February 19, 2010

Notes on Trinidad and Tobago

Posted in travel tagged , , , , , at 2:54 am by lostfourwords

Some notes on Trinidad and Tobago, from which I just returned after experiencing Carnaval. (Quick summary: Trinis know how to party.)

1)      Trinidad has a rather fascinating polyglot culture of Indian, creole, and pan-Caribbean influences, but coherent and meaningful flavors in the supposed national dishes continually eluded me. Take the Bake ‘n’ Shark, which on paper sounds like the most brilliant fish taco ever conceived: fried chunks of shark and some vegetal manner for textural contrast (generally, tomatoes and/or coleslaw) stuffed between something along the lines of Indian fry bread. But all four variations of the dish I had were more like a Chalupa than anything: just a sloppy mix of semi-interesting gunk slapped between over-fried bread. The sammich clearly needs something piquant for the whole combination to work, though maybe context is everything: everyone always says that the best bake and shark is found at Maracas Beach, 15 miles to the north of Port of Spain, and I can see why having the beach in the background would help.

2)      I stuck to street vendors for most of my food in Port of Spain, the capital of the islands, and did not experience the formal Indian cuisine of the island—Indian and West Indians make up 40% or so of the population—but I was disappointed with what I found. “Rotis,” a common snack food, were burrito-like and –sized concoctions of roti skin stuffed with a protein, potatoes, and the au jus—drunk people’s food, essentially. Pholourie, little fried balls of chickpea, epitomized what seems to be missing: a really lack of pronounced flavors, and a pronounced lack of salt. You know, color. The same can be said of the creole food we had at the “Breakfast Shed,” an outdoor food court downtown with a dozen stalls of grandma cooking: soulful and hearty—lots of starches, collard greens, and meat on the bone—but really lacking vitality.

3)      The lone exception on this trip was a popular breakfast snack known as “Doubles,” which plays the role of T’n’T’s taco: two thin ovals of fried bread, layered with a goo of channa, curry, and dhal, as well as the addition of a spicy or sweet chutney. I had Doubles a number of times over the course of a long weekend and felt that a sweet mango chutney—rather than a cloying pepper sauce—really made the flavors pop. Incidentally, the best Doubles in the Port of Spain area are at the airport: a guy just outside at the far west end of the terminal—look for the motley mix of pilots, cabbies, and fresh-off-the-plane ex-pats—is dishing out some seriously good food for $0.50 a round.

4)      Trinbagoans love—love!—fried chicken; I’ve never ever seen a fervor quite like it. The source of the love is mostly directed at KFC, even over a local chain called Royal Castle:  the biggest and most popular KFCs in the world are here. Really. Even more intriguing: the KFC down here uses fresh local chickens, and claims to have a different spice mixture—we had to try it, you know? While I can’t confirm the latter, it can be said that the chicken is tautologically chicken, pleasantly reminding me of eating the Colonel in the 1980s before they extra-crispified everything.

5)      Re: Tobago, We stayed in a fishing village on the west side of the island called Castara, one also popular enough with travelers to sustain several no-frills restaurants that modestly offer that idealized island life aura. It helps that the hamlet makes locavorism appear elemental: boats go out, catch fish, and chop them up for the local residents and restaurants; the roosters and goats meandering about town also end up on the menu. They caught shark on Friday, so we ate that for dinner; they caught tuna on Saturday, so we had that. All of the restaurants offered a basic sort of “meat-and-three:” you selected your protein and received a plate bursting with bits of everything—your protein, a rice, a salad, some greens, a lentil of some sort, and so on. The best of this sort in Castara was at Margueritte’s Local Food, where the goat meal featured chunks of the animal in an ingenious sour curry with tamarind and hyssop notes, as well as some deeply soulful pigeon peas; the Roadside Café across the street had a tuna dish the next night that somehow made overcooking a strength, giving the barbecued fish a shredded, smoky patina. It’s closest antecedent was a BBQ pork sandwich I had at A&R Barbecue in Memphis a few weeks back.

6)      Trinbagans love sweets—a little too much, methinks, but they are everywhere, and in every form, including gazillions of kinds of crackers, cookies, candies and so on. They particularly are proud of their ice cream, and many places advertise homemade confections; we had some guava on the beach in Tobago that really deftly balanced fruit flavors and cream essence. But some of the store-bought sugar snacks were intolerably sweet.

