Friday, January 16, 2004

The Hip-O-Meter
Upscale Ethnic

You know what's even more contentious on foodie forums than the secret menu dilemma, the upscale ethnic eatery answer. At one extreme, you have people who only want to experience ethic eating as a "concept," in a well-traveled neighborhood, with decor and adequate service and a decent drink card. At the other end, are people who are only happy with, well the opposite. The closer they get to zero on the hip-o-meter, the better for them. I suppose people exist in both of these camps, but all the eaters I know roam somewhere in the middle (to varying extremes). Still, this remains the most vexing of issues.

It starts with semantics or a working definition of what a nice restaurant means. I look at it as three ends of a triangle, with the triangle defined as fine dining. One point stands at what I would call the ethnic-ethnic upscale. These are places conceived for an ethnic community as their source for better dining. Some of these places serve an executive eaters market, others a source for celebrations or date night. Oddly, these places while quite authentic, often serve food considered "dumbed down." For instance, the stellar example of Korean fancy-schmancy, where Korean businessmen congreagate, Woo Lae Oak, has only teflon coated gas grills for the meat. Let us not stink up our suits with burning coals. Another aspect of this form of ethnic upscale is a group's slight disdain for their own food. Restaurants catering to European immigrants often replace their native foods with classic "continental specialties" like beef stroganoff. Like hot dog buns with dim sum, and Japanese spaghetti sauce, we get the authentic-inauthentic. Thus, one point, upscale as the ethic group perceives upscale.

The second point would be its opposite. Upscale as the American diner perceives upscale, or maybe said better, upscale as perceived that the American diner perceives. Several ideas drive this school (and these ideas are exactly what drives away serious eaters). First, is the idea that Americans do not want to stretch too deep into the repertoire. That they will eat grilled thin beef, but not slightly thicker grilled short ribs. That too much fish sauce, shrimp paste and chile peppers will make them run for cover. Second, there is the idea that Americans want their food in courses, that Americans only expect to eat this way. This modification does not harm the food the same way, but it does upset the pattern and effect of many cuisine's. Many Asian meals are about a balance of flavors across several plates of food. When you divorce the, eat at one time/share all plates, you distort the whole experience. The food will not taste as good because it will not be balanced. Third and fourth are the areas where these places really get into trouble. Third, is the idea that Americans expect certain familiar dishes, best exemplified by the Chinese war horse, beef with broccoli. Here is a dish that is always better than chop suey, but in its common productions never matches a "real" version. Related to this are magical versions of unknown food, lamb vindaloo, Hunnan anything. Places like PF Changs and Ben Pao contain menu's filled with these classic dishes that should never had been made classic in the first place. Finally, there is the idea that the trained and skilled chef can improve on, add to, modernize and otherwise enhance the ethnic eating experience. Yes, certain traditional methods of cooking are hidebound, too unhealthy and otherwise susceptible to change, but generally who has a better idea of how to cook a cuisine, the chef or the culture. Don't answer because the preponderance of modern restaurants might not agree with you. Still, even as we disdain this point, we appreciate parts of it. Parts called comfort. Comfort can add to a meal. This point is not totally worthless.

There is one last way to conceive upscale ethnic cuisine, royal or imperial cuisine. This point on the triangle looks not just to fancier surroundings and finer cooking but to a range of ingredients and preparations associated with the Emperor or the Muraja or such. On one hand, not many people are clamoring to eat roast peacock these days, on the other hand, smart people are seeing imperial food as an antidote to the conundrum. The problem, at least in Chicago, is finding honest examples of this cooking. Arun's the so-expensive Thai place on the NW side claims royalty, but discussions of their menu never seem to back this up. A place just opened up in Chinatown, Dragon King, that purports to offer the food of God on earth. Several chowhounds have signed up for a try. It will be interesting to see what happens. So, it is hard to say much about this point because it remains untried.

