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June 30, 2006


Dominic Armato
Well, I'm feeling fairly settled in my new home. That's all of the coding and copying I care to do for a while. Back to the good stuff!

A week ago, I received a rather unexpected invitation to dine with an individual whose identity I'm not quite ready to reveal juuuuust yet. When my mysterious dining companion (hereafter referred to as MDC... sorry, MDC :-) left the restaurant choices up to me, with the suggestion that we should hit a place that was upscale and stylish but not a massive production, I started on a search that led me to Zealous. It's been on my radar for a while, but I'd never quite managed to get around to it. My memory is fuzzy on these things (in fact, it's the main reason this blog exists), but I remember it opening to much fanfare and very favorable reviews, only to drop off the map shortly thereafter. I'm not certain what led me to the website, but after two minutes of browsing, it was a lead pipe cinch. It's fine dining of the slightly less than extravagant variety, the menu pushed my buttons left and right, and the dishes seemed long on presentation, an element that was of particular interest to MDC. Thusly, the Summer of Fine Dining kicked off at Zealous.

Dominic Armato
Zealous is owned and cheffed by a fellow named Michael Taus, a Trotter protege who did a year with Joachim Splichal in L.A. and then came back home to roost. He first set up shop in Elmhurst in 1993, received a great deal of praise, and then shifted his operation to the city proper in 2002. The space is rather nice, modern but comfortable, situated in a converted loft space in the odd nook of River North that lies between Chicago Avenue and the Ohio feeder ramp. I'm fairly certain I once dined at a different restaurant in the same space, and it's going to drive me nuts until I figure out what it was... a little help? At any rate, the menu is self-proclaimed modern American, with heavy Asian influences and a healthy dose of creativity. The a la carte selections looked mighty tasty, but at a restaurant such as this, a tasting menu was our target. Opting for semi-restrained opulence, we skipped the seven-course in favor of the five and settled in.

Dominic Armato
We started with a little amuse, which I felt was a little meh. It was a watermelon gelee with a bit of mint puree and black sesame. Amuse, to me, needs to pop. When all you're getting is the tiniest of tastes, it had better be explosive, and explosive this was not. I thought it was far too subtle for an amuse. The gelee was nice enough, if a little overly firm, and a mint accompaniment is a gimme, but the sesame wasn't working for me. MDC, however, seemed more enthused than I was. Your mileage may vary. Our first official course was a deconstructed dragon roll. Now, the practice of dish deconstruction is a controversial one. People tend to love it or hate it. I'm in neither camp. I'm skeptical but open, and I'm appreciative as often as I'm disappointed. In this case, it seemed a little unnecessary, which bothers me only if it hurts the dish. Thankfully, it didn't in the least. The dish was slathered with an avocado-wasabi puree, topped with three primary components... rice, tempura shrimp and grilled eel... and drizzled with a little teriyaki-esque sauce, a mango puree and a bit of powdered nori. So it was essentially a pretty presentation of a common dish. Okay, it was a very pretty presentation of a common dish. But it was, to be fair, uncommonly good. There was a part of me that didn't want to be overly impressed with a fancified neo-sushi standard, but the part of me that flat-out enjoyed it won out. I dug it.

Dominic Armato
The next dish was a bit of a challenge. It was a piece of seared duck breast with a morel risotto, citrus foam and a fennel and green apple salad. I felt the risotto was rather flat, but its weakness was less glaring when taken purely as a component of a larger whole. While many are rightfully sick of foam, I thought it worked here, giving a very nice, light citrusy edge that wouldn't have been the same were it in liquid form. What caused me some consternation, however, was the duck itself. I have a very, very high tolerance for raw and lightly cooked meats. While I generally order medium-rare, I don't think I've ever been served a piece of meat that was too underdone for me to enjoy. But this duck was barely warm. It would have been very rare for beef, much less poultry. Years of meals in China have made me bolder than I should be when it comes to potential foodborne illnesses, so I wasn't overly concerned, but MDC inquired just to be safe. We were assured that it was, in fact, prepared just as chef had intended. After working through the dish and taking it at face value, I wasn't bothered by the light cooking, but I'm not convinced it was the best choice. At the very least, even if the center were barely cooked, I felt it needed a more aggressive searing. The beautiful, thick layer of fat was clearly visible right under the skin, looking almost raw, its rich potential begging to be set free. I'm still mulling this one over, but while I firmly support utilizing the full range of doneness to varying effects, I'm leaning toward the belief that this dish could have been better with a little more heat. As served, it was good, but not excellent.

