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August 28, 2006

In Praise of Uni

Dominic Armato
Over the past couple of years, I've really come to love sea urchin. But while I'm one who sometimes gives people a hard time when it comes to ingredient squeamishness (though in a good-natured fashion, I hope), I can't exactly fault people for feeling intimidated when it comes to these fellows. Even setting aside the neon color, slimy texture and the fact that you're consuming the gonads of a spiny alien-looking undersea creature, it's kind of an unusual flavor. Describing said flavor is rather difficult, but I'm always struck by how reminiscent it is of raw egg yolks, if said eggs had been floating around in the ocean. I think that's why I love them so much. They embody the sea, but they have a richness that you rarely encounter in seafood.

Dominic Armato
Of course, as is typically the case with such things, I end up trying to convert the anti-uni crowd at every opportunity. For the bulk of my pals, the squicky orange menace is a place they just aren't willing to go, no matter how much I assure them they'll learn to love it. It doesn't help that the context in which we're most likely to encounter uni is a sushi bar, where it's served as a big, gloppy pile that's only barely accompanied by rice and nori. This is great when you're already a fan, but as a beginner it's... less than approachable. So for almost a year now, a recipe has been percolating in my head that I only just realized this evening. I thought that an uni cream would translate extremely well to a pasta sauce, and might give my pals a more familiar and accessible bridge to bolder sea urchin preparations. The hardest part, of course, was finding good uni. But last month's Mitsuwa excursion cleared that problem right up. So here it is... make this simple pasta two or three times, and I wager that uni nigiri is going to look a lot more tempting the next time you're out for raw fish. As always, be sure to refer to the Ten Commandments of Dried Pasta.

Dominic Armato

1/4 C. extra virgin olive oil
1 small red onion
1 clove garlic
oyster mushrooms
1/2 C. heavy cream
1 Lb. spaghetti
sea salt
1/2 C. sea urchin roe (uni)
flat leaf parsley
salt, to taste
8 pieces sea urchin roe
grated Parmigiano Reggiano

Spaghetti with Sea Urchin
and Mushroom Cream
Serves 4 as a primo, 2-3 as an entree

As with any simple pasta, quality ingredients are absolutely critical, and even moreso when working with something like sea urchin roe. It should be brightly colored, firm, and almost odorless. If you're not familiar with uni and don't have a Japanese grocer you trust with raw seafood, your best bet is probably to mail order from Catalina Offshore Products, who are known for pulling delicious urchins off the California coast. There's nothing that can sour you on sea urchin faster than getting some bad product... take the time to get the good stuff and you'll be rewarded.

You want to start your sauce in a large pan or pot that can hold the full pound of pasta. If at all possible, go with something heavy that will retain some heat and stay warm, for reasons you'll see below. While your pasta water is heating up, you can start on the sauce. Finely mince the garlic clove, and mince up 1/2 C. of red onion. If you can't get a hold of good oyster mushrooms, some cremini mushrooms will do nicely. I'd avoid anything stronger, such as porcinis, as they'll overpower the uni. If you're using cremini, discard the stems and use only the caps. Either way, slice the mushrooms very, very thinly until you end up with about 1 cup's worth. Heat the oil over medium heat, and when it's hot, toss in the garlic and onion and sauté for a few minutes until the onion starts to get a little translucent, but don't let it brown. At this point, toss in the sliced mushrooms and continue cooking for a few more minutes until the mushrooms absorb the oil and become tender. Add the cream, salt the sauce to taste, and immediately drop the heat to the lowest setting. Cook the sauce for another minute or two until the cream thickens slightly, and then turn off the heat and let the sauce cool. The sea urchin tastes best if it's only very lightly cooked, so we'll let the heat of the hot pasta do that. Also, you want the sauce to be fairly salty. The intensity of the salt will mellow a lot when you add the sea urchin and pasta, and it's much easier to add salt to the hot cream sauce now than to the completed pasta later.

Cook the pasta in salted, boiling water, and while the pasta is cooking you can prep the sea urchin. Take 1/2 C. of the roe and scrape it through a fine-meshed strainer. If you've watched Iron Chef with any regularity, you've probably seen them do this. In most Japanese groceries, you can pick up small drum-shaped strainers on the cheap. You can then use something like a plastic spatula to scrape the sea urchin roe through, into a small bowl below. The resulting uni juice is what you'll use to finish the sauce.

