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July 30, 2010

Central Gyros

Gyros Spits Dominic Armato

You ask me to name restaurants of my childhood, and other than Showbiz Pizza Place and Superdawg, Central Gyros is pretty much the only one I don't have to think about.

This is old school Chicago at its finest, a Greek restaurant where the waitresses are lifers, the walls are decorated with sculpted styrofoam and there are no fewer than four Chicago police officers eating at any given time. "Greek" might actually be a more accurate moniker than Greek, and I don't say this with the slightest hint of derision. Chicago Greek is kind of its own little Americanized subset of the cuisine and, like Italian-American, it has its own seductive charms even if those charms might be lost on relatives visiting from the mother country.

Of course, I wasn't seeking authenticity when I visited a few weeks ago, I was seeking nostalgia. We must've eaten at Central Gyros once a month when I was growing up (at least it seemed that way), but other than a single visit during my abbreviated college years, when I corralled a few friends who couldn't understand why we were driving half an hour west to hit a divey Greek place, I don't think I'd been there since high school. Unsurprisingly, little has changed. The sign out front that features a glowing, rotating gyro spit looks every bit as decrepit as it always did. The wait staff may very well be the same people. The roasting meat is still front and center as you walk in the door, in a front galley kitchen lined with reddish brown tile. The carved styrofoam murals that line the walls have been repainted and are now brightly colored rather than their former dusty gold, but this is still a casual neighborhood joint that serves up all of the Greek-American standards.

SaganakiDominic Armato

Said standards start with saganaki, which is a moral imperative when visiting any such place. I confess I'm unsure how widespread the practice has become, so for those who may be unaware, saganaki -- at least as it's served here -- is a Greek-American hybrid dish that's generally accepted to have originated in Chicago's Greektown in the late '60s, with Parthenon Restaurant holding the most credible claim to its invention. Though melted cheese spritzed with lemon is entirely common in Greece, the Americanized version involves more than a little showmanship. A thick slab of sheep's milk cheese -- a number of varieties can be used -- is dusted with flour and seared in a small superheated pan from whence the dish takes its name. The cheese is then doused with brandy, flambéed tableside, and served sizzling hot with a spritz of fresh lemon. When on, it's killer, and Central Gyros' is the same as it ever was. The whole production is kind of corny, a throwback to an era when it took three foot tall flames and yells of "Opa!" to get Americans to try ethnic cuisine. But crisped on the outside with a gooey, melty interior and the sour tang of both the cheese and lemon, the dish itself holds its own. It's a crowd-pleaser, even without the theatrics.

TaramosalataDominic Armato

Central Gyros' taramosalata may have been largely responsible for my status as social outcast while growing up. When you're in second grade, trumpeting your affection for creamy goop comprised primarily of fish eggs is not the way to win friends and influence people. The kid who ate worms may have had a leg up on me. This version is, I believe, a potato base, and I can't claim wide experience with taramosalata, so for me this is pretty much the standard. It's a thick and pasty rendition, unabashedly salty and best spread on bread. Despite sharing the table with five other adults, I think I finished two of the scoops. Some things never change. And though my playground social status may have taken a hit, I credit this taramosalata with teaching me at an early age that some foods aren't nearly as strange as they sound.

Fried EggplantDominic Armato

A couple of years back, I was gratified to learn that my compatriots over at LTH Forum had discovered Central Gyros, and most who visited had taken to it quite favorably. Of course, it's always interesting to hear a fresh take on a place you've been visiting all your life, and the one bit of information I found most valuable was that their fried eggplant is exceptonal. It is, and I have Michael Morowitz (eatchicago) to thank for introducing me to a new favorite dish at an old favorite place. Not a singular favorite, mind you, but one I'll have a hard time passing on henceforth. The fried eggplant is exceptional, sliced into centimeter-thick half moons and fried so that the outer surface is crisp bordering on brittle while the eggplant inside practically melts into a warm vegetable goo. It's so good that the accompanying skordalia -- pasty garlic and potato dip -- isn't really necessary, but it's still a better dish for it. Thanks, Michael!

GyrosDominic Armato

The restaurant's namesake and king of the Chicago Greek staples is, of course, the gyros, so a meal would somehow seem incomplete without. What the United States knows as gyros was, for better or worse, another Chicago invention, though precisely which enterprising soul first started selling it in its mass-produced state is in dispute. Gyros is, of course, an actual Greek dish that traces all the way back to the Turkish doner kebab, but 18th century Turks who carefully layered fresh cuts of lamb to prepare theirs would no doubt be taken aback by the processed meatloaf cone that could only be the product of the meatpacker for the nation. But though less than artful, there's a certain entrepreneurial charm to Chicago-style gyros, and it can make for a damn fine if less than rustic sandwich. Given the product's uniformity, it's really a matter of preparation, ensuring that the meat is hot and crisped by the fire without getting greasy. On this trip, Central Gyros half succeeded. Methinks this was not carved fresh from the flaming spit, which is a shame. But it still scratched the itch, even if it was a little lackluster on this particular occasion.

