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March 25, 2007

Butter, Butter and Butter

Dominic Armato
No, no... that's how much was LEFT of the two pounds I bought.

I think I set a new personal best for the second course of our anniversary dinner this past Saturday. Of course, only a small fraction of that was actually consumed, but still...

This is a recipe that's been percolating for quite some time, but when I came across Thomas Keller's ode to beurre monté recently, the final piece fell into place. Beurre monté is an interesting little beast. Simple but brutally effective, it's little more than butter that's emulsified with a touch of water as it's melting, so that you can bring it close to 200° before it starts to separate... ideal for poaching.

The combination was originally intended for popcorn, actually. My ladylove was whipping up a batch, and I started digging through the pantry trying to come up with something more interesting than plain old butter to top it with. The honey and curry were a nice start, but they needed just a little something to put them over the top, and unsweetened cocoa just worked. I did this with rock shrimp, but regular shrimp would be quite tasty, as would lobster. If you have a source and the means (they're pricey little buggers), I think langostini would rock this dish up and down. In any case, when you're done with the poaching butter, in keeping with the recipe's roots, don't pitch it. Save it for later and drizzle it over popcorn. A lot of popcorn.

Dominic Armato

2 C. peeled and chopped parsnips
1¼ C. heavy cream
¾ C. water
½ tsp. kosher salt
3 Tbsp. water
2 Tbsp. minced shallot
1½ lb. unsalted butter
1½ tsp. kosher salt
1½ tsp. Madras curry powder
¼ C. honey
1 lb. rock shrimp
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
Fuji apple
shredded fresh mint
unsweetened cocoa powder

Curry-Honey Butter Poached Shrimp with Parsnip Puree,
Fuji Apples and Cocoa
Serves 4-6

First, get the parsnips going. When you chop the parsnips, you want all of your bits to be of roughly uniform size. That way, some won't be turning to mush while others haven't softened yet. Combine the parsnips, 1¼ C. heavy cream, ¾ C. water and ½ tsp. salt in a saucepan, and bring to a boil. Immediately drop the heat and keep them at a gentle simmer for about 25-30 minutes, until the parsnips have completely softened. Strain the parsnips and save the cream. Toss the parsnips in a food processor or, preferably, push them through a tamis (drum sieve) with a plastic scraper... you'll get a smoother puree this way. Return the parsnips to the saucepan and mix in ¼ C. of the reserved cream mixture (don't pitch it just yet!). You want the puree to be smooth without getting wet or runny. Take it off the heat and leave it someplace warm-ish... next to the stove while you do the rest of the prep?

Next up, the poaching butter. Combine the 3 Tbsp. water and shallots in a cold saucepan, and bring the water to a boil. When the water boils, turn the head down low and start whisking in the butter, a little bit at a time. Once you have a nice emulsion established (i.e., the butter isn't breaking down into the liquidy yellow stuff and the white creamy stuff), you can start whisking the butter in faster. Keep going until you've whisked in the whole pound and a half. While still whisking, add the 1½ tsp. salt, curry and honey. Keep whisking until everything is combined, and then turn off the heat until you're ready to poach the shrimp.

To poach the shrimp, it helps to have a thermometer. Otherwise, you have to be really careful not to let it boil, and you need to watch it like a hawk for the slightest signs of separation. Bring the poaching butter up to about 170-180° and toss in the shrimp. Poach the shrimp until they're just cooked through, about 6-7 minutes. Immediately remove them from the poaching liquid with a slotted spoon so that they don't overcook and get tough.

Also, while the shrimp are poaching, warm up the parsnip puree and mix in an additional 2 Tbsp. of the reserved cream mixture (NOW you can pitch it) and the last 2 Tbsp. of butter, and salt to taste.

To assemble the dish, lay down some of the parsnip puree, top with the shrimp, fan out some apple, spoon a bit of the poaching butter over the top, dust lightly with the cocoa and finish with a little mint. It's a rich dish. A little goes a very long way.

March 24, 2007

Anniversary Dinner

My ladylove and I celebrated our (one day early) first anniversary tonight, and while going out for a fancy dinner was tempting, we opted to hang out with the little fella at home and cook up something special. So I figured I'd throw a little food porn in your direction:

Coconut-Cucumber Gazpacho
Courtesy of Jean-Georges Vongerichten

Another tasty dish out of Simple to Spectacular. Great book, I'm tellin' ya.

Honey-Curry Butter Poached Rock Shrimp with Parsnip Puree, Fuji Apple and Cocoa

This one's been percolating for a while, and I finally busted it out tonight. Oooooo, buddy... you'd better believe you're getting a recipe on Monday. Turned out reeeeeeeeeally well.

This is about the time where, in a particularly brilliant stroke, I did a number on my thumb by momentarily thinking that it'd be a good idea to use my bare hand to move a pan hot out of the oven. As such, most of the prep on dessert as well as the presentation and photography were done one-handed... so be kind. Unless there are any professionals reading, in which case they should feel free to call me a sissy.

Warm, Soft Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Ice Cream and Bananas Foster
Cake courtesy of Jean-Georges Vongerichten
Ice Cream courtesy of Breyers

When your sweetheart requests both chocolate and bananas foster for your first anniversary, you don't ask questions... you just make it happen.

(Happy anniversary, sweetie!)

