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September 21, 2006

Charlie Trotter's - The Dinner

Dominic Armato
Well, it pains me to see the Summer of Fine Dining come to a close, but I can't think of a more appropriate finish than Chicago's four star cuisine stalwart. It was actually just over a month ago that I hit Charlie Trotter's, so this post is long overdue. By way of explanation, I'd love to float the romantic notion that I just couldn't bear to bring the summer's deliciousness to a close, but the truth is simply that the conclusion of the Summer of Fine Dining happened to coincide with the Month of Crushing Workload. As such, I'm writing about a ridiculously complex dinner that's now four and a half weeks in the rearview mirror. My impressions are quite clear... buuuut some of the finer details are fuzzy. Be kind.

This was my second time at Trotter's. When my ladylove and I visited about three years ago, our assessment was that we understood why Trotter's is so highly regarded. However, in the wake of two astounding meals at Jean Georges, we were pleased, but far from blown away. Since that time, I've felt compelled to get back to Trotter's for a second pass, but with places like Alinea, Avenues and Everest still on the hit list, it's been hard to justify a return trip. As such, it was wonderfully fortuitous when some friends of ours, to celebrate their anniversary, snagged a reservation at the kitchen table and invited us along. Kitchen tables seem to be gaining in popularity, and while Trotter may or may not have been the one who popularized the practice, he's been doing it for a long, long time and he does a rather excellent job of it. One of the perks of the kitchen table, aside from the most obvious benefit of allowing its inhabitants to observe a top-flight kitchen at work, is that it is the only table where Trotter's most elaborate and lengthy menu is served. A few weeks after our dinner, I had the opportunity to return as a "guest chef for a day", so I'll save my observations of the kitchen for when I write about that experience. I figure 13 elaborate courses, including a ten item amuse-bouche extravaganza and a six dessert bento box, is more than enough material for one post... even taking into account the gaps in my memory.

Continue reading "Charlie Trotter's - The Dinner" »

September 17, 2006

The Beef-Off - Chapter VIII - Tore's

Dominic Armato
UPDATE : Tore's has closed

Here we are, two-thirds of the way through, about to enter the home stretch, and a few truisms are becoming increasingly evident. Most notable, I think, is that inconsistency is the Achilles' heel of the Beef-Off. Granted, the Beef-Off has never claimed to be anything other than a very subjective and personal tour based on a small sample, but all the same, the more places I visit, the less scientific this endeavor seems. But we'll save the error analysis for the conclusion of the exercise at the end of the year. Right now, it's all about more beefy data.

We move on to Tore's Italian Beef, a near north side establishment on the Western, Diversey & Elston megacorner. Tore's is something of a departure from the lovable skeeziness of places like Boston's, Johnnie's, Chickie's, Mr. Beef and Al's. It's another small joint, with counter seating and stools for 20 or so. But as beef stands go, it's an unusually pristine and well-lit environment, which makes me wonder if it's either younger or closer to its most recent facelift. In any case, while there's a soft spot in my heart for total dives, the Beef-Off neither awards nor penalizes eating establishments for atmosphere. It's all about the beef... which in this case, just happened to reflect said atmosphere.

Dominic Armato
I ordered the Beef-Off standard... hot, sweet and dipped... with fries and a soda. For the 483rd time (remarkable for a 12-stop contest), the fries were the typical frozen factory fare, though they were particularly crispy and otherwise prepared as well as they could be. The giardiniera was straight-up traditional, though nicely done, with peppers, cauliflower, carrots, celery and even olives. The sweet peppers, however, were very nicely done. They were cut into big chunks and cooked to just the right point where they were tender without going mushy, and the sweetness had been coaxed out of them while avoiding the bitterness that results from overcooking. Unusually good. The bread was a typical Gonnella roll, but it struck me as particularly fresh. The beef was abundant, tender, moist and not the least bit overcooked. But while I'd definitely peg Tore's as a solid sandwich, I couldn't get enthusiastic about the juice. It was very nicely seasoned, well-balanced and tasty, but it struck me as rather timid. Tore's beef has a very light, mild, clean flavor that is hard to fault, but equally as difficult to get excited about. It's not that it had the sterile precision of Portillo's or the weak, almost watery flavor of Roma's... there was character present... it's just that said character was a little wimpy.

