Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Phil Vettel Game

Who wins?

I thought Phil had me on his review of Matsumoto. I mean, ethnic, interesting, obscure, expensive, difficult, who sez Phil's not earnin'. Still, this bugged me:

people simply demand more quality at this price range.

Now, I am not one who denigrates comfort, decor and atmosphere. I think they are important and they add immeasurably to the dining experience. On the other hand, I think at the end of the day, it's the food that counts. We have too many Arun's and such in this town that present fluff in the name of high prices. I'd prefer Mr. Vettel came down on the side of food.

(Remember you read about Matsumoto here first, where discussion continues.)

Monday, October 31, 2005

Save This Restaurant*

We walked into Mandarin Kitchen last night at about 6 PM. We walked out around 7:30. During that time, two other sets of customers arrived--for hot pots. Our table, however, was the only one to sample the Shanghainese and Northern Chinese specialties. A confidential source has reported similar sparse crowds. If Mandarin Kitchen cannot thrive because of this fallow patronage, it will be a real loss to our area’s eaters. When the un-interested make their usual banal, no good Chinese food in Chicago statements, the death of Mandarin Kitchen will inadvertently support their no-nothingness. This is a restaurant that does not deserve to die.

Already, I would say it suffered a bit from non-use. The salty vegetable and bean curd, one of my favorite of the cold appetizers, a fine mix of green something and tofu something that melds into a salty, vegetal bomb in the mouth, tasted tired. The thick and chewy Shanghai style round noodles seemed a bit too gloppy. The pond fish in spicy sauce did not taste fishy or off but my palate could tell that it was almost there. With Chinese restaurants you expect your fish to be not even close to this stage. Still, Mandarin Kitchen showed why it should matter to Chicago chowhounds and Chinese food mavens. It provides a menu filled with choices. All the standards of the Shanghai cannon, the soup dumplings and assorted items in chili oil like razor thin tendon, ten or so variations on bean curd, several items in the brown braising sauce almost equal amounts sugar and soy (with a few other ingredients to elevate). It is a rich, hearty food that should go well in Chicago. Perhaps because Shanghai food has not become “in” in Chicago, Mandarin Kitchen has been adding many dishes from Beijing, where the owners actually hail. A lot of this stuff is written only in Chinese but the menu now contains a few items like chicken and potato casserole that is more Northern than Eastern. As if ordering before was easy.

To tempt us towards this new direction, Aidee, the sly and attractive owner of MK grilled us up, on the house, some lamb kebabs coated in spices more Indian than Chinese (it seemed). Do order these when you help save this restaurant. We also ordered the Northern beef stew with crinkly sheets of dry tofu. A great rich dish (again highly desirable for our climate) that was somewhat marred by too much sterno underneath. Once we figured out how to cap the flame, we liked this dish better. More Shanghai was soft tofu cubes in a sweet dressing with plenty of contrast from a Chinese pickle. Our final dish was sautéed eggplant, than in the wonders of Chinese translations, was actually batter fried eggplant slices briefly stir-fried with a double handful of snipped chives. A dish of strong, inter-mixed flavors, salty, sweet and sharp, just another reason to return to the “New” Mandarin Kitchen.

I should add that before any of our dishes arrived; we got a bit of cabbage, slightly fermented and sneaky hot from several dried maroon peppers. We also got bowls of cabbage soup that tasted much like my Mom’s or Manny’s. At the original, Mandarin Kitchen, there was a crispy fried chicken known to eaters as gribenese chicken. Well, this soup would be a fitting match to that dish. The first Mandarin Kitchen did excellent versions of spicy, oily Szechwan style food. It was a shame it closed, but when it closed, there was still Lao Sze Chuan and Spring World doing equally good versions of this food (and subsequently, Sky). If the New Mandarin Kitchen leaves, there is really nothing else like it around. Save this restaurant!