March 21, 2007

Postscript of Evil

I'm sorry, I'll leave this subject alone in a moment, but I just got back from the grocery store, where I saw the following. Observe:

Anything stick out as particularly evil? How bout:


So just to be clear, Sandra's emphasis is not on ease. It's not on speed. It's not on cost or number of ingredients. Oh no, no matter how quick amd easy it may be to make hordes of delicious recipes from scratch, the fact that this book contains none of them is not just a hook... IT'S A SELLING POINT.

Those other cookbooks with really fast, easy and delicious recipes? Instead of calling for Italian seasoning packets, they might ask you to add fresh basil AND garlic! Instead of calling for bottled salad dressing, they might call for vinegar, oil and a dollop of mustard! For the love of god, people, instead of adding powdered onion mix, they could even force you to chop an onion!!!

That was close. Good thing we avoided that mess.

Evil Is Semi-Homemade

Every morning at 8:30 AM, my TiVo wakes up to record Mario Batali, but then it mostly sits around idle until The Simpsons come on in the evening. What this means is that if I turn on the television at any point in between, I'm dropped directly into the Food Television late morning / early afternoon lineup. While I watched the channel quite a bit many moons ago, my recent viewership has been pretty much limited to the aforementioned Molto and Iron Chef, both varieties. But over the past couple of weeks, I've taken a couple of days to leave it on in the background to see what's new.

It ain't pretty.

While it's true that pure evil is Semi-Homemade, Sandra-bashing is bordering on passé, it's been thoroughly covered by those far more eloquent than me, and by writing here I realize that I'm preaching to the choir. And while it's also true that her "recipes" should rightly be feared and reviled by anybody who has a love for good food (the entire nation of Spain experienced a collective shudder when her tapas episode aired), I think most of the critics who savage her concoctions miss the point. There's a larger issue here.

Most of her recipes simply expose her as somebody with no tastebuds... or conscience, take your pick. But what makes her evil is not the quality of her food, but rather that she perpetuates the age-old frustrating myth that real, delicious, fresh food from scratch is just too hard and takes too much time. Her entire schtick is predicated on the big lie that hers is the only way to make delicious, beautiful food in a short period of time. Shredding store-bought ribs, cooking up a bottled chili sauce and taco seasoning mishmash, frying frozen potato chips and assembling the whole thing with packaged cole slaw doesn't take any less time or skill than, say, roasting a few potatoes, whipping up a fresh aioli, marinating some peppers and roasting a pork tenderloin. Marinating a salmon steak in store-bought salad dressing and grilling it on a cedar plank doesn't take any less time or skill than, say, wrapping a good piece of fish in foil with a little oil and butter, some garlic, a couple of spices and some greens. Yet in both cases, there are legions of people who are resolute in their belief that the former is doable while the latter is simply beyond their ability, and Sandra Lee only feeds this belief. What she's done is taken the noble and laudable mantra that beautiful, delicious food need not be a difficult time-consuming chore, and somehow perverted and reshaped it into her own dark, twisted, pre-processed vision.

What was most troubling about my afternoon viewing, however, was the revelation that Semi-Homemade isn't some freaky interloper, but rather the standard-bearer of the new daytime Food Network. I couldn't understand why people held TV cooks like Rachel Ray and Giada De Laurentiis in such high regard until I saw the shows they were sandwiched between. In the early years, FoodTV shows sought to educate. They taught people that good food needn't be this mystical other that was unattainable by mere mortals. You learned that if you're short on time, don't make a half-assed chicken and dumplings with heat-lamp chicken and canned biscuit dough. Take even less time and make an incredibly fresh and delicious roast chicken or a simple Italian sautéed chicken instead. But where Food Network used to encourage its viewers' enthusiasm and desires, it now prefers to prey on its viewers' fears and insecurities, focusing instead on "tricks" and "shortcuts" that rarely save any real time or energy, but almost always sacrifice flavor.

I don't know anybody so food illiterate that they can't see the difference between an average Sandra Lee meal and an average Mario Batali meal... but they both took roughly 30 minutes to prepare.

Well, more for the Sandra Lee meal if you factor in your tablescape.

March 18, 2007

Anchovy Pasta

Image courtesy of the US government... or so Wikipedia tells me
Aaaaaahhh, the anchovy. Our poor, misunderstood piscine friend.

These fellows have a long and storied culinary history that sadly seems to be merely a preamble to their current standing as running gag for the carry-out pizza set. The sheer number of people who have a visceral "no way in hell" reaction to anchovy consumption never ceases to amaze me, but I suppose it shouldn't. Have you tasted the garden variety cheap corner pizza joint anchovy lately? I've dug things out of clogged drains that were less pungent. But when it comes to seafood there's a huge range between the good and the bad, and the rule applies tenfold for anchovies. Those who are only familiar with the powerful, nasty, salty pungency of bad anchovies are often surprised to discover that they can be quite mellow and even sweet.

This dish is an old favorite that I frequently bust out when I want to convert an anchovy hater. The focus is on the fish, but there are enough things going on that it can ease somebody in. When you're looking for these guys, salted is best, but packed in oil will do. If the former, they need to be filleted and rinsed thoroughly. If the latter, try to buy from a good source and don't skimp. Good anchovies in oil can be quite tasty, bad ones can be downright awful, and you usually get what you pay for. You'll know the difference. When I'm making this on a day-to-day basis, I just use cheapy lumpfish caviar, but you could obviously class it up quite a bit by using something nicer.