Right before the pasta is done, add the uni juice and 2 Tbsp. of chopped parsley to the sauce, mix the sauce thoroughly and adjust the salt if necessary. Again, bear in mind that the saltiness will be mitigated greatly by the pasta. It's best to be a little too salty at this point. When the pasta is done, drain it and add it... still a little drippy with starchy pasta water... into the pot with the sauce. Toss everything together and plate the pasta with a couple whole pieces of sea urchin and a very light dusting of Parmigiano Reggiano. I think the cheese works nicely, but I'd recommend you go very, very easy. You don't want to overpower the sea urchin which is, after all, the whole point of the exercise.

August 26, 2006

Sweet Weekend Relief

Welllll, it's been a bit of a crazy week, hence the lack of blogging. A weekend treat was clearly in order. Sweets aren't my forte, but cookies somehow felt appropriate. These are nothing too fancy, but they're an old favorite I first threw together eons ago. I had cookie fixings, found some ancho chiles in the cupboard and figured I'd give them a little zip. I love anchos for something like this, because they're flavorful, a little fruity and they aren't overpowering. Ancho powder isn't too hard to find, but you can always just stem, seed and grind whole anchos. In fact, that's almost preferable. I find that the whole anchos are generally a little fruitier than the powder, which I like.

Dominic Armato
1/2 C. unsalted butter
3/4 C. golden brown sugar
1/4 C. sugar
2 Tbsp. ancho chile powder
2 tsp. ground canella (Mexican cinnamon)
1 egg
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 C. flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
8 oz. bittersweet chocolate
Ancho-Canella Chocolate
Chip Cookies
Makes about two dozen cookies

While you're mixing together the dough, preheat the oven to 375º.

To make the dough, you want to start by creaming the butter with both sugars. For those not up on their baking terminology (read: me, in most scenarios), this means tossing them together in a bowl and mixing them with an electric mixer / beaters / wooden spoon if that's what you've got until the mixture gets nice and creamy. Then, add the ancho powder and canella, and keep mixing until they're fully incorporated. Next up are the wet ingredients. Add the egg and vanilla, and again, keep mixing until they're fully incorporated. Then add the flour, salt and baking powder and mix until you get a nice sticky doughy lick it off the spoon cookie batter. Lastly, add the chocolate, but you probably want to fold that in by hand. Of course, it goes without saying that if your chocolate is in bar form, you'll want to break it into chunks first. You could, of course, use some other type of chocolate if you prefer, but I heartily endorse the bittersweet... works nicely with the chiles.

Finally, place heaping spoonfuls of the dough on a lightly buttered baking sheet and pop 'em in the oven for about ten minutes, or until they cease to look like lumps of dough and start to look like lightly browned cookies. Pull them from the oven and transfer all of them to a cooling rack, except for the one you'll inevitably want to stuff in your face while it's still hot.

August 16, 2006

The Beef-Off - Chapter VII - Johnnie's

Dominic Armato
Ideally, I probably should've left Johnnie's for later in the year. Here we are... chapter seven of twelve... we've already hit Al's, Chickie's and Mr. Beef, and you hate to blow through the heavyweights by the halfway point. But what's more summery than trucking out to Johnnie's for a beef and a lemon ice? Yeah. Couldn't resist.

There are two locations, but by all accounts the go-to Johnnie's is the original in Elmwood Park. In terms of indoor space, it's the king of close quarters. There's a small metal counter along the front window opposite the register, but if there's any kind of a line... and there's always a line this time of year... there's barely enough room to squeeze in two people abreast. Johnnie's is all about the outdoor space. With a number of benches and picnic tables outside, the beef stand spills right into the surrounding neighborhood, a bustling center of activity, an old stalwart that seems like it's been there forever. And it basically has. And with good reason.

Dominic Armato
The fries? Eh... forget 'em... more precut frozen institutional fare (what do all of these places have against fresh potatoes?). But the sandwich has everything working. The beef itself is extremely tender, moist and appropriately beefy. The juice is fully-flavored with the traditional hints of garlic and oregano, strong but balanced with a really nice, natural sweetness and the right amount of oil. The peppers are unexceptional, but certainly tasty. The sweet peppers are cut into strips, tender and slightly garlicky but lacking the sweetness that I'd hope to get from good peppers. The giardiniera is about as textbook as it comes, with big chunks of pickled peppers, cauliflower, carrots, celery and little bits of onion. My only reservation might be that it's a little too tart. I think the giardiniera fights the beef a little bit. But my love for the spicy allows me to largely overlook an otherwise very minor complaint. Though I hesitate to make this comparison for fear of giving the impression that they're anywhere close to being in the same league (they're not), Johnnie's is similar to Portillo's in that it's a textbook Italian beef... the perfect benchmark. But where Portillo's fills out the checklist of traditional elements with clinical precision, Johnnie's takes all of those elements and brings them together in a package that just has more character. Everything works in concert (except for the aforementioned giardiniera) to create a juicy, tender, moist, fully-flavored beef that hits all of the right notes. For me, it doesn't have Chickie's whoa factor... nor does it have Chickie's superlative peppers and delicious, fresh fries... so I can't put it in the lead. But I'm happy to slip it right behind Chickie's, a significant leap ahead of the next tier and my old favorite, Mr. Beef. This now makes two that I've enjoyed more than my old standby.

