Friday, September 17, 2004

I Love Salad

David "Hat" Hammond once famously declared, "I hate soup." It was a sentiment he later told me, borne out of frustration with the post Thanksgiving turkey carcass broth forced on him yearly. Yet, soup-phobia was a sentiment I found easy to accept. I was never a big soup fan. To me, soup meant something to fill you up in lieu of more meat. Moreover, I resented soup lovers. It was always easier to get a bowl of soup with your meal than say a plate of herring. Most Local Greek diners offer soup more readily than say, salad. So, I supported soup hating. Now, did I say salad. Salad was supposed to be the other side. Soup was red state, salad blue state (or something like that). I thought Hammond and I were the salad team. Then, he comes out and says, he hates salad too. He called salad stupid. Stupid for its oily mess, stupid for its faux calorie saving, and stupid because it was hard to digest. Hell, he even accused salad of harboring bacteria. I adore salad.

Of course, who really loves salad, that base of lettuce, tomatoes and other vegetables (except my daughter Hannah who willingly eats plain lettuce). What I and most other salad lovers really adore is salad dressing. Is there any kitchen product better than salad dressing? I should ask, is there any kitchen product so accessible, yet so wonderful as salad dressing. I mean I love hollandaise sauce too, but I have nary the patience to make it. And I love mayonnaise but only feel confident in making it when we have pasturized eggs. I can make a great vinaigrette always. Not just always because it is a rather idiot proof recipe, but always because the ingredients are nearly always around. Something acid, something base, like kids with a bunch of litmus strips to play with. Each end contributes to good taste. Acid excites the tongue and all our senses. Oil makes us feel sated. It is lush on the palate. Together, they balance each other so that the shock of one is not too great, and the richness of the other is not to full. Besides, and here's where it gets truly scary. A lot, nay most, bottled salad dressings taste good too because they also have that magic combination. Day glo "French" even has its odd moments of glory. I have mentioned before how the simple combination of catsup and mayo makes a product infinitely better than its component parts. In fact the only salad dressings that I feel are lesser, are when sugars push into the party too hard and interfere with that equilibrium.

Still, do we eat salad dressing alone? Salad dressing is like an orchestra conductor. Without him or her, the musicians cannot function, but without facing an orchestra, a conductor's just a person waving arms. Salad dressing must have salad to be relevant. I noted above that absent a certain 10 year old girl living in Oak Park, people hardly enjoy the taste of lettuce. Salad dressing not only tames the bitterness of greens, it affects an alchemy. It may be messy and laden with calories, but boy does it taste good when combined with vegetables. It does the ideal thing to lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots or any of a bunch of other vegetable that could possibly be considered "salad."

I like all salads. All forms of goods under dressing, but I love best the composed salad, the chopped salad, the julienne salad, the antipasto salad, whatever you want to call it. Add a bit of heft from chopped chicken breast, some pugency of blue cheese, crunchy-salt of bacon, fat of salami or whatever, and the salad is just that much better. In the middle of Oak Park is an odd restaurant called Thyme and Honey run by a dapper Greek with an affection for loud pocket squares. His restaurant produces some surprisingly good things, including one of the best chopped steaks around. I, however, can barely budge from their composed salad. Today, like nearly every time I go to Thyme and Honey, I got the julienne salad. None of the produce or other ingredients is especially, special but it is the sheer amount of them, working off of each other that makes this salad so great. It is lettuce and tomato and hard cooked eggs and celery and green onion (and red onion which I skip) and green peppers and rice stuffed grape leaves and greek broad beans and ham and turkey and two kinds of cheese and cucumber. And it is lots of dressing, made in house, featuring bits of lemons and onions--the former a bit of a pain as I was having this salad today at a business lunch and I kept on finding pieces of lemon peel in my mouth.

I douse the salad with the dressing, add generous amounts of salt and fresh ground pepper, spend five or more minutes obliterating it all into as fine a mix as possible, then find myself with about 25 minutes of sheer bliss. I love salad.

Thyme & Honey
100 S Oak Park
Oak Park
In English, Mandarin Kitchen

There is a restaurant on Archer about where it leaves Chinatown. It is perhaps one of those cursed restaurant locations. For a while a place called Mandarin Kitchen served very good "real" Szechuan food (as compared with suburban Szechuan food) including a crispy chicken dish known by Chowhounds as gribenes chicken. Alas this restaurant is gone. A new restraurant is in its spot, and in English it is still know as Mandarin Kitchen. According to ReneG who has excellent resources, the place in Chinese is now called Da Jiang Nan Bei, meaning all over the county. It, however, specializes in the food of one part of the Chinese country, Shanghai. I've been twice and enjoyed nearly everything I've had except for the whole blue crabs. SethZ writes extensively about the fried fish with seaweed, which I did not know, but to him was an exemplar of Shanghainese cooking here.

The VI family celebrated the start of a new year last night, like good Jews, with Chinese food. And boy was it good Chinese food. Too much Chinese food at Mandarin Kitchen. There are three things I love about this place. First, it is entirely easy and simple to get the house speciality, Shanghai style Chinese food. There is no hidden menu, the specials on the board are translated (look on the board inside not by the door) and the staff appreciates your appreciation for eating the Shanghai food. Second, it is entirely easy to end up with way too much food. There are about 20 appetizers, mixed between hot and cold, and on one hand these dishes, alone are not that expensive, on the other hand, I want to order nearly everyone. Then, there is a page of family style dinners where you order 3 dishes for $23 (with soup), and most of the key items on the menu are availalbe on this page including eel. Yet, you cannot stop on this page because you also have to eat something from the page of noodles and rice cakes. Third, it is entirely easy to eat so well here as the cooking is superb in nearly every dish I've tried here.

Last night we had the following:

Salty vegegable with tofu (or salty tofu with vegetable, I cannot find my menu) - This is a favorite of the chowhounditas, an impossible to eat with chopsticks fine dice of tofu and seaweed (or something else green and vegetal).

Shanghai style fried tofu - This was not what I expected, well at lest not cubes of fried tofu I thought we pass off to the kids for some protein. It was a need RST to fully explain medly of tofu, some kind of strand, mushrooms and other fungi marinated in something red, I think similar to the Fukinese stuff that comes after making rice wine but without too much of the hard to handle "barnyard" aroma.

Soup - If you need another reason to order from the family choices, this soup was it, a light brown broth with soft tiles of tofu, seaweed and earthy mushrooms.

Pondfish in spicy bean sauce - I believe pond fish is carp, but the fish came out in thin slices, unusual for this kind of fish. BIG warning for small hidden bones, but if you appreciate the taste of freshwater fish, you will enjoy this fish greatly. The bean sauce is not that spicy.

Homemade sesame pancakes stuffed with bits of something yellow and fluffy - Very good

Soup dumplings with crab and pork - Very soupy. Strong crab roe flavor so you have to like that.

Homemade noodles with chicken and vegetables - This was the primo dish of the night, and if Mandarin Kitchen had nothing else good on the menu, I would adore this restaurant just for this dish. Chewy, toothsome noodles inflused with its sauce, garnished with lots of fresh vegetables and just a bit of diced chicken.

Chinese cabbage (baby bok choy) with bean curd sheets - Lots of vitamins and contrasting textures.

Salt and pepper shrimps - A very crisp version, the salt making more of a crust. They were good but not as good as Happy Chef, and the only dish I would not order again.

Mandarin Kitchen / Da Jiang Nan Bei
2143 S Archer Av