Dominic Armato
The third and final savory dish was enjoyable, but illustrative of one of my Chicago fine dining pet peeves. Here in Chicago, we've come a long way in terms of high-end dining sophistication over the past five years. But despite this awakening, we're still a meat and potatoes city at heart. As such, tasting menus citywide serve an absurd number of beef filets. It's as though these restaurants feel they have to provide something beefy and hearty for at least one dish, lest they lose a chunk of their audience. In truth, they're probably right, but it's doubly frustrating that the most common beefy outlet is the most uninteresting and tasteless cut available. Timidity is not a quality I admire in my fine restaurants. But that said, as meat and potatoes goes, this dish was particularly well-executed and had a couple of nice touches. To appeal to diners like me, or perhaps to the chef's own sanity, the filet was paired with a bit of shredded short rib that was topped with a shallot confit. The dish was then rounded out with some light and yet pleasantly gummy potato gnocchi and a corn fonduta. The filet was a filet, the short rib (I adore short rib) was tasty but less exciting than I might have hoped, the gnocchi were simple and delightful, and the fonduta was an unusual and very much appreciated accent. All in all, a very well-composed dish, if somewhat conservative.

Dominic Armato
As for dessert? I'm admittedly a little handicapped when it comes to dessert appreciation. I always enjoy my sweets, but I'm rarely impressed by them. We first received a bit of sorbet which, oddly enough, comprised an entire course. One was coconut and lychee, the other was... I think... passionfruit, and both were seated atop strawberry slices and a vanilla-pineapple juice. Both were refreshing and enjoyable, but unexceptional. This was followed by a duo of desserts that, in amoeba-like fashion, apparently divided into four on the way out of the kitchen. I think the chef was feeling charitable, and it was greatly appreciated. There was a creme brulee, a banana tiramisu, a cheesecake with berries (the nature of which I missed), and a deconstructed Black Forest chocolate cake. Again, all enjoyable, all quite beautiful, none exceptional.

In the end, I can definitely say I enjoyed my meal, but not so much that I feel compelled to return. I didn't feel the food was lacking, exactly, but the presentations were more impressive than the flavors, which isn't a good sign. To be quite frank, I thought one of the biggest problems was price performance. I'm not the least bit opposed to spending obscene amounts of money on divine food, but $85 for the five-course menu seems rather steep for what we received, especially since it felt more like 4.5 courses, given that two were dessert and one of those was a little sorbet that was, in fact, presented as a "palate-cleanser". And I don't think the price would have bothered me for a moment if it had been a really spectacular meal, but there wasn't a single "Oooooh, that's really good" moment. I think this sounds overly harsh... I did enjoy my meal... but I think the restaurant is positioned a little higher than it should be. It was creative and extremely beautiful. But while tasty, there was nothing gripping or inspiring, which I expect at this level. In any case, one thing is certain. It appears that I'm not the only one who doesn't feel compelled to return. Our reservation was, as MDC described it, "Outrageously early. Like, senior citizen early." So, on a Thursday night, we walked in at 5:00 and walked out at 7:30. During that time, when I say we had the place to ourselves, I don't mean it as a figure of speech. We were the only diners in the joint. With attendance like that, compelled or no, it would seem that returning may not be an option for very long.

June 27, 2006

New Digs!

Dominic Armato
Check 'em out!

I've been contemplating bailing on LiveJournal for some time now, and due to an interesting development that may or may not come to bear over the next few weeks (and you may or may not get to hear about it), I figured now was the time.

I expect that the site is going to be all kinds of screwy over the next couple of days while I sort out domains and style sheets and such. So forgive me if the site blinks in and out of existence and flip-flops between looking swanky and looking like it was coded by a 12 year old in 1993.

Sadly, the comments and any posts before 2006 didn't make it, at least for now. I may transfer those over later if I'm feeling ambitious.

In the meantime, whaddya think?

