Monday, January 19, 2004

More Upscale
Smith and Wollensky

Below, I discuss the nature of upscale ethnic eateries, the difficulty in labeling and the difficulty in achieving. What about the question of upscale non-ethnic. Not so much fine dining, but upscale comfort food, or more as I would think of it, upscale "American" food. Smith and Wollensky is pretty much categorized as a steakhouse, but I always think of it as an American restaurant, as upscale comfort food (comforting in the sense that it is my food).

First, I always slightly hate myself for liking S&W so much. It is both a New York import and a very corporate place (in several meanings). If half the point of its appeal is that it is my food, well should not my food come from Chicago and in a much more cool setting ? Yet, they do it so well, so much as I like it, that I must ignore its invader status or its chain nature. Second, I confess to a slight bit of non-objectivity. I have been provided an insider tour of the place, spending so much time in the dry aging-meat locker that I got a cold. Knowing all the effort they put into their food, and such secrets as how the meat gets a dip in melted suet, does make me that much more inclined to like the place.

And I love it. Not for the steaks. I almost never get one of those steaks, one of the few (perhaps only) dry aged steaks in Chicago. Instead, I love the rest of the menu. It speaks tradition to me. I feel like I am eating roughly the same meals as Diamond Jim Brady, and while I know Diamond Jim never tasted "Angry Lobster," I believe he would have loved it if given the opportunity. I also love their casino service. You know where there are several layers of management all on the floor, each with responsibilities and each making sure someone else follows theirs.

More than 2/3rds of the time at S&W, I order and eat the roast beef hash. A cast iron skillet holding a bunch crisped bits of trimmings from the dry aged meat mixed with potatoes. The white hot pan crisps the potatoes for extra. The whole thing gets lubricated with the fat of an egg yolk AND hollandaise. Plus, the bite of chive. I am not a chive/raw onion person at all, but in this dish it works so well. Surely not an everyday dish but an always enjoyable dish.

The other day, I strayed from the hash to another standard, the burger. Yes, a better burger with delicious blue cheese, and even at $8.75, a bargain. We also got the Friday fish fry, and here more than the burger, S&W showed how they are just a better diner. Nothing exotic about this dish, no tempura batter or panko breading or anything at all modern. Just fried fish as could be found in any supper club, but with pristine fillets, nary a bit of extra grease and with a perfect homemade tartar sauce. The tartar sauce tasted both light on the tongue but heavy in flavor. Siding both dishes (and for me just another reason to avoid the plain steak) are some of the best fries around (again better than any diner). Slightly limp instead of brazenly crisp, the way I prefer, what really set these fries apart was their salting. I am not sure if the salt was something really upscale, a Breton sea salt, but it was something a bit special, a grain larger than table salt but flatter than typical kitchen salt (i.e., Kosher salt). I should also add that the Condiment Queen loved a lobster cocktail with a smooth and herby green sauce, priced way too reasonably at $7.75 (partially offset by the fish special at the not that cheap at $18).

All around at S&W, I saw more American food. Whole roast chickens sliced tableside. A meatloaf that put the loaf in meat loaf, no modern embellishments either, really looked good. I have in the past, gone gaga over their mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, fried onions and fried zucchini. I always like their salads. The Caesar the other day was just as expected. As with soups at Halina's, I am fairly confident ordering anything on the menu here. S&W comes about as close to an ideal restaurant for me, one I could, if I had the budget and office location, eat at daily.

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