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August 26, 2010


Woodland Mushroom Torta Dominic Armato

Outside of the city itself and food nerd circles (and even within some of the latter), Chicago doesn't usually make the short list of Mexican hot spots. I'm unsure of why this is. Perhaps because it's still a little too easy for many to pigeonhole Chicago as the deep dish pizza and Chicago-style hot dog place. Perhaps because many refuse to entertain the notion that a U.S. city 1,200 miles from Mexico might have more to offer than cities that are a stone's throw away. Perhaps because many confuse quantity (though Chicago's no slouch in that department, either) with quality and variety. Whatever the reason, it's something that should be common knowledge, but still isn't: Chicago may be the best place outside of Mexico to sample regional Mexican cuisine.

GuacamoleDominic Armato

You don't have to take my word for it, of course. Rick Bayless' victory on the first season of Top Chef Masters taught a whole lot of people what Chicagoans have known for over a decade... that the dude is a fantastic chef, clinically obsessive about his chosen specialty, and a total authority on the details thereof. And though my Google-fu is inadequate, apparently, to find the exact quote, Bayless himself puts Chicago ahead of even Los Angeles in terms of the availability of authentic regional Mexican food. And not because he overvalues his own contribution to the scene. Quite the contrary, part of Bayless' charm is that he's a tireless champion of humble Mexican food made by humble hands in humble restaurants. And as great as Bayless' restaurants are, I'd send first-time Chicago visitors to a number of other places before Frontera Grill or Topolobampo. Which isn't a shot at Bayless. The guy deserves every bit of praise he gets. It's just that if you're looking for an education in an ethnic cuisine, I think the simple, traditional end of the spectrum is far more valuable than the creative upscale fare (tasty though the latter may be). All of which is to say that if you're visiting Chicago, there are Mexican restaurants I hope you'll visit before Xoco (one of which I'll be posting about shortly). But I'm going to write about Xoco anyway.

Pork Belly TortaDominic Armato

Xoco is a sandwich shop. It's the quick(ish) service Mexican restaurant Bayless opened last year around the corner from his more formal endeavors. Though there's plenty of good stuff to be found there, the focus at Xoco is on tortas. So when you're spending a night in a River North hotel just a few blocks away and a quick lunch is called for, Xoco fits the bill perfectly. Somehow, that lunch turned into two. I had my eye on Mac & Min's for checkout day (I loved Jerry's, I love seafood po' boys... kind of a no-brainer), but my ladylove was sufficiently impressed by Xoco that she requested an immediate return. And who am I to deny my ladylove, particularly when she's exhibiting such exquisite taste? Xoco is crammed into tight quarters, and has to some degree become a victim of its own success. It can be a zoo, and the limited amount of table and counter seating is rarely enough. In response, they've developed an odd system where you wait in line and then continue waiting at the front of the line until seats are free, at which point they'll take your order and you can sit down. It gets the job done.

Mole Poblano TortaDominic Armato

A selection of soups goes live after 3:00, but the lunchtime menu is almost exclusively comprised of tortas, with an assortment of starters and a selection of freshly roasted, ground and prepared hot cocoas. There are nine or ten regular tortas, plus a daily special or two that are available on a rotating basis. The five we tried (hey, leftovers) were all out of the wood burning oven, and they share one of the best things about Xoco... absolutely killer bread. When you've had your share of run-of-the-mill tortas on cheap, spongy bread, it's really refreshing to get a freshly baked roll with flavor and bite and a real, crisp crust. You could throw prepackaged deli meat on this stuff and it'd taste great. Thankfully, Bayless is aiming a little higher. Day one provided what were probably my two favorites, the woodland mushroom and Wednesday's special, the pork belly. I was a little surprised by how much I enjoyed the woodland mushroom. The mushroom and goat cheese combo is ubiquitous and starts to get old after a while. But this sandwich was jam-packed with mushrooms that were roasted to an earthy intensity and yet remained almost juicy. Add a handful of crisp arugula, smear of black beans and mild yet complex salsa for dipping, and I envied my ladylove's selection. Not that much, however, since my pork belly was exactly what anybody ordering pork belly is probably hoping for, silky and rich with a dark, spicy, lightly sweet glaze, crisp bacon (yes, more pork belly), nutty queso anejo and just enough fresh veg to keep the meatiness from getting out of control. Both sandwiches were shockingly good.

Ahogada TortaDominic Armato

Our second pass didn't quite yield the same level of deliciousness, but was still a cut above. The big disappointment for me was Wednesday's special, the mole poblano, which did great things with braised pork but needed more than the kiss of mole it got for my tastes. The other problematic torta was mostly my fault. When I ordered the ahogada, I was asked if I'd prefer mild, medium or hot. I instinctively answered, "Hot!" with a little too much glee, and realized about seven seconds later that this was a place where they probably actually meant it. Problem is, the torta ahogada, Jaliscan in origin, is saturated with a chili and vinegar-based sauce. It's already a spicy bomb by nature. So while enthusiastically asking them to max the heat index didn't render my sandwich inedible, it pushed it past the point where, for me at least, the spice became more destructive than constructive. Which is too bad, because the carnitas were beautiful, the bread was spot-on, and it was even presented in an unorthodox but completely ingenious manner, halved the short way and standing vertically in a small bowl of the sauce, keeping the bread crisp, allowing you to control the amount of sauce you got, and making it considerably easier to eat. Our consensus favorite on day two was the pepito, which paired impossibly tender braised beef with caramelized onions, jack cheese, black beans and pickled jalapenos. It was a warm and melty mess, with the appeal of an upscale Mexican patty melt, and the jalapenos were key, adding a little zip and enough acid to play off the warm, cheesy, gooey heart of the beast. Great sandwich.

Aztec Chocolate and ChurrosDominic Armato

Desserts are not an afterthought. Chocolate chip cookies with Mexican chocolate (natch) are fine specimens. Thankfully, the folks at LTH had caught onto the pecan shortbread cookie before we went, because it really is a gem, with a light, buttery, nutty flavor and crumbly texture that turns soft as you chew. The focus of the desserts is, of course, the hot chocolates, which are made from cacao beans freshly roasted and ground in-house. They'll be off-putting to some. This isn't sweet milk with chocolate flavoring, which I consider a good thing. These are extremely intense, complex drinks with prominent sour, bitter and spicy components. The one I selected, the Aztec chocolate, was particularly spicy as it worked the ancient chocolate and chiles combination. The only problem I had with it was that there was way too much of it. I know, I know, I'm under no obligation to finish it. But the mug you see here, though narrow, was probably 5" tall, while a demitasse cup would have done it for me. Well, maybe a little more if you dip the also available freshly fried churros. Which I did. And I recommend it.

Pecan Shortbread CookieDominic Armato

The crowds aside, about the biggest complaint I've heard levied against Xoco -- and it's definitely the kind of complaint that only a food nerd could make -- is that you could get these sandwiches elsewhere in the city for almost half the price from somebody who isn't a celebrity. It's... sort of true. There are some places well off the beaten path that make tortas this good. But Xoco provides an unusually dense collection of excellent sandwiches, and if the biggest knock on the place is that you might be able to cobble together a better or comparable experience if you do a ton of research and truck all over town, well... I think that speaks mighty well of what Bayless has done here. I'm reminded of when a local blogger dinged Bayless for being a non-Mexican expert on Mexican cuisine, to which, incidentally, Bayless tweeted one of the best comebacks of all time ("JuliaChild,TKeller?"). Though indelicately stated and definitely obfuscated by what could be most charitably be called sour grapes, there was a good point in there: that Mexican food in Chicago isn't and shouldn't be all about Rick Bayless. There, we agree. There are hordes of Mexican chefs doing great work in the city who don't get a miniscule fraction of the attention that Bayless does (Bayless, I believe, would say the same). But where we differ -- and strongly -- is in whether that should be held against him. As always, the food deserves to be judged on its own merits. And this is some very good food.

