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May 29, 2007

Layers of Absurdity

Dominic Armato
I know I shouldn't let stuff like this get to me. I know I should just smirk and move on. But I have to call this out.

This week, the Boston Globe saw fit to publish a comprehensive comparative tasting of Japanese food, conducted by a nine member panel of whom "two were native-born Japanese, three had studied and lived in Japan, and four were sushi devotees." What could require such a carefully selected panel? Various types of sake? Brands of soy sauce? Wagyu steaks? Try supermarket California rolls.

No... really.

Setting aside, for the moment, the fact that California rolls aren't even Japanese, the absurdity here has more layers than a three-tiered wedding cake. Don't get me wrong, unlike some sushi purists I have absolutely nothing against the California roll. But do you really need to assemble a panel of "experts" in Japanese food to judge fake sushi featuring fake crabmeat sitting next to fake wasabi lovingly (I trust) prepared by a fake sushi chef? And I have to wonder, what purpose does this tasting serve, exactly? As awful as it is, I can understand grabbing grocery store sushi if you happen to be shopping and are looking for something on which to nosh. But even if you subscribe to the theory that grocery store sushi is worthy of a taste test, it isn't as though this is valuable comparison shopping. I've never seen a grocery store that carried more than one brand. Are we to believe that readers might actually use the information contained within this report to plan their shopping excursions? I mean, I know there's a certain amount of hysteria that goes along with the Red Sox riding so high, but I didn't realize the good people of Boston were THAT delirious.

And then the piece is filled with howlers, like the explanation that they "judged presentation, which is important in Japanese cuisine," and inaccuracies, like the claim that if pickled ginger is pink, that means it has been dyed (it frequently is, but pickled ginger will also turn pink without the benefit of dye).

This would all be kind of funny coming from some random blog with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek. But this is the Boston Globe we're talking about here, and it seems clear that this treatise is being delivered with a totally straight face. I have to say, I can't wait for them to convene a panel of Mexican immigrants for a comprehensive survey of movie theater nachos. Maybe they can get Rick Bayless to dispense the cheese gloop. And in the meantime, I've bookmarked the article so that anytime I get annoyed by an inane article in the Trib's food section, I can thank my lucky stars that Debra Samuels' byline won't be found therein.

May 28, 2007

Iron Chef X - Mushroom

Amanda Magnano
Hard to believe we've done ten of these things.

I should probably start out with a little background information. A couple of commenters have asked what this Iron Chef Chicago thing is all about, bringing to my attention the fact that I've never explained it. The truth is probably a lot less exciting than you might imagine, but it's a source of great pride, nonetheless. Iron Chef Chicago, established December 2000, is simply a series of dinner parties inspired by the show. We're certainly not the only folks to do a home version of Iron Chef, though I like to think the level of competition and the quality of the grub is significantly higher than most. It's nothing public -- all friends and friends of friends -- but we've had a few pros take up the challenge. I earned my Iron Chef title by winning the inaugural challenge, and have cooked for all nine events since.

Amanda Magnano
Though Iron Chef Chicago is inspired by the show, it isn't a strict copy. We wanted to honor the concept while making the format practical for a dinner party. We don't have massive stocked pantries, we don't have huge professional kitchens, and eating food that was cooked two hours ago just sucks, so we made some adjustments. The ingredient is revealed a week ahead of time, giving the chefs time to plan, shop and negotiate range and oven time. Prep starts around noon the day of the event, and first plate is around 6:00. The Iron Chef and challenger then alternate, serving the judges (12-14 of them) a course every 20 minutes or so, and the judges debate and score each dish individually. The average score of the five (or six) dishes is the chef's score at the end of the evening. If you're talking about strict competition, the system definitely has its flaws, but I think we've struck a good balance that makes it a good competition for the chefs, but a fun event for the judges.

Amanda Magnano
I love it. I LOVE it. I love the challenge. I love the competition. I love the friends and the camaraderie. I love the scale and the frenzy and the pomp and circumstance. And I love the fact that over ten events, Iron Chef Chicago has stretched me creatively and taught me to produce under fire to the tune of 54 original dishes and 627 individual plates. I suffer under no illusions. I'm no pro. I'm a wannabe who cooks at home because I wasn't willing to make the kind of life sacrifices that professional chefs make. Every time I sit on the sofa the day after an Iron Chef, unable to move, I remind myself that there are people who do this every day. But the scale, pressure and creativity-inducing restrictions of doing an event like this have taught me far more about cooking than I ever could have learned from doing traditional dinner parties. And it's the most fun I've ever had with friends. I highly recommend it.