Dominic Armato

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
¾ C. breadcrumbs
¼ C. extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
¼ C. chopped anchovy fillets
1 Lb. spaghetti, cooked al dente
2 Tbsp. red lumpfish caviar
⅓ C. shredded fresh mint
grated parmigiano reggiano
fresh ground black pepper

Spaghetti with Anchovies, Breadcrumbs and Mint
Serves 4-5 as a primo, 3-4 as an entree

First off, you want to toast the breadcrumbs. Heat the 2 Tbsp. of olive oil over medium-low heat in a heavy pan. Then add the breadcrumbs and toast, shaking constantly, until they turn a deep golden brown. Get them out of the pan right away so they don't burn, and set them aside for later.

While your pasta is cooking (follow the commandments!!!), heat the remaining ¼ C. olive oil in a large skillet or small pot over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until it just starts to turn light golden, then pull it off the heat. Immediately add the anchovies, stir well, and set the sauce aside off heat.

When the pasta is ready, add it to the anchovy sauce along with the caviar, mint and half the reserved breadcrumbs. Toss them to combine off the heat.

Plate the pasta and top it with a sprinkling of parmigiano reggiano, the remaining breadcrumbs, a couple twists of black pepper, and maybe an additional tuft of shredded mint if you're feeling particularly froofy.

March 15, 2007

Wasabi Of A Bygone Era

Dominic Armato
Well, that settles that.

The mutilated tube of wasabi you see here was purchased from Pacific Farms of Oregon via mail order over three years ago. At the time, it was the only farm growing wasabi in the United States, and to the best of my knowledge it still is. Though I hate freezing foods, Pacific Farms' minimum order is six tubes and they claim it only holds in the fridge for two months, so I used as much as I could in that stretch and tossed a few leftover tubes in the freezer. Then, in typical fashion, I forgot they were there.

The thing is, I adore real wasabi. The first taste of real wasabi is one of those "so that's what it's supposed to taste like" moments. It bears almost no resemblance to the artificially colored horseradish pastes and powders that are sold not only through the States, but also through much of Japan. It's still hot, but it's a mellower, pleasant heat, and the flavor of fake wasabi is absurdly one-dimensional when compared to the real thing. Unfortunately, fresh wasabi root is very difficult to come by, and usually prohibitively expensive. Last week at Mitsuwa, it was going for roughly $20 per root. Not unattainable if you're using a lot for a special occasion, but awfully expensive when you just want a little green stuff to go with your raw fish for the evening. The six tube minimum from Pacific Farms comes in at the same price (minus shipping), and it keeps a little longer before needing the deep freeze, but still... that's a lot of wasabi to get through in two months. So in the intervening years since my initial Pacific Farms purchase, I've mostly been buying the lousy stuff.

Then, last night while making a little late night egg salad, I remembered the tubes of the good stuff hiding in the freezer and dug one out. I used a serrated knife to saw off a chunk, minced it with a chef's knife, and let it sit on the counter for a few minutes to thaw. And despite the fact that this tube has been languishing in the back of my freezer for over three years, you know what?

It STILL tasted ten times better than the fake stuff.

A shadow of its former self, to be sure, but it made one thing perfectly clear. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to buy fake wasabi.

March 14, 2007

Lao Sze Chuan

Dominic Armato
Now here's a restaurant I've been waiting to write about for a long time.

Lao Sze Chuan has been a favorite of mine since we were first introduced (thanks, Kirsten!) about 4 or 5 years ago. At the time, I semi-joked that it was the only Chicagoland Chinese restaurant of which I approved, and the semi-joke mostly still applies, albeit in exaggerated fashion (especially since I've now been made aware of Katy's Dumplings, of which -- let's be absolutely clear, here -- I heartily approve). But exaggerations aside, this is the only local restaurant that satisfies the authentic Chinese jones when I've been away from the mainland for too long. After years of traveling to China every other month, the past year has seen some changes that have kept me away for a while. In fact, it's now pushing a year since my last visit. Let's just say I've been hitting Lao Sze Chuan a lot lately.

Dominic Armato
In the most selfish manner possible, I think the only thing I can hold against Lao Sze Chuan is that it isn't the source of fabulous Cantonese seafood that I dream of. It's Sichuan (Sichuan? Szechuan? Sichuan is the Romanization I've always seen in Hong Kong, and thusly the one I've adopted), which means that despite originating in the same country as Cantonese (bastardizations of which dominate the Ameri-Chinese culinary landscape) it's as similar to Cantonese as New Orleans' gumbo and po' boys are to Chicago's hot dogs and Italian beef. It's a big country over there. And as such, the variations in local cuisine as you go from province to province are enormous. So for those who are mostly familiar with Americanized Chinese, Lao Sze Chuan will be totally unfamiliar. Heck, most Ameri-Chinese dishes barely resemble the coastal Cantonese classics from which they're derived, much less the foods of a landlocked province over 1,000 miles away.