449 North Clark Street
Chicago, IL 60654
Tue - Thu7:00 AM - 9:00 PM
Fri7:00 AM - 10:00 PM
Sat8:00 AM - 10:00 PM

August 25, 2010

Maui Dog

Spam Slider Dominic Armato

UPDATE : Maui Dog has closed

I was born and raised in Chicago.

I know, this comes up a lot, and I don't mean to flog it, but trust me... it's quite relevant. Chicago is, of course, the home of the venerable institution that is the Chicago-style hot dog. Chicago is also home to a disproportionate number of hot dog hardliners, from those who eschew any tubular meat composed of anything other than beef, to those who passionately debate the "dragged through the garden" standard versus the "minimal" standard, to those who will throw you out of their stand if you ask for ketchup without also ordering fries. Thing is, Chicagoans have strong opinions about hot dogs. Just as, say, Baltimoreans have strong opinions about crabcakes, or investment bankers have strong opinions about the capital gains tax, or LeBron James has strong opinions about LeBron James. The Chicago-style hot dog, to the denizens of Chicago, is culinary history, civic pride and generations of tradition all rolled into one. Other hot dog styles have been, empirically speaking, proven wrong.

Island DogDominic Armato

Now, as somebody who endeavors to appreciate all manner of foodstuffs for the unique delights they bring to the table, I try my hardest to overcome these types of culinary biases. And I like to think I've met with some success. But this is hard, hard work for somebody so displaced from a beloved hometown with such iconic signature foods. The part of my brain still struggling to come to grips with the fact that I don't live there anymore possesses a powerful instinct to immediately reject any hot dog that doesn't conform to one of the standards I grew up with. If you put a hot dog on a bun, dress it and set it in front of a sheet of yellow construction paper and it doesn't resemble Vienna signage, my reptilian brain might just as easily identify it as a turkey sandwich or a parking meter. Stepping outside of that insular little cognitive box is like sensitivity training for food nerds. Hey, we're all a little prejudiced, but we strive to be aware of those prejudices and move past them. Places like Maui Dog, however, make this a very, very difficult task.

Lava DogDominic Armato

Maui Dog inhabits the space formerly occupied by the dearly departed Ricky's Big Philly, a cheesesteak, burger and dog joint that prepared the usual greasy fare with above average care. Since housing Ricky's, the place has received a bit of a facelift. It's still a little divey, but it's a comfortable and brightly painted dive with kitschy island memorabilia and piped-in ukelele tunes. Since the building didn't come with waves, they had to paint them along the exterior wall. Still, though the breeze is more arid than salty and Indian School Road is no lapping shoreline, it could be said to have a certain Cheeseburger in Paradise kind of charm (and please shoot me if I ever reference Jimmy Buffett again). The thing here, unsurprisingly, is hot dogs and sausages, and that's almost the entire menu right there. There are a couple different types of sliders, tater tots and fries, a cup of chili and Hawaiian ice for dessert, and that's it. The main event is a mix and match system, where you choose your meat (hot dog, brat, polish, etc.), choose a condiment (chipotle garlic mayo, passion fruit mustard, et. al.) and choose some toppings (coconut, pineapple, mango, banana, yadda, yadda) to build your dog of choice. And if you're paralyzed by the options, whether by indecision brought on by the range of toppings or a stroke brought on by the idea of putting mango on a hot dog, there are six pre-designed options to choose from.

Sweet and Spicy DogDominic Armato

I tasted four of them, spanning a few visits, omitting the Hana Dog because it's vaguely reminiscent of a Sonoran dog and I didn't see any sense in trying another stand's specialty, and the Tiki Dog -- a turkey dog -- because... well... I just can't. Immediately evident is that whether Maui Dog is your thing or not, there's a lot of care going into what they're doing. Sausages, even if they aren't the highest-end product, are still quite good and come beautifully charred and blistered at the ends. The buns are a custom recipe, prepared by a local bakery, and they have enough body to stand up to a mountain of toppings without getting in the way. Fries and tots are unremarkable frozen fare and the pineapple was obviously removed from the package and drained, but the sauces are mostly if not all house blends. It's a $4 hot dog stand, not a midrange restaurant. The freshly prepared to pulled out of the package ratio is unusually high, and to be commended, I think.

Sunset DogDominic Armato

The Island Dog is by far my favorite of those I've tried, and the one most likely to make me a devotee of the style. It's a brat, actually, with chipotle garlic mayo, passionfruit mustard, a creamy coconut relish, pineapple and meaty chunks of diced bacon. Just typing that list gives me the jibblies, but it's sweet, salty, sweet, smoky, fatty and sweet... unabashedly all of the things that we look for in guilty pleasures. I could get into this. And feel appropriatley guilty about it. The big flop of the bunch was the Lava Dog, an all-beef dog with chili, Monterey Jack cheese and cole slaw, which was tripped up by some truly terrible chili. Two other solid entries that I enjoyed but wouldn't rush back for were the Sweet and Spicy Dog and the Sunset Dog. The former is ordinarily a bratwurst, but due to some early supply problems they weren't available and I substituted an all-beef dog. It has the same mayo/mustard base of most of the specialty dogs, but is topped with pineapple, diced fresh onion and slivers of pickled bell peppers. It's not that spicy. I think it might be improved if it were more so. But the vinegary peppers are a nice addition to the sweet and creamy milieu of much of the menu. The Sunset Dog, a polish, follows a similar trajectory, substituting pureed mango for its sweet and peperoncini for its spicy. Another one I'd hit for a change of pace.

Tater TotsDominic Armato

Though I didn't try the teriyaki slider (yes, the burgers are sweet, too), the gem of the menu was actually the spam slider, a griddled little slice of spam topped with the aforementioned house mayo, spicy mustard, pineapple and coconut relish. If you're going to go the route of the guilty pleasure, putting sweet, creamy and salty on a processed tube steak, why not take it all the way and put those same toppings on one of the most processed meats known to man? Of course, when one person loves canned meat, it's a guilty pleasure, but when an entire island state loves canned meat, it's culture. So tell yourself it's a cultural experience and have one, because they're pretty darn good. Dessert is Hawaiian ice, (loudly) shaved on the spot and saturated with your choice of thirty-some flavored syrups, so you can get one more sweet fix before walking out the door (judging from the menu, being a diabetic Hawaiian is a brutal existence).

In case it wasn't already evident, I'm still trying to shake my preconceptions, here. I look at these photos and shudder. But I also have to admit that I enjoyed a couple of them quite a bit. And when you're talking burgers and dogs, so many places phone it in that I really do appreciate one that's trying to do it right. Corners are cut here and there, but again, they're $4 hot dogs. For the most part, they're made with great care. Whether or not you'll enjoy them, I think, comes down to whether the concept in general works for you. If you believe that a truly transcendent hot dog experience is characterized by the subtle, garlicky tang and snap of a truly high-quality natural casing hot dog, unsullied by something sweet like ketchup, you're going to have to go through some mental contortions to come to terms with this. But if you like being able to choose from 17 different kinds of sweet, and often choose to eat many of them at the same time, you're going to be very, very happy. Either way, Maui Dog is already filling their niche with aplomb.

Maui Dog
3538 E. Indian School Rd.
Phoenix, AZ 85018
Mon - Sat11:00 AM - 8:00 PM
Sun11:00 AM - 5:00 PM

August 23, 2010

Return to Alinea

Dominic Armato

Whenever we make a trip back to Chicago, my ladylove and I try to make it a habit to head out for one night of fine dining. There's too much fabulous downscale stuff to do more than that, but the once-a-trip shot at the uppermost end of the spectrum always feels about right. This past trip, having already crossed everything off the fine dining must-try list, we decided it was time to head back to Alinea.

Alinea's had a heck of a run since we first visited, back in the early days of Skillet Doux. At the time, Alinea was barely a year old, but there had been so much excitement surrounding its opening that I still felt like I was behind the curve. Of course, it turned out that the early accolades paled in comparison to the avalanche of international attention the restaurant has garnered since, and if it doesn't pull down three stars when Michelin releases its first Chicago guide in a few months, it'll be widely considered a snub.