We cannot forget that with upscale ethnic dining, there exists, I believe a shadow triangle. At least a shadow world that influences and affects these places, and that truly limits or enhances fine dining a la ethnic. I think the biggest issue out there is that our money is being misspent. We do want better quality ethnic food, or we would also enjoy ethnic food in a better setting. Instead of paying for chef's recreations and over-the-top decor, why not apply the funds toward organic produce and fresher fish. I declared how I would pay more money for Thai food here. I think the same idea holds for Mexican, Chinese, etc. Let's see if we can raise the bar on the hip-o-meter.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Buying a rug in Chinatown
Moon Palace

There are two interrelated issues that appear again and again in food forums. They revolve around the question, why did I not eat what you ate. On one side of the issue are the positivists, seeking to learn how to get a better experience than you. On the other side, their enemies (so to speak), pissed that they got a worse meal. Bleeding heart that I am, I sympathize a bit with the latter group, but my desire to eat as well as possible puts me well in the former. Which is how I found myself today buying a rug.

I like oriental rugs. I like the craftsmanship and style of them--and preferring the hard wood floors too, and I also like that decaying WASP look. Either way, I am happy laying out an oriental rug. While we have a few now, in the bungalow, I have never really bought one. And I want to. I want to not so much to get another rug, but I want to do the oriental rug buying thing. I want to sip through several glasses of mint tea (in glasses I can barely hold in my western tea hands). I want to hear about the exploits of all the proprietors children, and I want to be shown many, many rugs with un-goddly prices before we settle down to some good natured but aggressive haggling. Would it be just as fun for Chinese food?

OK, Moon Palace does not require you to follow a maze of alleys in the souk. It is right there on Cermak in Chinatown, next to the Fire Station. And really, you can just order off of the menu. But we had to bargain. We were bargaining not so much for lunch today, but for a dinner in about a month. Negotiating via that maze of non-translated and off menu dishes. One of the Chowhounds decided to organize a very late Chinese New Year dinner, done Shanghai style at Moon Palace. Our prize then, to produce a grand and authentic Shanghai meal.

Moon Palace's opening salvo, the cheap rug that even an untrained eye could see, was a crispy fried fish fillet done in the standard suburban gloppy "Hunan"sauce. We were not buying. We used our only currency, pestering, name dropping, endless cups of tea (not bad) and the presence of the brilliant one. We countered with pork belly. Give us something too damn fatty, and throw in a couple of chitterlings in the dish (the pork belly over intestine was the one dish that stood in my mind from a previous visit). Oh, no tummy for your tummy, they countered, and we compromised, as all hagglers do, on something in the middle, a pork hock, braised in a maroon sauce, heavy with vinegar but trailing sugar. Tofu skin and large chunks of fresh bamboo added texture to this pretty good dish. We worked our way through two kinds of soup dumplings. The staff appreciated our second order, with crab meat, but truth be told, these tasted a bit like cat food to me. The ante got upped. Moon delivered a lotus leaf package with sticky rice and a log of pork tenderloin, amazingly even this cut of pork was fatty. Standard Shanghai lunch meal we were told. We ate it quickly. Finally, we went for the heart of Shanghai food, the slippery one, eel. Moon Palace did this river creature, frozen in China and de-frosted in their kitchen, proud. A preparation of equal julienne's of mushroom, eel and ginger, in a clear sauce with a black pepper kick, it played really well in the mouth.

OK, the house gave in. The chef would cook us a total Shanghai meal. Only Shanghai specialties. In fact even he did not even know what he was planning to cook, but he knew it would be special. Now, like the best of the omikase chefs, he did not even want a price tag. Well, that condition we declined. We did give him an upper limit. We sealed the deal with sticky rice balls filled with a grainy black something. We would have joined the owner in the back with martini's, but none of us spoke Shanghainese. I'll report back after the dinner.

Moon Palace
216 W Cermak Rd
Chicago, IL 60616-1914

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Having Impact

In my last post, I bemoaned my lack of influence on the Chicago eating public. What is interesting, generally, that the Chicago eating public refuses to be influenced.

