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December 29, 2006

The Deliciousness of 2006

Ah, this brings me back.

Last year about this time, I was cruising around LTH Forum when I happened upon the thread where everybody was posting their favorite ten dishes of 2005. I jumped in, but in the process of trying to come up with my favorite tastes of the previous 365 days, I grew frusrated with the knowledge that I was forgetting things... a lot of things. I decided to start journaling restaurants and recipes, and figured that as long as I was at it, I might as well make a blog of it. Thus, Skillet Doux was born.

Of course, the whole blogging thing has not only helped me to remember all of the tasty things I had this past year, but it's also had the most excellent side effect of pushing me to get out and try more. As a result, while last year's list included a few filler items, I had a really difficult time paring this year's list down to ten. There are dishes I had that were sometimes more inventive, interesting, refined or perfectly executed than these, but these were the ten that were the religious culinary experiences... those moments when a dish is so engrossing and such a sensory overload that you get completely lost in the food for a few moments. In 2006, these are the dishes that stayed with me, and that I'm sure they'll continue to do so for years to come.

And so, my ten favorite dishes of 2006, the order courtesy of random.org. As usual, clicking on the photos will bring up larger images:

Dominic Armato
Lobster with Potato, Gooseberries and Lavender
Schwa - Chicago

It's just chance that this one came up first, I swear. I also swore I wouldn't do any kind of rankings. But this was my favorite dish of the year, hands-down, no question. Despite plowing through hordes of high-end cuisine for the Summer of Fine Dining, I only encountered one dish in 2006 that was giggleworthy. Michael Carlson's lobster dish made me absolutely giddy. As I said in the first Schwa post, "the dish contained chunks of butter-poached lobster, sitting on a potato puree and accompanied by slices of roasted fingerling potatoes, some Swiss chard, gooseberries and a lavender foam. The combination was the kind of bold, pure, intense flavor that creates a total sensory overload. I think I left my body for a minute or two. A dish this intoxicating is a rare, rare treat." Carlson's quail egg ravioli may be the dish that causes most to swoon, and with good reason. But as fantastic as the ravioli was, it was this lobster dish that I'll never forget.
Dominic Armato
BISON - gruyère, pumpernickel, ramps
Alinea - Chicago

Alinea was a fantastic experience that I hope to duplicate sometime soon. Achatz' dishes engage the brain without working at the gut's expense. Whether the bison or squab would be the one to make the top ten was a tough decision, but I finally settled on the bison. Not only was it a religious culinary experience, but it was one of the shining examples of unorthodox technique creating compelling new dishes. The bison was first treated three ways... smoked, poached, then grilled... and then combined with a spicy raisin sauce. It was accompanied by gently cooked leeks, and a number of dehydrated ingredients including gruyère cheese, tiny flakes of pumpernickel bread and a powdered caraway salt. Not only was the flavor phenomenal, but the integration of the dehydrated and powdered ingredients created a wonderfully unexpected textural angle. Fantastic dish.
Dominic Armato
NY Strip Steak
Snake River Farms - Boise, Idaho

While I'm still irritated that it goes by the "American Kobe" moniker, since it only barely resembles the genuine item from Japan, this was the year that American Kobe won me over as a pretty decent alternative. It still isn't close to being the same, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's just different. And it's really delicious. It has some hints of the ridiculous richness that you get with genuine Kobe, but it also has a full-on beefy American Angus tail. Snake River Farms isn't a restaurant, but rather one purveyor of American Kobe for which I can vouch. Twice this year, I seared some up and topped it with just a little soy, honey, miso and garlic. One time it was pretty excellent. The other time, it was positively divine. It definitely isn't Kobe, but it's still one of the best things I tasted this year.
Dominic Armato
Plaa Sôm
Spoon Thai - Chicago

I almost feel guilty putting this one up here, since it isn't actually available. A few months back, I had the great fortune of being invited to a Thai feast by the inimitable Erik M. of silapaahaan.com. Erik, being good friends with the folks who run Spoon Thai, arranged a special menu that included some dishes that aren't ordinarily on the menu. This one was my favorite, not just for its awesomeness, but also for the fact that it was prepared in a manner that was wonderfully novel to me, no matter how traditional it may be in reality. Sticky rice is fermented in the cavity of the fish before it's deep-fried, imparting it with a wonderful mellow sourness that completely permeates the flesh. It was an eye-opening year for me when it comes to traditional Thai, and this dish was one of the highlights.
Dominic Armato
Soft Shell Crab Po' Boy with Tomato-Fennel
Relish and Fennel Frond Mayo
Dom's Kitchen - Chicago

With soft shell crab season slipping away, I decided to throw something together one night that turned out surprisingly well. Every once in a while, it's nice to have a reminder that a few simple ingredients can absolutely floor you if they're treated just right. I'm still not quite sure how this sandwich came out as well as it did, and I'm almost afraid to try it again for fear that I happened to catch lightning in a bottle that night and I'll just be disappointed, but man, was it good. It was all about freshness, I had some stellar ingredients to work with, I tried not to do too much with them, and everything just happened to come together perfectly. This is something I'll definitely be revisiting when we do our stint in Baltimore.
Dominic Armato
Roast Chicken, Wing, Middle Section
Dom's Kitchen - Chicago