June 25, 2006

May Street Market

Dominic Armato
UPDATE : May Street Market has closed

Well, it's been a good week for new restaurants. Today, we popped into another spot that's been on my list for a while, and while I'm not Spacca Napoli head-over-heels in love with the place, our lunch at May Street Market was extremely nice.

May Street Market is run by Alexander Cheswick, whose pedigree includes Tru and Le Francais, among others. Though I try not to read too much into lunch at a restaurant where lunch isn't the focus, "casual fine dining" would seem to be the term that applies. The space is modern, clean and crisp, but with a number of warm touches that keep it from crossing the line into stuffy. Service is similar, in that it's formal but not overly so.

Dominic Armato
The menu continues this trend, full of the kind of upscale comfort dishes that are (rightfully) popular these days. There are some good-looking soups, light salads, and a crabcake appetizer that seems to be something of an accidental signature dish. As our server told us, "We're a restaurant that focuses on seasonal produce and we change the menu regularly, but people love the crabcakes. They won't let us take them off the menu." There are also some (relatively) more traditional entrees, but the lunch menu is dominated by a sandwiches section that is fun but still accessible. Anytime you give me a duck burger, an asian pork burger and an oxtail po' boy as options, it's going to be a torturous decision.

Dominic Armato
For an appetizer, I figured I'd better try the crabcakes. They were beautifully plated, with fresh peas and mango, a tartare-ish sauce and balsamic reduction, light salad and a mango sorbet... all elements that we've seen together before, but skillfully balanced and playfully arranged. The crabcakes themselves were a touch on the mushy side (something I probably wouldn't have minded before this January's Baltimore trip), but that's being picky, the flavor was very nice, and along with the other elements I thought they made for a really nice dish. My ladylove had a mesculin salad with Maytag bleu and roasted beets, which was very tasty. The salad itself, while nice, was definitely playing a supporting role. The cheese was the star, wrapped with prosciutto and broiled (I believe). Again, it's a classic combination, but it was done exceptionally well, and anytime beets can be worked in is okay by me.

Dominic Armato
Anticipating my move to the duck burger, or perhaps recalling previous positive oxtail experiences, my companion opted for the BBQ oxtail po' boy. Calling it a po' boy struck me as a significant reach (I've never seen a po' boy served on a soft egg bread), but my taste was enjoyable, nonetheless. It won't be replacing traditional BBQ as a favorite, but the oxtail was a nice spin, making for a nice mushy, fatty rich sandwich. The duck burger pushed a healthy collection of my buttons, adorned as it was with figs, bleu cheese and a port reduction. It was a delicious combination of bold flavors that were perhaps a touch heavy for the duck patty, but I was finding it difficult to complain. The burger was also accompanied by a nice pot of herbed frites with an aioli dip. The dish was clearly upscale, but it still stayed true to its fingerfood roots, a little messy and completely satisfying.

Dominic Armato
Though dinner is obviously the restaurant's focus, and I'm quite anxious to give them a try in the later hours, what struck me was what a gem May Street Market is as a lunch spot. It almost feels as though you're getting away with something, sneaking in and sampling upscale bites in an upscale setting for rather moderate prices. I thought price performance, given the quality of the dishes, was quite good. The sandwiches ranged from $7-$11. Even with appetizers and drinks, our lunch for three came in at $65. Interestingly, on the way out, I was stopped by a woman who I'm fairly certain was Chantal Randolph, the Service Manager. Very friendly and inquisitive, she offered some parting cookies in a cello bag, and asked about the photos I was taking. When I replied that it was for online posting, she asked if I was a member of LTH Forum, and I told her that I was. It would seem that some restaurateurs are starting to catch on to the fact that food blogs and bulletin boards influence diners as much as if not more than the traditional restaurant press these days. I was a little embarrassed to have been outed, but she seemed quite sincere and was very friendly. Given some of the negative responses I've heard other bloggers have gotten at other restaurants, it was very nice to be regarded with interest rather than suspicion. Icing on the cake.

June 24, 2006


Dominic Armato
As it turns out, there's an unexpected little epilogue to my D'Amato's Bakery post of early May.