All of which is to say, what's there to add? Few restaurants have had so many posts and pieces and columns devoted to them over the past few years. MG no longer needs to be explained or justified (at this point, either you think it's valuable or you don't). And Achatz himself is getting ready to move on, with two rather exciting-sounding projects in the works. He sold me on his vision for Alinea four years ago and the only thing I hoped for on this pass was more of the same flavor, excitement and wonder I experienced the first time around. And thankfully, that's exactly what I got. My only regret is that circumstances prevented me from writing about it for a month and a half. I hope you'll forgive me if I'm a little soft on detail at times. 27 courses, many of them multi-parters, is a lot to remember, even the next day.

CocktailsDominic Armato

Cocktails were a welcome way to start the meal, especially since they were almost assuredly a glimpse into Achatz' forthcoming cocktail bar, Aviary. I don't know that the cocktails we received answered any questions, other than to confirm that Achatz isn't going to be bound by convention. But there's nothing unexpected about that. The first was the most drink-like, a hollowed-out passionfruit containing a helping of its pulp and seeds, mixed with a blend of premium rums. As it often the case with Achatz, the flavors were incredibly intense, as though the potency of an entire tropical drink had been compressed into a half a shot. I exaggerate, but not much. This was some bold stuff. Up next, a pisco sour, transmogrified Achatz-style. The pisco, lemon and cane juice were whipped and frozen into a chewy little puff, playing on the egg white component by giving it an almost meringue-like texture and appearance. Moving down the line... a cucumber gimlet? A carefully carved cube of cucumber had been completely infused with gin, topped with a Lilliputian sprig of mint, and into a tiny hollow carved into the top, a drop of rose water. The gin infusion almost seemed to add density and chew to the cucumber, making this a mouthful both in terms of texture and flavor. I'm sure somebody more cocktail-savvy can help me with the second from the rear, which I would've guesses as an Old Fashioned by the bourbon-soaked cherry, except for the cap of vermouth foam. And finally, a truncated kumquat, brimming with rye whiskey and bitters and topped with the most poetic little twist of orange (also kumquat?) you've ever seen. The common theme in all five was first that they were cocktails in edible form, reworked to be a physical, chewable part of the menu rather than a liquid lead-in. Second, I was struck by how enormously potent they were, their flavors reduced and distilled down to pack as much of a wallop as possible into a tiny little bite. It makes me even more curious about what Aviary has in store.

English PeaDominic Armato

ENGLISH PEA - iberico, sherry, honeydew
The first taste of what would ordinarily be considered the menu itself (though the cocktails were individually listed) was one that would not be topped for the rest of the evening. It's a spring salad, of course, thankfully still offered in the summertime, that takes simple flavors and through convoluted manipulations makes them explode in completely unexpected fashion. It started with the peas themselves which, as far as I could tell, were handled in a few different ways. The base of the salad was a cold, creamy, fluffy pea puree that was bordering on frozen and far more airy and light than the term "pea puree" might bring to mind. Think light, fluffy clouds of intense pea flavor accented with fresh pea tendrils and freeze-dried whole peas for textural contrast. Olive oil was in there somewhere, even if I'm at a loss to figure out how, precisely. Iberico ham was powdered and sprinkled over the top, and little spheres of honeydew melon, further touched with a bit of honey (I think), added a fresh and clean sweetness. The punch that put it over the top was the inclusion of tiny sherry vinegar pearls, which would pop and provide a little hit of acidity to cut through the peas whenever you'd hit one. This dish was so incredibly delightful, exploding with flavors and textures in all kinds of pleasurably unexpected ways. It was a beautiful example of how edgy techniques have something to add to the conversation. You never could have tasted anything like this before the advent of MG, and no matter how much a curmudgeonly traditionalist might grumble, the culinary world is better for it. I challenge any MG detractor to sample this dish and tell me that it isn't a pure, beautiful expression of peas, regardless of the technique used to achieve it. Ordinarily I'd worry that a dish this fabulous would set up the rest of the menu for failure, but with Achatz, I felt confident this would not be the case.

LobsterDominic Armato

LOBSTER - lychee, gruyere, vanilla fragrance
The format of our next course was one familiar to me -- tempura-fried theme ingredient skewered on something aromatic and resting in a spidery metallic contraption. Last time, it was sweet potato with bourbon on a cinnamon stick. This time, lobster and cheese, taking us from fresh and light straight to rich and luxurious. Lobster, gruyere and a bit of lychee were all rolled together into a sort of tempura lump, which was stuck on the end of a vanilla bean and fried. It was a wonderful and somewhat unconventional flavor pairing, and as is often the case with Achatz, the tempura angle was indicative of an attention to texture as well as flavor. Using the vanilla bean is not only amusing from a presentation standpoint, but it's also practical, maintaining a light aroma and preventing the vanilla from overwhelming the dish as can sometimes happen with savories. At heart, however, this was still simply lobster and cheese. And delicious.

YubaDominic Armato

YUBA - shrimp, miso, togarashi
Our next course was one of only two that were on our menu four years ago, but I was thrilled to have it again. Not because I loved it last time -- I didn't -- but because this time around, it fulfilled the potential I felt it had last time. Yuba is a byproduct of tofu production, a thick skin that forms on top of soy milk as it's boiled. Here, it's fashioned into a stick, around which is wrapped a shrimp that's rolled in sesame, togarashi and... chive, I think? The stick sits in a creamy miso sauce (mayonnaise-based?), and the serving vessel is such that you can continue dipping as you work your way through the skewer. Last time, it didn't work for me. The yuba had a chewy consistency that didn't feel right, and the sauce lacked a cleanliness that I thought would have helped it. This time around? No such issues. The yuba was impossibly crisp, the sauce was intense and clean, and the dish was absolutely delightful. I loved that something I'd considered a weak point of the previous menu was fully redeemed on the second pass.

Chao TomDominic Armato

CHAO TOM - sugar cane, shrimp, mint
Judging from the next few dishes, Achatz has been spending some time on Argyle. The first, a tiny bite that looks big only because of the framing. This stick of sugar cane couldn't have been more than an inch and a half long, and the moment I saw it, I knew exactly what he'd done. Chao Tom, for those not up on their Vietnamese, is a chunky paste made from shrimp, pork fat, shallots, garlic, palm sugar, fish sauce and sometimes assorted other seasonings, that's then formed around the end of a stick of sugarcane (kind of like an elongated lollipop) and grilled. Typically, you remove the grilled shrimp paste from the sugar cane and wrap it in lettuce leaves with fresh herbs. And if you're like me, you can gnaw on the sugarcane afterwards. What Achatz did here was to turn the dish inside out. He infused the sugarcane with a Vietnamese-flavored shrimp stock, and topped it with little bits of some of the appropriate flavors -- garlic, peanut, mint, chili pepper. In the process, he took one of my favorite parts of the dish -- gnawing on the sugarcane afterwards and sucking out the sweet juice -- and effectively turned that into the dish itself. You pop the entire thing in your mouth, chew and suck on the sugarcane for a while until all of the flavors had been extracted, and then spit it out like chewing gum into the carefully folded napkin provided just for that purpose. Purists may be offended, and it's not a substitute for the traditional dish, but it's a fun way to enjoy familiar flavors and I dug it.

DistillationDominic Armato

DISTILLATION - of thai flavors
No, I didn't accidentally paste in a photo of my water glass. That small amount of clear liquid in the bottom of a cordial glass is the dish, and appearances couldn't be more deceiving. It's a Thai dish, though even further divorced from its traditional roots than the previous course. More accurately, it's a combination of common Thai flavors, distilled down to their very aromatic essence. Each sip is a bracing punch, absolutely exploding with pungent aromatics. I got ginger, garlic, cilantro, chiles... I'm sure there's more. But what made it compelling was that it's all of those familiar aromatics, completely divorced from the usual accompanying flavors. In truth, I'd call it more fascinating than delicious. But to have those components stripped out and isolated like this allows you to really focus in on them and taste them in a way you never have before. As a way to kind of awaken your senses and tune you into the flavors of a Thai meal, I loved it. I might have loved it more if it had been, say, the precursor to an actual Thai meal. An overture, of sorts. But even as presented, it was really quite something.

