ice cream makers incorporate a lot of air into the mixture during the freezing process, increasing the volume and lightening the texture of the final product. The goal of a good gelato, on the other hand, is to incorporate as little air as possible. The end result is that one spoonful of gelato could contain 2-3 times as much of the base flavoring as one spoonful of ice cream. This is the same reason that extremely low-quality ice creams frequently have so little flavor. It isn't necessarily that the ingredients aren't any good, it's that the manufacturers incorporate even more air than with typical ice cream, so that they get more volume out of the same ingredients and can charge less. Also, since the richness of gelato is achieved by means of its density rather than its butterfat content, the base flavors predominate. Of course, this also means that the base flavors are more exposed. If you aren't using good quality chocolate, for example, it can't hide behind the cream. This is another reason you don't see true gelato very often... it's harder to get away with lower-quality ingredients.

Dominic Armato
All of which is why it's nice to discover a place that takes the gelato challenge, and does so admirably. Caffè Gelato won't be mistaken for Giolitti, but they do a fine job. It's a small establishment on the trendy stretch of Division, just west of Damen, and right off the bat, they don't make the mistake of doing too much. They serve coffee and gelato and that's basically it. There's a small case of about 16 flavors that are made daily with Italian machinery that's designed for the purpose. There are traditional Italian favorites, such as nocciola, stracciatella and tiramisù, as well as your basic chocolate and vanilla and an assortment of fruit gelati, many of them seasonal. I tried a few benchmarks -- chocolate, pistachio and banana -- and was generally very happy with them. I thought the banana was a little too sweet, and the pistachio not sweet enough, but even if they weren't masterworks of frozen Italian confection, they were clearly made the way gelato should be. Suffice it to say that while I've had gelato in Italy that was much better, I've also had gelato in Italy that wasn't nearly as good. If you've ever wondered what the real stuff tastes like, give these guys a try, because they're the genuine article.

May 04, 2006

D'Amato's Bakery

Dominic Armato
On a whim, lunch today brought me to an old haunt that I hadn't visited in far, far too long. D'Amato's Bakery is a quick jaunt from the family business, and it used to be a regular destination. During my high school and college years, when I'd work summers packing samples, handling data entry and doing other menial tasks that needed doing, I'd pop in fairly regularly for the $1 cannoli that, to this day, may be the best I've had. The regular visits turned into daily visits when my buddy, roommate and coworker, Dave, developed a cannoli obsession that bordered on clinical. It wasn't unusual for him to pop into D'Amato's after work, buy a box filled with ten cannoli, and then consume them before the evening was out. In his defense, he had the metabolism for it and his body just shrugged them off. But when he'd drive along Sheridan with the windows rolled down screaming, "I HAVE CANNOLI!!!!", it was clear that his stomach wasn't the organ that was experiencing issues.

At any rate, yeah, they're good cannoli.

D'Amato's does, in fact, make some other items. They do a pretty decent loaf of Italian bread, as well as a horde of Italian cookies... as any good Italian bakery should... but the specialty of the house, despite what Dave may believe, is a phenomenal pizza. This was the object of my desire this afternoon.

Dominic Armato
D'Amato's makes an Italian-style sheet pizza, cooked in a large rectangular pan and cut into 8x6" pieces. It's an intensely-flavored slice, and its awesomeness knows no bounds. Unlike Pizza Metro, which also aspires to Italian pizza a taglio authenticity, D'Amato's foregoes the crispy in favor of the doughy. It's almost more of a pizza bread -- thick, moist and coated with olive oil or, if you're lucky, saturated with it. Only the brave and the uninitiated would dare to set down a D'Amato's carry-out bag on the passenger seat. The tomato sauce is fairly simple, with a very strong tomatoey intensity. There's some character to the cheese, which leads me to believe that there's both mozzarella and some parmigiano, though neither are present in excess. Sausage is optional, but it shouldn't be. And the best part, arguably, is the cheese at the edge of the pan. To call it caramelized would be charitable... it's full-on charred... but it's not the least bit unwelcome, providing a nice crunch and a bit of gnarly character. The pizza is served at room temperature, which some may find odd, but it's absolutely the right move. Some foods just taste better once they've cooled down, and this is one of them. Of course, you're free to bring it home and toast it up however you deem fit, but I recommend against it. It's best not to mess around with something this good.

May 03, 2006

Further Ridiculousness

Well, I managed to get my hands on the full text of the foie gras ban ordinance. I'm far enough away at this point that I can start to laugh at some of this, and some of it's pretty laughable. For the moment, we'll set aside the reference to the Zogby poll (which I've also, thanks to some help, managed to get a copy of, and anybody with a background in survey should get a good laugh out of it... more later), and focus instead on this little gem:

...WHEREAS, arguably our City's most renowned chef, Charlie Trotter, has stopped serving the delicacy, foie gras, in his restaurants...