Dominic Armato
The good news is that while head chef Tony Hu doesn't produce the dishes I pine for the most, his Sichuan specialties are so good I don't care. Can you get Ameri-Chinese standards like Sweet Sour Pork and Orange Beef? Absolutely. And they'll probably be among the best if not the best preparations you've had. But it's kind of like asking a French master to make you a hamburger. Sure, he'll do a damn fine job of it, but aren't you kind of wasting the opportunity? Tony's specialty is authentic Sichuan cuisine, and if the Sichuan restaurants I've visited in Hong Kong and Guangdong over the years are any indication of what it's like to eat in the province itself, Tony's dishes are right on the money. It should come as no surprise, given that the man trained at the Sichuan Culinary Institute and worked as a chef in Chengdu before moving to the States. The truth is that we're lucky to have him. His dishes convey not only the fire and spice for which Sichuan dishes are known, but also the variety and subtlety that is completely lost when these dishes are prepared by those who don't know what they're doing.

Dominic Armato
The menu is chock full of the spicy, but not all heat is created equal, and you don't even have to look past the appetizers to learn this lesson. Though you sometimes have to ask, they'll usually bring you a little spicy cabbage to munch on while you're waiting for your meal. It's simple, crisp cabbage that's been doused in clean, hot Sichuan chili oil -- slightly salty, nice and spicy, but very simple. To try a slightly more complex and subtly different use of the same oil, the Sliced Beef and Maw Szechuan Style (on the "Very Chinese Special" section of the menu) is a favorite. Maw, since everybody wants to know, is tripe. And though it isn't often seen here where we like our pork lean, our chicken boneless and our organs in the trash, it always warms my heart to see a great preparation like this that more people would enjoy if they weren't preoccupied with its source. Like many Sichuan appetizers, it's very spicy, very cold, and very delicious. Less objectionable to some but no less delicious is the Szechuan Spicy Rabbit. Though no less fiery, it's a completely different flavor profile, utilizing soy and vinegar and sweetness to foil the heat. Taste these three dishes, and it should be immediately evident that Sichuan cuisine is about a lot more than dousing everything in chili oil.

Dominic Armato
Of course, the variety extends beyond the chili and oil, as well. Fantastic fresh vegetables abound. One of my favorites is the String Beans Spicy Black Sauce, which will come across as mild next to the other dishes mentioned thus far. It's a great dish, with diced and stir-fried string beans that are slightly charred and yet still possess a fresh green flavor. Whole fermented black beans provide salt and pungency, while little bits of what I believe is fried tofu make for a nice textural contrast. Garlic Pea Pod Leafs and Chinese Eggplant in Garlic Sauce are also wonderful, and though I thought it was a little plain Jane compared to the other offerings, enough of my friends seem to enjoy the Mushroom Festival Oyster Sauce that I figured it bore mentioning. Plus, how often do you get to order a festival?

Dominic Armato
But before we drift too far, let's pull it back to the hardcore Sichuan specialties with a dish that couldn't possibly embody the heart of Sichuan cuisine more boldly, the Ma Po Tofu. Taking the chili oil to its soupy extreme, Ma Po Tofu hits both the fiery chili and the tingly huajiao that permeate so many foods of the region, but what separates Tony's version from so many others I've had is that it has a complex roundness of flavor that supports the more assertive elements. For years, I lamented the fact that a Ma Po Tofu so good was missing the ground pork that I adore so much. That is, until I was recently told that ground pork is available as an off-the-menu add-on. Unless you don't dig on swine, get it with the pork. I'm still not certain what's considered the proper way to consume this dish, but while most I know put it over rice, I like to drop a little in a small bowl and go at it with a soup spoon.

Dominic Armato
For a spicy of a different kind, the Lamb with Pure Cumin Powder Xin Jiang Style is formidable stuff. It has some kick, what with some fresh green chiles and dried red chiles worked into the stir-fry, but this dish is all about cumin. Powder, seeds... and seemingly the pure distilled essence of the cumin gods after they spent the afternoon frolicking in cumin fields and the evening reading poetry about cumin while burning toasted cumin incense and basking in the glow of the cumin moon, I don't know. But it's intense stuff. On top of which, lamb is another one of those items we don't see nearly enough of, as far as I'm concerned.

Dominic Armato
The first dish I ever had at Lao is still one of my favorites. Though the pile of dried chiles is somewhat intimidating, appearances are deceiving. The House Special Dry Chili Prawns with Shell aren't any hotter than some of the dishes mentioned above. This is the dish I love to get to demonstrate to people that shrimp shells are not only edible but, in fact, quite wonderful when they're cooked hot enough. They're spicy, a little garlicky, coated with a light and crispy coating, and possessed of shells that provide a nice crunch along with their chitiny goodness. The best part, however, is that none of this spicy and textural boldness overshadows the prawn, which is clearly the predominant flavor. They'll prepare them without the shells on request, but regardless of where you end up falling on the shell/no-shell preference spectrum, you owe it to yourself to first try them the way they're meant to be eaten... shells, legs, tails and all. As far as I'm concerned, all they're missing is the heads.

Dominic Armato
Another favorite for the non-spicy crowd is the Szechuan Smoked Tea Duck. One of the things I love about getting meat dishes in China is the manner in which they frequently cut their meat. We go to great lengths to trim large chunks of muscle away from fat, bone and connective tissue. The result is a large piece of meat that is easy to eat, but this is usually at the expense of flavor. Thousands of years of Chinese culinary wisdom knows that the parts we remove contain flavor, so when you're served half a duck in China, the breast hasn't been carefully removed from the bone. Rather, the chef has taken a massive cleaver and chopped right through the entire bird, meat, bones, skin and all. The whole bird is involved in the cooking process. It sometimes requires nimble teeth, but the rewards are vast. In this case, you have beautiful, lightly smoked duck meat with wonderfully crisp skin, and a little hoisin sauce for dipping. Spectacular when it's on.