Pork BellyDominic Armato

PORK BELLY - curry, cucumber, lime
The pork belly dish was one of the more unique (and complex) presentations that I'd like to demonstrate a little better, except for the fact that my camera chose the absolute worst possible night to act up on me. One of the components, the rice wrapper, was actually the first thing to hit our table for the evening, hanging from chopsticks supported by small metal braces, like edible flags flapping in the breeze (except, of course, for the lack of a breeze). A complex (if beautiful) serving piece brought an abundance of accompaniments, as well as two inset metal pieces that fit together like a puzzle to form a stand for the wrapper. Pork belly confit was spooned directly from a hot pan into the wrappers, and we were left to top it with peanuts, ginger, dried shrimp, shallot, coconut, lime and more, before wrapping and eating it. It's messy. And it's a long way from the sort of light, clean flavors that typify the cuisine that inspires it. But it's undeniably delicious. All of the accompanying aromatics and acids are necessary, because the pork belly is impossibly rich and succulent. Where the distillation thrills on an intellectual level, the pork appeals to your basest, animal desires. It's a big ol' fatty, rich and juicy flavor bomb.

King Crab Dominic Armato

KING CRAB - rhubarb, lilac, fennel
This should be a triptych, but the only problem with my camera here was the brain operating it. Or not operating it. Somehow, I completely forgot to take a picture of stage three of the king crab dish. It's a three-stager, you see, though three tiers is more accurate. The first pass arrives atop a large white sphere the size of a big melon, with an indentation in the top. It's a chilled crab and buttermilk panna cotta that plays a little bit like tofu, light and refreshing and accented with rhubarb gelée, chervil jus and an assortment of stunningly beautiful garnishes that are probably gilding the lily a bit, but who cares... it's something to behold. The top half of the sphere then lifts away, to reveal a shallow bowl seated around the equator. Here, it's crab and rhubarb round two, this time room temperature. Morsels of pure crab are done as something of a composed salad, with sliced pickled rhubarb, mung bean sprouts, almond, and... well, things are getting a little fuzzy here. Once completed, the shallow bowl is removed to leave behind the base of the dish, a steamy marriage of crab, braised fennel and rhubarb scented with star anise, that's rich and caramelized, creamy and piping hot. As with any such progression, the whole thing falls apart if one of the three doesn't hit, but they all did, deliciously so, in very different ways. Ingredients taste different at different temperatures, and the character of both the crab and rhubarb played off each other differently on each tier. On top, when cold, the crab is at its sweetest and the rhubarb at its most tart and acidic. And as they warm up, the crab's more seafoody characteristics come out, while the sweetness of the rhubarb comes more to the fore. Three compelling takes on an unconventional pairing, each completely different because of the temperatures involved. I've said it before, but when Achatz plays, he does so with thought and purpose.

OctopusDominic Armato

OCTOPUS - red wine, lavender, fava bean
Restaurants where this could this be one of the more conventional courses offered are few and far between. On the fork, a small octopus tendril, simmered until perfectly tender in red wine. On the fork alongside the octopus is a dollop of red wine pudding, an orange segment and a sprinkle of red chile flake. The fork sits atop a small cup that contains a thin and foamy fava bean puree, which acts almost as a cooling (though it's served warm) chaser to a deliciously acidic and spicy bite of octopus. Here, the combinations of flavors wasn't the least bit unusual, but like so many Achatz dishes, this one was a matter of timing, allowing you to first get the bright and spicy flavors before giving you the creamy, vegetal antidote to calm them down and round them out.

LambDominic Armato

LAMB - reflection of elysian fields farm
It's a farm on a plate. Which probably doesn't sound so appetizing, except that this is Elysian Fields Farm and Achatz is, of course, trying to create something with the flavors of their yield. Rare lamb is skewered on a stalk of spruce (for sniffin', not for eatin'), and a tiny fried nugget to the side is a bit of pure lamb fat. The beast is accompanied by all manner of crops with which it shared the farm. On one side, granola and oats with blackberries give it kind of a crunchy, rustic feel, and they're wrapped in a sort of scallion "grass." Elysian Farms grows corn as well, so there's a small helping of polenta and a puddle of smooth and creamy corn chowder that's also topped with a pile of freeze-dried powdered "popcorn." It's a dish that works on two levels. It's fabulously tasty, which is easy when you're creating a plate full of things that grow together (though rarely done so well). That it also works on a conceptual level, as a reflection of the lamb's life on the farm, is a little bonus. It's downright pastoral.

Hot PotatoDominic Armato

HOT POTATO - cold potato, black truffle, butter
For those who have followed Alinea at all, this is a dish that needs no introduction. It's arguably the restaurant's most iconic dish, and is the only other I'd sampled before. This is also the dish that gave rise to the little (blown out of proportion) kerfuffle regarding Achatz' opinion of people who photograph their food. What he was trying to say is that you can reach a point where it intrudes upon the experience... when three minutes of photography turns Hot Potato, Cold Potato into Warm Potato, Warm Potato. I took about ten seconds. For those who might have missed it, that's a shallow paraffin dish holding a cold potato vichyssoise (as if there's any other kind). At the end of the pin is a chunk of hot potato, topped with a sliver of black truffle and joined by cubes of parmesan cheese and butter. You remove the pin, dropping the hot potato into the cold potato, and slurp it down like you would an oyster on the half shell. The result is a truly classic flavor profile that's made new by the stark temperature contrast of the ingredients.

MaltNutellaBaconDominic Armato

MALT - english toffee, night stalker stout, blueberry
NUTELLA - bread, banana, chocolate
BACON - butterscotch, apple, thyme
Though called out individually on the menu, the next three courses were served together, and are presented as such. This trio was something of a sweet respite to break up the savory portion of the menu. The first is one that's mostly slipped out of memory, though I recall enjoying it. Like the English pea salad, it was a symphony of textures utilizing malt, blueberry, toffee and stout, but it didn't make the same impression upon me that the salad did. The Nutella was quite memorable, even if it wasn't one of my favorites of the night. Dry is operational word, as all of the ingredients seemed like they had been freeze-dried (I use the term as a means of trying to explain the texture, not as an actual guess at the process involved, about which I'm completely clueless), powdered and compressed into a small brick that kind of crumbled when you bit into before slowly rehydrating and melting away. Appropriately for Nutella and banana, it sticks to the roof of your mouth. More novelty than revelatory, I nonetheless enjoyed it. The final dish of the trio was one I was quite tickled to receive, as it was a signature Alinea presentation that we didn't receive on the first pass. It was a thin, meticulously trimmed strip of bacon suspended from a wire. It had been dehydrated or some such so that it almost resembled fruit leather both in terms of texture and translucence. And along the same vein, it was wrapped with a thin strip of apple leather and drizzled with butterscotch and a few flecks of fresh thyme. As a famous Alinea presentation, the novelty was lost on me, but the flavors were impeachable.

CornDominic Armato

CORN - crunchy, sweet, salty
Our next course, one-biter though it may have been, was chock full of novelty and another of the night's favorites for me. This unassuming little nugget was packed with so much flavor, and possessed of such a unique, compelling texture that I absolutely hated to stop at just one. It was an incredible bite, very pure, clean corn flavor slathered with butter, sweetened with a touch of honey and salted. But it was cold. And the texture was like nothing I've had. I hesitate to call it crisp, though that was certainly a part of it. It was almost like a moist, succulent crispness, as some initial resistance gave way to a melty smoothness, like pea-sized bits of butter with a lightly crisped shell. I don't like to pester the staff with questions, but this was one where I simply couldn't help myself. Turns out the kernels are first freeze-dried and then poached in butter, which made perfect sense to me. A killer bite, a completely new and compelling experience, and one of my favorites of the night.