This may require a little explanation, for those who haven't been following this saga closely. The whole debacle started a couple of years ago, when Charlie Trotter went public with his decision to stop serving foie gras at his restaurant. Another local fine dining chef, Rick Tramonto, made some commentary to the effect that it was hypocritical to stop serving foie gras because it was "inhumane" while continuing to serve veal and other similar meat products. This turned into a rather nasty feud between the two that was carried out primarily in print. It was this print that supposedly caught Joe Moore's attention, and inspired him to propose the ban. In interviews, Joe Moore has repeatedly made reference to Trotter's decision as leading the way and giving the subject the attention it needed for the ban to gain traction.

The irony is that Trotter doesn't actually support the ban.

While he has been quite vocal in insisting that his fellow chefs and restauranteurs need to examine the practice, when interviewed about a possible governmental ban on the sale of foie gras, the Chicago Tribune quoted Trotter as saying the following:

"The government shouldn't be meddling in things like this."

So, it appears that Trotter is now enshrined in the ordinance as an implicit supporter of a ban he actually opposes. He's a straight shooter, that Moore.

May 02, 2006

Honey 1

Dominic Armato
Hokay... more to come later, I'm sure, but I need to take a break from the foie gras debacle for a little bit or I'm headed off the deep end.

So let's talk BBQ.

I totally don't know BBQ. I mean, like most other things, I know enough about BBQ to know if it's good or lousy, but I'm not exactly educated on the finer points. I do, however, have a deep and abiding love for pulled pork sandwiches. In fact, my quest for the perfect pulled pork sandwich technically never came to an end. Honey 1 was already near the top of the Restaurants to Try list, given the consistent raves over at LTH coupled with their recent move to Logan Square. So when news hit that smokemaster Robert Adams had added pulled pork to the menu, it became clear that an inaugural visit was long overdue.

We popped in for lunch this past Thursday. The first good sign was that we could sniff the place out from at least a block away. I understand neighbors have been giving Mr. Adams some static over the 'hood's new aroma. And while I can certainly see how the scent of smoky meat might get a little old if you have to live with it, it's great on a temporary basis. It's impossible not to get an aggressive appetite going on the approach. The restaurant itself is a little antiseptic. It's comprised of two side-by-side storefronts, the line and kitchen on the right, and the dining room on the left. It's all white walls and brown formica tables. I suppose character is a little much to expect from a recently transplanted BBQ joint, but the staff helps somewhat by being appropriately colorful and talkative. The menu's fairly extensive. In addition to ribs, there are a number of fish specials, chicken wings, burgers, and links. But for an inaugural visit, we opted to stick to the basics... the aforementioned pulled pork, as well as another purported house specialty, the rib tips.

Dominic Armato
Remarkably, this was my first experience with rib tips, so I'll reserve commentary on them. BBQ preference is so personal that it's hard enough to make any assessment of quality, especially when you don't have a broad base of experience to work from. Suffice it to say that while I'm intrigued by rib tips and I appreciate the surprise bits of fat, I'd try the ribs next time rather than going back to the tips. Pulled pork, on the other hand, I've sampled quite a bit. So I feel quite comfortable saying this:

Honey 1's pulled pork is awesome.

Right off the bat, it's clear that Robert Adams knows his way around a pork shoulder. The flavor is fantastic... intense and porky with a potent smoky component through and through. But while I dug the flavor, I adored the texture. It probably goes without saying that this isn't the oversauced shredded pork mush that frequently passes itself off as BBQ. There was nothing uniform about the feel. This was a chaotic pile of highly varied pork bits, some extremely moist and tender, some chewy and caramelized, and the rest somewhere in between. I love the fact that Honey 1's pork has some bite. Though I realize that "cut it with a spoon" tenderness seems to be the most widely popular gauge of 'cue quality, I am increasingly becoming a member of the school that expects its pork to put up a bit of a fight.

As for the sauce, there are many who believe that pulled pork should always be Carolina-style, with copious vinegar. Though I also dig the über-tart variant, I'm not among those who consider anything else to be a travesty, and this sandwich is a perfect example why. Honey 1's sauce is bold and rounded, with a good balance of tart, sweet and spicy. Though the exact composition is a closely held secret (Adams has only revealed that it contains honey... natch), it's been rumored that Open Pit is the starting point. While this seems plausible, if true, the commercial product only acts as a springboard for greater things. It's a great complement to the pork, and it's applied sparingly, so that it doesn't overwhelm the meat. The sandwich is finished off with a bit of creamy cole slaw. This seemed like a risky move, but it worked for me. There was very little used, but the little hint of cool creaminess mellowed the edge of more aggressive smoke and spice flavors just a bit.

All in all, an extremely successful trip. I hope to get back for the ribs before too long, but it's going to be tough to stay away from the pulled pork. I'm not quite ready to declare an end to my quest for the perfect pulled pork, but this is less a reflection of Honey 1's sandwich and more a reflection of my growing belief that there are too many disparate and wonderful styles to crown one the champion. That said, within its niche, I think I can safely say that Honey 1's is the best I've had. Or at least the best I remember, which is effectively the same thing, and good enough for me.