Saturday, May 22, 2004

Ned Beatty in the Kitchen

Last night, in a hurry to get to a party at the chowhoundita's school, we slapped together some turkey sandwiches (very fine turkey from Fox & Obel, thanks for asking). With about ten minutes to spare, I hauled out a cabbage and made cole slaw. That's what I do. I make cole slaw.

Everyone should have a dish. Thousands of Frenchmen know how to expertly swirl an omelet pan in such a way that the eggs always avoid the ashes of the Gitane. After all, in the other hand one would expect to find a glass of wine. Wiseguys learn red gravy as they go to the mattresses, and if they get caught, they fry steaks on the hot plate with garlic literally sliced razor thin. Whether seeking seduction or a sit-down or just a way to moisten up that turkey sammy, I make cole slaw.

It is not a dish that brings accolades. John Kass has not contacted me to take my five step cole slaw process. I cannot, like my friend Joan, impress people with birthday cole slaw. Cole slaw is never a star dish. It is the Ned Beatty of cuisine. You recognize the face each time, even as it takes on new accents, but you are not at the movie because of him. It seems odd, perhaps for some to think of me as committed to such an unassuming dish, as unassuming is surely not they way I am typically described.

Cole Slaw appeals to nearly everything I want and need out of the kitchen. First of all, it is cheap. I can almost always buy a cabbage for under a buck, and that one cabbage will always create as much cole slaw as I need. In fact, cabbage is a rather spiritual vegetable is it not. I mean ever notice how one tiny cabbage, smaller than a Chicago softball can suffice for both teams, the umpires and most of the cheering sections. I believe that cabbage was the food described in the bible as manna, as today it makes a fine topping to those twin desert staples, falafel and shwarma. Cabbage also appeals to my fetish for eating seasonal and eating local. I fantasize about going a whole winter with eating pretty much only cabbage from my root cellar, the way a Hasid wears the clothes of the shtetl, just to do it like they did it. For another thing, cole slaw plays to my kitchen skills. Rather, I shall say, cole slaw barely taxes any kitchen skill. I can take my chef knife, almost core the cabbage and then blast away like I have real knife art 'cause there is hardly a way to screw up cutting the cabbage for cole slaw. And if it does not work one way, I just turn the pieces around and try another. I've made cabbage with thin shreds, chips, platelets, food processor mince, box grater grate and all manner in between. Who cares.

No matter how I slice the stuff, I can make it taste good. I learned how to make cabbage from my mother, who unlike me, has a more impressive dish, rack of lamb. Hers is a no lose formula: salt, sugar, mayonnaise and vinegar mixed in parts until it tastes good. Of course, being a cole slaw specialist, I moved on from the basics. I'll add things. I mix up mayo with oil. I'll make it spicy. I'll make it garlic heady. With cole slaw, I can be of a thousand places. Yellow mustard and I've made it Carolina style [ed is that not Memphis style?]. Caraway seeds and it is something Nordic. Rice vinegar and not much else and is summo, Japanese cole slaw. The variations go on. If I was Chef G at Trio, I would make cabbage ice cream with aerated mayonnaise foam, but I am not. I am Ned Beatty.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Hot Hot Tofu - So Dong Tofu

So Dong Tofu House – This place pretty much serves one thing, tofu soup. There are about 8 varieties on the menu, but at the end of the day, they hardly matter. You get this steaming, I mean steaming crock of filled with very fresh, soft tofu hiding under a very scary coating of red chili broth. You crack an egg into this cauldron. The heat sterilizes this for you do not worry, and you enjoy at the pace your Western tongue can stand. With your hot hot (both) tofu, you will get another crock of rice. You let your rice sizzle for a bit, creating a bottom layer of crispies known in the trade as “raspa”, then transfer your rice to a stainless steel metal bowl. Oddly to you (maybe), you then wash out the raspa with your hot tea. Eventually, you’ll be taking micro-sips from your 3 bowls, tofu, rice and barley soup with rice krispies. Panchan, again, is your only relief. It is a very intense and satisfying meal. 3307 W. Brn Mawr Chicago, IL
Todai Today

Not wanting to ruminate in front of a computer today, I accompanied the Condiment Queen to the edge city around Woodfield for some errands. We thought about Shaw's but ended at Todai the chain "seafood" restaurant in the mall. Think you come to this place for the all you can eat sushi? Maybe. But really come to Todai for the cookies. I do not know if I have had finer cookies in a restaurant.