Dominic Armato
Continuing the theme of things we don't see here, Tony's Steamed Pork with Sweet Pickle demonstrates the Chinese understanding that pork belly is good for more than just bacon. Some of the best dishes I've had in China have been intensely sweet and spiced steamed pork belly that quite literally melts upon hitting your tongue. This is a lighter preparation, resting upon a bitter and slightly sweet stewed herb of some kind, and it's not the knock-your-socks-off intense pork belly that I pine for. That said, it's still quite delicious and should be educational for anybody who hasn't had pork belly outside of a cured context. I also mention this in the hopes that somebody can steer me towards the kind of Chinese pork belly I truly crave. In the interim, this'll do nicely.

Dominic Armato
Of course, after talking up the whole "order the Sichuan specialties" angle, I have to close here with a couple of dishes that may not be traditionally Sichuan, but are just phenomenal. These last two dishes are drop-dead awesome, and the two that absolutely nobody resists. The first, listed on the menu as Tony's Chicken with Three Chili, strikes me as his attempt to bridge the gap between authentic Sichuan and Ameri-Chinese. Chunks of dark chicken meat are first deep-fried and then stir-fried with a ton of elements, only some of which I could identify. It's both hot and sweet, light and crispy, moist in the middle, sitting on a solid foundation of onions and sweet peppers and soy sauce, and it's absolutely explosive. It's intense and addictive and goes down incredibly easy, despite its fried nature. As signature dishes go, this one's a big winner.

Dominic Armato
But the dish that haunts me the most... the one dish I just can't walk in the door without ordering... is the Crispy Shrimp with Mayonnaise Sauce. Stop right there. I've known many who balked at the thought of a mayonnaise sauce, some of whom professed to absolutely hate mayonnaise in any form. And every single one has adored this dish. If you have any misgivings at all, please, I implore you, set them aside. This falls into the category of "if I didn't tell you, you wouldn't know". You don't get the mayonnaise flavor, but you do get the mayonnaise richness. The dish is large, juicy, crisp fried shrimp that are coated in an intense, sweet, creamy glaze that's hit with just enough orange flavor to cut the richness. I cannot stress how wonderful this dish is. I wish I could eat it again for the first time, just so I could have the honor of putting it on my top ten list for the year. Get it. And most importantly, when it hits the table, drop everything. In 60 seconds, it'll be only 70% as good as it is right at that moment.

These are just a few favorites. Part of what's great about Lao Sze Chuan is that you could go every day for a year and just barely get through the menu. I count over 350 items. Most of what I've tried has been excellent, and some dishes have been absolutely spectacular. The favorites I've compiled so far would be plenty to bring me back repeatedly on their own, but the excitement that goes along with knowing that there must be other drop-dead incredible dishes hidden in that tome they call a menu is what really drives me. Lao Sze Chuan is a brilliant restaurant, and after five years I'm still just getting to know it. If you've dug up some other gems, by all means, do help.

Lao Sze Chuan
2172 S. Archer Ave.
Chicago, IL 60616
Lunch11:30 AM - 3:00 PM
Dinner3:00 PM - 12:00 AM

March 10, 2007

Simple to Spectacular

Scallops with Ginger-Lemongrass Beurre Noisette

I've probably gone over this before, but in case I haven't... for the record, Jean-George's Simple to Spectacular is one of my favorite cookbooks by a longshot. Everything I've made out of it has been great, none of it is overly complicated, and the concept -- five variations on each theme meant to take the same dish or technique to five levels of sophistication -- is wonderfully instructive. Absolute must-have.

March 06, 2007

The Dinner That Defeated Morimoto

Dominic Armato
Well, Kitchen Stadium hasn't been terribly kind to our Chicago chefs.

Bayless, Tramonto, Cantu and Bowles. If you had asked me to handicap those who I felt had the best chance of winning, I would have picked Bowles, Bayless, Tramonto and Cantu, in that order. But Bayless was barely buffaloed by Flay. Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand ran into a brick wall in the form of a fennel-wielding Batali. Flay, either disingenuously or ignorantly, insisted that chocolate didn't mesh well with his style, and still took down a wonderfully creative Bowles. And the only Chicago chef who managed to sneak through? The one I would have least expected, just barely edging the only Iron Chef to hop the pond. Granted, beet was a tough ingredient for Morimoto to work with, while chocolate and fennel seemed hand-picked for Flay and Batali, but based on my limited history with Moto I was still surprised.

I had eaten at Moto just once, about three years ago, and had come away with very mixed emotions. Cantu's approach was playful and interesting, and there were some truly tasty items. But that dinner was also marred by some very basic flaws like overcooked fish, as well as dishes where a funky technique not only didn't contribute to a dish, but actively detracted from it. I appreciated Cantu's willingness to have fun and take risks, and with risks come misses, and it was unfortunate that my first meal at Moto was too much miss and not enough hit. But those hits haunted me, making me feel that I really should give Moto another shot. And then, about a month ago, I was presented with a rather unusual opportunity and decided that it was the perfect time to return.