Souvlaki SandwichDominic Armato

More disappointing was the old Armato family standby, the souvlaki sandwich. Here, chunks of pork tenderloin are marinated in olive oil, lemon juice and herbs before being skewered and grilled and served on a pita with tomatoes, onions and tzatziki. Aside from the institutional tomatoes, the accompaniments were spot on, with a warm, pillowy and lightly crisped pita and thick, garlicky tzatziki (Chicago Greek is not so much with the subtlety). But the beloved pork wasn't cutting it this evening, a little cool and oddly shy on flavor. I'd have written it off to either an off night or memories tinged by rose-colored glasses, but I'm informed by my family that the off nights have been a little more frequent than the on nights as of late, which is troubling.

A little Greek coffee and we were stepping out the front door and back into the present. As the food goes, Central Gyros wasn't quite what I remembered. Though some favorites remained unchanged, others seemed unusually weak. But Central Gyros is preserved in amber, both metaphorically and literally (the decor IS kinda reddish-brown). It embodies the food and atmosphere of a bygone era and that, coupled with a number of dishes that are still pretty darn good (and a couple that are great), make it a place to visit, even if you're lacking the nostalgia factor.

Central Gyros
3127 N. Central Avenue
Chicago, IL 60641

July 26, 2010


Salami Dominic Armato

The first time I met Giovanni Scorzo, chef and proprietor of Andreoli, he was holding a massive chunk of cured pork a scant few inches from my nose.

It was the first time I'd eaten there. A shopping and scouting mission had me all atwitter, and I'd hurriedly rushed back to give the kitchen a try. After a perfect meal, capped off by a perfect espresso, I went up to the counter to grab a little pancetta to use for my own pasta the next day. The young fellow at the counter told me that they were all out, and as I was giving an "aw, shucks" and snapping my fingers, he explained that the next batch wasn't ready yet. "Wait, you cure your own?" He held up an index finger and excused himself for a moment, stepping over to a scruffy middle-aged gentleman slicing cured meats at a large wooden table. After saying something to him, the older fellow nodded and twisted his lips in a "sure, why not?" gesture, and moments later the young man returned with a huge, rolled pancetta, still in the netting and obviously just cut down from wherever it had been drying. The older fellow quickly removed the netting, pulled out an ancient-looking knife shaped like a scimitar, carved off one end of the nearly two foot long log and held the rest to his nose. He took a deep breath, his eyes lit up, and his lips curled into a satisfied smile. He looked up for the first time since I'd been standing there, caught my eyes, strode over to the counter and reached across, holding it out for me to do the same.

Patatine FritteDominic Armato

It was absolutely beautiful. I was blown away by a huge noseful of pork, cured but still clean and fresh with a little spice and the sweetly musky undertones it had picked up while drying. I probably said, "Whoa!" or something similarly Keanu-esque, so he took it back to his work table, carved off a paper thin slice and handed it to me. The fat melted away on my tongue, and I briefly considered vaulting across the counter and running away with a twenty pound hunk of cured meat. Then I realized that I'd probably rather have this guy as a friend. "You make your own pancetta?" I asked. "I make pancetta, salami, soppressata, capicolla, culatello... the only thing I don't make, I don't make any money." He returned to the table and started pulling out more and more house-cured cuts for me to sample. And it was here that my quest of more than a decade had come to an end.

Tomato, Anchovy, GorgonzolaDominic Armato

Rewind ten or twelve years. I'm traveling to Italy quite a bit, and on those torturous breaks in between trips, I'm getting increasingly frustrated with my inability to find the kind of trattoria-style fare that I miss so much. Why is this so hard? It isn't rocket science. Get a few good ingredients, treat them with respect, don't screw them up. You don't even have to make fresh pasta. The boxed stuff has its own wonderful character. I want a little trattoria like the ones that are on every corner in Italy. The corners that aren't occupied by churches, anyway. Not those places that call themselves trattorie where everything is either saucy Italian-American, or it's hideously overworked, or it's elevated to a fine dining level and turned into something elegant but somehow lacking the same humble soul. I want one of those tiny family-run joints that are warm, comfortable, and that know how to get out of the way of their food. And I resolve to find it back home.