Surf ClamDominic Armato

SURF CLAM - celery, tabasco, oyster cracker
Avert your eyes, New Englanders. It's clam chowder, Alinea-style. You'll be forgiven for regarding this with the same ire usually reserved for certain pinstriped baseball teams, but you know what? As deconstructions go, this was pretty outstanding. The base was a clam custard, rich and creamy and viscous -- the last of which I'd ordinarily consider a bad thing, but clearly the normal rules weren't at play here. Working left to right there were crumbled oyster crackers, brunoise of celery and bacon with celery leaves, tiny little explosive pearls of Tabasco sauce, bay gelée and thyme foam. All deconstruction brings the ingredients into focus. With good deconstructions, those ingredients still work together. It isn't really clam chowder, but it's striking presentation of the same flavors, sacrilicious though it may be.

Oxalis PodDominic Armato

OXALIS POD - whipped sorrel, honey, salt
This is one that sent me scurrying to the internet upon returning home. Turns out I'd actually had oxalis pods before, as part of the squab dish on our first visit in 2006. Naturally, I didn't catch the name then, except that they'd been glazed with sugar and were exceptionally tart. Now that I've had them twice, I really need to pay closer attention next time they pass my lips so that I can describe their flavor more intelligently than "Ooo... sour." In any case, with this dish the crisp and tart oxalis pods sit atop a whipped meringue of sorts made with sorrel, honey, salt and lemon, which is light and sweet. Sweet sorrel meringue, sour oxalis pods. Sweet and sour, of the vegetal variety. I found it highly amusing to see the classic combination played out in the form of herbs and vegetables.

Salad Dominic Armato

SALAD - ranch dressing, soup, powdered
Next up, whimsy and nostalgia, but not without purpose. Ranch dressing isn't something to which I have a deep, emotional connection. But I recognize that for many, that's one of the quintessential flavors of childhood. And though it's been co-opted by the fast food and snack industries, deep down in its heart of hearts, ranch dressing has a light and fresh soul. So it was with Alinea's salad course, which might as well have been titled RANCH DRESSING, since that's clearly where the soul of the dish rests. A small platter arrived, perforations in the bottom, into which were stuck a little gardenful of miniature root vegetables, greens and herbs, almost completely untouched save for a dusting of dehydrated ranch dressing. How could you not get a chuckle out of that? But it gets better. Where was the moisture? Down below. After finishing the salad, the plate was removed to reveal a cool, creamy vichyssoise seasoned with all of the traditional ranch dressing flavors. But the concept, cute as it was, would have been meaningless if not for the genuine culinary purpose it brought to the dish. We often cluck our tongues at beautiful vegetables that have been buried in thick, creamy salad dressings, chiding others (or ourselves) about how they should be able to enjoy the natural flavors of the vegetables. Well, that's precisely what the powdered ranch dressing did, leaving that complementary flavor while taking the focus off the dressing and putting it back on the vegetables. Meanwhile, the soup took a classic set of flavors that's been used to culinarily bankrupt ends in recent years, and managed to put them in a context that allows us to rediscover the true beauty and elegance of a once homey dressing.

SardineDominic Armato

SARDINE - horseradish, pepper cress, tomato
What I remember here doesn't quite jibe with my menu, so I wonder if one of them is faulty (most likely: me). On the sardine and horseradish, we agree. But where the menu relays pepper cress and tomato, I recall caper, chili pepper and, perhaps, brioche or some similar bread element. Though I remember thinking the sardine was quite lovely, it could simply be that the dish didn't make a significant enough impression to burn its components into my brain. Or it could also be that I was too busy ensuring that the protruding bite at the end of a slender skewer, like one of those tiny boom microphones you see on podiums, would end up in my mouth rather than my eye. I must confess, on both occasions I've found this particular piece of Alinea service ware a touch... awkward. But I do remember that it was quite tasty, and even more notable, quite fiery. The chili flakes packed a wallop.

SquabDominic Armato

SQUAB - charred strawberries, lettuce, birch log
Achatz is known for both unconventional serving pieces and the creative introduction of aromas to his dishes, and I think this is one of my favorite examples thereof. The squab comes on half a birch log, that's been heated -- borderline charred -- to release its aroma. The squab itself is tender and delicious, undoubtedly sous vide, but its crisply rendered skin was also to be found elsewhere on the plate. Log. There were powdered strawberries, a number of fresh greens, powdered strawberries, a strawberry chip, a crunchy, crumbled pile of what I believe were hazelnuts. Though I didn't really get any char on the fresh strawberries (wilted seemed a more appropriate term), this was nonetheless a delicious dish, though if given the choice I'll select 2006's take on squab with strawberries.

Black TruffleDominic Armato

BLACK TRUFFLE - explosion, romaine, parmesan
How thrilled I am to have finally sampled this dish. If Achatz can be said to have one signature dish (he can't), the black truffle explosion is it. It's actually a holdover from his days at Trio that he resurrected because people wouldn't stop pestering him about it. When you hear so much about a dish, you somehow feel that your experience with a chef is incomplete until you've tried it. Now, I would caution against building it up in your head as The Most Amazing Dish Ever, because there's room for disappointment. But not much. This is a stellar dish no matter how you cut it, and it isn't hard to see why it's one of the creations that made Achatz' name. Think of it as the European version of xiao long bao. It's a raviolo, topped with a slice of black truffle, puree of romaine lettuce and a shaving of parmesan, and filled with pure, liquid truffle essence. Truffle juice, to be precise (basically, truffle stock). And butter. Like xiao long bao (at least the way I eat them, traditional or no), you pop the dumpling in your mouth and squeeze and warm liquid comes gushing out. Here, it's truffle rather than pork. And though I think I expected a more intense experience, I was delighted by the absolute purity of the flavor. If you've had only the miniscule touches of second-rate truffles that often accompany dishes at restaurant that don't want to charge an arm and a leg for them and aren't quite sure what part of the dish's flavor was truffle, this little dumpling will remove all doubt. Taste this, and you know what a truffle tastes like.

Tournedo Dominic Armato

TOURNEDO - à la persane
Wahey, something's afoot with our final savory course! The tease starts when the flatware is set out. It's pointedly un-Alinea-like, and the accompanying glass is at least as frilly, with endlessly spiraling etched patterns. It looks old, old school, and I immediately start to wonder if this will be something of a preview of Next, Achatz' forthcoming restaurant that promises to serve menus inspired not just by culinary traditions, but by very specific places and times. A fascinating idea that's worthy of its own post and which we won't pursue further in the here and now. But clearly, we're being teased, and when the plate hits the table you find yourself wondering... what's the catch? The catch is that there is no catch. As we were plainly informed by the gentleman who served this course, the kitchen likes to demonstrate every now and again that they aren't just nerdy chefs of science who know emulsifiers and aerators and antigriddles, but who would be lost in a traditional kitchen. Many (if not most) of them are classically trained, or at least well-versed in the techniques thereof, and this dish was described to us as a bit of, "Hey, we can do that too!" What you see here, Tournedo à la Persane, is straight out of Escoffier. Literally. Well, almost. Though Escoffier didn't predate Fanny Farmer by much, he published this particular item well before the type of detailed, measurable, step-by-step recipes that she pioneered and to which we're now accustomed were commonplace. No, Escoffier's recipes, intended for professionals who were classically trained and didn't need someone to fill in the (gaping) holes, were wonderfully brief and even more wonderfully vague, so there's a little room for interpretation. But the basic elements as he suggested in "Le Guide Culinaire" are fully intact, from the beef itself to the peppers stuffed with rice to the grilled tomatoes to the fried bananas to the sauce Chateaubriand. But it's jasmine rice, cooked to a texture that resembles creamy risotto. The beef is first done sous vide, before getting a quick sear prior to service. And one gets the sense that it's a touch lighter and cleaner than Escoffier intended. But still, this is a classic (if uncommon) dish, and very delicious. My only complaint is that it seemed an unnecessary detour. As far as I'm concerned, the chefs and cooks of Alinea have nothing to prove, and I hate to see them pander to their critics in such a fashion.