This may not seem news-worthy, but D'Amato's is an old, old, old school Italian bakery. And in the 15 years I've been going, they've steadfastly served two types of pizza... cheese and sausage. So when I popped in for cannoli this afternoon, I was exceedingly surprised to discover that they've added pepperoni to the offerings. Pepperoni isn't my thing. I'll certainly enjoy it if offered, but I'll almost never choose it over other options. But I imagine there are others out there who will be rather excited about this development.

June 23, 2006

Spacca Napoli

Dominic Armato
Becoming more knowledgeable about any art form is a double-edged sword. With deeper understanding comes deeper appreciation, and with deeper appreciation comes deeper enjoyment. The downside is that the more you experience, the harder it is to find art that really thrills you. But the upside is that when you do find something that inspires you, it's all the more enjoyable. Over the past two nights, I've had the rare pleasure of trying a new restaurant that was absolutely spectacular in every possible regard. It isn't flashy. Quite the contrary, it's a wonderfully humble little establishment, but it's humility that's grounded in passion. The owner, Jonathan Goldsmith, and his pizzaiola, Nella Grassano, have given Chicago a wonderful gift in the form of Spacca Napoli.

Dominic Armato
Chicago is, of course, a pizza town. Yet I know many Chicago foodies who treat Chicago-style pizza with a certain level of condescension. I absolutely do not count myself among them. It's true, the heavy, gooey deep dish that Chicago is known for doesn't exactly have the elegance of an Italian trattoria-style pizza, but it's a wonderful foodstuff in its own right. That said, while I would never call a Neapolitan pizza inherently superior, I wouldn't hesitate to call it nearer and dearer to my heart. There's a beautiful simplicity and freshness to a Neapolitan pizza. As food art goes, it's a highly evolved form, minimal, unpretentious and satisfying. In this sense, the restaurant itself reflects its specialty in every way.

Dominic Armato
It's the kind of place that feels like home, the kind of place you want to have a block away, where you can roll out your front door and stroll over to have a simple, casual, satisfying dinner once or twice a week. Located in Ravenswood, it's near a strip of Montrose that's populated by a number of cute restaurants. But instead of residing on the main drag, it's set back a block, gently tucked into a residential neighborhood away from the bustle. A number of tables sit outside, shaded by a canopy of umbrellas emblazoned with "Birra Moretti". Inside, the vibe is lively and energetic without crossing the line into chaotic. Bathed in warm tones and evening sunlight, it captures the feeling of so many Italian trattorie; small family operations that invite you into their second home. The room is backed by a large, open kitchen, which is dominated by the heart of the operation, a large wood-fired oven adorned with mosaic tiles. It was brought in from Italy, beautifully decorated by the owner's wife, and is reputedly capable of reaching a volcanic 1200ยบ.

Dominic Armato
The menu is blissfully simple. Goldsmith resists the urge to overreach, limiting the selection to a handful of simple antipasti, the pizze, and a few dolce. The antipasti include grilled and marinated vegetables, light salads, cured meats and a couple of specials; salmone marinato and seppie arroste on the nights we stopped by. The regular pizza menu is a humble dozen, split down the middle into red and white varieties, including simple combinations of ingredients like mozzarella, both fior di latte and bufala, fresh basil, prosciutto, sausage and fresh arugula. The pizza specials, four on both nights, reach a little deeper, but do not aspire to anything beyond tradition. We saw specials like mare e monti, quattro stagioni and primavera. I asked if my most frequently craved pizza, tonno e cipolle, ever makes the specials list. I was told that it does, which means I'm now forced to call every morning, ready to pounce. For after dinner, there is a small list of Italian standards, including gelati, sorbetti and tiramisu, as well as a handful of the bitter digestive drinks that Italians love to have at the end of their meals.

Dominic Armato
For antipasti, we tried their antipasto misto, the caprese, the melanzane and the seppie arroste special. All four were simple dishes that depended entirely on ingredient sourcing and a light hand. All were delicious. The antipasto misto was a simple plate with prosciutto crudo, capicolla and salami, along with a bit of cheese and some lightly cured olives. I'm not certain what type of mozzarella was used for the caprese, but it was sweet and milky and accompanied by a light, fruity olive oil. I was gratified to see that they refused to supply the massive beefsteak slices of tomatoes that Americans expect (to their own detriment), and instead used a vibrant, potent, smaller variety of tomato with a far superior flavor. The melanzane (eggplant) was cooked soft and marinated, dark, tomatoey, smoky and very full-flavored. My favorite of the bunch, however, was the seppie. Right off the bat, I was thrilled that they'd even bother to serve cuttlefish. As cephalopods go, squid is wonderful and eminently more popular, but I'm of the opinion that cuttlefish is grossly underrated and it was nice to see it get some love. The seppie had just the right texture, lightly chewy but not tough. It was roasted, chilled and then served with fresh arugula and dressed with olive oil and fresh lemon. It was the kind of simple, delicious cold seafood that is ubiquitous in Italy and so rare in the States.