As such, even though I'm only just barely past halfway through, given the stated goal of the Beef-Off I already feel comfortable calling it an unqualified success. I have friends who are treating the recent unrest in my beefy allegiances as full-on treasonous activity, and a second usurper will only add fuel to the fire. They may or may not be right, but the truth is that I have a hard time caring when I'm buried in one of my new top two. The revised standings, as personal and subjective as always:

Johnnie's Beef
7500 W. North Ave.
Elmwood Park, IL 60707
1) Chickie's
2) Johnnie's
3) Mr. Beef
4) Bostons
5) Portillo's
6) Roma's
7) Al's

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

August 13, 2006

CoCoRo ... or ... Where's the Su?

Dominic Armato
Last night, I finally got around to checking out the other shabu shabu restaurant in town. Sadly, the proper phrase truly is "the other," as opposed to "another," but there it is.

In case you missed February's post, I adore shabu shabu. But between frequent trips to Japan and the years I spent in Los Angeles I've been somewhat spoiled, and the lack of many shabu shabu restaurants in Chicago has been something of a sore spot. You'd think boiled meat and vegetables with a couple of dipping sauces would be tough to screw up, but experience has taught me otherwise. Chiyo was quite good, but extremely expensive, and it subscribes to a goma su school of thought that just doesn't do it for me. So the quest for a satisfying Chicago-based shabu shabu continued last night at CoCoRo Shabu de Fondue.

Dominic Armato
I have to get this out of the way. I hate the name. I like to think that shabu shabu can stand on its own without needing to reference fondue. But then again, as previously mentioned, shabu shabu isn't exactly ubiquitous in Chicago, so perhaps that's naiveté on my part. Of course, this also might be the source of the name confusion. Though they've been CoCoRo Shabu de Fondue for years, their literature now reads "East Japanese Cuisine" and our server told us they were going by "CoCoRo East", so who knows. In any case, it's a fairly casual little joint, dark and modern, situated around a roughly-hewn stone monolith with a serene cascading trickle of water. There are perhaps 20 tables or so, with a small sushi bar at the back. In fact, CoCoRo serves a good deal of sushi, though the shabu shabu (and sukiyaki) is the star of the menu. The shabu shabu is sold for two, including a small salad, rice and a bit of fresh fruit for dessert.

Dominic Armato
We started with a bit of sashimi. It was... okay. Though the Chicago Tribune indicates that just about everybody is getting their fish from the same source, there's still a remarkable range of raw fish quality in the city as far as I can tell. Suffice it to say that while I had the craving and the sashimi satisfied, I won't be going to CoCoRo for the fish. When it comes to a Japanese meal preamble, I'm a sucker for a small salad of crisp iceberg lettuce (they seem to love iceberg lettuce in Japan), though I admit to being a little disappointed that the dressing was a light thousand island as opposed to something soy or ginger or miso-based. Of course, all that really mattered for the purposes of this trip was the shabu shabu, which was pretty good, even if it did leave me wanting in some regards.

Dominic Armato
The platter, which you see at the top, is fairly generous. For vegetables, CoCoRo provides watercress, shiitake mushrooms (though no enoki), green onions, carrot, daikon and a mountain of napa cabbage, along with tofu, noodles and the beef. The beef is prime ribeye, I believe, and pretty good quality, though like Chiyo it's sliced a touch thick for my tastes. More frustratingly, rather than being laid out in a single layer, it's folded over and extremely difficult to separate, resulting in a lot of shredded beef. A lot of that may have to do with the temperature. Though the beef is usually chilled quite cold to facilitate slicing, ours was icy when it hit the table. The ponzu sauce was unusually strong on the dashi and quite smoky, and served with minced green onion and chili daikon. Though the smokiness threw me a little, I actually enjoyed it. I also enjoyed the fact that the ponzu was unusually intense, which helped as it became slowly diluted by the cooking water. I wish more shabu shabu places would do this. The goma su, sadly, still left me wanting. It was a smooth sauce, very, very nutty with just a bit of sweetness, but the vinegar (the su) was almost completely undetectable. Why the Chicago joints leave the su out of the goma su, I don't know, but it frustrates me.