Lemon SodaTransparencyDominic Armato

LEMON SODA - one bite
TRANSPARENCY - of raspberry, yogurt
And with that, the savory courses were history, and we were into dessert, kicking it off with a pair of simple and light courses. Again, delivered together, posted together. Eating the lemon soda almost felt a little clandestine, a small packet containing a white powder that was to be dropped onto your tongue and dissolved. And it was lemon soda, from the flavor to the effervescence to, I'm told, the artificial sweetener. A fun little start. The transparency appeared to be little more than a glorified fruit roll-up, though taking it to the next level with superior ingredients strikes me as an entirely worthy endeavor. And it differed in other ways too, first in that it was light and crispy, and second in that it had a hint of yogurt flavor. Another fun little treat.

Bubble GumDominic Armato

BUBBLE GUM - long pepper, hibiscus, crème fraîche
The bubble gum course was practically giggle-inspiring for any number of reasons. There's a certain playful ridiculousness to the form, a dessert in gel form intended to be sucked out of an open ended tube that, when filled, is more than a little reminiscent of a cigarette. An homage to bubble gum cigarettes, perhaps? In any case, there are three primary components. The first, on the left, is a hibiscus gel. In the middle, crème fraîche. And on the far end, the main attraction, tapioca bubbles in a gel made with Bubble Yum stock. You read that right. The kitchen at Alinea stocks Bubble Yum. You know what? It's delightful and fun, though it immediately brings to mind two possible disaster scenarios, both of which must have already occurred. First, it's a lot of gel in there. In terms of scale, the tube is less like a cigarette and more like a test tube. And you're meant to quickly suck the entire thing into your mouth. It was a lot for me, and I take some pretty substantial bites. I've no doubt this has ended up in a windpipe or two, which you'd think would result in its sudden expulsion in the other direction. Second, there's the aforementioned giggle factor. Ever laughed just as you were about to take a bite out of something covered with powdered sugar? Now imagine instead that your lips are pressed to the end of a miniature blowgun loaded with a sticky dessert. I'd actually kind of like to be in the dining room when that one happens. Just... you know... uprange.

Earl GreyDominic Armato

EARL GREY - lemon, pine nut, caramelized white chocolate
It really wasn't until the earl grey course that we received a full-fledged dessert, but it was a doozy. I must confess, I don't know half of what was going on here, but it was absolutely stellar. There were pine nuts and earl grey tea in a sort of dry, crumbled texture similar to the Nutella course, but not pressed into a block. There was fennel jam for sweetness and to pick up some of the more complex notes of the tea. The spheres of lemon curd were excruciatingly tart and lemony, and I mean that in a very, very good way. Those beige tendrils, the caramelized white chocolate (how does one do that, precisely?), had some bite and were at once sweet and nutty and rich. And the entire plate was set on top of a pillow that slowly released the scent of earl grey tea as you ate the dish. There was a lot going on, only flashes of which registered on a conscious level, but it really took me away for a moment. This was one of my favorite desserts in quite some time.

ChocolateDominic Armato

CHOCOLATE - coconut, menthol, hyssop
And if the final course didn't upstage the earl grey in terms of flavor, it certainly did in terms of drama. Since our last visit, I've been sort of intentionally avoiding reading anything about specific dishes at Alinea. I knew we'd return, and when we did I wanted to be able to approach it clean and experience the same kind of delight and surprise that I did the first time. There was one dish that snuck through my firewalls, and this was it, and it's kind of too bad. The chocolate course starts almost ominously, as everything is removed from your table and a thin grey silicone (or something like it) tablecloth is spread across it and perfectly smoothed. Then, a dozen or so dishes are lined up on the edge of the table, each containing a different component. What followed shortly thereafter was something I'd read about and expected. What I didn't expect was who would be doing it. Up strolls the man himself, Grant Achatz, and while I don't mean to make a huge deal of out of it, it's pretty freaking cool when the star of the show personally prepares your last course tableside. Or tabletop, as the case may be. You could call the tablecloth a canvas, because after a brief greeting (there are a lot of tables and he has a kitchen to tend to, after all), Achatz starts painting. He sets out glass tubes a couple of inches wide and pours in a thin chocolate pudding. He takes bowls of sauces, chocolate, coconut milk, menthol cream, and starts drizzling and brushing and smearing and streaking until a pattern starts to emerge. Rows of dots of liquid of increasing size go down in a circle, as physics would ordinarily dictate, but slowly reform themselves into squares, presumably due to some curious properties of the tablecloth. He scatters about small piles of crumbled chocolate cookie and nuggets of some manipulation of coconut that can only be described as rubbery. Crunchy sheets of crystalized menthol, semi-spheres of coconut mousse that hold their shape at room temperature and sprigs of anise hyssop are all that's left before the centerpiece arrives, a loaf of chocolate mousse that's been whipped to a light and airy consistency and then somehow frozen in that state. Set in the center of the table, it cracks and crumbles apart with a sharp strike from a spoon, spilling not only shards of frozen chocolate mousse but a wave of mist from what I assume was the liquid nitrogen used to freeze it. As the mist drifts across the table, Achatz removes the glass tubes leaving behind cylinders of chocolate pudding, still warm, that now maintain their shape. This Hollywood blockbuster of a dessert makes flambé look like something a couple of grade school kids threw together with a camcorder, and you're left dumbfounded, but with a spoon, since you'll be eating your dessert right off the table -- the entire table -- because it's completely covered. The flavor? Well, it's excellent, and if it's somewhat secondary to the show, it's no reflection on the food. The chocolate is rich, the coconut is powerful, the menthol is downright bracing, and the myriad textures combine in different ways with every bite, since there are so many elements to choose from as you mix and scoop and taste. It's quite a finish.

I wondered, going in, if I'd be less excited the second time around now that some of the novelty has worn off. And I was a little surprised to find that this wasn't at all the case. If anything, having seen firsthand just how surprising and delightful a meal at Alinea can be, I approached the second trip even more prepared to go along for the ride. There are a few things that struck me on this second trip. The first is that there seems to be an increasing emphasis on texture, and not just individual textures, but complex combinations of textures. Of course we all recognize that texture in food is important, but I think we often underestimate just how pleasurable exciting textures can be, and I love to see Achatz paying so much careful attention to this aspect of cooking. Second, I was practically dumbfounded by the consistent quality of the menu from start to finish. Of course there were courses that I enjoyed more than others, and some that will drop out of my memory before long, but in 2006 there were definitely a few dishes that I didn't especially enjoy, and a couple that I considered flat-out failures. It didn't bother me a bit. As I saw it, when you're eating 20+ courses of highly experimental cuisine, there are bound to be a few misses. But on this pass, there wasn't a single dish that I didn't enjoy. Not one. And I find that truly remarkable. Lastly, and this one's a little nebulous, but when we visited in 2006, more of the dishes seemed to be simple exercises, almost like proof of concept dishes. This time around, a great many dishes seemed to take on added complexity. And while I would never have described the techniques used for our first pass as gimmicky, many of those techniques seemed to be integrated in even more mature ways this time around, contributing to a larger picture rather than simply existing on their own. I marvel at the complexity of some of these dishes, and I marvel even more at the way that complexity is focused on achieving an end -- more importantly, a delicious end. Because otherwise this is simply a goofy experiment rather than a true culinary laboratory, which is what I believe it to be. I am, once again, thrilled to have been witness to it.

1723 N. Halsted Street
Chicago, IL 60614
Dinner Wednesday through Sunday

August 13, 2010


Soupy Center Dominic Armato

Okay, let's get this out of the way up front: This pizza is NOT undercooked.

I hope you'll forgive the curt welcome, but the opening of a new Neapolitan pizza place inevitably precipitates one of my greatest culinary pet peeves, and we can't go any further until we get it out of the way. Once the restaurant is launched, it's usually less than 24 hours before the first complaint hits that the center of the pizza is undercooked. So please allow me to assure you, this is a feature, not a bug. Traditional Neapolitan pizzas usually have a center that is... moist. Perhaps wet. Downright soupy, even. It's supposed to be that way, and devotees of the style dig it.

