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November 15, 2011

Next - Childhood

Peering over the table... Dominic Armato

NOTE : A great deal of Childhood's appeal lies in surprise. If you expect to attend, I would recommend not reading about it until afterwards. That is, unless you're the "read the last page of the book first" type.

When you're a chef who's known for revolutionary culinary technique, why not take a revolutionary approach outside the kitchen as well?

In actuality, "revolutionary" is probably too strong a word (and, to be fair, not one that I believe they've used themselves), but even if Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas' follow-up to Alinea weren't already a shoo-in for a media free-for-all, they took it a notch further by taking a very unconventional approach to fine dining with Next. For those who don't typically follow restaurant news (or food nerds who are just waking up from long-term comas), Next takes the "dinner as theater" metaphor and extends it beyond the dinner itself. Achatz and Chef de Cuisine Dave Beran design a themed menu, and rather than taking reservations, the restaurant sells tickets in three month stretches. As the three month run comes to a close, a completely new menu with a new concept is designed, the restaurant switches over to a new production, and tickets once again go on sale (disappearing, incidentally, within minutes). Next opened with "Paris 1906," featuring French haute cuisine dutifully recreated with historical precision in the style of Escoffier. This was followed by "Thailand," a creative exploration of Thai cuisine that confused some by failing to stay inside the chrono cuisine box drawn by the teaser trailer released before the restaurant's opening. And so, for their third production, the team wanted to do something to put to bed the notion that they were going to let themselves be bound by expectations. Enter "Childhood."

Left out last night...Dominic Armato

Arriving at 5:30 for a chef's table reservation, it seemed for a split second that our evening had started with a shocking service gaffe. The table was cluttered with what appeared to be used glasses, a half-smoked cigar lie in an ashtray, and the New York Times crossword puzzle sat completed under somebody's pair of glasses. But it took just a moment to realize that dinner had already begun. We'd been cast in the role of kids peering over the table, which was littered with detritus from the grown-ups' shindig the night before and the signs of their recovery the morning after. Even if we weren't already in a playful mood (though our crowd back in Chicago is a wonderfully playful lot), sneaking the last sip from the martinis, Manhattans and Bloody Marys left behind made us a little giddy and perfectly primed for the meal to follow.

PB&JDominic Armato

So much of childhood is discovery, and rarely is the discovery process more exciting than when eagerly tearing the paper off a present. So they gave us one -- an edible one, in a small box carefully wrapped -- and warned us that even if it's sometimes the best way to figure out what's inside, shaking it wasn't recommended. The gift inside was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, reimagined in Achatz' modernist style. Spherical, slightly smaller than a golf ball (or, perhaps more appropriately, slightly larger than a shooter marble), it was a crisp tempura shell that, when eaten in one bite, gave way to a gush of liquefied roasted peanuts and pomegranate jelly, evoking the childhood classic but spinning it for older taste buds. It was packaged with a handful of crushed, salty roasted peanuts mixed with bits of a denser form of the jelly, and for lack of utensils, the only reasonable way to eat it was to pick up the box and throw it back as one might to capture the last bits in the bottom of a bag of potato chips. Or, as one of my dining companions discovered, dumping it out onto the wrapping paper and rolling it into a makeshift funnel was simple and effective, the beauty, of course, being that they'd already put us in a frame of mind where this seemed a perfectly acceptable thing to do in an upscale restaurant. I've no doubt this was precisely their aim.

Chicken Noodle Soup (sans soup)Dominic Armato

An enormous bowl was next to hit the table, in the center of which was positioned a small and artful tangle of carrots, shallots, celery leaves, herbs and noodles. Though not pictured, a dark, rich chicken soup joined the bowl shortly thereafter, making for a noodleless chicken noodle soup, wherein the "noodles" were also made from chicken. Though I've enjoyed noodles composed of proteins done less scientifically (and, frankly, with more flavor) elsewhere, it was still a delightful and delicious bowl of soup, elevated by means of technique and wit. I particularly loved the choice to use a rather large spoon and a bowl the size of a dartboard, thereby gently reinforcing the illusion that we were kids sitting at the dinner table, leaning over a massive, steaming bowl of soup that seemed too big to finish, even if we'd somehow find a way.

Art Class with Chef BeranDominic Armato

Childhood's Fish and Chips has gotten quite a bit of play online for its playful presentation, but dining at the chef's table brought a little something extra to the experience. First to be set down was a glass filled with paint brushes, followed by a large, square plate covered with small bowls bearing dish components and Elmer's glue bottles repurposed for use with sauces. Though it seemed clear this course would be a hands-on experience, we wondered precisely what was in store when one of the restaurant's minions tacked up a large sheet of paper on the far side of the glass separating our table from the kitchen. We quickly discovered the answer, however, as a gentleman in a chef's coat came strolling in armed with a set of dry erase markers. Art Class with Chef Beran was in session.