I know, I know, this level of specificity is totally absurd. But back at the beginning of the year, I made a roast chicken for the first time. Also absurd. But in any case, I did it in a cast iron pan, with the wings tucked under the bird, flat against the bottom. The result was a wing that essentially fried in chicken fat in the oven for about 45 minutes. I'm already a little partial to chicken wings, and I inadvertently distilled it down to its purest form... salty, impossibly crisp, still moist in the middle, and possessed of an incredibly intense chicken flavor. It was nothing but chicken, salt, pepper and a bit of fresh thyme, and it was still one of the most delicious things I had all year. Now I just need to figure out how to replicate the wings without having to cook the whole bird.
Dominic Armato
Italian Beef Sandwich with Fries
Chickie's - Chicago

I've already waxed poetic about Chickie's Italian beef on a number of occasions. I've always been an admirer of the Chicago institution that is the Italian beef sandwich, and this was the year I did my best to explore the city's scene in the form of the Beef-Off. While I had some great sandwiches, Chickie's was the one that completely took me away. Its beauty is in its subtle complexity, with all elements serving to accentuate the beef without calling too much attention to themselves. Though Italian beef sandwiches are notoriously inconsistent, when they're on, they're an underrated culinary gem. The second beef I had at Chickie's this year was, by a longshot, the best Italian beef sandwich I've ever tasted. And the fries are pretty damn good, too.
Eduardo Seidenberger
Aburi Toro
Sushizanmai - Tokyo, Japan

I've been to Japan a number of times and demolished more than my fair share of raw fish. But on my trip this past April, I hit a new high. Searching online for all-night sushi bars, I came across Sushizanmai, which has a number of locations around Tokyo. The one I hit was just a couple of blocks from Tsukiji, the largest fish market in the world. Raw fish doesn't get much better than this, and while everything was phenomenal, there was one item I tried that absolutely blew me away. I saw the chef preparing it for another customer, and asked him to make some for me as well. Aburi toro is, like any other toro, the extremely fatty cut of tuna taken from the belly of the fish. But in the case of aburi toro, it's then topped with a light dusting of some mystery powder that is both salty and sweet, quickly seared with a blowtorch, and topped with a bit of chive. It. Was. Amazing. The quick sear under incredible heat leaves the inner rawness while cooking the outer surface. But most importantly, it melts and draws out some of the fat, leaving the surface of the fish glistening with pure toro richness. I've never had it anywhere else, so for all I know this is incredibly common in Japan. But I can't imagine it getting any better than what I had. Food just doesn't get any better than that. Tragically, I didn't get a photo of this one, but Eduardo Seidenberger came to the rescue, graciously sending me his photo of aburi toro for me to post... and from the same restaurant, no less!
Dominic Armato
Bufalina Pizza
Spacca Napoli - Chicago

Sadly, I have no photo of the Bufalina, so a picture of the funghi pizza will have to suffice. Spacca Napoli opened in Chicago this year, and it made me swoon right from the start. Here is an establishment that has absolutely nailed a beautiful art form, that of the Neapolitan pizza. Since my first visit in June, I've managed to plow through most of the regular menu, as well as a number of specials. Every single one has been fantastic, but if I had to pick a favorite, I think it'd be the beautiful simplicity of their Bufalina. It's so uncomplicated, so unpretentious, and so perfect. And while the fior di latte mozzarella that's used on most of the pizzas is wonderful, there's something magical about buffalo milk cheese that keeps bringing me back to the Bufalina. Despite our reputation as the home of deep dish, Spacca Napoli serves up my favorite pizza in the city.
Dominic Armato
Calvados-Infused Duck Sausage with
Apple Mustard, White Truffle Cheese
and Foie Gras "Butter"
Hot Doug's - Chicago

So that we don't end the year's top ten on a bitter note, I'm going to gloss over the fact that this is now an illicit foodstuff in my fair city. 2006 also marked my first visit to Hot Doug's, the Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium. The man elevates sausage to an art form, both ably covering the basics while simultaneously busting out wacky combinations of unusual sausages and even more unusual toppings in an unending quest for encased meaty bliss. Since my first visit, I've achieved encased meaty bliss on a number of occasions, but my favorite was probably the sausage you see here. The title says high brow, but this is an absolutely brilliant dressing-down of some über-classy ingredients. I've had duck, truffles, foie gras and calvados together many times before, but this might actually be my favorite. What's more, while I'm frequently irritated by those who thumb their noses at authority, I have nothing but the warm fuzzies for Doug who occasionally brings this gem (or some derivation thereof) back, despite the citation he proudly displays on his counter. Though it was a wonderfully tasty year for me, 2006 was also a dark and foreboding one for the Chicago food scene thanks to the city council. Fight the power, Doug, and may 2007 take the restaurant scene out of the city's legislative crosshairs.