Anyway, that bit of navel-gazing aside, this past Saturday marked our tenth event, and it was a great one. My good friend and challenger from the inaugural competition finally came out of his self-imposed retirement to challenge once again, and we returned to the original event's site as well. And if the nostalgia factor weren't enough, faithful sous Kirsten and I managed to up our record to 8-2 despite losing two primary ingredients to unexpected spoilage at the last moment. Hopefully I'll get some recipes worked out over the next couple of weeks, but in the interim, here are some photos and descriptions of our dishes. Images of this Iron Chef are courtesy of my sister, Amanda Magnano, on whose behalf I'll make the excuse that her camera was malfunctioning all evening.

Curried Shiitake Stir-Fry with Rabbit, Foie Gras and Jicama
We toyed with making our first a pair of amuses, but decided to stick with just the stronger of the two. Originally conceived as a pair of mushroom / foie gras concoctions, one cold and sweet and the other hot and spicy (the first was to be a chilled foie and morel terrine with a grape granita), this was the latter of the two. I wanted a potent, unconventional start, so we paired the shiitakes with a milder meat, the foie for richness, the jicama for texture, and a very simple sauce of soy, curry and a touch of honey. I wasn't as thrilled with the execution as I was with the concept -- I committed the cardinal sin of throwing more meat in the wok than our home range could really handle properly -- but the crowd seemed to love it.

Mushrooms en Papillote with Ginger-Sake Butter and Hawaiian Sweet Potatoes
There are always some judges who are underwhelmed, but out of principle I try to make a practice of including one dish that treats the theme very, very simply and brings out its natural flavor as much as possible. In this case, I thought the ginger-sake butter treatment that I gave to some sweet potatoes a few months back would be brilliant with mushrooms as the star. So we tracked down a horde of mushroom varieties and made it something of a mélange with sweet potato as a supporting flavor. We included shiitake, oyster, hen of the woods, royal trumpet, crimini, enoki, white clamshell, beech and morel mushrooms, then went with a milder Hawaiian sweet potato so as not to overshadow the 'shrooms, and cooked them en papillote to lock in as much mushroomy goodness as possible. It didn't score as well as I thought it would. I didn't hear the comments, so I can only presume it was the typical "not enough going on" that I often get with this type of dish, but no matter. I thought it turned out great.

Mushroom and Crab Ravioli with Uni Cream
Great timing on this one. Just as I'm playing with uni and discovering that it's a great foil for mushrooms, along comes mushroom as the theme ingredient. We used two mushrooms, oysters and white clamshells, that have very distinct seafood flavors for the filling and added a little crab to boot. I then made a slightly modified version of my earlier uni cream, and gave the final product a little parsley and Parmigiano Reggiano. Though good, I was somewhat disappointed with the execution on this one. Ravioli 101, I was distracted by other goings-on and forgot to flip them as they were drying, so we had some inconsistent texture issues with the pasta. That, and the cream was too thick. But still, a good dish. Lowest-scoring of the night -- I blame myself for the flawed execution and a missed opportunity to make people absolutely adore uni -- but still respectable. This one dropped us a ways behind the challenger and put the pressure on the final two dishes.

Beef Tenderloin with Crispy Porcini-Saffron Risotto and Mushroom Consommé
Pictured here sans consommé, which was added tableside. This was the snake bitten dish. This was the one I knew was going to absolutely rock, and then the wheels came off. Still, a very good dish that I was absolutely happy with, but not what it could have been. First, the veal tenderloins I'd special ordered from a usually excellent butcher and brought home the day before were absolutely rank and brown almost to the core when I unwrapped them at 5:00 PM. After receiving my panicked phone call, the fellow graciously offered to stay past closing until I (or my designated lackey) could get there to trade out the problematic meat, but the veal tenderloins were a specially procured item and not available. In their place, he sent us a stunning beef tenderloin. Not my first choice, but not a bad substitute by any means. Then, I discovered that all of my mussels had kicked the bucket overnight, and that one just about killed me. The mussels were the key. They were to be steamed in the consommé to provide the unusual twist that was going to take the dish from good to awesome. Faithful sous Kirsten ran about town trying to procure more, but to no avail. We went without. Still I can't complain too much. We crusted the beef with very finely ground dried porcinis, and seared and roasted it. The risotto was made with fresh porcini mushrooms and the mushroom consommé, seasoned with a generous amount of saffron and fried crispy on both sides just before serving. We topped the whole shebang with some sautéed morels and ramps, a little hit of fresh lemon zest, and then poured a small amount of mushroom consommé into the bowl at the table. Despite a strong fourth course from the challenger, it scored well enough to pull us almost into a dead heat, effectively turning IC Mushroom into a battle of desserts.

