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August 20, 2008

Defending Chicago's Honor

Chicago-Style Hot Dog Dominic Armato

UPDATE : Zack's Hot Dogs has closed

I have more to report from Arizona, but first, something that just popped up last night. I know, I know. Just a month ago I was talking about how, midway through our stay in Baltimore, there are too many local foodstuffs I haven't yet tried, and here I am playing accidental tourist and searching for a little taste of home on the east coast. But after practically working it into my diet as a fifth food group, I haven't had an Italian beef since December. Can you blame me for jumping all over this one?

XtremeDominic Armato
While browsing the usual food sites last night, I came across favorable mention of a spot in the Baltimore 'burbs that serves, purportedly, excellent Chicago-style dogs. Zack's (or "Zack's... Hotdogs With An Attitude!" if you want to get technical about it) is one of the "hot dogs from across the nation" establishments that seem to be gaining in popularity -- complete with the übercorny made-for-franchising brand that always seems to come with that territory. The menu is chock full of in-your-face descriptions, and the mascot looks like it was brought to you by the brain trust that produced Poochie. The fact that the satire of these mascots was already seven years old when Zack's opened is somewhat troubling, but hey, their website touts Vienna products and I'd happily endure much more than a menu with attitude to obtain a good sausage, so I wasn't about to hold that against the place. I resolved to visit within a week. Then I spotted Italian beef on the menu and resolved to visit the next day. Others have written about the full body of Zack's menu (which is quite extensive in the hot dog realm), and if you'd like to get a broad, objective take on the place, I'd encourage you to read them. My goal, on the other hand, was to answer a single question -- are Zack's Chicago-style offerings solid enough to comfort a homesick Chicagoan?

Chicago-Style Hot DogDominic Armato
Upon arriving at Zack's, I figured I'd start with the hot dog and go from there. Not only because hot dogs are Zack's specialty, but also because, given that they were working with Vienna ingredients, I figured it'd be harder to screw up than the delicately balanced blend of flavors and techniques that go into a good Italian beef. I'm going to sidestep, for the moment, the debate over what, precisely, constitutes a Chicago-style dog and simply state that Zack's is a mostly faithful rendition of what I've come to call the Vienna/Royko standard: natural casing Vienna Beef frank, yellow mustard, pickle spear, chopped onion, sliced tomato, neon green relish, sport peppers and an optional dash of celery salt (referred to here as "Zack's Famous Seasoning" -- see: in-your-face menu, above) served atop a poppyseed bun. But in watching its preparation, it was immediately clear that these folks needed a few pointers on technique. In a strange twist, by default, Zack's serves their Chicago style dog without mustard, pointing instead to the optional condiment bar. Mustard is easily the LEAST dispensable topping of the bunch, so this struck me as more than a little odd, but its easy availability kept me from getting bent out of shape over it. I did, however, hand her the bottle and ask her to add it first. Mustard sprayed across the top of the vegetables is, as any Chicagoan knows, totally unacceptable. The other thing that raised my eyebrows was the fact that the dog arrived on the bun after a shot in the microwave. I chose to willfully ignore this and let flavor rule the day. And you know what? It's a pretty good dog! The balance of toppings is a little wonky, it definitely doesn't have that steam table magic, and I think the microwave screws up the snap factor somewhat, but I've had far worse, even in Chicago. Were I to walk into a hot dog stand in Chicago and receive one of these I'd probably be a little more picky, but considering that I got it in Parkville, it's very respectable. I wouldn't hesitate to go back and, perhaps more telling, I wouldn't hesitate to send Baltimore friends over there for a sample of one of my fair city's signature dishes. And so, pleased with my first taste of transplanted Chicago, I moved on to the Italian beef.

Allow me to preface my thoughts on the Italian beef by saying that those who read this blog with any kind of regularity have hopefully come to learn that I'm somebody who tries very hard to avoid negative hyperbole, and that while I don't hesitate to criticize when I feel criticism is earned, my approach is to look for the positive first and the negative second. I don't need to rip dishes to shreds simply to prove to the world that I have discriminating tastes, and I like to think that, with rare exception, I can present fair and objective criticism without getting nasty about it. Having said that, let me share that while I cannot possibly express how awful this Italian beef sandwich was, naturally, I'm going to try anyway.