Calamaretti del SacrestanoDominic Armato

It took a while, but Andreoli is it.... finally. I cannot express how excited I am by this place, but boy howdy, I'm going to try. Over the past six months, I've visited over twenty times. The reason I didn't write it up sooner? I can't stop eating at the place. I can't bear to not do it justice. I want to taste a little more, document a little more, share a little more, paint a more complete picture. I want to try just one more veal dish, sample a couple more sandwiches, inhale a few more dolci... for months, I've been unable to say enough is enough and just start writing. So here it is. Andreoli is a spectacular restaurant, it's the restaurant I've been seeking for over a decade, and I'm not sure that the people of Phoenix realize just how lucky they are to have it.

Insalata di MareDominic Armato

Andreoli, Scorzo's mother's maiden name, is shop, restaurant, cafe and gathering place. Born in Calabria and raised in Liguria, Scorzo previously ran a white tablecloth restaurant in Scottsdale called Leccabaffi. It's no longer with us, and it wasn't Scorzo's for its autumn years anyway. To hear from those who know him, Scorzo got sick of the place. Sick of the grind, sick of the BS involved in running a restaurant at that level, and sick of the people who didn't appreciate the food. So after throwing in the towel with Leccabaffi and taking some time away from a restaurant kitchen, he opened Andreoli, a comfortable place where he could invite people into his kitchen, cook for them and make them happy on a very personal level in ways that only people who are driven to do this kind of cooking can. It's small. There are a dozen tables at most, squeezed into the space while shelves of Italian grocery items line the walls. When you walk in, Giovanni's either working behind the counter, or he's seated at a table with some other Italians, sipping espresso and bantering in animated fashion while his daughter, Francesca, holds down the fort. During the day, people stop in for sandwiches. In the evening, families eat with their kids. It may start out as a shop and restaurant, but you keep showing up and showing up and one day Giovanni's telling you about his upcoming trip to Italy while Francesca plays with your baby daughter and suddenly it's a home -- a home with really, really good food.

Vitello TonnatoDominic Armato

The regular menu is mostly focused on sandwiches with a few salads and antipasti, and there are plenty of gems to be found there. But the real magic happens on a small white board with roughly a dozen items that change on a daily basis. A soup or two, a few pastas, a couple seafood dishes, a few meats... whatever strikes Scorzo's fancy that day. and outside of the sandwiches, what's most striking about both menus is how thoroughly traditional they are. So many Italian restaurants in the States feel compelled to stand out through their menu, reinventing and reimagining the classics, which is all fine and good except that almost all of them do it poorly. It's so refreshing to find an Italian kitchen steered by a hand confident enough to simply do these dishes the way they've been done forever, and do them well.

Linguine alle Vongole VeraciDominic Armato

Sometimes, a meal might start with simple marinated vegetables, set out on the counter for you to peruse before you order. Or a simple salad, like slabs of ripe tomato with slivers of onion, anchovy fillets and dollops of gorgonzola dolce. Nothing fancy, just excellent ingredients put together and lightly dressed. If you're lucky, you might be able to get a hold of some of Scorzo's housemade salumi, which show the understated grace of the experienced hand that prepared them. Some are coarse and rustic with melting globules of fat, some are fine and tender with an almost pate-like consistency, but all maintain the flavor of the pork, which never gets lost in curing salts or an overabundance of seasonings. Scorzo's pancetta is luscious and sweet with a little bit of chile heat -- he's from Calabria, after all -- and though it's been doing wonderful things to my pastas at home, it's so good sliced paper thin and eaten raw that it almost seems a crime to cook it.

Fusilli con Ricotta e PomodoriDominic Armato

Other starting tastes abound. I'm especially fond of Scorzo's patatine fritte, which are in the running for my favorite fried potatoes of all time. Forget the focus on crispness that dominates fried potato cookery in the States. These are fried in olive oil and there's nothing crisp about them. But they taste like potatoes, and fabulous ones at that. The crispness comes from the accompanying fried leeks which, along with a remoulade-like dip, make me glad Francesca talked me into ordering them. Seafood is also well-represented, and you'll find items like breaded and fried sardines, insalata di mare or multiple preparations of calamari. The insalata di mare is done with enormous, juicy mussels and clams with chunks of calamari and octopus. It's a simple marinade with wine vinegar, shredded carrots and big chunks of celery, and it's unabashedly marine, without the slightest effort to clean it up for those who don't like their seafood to taste like seafood. The Calamaretti del Sacrestano is a grilled preparation, soft and charred and bathed in lemon, olive oil and the squid's natural essence -- so much of it that it'll take half a loaf of bread (made in house, by the way) to mop it all up, and you'll want to. On a recent visit, I was thrilled to see one of my absolute favorites, Vitello Tonnato, and Scorzo's hits it right on the head. For those unfamiliar, Vitello Tonnato is poached veal that's chilled and very thinly sliced, then topped with a mayonnaise-like sauce that's blended with tuna and usually topped with capers. Scorzo's is especially delicate, avoiding the dry fate that often befalls the veal, and his sauce is unusually smooth and light.