7)      This country also has the most diverse array of soda drinks I’ve yet seen, including a carob and sorrel beer that many were drinking during Jouvert and S’malta, a soda emulating malt alcoholic beverages (tres post modern!). Mauby, the island favorite, is a bit of a headtripper: think ginger ale…if it were flavored with tamarind and molasses. Barky!

February 7, 2010

The ‘New’ in New Orleans

Posted in Contemporary, New restaurants at 6:03 am by lostfourwords

Five years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is remains in a fits-and-starts recovery mode, and the same may also be said of the evolution of its dining scene, which is moving with slowly, and with some trepidation, towards a new hybrid culinary idiom that seems inevitable—but surely is taking a long time to get going. Oh, sure, we saw plenty of heavy-hand ed classicism (e.g., Galatoire’s, Arnaud’s) and very-1990s style New Americana (e.g., Bayona, Herbsaint) at well-known institutions in the Vieux Carre, but in places outside the French Quarter the culinary trends of the last few years are starting to make their presence known: peasant cooking, molecular gastronomy, the pork craze, et al. Given the rich culinary tradition and the considerable amount of talent, the potential for a new generation of excellence here is limitless—if the city can ever recover enough to support.

One of those places is, of all things, a Po-Boy shop. Mahoney’s, in what can only be described as a college-town cute sandwich shop in the Garden District, is new not only in age but also in spirit: its owner seeks to both preserve the New Orleans sandwich canon and expand on it, a pursuit so illustrated by a menu divided by “Usual Suspects” (classics) and “Signature Specialties” (newfangled). We sampled each angle: a fried oyster Po-Boy to test the kitchen’s base competency, and a Chicken Liver Po-Boy to see its reach. There is no question the frying talent here is impeachable, equal to the best eat-in-the-rough clam shacks of New England, though the Oyster sandwich suffered some from the rather haphazard stuffing of mayo, tomato, and shredded lettuce—good, but not remarkable. But the Chicken Liver Po-Boy—well, that was pure genius, the best thing I’ve yet eaten in the new year. Here is a sandwich of intellect, clearly the work of intelligent designer: deeply mineral nubbins of fried offal, paired solely with a creole cole slaw with flavors of vinegar and mustard seed predominating, sharpening the deep cut of the livers. Harmony in a day-old roll. A taste of what happens when the best aspects of Louisiana and southern cooking—namely, deep frying and bold flavors—are artfully handled and constructed.  A next-day visit to the Bourdain-approved Domilise proved my suspicions: the classic joints could no doubt fry an oyster, but they certainly did not know how to structure a sandwich. Case in point: my girlfriend’s off-menu construction of fried shrimp, beef gravy, and swiss cheese, an utter and awful mess of components that do not work well together.

We had some navigation concerns, too, with Cochon, the press happy nose-to-tail palace that is New Orleans’s most well-known post, though the meal was mostly quite memorable and  a promising look into where the city’s culinary talent may eventually go. It’s a convenient moniker, to be sure, but clearly this is the Crescent City’s Publican: pig parts everywhere, no regard for course structure or the sane man’s digestive track. I love these sorts of places for the joy they place on quality of ingredients and the power of deep flavor, but my stomach reels at the titanic responsibility placed upon the diner to organize the flow of the meal—because if you don’t pace it correctly, you will be feeling it for much longer than you’d hope. We failed: we didn’t eat until 6PM the next day.

The Parker House rolls may be among the most perfectly thought-out and realized examples of bread service , with a deep ; I had to beg our waitress for another—they do not dispense with them quite as easily as Olive Garden, apparently—just to confirm their beauty. (Confirmed.) A charcouterie plate was textbook: perfect rillettes, a nice cold smoked ham, superiorly fatty headcheese and country bologna, and a chorizo of the Gods; the house-made pickles were killer, and only the toast points, overly herby and skimpy in number, failed us. Vegetables here exemplify the sick sense of pork love being dispensed by the kitchen: a romanesco special seemed, by description, simple enough, but came to the table with plenty more andouille sausage than branches of the green vegetable; an arugula salad was filled out with pumpkin-cheese beignets, goat cheese, tasso ham, and plenty of pan drippings. In both cases, the diner had to do the work to find symmetry—this bite is too porky, this bite is too salty, but this bite is just the right depth of crunch, fat, and flavor. This sort of cooking is too messy to be perfect, and that’s part of its pleasure: it’s going to be rough around the edges, and the same dish may disarm and disappoint you in single bites. I like a challenge.