Dominic Armato
Chef Cantu has always been remarkably open and friendly with the folks over at LTH Forum, and when someone suggested to him that he reprise his winning menu for a special LTH dinner, he seemed even more excited about it than the LTHers. Jumping in myself was a foregone conclusion. How often to you get a chance to sample a menu that defeated an Iron Chef? Not to mention which, it isn't as though I haven't always seized every opportunity to extol the virtues of the noble beet. And so, last week, my ladylove and I (and two dozen other food-obsessed folk) descended upon Moto's private room for Chef Cantu's winning "transmogrification dinner." I feel I can safely say that this dinner gave me a much better sense of the chef, but it was only partly due to the food.

If his body is any reflection of his mind, Cantu's mind is constantly in motion. On a few occasions during the dinner, he came out to address the crowd. But rather than discussing the dishes on the table, he would instead frantically pace the room while describing his ideas for bringing new culinary techniques to the mass market, about redesigning basic kitchen equipment with convergence and energy conservation in mind, and about marrying food and technology in ways that would change the world. For better or worse, the guy is thinking big. Very big. And while this revelation may not have greatly affected my appreciation of his food, it definitely affected my understanding of his food... and possibly my appreciation of him.

Dominic Armato
But what of the food? Well, we had a feast. Eight courses, officially, though a couple of other items snuck their way in. As it turned out, Cantu didn't prepare an exact copy of his Iron Chef menu, but most of those dishes made an appearance, if occasionally in slightly modified form. In typical Cantu fashion, the first thing to hit the table was something of a tease: a frozen beet octahedron that would actually become the third course, but only after sitting in front of us and slowly melting while we consumed the first two. Necessary? No. Meaningful? Not really. Kinda fun? Totally. In any case, while the octahedron did its thing, we dug into the first few courses.

The evening started with one of Cantu's little signature moves, the edible menu. In this case, lovingly personalized for our event and affixed to a crispy cracker. In another signature Cantu move, the bottom of the menu was filled with barely legible legal fine type, but I'm pretty sure the copyright symbol and the phrase "patent pending" were in there somewhere. It was accompanied by a little dip, the nature of which I missed, but it was creamy and tasty and a fun way to start.

Dominic Armato
BEET MAKI & miso

The first official course was an exact reproduction of one of the Iron Chef dishes. It was a "maki" of sushi rice, nori powder, golden beets and a healthy dose of miso mayonnaise, wrapped in edible paper printed with images of maki, which I believe officially makes this metamaki (that one's mine, Homaro!). It would make any Japanese traditionalist cringe (and even some non-traditionalists), but setting aside any preconceived notions of what maki should be, I enjoyed it a little more than I'd like to admit. It was exceptionally creamy and very sweet and had absolutely nothing to do with sushi bar simplicity and elegance whatsoever. I mean, I've been known to sometimes grumble about funki maki, but this takes the practice to an extreme. I knew I was being bought, but... well... I didn't mind. I could've pounded five or six of these, easy.

Dominic Armato
BEET with borscht

The second course was a two part dish. On the left, a sort of light, airy, frozen beet fluff. Very mild in flavor, and more textural than anything. It had a sort of crystalline feel on the tongue, almost like those frozen chocolate malt cups you get at baseball game and eat with a wooden stick. But it wasn't nearly as dense. On the right, a really nicely spiced, intense warm beet borscht with chunks of beet and a tiny dollop of sour cream. I'm not sure what the left lent to the dish other than an opportunity to present something funky, but the borscht was really delicious. Though I'm sure there are those who disagreed, this struck me as one of those dishes where Cantu was throwing technique out there without much thought behind it. I just didn't feel that the fluff contributed anything to the dish, and it only served to draw my attention away from its partner, which really was excellent.

Dominic Armato
HOT & SOUR with beet juice

By this time, the frozen beet octahedron had melted and collapsed into a slushy pile which, when mixed around a bit, created the third course, an icy cold "hot and sour" soup with beet greens and bacon. I use quotation marks because, frankly, I don't see any connection to hot & sour soup other than the fact that they're both liquids in bowls that you eat with a spoon. That said, however, this was probably my favorite dish of the evening. Something about the beet and bacon worked beautifully, especially surprising since it's difficult to get bacon fat to translate well to a cold environment. It was fun and unique and really delicious. Cantu made this dish for the IC episode, except he used balloon-formed spheres instead of the octahedrons. As he explained, somewhere between his Iron Chef victory and our dinner, he was inspired while doing some reading about Michelangelo's technique for casting bronze sculpture. So we got octahedrons.

Dominic Armato
BEET, monkfish & raccoon

This one's going to require a little explanation.

This was actually the second dinner that Cantu prepared specially for LTH, the first being a seven hour marathon a couple of years back. As the story was explained to me, one of the LTHers in attendance was coming straight from some other food-related event, where she had acquired a substantial amount of raccoon meat. As such, upon arriving at Moto, she asked if it would be possible for them to store it in the cooler for the duration of the meal. Then, midway through dinner, an unannounced dish hit the table... a large square plate painted with sauces to look like a highway, with a small pile of raccoon "roadkill" on the shoulder. Needless to say, this immediately became the stuff of legend.