Candy Cap Cheesecake with Chanterelle-Pear Caramel Sauce and Porcini Crisp
Thankfully, we banged out a mean dessert. The scores for the challenger's dessert were so high, I was concerned the judges weren't leaving enough headroom to allow us to pick up ground. But our dessert ended up being the highest scoring dish in the history of Iron Chef, and we took home the win. I'm not sure it deserved that much love, but it was pretty damn tasty. I'd read about candy cap mushrooms prior to ICX, but had never used them. They're bright red wild mushrooms that are very, very mild when fresh, but as they dry they develop an intense maple aroma and flavor, making them ideal for dessert purposes. We decided to give them as simple a stage as possible so as to showcase the flavor of the mushrooms themselves. We made a cheesecake, one quarter chèvre for a little added pungency, the necessary sugar and eggs, and then used nothing but ground candy caps to season it. We then topped it with a light, buttery caramel sauce that utilized chanterelles for their overtones of apricot. We cooked in fresh chanterelles along with the pears, and reduced the soaking liquid from a package of rehydrated dried chanterelles (and pitched the mushrooms themselves... this IS Iron Chef) into the sauce as well. And for a pretty little treat, we topped each with a paper-thin slice of porcini mushroom that had been dried, coated with corn syrup and roasted until crisp. I think the judges expected us to bury the mushrooms in sugar. Instead, we strategically chose a couple of mushrooms that were well-suited to a sweet dish, and let them sing. That this effort wasn't lost on them was very gratifying.

So there it is, Iron Chef Mushroom. With myself, my ladylove and the little guy moving to Baltimore at the end of June (more on this shortly), there may be an unusually long hiatus before the next IC Chicago. But I can't think of a better sendoff than an event like this. Worst-case scenario, if filling the role of Iron Chef while traveling in from Baltimore with family for the next two years is too daunting, maybe I can coax a couple of previous contenders into taking over the show temporarily... and maybe faithful sous Kirsten and I can eat for once :-)

May 09, 2007


Dominic Armato
UPDATE : Baccalà has closed

The restaurant, not the foodstuff... well, a little of both, but for today, mostly the restaurant.

John Bubala, of Thyme/Timo fame, recently brought this new operation to Bucktown, just around the corner from home. It's been a hotly anticipated opening in this household, so we gave them a couple of weeks to get their feet under them and then snuck in this past weekend to give it a try.

My previous experience with Bubala had been a little frustrating. Through three or four visits to Thyme/Timo, once in the former and the rest in the latter incarnation, the food was always excellent. But while I'm rarely put off by service issues, we had problems -- significant ones -- every time. I was assured by fellow diners whom I trust that my experience was exceptional, which I'm perfectly willing to believe. Sometimes you just have bad luck. But all the same, when you've been burned three times in a row, it's tough to muster the will to return.

Enter Baccalà: my opportunity to approach Bubala in his new environs with a clean slate. Apparently he's been traveling Italy quite a bit, evidenced not only by Thyme's metamorphosis and his subsequent decision to open a second Italian establishment, but also by the scads of Bubala's photographs that adorn the walls of Baccalà; taken, I understand, by his own hand. It's a comfortable, cozy, inviting little room of wood and brick, and the menu matches. Though there are a couple of pastas to be found, the menu is primarily composed of heartier fare with emphasis on pork. I thought the menu was nicely structured, composed a third of appetizers, a third of entrees, and a third of dishes that can go either way by request. As it turned out, this was almost a matter of necessity. The three dishes we tried were... well... read on.