As such, owing to the many things Tore's gets very right, I think it clearly belongs in the middle tier. But because it was more competent than exciting, I think I need to put it towards the bottom of the middle tier. It had more life than Portillo's, but above or below Boston's is a tough call. If I were to consider a second, unofficial trip to Boston's wherein the abusive oregano blast was nicely muted, it wouldn't be a contest. But even if I count the official (and lesser) Boston's visit, I think I still prefer Boston's flawed intensity to Tore's clean, conservative approach. If you're all about clean and light (inasmuch as a beef sandwich can be described as clean and light), you'll probably dig Tore's a lot more than I did. But for me, it's going in fifth position... smack dab in the middle of the pack.

Tore's Italian Beef
2804 N. Western Ave.
Chicago, IL 60618
1) Chickie's
2) Johnnie's
3) Mr. Beef
4) Bostons
5) Tore's
6) Portillo's
7) Roma's
8) Al's

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

September 14, 2006


Dominic Armato
This afternoon, while perusing Slashfood, I came across an item about a funky new coffee drink offered by LavAzza which is currently being test marketed in Chicago. Blehblehbleh, the world needs another Frappamochamegaccino. But here's the thing:

It was developed by Ferran Adriá.

I know, I know. Celebrity chef plus mass marketed product usually just equals annoyance. But the reality of the situation is that El Bulli received over 300,000 reservation requests for roughly 8,000 seats in 2004, and by all accounts that number has only grown since. In all probability, despite my obsession, I will not be making the pilgrimage to Roses anytime soon, if ever, unless it's to chain myself to the restaurant dumpster until the kitchen staff takes pity on me and throws some table scraps in my general direction. So if a mass-marketed coffee product is as close as I'm going to get to the godfather of molecular gastronomy, I'll snap up that opportunity and approach it with an open mind, thank you very much.

Dominic Armato
In any case, said product is called èspesso, and while it isn't exactly revolutionary, it's a fun idea. And it isn't a typo. Though my knowledge of Italian is fairly rudimentary, the name is a pun on espresso that I believe roughly translates to "it's thick". They take espresso, milk, sugar and Adriá's mystery thickening agent, throw them together in a pressurized canister, let the mixture chill overnight, and then squirt the resulting mousse-like substance into a cup, to be eaten with a spoon. The marketing revolves around an image of an upside-down cup of èspesso which, as you can see, in no way exaggerates the product's... tenacity. There are three types available. First, the plain espresso and sugar without any dairy which is pictured at the top of the post. Next is their macchiato, inverted on the left, which consists of the espresso side-by-side in the same cup with some milk that's received the same treatment. Last is the cappuccino, which is composed of the espresso and milk mixed together with a light dusting of cocoa, seen below. Èspesso has been available in Europe for a few years, but was just introduced to the States two days ago and is currently being sold only at the three LavAzza locations in Chicago. In a bit of happy timing, I had an appointment near one of the locations this afternoon, so I popped in to give it a try.

Dominic Armato
Funky idea aside, is the stuff any good? Well, I sampled all three varieties. I started with the cappuccino, which could easily have been mistaken for a traditional coffee-flavored mousse. The difference is that an abundance of dairy wasn't needed to achieve the texture, so the flavor was unusually intense. It was moist, light, a little sweeter than I'd like, but tasty and fun. Then, I moved on to the espresso which, conversely, was in no danger whatsoever of being mistaken for any traditional foodstuff. Though the process was exactly the same, the absence of milk made for a significant mental disconnect between flavor and texture. It felt like a wet yet light and firm mousse, but the flavor was full-on unadulterated espresso. And it was potent. We're talking pure, intense coffee flavor in cold, fluffy form. I dug it. My only complaint was that I thought it far too sweet, but as mentioned they've only been serving it for a couple of days, and I get the impression they're still working the kinks out. My favorite, however, was the macchiato. It might have been that I liked having the milk to cut the sweetness of the espresso somewhat, or it might simply have been that milk mousse was even weirder than espresso mousse, but it was both a unique sensation and rather tasty. And it looked cool.