Fish & Chips Before......and AfterDominic Armato

In the style of Bob Ross, he walked us through the process of creating our edible masterpieces, laying out pickled cucumber waves and malt vinegar sea foam, covering our tartar sauce shore with tempura crumb soil and planting it with little herb sprigs, and painting in a Meyer lemon coulis sun and balsamic reduction fisherman, who hauled in the final component -- brought in fresh and hot -- a tender piece of walleye (a childhood fish of the chefs) caught in a fried potato net. This was the only dish of the evening where I felt the food suffered a bit at the hands of the presentation. The balance and freshness of the ingredients would have been better realized with a more traditional plating, delivered straight from the kitchen. But it was still a delicious dish, and so much fun that I didn't mind the minor tradeoff for a moment.

Mac & CheeseDominic Armato

The tour of iconic childhood dishes (iconic to an American Midwesterner growing up in the '80s, at least) continued with Mac and Cheese, brought to the table in a glass cylindrical mold and released to ooze into an army of miniscule accoutrements. The mac itself was another mature take on a kid favorite, with a thick, rich cheese sauce -- cheddar and manchego, perhaps? -- that was unusually intense and a great deal sharper than most. The accompaniments were a mixed bag, but all fun. The fried noodle and cheese crisp both made for lovely textural contrasts. The prosciutto and arugula roll was a good pair, as was the tomato pulp, even if the latter was so small as to be all but undetectable unless mixed with half a noodle. Less conventional was the "hot dog rock," produced by somehow transmogrifying the fat rendered from hot dogs. It's been much maligned in some quarters, and I confess, is a little jarring in an otherwise fairly refined dish, and I certainly wouldn't want to eat a plateful of it, but for a single taste I found it enjoyable.

A Walk In The ForestDominic Armato

If dinner up until this point could be described as delicious and diverting, with this dish it took a turn, if only briefly, into stunning. Autumn -- or A Walk in The Forest, as the chefs have come to refer to it -- was a test of our servers' forearm strength, as it arrived in half of a hollowed-out log covered with a glass plate. Beneath, rustic aromatics like hay, apple and pumpkin lay over searing hot rocks, creating a smoky scent (not to mention actual smoke -- the dish was technically on fire). Above sat a chaotic and yet artful jumble of ingredients that I couldn't possibly catalogue in their entirety without a scorecard, but which included things like fried leeks, maitake mushrooms, polenta, broccoli and other vegetables and berries all manipulated for maximal textural impact. Because I'm not even certain of everything that was contained within (if I hadn't been so lost in it I might've thought to ask), the best I can do is to say that it made me feel like a deer that had found a really fabulous bush to munch on. It was as though on this walk in the woods, I'd scooped up a handful of the forest floor -- leaves and berries and twigs and soil and mushrooms -- and popped it in my mouth, only to discover with delight that it was intensely pleasurable. The textures, aromas and flavors somehow managed to capture the forest, or at least how I imagine it, but in a way that was palatable to humans rather than wildlife, making it possible to experience the woods through the one sensory path that's not usually an option. Though it's been a polarizing dish on the intertubes, for me it was without question the most impressive one of the night.

HamburgerDominic Armato

You never know when a kitchen accident is going to turn out to be serendipitous. Achatz tells the story of one time back at Alinea, when Curtis Duffy took a piece of sous vide short rib and seared it off on the flattop only to discover that it tasted like hamburger. That wouldn't work for Alinea, but years later it turned out to be the perfect treatment of beef for a deconstructed modernist hamburger, complete with cornichon chips, gelled mayonnaise, an odd sort of sesame bun paste that was splayed over most of the plate, and assorted other manipulated accoutrements. Outside of this context, it's no substitute for a hamburger, to be sure. But it was a delight to eat, quite delicious, and though eerily reminiscent of a Big Mac (the sesame seeds, perhaps?), the flavors managed to simultaneously be nostalgic and refined.

Brussels SproutsDominic Armato

The side dish for our hamburger didn't come with an admonishment to eat our vegetables, but the message was clear. Tender Brussels sprout cups were arranged artfully and (mostly) filled with decidedly adult fillings. The Brussels sprout slaw was creamy and amped up the sprout flavor. The bacon jam and hollandaise were both rich and delicious, one smoky and sweet, the other lightly tart and refined. Chestnut puree was the least conventional of the five, though appreciated, and the title of most decadent went to a dark truffle mousse, earthy and pungent. My sole criticism would be that the sprouts themselves had a good deal of the flavor cooked out of them, pushing them out of the spotlight. I suppose it could be argued that this is the ideal strategy to get the little ones to eat their greens. But I'm not little, and for me, I wish their natural flavor had come through a little more.