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December 27, 2006

The Year In Beef

I started back in January under the assumption that there had to be more to the Chicago Italian beef scene than Al's and Mr. Beef, the conventional favorites. I was determined to get out and try a dozen spots over the course of the year, and I'd say this exercise has been a rousing success. It took a little bit of a December flurry (the only flurry we've had this December, I believe), but we've finally brought the 2006 Beef-Off to a close. It was intended to be more of an amusing tour than a hardcore contest, and the rankings were a way to keep it fun and honor the original Great VinCenzo Beef-Off. But I have to say, with all twelve chapters in the rear view mirror I almost feel as though the rankings have done these establishments a disservice.

If there was a theme for the 2006 Beef-Off, it was inconsistency. Well, that and mediocre fries. But on the occasions when I revisited beef stands, either officially or unofficially, there was frequently a vast difference in quality from day to day. Of course, it could be said that one of the marks of a great beef stand is consistency, but all the same, I think it's important to bear in mind that these are all ranked as they were on the day I had 'em. Also, while I never strive for complete and total objectivity, the Beef-Off was intended to be an extremely personal and subjective take. And what's more, these are all really good beef stands, top to bottom. The list consisted of my own favorites, some I'd heard of here and there, the recommendations of friends, and the always thoughtful musings of my compatriots over at LTH Forum. As a result, there wasn't a single establishment that didn't send out a good beef at some point. As tempting as it was to throw in some beef establishments of dubious quality to spice up the writeups, there were so many places I was dying to try, I couldn't bear to axe any on the schedule. The bottom line is, though I sampled a full dozen beef stands this year, I've only just barely scratched the surface... even of the joints I've visited.

As such, for the final wrapup, I'm going more qualitative than quantitative. You can click on the names of the stands for the full writeup. And so, without further ado, the Year In Beef... after the jump:

Continue reading "The Year In Beef" »

December 25, 2006

The Beef-Off - Chapter XII - Max's

Dominic Armato
Well, it had to come to a close sooner or later, I suppose.

For the final chapter in the Beef-Off, we swing way up north to Max's. Appearance-wise, Max's is one of the more colorful locales. A rather chipper looking cow in shades adorns the sign out front (further bolstering my theory that all of my foodstuffs are positively thrilled to be eaten by me), and he's surrounded by a small herd of welded metal minions. The interior walls are adorned with murals of the city, there are five or six tables plus enough counter space and stools to seat 20-30 in cozy fashion, and a couple of televisions that I suspect are usually tuned to something sports related. It's a pretty extensive menu, with the beef and beef-related items only composing a small section.

Dominic Armato
In fact, one entry in particular caught my eye and forced me to deviate from the Beef-Off standard. I ordered the usual beef, sweet, hot and dipped, but instead of a regular order of fries I went with Max's signature "ghetto fries." They sound almost unholy. The potatoes themselves are nothing to get excited about, but they're topped with a formidable combination of Italian beef gravy, Max's house giardiniera, sweet barbecue sauce, chopped raw onion and Merkt's cheddar sauce. They have a certain kind of kitchen sink charm, but this isn't a concoction that sells purely because it's borderline obscene. The ghetto fries are surprisingly good... a great balance of salty, sweet and spicy. Unfortunately for Max's, the awesomeness of the fries doesn't figure into the Beef-Off.

Dominic Armato
Max's beef is somewhat underwhelming, though it has a couple of nice touches. The juice's character is warm and mellow, if a little timid, and atop every table sits a large tub of the house giardiniera, which is a bold and tasty one. It's very tart, not nearly as spicy as you'd expect given the color, it's chock full of tasty vegetables, and it's abundant. The deep red-orange oil contains chunks of pickled peppers, celery, carrots, red bell peppers and even the occasional olive. But these high points weren't enough to save a beef that had some problems. The sweet peppers were largely symbolic and not very flavorful, a couple small chunks of yellow and two small strips of green. But most troubling was the beef itself, which was overcooked, dry and fairly tough. While I wouldn't call it offensive, there wasn't anything fresh about it. The late lunch hour may have been partially responsible, but the beef should never be allowed to sit in the juice too long before serving, and I suspect mine was. It's too bad... I felt like there was a better beef trapped in there.

So, to round out the standings, I'm going to slot Max's below the competent but underwhelming Jay's and above the flat Roma's. My suspicion that I may have gotten a bad sandwich would probably have been enough to bring me back, but the ghetto fries absolutely cemented a return visit. The updated standings are below, but expect a full wrap-up shortly for endless caveats!

Max's Famous Italian Beef
5754 N. Western Ave.
Chicago, IL 60659
1) Chickie's
2) Johnnie's
3) Uncle Johnny's
4) Pop's
5) Mr. Beef
6) Bostons
7) Tore's
8) Portillo's
9) Jay's
10) Max's
11) Roma's
12) Al's

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

December 19, 2006

Bun In The Oven...

...just came out fresh and hot! Which is more than I can say for hospital food.

Back shortly.

December 17, 2006

Return to Snake River

Dominic Armato
Tell me that isn't a thing of beauty.

A quick glance should make it clear that this isn't genuine Kobe, but it's still some damn fine beef. This is the Snake River Farms "American Kobe" that I wrote about back in June. My father's birthday was this weekend and I figured some premium beef would be an excellent present. So I threw together a quick and simple recipe that I thought was good enough to post.

