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June 21, 2007

What A Tease

Taken through a car window this afternoon in Tampa.

Full report on a couple of great eating days next week.

June 10, 2007

Café Bernard

Dominic Armato
'Twas a beautiful night tonight, my ladylove is a sucker for onion soup and a coworker of hers recently spoke favorably of Café Bernard, so we cruised over for a little dining al fresco. Café Bernard has been around... well... a long time. 1972 is when Bernard LeCoq brought his casual French bistro fare to Lincoln Park, and he expanded in 1990 by adding Red Rooster next door. The two have very similar menus, and I believe they may even share a kitchen, with the primary difference being atmosphere. However, both dining rooms looked the same (invisible, that is to say) from the sidewalk table where we ate. It's impossible not to have a lovely evening with the weather so perfect, and we thoroughly enjoyed our night out. But while others I know have spoken very favorably of the food, I was somewhat less enthused.

Dominic Armato
The menu is exactly what you'd expect from a French bistro, featuring the required onion soup, pates, escargot and cheeses. Entrees are mostly simple meats and seafood with glazed vegetables, plus bouillabaisse and a cassoulet that almost sucked me in. We started off simply enough, sharing the coarse duck pate. It was a no-nonsense opener, served with sliced onion, tomato wedges, cornichons, grainy mustard and some toasted brioche. It was an exceptionally simple and rustic rendition, lightly seasoned and coarse bordering on chunky. Nothing exceptional by any means, but ably prepared and very enjoyable.

Dominic Armato
My first visit to a new bistro almost always entails an order of onion soup, and while the heat kept me away this evening, my ladylove stepped up. There's a reason Thomas Keller wrote an extended treatise on the importance of onion soup in his Bouchon cookbook. Onion soup is one of those perfect benchmarks for a French bistro. Technique, patience and care transform one of the least glamorous ingredients available into a deep, intense, impossibly satisfying dish. This is a dish that separates kitchens that get it from those that don't. Sadly, Café Bernard's rendition fell closer to the latter end of the spectrum. It had the flash, with beautifully browned cheese, delightfully mushy chunks of bread and soft onion throughout. But the flavor just wasn't right. And I don't mean that it was one of those weak versions that came across as onion-flavored water. There was intensity there, but its character was unusually bright. The high notes sang, but the deep, sweet, mellow roundness that grounds a soulful dish like this was missing. If this was an intentional choice, I think it was a poor one. It came across as off-balance and unsatisfying.

Dominic Armato
I'm picky enough about pasta that I probably shouldn't be ordering it in a French restaurant. But the lobster ravioli called to me, so I gave them a try. The sauce was actually rather nice. It was lightly creamed but a touch watery, perhaps, and it had a bold, gnarly, parts of the lobster that aren't used in the other lobster dishes kind of quality to it. And I absolutely mean that as a compliment. The ravioli themselves were a little less exciting. I'm not going to hold a French bistro's pasta dough to the same standards I'd use at a trattoria, so let's just say it did the job. The filling, however, was rather dry and dense and belied its "lobster mousse" billing. It was an okay dish, it just fell a little short for me. Taking some bread to the sauce was the best part.

Dominic Armato
For an entree, I bit on one of the day's specials, a piece of haddock served with a sautéed leek and saffron sauce, as well as mashed potatoes and some simple glazed vegetables. The potatoes were heavily seasoned and nicely creamy, and there's only so much you can say about glazed vegetables... they were good... but the fish really left something to be desired. In some ways, it suffered from a problem similar to the soup's, that of a lack of balance. The sauce was fragrant and acidic, but it was heavily skewed toward the bright end of the flavor spectrum and it felt incomplete. It's not that I think fish needs to be buried in complex sauces. Quite the contrary, I love it when a perfect piece of fish needs little more than some salt and lemon to shine. But this just needed... something... I'm not certain what. But again, the dish just felt incomplete. On top of which, the fish itself was... okay.

Dominic Armato
My ladylove fared marginally better. She had a pork tenderloin with cherry sauce and caramelized shallots, served with the same potatoes and vegetables as my fish. The tenderloin was served whole, pressed flat and pan-seared. It looked a little overdone on first cut, but was perfectly juicy and tender on the tongue, so no complaints there. The sauce, however, had balance issues again. We were surprised to find that the sauce was laced with an abundance of some type of smoky dried chile powder that wasn't unwelcome, just a little raw and un-subtle, as though it had been tossed into the tail end of a quick sauce rather than left to simmer and develop. The dish came across as more Southwestern than French, which would have been fine if it weren't somewhat clumsily so. It fared much better cold, out of the fridge as a late-night snack.