Jello MoldDominic Armato

Let me assure you that this photo doesn't convey the enormity of the Jello mold. It was easily ten or twelve inches in diameter, which would be entirely appropriate for a table of six if it were, say, cherry or lime. But no, this mold was aspic flavored with game stock, decorated with an inlaid cream flower, and studded with chunks of foie gras and poached pheasant. It came with slices of toast and a small plate of accompaniments -- salty walnuts, endive, microgreens and shallot jam -- but to share this between six people was to eat an enormous helping of aspic. Or in my case, three of them. I couldn't bear to let so much of it go back to the kitchen. None of which is to throw my companions under the bus. They did yeoman's work. But this mold, delicious as it was, could have easily served a dozen. Still, with a dark game flavor, sweet creamy foie and cool, juicy pieces of pheasant, I find it hard to rail against its formidable size.

ST:TNG... booya.He started it!Dominic Armato

The lunchboxes have gotten a good deal of press, and I daresay the luck of the draw netted me an excellent one. I learned after the fact that Flash Gordon was also in the house, complete with Sam J. Jones' visage, and it's probably just as well that I didn't get that one. My heart might've exploded with pure glee. But in any case, the lunchbox contained an assortment of goodies, none of which were especially photogenic, but all of which were tasty to varying degrees. The apple fruit roll-up was a little surprising in its conventionality, and the funyun was a less artificial-tasting version of the popular snack. The beef jerky was enjoyable, with a soy-based flavor, and we received a chocolate and hazelnut (I believe?) snack pak, which was simple and delicious, though I wish we'd gotten the parsnip version that was axed after the first week and a half. In truth, while an awful lot of fun, the lunchbox was more an exercise in whimsy than refinement. Or it would have been if not for the truffled oreo, which was shocking both in the intensity of the truffle flavor, and also in just how delicious it was. I would have swapped my thermos full of alcoholic berry drink for another in a heartbeat. Incidentally, while I don't imagine it would have been very practical, part of me wishes we'd all received different treats, to encourage trading.

Pixy Stix and Bubblegum FloatDominic Armato

With the lunchbox acting as a sort of transitional course, we then moved straight into dessert, starting with pixy stix and a bubblegum float. The pixy stix came in three flavors -- pomegranate, strawberry and one I don't recall -- and they weren't quite as sweet as commercial pixy stix, more powdery than granulated. This kept the overpowering sweetness of their inspiration in check, but it also made it a little more difficult to get them out of the tube. No matter. The real star of this course was the float. Made with an exceptionally sweet but wonderfully flavored bubblegum soda and a gorgeous ice cream made with crème fraîche. I'm neither a fan of overly sweet soda nor of bubblegum, but the float was fabulous and I found myself wishing it were twice its size.

Foiesting and DonutsDominic Armato

There's a little bit of genius in using electric beaters as a utensil for a childhood menu, and I can't think of a more apt juxtaposition of childhood and adult experience. The apple cider donut holes were excellent, fried hot and dusted with sugar and cinnamon. But there can be no mistaking the star of this plate. Dripping from the beater in the background is Next's "foiesting," a sweet, thick and creamy foie gras puree. Foie in a dessert context is nothing new, but there's something beautifully minimal and decadent about this, licking sweet, rich foie from the beater, getting it on your nose and cheeks, and generally making a sticky mess of yourself with a precious and expensive ingredient.

CampfireSweet Potato PieDominic Armato

When the lights are dimmed that usually means fire, and Chef Beran brought in a small campfire set on slate and set it alight. The logs were sweet potato wedges, made dark by poaching them with blue corn, and fueled by white clumps of powdered alcohol. And as the fire burned, the table grew quiet. I'm not sure whether the occasional crackle and pop were made by the fire or my imagination, but somehow it felt like a summer campfire just for a moment. Once the lights came up, back on our plates were chunks of crumbled, candied dough acting as a stand-in for pie crust, a fabulous bourbon ice cream, light vanilla marshmallows, and some manner of light fruit puree. We added the logs, scooped on some charred powdered alcohol (which bore a remarkable resemblance to toasted marshmallows in flavor), and topped it all with a drizzle of warm butterscotch meant to resemble Werther's candies. It would have been a wonderful dessert even if served in a conventional manner, but the presentation really was an awful lot of fun.

Hot CocoaDominic Armato

To round out the meal, we received a simple cup of hot cocoa. Not drinking chocolate, not spiced Mexican dark chocolate, not chile spiked Venezuelan chocolate, but smooth, creamy and sweet hot cocoa. As we filtered out of the restaurant, I noted with shock that our meal had set a new record for me, clocking in at six hours and fifteen minutes. And yet, I've had two hour meals that felt much, much longer. I attribute this partly to the company, and partly to the fact that the meal was such an unconventional delight. I've heard it said that the food, when taken in a vacuum, leaves a little to be desired. It certainly isn't at the level of Alinea (nor, to be fair, is it intended to be). And though some dishes were stellar, some were less so, and I'm not sure I can argue with that conclusion. But this meal didn't take place in a vacuum. It was a complete piece -- a fully conceived entertainment -- and while my usual MO is to consider the food apart from its environs, this is one instance where I just can't. Or more accurately, I really don't care to.