So does CoCoRo satisfy the shabu shabu jones? Yeah, it does. I still wish we had a cheap little shabu shabu bar in Chicago, but the last one that tried... Shabu Shabu House in Wrigleyville... crashed and burned a few years ago. CoCoRo strikes me as a tad expensive for what it offers, but if I could get over my goma su prejudices I might be able to enjoy it more. I'll go back when the mood strikes, but I'm hoping there are other spots in Chicago that I'm somehow missing. In the meantime, I might just have to start traveling with a tiny bottle of rice vinegar. I wouldn't be the stupidest thing I've done. I think.

CoCoRo Shabu de Fondue
668 N. Wells St.
Chicago, IL 60610

August 11, 2006

Fries 'n Frostys

Dominic Armato
This is not how I expected to round out my Friday evening.

About four hours ago, three companions and I were cruising our way up Ashland Avenue on our way to Spacca Napoli for yet another fantastic meal, when we passed a Wendy's. Though I'm not sure who started it (might've been me), the conversation turned to the budding if not exploding phenomenon of the marriage of french fries and frostys. Oddly enough, this was perhaps the fifth or sixth time this subject has come up over the past few months. Even before Wendy's decided to build a PR campaign around it, this particular combination seemed to be getting an awful lot of internet buzz.

I try very hard not to dismiss these sorts of "low food" phenomena (a remarkably pretentious term that I'd like to replace with a better one if I could think of it) without some kind of firsthand experience. I scoffed at fried Twinkies for quite a while, until I tried one and learned that the end product could, in fact, be a rather sublime snacky cake. But the fries and frostys thing just didn't compute. As such, the four of us resolved to test the theory on the way back home. The verdict? A grossly overrated combination. BUT, I think I understand the source of the appeal, even if the credit is misplaced.

It's the salt.

I don't think chocolate and fried potatoes do anything for each other, but chocolate and salt, now that's another matter entirely. It's a classic combination for which the potato is merely a vehicle. This was, in fact, my suspicion going into the tasting, and the hands-on merely confirmed it. The way to test this, of course, would be to replace the standard Wendy's fries with unsalted fries and see if the appeal remains for those who swear by it. Any takers?

August 09, 2006

Thai Infidelity

Dominic Armato
This is a post I've been dreading for some time. It's not that Spoon Thai and TAC Quick aren't great... they're fabulous. It's just that... well... this is going to take some explaining.

When I first had Thai, I was about nine or ten years old. This was before Chicago's massive Thai explosion that put approximately 23 Thai restaurants on every block. At this particular point in time, when my folks told friends we were going out for Thai food, 97% of them would respond, "Oh... you mean from Taiwan?" Anyway, the point is that I've been going to P.S. Bangkok for a really, really long time. I adore P.S. Bangkok. I practically grew up in the place. Sue, the proprietor and chef, is an old friend, a sweetheart of the highest degree, and one of those restaurant owners who treats her customers like her family. A good 20-30% of my major life events have been celebrated with a dinner at P.S. Bangkok. I've introduced countless hordes of people to the place. It's the only restaurant in the world for which I'd weep bitter tears if it ever closed down.

Suffice it to say that I have a little bit of a guilt complex when it comes to eating at any other Thai restaurant.

Dominic Armato
Anyway, I'm completely unable to judge P.S. Bangkok in any kind of objective manner whatsoever. But that said, I love the steamed dumplings. I crave the crispy pad see ewe. And I'll stack Sue's green curry up against anybody's. Sue seems to do her own thing. She doesn't do the typical Americanized Thai, but she obviously isn't doing what the places favored by the hardcore Thai fans are doing, either. I'm certainly no expert on what is or isn't traditional Thai, I just know there are dishes... great ones... I get at P.S. Bangkok that I can't get anywhere else. All the same, while my sense of loyalty is perhaps overly strong, in the interest of broadening my horizons I've started adding some other Thai joints to the rotation over the past ten years. For a while, I limited this exploration to hitting Sanamluang while I was living in Los Angeles, or dropping into Lotus of Siam whenever I visited Vegas. Being in another city somehow made it okay. But while I've known for the past few years that there were a few Thai restaurants in Chicago that I really, really had to get to, I needed a good nudge to get me to branch out. Recently, that nudge finally came.