You don't have to! There's always room for personal preference. And personally, I adore the soupy center. I was a little taken aback the first time I had a pizza of this nature in Italy, but I quickly grew to love the fact that a Neapolitan pizza is like a continuum of textures, from the charred and bubbly mesosphere to the bready stratosphere to the soft and tender troposphere right down to the hot, molten core, each section interacting with the toppings in a different way. Uniformity can be boring. This is pizza evolution at work.

Which isn't to say that I put forth Neapolitan pizza as the pinnacle of pizza technology, the Olympian ideal, the One True Pie. I merely think it important to recognize and respect it for what it is. See, when it comes to pizza styles, I like to think of myself as a religious pluralist. Folks from Italy, New York, Chicago and New Haven (Californians seem to recognize they won't be winning this fight) can duke it out, each declaring their style the purest of form and flavor, but they're all wrong. I say there are many paths, each of which can lead one to crusty nirvana in its own beautifully nuanced way. And yet, particularly when dealing with a food as historically significant as Neapolitan pizza, I think there's room for the dogmatic approach, which is exactly what 'Pomo provides.

The OvenDominic Armato

'Pomo Pizzeria Napoletana is the first pizzeria in the valley to attain VPN certification. VPN is shorthand for Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, and if you want to see culinary dogma at work, you need look no further. It's an Italian trade association devoted to preserving the strictest traditional interpretation of Neapolitan pizza, and their standards are, shall we say, stringent? Peeking at the basic guidelines, they don't look too onerous -- wood burning oven, all natural ingredients, hand-worked dough -- it seems like a lot of places might qualify. But when you dig a little and get into the nitty gritty, it's immediately evident that these guys aren't screwing around. Standards range from the mathematically precise ("The central part should be 0.3 cm thick, and the crust 1-2 cm thick.") to the "we know it when we see it" vague ("The pizza, at the end of the cooking process, will emanate a characteristic aroma, at once perfumed and fragrant."), and they're numerous and lengthy. Hey, they're preserving history here. Do it right or don't bother.

Insalata RomanaDominic Armato

As such, it's no surprise that the VPN logo, a Pulcinella with a pizza peel standing in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, is prominently featured all around the restaurant. If you've got it, you flaunt it. The room is otherwise very modern, and might have crossed the line into stark if not for an enormous sepia tone photograph of a bustling Neapolitan street that completely covers one huge wall. The menu is, predictably, focused on pizzas of which there are a score (even if the VPN only officially recognizes two), but there is a smattering of antipasti, panini, insalate, dolci and a tiny section reserved for one Neapolitan specialty that I'll get to in a moment. The only savory item I sampled other than the pizza was their Insalata Romana, essentially a Caesar (dig the name, but it was invented in Mexico, amici) which is perfectly well done if not especially notable. The main event, however, is something that demands attention.

Bufala D.O.P.Dominic Armato

I first tried their Bufala D.O.P., precisely because it's as traditional as they come. The dough's hand-pulled, it's sparingly dressed with only San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo milk mozzarella from Naples, olive oil and fresh basil, and into the oven it goes for all of 90 seconds or so (hey, the oven's pushing 1000°). What comes out isn't the most glimmering example of a Neapolitan pizza I've had, but it's a solid addition to the ranks. Neapolitan pizza is a minimal foodstuff, and it lives or dies on the technical mastery of the bread, and the quality of the toppings. The former could use a little work. There's good flavor here, but a little more blister and char around the edges is called for, I think. Every oven, particularly one built by hand in Naples and shipped overseas, has its own character and can take time to master, which may be the case here. The toppings, however, were impeccable, and obviously a point of pride. The bottom of the menu has a section that states the provenance of their primary ingredients. They're of excellent quality, and while I've heard a couple of reports from folks I trust of pizzas that fell a little flat (consistency issues early on, perhaps?), mine popped. Some rather public comments were recently made regarding tomatoes that are "fresh from the can," but a pizza like this demonstrates that anybody who takes a shot at high-quality canned tomatoes does so from a place of ignorance.

Pizza MastunicolaDominic Armato

Less successful for me was the Don Alfonso which, with the addition of salami, sausage and roasted bell peppers, was starting to get a little unwieldy. This is a form that tends to strain under the weight of too many toppings, and even if it hadn't quite tipped the scales, this one was well on it way. Though I didn't try, I wonder if some other offerings on the menu that appear to be even busier may go careening over the edge. Going in the other direction was another I rather enjoyed, the Matsunicola, which is brushed with strutto (pork lard!) before being hit with a dash of garlic, Pecorino Romano, fresh basil and sea salt. With no tomato and only a dash of hard cheese, it puts even more focus on the crust, but the minimal toppings pack a whallop, bringing a great salty pungency to a very respectable piece of bread. Plus, y'know... pork fat.

Pizza FrittaDominic Armato

One thing that caught my eye on the first pass and drove me to do a little research before a second visit was the section of the menu labeled "Pizza Fritta," or fried pizza. I confess to having been completely unfamiliar with it before a few weeks ago, but it turns out that pizza fritta is a Neapolitan pizza variant, wherein the toppings are encased both top and bottom in the bread, sealed around the edges, and deep-fried. Naturally, I had to give that a try on the second pass, and I selected the Vesuvio, which added a little provola and salami to the basic tomato and mozzarella. Unfortunately, I have absolutely no frame of reference here, but while I'm sure I'll be trying pizza fritta again, it probably won't be at 'Pomo. It's respectable enough, I suppose, but it lacks any significant fried character other a more pronounced oily flavor, and isn't at all the crispy, hot, melty thing I imagine it could be. From what I understand it's rather popular in Naples, so I have to believe there's more to it than this.

TiramisuDominic Armato

It's now been over a year since we've had our fix, so my ladylove pounced on the tiramisu for dessert. Carminantonio needn't fear this competition (especially since they're 2000 miles away), but it's positioned in the right place, a firm and creamy slice of dessert rather than soupy pastry in a cup. Actually, a little more moisture would have helped, I think, but it was still respectable if unremarkable. The pizza is what you're here for. And speaking of that pizza, I have to say I'm pleased. There's definitely room to improve, which I hope they'll continue to do. But particularly when (at least to my knowledge) there aren't any other local offerings that wouldn't give the VPN inspectors the vapors, 'Pomo's pizza will definitely scratch the itch for somebody who craves or wishes to learn about this particular little subset of pizza cookery. Of course, they had me with the soupy center.

'Pomo Pizzeria Napoletana
The Borgata
6166 N. Scottsdale Road
Scottsdale, AZ 85253
Sun - Thu11:00 AM - 9:00 PM
Fri - Sat11:00 AM - 10:00 PM

August 03, 2010

Easy as ABC

We had ourselves a bit of a dustup here in the Arizona food community yesterday, and I feel compelled to post about it, first because it touches on a range of interesting issues, and second because there’s a discussion that should be had here and Phoenix lacks an LTH-style board where this can really be discussed intelligently and in-depth by anybody who’s interested. <-- Not anymore!

For those who are not in Phoenix, or for those who might have missed it, there was a very public spat on Yelp involving Amy’s Baking Company and a rather prolific and respected local food blogger/poster. I won’t repost the exchange in its entirety because it’s lengthy, but it can all be found at yesterday’s Chow Bella post on the subject. The quick summary is that Joel L., a fellow who writes about food an awful lot, had an awful experience at Amy’s Baking Company both in terms of food and service. After posting an obviously frustrated and angry review on Yelp (a rarity for Joel), Amy herself posted a response that was... colorful. It involved straight name-calling, accusations of working for the competition, overblown defense of the food... it really just needs to be read. Chow Bella picked it up, and what followed was the usual side-picking and grandstanding. But as I say, this whole situation touches on a number of important issues in very interesting ways.