Though a wild success, Next isn't lacking for critics. The ticket/production structure has caused the more cynical to cluck that Kokonas and Achatz have cleverly devised a way to sell out every seat, obtain all of their fees up to three months in advance (soon to be a year when they start selling four dinner "subscriptions"), and assure that they get a fresh look from the press four times per year. And all of this is true. It is kind of sly. But as far as I'm concerned, a dinner like this completely justifies the existence of the restaurant. Where else could something like this be done? You couldn't maintain these menus for any length of time. It's a wonderful experience, but I certainly don't feel compelled to have this same meal again. And I don't see how a pop-up could be executed with this level of refinement and precision. But a dinner like this deserves to be done, and if not at Next or a restaurant like it, then where? It was ten or fifteen minutes after we sat down, just barely into the meal, when my friends started sharing childhood stories. And as the meal progressed, every little discovery evoked a laugh, a smile, a memory and another story. This continued through the night as we giggled, chatted, played with our food and generally acted in an even more juvenile fashion than usual. If having that experience means that a couple of the dishes weren't quite all that they could be in a stuffier context, then this is one of the very, very rare occasions where I really don't mind.

935 W. Fulton Market
Chicago, IL 60607
Wed - Sun5:30 PM - 11:30 PM

November 10, 2011

Big & Little's

Easier to miss than you might think... Dominic Armato

Nothing like getting in right under the wire.

This being a relative term, of course. Big & Little's has been serving up generous sandwiches and tacos, mostly of the seafood variety, for a couple of years now, and they'd piqued my interest as one to keep on the back burner for a quick downtown lunch one day. But a move down the block combined with Monday's appearance on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives meant that the window between temporary closure and total insanity was only a few days wide. Which isn't to say that it isn’t already pretty insane over there. Big & Little’s is a popular joint where everything's done to order, so a lengthy line is commonplace. We arrived, day one in the new digs -- a small space, half kitchen half dining area with three long picnic tables and (good) reggae blaring – and though I assume they weren’t yet operating at peak efficiency, they managed to plow through the line at a reasonable clip.

Fried Shrimp Po' BoyDominic Armato

Sadly, I failed to do my research and was cash-challenged in a place that accepts nothing but. And naturally, the in-house ATM was out of service, so we had to economize. No foie gras fries today. A hot dog for the little ones. And a fried shrimp po' boy in lieu of fried oysters. As consolation prizes go, however, this is a doozy. Apparently, Tony D'Alessandro (the "little" half of the equation) first made his mark when kicked off Hell's Kitchen for botching the fish station. It's hard to believe, given how well this seafood is treated. The batter is huge, and while usually a negative, I mean that in a good way here. Though voluminous, it's light and puffy, fried to a deep golden brown and bordering on downright crunchy. The shrimp within were delectably sweet, the accompanying mayo spread had some zip, and a slightly chewy, grilled roll (Gonnella?) made for another nice local twist. If I'd managed to get the little lady calm long enough to seek out a bottle of Louisiana hot sauce on another table, I'm not sure I could have found room for improvement.

Fried Pork Belly Po' BoyDominic Armato

The menu isn't exclusively comprised of ocean dwellers. A fried egg burger seems to be a popular choice, and while that one wasn't in the cards, we also opted for something meaty, the crispy pork belly po' boy. Well... fatty, maybe. This sandwich is impressive. That's a massive mound of fried pork belly chunks you see, ranging from crisp to crunchy and oozing pork fat when you bite. Abundantly sweet is a common (and devastatingly effective) treatment for pork belly, but B&L took another tack here, drizzling it with just the faintest hint of a thin and lightly sweet glaze that I couldn't put my finger on, which was actually a great approach. It lent that sweetness, but kept the sandwich centered squarely on crispy pork fat. Hard to go wrong, there. It was a really fabulous lunch, and I'm a little frustrated that it wasn't even better. I wish I'd had the foresight to check my wallet before driving over. I wish the little lady (with apologies to anybody lunching there last Wednesday) hadn't been so uncharacteristically uncooperative. But even based on a rushed lunch their first day in a new space, it's clear this is a killer spot, completely deserving of the mob that I'm sure will arrive in Triple D's wake.

Big & Little's
860 N. Orleans Street
Chicago, IL 60610
Mon - Fri11 AM - 9 PM
Sat12 PM - 9 PM

November 09, 2011

Wisconsin Trek

Cheese Curds Dominic Armato

"I'm a little embarrassed to admit this, but it's possible I've never had a really good, fresh, squeaky cheese curd. Which is your favorite?"

Judging from her reaction, you'd think the two-year-old riding on my shoulders had just broken out into a flawless rendition of Get On The Good Foot. The other woman working the counter, crouched over a table ten yards away, bolted upright and came rushing over to rescue the first, who seemed unable to speak.

"W-w-w-well, right over there," she stammered. "Those are the ones that were made fresh this morning!"