Indeed, when the restaurant’s namesake came to the table we were pretty concerned: this was a pretty good cake of pork shoulder, though no superior to what we had at The Purple Pig recently, or what I experienced in my travels through the rural Carolinas in August. But we experimented a bit and learned two things: 1) when trawled through some particularly creamy grits, the resulting sludge was rather divine; 2) the pork cracklins’ dotting the pork patty might be among the most pure and delicious expressions of swine yet realized by an American chef. I believe the word is ‘haunting’: there is an immediate prominence of smoke, scent so perfectly encapsulated as taste; this gives way to and to an umistakable yet surprising richness that seemingly cannot come from something as airy and as ephemeral as a ribbon. Yeah, we finished the plate.

But we were also very very tired eating this meal, and a number of menu items were regretfully passed upon, either because of oyster weariness (we had had them four meals straight), ingredient wariness (mushrooms and lemons), or a sadistic desire to avoid anything remotely healthy (the wood grilled fish preps); so too was dessert, which was surprisingly banal and seemingly straight from a corporate kitchen. I had my hopes the restaurant would provide some sort of petit four or final sweet bite, but they practically bumped us into the cold night without so much as a goodbye.

Though Cochon is safely ensconced in a culinary idiom rapidly being replicated across the country, it also has clear and deep and real ties to the Cajun regionalisms just a few hours to the west, and therefore has greater potential for transcendence than other restaurants of its ilk, such as Animal or the aforementioned The Publican. That also makes its rather static nature—the menu does not seemed to have changed much, if at all, from the previous winter—rather disconcerting, though so too is the reality that Cochon has no competition to speak of: in representing the peasant-as-haute trend, in representing newfangled Cajun cooking, it is the only game in town. A good game, to be sure, but one that will only be fully realized when the city’s dining scene becomes restless, embraces change, and supports a new vision of what it means to eat New Orleans. With a new mayor, a team in the Super Bowl, a slowly increasing population, and some of its new titans taking the plunge (Brasserie Luke and Stella! come to mind), that time, I hope, is soon. I’m looking forward to going back again when it does…or maybe just for another Chicken Liver Po-Boy.

Mahony’s Po-Boy Shop
3454 Magazine Street

New Orleans, LA 70115
504-899-3374

Cochon
930 Tchoupitoulas St.
New Orleans, LA.
504.588.2123


January 21, 2010

They Say the Soup is “Homemade”: The Foodie in Rural America

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 3:36 am by lostfourwords

There are but two restaurants in Glencoe, Minnesota, and only one restaurant’s title did not contain the word “ranch.” That was Bump’s, sister restaurant of the dreary Super 8 Motel in which I stayed, home of a particularly banal special: a roast beef sandwich on store-bought white bread, topped with mashed potatoes and then doused with canned gravy—called a “Commercial,” apparently with good reason. This was sub-cafeteria food: tough, bland, damp. A colleague called it nostalgic; I thought you needed a perm and a XXL sweatshirt with teddy bears on the front (and back!) to swallow it down. They filmed God’s Country here: one wonders where Louis Malle ate for two months.

But let me not be too harsh on Bump’s: in an area where the locals’ consistent response to restaurant recommendations was to bestow high praise upon an Applebee’s some fifteen miles to the north, the highway diner was a model of Sysco-compensated competence. Even if the broasted chicken was over-fried, the pork tough as leather, someone was back there cooking: I had a chicken stir fry that, in spite of the strange prominence of broccoli stalks, was redolent of sesame oil and uncannily similar to the prep my mom dialed in when she broke out the wok—such a taste memory is the very point and power of such a restaurant like this. The non-sequitors help, too: loved the buttered toast and packets of jelly and sweet and sour sauce that came included with the fry; I wish I knew how the locals put it all together. (A guess: I imagine they make a sandwich, with jelly on one toast and sweet’n’sour on the other; the rice goes in between). Many of the baked goods are made in-house, including an oatmeal square, served slightly warm, whose interplay of creaminess from the sour cream and tart sweetness from the raisins was, at 6:45AM in the morning, brilliant; in a sort-of nouveau touch, the apple dumpling was served with a particularly spicy cinnamon ice cream—too overpowering, but I appreciated the gesture.