This next dish, then, was a raccoon reprise of sorts. Working from the bottom to the top, first there were crispy toasted beet macaroni (something along the lines of Rice Krispies, but crunchier), a white cheddar sauce, a pile of tender strands of raccoon meat that had also been treated with beet, two pieces of battered and fried monkfish, and finally some white truffle powder. It had a certain snacky feel, almost upscale junkfood-ish. It was definitely enjoyable, and I got to add a new critter to my list, which is always a bonus.

Dominic Armato
Here, there was a brief intermission before the final savory course, during which we were handed safety goggles and whisked into the kitchen to see the crew, the funky lighting... and yes... the class four laser. Now, to some degree I can sympathize with a desire to seize every possible opportunity to cook with a fricking laser, but count me among those who thought its use in Kitchen Stadium seemed totally gratuitous. Here, however, I thought they were putting it to really interesting use... perhaps not that necessitated the use of a class four laser, but interesting nonetheless. They focused the laser on a spoonful of orange zest, held beneath an inverted wine glass. The glasses were then transferred to the table where they remained upside down until they were filled with wine for the next course. It did, in fact, add a rather intense smoky, citrusy nose to the wine. I'm not entirely convinced that this particular wine and this particular scent were the right pairing, but I like the concept.

Dominic Armato
BLOODSHOT surf & turf

Back to the food. Our final savory dish was another that was essentially the same as one of the Iron Chef dishes. It consisted of very simply prepared pieces of ribeye and Hawaiian sea bass sitting atop crispy rice noodles. To finish the dish, a saffron scented beet broth was poured over the top. I'm all for simplicity, but this particular dish struck me as a little too simple. It helped that the beef and fish were two perfectly prepared pieces of protein , but I thought the dish was missing a little oomph. And though it's something I've often ridiculed others for saying, with the long, stiff, crispy noodles, for the first time I found myself thinking that -- at least for the setting -- the dish was really difficult to eat. I did appreciate that the iron-laden beet jus not only picked up but emphasized the rare piece of meat. If it was an intentional parallel, it was a good call.

Dominic Armato
OAXACAN chocolate & citrus

Before our first official dessert arrived, the second tease of the evening hit the table. Wahey, another octahedron! No photo because... well... this one looked exactly the same as the first, with the exception of a small drizzle of some yogurt on top. So once again, we went on to other dishes while a future dish slowly decayed in front of us.

The first dessert was a smudge of barely sweetened chocolate mousse, with a couple bits of beet and three accompanying squirts... lemon, lime and chocolate. All of the sweetness was in the eyedroppers, so both elements definitely needed to work in concert. It was a tasty and fun dish, if unexceptional, and though I know the fellas over at Schwa are also working this combo right now, I'm still not sold on chocolate and beets as a pairing. I feel like they need something else to marry them. What that something is, I have no idea.

Dominic Armato
ORANGE & BEET with tasty pudding

The second dessert had a number of components, and my memory of the details is a little fuzzy so take the description with a grain of salt. Nearest the camera was an orange concoction that fell somewhere between custard and gelee in terms of consistency, but it was tart and tasty. Then you see some bits of golden beet, and more of the custard/gelee with a beet powder dusted edible packing peanut. Past that was a small pool of lime mascarpone that had been kicked up a touch with serrano, and finally a sesame chocolate pudding that was closer to a wet mousse in texture. Delicious across the board, especially the pudding that lived up to its name... the sesame flavor was full-on, and that was just fine by me. My only complaint would be the packing peanut. I thought it was a fun idea, but not terribly enjoyable to eat past the novelty factor.

Dominic Armato
PYRAMID OF BEET, yogurt & yuzu

Where the first octahedron of beet melted away to reveal beet greens and bacon, the second octahedron of beet melted away to reveal... a sphere of beet! Also frozen, this inner beet geometry was yuzu-fied and maintained its icy texture while the outer octahedron melted around it to create the soup. Drizzled on top was the yogurt. At heart, the dish was far simpler than its presentation, but it was really very nice and refreshing... a great finale. Plus, it was good to finish with a lot of beet flavor, as the previous two desserts just barely hinted at the theme.

In the end, while there were some very tasty items, I have to say that I expected more from an Iron Chef winning dinner. And like my first Moto experience, I felt that there were too many occasions when the food seemed to take a back seat to the wonky technique. Most notable, however, was the fact that I walked away still craving beets. Though beet was present in almost every dish, it was always transmogrified (to swipe one of Cantu's favorite terms) or presented only as a miniscule little segment of beet. This isn't to say that I didn't appreciate the more subtle uses or that I expected every plate to bowl me over with beetyness, but out of eight courses I felt as though I would have liked at least one dish with enough unadulterated beet for me to sink my teeth into. I think even one would have been enough for me to hang my hat on, so that I didn't feel unfulfilled. But we didn't get that chance.

I don't mean to give the impression, however, that I didn't enjoy the meal. I thought it was tasty, a great deal of fun, and to some degree I think it allowed me to make my peace with Moto. Cantu is a man who wants to deal in superlatives, but to approach his food in that manner is, I think, to invite disappointment. The meal was more fun than epic, and Cantu's approach was more playful than genius. I realize that may sound as though I'm damning with faint praise, and... well... that may be the case, but I found myself really liking Cantu. The guy's brain appears to be in a constant state of overdrive, which may explain why he seems to attack certain ideas with laser focus while letting other details escape his attention. But there's a goofy enthusiasm there and a willingness to just throw any crazy idea on the plate that I have to admire on some level. I'm not certain that I'd feel the same way had this been outside the context of a special event, but I'll be curious to see what the guy's up to in the future... I'm just not in a big hurry to return.