Yeah, it's true. At least I think it is. I mean, I've had cheese curds before. Heck, I practically ate my weight in poutine during that bachelor weekend in Montreal (for better or worse, the only vice in which I overindulged). But I don't think I'd ever had cheese curds like these cheese curds, which put me in the unusual position of using "rubbery" in a complimentary fashion. What's to say? They're salty and they squeak and beyond the textural novelty, I think they're better suited to frying. But we'll get to that.

Corned Beef SandwichDominic Armato

It was over four years ago that my sister-in-law and her husband left Chicago for Wausau, Wisconsin, meaning that a jaunt north of the border was long overdue, and a three week trip home provided the perfect opportunity. So last weekend we made the trek, and I crammed in as many road eats as seemed practical, which basically meant stopping in Milwaukee in both directions. Tacking an extra three hours onto a five hour drive, crisscrossing the state in search of something else meaty and cheesy, while a beautiful dream to me, is a dubious mission with kids in the back seat. But going fifteen minutes out of your way to hit McBob's Pub & Grill is not only reasonable but downright practical, especially given the great eats to be found there. Jake's is the big name in Milwaukee corned beef, but McBob's -- just a couple of miles down North Avenue -- has a devoted following. I opted for the underdog. The fact that it was a Friday and I could also nab a little fish fry, killing two birds with one stone, might also have had something to do with it.

Fish Fry with Potato PancakesDominic Armato

McBob's is an Irish pub, though the little ones were welcome at lunch, and a sizable menu ensures that it's as much an eating as a drinking establishment. The carving station is right up front as you walk in the door, where large chunks of tender, steamy, rough-hewn corned beef are sandwiched between bread that, let's be honest, barely qualifies as rye. When my ladylove, who vigorously decries "bad seeds" has no issues with your rye, your rye has issues. But this shortcoming aside, there's so much to like here that I'm not going to let a little misguided house variation get in the way of recognizing one hell of a sandwich. Mine arrived still steaming and incredibly fragrant. The beef stops just shy of too salty, is warm and meltingly tender, and would have been a little lean for my tastes if not for the fact that it also included a few thin slices of a darker, fattier cut working in concert with the rest. A thin slick of tart and lightly sweet horseradish mustard and some potato chips on the side and this is a fabulous plate.

The fish fry evoked some childhood memories of my father bringing home a pile of lake perch, dusting them with flour and slapping them in a cast iron pan with butter and Crisco. Lake perch are more than a little difficult to come by these days, and though it's been a long time I doubt these were the perch of my childhood, but McBob's fish fry is awfully tasty nonetheless. Deep fried, in a thin, crisp and heavily seasoned coat, the fish is flaky and moist and -- when you get the super combo that includes perch, walleye and grouper -- a great object lesson for a four year old ("White fish doesn't always taste the same!"). Fries would be the safe choice, but potato pancakes seemed a whole lot more interesting, and they were... thick with an almost creamy texture, and if I weren't assured by the fellow helping us that there was no cheese involved, I would have thought they'd slipped some in there. I'd ordinarily consider a non-crisp potato pancake a mortal sin, but against the crisply fried fish it actually kind of worked. Two for two at McBob's.

Kopp's Interior or Coen Dream Sequence? Dominic Armato

Vague childhood memories seems to be the theme here, and the theme continued through our visit to Kopp's, if only for the custard. The decor, an odd modern industrial motif with a courtyard that looks like a Battlestar Galactica location shoot and an interior that looks like a Coen Brothers' dream sequence, may appeal to my pop culture sensibilities, but doesn't exactly awaken warm fuzzy feelings of decades past.

Vanilla Frozen CustardDominic Armato

The custard is another matter, though. It's been eons since I had real frozen custard, and my memory is of my seven-year-old mind being blown by chocolate more intense than I thought possible in a frozen confection. Though Kopp's offers two daily specials and chocolate, I went with a classic vanilla, wanting to get at the unadorned heart of the matter. And it turns out the heart of the matter inspires visions of jolly, rotund, 8000 pound cows waddling their way around a grassy field, occasionally stopping by the barn to relieve themselves of a few buckets of pure butterfat. Let's just say this stuff is rich. I've heard complaints that Kopp's vanilla is possessed of a certain artificial character, and while I agree that it doesn't taste like a bushel of fresh vanilla beans were dumped into the hopper, it has a kind of classic vanilla extract flavor that's both retro and delectable. My ladylove's chocolate also had a throwback vibe, not especially dark or complex, but rather evoking a cup of hot cocoa, except in cold form. The true winner, however, was the little fella, who surprised us all by picking pomegranate. That little bit of tartness kept the custard from being a total butterfat bomb, and I would've swapped with him in a heartbeat. Good call, buddy.