Dominic Armato
It seemed appropriate to start with the restaurant's namesake dish, so I didn't need our server's recommendation to push me over the edge. We both started with the baccalà with potatoes, scallops, garlic and chives. The dish's structure was, in fact, a brandade, the cod and potatoes blended together into an extremely rich, creamy puree that came across as less of a fish dish and more of a lump of exceptional mashed potatoes. The cod was so thoroughly incorporated, in fact, that I never detected a single chunk. I was a little disappointed by this choice, but the dish maintained body by incorporating some wonderfully tender bay scallops. Garlic potency aside, the flavor profile was fairly subtle, accented only by a few olives and a symbolic tuft of arugula. But the dish was RICH. There was butter and cream in abundance, and knowing Bubala, it wouldn't surprise me if he worked some pork fat in there. A delicious dish, and correctly served in a smaller portion.

Dominic Armato
As an entree selection, well, anybody who bothered to glance at the menu above knows what I chose. My love for pork belly is well-documented, so trying Bubala's take, paired with a risotto, smoked cheese, peas and balsamic syrup, was a foregone conclusion. I was supremely impressed with its technical execution. The pork was perfection with tender yet toothsome meat and fat that dissolved on the palate. The risotto, something so often butchered, walked that perfect textural tightrope, a concoction that was luxurious and creamy on the macro level, despite being composed of grains that maintained their individual bite on the micro level. In a particularly nice touch, the risotto contained small cubes of cheese that were right on the solid/squishy border, maintaining their shape through the cooking process, but melting away in your mouth. And the balsamic, too often used with a heavy hand, worked in concert with the meaty sauce rather than overpowering it. This dish nearly brought me to my knees. Not because it was delicious, though it certainly was.

This dish was so overpoweringly rich, it almost destroyed me.

I am the guy who scoffs when somebody complains that a dish is too rich. I am the guy who, upon first traveling to Italy at age 10, quickly decided that Tortellini alla Panna was my favorite dish and proceeded to eat it for dinner almost every single night for three straight weeks. I am the guy who appreciates the use of all cuts of meat, but pines for the fattiest of the fatty. Hell, just look two posts back to see where I stand on rich dishes. And let me tell you, I barely finished. It was too rich for me. At the hands of John Bubala, I have discovered a limit that I previously thought nonexistent.

Dominic Armato
The incredible richness wasn't limited to the pork belly, however. Pork belly, certainly. Creamy mashed potatoes with salt cod, okay. But even my ladylove's entree, the artichoke ravioli with charred onions, corn and brown butter, took vegetables and somehow made them abusive. Don't misunderstand, again, this was a delicious dish... perfect fresh pasta, lightly charred peas and corn and a restrained amount of brown butter. But the abundant artichoke filling was heavily cheesed and creamed, turning the dish into a lip-smacker. Delicious, yes. Well-executed, yes. But surprisingly heavy, given the menu description.

Dominic Armato
The fact that we felt compelled to follow this meal with dessert is a testament to either our hunger or our insanity, I'm not certain which. My ladylove had a chocolate crème brûlée, and I chose pear crêpes with a pistachio ice cream. Dessert was solid, but unexceptional. It'll scratch the itch if you wish to finish with something sweet. Espresso was surprisingly unavailable, though I was left with the impression that this may have been a temporary situation.

All in all, a delicious meal and despite the shock to my system, I do feel compelled to return. I'm curious to know if we happened to choose heavier dishes, though I suspect this may be par for the course. There's no denying that these are beautifully executed dishes, but I find myself wishing he'd dial them back just a bit. I say this, of course, but you know I'll end up trying the porcini tortellini with lardo on my next visit. Just consider going for the small plate options, when available. You won't be able to eat as much as you think.

1540 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Chicago, IL 60625
Wed - Sat6:00 PM - 10:00 PM

May 07, 2007

Fish, Fish and Fish

Dominic Armato
Aaaaaaaaand, we're back.

I've been doing a surprising amount of eating out over the past month, given how little of it has made it to the written word stage. So let's kick off the backlog with an interesting little (read: big) meal I had with a bunch of friends a few weeks ago.

Whenever I cruise up to Argyle for a Vietnamese fix, my biggest issue is the huge shadow that Tank casts. Tank is such a great spot with such an extensive menu that it's hard to work up the will to branch out and explore. So when Erik of silapaahaan.com (currently down... a tragic story for another time) mentioned that he'd been anxious to try the fish feast at Pho 777, you'd better believe I jumped all over that invite. While I was familiar with the traditional Vietnamese Bò 7 Món (seven courses of beef), I was previously unaware that there's a less common Cá 7 Món, which substitutes fish for the beef. Pho 777 sneaks in an extra course to create their Eight Courses of Fish dinner, which was pretty outstanding.