Dominic Armato
Over the past few weeks I've had the good fortune to befriend Erik M., the fine fellow who runs silapaahaan.com, which is devoted to Thai food in Chicago. He's put together a rather fine collection of photos, but more importantly, he's translated the traditional Thai menus for six of his favorite establishments, thereby putting the non-Americanized dishes within reach for traditional Thai noobs. He was kind enough to invite me along for a couple of group excursions to two of his favorite joints, featuring not only dishes from the "secret" Thai menus, but also a number of specially requested items that weren't even on the menus... and really, how do you turn down an invitation like that?

Dominic Armato
You don't, of course, and I didn't, and I was treated to two absolutely fantastic meals. Both TAC Quick and Spoon Thai are casual, inexpensive little joints that serve up what I'm informed by reliable sources is beautifully prepared authentic Thai cuisine. From Sanamluang and Lotus of Siam, I'd had a hint of the sorts of dishes that awaited me, and these didn't disappoint. Of course, the appeal of Thai is that when you're describing it, you can't go overboard with the bold adjectives. It's fresh, explosive cuisine that smacks you around a little, and I was smacked around plenty. Both were epic feasts, and a lot to digest all at once... both literally and figuratively. Again, I'm far from being a Thai expert, but amidst the sensory overload, there were a few dishes that stood out as favorites.

Dominic Armato
At both restaurants, we had kài thâwt, fried chicken that was heavily marinated, fried crisp on the outside but juicy on the inside, and served with a tamarind dipping sauce. I've often joked that it takes a lot to get me excited about chicken, but this was some exciting chicken. Though both were delicious, Spoon Thai's version was really something special, and it's pictured at the top of the page. Moving down the page is one of two fantastic soups we had at TAC Quick, tôm sâep, an Issan-style soup with little bits of beef offal. It was extremely tart and a little spicy, but what impressed me was that it packed a wallop without sacrificing subtlety. As potent as the flavors were, they were balanced and rounded, and the broth remained extremely light and refreshing. As for the offal, I have no idea what bits I was eating, but they were tasty.

Dominic Armato
The next one down is a dish that brought back memories of China. Spoon's phàk bûng fai daeng, aka water spinach with fermented yellow bean sauce, was indicative of the kind of greens that are so hard to find in the States. The water spinach had an intense green flavor, but was still fresh, light and crispy. Whenever somebody mentions, in stereotypical fashion, that kids don't like greens, I think to myself that it's only because they don't get greens like this. Below the water spinach is Spoon's néua tàet dìaw, frequently referred to as a Thai-style beef jerky, though that's grossly misleading. They're both made from cow, and are dry, but the similarities end there. This dish is somehow marinated and dry fried, resulting in intensely flavored bits of beef that are crispy on the outside and pleasantly dry and chewy through and through, but still fresh.

Dominic Armato
The next dish down is Spoon's yam hèt khẽm thawng, a typically Thai sweet, sour and spicy salad made primarily of enoki mushrooms and topped with a sprinkling of rice powder. As Thai salads go, the mushrooms were new to me, and they made for a really nice textural change of pace. The next one down is TAC Quick's náam phrík kà-pì plaa thuu. This is another dish we had at both restaurants, but here I preferred TAC's version. It's grilled mackerel, egg crepes and assorted crudites, served with a gnarly, spicy dip made with fermented shrimp. It was a huge winner for me, perhaps because the fermented shrimp reminded me of the Italian anchovy concoctions that I've come to love so dearly. It was spicy, fermented and sour, very complex and potent. I loved it.

Dominic Armato
Next up, immediately above, is Spoon's kûng châe náam plaa, a shrimp dish that was billed as marinated in a ceviche-esque manner, but which seemed pretty raw to me. To be clear, I'm not complaining. I adore raw shrimp. And here they were dressed in a sauce made with lime juice, fish sauce, raw garlic and a small army of chiles. If raw shrimp doesn't do it for you, this dish probably won't. But keep trying... it'll be worth it at some point, I promise. On the left, you see one of the raunchiest dishes I've ever tasted, and I mean that in a good way. TAC's kũay tĩaw reua is a noodle soup that's so complex, I don't even know how to begin describing it. There were about 62 different things going on, all of them incredibly potent. It had a deep, dark intensity that immediately brought liver to mind, though I have no idea if any liver was involved in its composition. In typical Thai fashion, however, it was simultaneously punched up with very bright herbal and vinegary accents. I wish I could speak about this one more intelligently, because there's a lot to dissect, but I was mostly busy being blown away. I'm informed that it's finished with a bit of pork blood which, if true, explains a lot. This is an intense dish, and I loved it... though I'm not sure I could eat more than a small bowlful in one sitting.