As usual, in the course of doing a nit-picky error analysis, I worry that I've given the impression that our dinner was worse than it was. It wasn't a bad meal, by any stretch. It was a decent meal... just "meh", as my ladylove put it. And this coming from a woman who's been subsisting on Atkins bars and lettuce salads for the past five months and for whom anything else tastes AWESOME right now. Enough people I trust have spoken well of the place that I have to wonder if the restaurant or I had an off night, but that doesn't change the fact that I can't visualize a situation where I'd choose Café Bernard over some of the other options in the city.

Café Bernard
2100 N. Halsted St.
Chicago, IL 60614
Mon - Thu5:00 PM - 10:30 PM
Fri - Sat5:00 PM - 11:30 PM
Sun5:00 PM - 10:00 PM

June 06, 2007

Departure Imminent

Dominic Armato
I've been coy about it long enough, so I figure I ought to make it official. In a few weeks, at least on a temporary basis, Skillet Doux will become a Baltimore-based food blog.

The good news -- check that -- outstanding news is that my ladylove has been presented with a truly awesome career opportunity. Such is the magnitude of its awesomeness that the "should we or shouldn't we move" question never even came up, because the answer was so obvious. This may be spousal pride talking, but inasmuch as I understand it, this essentially makes her the number one draft pick in her chosen field. She juggled her career and moved to Chicago on my account four years ago, and I'm thrilled to have such a perfect opportunity to return the favor.

The bad news is that we're leaving Chicago, at least for two years. If all goes as currently planned, we'll be back come summer of '09. But nothing is certain, and even as a temporary situation it's tough to leave home. I was born and raised here and I love this city. It took six years in Los Angeles to make me realize just how much. And between writing this blog and an atypically light travel schedule over the past year, I've done an unusual amount of communing with my hometown lately. Which makes it that much harder to say goodbye. Easier than moving away from friends and family, of course, but you don't read this blog to hear about my friends and family. So I've been busying myself hitting as many old favorites as possible over the past month or so -- Superdawg, Chickie's, Cemitas Puebla, Spoon Thai, Lao Sze Chuan, Tank Noodle, D'Amato's, Hot Doug's, Spacca Napoli, P.S. Bangkok -- but the list is long, and there's a lot of packing to do.

Back on the good news front, however... hey! A whole new city to explore! I'm looking forward to the seafood so much that I'm already dreading having to leave it in two years. And Baltimore is a small enough town that I feel like two years will give me enough time to really get to know the food scene. Truth is, I really don't know what to expect. Well, crab. But beyond that, I really don't know what to expect. And while it'll be tough not having a resource as deep and comprehensive as LTH Forum to participate in, there's a certain thrill in the knowledge that I'll just have to get out there and pound the pavement and blaze my own trail, so to speak. It's exciting.

Plus, did I mention that we'll be living in the heart of Little Italy and there's an Italian grocery two feet (literally!) from our front door? Downsides and upsides, indeed!

I'll be getting started in about three weeks. And in the interim, if any of you folks know Baltimore, start commenting... I'd love to have a few leads to start me out :-)

June 04, 2007

Chiyo Revisited

Dominic Armato
UPDATE : Chiyo has closed

Waaaaay back in the infancy of this blog, say, oh, about February of '06, the siren song of the shabu shabu called to me and I responded by dropping in on Chiyo. It was my first visit and while I couldn't find any serious fault, I left mildly disappointed. It was mostly a matter of personal preferences and partly a matter of price performance, but while my objective brain had to admire its merits, my heart knew that it wouldn't become a go-to place for shabu shabu. Just as I was walking out the door, however, the next table fired up a pot of sukiyaki. Were it not for this bit of serendipitous timing, I probably wouldn't have given Chiyo a second thought. But the smell lingered on my mind for over a year, and finally drew me back just this past weekend. Whoever was at the next table that night, thank you. You've done me a great service.