Bottom line, I'm sure there are plenty of coffee purists who will be absolutely horrified. But if it's taken for what it is, just a fun and unusual coffee dessert, I think it's a rather enjoyable treat that I'd definitely go back for. Of course, to really get the full effect, I might need to sample it on the Spanish coast... say, as the final touch to a spectacular meal. If you're reading, Ferran, my E-mail address is on the right. And my schedule is flexible.

September 13, 2006

Mitsuwa Food Court

Dominic Armato
A couple of weeks back, to gather ingredients for the sea urchin pasta, I trucked out to Mitsuwa Marketplace. When shopping for sea urchin, you don't want to mess around with second-rate product. And though it's a bit of a haul from downtown, Mitsuwa is the place to go. 'Sides which, I'd been looking for an excuse to give their food court a try since my first visit a couple of months ago.

It actually takes up about a quarter of the store, housing six establishments if you count the sushi counter. Two of the stands... Mama House and Jockey Express... serve Korean and Chinese, respectively. But it seems silly to hit a Japanese market for Korean and Chinese. As for the Japanese stands, there's Daikichi Sushi, the aforementioned sushi counter, Otafuku-Tei for things like okonomi-yaki and curry, Kayaba for tempura and katsu, and the one strikes me as the cream of the crop, Santouka Ramen.

Dominic Armato
To be clear, it's a food court. There's a lot here that's underwhelming. But some items look pretty darn tasty, and one in particular was fabulous. My ladylove and I started off with a bit of sushi. Daikichi Sushi doubles as a food court stand and the grocery's takeout counter, and the selection is huge. Unfortunately, while inoffensive, it was fairly unexciting... a cut above supermarket sushi, but weak when judged by any other standard. From there, we moved on to a bit of Otafuku-Tei's katsudon, a panko-coated and deep-fried pork cutlet with rice and egg. I think I could have made a better choice. I observed some other folks with the plain tonkatsu and dipping sauce and it looked mighty fine, but the katsudon was somewhat underseasoned. So far, a decent lunch, but nothing to inspire a return trip. The ramen, however, changed all of that.

Dominic Armato
Ramen is not an area of expertise for me. In fact, despite the fact that I've been to Japan somewhere in the neighborhood of ten times, it's quite possible that I've never had a bowl of ramen there. But no matter how Santouka Ramen stacks up in the authenticity department, there's no denying that they make a damn tasty soup. And while I may or may not know ramen, I do know my pork... but more on that in a moment. You can choose from salt ramen, shoyu ramen (flavored with soy sauce), miso ramen and hot miso ramen. Then you choose whether you want pork, which type, and what size bowl you'd like it in. I went with the toroniku shoyu ramen. There was absolutely no resisting the toroniku. I mean, how do you pass on something that's translated as "special pork"? The soup and noodles were great... salty, full-flavored, warm and comforting. But it was all about the pork. I've devoted far too much time to railing against overly lean, tasteless American pork. I don't know where this pork came from, but it's exactly the sort of thing I'm always saying I can't get in the States. The soup comes with six or seven thick slices of the stewed pork, which is incredibly moist, tender and above all, laden with the kind of pork fat that melts away and fills your mouth with succulent richness. I always encourage people not to fear the fat, and this toroniku is an excellent object lesson. It doesn't achieve the giggleworthy levels of porky goodness I've had in Asia, but it's quite excellent and a wackyload closer.

September 12, 2006

West Side Market

Dominic Armato
Time to get this train back on the tracks.

The upside to having a crazy month with little time for blogging is that it leaves a nice backlog of subjects to cover. I'm mostly excited about the dual posts I'm working up for Charlie Trotter's (one on a tasty dinner, the other on the night I spent on the line as a "guest chef"), but for today I turn my attention to the land of Cleve, from whence my ladylove hails.

We spent Labor Day weekend with her family as we usually do: sleeping late, sitting on the sofa and playing video games. Our trips to Cleveland are generally seen as opportunities to hang out, do nothing in particular and spend some time with the folks. As such, much to my chagrin, I haven't even begun to explore what tastiness the city has to offer. But on this particular trip, I insisted on leaving the house just once to check out the West Side Market. Though I adore my city, dotted with a number of rather nice temporary markets as it is, it's both puzzling and a true shame that we don't have anything like this.