First off, in the interest of full disclosure, I know Joel. He’s a friend. He was one of the food folks who was incredibly kind to welcome me to Phoenix with open arms, he’s always given the impression that he knows his stuff, and he’s an enthusiastic booster of the local restaurant scene and a champion of underappreciated places, which I love. All-around good guy who knows his food, evidenced by the fact that when everything blew up, he issued one final firm but classy response, walked away from the ABC controversy, and attempted to make something positive of the situation by turning the conversation to restaurants that “get” social media. And, you know, I write a food blog. So that’s where I’m coming from.

That said, you didn’t have to be a friend of Joel’s or an amateur food writer to be shocked by Amy’s response. With a couple of exceptions, assessments thereof ranged from amazing to unconscionable to just plain stupid, with even most of the sympathetic ears conceding that it was way out of line. But Amy’s response and the ensuing fracas raised a couple of different issues.

First, there’s the issue of factual inaccuracy in online reviews. Though most of the people following this story aren’t in the position to know Joel as I do, he doesn’t make things up when he writes about restaurants. We all bring our own perceptions to the table, particularly when it comes to relaying contentious situations, but what Joel posted was an attempt to accurately convey a bad restaurant experience. I suspect part of the problem was that Amy took some of his speculation a statements of fact. Now, I speculate a lot. If a dish didn’t work, I’ll take a guess as to what might’ve happened in the kitchen to cause that. And I try to make it clear that this is speculation on my part because I’m not in the kitchen and I don’t know. And while reading Joel’s post, I never thought he was actually suggesting Amy uses store-bought dough for her pizza, but that’s how she read it, and that would explain in some part, I think, the strength of her reaction. I think it telling that Joel’s characterization of the service he received has gone largely unchallenged. Of course, the wise move for any restaurateur when reading a post that misidentifies an ingredient or a preparation method or some such would be to issue a polite correction. After all, regardless of how it was prepared, it doesn’t change the fact that Joel thought the pizza was lousy – the most important part that’s strictly a matter of opinion not subject to factual scrutiny (despite Amy’s insistence that her pizzas are empirically “amazing”). You have to search pretty hard to find somebody who doesn’t think this was a botched response.

More interesting to me, however, is that it has once again raised the issue of the propriety of online criticism, particularly when it comes to negative reviews. www.azvibe.com, via twitter (I don’t know who you actually are... drop me a line and I’ll update!), suggested that Joel shouldn’t have been posting something negative after one visit, and that Michele Laudig shouldn’t have bumped the conflict on Chow Bella, suggesting that they have the power to make or break a business and should be more careful about what and how they write. And while I appreciate the sensitivity and thought in those remarks, I think the issue is a non-starter for the simple reason that it was Amy who chose to elevate this spat in a very intentionally public and vocal way. Without the response, it’s a one-star review on Yelp. Few restaurants don’t have them (you can’t please everybody). And whether you feel Joel’s post was correct and/or appropriate, it was background noise that Amy intentionally elevated to a very public spat. The suggestion that Laudig started a “witch hunt” is, I think, way out of line, and one that would upset me more if the accompanying comments weren’t, as I say, measured and thoughtful. But even if you feel that Amy’s response doesn’t figure into the equation when considering the propriety of the Chow Bella post, I think the notion that Joel should not have posted after one visit and that Laudig shouldn’t have propagated the story is wrong for one simple reason. It’s an old media response to a new media world.

This isn’t a “Rah Rah New Media!” post. I simply wish to make the point that the way people consume criticism has changed, and the rules along with it. Though her response was vastly overblown (paranoid is the operative word here), Amy embodies the fear of countless restaurant owners. And really, that fear must be terrible. People’s livelihoods are on the line, they’re scared that a bad online writeup is going to sink them, they’re angered when they feel that those who are writing are unfair or don’t know what they’re talking about, and I understand and sympathize with that fear and anger. But there are a few critical factors they need to understand:

Negative Reviews From Non-Professionals Are Not A New Phenomenon
Diners did not start talking about restaurants with the advent of the internet. Long before the web existed, people would routinely visit restaurants, have a single meal, and then tell everybody about it. It was called word-of-mouth (quaint, eh?), and it went from person to person without the benefit of transparency or the opportunity for correction. People have always talked about restaurants. It’s just that restaurateurs are now seeing it for the first time. And while it may be jarring or difficult to read, and is sometimes misinformed or mean-spirited, it’s important to remember that this is not new. What’s new is restaurants’ ability to see and react to this criticism, and for a poorly-informed opinion to be refuted by a number of others. This is a good thing, and it leads me to item two:

Online Criticisms Do Not Exist In A Vacuum
Many restaurateurs get bent out of shape by a bad online review. And that’s completely understandable. But unlike word-of-mouth or a traditional media review, a post on Yelp or Chowhound is bracketed by context. LOTS of context. You can’t please everybody. No matter how wonderful your restaurant is, some customers will leave dissatisfied. Everybody makes mistakes, and everybody has a bad night... except for maybe Thomas Keller (that’s a joke). Bad reviews are not just inescapable, they’re normal. What matters is the body of online commentary. If you run a great restaurant and some idiot who doesn’t know what he’s talking about slams you, it doesn’t matter because 20 other people will be lined up to talk about how that guy is wrong and your restaurant is wonderful. What’s more, what about all of the unwarranted five-star reviews from folks who will proclaim everything yummo provided it looks pretty and doesn’t contain broken glass? It goes both ways. The fact is that when you have the large sample of feedback that the internet provides, these outliers are statistical aberrations. Online reviews aren’t absolute, they’re data points. Some of them deviate from the mean more than others. Which brings us to item three:

The Online Dining Public Understands All Of This
We understand that there will be a range of views. We understand that somebody who posts a bad review might have caught a bad plate or had a bad day or have no idea what he’s talking about. We understand that these posts aren’t perfectly objective, are almost always highly personal and rarely come from a broad base of experience with the restaurant. But while a traditional newspaper or magazine critic would visit two or three or four times to provide that broad base of experience, internet criticism provides that second visit, and the third visit, and the fifth visit, and the 27th visit, and the 131st visit. It’s just that they’re all done by different people. It's 2010 and the "It's on the internet so it must be true!" era is long gone. We’re perfectly capable of examining a body of information, reading critically and parsing that information ourselves.

None of which is to suggest that people who post online -- be it via comment, blog or review site – are in any way excused from the basic tenets of common decency and honesty. It behooves us to be as honest and as accurate as possible in what we write and, perhaps more importantly, how much experience with the restaurant in question informs our opinions. But applying the rules of traditional media restaurant reviews to new media is like trying to operate the NFL by the rules that were in place in the 1930s. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with those rules, it’s just that the game has changed. If a diner goes and has a bad experience, even if it was an isolated event, that bad experience happened. Other posts may provide context or illuminate it as such, but why should that bad experience be negated simply because it wasn’t the norm? If it really is a rarity, then other posts and comments will refute that experience. If it isn’t, others will back it up. And this new world of online criticism affords restaurants the amazing opportunity to see that feedback in real time and address it, both internally and publicly, rather than dying a slow death wondering why nobody comes back.

It also isn’t to suggest that there isn’t still a very important role for traditional restaurant critics, though I think their role is changing. These days, I think they’re less valuable as reviewers. It was always the case that a high-falutin’ restaurant critic wouldn’t necessarily reflect the tastes of the once-a-month dining public. But if Yelp (as much as I dislike Yelp) can provide the average person a better sense of whether he’ll like a particular restaurant, there’s no substitute for the experienced critic as an educator, and that’s where I hope more traditional critics will shift their focus.

But that last is a bit of a tangent. Circling back, what we saw yesterday is one of the uglier examples of growing pains in the internet era. But I think the important thing is that they’re growing pains, and as more restaurateurs come to understand the benefits of online criticism and see that the same system that gives them nightmares can also give them cover, I hope we’ll see fewer situations like the one we saw yesterday. The bottom line is that when every diner could be a reviewer, it’s a scary thing. But all that’s going to happen is that the online discourse will, as the number of reviews grow, capture an increasingly accurate snapshot of what the public really thinks of a restaurant. In this manner, the only restaurants that should fear the internet are bad restaurants. Or perhaps horribly misunderstood restaurants. But that’s all a matter of opinion.