The inspiration here is actually Italian. One of my favorite dishes on the planet is the Tagliata di Bue at Trattoria dei Tredici Gobbi in Florence. It's an exercise in simplicity and a common dish to boot, but they do it really, really well. They lightly season a thin steak, grill it hot so that it's charred on the outside and cool in the center, slice it up and top it with a pile of fresh arugula and a bit of balsamic vinegar. So I took the flavors of June's experiment, served them in a similar fashion, and added a nice starchy side. The beef was tasty, as expected. What surprised me was how well sweet potatoes and sake paired up. I thought it would work, but not that well. This is now officially my favorite way to do sweet potatoes, and it's subtle enough that it doesn't scream Asian so they'd work in a bunch of different contexts.

Incidentally, it pains me to endorse prepackaged greens of any kind but the Newman's Own baby arugula I used was surprisingly good. If it's consistently so (which remains to be seen), it's a winner.

Dominic Armato

4 sweet potatoes
½ C. tamari soy sauce
1 Tbsp. white miso
4 tsp. honey
1 clove garlic, very thinly sliced
½ C. butter, softened
2 Tbsp. finely minced fresh ginger
1 Tbsp. dry sake
½ tsp. salt
2 16-20 oz. NY strip steaks
coarse salt & pepper
4 C. fresh arugula

Japanese Tagliata di Bue with Ginger-Sake Sweet Potatoes
Serves 4

Unless a potato's explosive potential is more compelling to you than its tasty potential, poke the sweet potatoes a few times with a fork (I know, I know, they won't actually explode). Then roast them in a 425º oven for about 45 minutes, until they're soft. While the potatoes are cooking, you can prep the rest of the dish... you'll have more than enough time.

Pull the steaks out of the fridge so they won't be too cold when you cook them. While they're warming up a bit, mix up their sauce. It's a whole lot better if it rests for about half an hour, so it's best to start here. Combine the soy sauce, miso, honey and garlic, mix them thoroughly so that the miso dissolves and then let them rest at room temperature until everything else is ready.

Do the same thing with the butter, ginger, sake and salt. I'm a fan of mincing the ginger here. You could grate the ginger if you prefer, but then you won't need nearly as much.

Now, back to the steaks. Put a cast iron skillet over the highest possible heat, and let it get smoking hot. While the skillet is heating, you're going to do something that will make some steak purists cringe. Slice the two steaks in half down the middle, so you end up with four steaks that are only about ¾" thick. Season both sides of the steaks with coarse salt and a bit of coarsely ground pepper. I think cracked pepper is a little too potent for this dish, but that's your call. Give the steaks a good rub.

Wait until the potatoes are ready before you fire the beef. The potatoes will sit nicely for a few minutes. The steak won't. When the potatoes are ready, slice them down the middle, fluff them a little bit and fill them with a generous dollop of the ginger-sake butter.

Then, cook up the steaks. If there's a thick layer of fat around the outer edge, hold the steaks with a pair of tongs, stand them on the edge and give them a quick sear to soften and render some of the fat. Then, cook the steaks for just a minute or two on either side so that the outside is nicely seared with almost a light crust, but the center is still cool. Slice and plate the steaks, drizzle them with the soy sauce mixture, top them with a handful of the arugula and serve them with the sweet potatoes. If you get your hands on some Kobe, American or otherwise, don't you dare leave the fat on your plate... that's totally the best part.

December 15, 2006

The Beef-Off - Chapter XI - Pop's

Dominic Armato
Who am I to argue with Santa? *

The second to last stop on the grand tour de boeuf was a bit of a trek for this particular North Sider. It was also the most expensive beef by a longshot, but only as a function of the gas guzzled to get there. When a beef stand is as highly regarded as Pop's, however, it's difficult to leave it off the list. There are a few locations, but I have it on good authority that the one on Kedzie is the one to hit. Though still within the city limits, Pop's is located way on the South Side in lovely Evergreen Park. This was my first visit to Evergreen Park, and it certainly seems like a quaint little 'hood... the kind of place that might very well attract an endorsement from the jolly red fella. As appearances go, Pop's is right in the traditional Chicago beef stand sweet spot; well-kept with counter seating inside and picnic tables outside, but just skeezy enough to have street cred. Somehow, I don't feel right eating an Italian Beef in a place that isn't at least a little dive-y. But I felt right at home down at Pop's, seated at the counter with the Beef-Off standard. Was it worth the trip?

Dominic Armato
I don't know that I'd make the 38.2 mile round trip again anytime soon, but Santa shills for a very good sandwich.

The taters? Well, we've seen these fries before. The sandwich, on the other hand, is nearly fault-free. I'd prefer a slightly bolder flavor, and the beef wasn't quite as moist and tender as I'd like, but it's hard to hold that against an otherwise superior sammy. It's a standard roll, abundantly packed with nicely seasoned beef and well-soaked, per my request. The giardiniera is a rather nice one, tart but still quite green, with very thin slices of celery and jalapeno and a smattering of crushed red chiles for pop... and pop it's got. I'm torn on the sweet peppers, but I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt. They're completely unseasoned as far as I can tell, but they're genuinely sweet sweet peppers that are nice and tender, and haven't been cooked into bitter oblivion. Most importantly, when thrown together, all of the elements are really nicely balanced and complement each other perfectly.