Ravioli al Funghi e Tartufi BianchiDominic Armato

Pastas are perfect. Simple and perfect. And above all, simple. What's more, in true trattoria fashion, factory-made dry pastas are well-represented. The superiority of fresh pasta is an American conceit, whereas Italians know that both have their place at the table. Linguine alle Vongole Veraci -- with clams -- is not the soupy, garlicky mess it is everywhere else. It's fresh, light, clean, tasting of clams rather than bottled clam juice. The sauce is barely there, and it has just a whiff of garlic. There's no cheese, and don't ask for any. This dish is about the clams, and about the pasta itself, as it should be. When Scorzo goes rich, he goes rich, but keeps the flavors simple to keep them from getting muddy. Fusilli is bound by a mess of melted fresh ricotta, but it's an excellent ricotta (also made in-house), it hasn't been flavored seven different ways, and it's paired with grape tomatoes, bursting through their skins and cutting through the cheese's richness with their naturally sweet acid. I presume Scorzo uses the same fresh mushrooms as everybody else, but how he pulls so much flavor out of them for the Ravioli ai Funghi is something I'd like to know. Pressed between sheets of firm but yielding pasta and basted with salty butter and a touch of white truffle oil, they're remarkably intense. Pappardelle al Cinghiale, another old favorite of mine, embraces the boar's wild nature. Scorzo's version is downright chunky, containing huge pieces of meat, and the underlying pasta has bite to match. And these are just a few... a light and delicate veal-based Penne Strascicate, light potato gnocchi in a tomato sauce with a slightest touch of pesto, tangled Fettuccine all'Aragosta... they're all wonderful.

Pappardelle al CinghialeDominic Armato

I haven't spent nearly as much time with the secondi. I keep getting hung up on the pastas. But the ones that I've had have all been wonderful. Veal Saltimbocca shouldn't be smothered in cheese. It should be as it is here, seared in the pan and bathed in its own juices, butter and Marsala, with nothing more than prosciutto and sage to accompany it. And one of the best seafood dishes I've had in a long time, Gamberoni Reali alla Brace, fresh from Greece, seven inches long with the tails curled. What do you do with such precious creatures as these? Almost nothing. A little oil, a little lemon, salt and pepper and a grill. When Scorzo set the plate in front of me, he said, "You know, the heads, right?" holding his fingers to his lips and making a slurping sound. "Are you kidding? That's the best part!" I replied. "She couldn't do it," he said, grinning ear to ear and teasing a woman -- a regular, I think -- seated on the other side of the store. She looked up, smiled and shrugged. Her loss. I started with a knife and fork, but Scorzo quickly tossed me a huge pile of napkins, confirming that my preferred method was entirely acceptable. They were sweet... so sweet, seasoned with the brine from whence they came. Little smoky flakes of charred shell snuck their way into one bite after another, further infusing the meat with smoke and fire. I got lost for a while, completely dismantling each shrimp, slurping every last bit of essence and leaving nothing but a pile of dry shells and hollow heads.

Gamberoni Reali alla BraceDominic Armato

Dolci? Also done on the premises. Between the savories, the sweets, the salumi and the crusty bread, the kitchen's versatility is amazing. You'll find all manner of cookies, including cantucci (what most know as biscotti), chocolates with toasted nuts, the occasional creamy or custardy offerings popular with Americans like cannoli and tiramisu, and the most delicious cornetti I've ever had. Named for their horn-like shape, cornetti are the Italian analogue to croissants, and though cornetti are generally a little moister and more bready than their French cousins, Scorzo takes them even further, creating a dense, moist, almost cakey sweet bread that is one of the best pastries I've had in recent memory. If you're a fan of pain au chocolate, try one of his chocolate cornetti and then try going back. Good luck with that.

Vitello SaltimboccaDominic Armato

There are so many things that make the food at Andreoli so wonderful, but chief among them, I think, is the amount of restraint that Scorzo exercises. With so many of his dishes, as I eat I sit there and think about how almost every other Italian restaurant in the States would add two more ingredients, and those two ingredients would screw everything up. This is the essence of Italian food. Killer ingredients prepared using simple techniques that maximize their natural flavor. It seems like such a simple formula, but when you cook simply, you're exposed. The slightest errors are magnified. But Scorzo seems to get it every time. He does just enough, without doing too much, and he does it right.