Dominic Armato
From the antipasti, it was on to the main event which, despite my impossible expectations, impressed in every possible way. Though it's often the unsung hero, a pizza like this is built up from the bread. A Neapolitan pizza can only be as good as its crust, and Spacca Napoli's is exceptional. The crust is light and chewy, thin in the center and thick and bubbly at the edges. The underside is perfectly browned, with small, intermittent patches of char, and the outer edge is dotted with bubbles that have risen and burned, providing more texture and character. It's the result of the incredibly hot oven, which cooks the pizzas in about 60-90 seconds. I'm told the mozzarella is shipped in from Naples, though unconfirmed I have to believe the tomatoes are San Marzano, and all of the produce is at the peak of freshness and treated with a light hand, if at all. The center of the red varieties has attracted some undeserved controversy. I have heard some dub it "underdone", "wet" or "soggy". However, I'm of the opinion that these people need to expand their concept of what makes a good pizza. I love the wet center of a Neapolitan pizza. It brings textural contrast in the form of a bit of squishy deliciousness at the heart of the dish. Uniformly crisp crust can be wonderful as well, but as a standard it's vastly overrated.

Dominic Armato
The red we tried was the funghi, with a light and juicy tomato sauce, sliced mushrooms, huge leaves of fragrant basil and moist, melty fior di latte mozzarella. Everything came together exactly as it should. The prosciutto e rucola was cooked with a thin layer of Prosciutto di Parma, then topped with substantial pile of stunningly fresh arugula, a drizzle of olive oil and fresh parmesan shavings. Another white we sampled was the salsiccia e broccoletti, the star of which, to my surprise, wasn't the sausage, but rather the broccoli rapini, which had been sauteed to develop a pleasant bitterness that was nicely balanced by the sweet sausage. For a special, we tried the Fiorentina, which featured mozzarella, a creamy ricotta, garlic and sauteed spinach. The garlic could have easily been overpowering, but it was prepared in some manner that muted the sharpness and helped it to blend with the other flavors. This may have been my favorite. In an unfortunate misstep, we inadvertently managed to miss all of the pizzas that feature mozzarella di bufala. We'll remedy this as soon as possible.

Dominic Armato
We only tried one dessert, the tiramisu, but in keeping with our theme, I was thrilled to discover that it was a firm tiramisu that wasn't overly sweet, as opposed to the typical gloppy, cloying Americanized tiramisu. I also sampled a favorite digestivo, limoncello, and discovered that Spacca Napoli's is quite exceptional. I prefer it a little colder than it was served, but it possessed an unusually full flavor that I loved. Of course, there's no better way to end a fantastic Italian meal than with a good espresso, and theirs is delicious. It's smooth, flavorful, not overly bitter, and topped with a beautiful, rich crema. But there was one problem. On our first visit, the espresso arrived at our table... disaster!... in a glass vessel; tall, thin and tapered. It was too hot to hold, difficult to sip, and impossible to sugar without destroying the crema. It was as though a beautiful symphony had ended on a flat note. Ordinarily, I wouldn't be overly fazed by such a development, but it stood in such stark contrast to the perfection of the rest of the meal that I was saddened to see it fall just short. On our second visit, however, I went out on a limb and asked if they had any traditional espresso cups. I was told that they did, in fact, have two... their samples from the order that would be arriving shortly from Naples... and that they'd be happy to serve mine in one of them. Perfection thusly achieved, as I write tonight I'm left with a singular complaint.

Why can't Spacca Napoli, the perfect neighborhood joint, reside in MY neighborhood?

June 22, 2006

Changing Seasons

Dominic Armato
The weather warms, the sun has returned, and taqueria season gives way to fine dining season. It was purely by accident, but with the following summer lineup, I almost feel as though I should make reservations at Everest, Avenues and Moto just to complete the circuit.