Dominic Armato
Finally, here you see Spoon's plaa sôm. This one isn't actually on the menu, so I'm going to show it here just to torture you. Unquestionably, one of the best dishes of the lot. Its preparation is something that I find fascinating, but I can see how some might find it... disturbing. The fish is crisply fried and served with a spicy, tart dipping sauce, but most impressive is the fact that there's a wonderful sour flavor that completely permeates the flesh. This is achieved by gutting the whole fish, stuffing it with rice, and allowing the rice to ferment inside the fish for a few days. There are those who are disturbed by anything that is intentionally left to get a little funky, but bear in mind that fish sauce... arguably the cornerstone of both Thai and Vietnamese cuisine... is most commonly made by putting salted fish in earthenware jars in the sun for about a year. If you ever have the opportunity to try this one and find yourself recoiling, just get over it. It's in your own best interests.

In the end, what I've learned is that while nothing could ever take me away from my old haunt, I have some exploring to do and I'm excited to do it. Even if I wanted to compare the Thai I grew up on with this, I wouldn't know how to start. There's surprisingly little overlap. I'll have to content myself to consider them two completely different beasts, both of which I love. If I'm right, I'm right. If I'm deluding myself, well... do me a favor and don't ruin it for me. The mind has funny ways of coping with uncomfortable scenarios, and I'd just as soon let mine do its thing.

I'm only sort of joking.

August 06, 2006


When you're a food geek, there are few things more exciting than watching a four star chef emerge from your own backyard.

Okay, so the powers that be haven't given Michael Carlson the fourth star yet, but it's just a matter of time. Schwa is an unobtrusive little hole in the wall that is home to some very, very great things, and it won't be long before everybody knows it, though plenty of people already do. As much as I'd love to be the one breaking the news that the little neighborhood joint a few blocks away from my home is going to be the next nationally recognized hot spot, the truth is that I waited a little too long to drop in. Schwa isn't even a year old, and already Carlson's been named one of 2006's Best New Chefs by Food and Wine Magazine, following closely in the footsteps of Grant Achatz, under whom he worked for a while at Trio. I believe that was roughly when the lead time for reservations cleared the two month mark. So back in early June, having already put it off for 3-4 months, I finally bit the bullet and decided to just call and take whatever they'd give me. In landing a Saturday night spot two months out, I think I got lucky. I just wish I'd done it sooner.

Across the street is an ostentatious rim shop, and in the glow of its neon-lit fake palm trees, Schwa looks more like an abandoned storefront than a bastion of fine dining. From reading the interviews with Carlson, however, you get the feeling that this is exactly how he wants it. It's a restaurant that seats, by my count, 26 in a tiny, lively dining room that's separated by a glass window from an even tinier kitchen that can't be much larger than 15" square. The joke these days is that we name all of our new restaurants in Chicago after punctuation marks, but there's meaning behind the use of the un-vowel. The schwa, depending on who you ask, represents an unstressed vowel sound, symbolic of Carlson's unstressed approach to fine dining. The entire restaurant is run by five fellows, 80% of whom wear some form of mohawk or fauxhawk, and the background music fits the look. It's a BYOB establishment (with a modest $5 per table corkage fee) that offers tumblers in lieu of stemware, and the sous-chef will frequently finish dishes and walk them right out to your table. But the loose and laid-back service belies an incredible attention to detail on the other side of the window. Carlson offers two menus, a $60 prix fixe with a couple of options per course, or a $100 tasting that covers nine or ten courses. The direction we chose to go shouldn't come as a surprise. As usual, the blow-by-blow is after the jump:

Continue reading "Schwa" »

August 05, 2006

The Beef-Off - Chapter VI - Bostons

Dominic Armato
It's a beefy week here at Skillet Doux... had some catching up to do!

The sixth entry in the Beef-Off wasn't even on my radar until a couple of weeks ago. I was looking for an additional entry to round out the beefy dozen when I happened to get a note from a pal who recommended I check out Bostons. Bostons Italian Beef another pleasantly decrepit joint that's been around for about 50 years (is there such a thing as a new beef stand in this town?), and it occupies an acutely angular little brick building on the corner of Chicago and Grand. Inside are hardwood floors, a kitchen that's a pretty good size for a beef stand, and a small, dimly-lit dining room with five tables. The menu is fairly typical, though it includes a BBQ beef sandwich that looks like it might be worth a try. But I was on a mission, so that would have to wait for another time. I ordered the Beef-Off standard, a beef sandwich... sweet, hot and dipped... with fries and a soda. I was handed a package wrapped in a large sheet of yellow paper and sat down with a coworker to dig in.