When I first started visiting Andreoli, I couldn't figure out why Scorzo isn't one of the most publicly beloved chefs in the entire city. Whether or not he wants it, he deserves that recognition. But I came to accept that this was wishful thinking on my part. I understand exactly why. It's perhaps a little intimidating when half the people in the place aren't speaking your language. You might pay $20 for a pasta or $32 for an entree and there isn't any waitstaff. Food kind of comes out of the kitchen whenever it comes out of the kitchen. It's that kind of place. But for those who aren't married to traditional restaurant trappings, Andreoli is a goldmine of Italian food the way it's meant to be. Am I worried that I'm overselling the place? Not really. Andreoli is kind of a litmus test for where people's priorities lie when it comes to dining out. With this kind of food, you either get it or you don't. Those of us who don't will wonder why they should wait in line, sit in the middle of a store and pay $20 for a plate of pasta when they could spend that same money on a more upscale Italian dinner in an upscale restaurant. Those of us who get it, however, know that the food at that upscale restaurant isn't half as good, that more complex isn't necessarily better, and we'd much rather be fed by a fellow who holds freshly sliced homemade pancetta across the counter so we can take a deep, intoxicating whiff.

8880 East Via Linda
Scottsdale, AZ 85258
Mon - Sat10:00 AM - 9:00 PM

July 21, 2010

The Quarterly Report - Q2 2010

Chinese Pancakes @ Super L Ranch Market Dominic Armato

One thing is, sitting around a hospital room means you have a lot of time on your hands. So while there's no Bravo and Top Chef is out, heck, as long as there's time to kill and I've got myself an internet connection, why not do the quarterly report? For those who missed it first time around, these are the last three months' worth of little snippets and impressions that never seemed significant enough to work into full posts. Which means they're even less comprehensive than usual. Consider them a quarter's worth of little snapshots, in no particular order.

The Fallen AngelDominic Armato

La Grande Orange Pizzeria
4410 N. 40th Street, Phoenix AZ 85018

La Grande Orange seems to be a rather popular spot. And having only stopped into the grocery until recently, I wasn't quite sure why. There was some good stuff to be found, but it struck me as a gourmet grocery that was more style than substance. Good for picking up some treats, but not really a market in any serious sense. I warmed to the place quite a bit, however, after sitting outside with a pizza and salad from the accompanying pizzeria one evening. I'm pretty agnostic when it comes to pizza styles. They all have their charms. So while hardcore traditionalists of many stripes might be offended by the sourdough crust, I have to back it up. This is a tasty pizza with great texture, alternately charred, crisp and unusually chewy. The Fallen Angel, with Schreiner's Italian sausage, roasted peppers and shaved fennel, has a healthy level of spice with a balancing natural sweetness. And it reminds me that I really need to check out Schreiner's sometime soon.

Italian SubDominic Armato

My Daddy's Bakery
11677 West Bell Road, Surprise, AZ 85374

Surprise doesn't get a whole lot of attention within food nerd circles, and driving through it's not hard to see why. But I still subscribe to the theory that there are little hidden gems everywhere you go. And while I don't know that I'm willing to call My Daddy's Bakery a gem based on the one sandwich and couple of sweets I tried, it's more interesting than most everything else I've driven by down Bell Road. Cute little place that's mostly Italian pastries, cook at home pizzas and a few frozen pastas. A basic sub of the throw-it-all-on-there Italian-American variety did the job, hitting the spot in a no-frills fashion. Sfogliatelle could've been lighter but were enjoyable, and cannoli were similarly workmanlike, even if the use of green candy sprinkles rather than pistachios was a little annoying. But they were mini cannoli, so perhaps it was to avoid the use of nuts for grandkids' sake. Still seemed kind of sacrilegious.

Ricotta RavioliDominic Armato

Pasta and Sugo
2916 N. 40th Street, Phoenix AZ 85018

I think the deathwatch was on for Pasta and Sugo the day they opened. Odd location, crude signage, and a bit of an identity crisis. Perhaps they know what they are, but I'm not getting it. They produce pasta and sugo (natch), nothing else, and not very much of it. A few shapes of fresh dried pasta, a few varieties of frozen ravioli, two or three sauces -- that's about it. And this could be great if the product's great. The bagged pasta was worthwhile, nice bite with a bit of whole wheat for a slightly rustic flavor. But it was priced like an ultrapremium import and just didn't seem worth it. Eating in is a disaster. Arriving in a plastic takeout container, the pasta was waterlogged and the sauce was flat and crying out for salt (mediocre tomatoes, I think). Though the method of service gave a clue as to why. Only a handful of tiny tables in the place, and our group of five was served slowly over the course of twenty minutes. I think they only have one microwave, and I don't mean that as a joke. Which is especially frustrating because when all you're serving is three kinds of ravioli and a couple of sauce options, would it be so hard to keep some boiling water going and two pots of sauce simmering? It just seems unnecessary. And the stripped-down trappings wouldn't bother me one bit if the pasta were good, but it just isn't. Not after being prepared that way, anyway. I'd love to support a place like this, but I just can't.