So where does it go in the rankings? I'm going to say tippy-top of the middle tier. Technically, it gets some truly excellent marks. But while it doesn't have the obvious flaws of a beef like Uncle Johnny's, it also doesn't quite have the intangible beefy magic of the current top three, Uncle Johnny's included. It outdoes the pack, but doesn't transcend it. In sum, an excellent beef... one of the best... but not worth trucking all over town for.

* I was under the impression that milk and cookies were more his speed, but the marquee says otherwise.

Pop's Italian Beef
10337 S. Kedzie Ave.
Chicago, IL 60655
1) Chickie's
2) Johnnie's
3) Uncle Johnny's
4) Pop's
5) Mr. Beef
6) Bostons
7) Tore's
8) Portillo's
9) Jay's
10) Roma's
11) Al's

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

December 13, 2006

Holiday Spice Cream

Horrible pun, I know. I'm sorry.

Given today's post, we're now midway through what is apparently the month of beef stands and old Iron Chef recipes. With the holidays around the corner, I figured it was time to bust this one out. I know ice creams aren't typically regarded as cold weather fare, but the flavors say December to me. I threw this one together for the inaugural Iron Chef back around Christmas 2000. The ingredient was orange, hence the Grand Marnier, but ransacking the liquor cabinet would, I'm sure, turn up more than a few libations that would also pair well with the spices. For some reason, prevailing opinion among many seems to be that ice cream is difficult to make, but I'm at a loss to understand why. Quick and easy, this one.

Dominic Armato
3 C. heavy cream
1 C. whole milk
¾ C. sugar
4 egg yolks
6 cinnamon sticks
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
4 tsp. whole cloves
10 whole star anise
Grand Marnier

Holiday Spice Cream with
Grand Marnier
Makes 1 quart

To start off, combine the cream, milk and sugar in a saucepan over medium low heat and warm, stirring, until the sugar is completely dissolved. Do not let the mixture boil. Meanwhile, in a small mixing bowl, give the egg yolks a quick, light whisk. Then, while continuing to whisk the yolks, slowly add about one cup of the hot cream mixture, one tablespoon at a time. This is called tempering, and it's done to slowly warm the yolks so that they don't immediately scramble when you add them to the hot liquid. If you add the cream too quickly and the yolks scramble... well... you're pretty much hosed. Better start again. At any rate, once you've added about a cup of the cream mixture and the yolks are duly warmed, slowly add the yolk mixture back into the saucepan, whisking to combine.

Add the cinnamon in both forms, the cloves and the star anise. Continue heating the mixture (no boiling!) for about 7-10 minutes, stirring frequently, until it starts to smell appropriately Christmas-ey and thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Pour the mixture into a mixing bowl and allow it to cool. Then, either run it through a strainer or just pick out the cinnamon sticks, cloves and star anise.

Then, freeze the mixture as directed for your ice cream maker. Unless you're using a self-refrigerating machine, it'll help immensely if you stick the cream in the fridge for a while to chill first. Once frozen, you can eat it nice and soft, or transfer it to a tub and move it to the freezer to harden. Either way, scoop it out, drizzle a little Grand Marnier (or your booze of choice) over the top and serve it up.

December 11, 2006

Top Chef Annoyance

Okay, I don't want to turn into a reality television blog, I really don't. But my discontent has been growing and I need to open the floor for discussion.

Is anybody else irritated with season two of Top Chef?

It took a lot for reality television to finally rope me. Not only was it a subject near and dear, but I thought the first season of Top Chef struck a nice balance. Yes, it's reality TV. Yes, without conflict they don't have an audience. Yes, to generate said conflict they sometimes need to stoke the fire a bit... or at least provide the matches. But at the end of the day, the show never forgot that it was still centered around a compelling competition with (mostly) talented chefs. If there's a scale of serious competition vs. artificial drama, I thought season one parked itself squarely in the middle, and that's why it won me over.

Now, sadly, I can't shake the feeling that that the food has taken a backseat to the fireworks. Maybe I'm being overly critical, or maybe I have an overly rosy recollection of season one. But I need to know if this is all a figment of my imagination. The evidence, after the jump, so as to avoid spoilers:

Continue reading "Top Chef Annoyance" »

December 07, 2006

The Beef-Off - Chapter X - Uncle Johnny's

Dominic Armato
I have to confess, the tenth entry in the Beef-Off schedule came as a bit of a surprise.