Dominic Armato

The less said about the fries, the better. Similar to Mr. Beef, Bostons serves more of the mass-produced precut and frozen fare that's competent but completely uninteresting. The beef, however, is entirely worthy. Right off the bat, I appreciate the fact that at Bostons, dipped means dipped. Some beef stands seem to think that dipped means "pour a bunch of juice over the top", but Bostons is fully saturated. The peppers, both hot and sweet, are largely unremarkable. The giardiniera is a typical chunky pickled pepper and celery concoction that provides a nice zip, but doesn't have much character. The sweet peppers are chopped into little inch long strips, cooked quite soft with a bit of oil and garlic, I believe, but they're almost devoid of flavor. The beef, on the other hand, is quite tasty. It's appropriately beefy, quite tender and moist, and has just a hint of a rare beef flavor, quite unusual for an Italian beef sandwich. The juice causes me some consternation. It's pretty potent, which I appreciate, but it's dominated by a nearly overpowering dried oregano flavor. It also has a funky little tail that some have identified as powdered garlic, and I think they're correct. The juice has character, to be sure, but I think the balance could really use some adjustment.

Despite my juice misgivings, however, I think this is an entirely worthy beef. In fact, it's one of the better ones I've had so far. For me, it doesn't come close to the brilliance of Chickie's, but since Chickie's turned my beefy world upside-down, I'm actually going to nestle Bostons behind Mr. Beef in the standings. Though it isn't the technically proficient beef that's served by Portillo's, it's much longer on character. In fact, if Bostons' character wasn't so dominated by the oregano, I might have to consider it more carefully against Mr. Beef. In fact, I think Bostons might even make a more flavorful sandwich than Mr. Beef, but the flavors don't come together quite as well. This is mostly a matter of personal preference... and if you're all about the oregano, Bostons is going to do a lot more for you than it does for me... but I think it falls short of excellence. As such, the updated standings:

Bostons Italian Beef
2932 W. Chicago Ave.
Chicago, IL 60622
1) Chickie's
2) Mr. Beef
3) Bostons
4) Portillo's
5) Roma's
6) Al's

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

August 04, 2006

Lost Treasure

Dominic Armato
Hooooo, buddy, did I rediscover an old gem this afternoon.

Once upon a time, back about ten years ago, I was dating a fine lass who hailed from a tiny Missouri burg by the name of Moberly. Moberly is halfway between St. Louis and Kansas City, about 35 miles north of Columbia, and surrounded by... not much. It is, however, home to St. Pius X Catholic Church. In 1995, the year I spent a little time in Moberly, St. Pius was badly damaged by a tornado... on the 4th of July, no less. But as far as I'm concerned, the more momentous occasion that year was the release of "Pleasures of the Good Earth", the St. Pius X Community Cookbook, a culinary compendium that is impressive in all kinds of ways.

In terms of the development of culinary appreciation, 1995 was a good year for me. It was the year I learned not to nonchalantly dismiss low-brow and semi-homemade concoctions. Stop laughing. Moberly was where I learned to stop looking down my nose at biscuits and gravy. Moberly was where I first sampled frozen meatballs simmered in a crock pot with yellow mustard and grape jelly, and was forced to admit that they were really tasty, no matter how disturbed I was by their composition. Moberly was where I watched Grammy Jo take an industrial-sized jar of the cheapest, nastiest breed of limp hamburger dills available, mix in a cup of sugar and a few dashes of Louisiana Hot Sauce, toss it in the fridge for a couple of days and magically produce a jarful of sweet, piquant and delightfully crisp pickles. It was like watching an alchemist at work. She might as well have been turning lead into gold.

But what I love about this cookbook is that it isn't exclusively composed of magical grandmotherly recipes. It delights and amuses from both ends of the spectrum, simultaneously encapsulating everything I adore and abhor about small town American food. It has the homey, comforting feel of a Scott Peacock cookbook, but with a lot more condensed soup. There are some real gems, to be sure, including a fantastic hot slaw I've made on a few occasions, more creamy appetizer dips than you can shake a triscuit at, and a horde of cakes and pies that look awesome. And when I'm done appreciating the homey goodness, I can gape at the train wrecks... of which there are quite a few.