HungryHoward brought to attention today, a story on NPR (click here to listen). Susan Stamberg told of The Grocery, the small, 13-table restaurant in Brooklyn that Zagat named as one of the city's best. Apparently, the restaurant scored a food rating of 28. And, as anticipated, things at the restaurant haven't been the same, with the exception of the quality of food/service. It was discussed on the listserv if something comparable could happen in Chicago, and someone throught of La Quebrada as Chicago restaurant for similar notoriety.

What is interesting, however, is that La Quebrada has had its 15 minutes of fame. Having received a pretty glowing review in the Chicago Tribune, it has never seen itself packed to the brim. The only true phenomenon of neighborhood eating that has ever truly gone big is Arun's (and this happened many, many ages ago). No other place reviewed in the Trib, the Reader, Chowhound, etc., has really benefit all that much from the publicity. OK, yes a lot of places benefit in small and big ways from mentions in any media source, even something as humble as this blog. Still, what's become famous?

I have always wondered if Chicago is just not a food town, that the vast amount of people really do not care about cool places. Today, I got to thinking maybe the answer lies more with the food media. No, this is not another rant (per se), but I think part of the problem is that no food writer in Chicago really holds a following. All the major media spread their pieces out too much, so there can be no clear champion. For what I have in mind, I clearly point to Jonathan Gold in LA. He has tons of street cred, but he is also hugely respected in foodie circles. He has stature. We need stature.
Getting a Woody
Colombian food at Brasa Rosa

Granted I irk easy, but I'm irked.   Irked at the sudden attention devoted to Colombian food, particularly the El Llano spin-off, Brasa Rosa.   Pretty much from day one on Chowhound, I sung the praise of the simple (simply) delicious food of Colombia and its fountainhead in Chicago, El Llano.   Pretty shockingly to me, my posts created no groundswell of interest [ed., I guess I was right in ditching that line on your masthead, "Chicago's most influential food poster."] Even after showing off El Llano with what I thought was an outstanding Chowhound dinner, people did not seem to be clamoring for steak and potatoes South American style (extra salsa de aji for me).  Still, I am very glad Brasa Rosa has received a bit more attention (follow embedded link to Brasa Rosa article in Chicago's Reader).   Ate there for the first time the other day.   As I imagined, I liked it.

Brasa Rosa, true to its name, improves on El Llano with the addition of a brazier, a device to cook wonderfully marinated chickens over live coals.   More important, they also use live coals in their kitchen for the grilled meats.   Chicago seems so overwhelmed with gas grills, flame broiling in the school of Burger King.   Yet, I know no single item that more improves the taste of food than live coal cooking.   So many of those kebabs, shasliks, satays, churasco's around town could be so much better if their makers followed the folks at Brasa Rosa.   Brasa Rosa uses this grill for an assorment of meats including rabbit, pork chops and brisket as well as the classic thin steak. Unlike at El Llano, they do not offer a mass-meat fest called picada.

Granted, I believe, from El Llano, they start from a high base.   It only gets better at Brasa Rosa.   I actually liked best, a chicken breast pounded to double its size, marinated but not over marinated, and cooked not a second too long on the real grill.   The roasted chicken tasted a bit too charred because of a method they use.   You cannot possibly time the production of roast chickens.   To adjust, Brasa Rosa takes the cooked chickens, hacks them and then places them in a grill basket nearly on top of the charcoal fire for a warm-up.   It puts a flavor in the chicken almost charred, ashy instead of smoky. The fine, spicy green sauce does cover up some sins. A smaller dish of even hotter, green chimichuri came with our "matrimonio", that above mentioned chicken breast and an equally spread out, equally good steak.

Any skill the kitchen used to develop sauces, create marinades, and man the grill were not exhibited in the side dishes. With the meats come exceedingly plain things. That does not mean that I did not enjoy eating the half roasted/half boiled potatoes, the bring out the sweetness ripe plantains, and the extra starchy yucca sticks. Only the dry unfilled areapas suffered from plainness.

Meat and potatoes. I am glad it is now a trend.

