Thursday, May 18, 2006

A Swing and a Miss
Or the Perils of Straying

What a price I pay for being non-local. And I am not talking about the $15 for a chunk of fresh mozzarella. We went to Caputo’s Cheese Market in Melrose Park intending to eat local. Asparagus purchased that day at Chicago’s Green City Market, steamed; topped with a farm egg, fried in local butter. All we needed to accent, the smallest portion of imported Parmesan Regianno. We could have used local, heck Kraft is based in the Chicago area, but we are snobs. We had to have the real thing.

There are days when you do not feel like shopping, and there are days when the money’s burning a hole in your pocket. We went to Green City in a shopping mood. We expected to get all the foods to enhance our Eat Local efforts that have been hard to get of late. Local meat, local eggs, and especially, local grains. Surely, because it took me an hour to go from Damen and North to actually shopping at the market, having to fork over $4 to boot for a parking space, I was not predisposed towards liking the market. We found our grain guy, Wilmont Milling, who stone grinds in Indiana, missing. (He would be there on Saturdays.) Some of our favorite meat guys, like Land Connection/Wettstein and Milwaukee’s Growing Power (for their chickens) were not there. All of a sudden, the prices seemed high, the selections not what we wanted. We got the barest of necessities: winterized parsnips, chives with flower, and the harbinger, asparagus; also some delicious apple butter from Seedlings, equally delicious goat cheese from Prairie Fruits Farm and equally equally delicious cheeses (butterkase and cheddar) from Prairie Pure Cheese. Plus, the littlest of meat purchases, chicken livers and ham hocks from Twin Oaks Meat.

Our quench to buy exploded at Caputo’s. It started local, a giant (and I mean giant) torpedo of Wisconsin Provolone beckoned. We grabbed a chunk. Then a chunk of this, a chunk of that. So many cheeses at these prices, mostly $5/lb (or less), shrink wrapped for time, we got local and not local. Then, we got to the fresh mozza. Caputo’s makes their own, and they have won the blue ribbon several times at the Illinois State Fair. What were we thinking when we saw giant balls of imported mozzarella di buffalo. Well, I was thinking, how fresh could it be? They told me it had come in just today. Could that be true? I took them on their word. Go for it. Splurge.

We re-wrote the menu. Out the Lombard style asparagus (scroll down for the recipe). In, a deli style dinner focused on our imported mozzarella. We assumed that this one outstanding ingredient would dominate the meal. To accent, we got a few slices of Parma ham, some eggplant salad and some weird spinach pancakes that would be our hot course. We had good crusty bread, pickled vegetables and olives at home. It seemed like a good meal, and only later did I realize I was subconsciously imitating Johnny Apple from earlier in the day (reg. required).

It started with the mozzarella. It just did not blow me away. There was a complexity to it. It tasted a bit more like goat cheese. Still, the flavors were muted. There was no epiphany. It drove the whole meal down. It did not help that the spinach pancakes were awful, the eggplant salad dry. I liked the ham a lot but it was a losing battle. Some times you have an idea and it does not work. Every time I drag my family to some new restaurant that sucks, I say, you have to kiss some frogs to find your prince. Not a restaurant per se but a frog nonetheless. And what happens, I suppose when we go non-local.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A Tale of Two Non-Local Dinners
In the Same Night
With a Non-Local Treat

If you know anything about the Omega, the mega-Greek Coffee Shop in Des Plaines, you would find it hard to believe that I was still hungry after dinner. Yet there I was, driving down Cumberland looking for something interesting because, yea, I was still hungry. Many (many) years ago, Mike G asked how. Not how I could still be hungry after eating dinner, but how one finds interesting eats. He focused on Mexican restaurants, but it was a good question for any restaurant. What do people look for when they are out chowhounding. Me, I’m a sucker for signs I cannot read. In languages I cannot recognize.

So, I U-Turned and pulled into this strip mall in Norridge, intrigued by what exactly was Tasty World. There were two especially pale cones of gyro. I did not want that. I quizzed the fetching girl with green eye shadow. She showed me a tri-part menu with value meals across the range of Chicago fast food. I tried to figure out a way to ask nicely. The sign, what the hell does it say. What the hell language is that. Which is what I finally blurted out (or something to that extent). Bulgarian. Bulgarian she admitted. She told me that the sign roughly translated as tasty cheap treats, or Bulgarian fast food. But where was the Bulgarian on the menu. “Oh, this menu,” she showed me—in Bulgarian Cyrillic. She kindly read me the list.

Mousaka, tripe soup, sausage, Bulgarian burgers shaped either long or in patties, a few other things. I got the burgers, one in each shape. It came with, as my daughter noted, Bulgarian ketchup, think red, but thicker and spicier; an onion heavy salad with bottled dressing and crinkle-cut fries (something Ms. Green Eye shadow was especially keen on). It was supposed to be the same meat, but I liked the round patty better. The onion flavor seemed more pronounced and integrated in the meat, a more complex product. It was, as advertised, cheap but tasty food.

Like I say, I should not be hungry after Omega. I mentioned to Pigmon yesterday how I (oddly) loved this place. He zeroed in right away on what made it appeal to me but not him. Vegas. Eating at Omega is like eating at one of the Vegas buffets before they went gourmet. If you know Las Vegas, think Station Casino. Of course, there is no buffet, they just bring the food. Completes start with big bread baskets, croissants, muffins, soft rolls, then soup, salad, big portions of your main, starch, vegetable and finally a dessert that neither looks nor tastes too special but fits properly in this meal. Few people, even me, eat a complete. Rather, we split.

While I love Omega, I really limit myself to a few offerings. My favorite is what I split with my daughter the other night, Greek style skirt steak. I like the meat and its lemony-oregano bath, but I also like (nay love), the Greek salad offered with this dinner. Again, this is like the buffet comes to the table, a big mass of feta fingers, peppers, anchovies, thick vegetables and a creamy, hearty dressing. I just wish they’d dry the lettuce better. It’s not just the gluttony that makes Omega Vegas. It is the crowd. It is my people. Alter-kocker heaven. The loud kibitz, the duds, the packing away the rolls to go, well you just will not find this kinda place very much longer. Appreciate it while you can.

Finally, a purchase far from the Eat Local Challenge; in the same strip mall as Tasty World is a small Middle-Eastern market called City Food. They were selling tiny-tart green plums from California. I figured how much degradation of product could something supposed to be picked too young, to green be? If anything was meant to be shipped, was this not it?

Tasty World
4834 N. Cumberland
Norridge, IL

Omega Restaurant
9100 N Golf
Des Plaines

City Food & Grocery
4832 N Cumberland Ave
Norridge, IL 60706
(708) 453-1899