There's the green bean recipe that calls for Sizzlean. There are a number of "Oriental" recipes that appear to have earned that moniker purely by virtue of the fact that they contain a modest amount of soy sauce. There are some pastas I found particularly disturbing, including the lasagna that incorporates cottage cheese and the "Seafood Linguine" that includes both milk and cream, garlic powder and chicken bouillon. As mentioned, condensed soup is present in abundance, but Ms. Leonard's "Clam Chowder" takes the Campbell's crown by mixing equal parts Campbell's celery soup, Campbell's cream of potato soup, Campbell's French onion soup and... oh yes... Campbell's England clam chowder (but, as the recipe reads most emphatically, "NOT Manhattan chowder"). How the clam chowder managed to outbid the other three for naming rights, I have no idea. But nothing, absolutely nothing, makes me die a little like reading the following "Helpful Hint" from the first page of the Meat, Poultry & Seafood section (my emphasis):

When shopping for red meats, buy the leanest cuts you can find. Fat will show up as an opaque white coating, and it can also run through the meat fibers themselves, as marbling. Although much outer fat (the white coating) can be trimmed away, there isn't much to be done about the marbling. Stay away from well marbled cuts of meat.

I'm assured that rumors of a connection between the printing of this helpful hint and the Moberly Independence Day tornado are entirely unfounded. This was, for context's sake, leading into the chapter containing recipes with ingredient lines such as 2 Lbs. bulk pork sausage, 1 C. melted oleo, 1 stick of butter, 2 cans gravy, 10 thick slices bacon and 1 Lb. Velveeta cheese. Apparently, the good denizens of Moberly might very well be done in by their foodstuffs, but by god, beef fat won't be the culprit! I feel a little guilty poking fun, but I hope it's clear that it's well-intentioned, loving abuse. If it hasn't already been done, somebody really needs to scour the country for these parish cookbooks and produce a master compilation. They're history, amusement and deliciousness all in one... though not necessarily at the same time.

August 03, 2006

Liquid Rhubarb

It's been a tough week for blogging. An abusive heat wave and a non-functioning A/C unit have conspired to make sweaty refugees of me and my ladylove for much of the past week. So while I've been out of my kitchen, the good news is that when your brain cooks, thoughts of refreshing drinks abound. It's an unfortunate irony that tonight's return to a now chilly apartment has rendered icy drinks far less enthralling, but I figured I'd work up this idea anyway in the hopes that those still on the toasty side of the front might benefit. I've been wanting to play with rhubarb for a long time, and I always feel like sweet summer drinks need some sourness to keep them crisp and refreshing, so I thought a liquado made with rhubarb and ginger might work well. It did. This particular recipe is fairly sweet... just how my ladylove likes it... but if you want to emphasize the tartness a little more, it's easy enough to just cut back on the sugar a bit. Or, if you want to go the other direction, this'd make a nice sorbet. Up the sugar to 2 C., skip the extra 3 C. water and crushed ice, and toss the mix into an ice cream maker.

Dominic Armato
1 1/2 C. sugar
4 C. chopped fresh rhubarb
1/2" fresh ginger
6-8 C. crushed ice
2-3 limes
Rhubarb-Ginger Liquados
Makes about 6-8 drinks

First off, peel and slice the ginger into 4-5 thick slices. In a saucepan or small pot over high heat, throw together 3 C. water, the sugar and the ginger and heat, stirring, until the sugar is completely dissolved. Toss in the rhubarb, and when the mixture starts to bubble, turn down the heat to maintain a simmer. You want to cook the rhubarb until it gets soft and just barely starts to fall apart, about 4-5 minutes. Pull the pan off the heat, and allow the mixture to cool for a minute or two.

Pour the mixture into a blender, and puree it until smooth. Then, run it through a chinois or another fine-meshed strainer. If you don't have a chinois... well... get one. Next to the chef's knife, it may be my favorite kitchen tool. But if you don't have one, you can use a regular strainer lined with some cheesecloth. In any case, strain the mixture and discard the solids left behind. There's no need to press it or squeeze out every last bit of liquid. You don't want a lot of pulp getting through, or your liquados will be cloudy... tasty, but cloudy. Add 3 C. cold water to the strained liquid, and your drink base is ready. Toss it in the fridge to chill.

Once the drink base is nice and cold, you're all set to blend the liquados. For each liquado, combine 1 C. of the drink base, 2 tsp. fresh lime juice and 1 C. crushed ice in a blender and buzz for 3-4 seconds. Pour it out and drink it fast before the ice melts.