Brasa Roja
3125 W. Montrose
Chicago, IL

The Media Speaks - Giveth and Taketh Away

A true sign of growing up Chicago, is to know intimately, what the letters WGN mean. Ray Rayner in the morning, Cubs after school and the easy voice of Wally Phillips guiding Mom all the time. One connection remains to that WGN, the real WGN, the pre-WB network WGN, Milt Rosenberg. Mortimer Adler disciple, quote spewer, ever correct pronuncer, Milt has held sway nightly for over 30 years. A few times a year, he dedicates a show to eating in Chicago. I rarely listen to Milt, but I happen to run across his show listing yesterday, and luckily, I learned that Monday was that restaurant show of the day day. I heard so you do not have to.

The food "media" got represented rather adequately, by Penny Pollack, food editor of Chicago Magazine, an outlet with major sway, and by Don Rose, an ostensible "critic" who seemed to have written his last reports when Jean Banchet stood highest in Chicago's food pantheon--Rose was found blathering such classics as there are good Chinese restaurants in the Chinatown Mall, I just cannot name any, and citing as a good Indian restaurant something gone at least ten years. Pollack, confident in her role, hammered the idea of Chicago Magazine as the arbiter of eating in Chicago.

And she revealed an upcoming story. Chicago discovered that yes, one could eat well in Chinatown. It seems that Chicago's chief critic, Dennis Wheaton, got himself his own RST and dug into some secret menu's. Penny sez they found 8 destination spots in Chinatown. I look forward to the report, although I strongly contend that one can eat well in Chinatown without significant language skills.

Actually, the whole exchange on Chinese food in Chicago brought out the first of the laughable exchanges of the evening. Moderator Milt teased the audience before a commercial break that they would soon be talking Chinese. Old school Rose scoffed, it would be a short chat. As noted above, Penny took them by surprise with the assertion that maybe one could eat good Chinese in Chicago. How bold. Of course this left Rose babbling about the nameless places in the mall. Nameless became the theme of most of the rest of the program.

When they opened up the discussion to callers, the critics did a fine job. Asked about any Afghan places in Chicago they found none (hint there are at least 3). Well, maybe they knew better when Penny later brought up Kabul House as a possible Persian place--geographic wiz, Milt immediately seized on the missing Afghan issue, but the experts remained stumped on any place Persian, suggesting, shockingly, Andy's. Too bad none of them reads Chowhound to see the current discussion of Noon-O-Kebab. Yet, Noon-O-Kebab is hardly shy to the media.

Read Chowhound? Chowhound actually came up during the night. Penny indicated that Spoon Thai would soon get a report in her magazine. Praising Spoon, she wrongly put it on Broadway. An e-mailer (not me!), contacted the station and mentioned our home. Milt then asked about Chowhound. One panel member dismissed it as a "grubmeister site", the other, rather famous for stealing things from the site, called it "a man on the street thing." No mention of its connection to Spoon followed. And they went on their way, insisting no Chicago restaurant serves authentic Indian food...

Monday, January 12, 2004

Knowing the Mob

In the few spare moments I am not thinking about food, I might be found thinking about the Mob. My graduate thesis was titled, Organized and Organizing Crime, Making Money the Easy Way. Besides professionally, working with businesses to diminish the impact and risk of organized crime, I have an ever growing collection of books and other knick-knacks related to the Mafia and related.

I enjoy reading most of the books, but I very much ascribe to the notions put into print by Robert Lacey in his superior biography of Meyer Lanksy, "the vast corpus of secondary literature on organized crime is shot through with inaccuracy and exaggeration. The challenge is to separate the truth from the tissue of hearsay and folklore woven around it, and often this is quite impossible." Thus, it is rare to find a rather comprehensive OC book that is not shot through with myth and glory.