We arrived at Todai a few minutes before opening. Not only does this negate too much waiting, it gets you a loud greeting and a bow from the staff. Then, one by one they lead you past the stations: desserts (try our special tofumitzu we were told), tempura, noodles, soup, hot food, fruit, salads and the reason for most other people, the sushi. My instinct said to start with hot foods, that with a buffet nothing hot could really be that good soon. Yet, my sense of meal decorum made me eat some salads first. Then the hot foods. Then the sushi. Then the cookies.

Last week on the listserv that a lot of Chicago foodies subscribe, there was debate on the nature of Asians in a restaurant as a mark of splendor. Todai would be the ideal location for the dueling positions to duke it out. For one thing, the majority Asian clientele was clearly to my trained eye soley Japanese. It represented a mix of peoples. For another thing, what do all these people know about food? Clearly, Todai speaks to various Asian sensibilities, some I understand, some remain hidden to me. The place is large, bright, technologically advanced and designed to the extreme. All it is missing is some Pokemon cards and a few hello kitty tchotkes to complete the scene. It seems a bit Vegas too, but having been to Asia and having been to Vegas, I know the difference.

OK, does Asian sensibilities mean fake crab and small shrimp. Todai uses a lot of both. I avoided the former and handled the latter fried twice as tempura and with breading fine. Most of the sushi tasted fine too. The kind of sushi that tastes very fine as all you can eat, but maybe not what you want at Katsu or Heat. The sushi selection included conch, mackerel with lemon zest, squid, snapper and a few other things that made this more than just combination A, so I liked also the fact that I could sample. Of the salads, they achieved about a 33% success rate, which is astonishing low for salad, stick with the winners, seaweed and cucumber and shredded cabbage. I took small samples of filet mignon with broccoli, chicken tempura and green lip mussels in the very Asian style of hot mayo, and as small samples, they were fine. None of that stuff would be worth a meal. Still, what I liked most about Todai, and most makes me want to return, the cookies and other desserts.

Know what? I skipped the tofumitzu (but could not resist another chance to say tofumitzu--if you know me as well as Ms. VI or the chowhounditas, you might know that I'm gonna spend the rest of the night, maybe the rest of the weekend saying tofumitzu.) I did not skip much else on the sweet table. Those used to mochi and fried green tea ice cream may be surprised by the dessert aesthetic in Asia. What Japan did once to European cars, they have also done with European desserts. Re-created them, yet accentuated the absolute details. Little jewels of cheesecake, cherry tart and almond bars seemed far better than their models. No place, however, does Japan out France France though is in the cookies. Dream cookies. Cookies that linger over your tongue for seconds then evaporate into thousands of molecules of chocolate, sugar and butter, so much butter.

Sushi and cookies, perhaps my execution menu.

Todai is in the Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, IL

Thursday, May 20, 2004

My Damn Good Chow Day

GWiv wrote about his fine chow day last Saturday. I've rather pressed with irks, real and perceived, to get to my damn good chow day, but here is is.

The chow day part of the day began when we parked our car near the Zim house and caught the aroma of Hecky's just begging to gurgle. Oddly, when the Hecky's stuff first gets going, it smells a lot more like bacon than anything. We did not eat any Hecky's, but it put us in the mood for good food to come.