Steak House BLT BurgerDominic Armato

The Grind
3961 East Camelback Road, Phoenix AZ 85018

The Grind has been pretty well covered by others, and I don't know that I have that much to add, but I'll note it here for posterity's sake. The big question for me, as much as I hate to do the old head-to-head thing, is how their burgers stack up against Delux. So do I prefer The Grind? Yes and no. And that's the problem. When the burger's on, and it's cooked to the right temperature, and the bacon is crisp and it's nicely sauced, there's absolutely no contest. It's a great burger with a real meaty, beefy patty with substance, in contrast to the glorified meatloaf over at Delux (I have teeth, guys, and I'm willing to use them). But The Grind has been wildly inconsistent, and sometimes that burger just doesn't come together. Also doesn't help that the late-night menu has been stripped down and only features one burger. When it's on, I love your Steak House BLT burger, guys. Sure wish I could try the others.

Salade Frisée aux Oeufs et LardonsDominic Armato

Petite Maison
7216 East Shoeman Lane, Scottsdale, AZ 85251

Staff meal at Petite Maison is rather eclectic, but the regular menu is pretty much straight-up bistro. With a twist, I suppose you could say. Lots of them. Little ones, though, as if they wanted to put a signature spin on each classic. Problem is I'm not sure they're improvements. I haven't spent a ton of time in France, but does anybody there put a croque monsieur on a croissant? Even if somebody does, I think it's a mistake. I don't care if it looks good on the menu, it doesn't do justice to either the croissant or the croque monsieur. And the frisée salad with poached egg and bacon has a beautiful poached egg, but rather than nice chunky, fatty lardons you get a pile of bacon that's been sliced and chopped and cooked dry. Again, not an improvement (and it's overdressed, to boot). This is perhaps overly harsh. We had a perfectly nice lunch, and everything is crisply and professionally executed. But it's frustrating when a kitchen that seems to be in control stumbles through questionable attempts to distinguish itself. There's nothing wrong with distinguishing yourself by simply being extremely good, and that skill is clearly there.

Chinese PancakesDominic Armato

Super L Ranch Market
668 North 44th Street, Phoenix AZ 85008

A fun little diversion if you're hitting one of the restaurants down by the Chinese Cultural center on the weekend is a small cart that the Super L Ranch Market puts out front. I'm not familiar with this particular brand of sweet treat, but I like it. Similar to takoyaki, these pancakes are produced on a hot griddle with indentations into which is first poured a batter, then a filling, then more batter before they're flipped to cook on the other side, resulting in a thick pancakey dessert puck with your choice of sweet filling. Red bean and coconut were two of the options on the day I walked by, as well as one other choice that I've since forgotten. But they're tasty, a little crisp on the exterior, sweet and volcanic in the middle, and the long line of folks waiting for their turn makes for a nice little taste of street food culture in a town that doesn't seem to have very much of it, Nogales Hot Dogs notwithstanding.

July 20, 2010

Hospital Food

Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm Dominic Armato

Hospital waiting room food, anyway.

Nothing like a little viral meningitis to throw a kink in your plans for the week. I hate to do this -- two weeks in a row, even -- but there's just no way. While my devotion to the Power Rankings is great, my family's meninges come first.

Postmortem thread Wednesday (with or without my participation), and more once everybody's on the mend. Thanks for your patience.

July 16, 2010

The Girl and The Goat

Awwwwwww Dominic Armato

Let me make something absolutely clear, lest you think I'm plumbing new depths of Top Chef obsession. I did NOT travel to Chicago for the opening of The Girl and The Goat. But when the enormously (over)hyped opening of a Top Chef winner's restaurant happens to occur the very week we have a night on the town -- a week when I was taking a Power Rankings pass, no less -- checking it out kind of seems like a moral obligation. I don't mean to give the wrong impression. I was actually quite curious to see how Stephanie Izard's place would turn out. I'd eaten at her previous restaurant before she was a reality television star. But to check out how fame and fortune may or may not have changed her meant making peace with the fact that I'd be letting the blog be even further dominated by Top Chef this month. With a little trepidation, I suppose I can deal with that.

Fat Bread with Liver ButterDominic Armato

In her pre-reality televison days, Stephanie (being on a reality TV show puts you on a first name basis with the public, you see) was the chef at a joint in Wicker Park named Scylla. I had a couple of meals at Scylla not long before they closed, and while I can't recall the details (this is precisely why I started a journal/blog, by the way), I recall a bit of an uneven experience that nonetheless included some rather exciting peaks. I remember thinking at the time that if you picked the winners, you'd walk out having had a great meal. I didn't get much of a chance to suss out those winners, however, as Scylla closed up shop shortly before Stephanie went on Top Chef. Which precipitated which is anybody's guess. Shortly thereafter, she became a national culinary icon, having snatched victory from popularly favored (though no less popular) Richard Blais, and after a brief respite, what followed was a slow crescendo of rumor, then buzz, then announcements, then delays, then name changes, then a marketing blitz, and finally... just this week... an opening. Yes, Chicago, henceforth when you read daily updates about The Girl and The Goat, they will most likely involve discussion of actual food.