Fried Cheese CurdsDominic Armato

Our time in Wausau was mostly spent nesting, cooking and eating at home and caring for the family's newest addition, possessed of big cheeks and little desire to sleep. But one outing took us to the thematically abundant Wausau Mine Co., where I'm not sure I can say much for the menu on the whole, except for the fact that they provided an opportunity to get my hands on some fried cheese curds. Really, what's not to like here? It's cheese, lightly dusted in a very fine breading and fried until it's toasty and sandy on the outside and... well, not exactly melting, but kind of non-Newtonian on the inside. In contrast, take the mozzarella stick. The breading is crisp, the middle goes gooey. Not so with cheese curds, apparently, whose unusual physical properties grant them an almost spongy texture when fried. It's like they squish and then rebound a bit, before finally relenting when pressed. Setting aside that they seem to defy the laws of physics, they make for a remarkably satisfying subgenre of fried cheese.

The Counter at Solly's Dominic Armato

A few days later, on the way home, I decided that we obviously hadn't consumed enough cholesterol for the trip, so we stopped again in Milwaukee, this time at Solly's for butter burgers. There's nothing about Solly's that looks like a restaurant from the outside, but tucked into the ground floor of a building that kind of vaguely resembles Norman Bates' house (but only because it was Halloween weekend) is a small short order diner that serves breakfast and burgers.

ChiliDominic Armato

Solly's is a charming little place featuring two yellow, melamine, horseshoe-shaped counters seating a dozen each, behind which stands the kitchen and a small crew of ladies who are friendly and laid back and in absolutely no rush whatsoever, which for a place like this suits me just fine. It being the lunching hour, I zipped right past the breakfast offerings and, sadly, missed the rosti which I would have liked to have sampled. So instead I got a cup of chili, some fries and rings for the family to share, and butter burgers straight across the board... the standard variety, though the menu is stuffed with quite a few variations. The chili (avert your eyes, anti-bean folk!) was a house concoction, a touch watery -- more like thick soup with lots of ground meat and beans -- but lightly sweet and nicely seasoned with a great mix of spices. Fries were prefab and I'm pretty sure the rings were too, but they were fried up hot and crispy and did the trick, which is to say they provided an occasional respite in our attack on the butter burgers. Yes, to eat some fries and onion rings was to temporarily take the fat level down a notch.

Butter BurgerDominic Armato

Upon first tasting this remarkable sandwich -- the first butter burger for us all -- my ladylove leaned over and said, "I'm kind of shocked that this is a food." Which isn't to say that she disapproved. Or at least if she did, it was the doctor and not the diner talking. Rather, she loved it, as did I. But in this day and age, it's a little shocking to get this much butter on anything, much less something that's already pretty well set in the lipids department. The bun was warm and soft and otherwise nondescript, and the thin patty was, sadly, cooked to within an inch of its life (not that the menu didn't give us fair warning), but the heart and soul of this delicious beast was the gooey mass in the middle, comprised of onions, American cheese, and lots and lots of butter. The onions weren't griddled, but rather chopped and "stewed," which meant that when combined with a high-moisture cheese and what must've been a quarter cup of butter, they made a kind of squishy, gooey, sweet and salty mass that oozed into every pore of both bun and beef. I found that just a tiny squirt of brown mustard, in classic yellow squeeze bottles on the counter, provided a touch of balance, though the burger was entirely capable of standing on its own. My ladylove took another bite, savored it, turned to me and said, "Don't you dare try making these at home." She's right, of course. They're far too dangerous.

McBob's Pub & Grill
4919 W. North Avenue
Milwaukee, WI 53208
Mon - Sat8 AM - 12 AM
Sun8 AM - 10 PM
Kopp's Frozen Custard
7631 W. Layton Avenue
Greenfield, WI 53220
Mon - Sun10:30 AM - 11 PM

Wausau Mine Co.
3904 W. Stewart Avenue
Wausau, WI 54401
Mon - Sun11 AM - ???
Solly's Grille
4629 N. Port Washington Road
Milwaukee, WI 53212
Mon8 AM - 8 PM
Tue - Sat6:30 AM - 8 PM
Sun8 AM - 4 PM

November 08, 2011

Lao Hunan

Dry Chile String Beans Dominic Armato

Back when Lao Sze Chuan was a food nerd darling, before it caught on as one of the city's most beloved Chinese restaurants, when it was still commonplace to hear people exclaim, "Oh, I don't eat in Chinatown... it's so dirty," (*sigh*), and before he had five restaurants in Chicago, one in the suburbs and one in Connecticut, I recall reading an article wherein owner Tony Hu shared his rather grandiose plan to become the nation's leading Chinese restaurateur. While I adored his food (and his moxie), it struck me as an exceptional amount of bravado for a fellow who was running a largely unknown Sichuan joint out of a corner of the Chinatown mall. All I can say is thank god I underestimated the guy, because while his record isn't flawless, he's brought an awful lot of fabulous Chinese food to Chicago and beyond, and his latest project, Lao Hunan, is no exception.