Dominic Armato
The West Side Market has been around for a spectacularly long time, dating back to 1840, though the current landmark building has only been around since 1912... a piddling 96 years. Though the main building with its huge clock tower is the most obvious part of the complex, it's actually half the story. The main building houses enough stalls for roughly 100 vendors, but there's also a long produce arcade that flanks it on two sides.

It was a rainy Saturday on a holiday weekend when we stopped by, so the place was predictably packed. And by packed, I mean packed. The photo on the left belies the crowd's true size. We started off in the produce arcade, which was more impressive in terms of scope than quality, but was rather nice nonetheless. There were piles and piles of beautiful fruits and vegetables, but I thought they left a little to be desired by farmers' market standards. There were some finds, to be sure, but many of the stalls seemed to be stocked with fresh but unexciting high-end grocery store fare rather than items that had been pulled from local fields that morning. Among the exceptional, however, were some monstrous, succulent heirloom tomatoes that made the transition to a chilled tomato and bread soup rather nicely.

Dominic Armato
The main building is absolutely stunning. It has the look of a converted train station with vaulted brick ceilings and tall frosted glass windows on either end. And it's huge. If Cleveland Browns Stadium collapses, I'm fairly certain they could clear out the stalls, roll out some astroturf and barely miss a beat. But while the building is a sight to behold, the real beauty of the place is in the bustle and the energy. The West Side Market isn't a grocery store in stall format. It feels like a market, successfully maintaining a style of food shopping that has sadly fallen by the wayside. Though there are a few stalls that sell prepared foods, the market mostly contains meat and seafood purveyors, bakeries, dairy stalls and other basics. Pork was plentiful, and looked quite nice. I was underwhelmed by most of the beef we saw, though we managed to locate a few decently-marbled porterhouses at Larry Vistein's which grilled up nicely. The lamb at Hartman's, on the other hand, looked absolutely stunning, thereby cementing my cooking plans for the next trip. A surprisingly large number of stalls were selling all manner of smoked meats, which makes me wonder if this is a regional specialty. Seafood was passable, but unexciting.

Dominic Armato
Unfortunately, I didn't get a good look at the cheese stalls, but Vera's struck me as one of the better-looking bakeries. And the selections went beyond the basics as well. There was a penny candy stall, one selling fresh popcorn, another with all manner of freshly-ground spices, cakes and other baked sweets, pickled vegetables, hordes of pierogies and a fresh pasta establishment that particularly piqued my interest. The Ohio City Pasta stall was well-stocked with beautiful piles of all manner of fresh pastas, including assorted ravioli and gnocchi, many (if not most) of them flavored in some manner. While I tend to be a pasta purist who's suspicious of all but the most simple and traditional flavored pastas, their product looked so nice that I'll give them the benefit of the doubt until I have a chance to sample on a future trip. In the interim, I'd love to hear if anybody has had any experience with these guys. I generally make my own fresh pasta, but if these guys are good, there's something to be said for just picking up a tangle or two and throwing together a quick sauce.

Dominic Armato
As mentioned, unlike many other permanent "farmers' markets", the West Side Market focuses on purveyors of raw goods rather than eating establishments, but there certainly are a few of the latter. There was a Middle Eastern sandwich stand that I understand is quite excellent, though I didn't have a chance to sample, myself. Johnny Hot Dog sells exactly what you'd expect, as does Steve's Gyro, and tucked away in a corner is Kim Se, which sells assorted Southeast Asian dishes. On this particular day, however, it was Frank's Bratwurst that got its hooks into me, much to my benefit. It was just a lightly seasoned, juicy sausage on a fresh hard roll with a simple sauerkraut and spicy mustard, but it absolutely hit the spot and seemed more than appropriate to the surroundings. Apparently I wasn't the only one who thought so. As I walked the market with my bounty, I was stopped by no fewer than three other marketgoers who wanted to know the source. With my face full, I was reduced to a simple grunt and point, but I think the message got through.