Dominic Armato
The sukiyaki at Chiyo is part of a set menu that includes a small appetizer (in our case, nimame, pictured above), a sashimi plate, rice and pickles and a dessert. The only decision to make is your grade of beef, which is kind of a goofy situation. At our first visit, in addition to the Prime beef, Chiyo hit on one of my pet peeves by offering "Kobe" beef that was actually American-sourced Wagyu, or perhaps a typical Wagyu-Angus crossbreed, I'm not certain. Since then, they've added a third grade, which they've termed "Wagyu", that they're bringing in from Japan and which may, if it's coming from the Kobe prefecture, be true Kobe beef. If so, that means the "Kobe" is Wagyu and the "Wagyu" is Kobe. The "Prime", however, is Prime. To keep it simple, let's just say "Prime" = good, "Kobe" = very good and "Wagyu" = unaffordable. In truth, the "Wagyu" is listed as market price and I didn't ask, but I'd be shocked if they offered that dinner for less than $100, and $150 wouldn't surprise me one bit. If anybody does find out, do comment. It'd be worth a special occasion splurge if it's up to snuff, but it wasn't in the budget for this particular trip.

Dominic Armato
In any case, the beef we received was really excellent. Not at all like the higher grades of Japanese Wagyu, of course, but beautifully marbled with great flavor -- much better than I remember from our first visit. The vegetable plate was similarly impressive, with napa cabbage, spring onions, bamboo, enoki mushrooms, seared tofu, chrysanthemum leaves and some noodles that I believe were ito konnyaku (densely gelatinous and lightly flavored, made from a plant starch), all beautifully fresh. For those not familiar with sukiyaki in its non-premade form, a chunk of beef tallow is added to a heavy, hot metal pot, followed by the vegetables, some of the beef and a broth made with soy sauce, sake and sugar. Once the beef and vegetables are cooked, they're dipped into a dish of raw egg before being eaten. If the prospect of raw egg makes you squeamish, suck it up and give it a go. Is there some small risk involved? Sure. But it's low enough on the risk assessment scale that you owe it to yourself to at least try it the way it's meant to be eaten. 'Sides which, just try telling me you've never licked the bowl after mixing up a batch of cookie dough ... that's what I thought.

Dominic Armato
But back to the topic at hand.

Chiyo's sukiyaki does everything right. It isn't as though it's a complicated dish. Like so many traditional Japanese foods, the beauty of sukiyaki is in its simplicity. Preparing it doesn't require an abundance of technical knowhow. If you source quality ingredients and don't screw up the balance of the broth, congratulations, you've made yourself a damn fine sukiyaki! And yet, so many places somehow manage turn it into a sickly sweet mess. Not so with Chiyo. The broth was appropriately intense without being cloying. Quality sake and soy were clearly in use here, and the flavors supported the beef rather than burying it. It's no Zakuro (neither are the prices), but Chiyo's sukiyaki made me very, very happy. Chiyo's service, on the other hand, was somewhat frustrating.

Dominic Armato
We were helped, I believe, by Chiyo herself; a perfectly cheery and pleasant woman. But despite our insistence that we were veteran sukiyaki diners, we received her full attention for what must have been ten minutes. She supplied us with full descriptions of every ingredient, right down to the nutritional information on some, and only surrendered the service chopsticks after my fourth or fifth attempt to explain that we preferred to do it ourselves. She's a sweet lady who was only trying to be friendly and helpful, and it was the kind of attention that would be absolutely invaluable to somebody not familiar with the process. But for us, it was frustrating to have to fight for control of the pot. The "let us do everything for you" approach is entirely appropriate for Japanese service, but I personally subscribe to the "swish your own" school of thought.

Dominic Armato
This was a minor blemish, however, on the face of an otherwise beautiful meal. Our dessert was equally lovely, a creamy and lightly sweet green tea custard with a few bites of fresh fruit. As previously mentioned, my price performance complaints from our first visit were mainly centered on the beef. But on Friday, I walked out feeling that the meal we received was worth every penny. The quality of the beef was much more impressive this time around, as was the quality of the evening's real revelation, the sashimi plate. Five pieces of raw fish preceded the main event. There was tai, shima aji and albacore, all delicious. But the star was a pair of tuna slices, the exact nature of which I didn't catch. They were feather soft, light and silky, and they dissolved beautifully on the tongue with a creamy richness. Though the nabemono and kaiseki are the restaurant's stated specialties, there's also a small six seat sushi bar along one wall. The sashimi plate was just a tease. As good as the sukiyaki was, the next time we go back it'll be for the fish.

3800 W. Lawrence Ave.
Chicago, IL 60625
Wed - Mon5:00 PM - Midnight