We shopped the Evanston Farmer's Market with Ms. Zim. It was my first ever visit to this market often cited as the best in the area. Guess what. It's not. If I accessed the markets on the following factors: community feel, availability of fresh donuts, Hayes coffee, specialty produce, organic produce, meat, overall selection, and donuts, well I got to pick Oak Park. It was still a great market. We got award winning, odors not contained in the plastic provolone cheese, Michigan asparagus, rhubarb, and radishes. I admired the morel mushrooms at not one but two vendors, and also envied Green Acres from Indiana that has stuff not found in Oak Park. Still, I missed my donuts and Hayes coffee. Really, in my view, the market also seemed a bit disjointed, a bit less community like, but maybe that was 'cause I ran into no neighbors.

From the market we had some home-made chai from Zim, who made the tea too weak because of bad influences from his mother. We then had a very fine lunch at Thai Home Made. Thai Home Made has nicely translated its menu, so there is no risk of not know what to get, and all of our dishes were heady with fish sauce, so I thought we got it pretty good. After lunch, however, the waitress told me that they did not really make the food Thai style for us. That if they did, it would have been spicier. I guess if the food we had sucked, I would have been pissed, but as the food did not suck, how much could I care. Pork shoulder salad, Chinese broccoli with browned bits of garlic, satay, chicken laab, chive dumplings, bamboo shoot salad--a very green version, different than Thai Avenue's, fried chicken wings. Nothing stood out as much as Spoon Thai, but everything tasted fine nonetheless.

I looked at the some interesting plates of food at Cafe Montenegro next door. Zim warned me and then we split.

The VI family ended up on da'bomb. First stop was actually off of Devon, on California. Acardia is one of those mysterious Brigadoon type of places [Brigadoon is the place that shows up every 7 years right?]. It is pretty much never open when we walk by, and I really thought it just out of business. Not on this day. An older Russian lady sat, rather sad looking. It looked like no one was eating her food. Set up near the cash register was her entire output for the day. One mad dash through the kitchen, leaving an array of things for people to buy and take away. Language issues precluded us from fully knowing what everything was, but we sure took enough of it. Potato latkes stuffed with meat, ground chicken patties, kasha, blintzes, a stew of chicken and potatoes. We ate it later in the week, and it tasted exactly as it looked. Conceived by someone who wanted you to be well fed.

We took two versions of tea on da'bomb that afternoon. Strong Turkish tea in tiny glass glasses at the Turkish place and strong milky tea, the best I've had in ages, at Tahoora Sweets. We got a great deal on strawberries at Fresh Fruit Market and another one of those yeasty round breads from Argo.

We finished the stellar chow day at Tufano's with the lemon chicken, not quite as great as usual, and a bowl of worms, a/k/a cavatelli in red gravy.

I'll dig up addresses later.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

LA Donuts Found!

I'm a known donut fetishist. I even swoon over the nearly leaden circles offered each week at my beloved Oak Park Farmer's Market. Imagine my grand surprise when I showed up in LA on a food oriented vacation to learn that LA was not just a donut town, but a donut town.

What makes LA such a wondrous place to eat donuts is the simple fact that they are everywhere. There are a few temples of fry, stance, Primo's, but these really special places are not what makes LA the donut town. It is a donut shop seemingly on every corner. All with the same shapes and flavors and all tasting just great. How can you not like a city where whenever you need a fix of food crack, you have a dealer waiting.

In Chicago and surrounding suburbs, we have a few donuts shops, which makes nearly everyone special, but nothing approaching the vastness of LA. And it turns out that of our few donut shops, one is a LA donut shop.

A bit stressed the other day, I peaked up just by the site of the sign, "Wheeling Donuts." I entered and saw it. A slab of fried, glazed dough seen often in LA known as the buttermilk bar. I felt transported and slightly hankering for a fatburger. I awoke from my day dream to a giggling Khmer woman behind the counter. Seems her family runs some stands out there. My instantly recognizing the LA donut really cracked her up. A LA buttermilk bar made me pretty happy too.

UPDATE: Sorry I gave absolutely no suggestion on how to find LA donuts in Chicago. Wheeling Donuts is on Dundee just east of Rt. 83, south side of the street. There are 2 very interesting looking Mexican places in the same vicinity.