The “New” Mandarin Kitchen
2143 S Archer

*Feature stolen from Time Out Chicago
Final Market
Oak Park Farmer's Market - 10/29/05

It’s over. Or just begun. As I have paraded before you, with high degree of righteousness and sanctimony, I will be eating from a farmer’s market shopping cart even as Oak Park’s splendid market packs up for the year—does it not seem like the old time circus, it’s here, it’s all consuming, and then just gone. For the next six months or so, that parking lot at the Pilgrim Church*, on Lake near Ridgeland will be like any other parking lot. It will be hard to imagine the many stands with their fruit, their vegetables, their flowers, their cheese, their meat, their eggs, their vinegars, and their bake sales for various good causes will not be there. No one will hear the several guitars, banjos, mandolins, fiddles, a stand-up bass or two, and whatever else shows up, that combine into one complexly pure line of music. No one will take in the whiffs of donuts being made and Oak Park’s own Hayes, since 1789 (?!), coffee. No one will not run into their neighbors, kid’s coaches, co-volunteers, and Village residents who look vaguely familiar (most likely because you see them once a week at the Market). No dogs will be parked at the edges of the lot, tails wagging, waiting for someone to return. It will just be a parking lot.

It seems so sudden because the market stayed so full this fall. In years past, the last few weeks were mostly a bazaar of snake gourds, bales of hay and corn stalks. All the things I hate for its uselessness (but have to appreciate for the way the farmer’s can make a few extra bucks pawning off their garbage). Usually by this time of year even the pumpkins look a bit haggard as all the good ones have been sold. The last market was about saying good bye and celebrating the run with a Styrofoam cup of stone soup. Inevitably, the soup kept you warm on a day that was a brutal as a Welsh summer. The metaphor for this year’s market was the fact that the stone soup was gone by the time we made it to the market (having a soccer game first), but we did not need the soup.

I will say that finally, the market thinned a bit. Nicholls’s Farm did not have any tomatoes, yet tomatoes, at the end of October! fresh tomatoes could still be found. There were also still raspberries but not enough for them to be there at 11 AM. We bought a ½ bushel of apples from Hardin Farms, under this year’s standing philosophy of sticking with the place I know. This should keep us in local fruit for a while, although we picked up a new blender the other day at Costco, and we should start mixing up smoothies with some of our frozen stuff this week. Because we gave Farmer Vicki a check for her fall CSA, we did not feel the need to over-buy vegetables. We still did buy. Skinny, leafy celery and skinny white eggplants from Nicholls; cabbage, cow’s head sized cauliflower and the remains of this years broccoli crop from The Farm (oh, and tomatoes too), lettuce and onions and potatoes and jalepenos to carry us over from Vicki’s Genesis Growers. Things cool that I passed on included sunchokes, parsley root and celery root from Nicholls’s (who uses parsley root?); fresh lavender from Vicki (smelled good though), and interesting radishes at Sandhill Organics, hand grenade-ish looking black radishes and another radish that when sliced was almost like those old-fashioned watermelon candies, green, then white then bright red. They looked like Middle-Eastern pickled turnips already pickled. As always, I admired the wild mushrooms at Nicholls more than I ever will purchase them. My favorite farmer’s, the Wettstein’s, made one their intermittent visits. We bought their brats, pork sausage and ground beef and promised to buy some eggs when they will be at Oak Park’s Buzz Café on November 19 (as like the soup and raspberries, the eggs were gone by 11). It just was like pretty much any week, plenty to buy, plenty we could have bought.

Like I say, our eating local will not stop when this week’s produce runs out. We have the CSA, which I will duly report. We have our freezer stock, our apples and squash and potatoes and onions waiting for us in the cold room. We will make a run to two to the Green City Fall market just to see what is there. Like I have also said, I believe what we eat daily in our house is as good as all but the best restaurants in Chicago. There are really great reasons to go local. Think of the effect on the environment when your produce is trucked in all the way from California, or worse, flown in from Holland, South Africa, and New Zealand. Or think of the difference between the one round stiff tomato found at Jewel and the many sizes, shapes and colors of tomatoes found at the markets when someone throws out the word biodiversity. Support the nearby farmer, not just for what they are doing but because how well they can help you eat.

See ya next year.

*The other notable shingle style, triangled roof building in Oak Park.