American Mafia: A History of its Rise to Power by Thomas Reppetto offers one of the Mob books out there. Reppetto has personal knowledge of situations in Chicago and New York, but does not fall into the trap of self-aggrandizement. He is looking at the Mob. You are not looking at him looking at the Mob. Give it a peek.
Guess words from MikeG

MikeG offers the following vital information:

Random notes from random meals:

1) Had a babysitter Saturday night, couldn't think of anyplace I badly
needed to go that wouldn't be packed, looking over the unpacked places
on I saw a name made famous on Chowhound: Sugar. Well of
course a dessert place would be easy to get into early in the evening.
But it was also a drink place, why not go and blow the kids' college
fund on $16 Gibsons before dinner somewhere else. At least we could
check out the scene before amusing crossed the line into desperately

Well... apparently no one goes for drinks, either, before late late.
We had the MOD-like interior and the Eminem-dressed waiter to ourselves
the entire time until we left about 8:30. Now I realize some of the
people who go to these places are just waking up at 8:30, and I
expected it to be a shadow of its late-night self, but absolutely
empty? Just shows I'll never be trendy again, I go to bed too early.
Anyway, had a not-bad, not-too-sweet drink-- ice wine cut with Estonian
vodka, not sure why Estonian but the vodka did bring the sweetness down
to where you could drink a largish one; and a lime souffle which was
quite tasty; and managed not to say anything insulting when the waiter
described the menu's absurd literary-pretentious names and floridly
overwritten copy as "Shakespearean" ("You mean everybody dies at the

And it was only $60 or $70 for a couple of drinks and dessert! A
bargain! [ed. Of course nothing sez Sugar more than this post.]

One more amusing note-- the decor is a wild riot of colors and
patterns, suggesting a psychedelic breakdown in a thrift shop, but amid
all the ultrahip stripes and camos and Op Art, one table near us had an
unfortunate, utterly counter-hip association for me-- the thick red and
white stripes on it screamed "TGI Friday's!"

2) Afterwards, started walking figuring we'd find somewhere to eat
dinner before we froze to death. Brasserie Jo loomed over us and we
said what the hell, hadn't been there in many years. For some reason
my one dinner there didn't do much for me ten years ago-- I remember at
the time liking Bistrot Zinc much better, which was too bad because
Susan had spent a fair amount of time in Alsace and liked the food. I
no longer remember why I felt that way but I was considerably more
impressed this time. Tarte flambee was just okay, mainly due to a
rather too generic crust that didn't strike me as the best a LEYE place
was capable of, but Tarte a l'oignon (not sure why we had to have both
of those-- well, yes I am, Alsatian nostalgia) was really perfect,
oniony and delicately eggy. A carrot soup with aioli was pungent, and
Beef Bordelaise was as comfy as an old leather chair. Not revelatory
or innovative food, but totally satisfying-- and it, unlike Sugar, was
packed before 10. Gee, maybe I shoulda gone back one time in the last
ten years and given it another shot.

On Chowhound, several people are sharing their love for the rapini and beans at Jimmy's Place, a superb bar and restaurant in Forest Park. While I have nothing against these rapini and beans, I do not find them quite as axiomatic as some others. To be honest (as Hannah would say), when I think rapini, I still think one place, Bertucci's, on a side street in Chinatown.

Bertucci's, at least a few years ago, was one of Chicago's great hidden gems. Just being on the side/residential street satisfied one of RST's criteria for greatness. Plus, this very interesting crowd would satisfy most's taste for local color. And the rapini, you can find it with several plates. What I have always liked best, was the sauted rapini nestled next to a piece of panned veal--a veal somewhere between really fine milk-fed, but a lot better than the breaded veal found at your local Greek. If you think you like rapini, try this rapini.

300 W 24th St
Chicago, IL 60616
New Polish Cuisine
Michael Baruch

I have no problem with promoting, in my blog, worthwhile local products, authors and events. If you have something you want out, and I am comfortable with it, I will be happy to get it on the blog. I had a few exchanges with Chicago born author, Michael Baruch before I left for LA, and I have been meaning to put something up about his book. Polish food can be very damn enjoyable. I will be posting soon on a yet another great meal at Halina's. To take your own crack at Polish food, you might want to get Mike's book.