March 04, 2007


Dominic Armato
When someplace is billed as having the best otoro in the city, I pay attention.

Late to the party as usual (my goal is to someday find a worthwhile restaurant somewhere in the city that hasn't already been exhaustively covered by somebody over at LTH), but my ladylove and I opted to spend a rare night out at Katsu, a north side family-run Japanese restaurant with grub that has been making people weak in the knees. It's a fairly casual and lively little joint with dark walls and bright table spots... the kind amateur food photographers love. It was packed with Japanese transplants and a surprising number of students, at least on the night we were there, and managed by a staff that's extremely attentive and almost overly anxious to please. It's a neighborhood joint. It just has better fish that most.

Dominic Armato
Of course, it has other things, too. The menu is mostly comprised of traditional dishes, or very slight variations thereon. There's plenty of hot fish, as well as homey stalwarts like tonkatsu, sukiyaki, tempura, teriyaki and the like. Though it probably wasn't the best lead-in to delicate, raw fish, it's hard to turn down veal liver when it's on the specials menu and highly recommended. Chef Katsu's mirareba is subtly seasoned, with a touch of soy and a bit of sweetness, sauteed with garlic chives. It's very mellow as liver goes, especially given the size of the cut. But fish, not liver, was the object of our mission, and so we then, with a certain degree of awkwardness (I think we weren't giving our server quite as much guidance as she would have liked), asked them to bring us a sampling of sushi and sashimi for two... whatever the chef felt was particularly delicious that evening.

Dominic Armato
TRAGEDY... Elvis had left the building before we arrived. Otoro sashimi and nigiri was unavailable. My last otoro experience was two blocks from Tsukiji, the largest fish market in the world, while visiting Japan in May. There's nothing like otoro two blocks from Tsukiji. Not that I expect find the same 6300 miles from Tsukiji, but a guy can dream, right? In any case, the dream would have to wait for another day.

Nonetheless, we ended up with a rather attractive array of a dozen assorted nigiri pieces, as well as an expanded version of the premium tuna and hamachi plate, which in this case also included some scallops and Tasmanian salmon. Katsu's knife work has been a source of consternation for some. While many consider it Kyoto style, Katsu insists it is, in fact, Katsu style, meaning that the fish cascades over the ends of the rice, down to the plate and further on for an inch or so in both directions. The Katsu Cut is a mouthful, but it's not without purpose. I'm of the opinion that a big mouthful of fish is a different experience than a small taste of raw fish in more ways than are immediately obvious, and both have their merits. Bite if you must, but consume whole if you possess the ability. For the most part, as well as being plentiful, the fish was excellent. The uni and scallop were both absolutely dynamite. The uni was fresh and firm and some of the cleanest-tasting I've had, and the scallop was delightfully creamy without the harshness that I find sometimes accompanies lesser product. The unagi and amaebi were also particularly good. On the latter, I found it notable that Katsu's version of the head isn't the heavily battered and tempura-fried affair you generally see elsewhere. It seems to be lightly dusted with something, but it's largely naked. I was a little surprised to see a spider roll coming from the house plate of a rather traditional establishment, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, even though there wasn't much crisp to the crab.

Dominic Armato
Less impressive were the two elements that would ordinarily comprise the evening's premium sashimi plate. The Tsukiji-sourced yellowtail was quite good, but hardly transcendent, and the Boston bluefin was, frankly, disappointing. Between the missing otoro and the glowing praise that many have applied to this dish, I have to wonder if we simply caught an off night. We opted for round two, arranging a reprise of a few nigiri faves, and... lo and behold... there's an otoro scallion roll that we'd somehow missed on the first pass! It may have been the obliterated leavings of the holy grail, but we were thrilled to have it. The chopped otoro in the roll was really wonderful... all kinds of fatty and silky and rich, just as it should be... but it was still like trying to appreciate Rembrandt while wearing 3D glasses. It mostly left me longing for a full slab of the same. Maybe next time.

Dominic Armato
The disappointment of the night's premium sashimi aside, we really only had one complaint, but it wasn't an insubstantial one. While Katsu is extremely good and clearly a cut above the rest of the Chicago sushi scene, I thought the price performance left something to be desired. I don't mean to draw a comparison between Mr. Matsuhisa's neo-Japanese and Katsu's largely traditional fare, but I've fed four at Nobu for what the two of us spent at Katsu. I probably shouldn't be complaining. It wasn't that long ago that I was lamenting an inability to find a decent sushi bar of any kind, and now I'm fustrated that one of the best offerings is merely excellent. But at that price, dinner should be awesome, and while it was head and shoulders above the local competition, it wasn't the truly superlative experience that I expect at that level. I suspect we could do a better job by being a little more selective, but this is an unusually costly excursion no matter how you cut it.

I dunno. Maybe that's just the price we have to pay for great fish here in Chicago.

Katsu Japanese Cuisine
2651 W. Peterson Ave.
Chicago, IL 60659
Wed - Mon5:00 PM - 12:00 AM