Now, the bold, meaty flavor of the Italian beef sandwich belies its delicate nature. It's a finicky little beast that requires careful attention to detail in both seasoning and technique. The sheer number of variables involved multiplied by their sensitivity make a great Italian beef a surprisingly difficult sandwich to produce, and it's why even the best Chicago beef stands -- places that are dedicated almost exclusively to this marvel of downscale cuisine and have been so for decades -- struggle to maintain a consistently great product. And yet, even with the worst Italian beef sandwiches I've had, I can almost always find something worthwhile; some redeeming factor that they're doing right, even if the sandwich still crashes and burns. This was not one of those sandwiches.

Italian BeefDominic Armato
The closest to acceptable was the bread, which was all wrong. In Zack's defense, as a friend of mine, Jeff, once astutely observed, the greatest hurdle to overcome in making regional specialty sandwiches outside of their region is the bread. It's so important to a sandwich's character, but unlike most other sandwich ingredients, it doesn't travel well. That means you're almost certainly sourcing your bread locally. But bakeries are, by nature, low margin / high volume businesses with immediate spoilage. Unless there's large demand for the bread you're trying to sell, you can't make it profitably, and that demand will probably only exist in its home region. In short, it's really hard to get the right bread for a sandwich that's made halfway across the country. But that said, they could have made a much better choice. It's fine for their other sandwiches, perhaps, but totally wrong for an Italian beef. Generally, you either want something dense, firm and a little dry to stand up to the juice (Gonnella), or something with a strong crust so that it maintains structural integrity even while the insides get mushy. This bread was soft and light and spongy throughout, and it completely disintegrated when set down within three feet of a tub of juice. Which leads us to problem number two, the juice. I asked if they were set up to dunk the sandwich (key, in my opinion). They were not. I was told they were served with a tub of juice. I requested three, saturating my sandwich with two and tasting the third. It was thin, pale, overly salty, almost completely devoid of beef flavor, and while I hesitate to make such a scandalous suggestion without knowing for certain, my hunch is that it was "Italianized" not by simmering with herbs, spices and garlic, but rather through the introduction of bottled Italian salad dressing. But whatever the method, it was terrible. The beef itself was shocking in how little it resembled meat in both flavor and texture. They get their beef from Vienna, and I'm unfamiliar with the nature of the product before it's prepared, but this was rubbery, weirdly squishy, cut too thick and almost completely flavorless. Sweet peppers were unavailable. And even the giardiniera, great when freshly made by a skilled hand but sometimes even better and easily obtainable as a bottled product with an infinite shelf life, somehow came out terribly. It had no heat of any kind, almost no oil, and was nuked into mushy oblivion, completely destroying whatever textural interest it may have once possessed, before being introduced to the sandwich. In short, this Italian beef sandwich achieved the remarkable distinction of having gotten everything -- EVERYTHING -- wrong.

I write this not because I take pleasure in doing so, but rather because I feel compelled to defend the honor of what I consider to be the most noble of my hometown's signature foodstuffs. I admire the owners of Zack's for producing a worthy Chicago-style dog 700 miles from Chicago. And I respect them for attempting to propagate the juicy pile of awesome that is the Italian beef sandwich. But, good people of Baltimore, please, please, please do not think for a moment that this even remotely resembles what my beloved Italian beef sandwich can be, even in its most mediocre form. In return, I hereby pledge to inform the denizens of Chicago that their crabcakes suck. Deal?

Zack's... Hotdogs With An Attitude!
8923 Old Harford Rd.
Parkville, MD 21234
Mon - Sat11:00 AM - 8:00 PM
Sun11:00 AM - 6:00 PM

August 18, 2008

Sea Saw

Soft Shell Shrimp Dominic Armato

UPDATE : Sea Saw has closed

One of these days I'll break the habit of occasionally disappearing for a month at a time. But I'll make the lame excuse that at least some of that time was spent on vacation, and a fairly tasty one at that. Chicago was the first stop, where we resisted the temptation to hit L.20 and instead crammed as many old favorites into three days as was humanly possible. Spacca Napoli was even more perfect than I remember, lunch at Tank Restaurant brought the powerful, crisp flavors I miss so much, it was great to see foie back on the menu over at Hot Doug's, and a midnight drive to Superdawg capped off a nostalgia-filled weekend. Once in Phoenix, however, we had an especially rare opportunity to sneak in a couple of upscale meals, when we left the little fella with his grandparents for a couple of days (thanks again, guys!) and ran off to Scottsdale for a short getaway. For our first night on the town, dinner was practically predetermined. Good raw fish has been a little tough to come by lately, and that's just what one of my favorite spots in Scottsdale serves.