Famous People from HunanDominic Armato

Thing is, this death star isn't even fully operational. In what's become something of a modus operandi for Hu, he's taken over Taste of Asia, renamed it and redone the interior, brought in a new chef, and is temporarily serving the old menu alongside an abbreviated Hunanese menu while developing the full catalog of dishes that the restaurant will serve when it officially launches in a few weeks. And yet, fabulous dishes still abound and some folks who are more in tune with Chinatown's current offerings than I am are already declaring it one of the city's best. As far as I can tell, the only knock on the place so far is that its Mao-inspired decor and uniform clad waitstaff are odd and/or offensive, depending on how comfortable you are with dictator chic. I have a hard time arguing with that conclusion, even if I've been desensitized by eating at more than a few similarly-themed establishments back in the mother country over the years. On an old blog, I once chronicled a visit to "First Work Team," a theme restaurant intended to inspire nostalgia for the days when famine was killing off tens of millions of Chinese by serving unseasoned mashed tubers to diners sitting on bare concrete floors. No joke. (And I really wish I could find that post.) So in an odd fashion, it all somehow seems perfectly normal to me, and the only thing I disliked about my visit is that it wasn't after the grand opening and with a larger group for more ordering power.

Chairman Mao's Favorite Pork BellyDominic Armato

Hunanese is not a branch of Chinese cuisine about which I'm comfortable speaking with any level of authority, though much of it is familiar to me from visits to Hunanese restaurants while visiting Southern China over the years. Its reputation as a fiery cousin to neighboring Sichuan is well-deserved, but it has always seemed to me to be far less focused on chile oil, vinegar, sugar and Sichuan pepper, and rather a little rounder in character, employing more fresh ingredients, more shallots and garlic, and more smoke. And my impressions were largely borne out, starting with Chairman Mao's Favorite Pork Belly, not without heat but more spiced than spicy, silky pork fat laced with star anise and cinnamon, sweetened with sugar and scallions and fragranced with garlic and ginger. Recent years have created an explosion of pork belly fanatics, and it warms my heart to think that a dish like this will probably now have a mainstream audience, because it's really fabulous and I'd hate for it to sit in obscurity.

Dry Chili Fish FilletDominic Armato

I'm almost angry with Lao Hunan for forcing me to roll back a previous commitment to eschew tilapia, a fish that I generally consider to be a scourge upon the culinary scene. But a hand that can turn those usually tasteless mudbugs into the Dry Chili Fish Fillets has my rapt attention. This was a stunning dish, encasing moist and delicious fish inside a hot and crisp coating with a potent chili and garlic zing that was so good I'm still nursing burns on the inside of my mouth a week later because I couldn't wait just a couple of minutes to let the damn things cool off. While I don't advise approaching them in such a reckless fashion as I did, I nonetheless recommend eating them quickly. After ten minutes they're lovely, but a shadow of what they were when they hit the table. Am I really going to have to list tilapia among my favorite dishes of 2011? Gads, I might.

Home Fed Chicken Xiangxi StyleDominic Armato

The Home Fed Chicken Xiangxi Style is one of those dishes that's simultaneously familiar and frustrating... familiar because I know I've had its ilk on many occasions, frustrating because it was always encountered in a business context when I couldn't learn a thing about it. Buried amongst large pieces of stir-fried peppers, shallots, onions and a brown sauce, the chicken is dark and complex without much in the way of sweetness, dense in texture and -- as one of my dining compatriots put it -- possessed of an almost cheesy quality, like dense blocks of lightly fermented dairy or tofu. I just don't have the literary framework to describe the unusual character of this dish, and though it was probably my least favorite of the evening, I still found it compelling both as an educational exhibit and a tasty plate of food. I wish I knew more about its provenance.

Famous Hunan Chile in Black Bean SauceDominic Armato

We also managed to sneak in a couple of vegetables, the more approachable of which was the Dry Chile String Beans, similar to the familiar Sichuan preparation with wrinkled, fried long beans spiked with chiles, garlic and the salty funk of preserved black beans. More notable for a myriad of reasons, however, was the Famous Hunan Chile in Black Bean Sauce, a dish solidly in contention for the hottest I've consumed in quite some time. Whole green chiles, seeds and ribbing and all, are bathed in a lightly sweet black bean sauce with thick planks of sliced garlic. It's a minimal and clarifying showcase for fresh green chile flavor, and while it didn't stray into inedible territory for me (though it was even hotter coming out of the fridge the next morning), it definitely slowed me down. I abhor dishes that sacrifice flavor for abusive heat. This one brings both.

These days, Lao Hunan is the kind of place that I find almost more frustrating than anything to visit. The execution is crisp and the flavors are vibrant, yes, but beyond that there's an education to be had in this menu, to say nothing of what it will be like when its size triples. I want to come back, I want to take some time, I want to develop a better understanding of what Hunanese cuisine brings to the table, and I was rocked deeply enough by a few of these dishes that I'm confident the kitchen at Lao Hunan will be an excellent guide. Problem is I have a plane to catch.