Cave Brothers MozzarellaDominic Armato

So my ladylove and I went to go check it out this past Wednesday. I concede up front that it's completely unfair to write about a place like this just a scant few days after opening. Early writeups are always unfair, but when the hype has reached such a fevered pitch, it's especially unfair. The Girl and The Goat can't possibly live up to expectations, and not letting them at least get their feet wet seems cruel, somehow. But such is the reality of the Yelp era, I get one shot at the place this year, and it happened to be this week. I figure I'd better take it. So the usual "just opened" caveats apply. Even under the best of circumstances, I like to think of these posts as data points rather than "reviews," and that goes triply here. It's only fair.

Chilled Sweet Onion SoupDominic Armato

The Girl and The Goat is big! Much bigger than I expected somehow, a lofty space on Randolph in the West Loop filled with unfinished wood, black and dark green accents and the pleasant, if pungent, scent of wood smoke from the open oven in back. There's a rather sizeable bar, a small lounge with low couches where many appeared to be eating a full dinner, a long kitchen along the back and plenty of tables to cover what I expected would be a crush of opening week reservations, until I checked Open Table on Monday morning and discovered that other than a gap from 6:30 to 7:45, Wednesday night was wide open. Had so many decided to keep their distance that the crowds they had sought to avoid were rendered illusory? The room sure seemed pretty busy. Perhaps the throngs got wise to the Open Table backdoor later in the day. It's a small plates menu (surprise!), divided into vegetables, seafood and meats, with a small addendum featuring oysters and breads.

Crispy Pig Face with ChimichurriDominic Armato

Yes, breads. While trying to keep an open mind, I'm unsure of how I feel about bread service being monetized. It feels a little like we've simply found a way to charge for something most places give away for free. But like most other things, items given gratis are worked into the prices anyway, so I suppose this way the cost is limited to those who choose to partake. Nonetheless, it's a little jarring to pay $5 for a small loaf of fresh bread with liver butter and diced plums, even if the description thereof is all you need to hear to know why we did it. It was delicious, hot and soft bread spread with creamy butter that had a little offal funk, and bright, sweet tart plums for contrast. It was perhaps the second-most decadent bread service I've encountered, safely behind the creamy crock of lardo at Carnevino, which was free. But then, dining at The Girl and The Goat doesn't require taking out a second mortgage for a steak that may be older than the house you're mortgaging (and yet I'd do it again... and again... and again... but I digress).

Skirt Steak a la PlanchaDominic Armato

Dishes, by design, arrived in no particular order, though I don't know if this is a conscious choice or some opening week jitters. My first taste was a small one, a sample of my ladylove's salad, listed on the menu as Cave Brothers Mozzarella with sungold tomatoes, yellow plums, watercress and purple beans. It was as described, a fine specimen of a salad, especially when it came to the crisp, slivered beans, that satisfied without thriling. You can make friends with salad, but it has to be one helluva salad. This was not. But I enjoyed the taste I had. My first, however, rather endeared me to the chef. It was a chilled sweet onion soup, with beautiful, explosive flavor and a wonderful creamy texture despite what I suspect was a total absence of dairy. Highlighted with a small dollop of mildly spicy poblano-sorrel oil, it was a beautifully refreshing dish for a hot evening that still had some depth and body. Perhaps my favorite of the evening.

Crisp Skate with Calamari and GarbanzosDominic Armato

Nipping at its heels was my next dish, the "crispy pig face" with chimichurri, daikon and baby arugula. Stephanie, like many chefs these days, displayed an unhealthy (yet oh so wonderful) obsession with pork products during her stint on Top Chef, and little bits of pig are to be found all over the menu. It's the star, however, of this dish, which plays kind of like an unusually succulent schnitzel, breaded and crisply fried with fresh greens and a chimichurri that had some kick. My first taste left me a little flat, but it quickly became apparent that this was because I'd first hit upon a lean corner of the cut. Once I found the fat -- which was practically everywhere else -- the plate melded together into a meaty and herbacious blend of flavors with a wonderful crunchy texture.

Soft Shell Crab with Sweet CornDominic Armato

Sadly, texture was something of an issue for the next two dishes, and our dinner went south for a bit. Though my ladylove seemed quite tickled by it, I was underwhelmed by the skirt steak a la plancha. Done with slivered beets, wilted romaine lettuce, assorted pickled vegetables and what was described as a salted goat milk caramel, it seems like it should have had a lot more depth than it did. It actually came across similar to an Asian-style sweet and sour beef salad that you might have at a Thai or Vietnamese place. But without something like the punch of chiles or the salty pungency of fish sauce, it felt flat. That the skirt steak didn't seem to retain any of the seared flavor you'd expect it to pick up from the plancha didn't help, either. Combine that with intentionally wilted greens, and it felt like a weak, overly sweet Americanized Thai beef salad that had been sitting in the container a little too long. Overly harsh, perhaps, especially considering the kitchen's young age. It wasn't bad, really. But that's what immediately sprung to mind.