Sea Saw's Open KitchenDominic Armato
My first visit to Sea Saw was back in the Spring of 2004 when I was in town for -- what else? -- Spring training. My compatriots and I were staying at the Ramada Inn turned hipster hangout otherwise known as the James Hotel, craving a little raw fish, and a quick bit of internet research revealed that a casual little neo-Japanese spot was just a couple of blocks away. We certainly weren't in search of one of the country's premiere creative Japanese restaurants, but that's exactly what we stumbled into. Though he's since pulled down a James Beard award and garnered himself some national press, I get the impression that chef Nobu Fukuda was flying under the radar a bit at the time, or at least living in the shadow of his tinsel town contemporary, Nobu Matsuhisa. To this day, in fact, Fukuda is frequently referred to as "the other Nobu", a moniker that I always found inappropriately dismissive. What I loved about my earlier visits was that his food was a little a little bolder and wilder than Matsuhisa's creative but restrained fare, still respecting the ingredients' natural flavors and avoiding the mayo-laden excess of the countless imitators who have given neo-Japanese a bad name. Fukuda is his own chef who deserves to be judged on his own merits, and with that in mind, I was very much looking forward to my first crack at his omakase.

HassunDominic Armato
Dinner started off with a bang, the hassun course bringing three bold but sophisticated tastes. First up was a raw oyster, topped with uni, wasabi oil and nori, sitting in a bath of tomato water. I was a little suspicious of the combination of two such delicate flavors, but these suspicions proved to be completely unfounded. This was a spectacular bite -- the kind that makes you worry you can only go downhill from there -- the tomato water playing up the cool sweetness of its briny inhabitants. The second item, an edamame soup with ginger crème fraîche and tonburi, was a cool and refreshing distillation of its main ingredient. In contrast, the third item brought the smoke and fire, pairing charred shishito (Japanese peppers) with crispy fried octopus suckers and toasted bonito flakes. Even if I hadn't had any previous experience with Fukuda, a starter like this would have had me at full attention.

SashimiDominic Armato
The sashimi course continued in similar fashion, plating four very carefully composed bites, each a creative and thoughtful combination of flavors and textures. On the bottom left was a luscious slice of hamachi, wrapped around a bit of grapefruit and avocado and dressed with ponzu and white truffle oil. Grapefruit is the underused citrus, I've been seeing it more and more lately, and I was happy to see it here, pairing with the subtle funk of the truffle and adding a slightly bitter edge to what might otherwise be a two-dimensional bite. The next item moving clockwise was sashimi by way of Italy, a thin slice of sockeye salmon gravlax wrapped around a soy glazed almond and topped with pecorino, basil oil and balsamic. If one could be called out as the weak link of the dish, this would be it, but that's mostly because of its strong company. Another very European bite was the grilled octopus with tomato, shallot, fresh mozzarella, olive oil, wasabi aioli and toasted pink peppercorn. East-West, while appropriate here, is a phrase that usually ends in disappointment. But this bite intelligently fused the octopus traditions of two different cultures to create a multilayered and attention-grabbing bite that was still mellow enough not to overshadow the delicate flavor of the central ingredient. Rounding out the plate was another more assertive item, a sour ceviche-style kanpachi with pickled onions, sesame seeds, chile oil and a trio of crispy fried taro, beet and shiso to make for a delightful textural contrast.

Soft Shell ShrimpDominic Armato
After that remarkable flurry of ingredients (it's a wonder they can assemble that dish in less than an hour), the menu took a baby step back in terms of complexity, though it was still an impressive exercise in precision. Soft-shelled shrimp were "breaded" in an almost powder fine crumb that had been seasoned with ginger, garlic and soy before being crisp-fried hot enough that the little critters were completely edible, tip to tail, shell and all. Again, working the textural and temperature contrasts, Fukuda paired this with a cool salad of shredded green papaya, very sparingly seasoned with a touch of curry to bridge the gap with the hot and crispy shrimp. Even if I weren't already a long time fan of chitin and on a total shrimp head kick at the moment, this dish would have thrilled me. It was beautifully conceived and crisply executed.