Lao Hunan
2230 S. Wentworth Avenue
Chicago, IL 60616
Mon - Sun10:30 AM - 11 PM

November 07, 2011

Papa's Cache Sabroso

Jibarito de Bistec Dominic Armato

This trip to Chicago has become the "correcting great shames" tour, and my visit to Papa's Cache Sabroso was no exception, on two fronts. The first and most obvious is that this little Puerto Rican joint is beloved of both the LTH crowd in general and, more specifically, an old favorite of some of my dear food friends, and yet I'd never set foot inside before last week. And what a shame that is, because to step in off the street, particularly on a grey and dreary late October afternoon, is to be transported... by the change in light, the change in warmth, the change in volume, the change in energy, and above all the change in scent, which is absolutely devastating. Warm, cozy and bustling, Papa's possesses an almost goofy yet somehow charming island vibe, adorned with brightly colored murals of sandy Puerto Rican beaches and a thatched awning over the counter. My compatriots and I took a seat, and a few minutes later, Coco Loco in hand, I ordered the Jibarito de Bistec. Which leads me to my second great shame.

Jibarito de BistecDominic Armato

When one considers specific dishes that Chicago has contributed to the culinary scene, a number of entries stand out. There's the famously greasy triumvirate of Chicago style hot dogs, deep dish pizza, and my beloved Italian Beef sandwich. Less well known are ethnic offshoots like flaming saganaki, Shrimp de Jonghe and Chicken Vesuvio (though I've seen intelligent, if not entirely convincing to me, arguments against the Chicago-ness of the last). And yet one of Chicago's most unique creations is of a decidedly different breed, a recent invention first cooked up barely fifteen years ago by Juan Figueroa in the Puerto Rican kitchen of Borinquen Restaurant. The Jibarito, a sandwich whose spirit rests in Puerto Rico even if its origins are in Chicago, combines a meat filling -- originally seasoned, grilled steak -- with cool tomato and shredded lettuce, melted cheese and garlicky mayonnaise and layers them between two crisply fried planks of green plantain in lieu of bread. It's an ingenious combination, and tempting as it was to have my first in the restaurant that introduced it to the world, consensus among aficionados of the genre seemed to be that Papa's version was both better and more consistent. So it was here that I and my compatriots (we all ordered the same) tucked into our first Jibaritos.

The result was unanimous delight. With beautifully seasoned, smoky, tender beef, melty cheese, crisp vegetables and the creamy tang of mayonnaise, the fillings would be a winner on any old bread. But combining them with the crisp, nutty crunch of plantains fried in garlic oil takes the sandwich in a completely different direction, both in terms of texture and flavor, and it's easy to see why the Jibarito's popularity has exploded across Chicago, and is starting to pop up in other cities. It's a beautiful thing, crisp, fresh and gooey all at the same time, with vibrant flavors, its decadence mitigated by its modest size (made necessary, perhaps, by the size of the plantains?), and if I hadn't ordered something else for us to try, I might've had two.

Pollo ChonDominic Armato

Thankfully, the whole chickens slowly rotating behind the counter were too much to resist, else I might have missed another of the restaurant's gems. I added a few pieces of pollo chon to the mix, and this was succulent stuff, not dripping with juice like some varieties of rotisserie chicken, but striking a balance of moist and toothsome that made possible the delectable skin. Basted in a lightly sweet and garlickly concoction, the skin wasn't exactly crispy, but rather deeply caramelized and sticky, like savory chicken candy on an allium bender. It's a coating that can also defy one's grip, as I discovered when a half-eaten piece slipped from my fingers and landed on the floor, but not before basting my leg on the way down. As the corners of my mouth drooped in sad, cartoonish fashion, my ladylove asked if I'd made a mess of my pants. "Yes..." I replied, "...but that's not why I'm sad."

Papa's Cache Sabroso
2715 W. Division Street
Chicago, IL 60622
Mon - Thu11 AM - 10 PM
Fri - Sat11 AM - 11:30 PM

November 02, 2011

Top Chef Power Rankings - On The Move!

So when I woke up this morning, I had a bit of an epiphany. It was meaningful to me. Perhaps not so much to you. So let's just say that I've decided -- for my own sanity -- that it's time to give the Top Chef Power Rankings their own home. Skillet Doux's been feeling kind of bipolar, and it's been driving me crazy, and it occurred to me that there really wasn't any reason why I couldn't just split the TCPR stuff into its own blog and happily continue maintaining both of them. Aside from the inevitable Reed Hastings jokes, I mean. But nonetheless, as already mentioned, this move has nothing to do with maximizing shareholder value and everything to do with keeping me sane. But I've written more over at the new blog, which you can access by clicking on the convenient banner above!

Top Chef Fans: See you in the spiffy(ish) new digs!

Skillet Doux Fans: Business as usual. Without monster reality show posts getting in the way!

Self: There, doesn't that feel better?

See? Everybody wins!