Dominic Armato
The first course, pictured above, was a fairly typical Vietnamese salad with cucumbers, carrots, chiles and ground peanuts mixed in with the shredded fish, dressed with the usual triumvirate of fish sauce, lime juice and sugar. There were, however, three elements that separated if from other, similar Vietnamese salads I've had. For starters, the dressing was unusually mellow, which deferred to the fish, appropriately. Secondly, there was a lot of thinly sliced celery, which caught me totally off-guard, as that wasn't something I'd seen much in Vietnamese. Lastly, there was a very distinctive fresh herb present that was also new to me, which Erik identified as Vietnamese Cilantro, or Rau Ram. The salad was flanked by a phalanx of shrimp chips, and on the whole was really fantastic. More complex and more subtly balanced than the others I've had, it was definitely the most interesting and possibly the most enjoyable Vietnamese salad I've tasted to date.

Dominic Armato
To my surprise, courses two through six arrived together, as a flurry of items to be eaten in rice wrappers along with the typical accoutrements. For those unfamiliar with the practice, Vietnamese foods, especially fried items, are frequently served with thin rice wrappers, vermicelli noodles and a platter of fresh herbs and vegetables similar to the one you see above. You rehydrate the rice wrapper at the table, wrap the item in question with your preferred vegetables and herbs and dip it in a sweet and tart lemon fish sauce. This method of keeping fried items fresh and light is pure genius, and one of my favorite aspects of Vietnamese cuisine. But getting back to the fish, in my rush to consume the fried items at peak freshness, here's where my recollection is a little fuzzy. Starting in the foreground and working clockwise, first there were fried fish fillets that I believe were coated in panko. Simple, light, crisp, moist in the center and delicious. Next were spring rolls filled with a rather dense fish paste... seasoned, I believe, but lightly so. Next around was another type of firm cooked fish paste that was wrapped in a leaf with a rather aggressive flavor called La Lot. Hiding in the back barely visible, was more fried fish, this time coated in... sesame? It was the last I tried, the next course was already on the table and my attention was not what it should have been. My brain registered it as "good," but neglected to file away any further detail. And finally, a fresh spring roll with light cooked fish, vermicelli and fresh herbs. Everything was delicious, but the leaf-wrapped item was particularly interesting and distinctive to me. I was a little disappointed that all of the fried items were served at the same time, making it impossible to try everything at its peak. But given the number of courses I suppose spreading them out might be impractical.

Dominic Armato
After we'd plowed through the massive platter, a dish arrived that was something of a surprise to me. (This was, incidentally, the last time I'll try photographing by reaching an arm across the table in low light.) As I've mentioned before, I'm still feeling my way around Vietnamese. I have the basics down, but things still catch me by surprise now and again. In this case, that something was an almost obscene amount of turmeric. The dish consisted of fillets of fish that had been, I believe, first batter-dipped and deep fried, then seasoned with ginger and the aforementioned turmeric, seared in a skillet and topped with fried shallots and peanuts. Nice crust, a little crisp, appropriately tender and moist in the middle and overall very nice. In case it wasn't already clear, this one was all about the turmeric. I'm sure some will find it overly so, but don't for a moment count me among them. I dug it.

Dominic Armato
Finally, we finished off the meal with a year's supply of fish congee, which I enjoyed a lot more than I would have expected. It was warm, mellow, soft and comforting but not at all the exercise in blandness that is so often the case with congee. The flavors of fish and fresh ginger were at the forefront, but there were clearly some other subtle seasonings going on as well. Others in the group felt it was a little heavy on the salt, but I thought it was right in the sweet spot of notably and appropriately salty, but not overly so. Were it not at the end of a massive feast, I could've easily torn through the entire bowl you see pictured. As it was, I think I was personally responsible for about half. Perfect, perfect finish. All in all, it was a really wonderful dinner, and at under $20 per person, an absolute steal. It's worth noting that there's a minimum of two orders, and while I don't believe it's required, advance notice is appreciated.

Pho 777
1065 W. Argyle St.
Chicago, IL 60625