Whitefish CarpaccioDominic Armato
The ingredient list on the whitefish carpaccio belies its subtlety. Ultrathin hirame is served swimming in a sea of roasted garlic oil, sesame oil, soy sauce and sesame seeds. But despite these bold flavors, the fish -- ever so lightly cooked on the edges by the heat of the oil -- maintains its identity. And just when you finish off the last bit of fish and start asking yourself why they drown the fish in three gallons of oil when a few drops would probably do, you're presented with a steaming hot freshly baked green onion focaccia that -- moist and spongy -- is perfect for mopping up what's left on the plate.

Tuna TatakiDominic Armato
The tuna tataki is arguably Fukuda's signature dish, the one I could never forget and have tried -- with marginal success -- to riff on in my own cooking. Slices of bigeye tuna are lightly seared and seated atop a beet puree that's made with a pinor noir reduction, then accompanied by microgreens dressed with yuzu and a balsamic reduction. I can see how some might think there's something inelegant about the unabashed sweetness of the beet puree, but this is just a flat-out delicious dish and results trump all. I was really taken aback the first time I was presented with this beet and raw tuna pairing, and the fact that it still strikes me all these years later as fresh and unusual says something, I think. In any case, the pinot noir reduction adds some body, the yuzu adds brightness, and the balsamic reduction keeps the sweetness from being too one-dimensional. Like so many of Fukuda's other dishes, it demonstrates that you can bring bold flavors without overpowering the delicate fish if you do so carefully and thoughtfully.

Mushroom MélangeDominic Armato
Next up was a minimal, meditative little dish to transition from the raw to the cooked. The mushroom mélange was a simple celebration of fungus that, at this point in the meal, was a welcome little respite sandwiched between the attention grabbers. Baking in parchment is actually one of my favorite ways to prepare mushrooms, as it concentrates and intensifies the flavors while keeping them tender and moist. Here, shiitake, enoki and shimeji mushrooms are sealed up with sake, soy sauce and garlic butter and baked until the parchment puffs and scorches. It's then plated, sliced across the top, and served as-is for you to dig into.

LambDominic Armato
Despite the fishy focus, Fukuda doesn't leave carnivores out in the cold. I'm at a loss to describe what's Japanese about the lamb course, but it was good enough that I don't really care. Two ribs worth of rack are grilled with a coconut curry marinade, then plated with a roasted red pepper coulis, curry reduction and pickled cucumber -- the last of which I suppose is the answer to the "what's Japanese about this dish" question. This isn't the most sophisticated dish of the bunch. It's fairly simple and straightforward. But the bold flavors combined with an absolutely perfectly grilled chunk of crispy, juicy, just-the-right-amount-of-fatty lamb makes it a bone sucker. It's more a triumph of execution than conception, but that's absolutely no less welcome.

Foie GrasDominic Armato
And finally, a dish that pretty much negates the need for dessert. I've had some fine foie gras dishes over the years, but this was one of the best that's passed my lips. This was my first taste of miso-marinated foie, and it's a match made in heaven that takes the term umami bomb to new levels. The foie is marinated in miso, sake and mirin, seared and served with peaches that have been sautéed in foie butter. Peaches and foie are conventional enough, but the fermented miso flavor combined with the sake's subtle bite made this absolutely amazing. We're talking eyes rolling into the back of your head good. My ladylove had to talk me out of requesting seconds. And though it's a tiny little touch, the sweet-tart yamamomo sitting to the side acts as a perfect chaser, cutting through the insane levels of richness while leaving enough on your palate to linger. Sadly, it didn't linger on my tongue as long as it has lingered in my mind.

I must say, I came away from Sea Saw even more impressed than I was on previous visits. So many omakase, in my experience, have a way of becoming too precious and ethereal for their own good. But Fukuda brings the precision of Japanese fine dining to some very bold non-Japanese flavors, and the result is a menu that -- while still quite cerebral -- is more satisfying on a gut level than most. Fusion is a dirty word these days, and whenever I see the phrase "Japanese tapas" splashed across the restaurant’s promotional materials, I cringe a little. But the fact that he pulls it off in such fine fashion is testament to the man's culinary IQ, which only makes me more excited about his upcoming venture. Shell Shock, already somewhat overdue, should open before year's end, and we'll see what Fukuda devises when he moves out of the tiny space he currently inhabits. In theory, the additional restaurant will enable him to get away from some of the sacred cows that dominate the current menu and work in more of his newer creations. As long as he can maintain the quality, this can only be a good thing. The man clearly has a lot of great ideas that need to get out, and I look forward to tasting every one of them.

Sea Saw
7133 E. Stetson Dr.
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
5:30 PM - 10:00 PM