I threw in Uncle Johnny's less because of what I heard about their beef, and more because of what I heard about their character. Uncle Johnny's isn't a beef stand at all. It's actually a tiny old corner market down in Bridgeport that makes a few sandwiches behind the deli counter, one of which happens to be of the beefy and Italian variety. When I say tiny, I mean the place absolutely defines hole in the wall. The area open to customers can't be more than about 15'x20'. A few shelves are crammed with items like potato chips, some canned goods, condiments and such. The back wall is lined with ancient wooden coolers containing milk, eggs and other basics. Judging from the yellowing paraphernalia tacked to the walls above the shelves, somebody's an Elvis fan. And next to the cash register is a small deli case, behind which is a tiny prep area where they prepare sandwiches for carryout. Though I believe there's a small kitchen in back, this sandwich prep area is a decidedly low-tech operation. In fact, rather than the typical large commercial equipment, Johnny's serves their beef out of a small countertop appliance. Having heard that Uncle Johnny's didn't have any seating, I'd assumed there would be some kind of stand-up counter or something of that nature. No dice. While I understand there's usually a picnic table or two out on the sidewalk during the warmer months, my December expedition left me with the options of either A) the street corner, or B) my car. I opted for the latter. As such, it was in the front seat, hunched over my makeshift briefcase-wrapped-in-plastic-grocery-bag table, that I discovered Uncle Johnny's is about a lot more than character.

Dominic Armato
It was a really good beef.

One of the best I've had, in fact, if a little atypical. The thing of it is, there are issues with Uncle Johnny's sandwich that I'd ordinarily consider detrimental. The sweet peppers were overcooked and rather bitter. The seasonings were weak, with the exception of an overly strong black pepper flavor. But as much as I tried to fulfill my Beef-Off responsibilities by carefully tasting and nit picking, no matter how much fault I found I couldn't help but get lost in what was a fantastic beef experience. It was really, really delicious, and I think the operative word here is fresh. It had a pure, clean flavor that was wonderfully intense despite its simplicity. Uncle Johnny's uses a very moist French bread which, when mixed with a healthy amount of juice, partially morphs into the warm, gooey mess that may very well be my favorite part of a beef sandwich. The giardiniera appeared to be a typical bottled variety -- probably off the store's shelves -- with chunks of peppers, carrots, cauliflower and celery sitting in a healthy amount of spicy olive oil. The beef, which I understand is roasted in house, is unusually moist, tender, and sliced particularly thin. The flavor of the beef and juice, however, is the real enigma to me. Aside from the aforementioned potent pepper flavor, it's very, very lightly seasoned. I'd normally classify this as a problem, but the beef flavor was so warm and intense and rounded, strong but beautifully mellow, capturing both the lighter sweetness and the darker well-done flavors, I finally decided that I just didn't care. Since commencing the Beef-Off in January, I was completely lost in the sandwich for just the third time.

From what I'd heard, I expected Uncle Johnny's to make a pretty decent sammy, but I had no idea it would crack the top tier. While it doesn't embody the complex, artful, perfectly balanced genius of places like Chickie's and Johnnie's, it has a simple but bold character that's just flat out good. As such, I'm going to put it at the bottom of the top tier. My brain says it has a few issues, but I'm going with the gut on this one, and the gut is very, very pleased.

Uncle Johnny's
500 W. 32nd Street
Chicago, IL 60616
1) Chickie's
2) Johnnie's
3) Uncle Johnny's
4) Mr. Beef
5) Bostons
6) Tore's
7) Portillo's
8) Jay's
9) Roma's
10) Al's

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

December 06, 2006

Schwa Redux

And while we're on the subject of edible presents, my birthday was a couple of weeks back and my ladylove chose to celebrate it by arranging an encore presentation of our favorite stop from the Summer of Fine Dining. Once again, an absolutely fantastic meal. Schwa is now a tasting only affair (not that I'd have it any other way), so we went full boat yet again and I came away at least as impressed as I was on our first visit.

For a place with no actual service staff (the chefs run the front as well), they do a damn fine job with service. Though the reservation was under a completely different name, the fellow who greeted us immediately recognized us from our first visit over three months ago. After a Schwa-like laid back welcome, he quickly asked if we'd had any of the menu items on our previous visit. When we pointed out that the five courses at the heart of the menu were exactly the same as last time, he offered to mix in a few new dishes that we hadn't had yet tried. Mind you, this isn't a larger establishment with two or three tasting menus plus a la carte selections, yet they still made substitutions on three courses so that we only doubled up on two. One of the other chefs later told us they were happy to do it... they wanted to give us the opportunity to try some new dishes... and I only hope we made our appreciation clear.

Dominic Armato
Though I've mentioned it before, the lighting at Schwa is really, really dim. Really dim. It's a seriously dark restaurant. As such, be kind... photos are tricky, and what you see here has been heavily Photoshopped to make it presentable. In any case, Carlson started us off with an interesting little amuse that combined chocolate and beets. On the left was a golden beet and dark chocolate "truffle", with a bit of beet powder and some crispy little bacon bits on top. On the right, a beet shot with a dollop of white chocolate ganache and a bit of bacon fat on the rim. I adore beets. But I have to confess, I'm not yet totally sold on beet and chocolate as complementary flavors. The truffle wasn't a beet flavored chocolate, but rather a chocolate flavored beet. The vegetable was the primary ingredient. I liked that he played the beet off dark chocolate on one hand and white chocolate on the other, and I'm always appreciative of dishes that push the boundaries between savory and sweet. It was both tasty and interesting, but I can't say it's one I'll miss if I don't see again. Much like our first visit, however, the meal took off immediately after the amuse.