June 27th - Zealous
July 8th - Alinea
August 5th - Schwa
August 18th - Charlie Trotter's

When I was in college, I once stated that having tickets for three or four upcoming concerts in my desk drawer was a fantastic feeling. These days, the theory is the same, but the concert tickets have been supplanted by restaurant reservations.

Should be an exciting summer... more to come!

June 20, 2006

Carniceria Guanajuato

Dominic Armato
Today, I somehow managed to confuse my Mexican groceries, but we still did okay.

It was my good pal and coworker Khris' B-Day, and in traditional fashion it was up to him to select the nature of his lunchtime birthday feast. He put the decision in my hands, telling me to "surprise him". Back in January, I listed the goat tacos from Supermercado Morelia among my ten tastiest moments of 2005. Since then, I've been looking for an opportunity to do a takeout taco feast, and this seemed like the perfect event.

Unfortunately, I got my wires crossed. Somehow, I thought that the Carniceria Guanajuato around the corner from my home was another branch of the source of last summer's goat ecstasy. Of course, Carniceria Guanajuato and Supermercato Morelia don't sound anything alike, and while I'd like to lean on my lack of Spanish and the fact that the names are purely phoenetic to me as an excuse, it was still a dumb mistake. But in the end, while this feast won't be making the ten tastiest moments of 2006 by a longshot, it was still a rather enjoyable lunch.

Dominic Armato
My target was the small taqueria located within the goodly-sized supermercado. It's situated so that you can browse the breakfast cereals while consuming your tacos. Whether this is a matter of market research or less insidious factors remains unknown. The bad news was that chivo (goat) wasn't going to be an option, as they only prepare it on the weekends. But the good news was that I managed to walk out with three huge takeout containers filled with pollo, carne asada and carnitas, as well as a pile of minced onion, fresh cilantro, a horde of tortillas, some fresh limes and enough salsa to set three legions of gringos ablaze.

Back at the office, I nuked the tortillas (an unfortunate but necessary preparation, given the standard office kitchen equipment) and laid the rest out as a taco buffet for the hungry crowd. The pollo was very moist and tender, having been stewed in a tasty sauce with tomatoes. The carne asada was very lightly seasoned, grilled, chopped and fairly dry. Both were good, if unexceptional. But the carnitas, pictured here, I might go back for. Khris is a fine, fine fellow, and though his shortcomings are few, his inexplicable decision to eschew pork products is chief among them. In this case, his loss. The pork was rich, porky, nicely browned, moist and tender. It had a really nice flavor that made it the standout fave among all the pro-porcine diners present. If not for the carnitas, I might label Guanajuato as a pass, but on the strength of the pork, which was quite good, I think they merit consideration if you're looking to carry out piles of steamy meat.

Carniceria Guanajuato
1438 N. Ashland Ave.
Chicago, IL 60622

June 19, 2006

Refining a Recipe

Dominic Armato
It's funny... I almost didn't post that last recipe because I knew it was a late night makeshift work in progress version that was going to change a lot before I was happy with it :-)

But spurred on by a couple of questions/comments, I figured it might be fun to turn my error analysis and adjustment into a public process, and then repost the recipe as the final, refined version that I envision. To that end, here are the items I want to address when I get around to v2, hopefully sometime later this week:

"The tomato dip needs work..."
As originally envisioned, I thought of it as a nicely herbed tomato soup that was cooked much thicker than usual so that it worked better as a dip. What I had on hand was a good jar of Italian tomato sauce and some pecorino, so I decided to roll with that rather than fight it. The biggest difference is that this dip was fairly coarse, like... surprise... a pasta sauce. If I did it again, I'd probably combine the tomato puree with some chicken stock and herbs (Basil's a gimme. Thyme and bay leaf might be nice. Depends on my mood.), cook for a while, then strain through a chinois to get it as smooth as possible and continue reducing until I had a nice, thick sauce. A very restrained hit of cream might not be bad, but I wouldn't use much if I did.