Rabbit Rillettes in Crisp Rice CrepeDominic Armato

The first of my two seafood dishes was similarly challenged, and I started to suspect that we might be seeing some opening week issues on display. The crisp skate was done with grilled calamari rings, sweet (pickled?) grape tomatoes, garbanzo beans that challenged the teeth (though not unpleasantly), grilled radicchio, capers and a tomato aioli. There were small issues, like the fact that I wouldn't have known the calamari were grilled if the menu didn't say so (not a hint of char or smoke). But most importantly, the panko-breaded crisp skate was anything but. It was soggy, limp and barely warm, and it resulted in a dish that completely lacked texture. There may very well have been a good dish in here, but it was very difficult to see past a sad piece of seafood. It remains to be seen whether the skate and the skirt steak bloom once the kitchen tightens up a little bit. I think it's a possibility, but they're definitely not there yet.

Goat Cheese BavaroisDominic Armato

This would have been the end had we not opted to add a couple more dishes mid-meal. The plates are small enough that I'd say three will do most folks, going down to two or up to four if you typically find yourself on the extremes. My last dish was another crack at seafood, a fried soft shell crab that was, indeed, served crisp, atop a bed of sweet corn kernels and dressed with a chili aioli. The crab was seasoned, barely dusted and fried, letting it shine which was a great call. These little fellows are so delicate and so tasty that there's no sense burying them. The sweet corn was similarly minimal and delicious, but the whole dish was put off by one unfortunate error, which was an overabundance of lime juice that really took over the dish. Again, work out the kinks and this is a winner (though the crabs will most likely be gone by then).

Corn Nougat with Plum and BaconDominic Armato

But despite some of the problem dishes, we ended on a high note, a creative little dish that still wasn't quite firing on all cylinders, yet managed to delight us nonetheless. Rabbit rillettes are rolled in rice crepes and fried crisp, then floated in a bowl of ginger "giardinare" and sweet garlic puree, and topped with thinly sliced carrots and a bit of spigarello (the green stuff). The flavors here were wonderful and well-balanced. The rabbit not only took to the broth beautifully, but its shredded texture lapped up the liquid once the crepes were cut apart. The garlic was present but not overpowering, and the vegetables atop were pure and delicious. The singular issue was, again, that the crisp crepes weren't very crisp. Only the tiniest bits on a couple of edges provided any clue that they were intended to be. And while I'm sure they were meant to be partly crisp, partly soft (a call I fully support), a little more texture would have made the dish. But this was a winner even as we received it.

Desserts were creative and enjoyable. A goat cheese bavarois with berries and crisp oats was clean and restrained in its subtle sweetness. The corn nougat -- corn ice cream, as far as I could tell -- was served with crumbled corn bread, corn kernels, diced plum and bits of crispy bacon, and the only problem was that the nougat arrived half-melted, in keeping with the evening's theme.

Inspiration For The NameDominic Armato

That theme, of course, is that The Girl and The Goat just opened, and I have absolutely no business writing about it. Like the meals I remembered from Scylla, there were big hits and big misses. But this offering from Stephanie lent the impression that it might come together with a little more time. The beauty of restauranting in the internet era, however, is that unlike with a traditional newspaper review, there will be no shortage of others commenting in the coming weeks on whether or not the kitchen finds its footing. Less highly anticipated restaurants might not survive a lukewarm early reception, but unless the city of Chicago has completely succumbed to goat fatigue (I suppose a case could be made for the north side of the city... *sigh*), Stephanie will get the time she needs to whip the kitchen into shape. I hope she does, not because she's so damn likeable (though she is), but because there are some really compelling ideas here that I'd like to see hitting the table at full strength.

The Girl and The Goat
809 W. Randolph Street
Chicago, IL 60607
Mon - Fri4:30 PM - 11:00 PM
Fri - Sat4:30 PM - 12:00 AM

July 01, 2010

Six Months

Mmmmmmm... no? Dominic Armato

Six months to the day that we've been without a microwave. And I'm surprised to find that I don't miss it one bit.

I wasn't trying to make a point, to myself or anybody else. The new place just didn't have a microwave, and we never quite got around to buying one.

Suddenly it's six months later and I can count on one hand the times when I've thought it would have been nice to have one. Non-liquid leftovers. That's about it.

I was never anti-microwave and I'm not now. I'll happily use one again in the future, I'm sure. But I'm in absolutely no hurry.