Dominic Armato
Next up was another excellent salad. This time, it was composed of marinated white anchovies, thinly sliced green apples, celery and batons of braised celery root, a green apple and olive oil puree and a pile of wispy microplaned Manchego cheese. Also, as with the caramelized fennel puree from our last visit, he grounded the salad and gave it an earthy dimension by adding a celery root puree that lined one side of the bowl. It's an approach I love. While salads tend to be either/or affairs that hit one end of the light/earthy spectrum, the two Carlson salads I've had thus far cover the full continuum. This isn't easy to do. There isn't much challenge in throwing together a bunch of light, sweet fruits or a pile of starchy root vegetables, but to marry the two is tricky, especially when you're throwing in some piscine pungency to boot. It was a really tasty little number that reflected what I'm starting to see as Carlson's style -- unusual combinations of disparate flavors that complement each other without getting lost in one another.

Dominic Armato
With our third dish, the folks at Schwa sang a little ode to their neighborhood. They called this dish their elote soup, which is a wonderfully descriptive title if you're familiar with the Mexican vendors who roam the surrounding streets selling boiled or grilled ears of corn, slathered in margarine or mayonnaise and sprinkled with chili powder. The dish captured both the flavors and the casual feel of the eloteros' carts. It was a simple but smoothly sweet, velvety corn soup in a cup rimmed with a cilantro puree. On the plate were salty popcorn kernels, some shredded cheese, grilled fresh corn kernels, mayonnaise, a touch of chili powder and a dollop of an intensely sweet and sour lime reduction. The fun presentation, intentionally or not, also served a worthy purpose. It's impossible to compose a bite that incorporates all of the elements, so you're forced to take a bite here, a swig there, pop a kernel here, dip in the lime reduction there... and as a result, every bite has the same flavor profile, but features a different element of the dish. Eating the dish was like listening to a song while futzing with the graphic equalizer, maxing out a different band every few seconds. It was a little goofy, anti-highbrow, and very enjoyable.

Dominic Armato
Okay, I got lazy and ganked this photo from the last Schwa post. This was one of the two dishes we doubled up on, and I'm supremely glad we did. Carlson's ravioli with bufala ricotta, fried sage, brown butter and liquid quail egg center have inspired a seemingly endless array of sexual metaphors on the food blogs and bulletin boards, and it's no wonder why. On this particular evening, he pushed it even a little further with the more than welcome addition of freshly shaved white truffle. But while the dish was fantastic last time, it was absolutely perfect this time. I have a notion that my ravioli might have been ever-so-slightly overcooked last time out... supremely delicious, but lacking the incredible eggy gush that pushes it over the top. This time, I got the gush... and it got me.

Dominic Armato
One of my favorite dishes from our last trip was a caviar course, and I enjoyed this one even more. In keeping with my string of firsts at Schwa, this dish was my first impression of arctic char caviar. Though it seems corny to say so, I think the best way I can describe it is to say that salmon : arctic char :: salmon roe : arctic char caviar, which is to say it's reminiscent of its pinker and more intensely-flavored cousin, but more subtle. Here, it was mixed with a chilled celery root and pear puree, and topped with a pink peppercorn and sugar tuille. The tuille effectively mimicked a torched sugar crust, allowing the dish to evoke creme brulée sensibilities without requiring the use of a torch, which would undoubtedly do unfortunate things to the delicate caviar below. Again, Carlson is playing with savory and sweet, taking dessert-like creams and sugars and playing them off a bold, salty, fishy caviar, then throwing in some intense spice for good measure. This was really a beautifully composed dish, both in terms of flavors and technique, and it was probably my favorite of the evening.

Dominic Armato
Here, I opted to forego the lobster from our previous visit for a new sturgeon dish. Let me tell you, this was a torturous decision. That lobster still haunts me. But I was determined to try new dishes, and I'd make the same choice again. No, this wasn't the drop-dead amazing dish that the lobster was, but it was quite delicious, and my first experience with sturgeon (other than the roe, anyway) to boot. The sturgeon was pan-seared, paired with persimmon and batons of Jamon Serrano, dual purees of persimmon and chestnut, and the occasional red-veined sorrel leaf. I hate to gloss over the dish itself, because it really was delicious, but I was mostly surprised by the sturgeon which is a really unique fish. When first slicing, my ladylove and I both feared it had been overcooked, but these fears proved unfounded. It's an extremely dense and firm fish, but it's positively juicy. Biting into this sturgeon elicited a rush of sweet fish essence that was reminiscent of biting into an extremely ripe piece of fruit. It was almost dripping. Since this was my singular sturgeon experience thus far, I can't say whether this was the result of nature or nurture, but I'm anxious to find out and I'll be watching for sturgeon elsewhere.

Dominic Armato
Next up was the other duplicate dish, the crispy sweetbreads with wine-braised rhubarb and Humboldt Fog goat cheese. Having written about this dish before, I won't go into full detail again, but I did make two observations this time around. First, like the ravioli, this was even better on our second visit. The sweetbreads were crisper, the flavors were sharper... it just felt like these guys were really hitting their stride and getting every minute detail just right. Secondly, while eating the dish this time I started thinking about the fact that when it comes to organ meats, chefs often go to great lengths to eliminate or lessen some of the more intense organ-ey flavors and smells, usually by soaking the organs in milk or through some other form of pre-treatment. The thought occurred to me that the funky, intense Humboldt Fog bleu was almost like the right hand "look over here" maneuver, distracting from any pungency that might be left in the beast. This may or may not have been intentional, but I got a chuckle out of it either way. And if I was being fooled, I was more than happy to play along.