"I'd use different cheeses for the filling..."
For Iron Chef, I'd do some funky blend because... well... it's Iron Chef :-) As a day-to-day recipe, I'm a champion of muenster when it comes to grilled cheese sandwiches. It lays down a nice, mellow, melty baseline, but generally speaking, I'd probably still punch it up a bit with something else. Some gruyere or emmentaler might be nice. Some melty sheep's milk cheese with a little tartness would be nice, too... I'd have to think about what kind would be best.

"I want the sandwich to be a lot more stick-like..."
The whole fun of the original idea was the dipping bit, which was lost with this version. I'm thinking slicing the bread thinner, going lighter on the filling and toasting BOTH sides of the bread would do the trick. As for the bread itself, what we had on hand was 12 grain sandwich bread. Don't get me wrong, I loves me some grains, but it was a little too much roughage for a grilled cheese. The result was an "I have 12 whole grains / I'm slathered in butter" sandwich with MPD. Any thinner sandwich bread would do. Or maybe I'd get a good crusty loaf of sourdough and make sandwich slices out of the middle.

"The whole enterprise is just crying out for some crispy sizzled sausage..."
It really, really is. I think I'd brown the sausage first, remove it from the pan, use the sausage drippings to caramelize the onions and then mix the sausage back in when building the sandwich. And since it's all in the same pan, that sausage goo would work its way into the bread as well. Mmmmmm, sausage. Mabye a Merguez sausage? I don't see Italian working very well. I think chorizo could do well with a light hand, but it'd be easy to overdo it. Or maybe andouille with thyme and bay leaf in the tomato dip. That'd be tasty.

All in all, based on these notes, I think Spanish looks like a good direction to take it. I'll pick out a complementary Spanish cheese, find some good Spanish sausage, refine the technique on the dip and the bread consistency, and get back to you all in a week or so :-)

June 17, 2006

Grilled Cheese Sandwich Sticks

This past Iron Chef, I was torpedoed by the challengers, but I don't mean that as a criticism. Rather, one of their dishes was a particularly bold move that I had to appreciate, even if I was disappointed by it. Back around Iron Chef V, we wrote out official scoring guidelines to try to instill some kind of consistency. Since our scoring system involves both technical and creative scores, I wanted to give examples of dishes that might score high in technical, creative, both or neither. So I detailed four variations on a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup. Shortly thereafter, I decided that at some point it'd be fun to actually realize my high technical, high creative example, and I bided my time, waiting for the perfect ingredient to support my grilled cheese plan.

Then the Iron Chef Garlic challengers had to go and beat me to the punch.

It's my own fault for waiting so long, and while it was slightly galling to see them hijack my idea, it was a bold, competitive move that I entirely support. In their shoes, I'd probably have done the same thing. And the judges appreciated it quite a bit. But since I will no longer be doing my grilled cheese sticks with tomato dip for Iron Chef, I figured I might as well do it for fun. Tonight, my ladylove and I were sitting around the house, not sure what to have for dinner, and I figured I'd ransack the kitchen and see what I could scrounge up. When I realized I had most of the ingredients I would have used for the grilled cheese sticks, I figured I'd give them a run. The result certainly wasn't what I would have done for Iron Chef... it was a makeshift version built on what we had lying around... but it was tasty, so I figured I'd write it up. The tomato dip needs work, I'd use different cheeses for the filling, I want the sandwich to be a lot more stick-like, and the whole enterprise is just crying out for some crispy sizzled sausage. But here it is, anyway:

Dominic Armato
1.5 C. tomato sauce
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion
1/2 tsp. paprika
1 garlic clove
salt and pepper, to taste

4 slices sandwich bread
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
4 slices muenster cheese
1/3 C. grated parmesan cheese

1 Tbsp. unsalted butter

1/4 C. grated pecorino cheese
Grilled Cheese Sandwich Sticks
with Caramelized Onions and
Tomato-Pecorino Dip

Makes 2 Sandwiches

In a small saucepan, combine the tomato sauce, 2 Tbsp. olive oil, salt and pepper and simmer over medium low heat until reduced to a thick tomato dip. Hold the sauce over low heat.

While the tomato sauce is reducing, cook the onions. Slice the onions, and combine with 3 Tbsp. olive oil in a large saucepan with a cover. When the onions start to soften, add the paprika and salt the onions to taste. Continue cooking the onions until they are lightly caramelized, about 15-20 minutes. Thinly slice the garlic clove, and add to the onions. Continue cooking until the garlic softens, about 1-2 minutes, then transfer the onions to a dish.