Dominic Armato
A little off-the-menu spoon arrived before our main course (if a ten-course taster can be said to have a main course), and it was simple and lovely. The spoon contained a small bit of scallop, some chanterelle mushroom, more of the coveted white truffle and a couple of leaves from a brussels sprout. Scallop, mushroom and truffle couldn't be a more classic (and devastatingly effective) combination, but I thought the inclusion of the slightly bitter and pungent brussels sprout was a nice little twist that added a layer of complexity and made the spoon just a little more special. It also left me pining for white truffles, which I still feel as though I haven't really tasted since Louis XV a number of years ago... *sigh*

Dominic Armato
The menu's beefy zenith was actually a trio, raw, pickled and braised. Though there were multiple components, each was surprisingly minimal, though quite delicious. First up was a bit of beef tartare, topped with a quail egg yolk and accompanied by a smear of yuzu emulsion. We weren't sure how it was supposed to be eaten, but it was small enough that we opted to pick up the faux ice cubes and do them as a shot of sorts. It turned out to be a good call. It was intense and one-dimensional, giving me a moment of "yow, that's a little much" before the citrus chaser cut through the richness and rounded out the flavor. The pickled item was a slice of beef tongue, topped with a tiny bit of cucumber. The term pickled is perhaps a bit misleading. There was vinegar present, to be sure, but only in a very subtle sense. Muscles that get a lot of use develop a very intense flavor, and like the heart, the tongue is one of the most intensely flavored muscles in a cow's body. It was very minimally treated, with the acid and cucumber acting as a very light foil to the supreme beefiness of the tongue. This was beef flavor at its purest, tender but potent. My favorite of the three. Last up was braised short rib, extremely dark, caramelized and very, very salty with a heavy soy sauce seasoning and a light and almost creamy sweet potato puree accompaniment. I thought the seasoning was almost a little too aggressive on the meat, but I dug it nonetheless, and I thought the pairing was a very nice one.

Dominic Armato
In lieu of a traditional cheese course, Carlson instead chose to serve a spoon filled with a cheese risotto. The cheese in question was Morbier, a somewhat pungent cow's milk cheese with ash veins. It was accompanied by a summer savory puree and some paper thin dehydrated apple slices that were crumbled over the top. I thought it was a delightful alternative to a traditional cheese course. The risotto was quite toothsome which, combined with the crispy apple, made for a nice textural contrast to the inherent creaminess of the Morbier. It could be argued that it was nothing more than a repackaging, but I thought it was a delicious repackaging that wasn't the least bit gratuitous. There's a part of me that would've enjoyed a full bowl, but that part of me was shouted down by the part of me that thinks palate fatigue would set in about midway through. One bite is just right.

Dominic Armato
We were each served a dessert, and we switched midway through. The first was another sweet/savory crossover that worked olives into a sweet context. The base of the dish was a crumbled olive bread that I thought almost resembled a scone. This was topped by some olive oil ice cream, a strawberry cream, basil puree and little bits of crispy candied olive. I thought it was spot on. It absolutely stayed in the dessert realm, but the olive components added just enough savory funkiness to keep it edgy and interesting. And it was delicious! Again, the disparate flavors didn't blend so much as they happily coexisted. Made me happy, anyway.

Dominic Armato
While the final dessert was beautifully made and quite delicious, it was almost disappointingly commonplace. To be absolutely clear, however, this was simply because the previous eleven dishes were so unusual that number twelve was strikingly traditional in comparison. Though I'm afraid I missed the finer details of the dish, pumpkin explosion would get the point across. Pumpkin cake, pumpkin puree, pumpkin ice cream, pumpkin caramel, candied pumpkin seeds... there may or may not have been some olive oil ice cream as well, and there may or may not have been some chocolate involved. In any case, even if it wasn't up to Carlson's usual standards when it comes to creativity, it was absolutely up to his standards in terms of deliciousness. A dessert fan who was stretched a little too far by the rest of the menu could absolutely hang his or her hat on this dish and go home happy. Of course, I was already happy, but I enjoyed it all the same.

While this second trip didn't hit the incredible high of the lobster dish for me, I think it was a stronger menu overall. And, as mentioned, the execution on the duplicate dishes just seemed a little crisper this time out. I keep telling friends, just call them and take whatever you can get. Unless I misunderstand their answering machine, starting January 1st they're switching to a M-F schedule. Not only does this strike me as really odd, but it will also make that Friday night reservation twice as coveted as it already is. If you keep waiting for the perfect night, calling, then calling back, then leaving messages, then calling back... it just isn't going to happen. Schwa is worth planning around. Give them a call, take whatever you can get even if it's three months out, mark it on your calendar and plan around it. Really, just go. The place is so unique, and the opportunity to catch an emerging star so rare that you're just going to end up kicking yourself forever if you don't get around to it.