While the onions are cooking, prepare the sandwiches. Butter one side of each slice of sandwich bread, then generously sprinkle the buttered side with the grated parmesan cheese. When the onions are done cooking and have been removed from the pan, add 1 Tbsp. to the pan and swirl to mix with the oil and paprika left in the pan. Add two slices of bread to the pan, buttered side down. Top each slice with half of the caramelized onions and garlic, and two slices of muenster cheese. Top with the remaining two slices of bread, buttered side up, and cover the pan. Cook over medium low heat, checking occasionally, until the bread is toasted and crispy, about 4-5 minutes. Carefully flip the sandwiches, cover the pan, and continue cooking until the other side is toasted and the muenster is melted, another 4-5 minutes.

Mix the grated pecorino into the tomato sauce, and spoon the sauce into ramekins or some other small dish. Remove the sandwiches from the pan, slice into strips, and plate along with the tomato sauce.

UPDATE : This was the first of a two-part post about taking a rough recipe and refining it. The final recipe can be found at Grilled Cheese Sticks v2.0

June 16, 2006

Taqueria Puebla

Dominic Armato
Well, it wasn't a stated goal in January, but 2006 has inadvertently become the year of the taqueria for me.

To be clear, I'm not complaining. Over the past few months, I've come to the realization that, given the number of fantastic taquerias that are everywhere in this city, it's completely inexcuseable how little I know about cheap, casual Mexican. As such, I've been spending a great deal of time tearing through the menu at one of my local joints, Arturo's Tacos (more later), I recently gave the tiny, smoky, east side of Ashland incarnation of La Pasadita a try, and today I popped into my first official (if informal) LTH outing at the recently nominated for a Great Neighborhood Restaurant Award establishment, Taqueria Puebla.

Unsurprisingly, given the source of the recommendation, both the grub and the company were supremely enjoyable. I sat down with Mike and Gary, and we broke bread. We had a nice, long, lazy lunch, shared some grub, shared some stories, talked food and other things, and generally had a really nice time. And any day when I can try three tasty new foodstuffs for the first time is a good day in my book.

Above you see their Cemita Milanesa, an exceptionally tasty little sandwich built around a thin, crispy breaded and fried cutlet of what I believe is pork. This was my first cemita of any kind, so I have no idea what constitutes a typical cemita, but I have to believe this is a particularly good one. The milanesa itself is really nice... a little chewy, but not too much, nice and crisp, lightly seasoned and tasty. It's topped with a layer of guacamole, a couple of whole, tender chipotle chiles in a tart adobo, a pile of shredded fresh cheese (queso Oaxaca, I'm told), a healthy dose of an herb I couldn't identify (Gary did, but I didn't catch it), and the whole thing is served up on a crispy, crusty, griddled sesame bun. All in all, it's a beautifully constructed sandwich... each of the ingredients prepared with care, and all of them working in harmony. I look forward to trying some of the others cemita incarnations, of which there are many.

Dominic Armato
However, as much as I enjoyed the cemita, I adored the chalupas. They couldn't be any simpler, but they're absolutely fantastic. The texture of TP's chalupas is more than excellent, perfectly light and crispy. They're simply topped with a bit of salsa, some minced fresh onion and a healthy crumble of fresh cheese. These are not to be missed.

I also sampled a taco arabe, another first, but at the time I was a little engrossed in conversation and didn't give it my full attention. Suffice it to say that it was quite delicious and I'll be paying closer attention next time. I've been trying to avoid straying too far while I work through the menu at my local joint, but Taqueria Puebla is only about 10-15 minutes down the road, and it's going to be very difficult to stay focused on Arturo's... especially considering that TP is such a friendly little joint run by folks who seem to care greatly about their food and are anxious to please. This is a great spot, and I'll be back shortly. I haven't had dinner. Maybe right now.

Update - March 7th, 2007
To better reflect the menu item for which they've become known (or perhaps to avoid confusion with another Chicago taqueria that uses "puebla" in its name), Taqueria Puebla has now changed its name to Cemitas Puebla.

Cemitas Puebla
3619 W. North Avenue
Chicago, IL