The purpose of this blog post, however, is not to marinate on the merits of Glencoe, Minnesota but to consider how an outsider inhabits and navigates a community, particularly a northern one, of limited culinary means. The warehouses that dot US-212 on the way out from the Twin Cities to Glencoe bespeak of the promises and failings of what will be consumed: Sysco will follow you here. This guarantees a certain uniformity to your fried cheese sticks and turtle cheesecake, yet it is also precisely the problem: the foodie recognizes the sources of the food, its instant and inherent limitations; food as a monolith. Eating stir-fry as a default dinner at a diner tells you that while all politics is local, cuisine no longer is: in most parts of the country, there is no longer a vernacular, a context, a mise en place—any dietary retinue that, in 48 hours, contains a tuna sub, chicken salad sandwich, garlic cheese toast, and chef’s salad can only be called disconcerting.

What to do? My colleagues, your typical bourgeois Americanus, the kind of folk who recognizes basic regionalisms and seasonality but who rave about this or that Darden concept, made a rookie mistake that I, worried about being an obnoxious elitist, did not warn about ahead of time: they asked for the locals’ advice. See, Glencoe is an interesting town, at least socioculturally: peas are grown and canned for the makers of Jolly Green Giant vegetables, and that means several hundred migrant workers from Mexico have settled in the area. A quick analysis of said immigrants’ plight, however, made it abundantly clear that they were not in the position to own their own eating establishment; indeed, when asked where the newcomers eat—well, where we might get ‘Mexican food’—we were informed of an excellent place back in the suburbs: On the Border. (I believe the term the kids use these days is “epic FAIL.”) We settled for Dubb’s.

Dubb’s is not a restaurant, in that it functions primarily as a bar, and that it also does not serve anything remotely close to the objective minimums that most humans would set for what qualifies as food; I have my suspicions that our waitress also was our “cook,” in that she was the one who set the frozen goo into the steam bath (suspicions confirmed upon sneaking a peak at the kitchen, where there were few traces of actual food, save for some lonely and rather aged bananas). The menu was impossible: seven pages of fried and fat, culled straight from the freezer into the vat or pot–my walleye pike had that freezer burn flavor so firmly attached to fish sticks; the ribs were clearly boiled; the pizza had an enormous amount of sugar in the sauce; the vegetables, straight from a grocery store medley, were served in the water used to defrost them. A colleague asked that greatest of dumb questions—i.e., Is the soup homemade?—and got the most subjective of answers: “yep.” And yet the same waitress—and this was true of our servers at the other restaurant in town—were more than willing to announce that everything else came from Sysco. Pride of place, one supposes.

It took me at least ten minutes to settle on dinner at Dubb’s, and my travails with the menu did not escape serious reflection throughout the mediocrity we called dinner. Mostly, I thought about my time at Purple Pig a week ago—about what I wanted from a menu, a meal, food. My qualms with PP are of a different existential sort, but I remember a palpable excitement as I digested its concise but far-reaching menu, my desire to eat food of certain panoply and broad form and function, of some purpose. Locals go to Dubb’s to pass time, to survive, just because; I go to restaurants because I’m pretty well content with the void that is existence, so food must serve as a composition or artifact with meaning/value beyond itself. This, the foodie so desperately needs: call it the “experience,” not in the way trend whores frequent a place to say they’ve been but the promise of a different mirror that staves off the endless nausea of living. A modicum of pleasure is also not unwelcome: I like my flavor profile as alchemy; I want, at least, the illusion of surprise, that the thousands of other meals high and low I’ve experienced have not ruined the life-affirming qualities of dining out, the pure pleasures of challenging, meaningful, delicious food.

Alas, Dubb’s proved they had. I consumed dinner, dejected and much too self-aware, alert now to the reality that no answer sufficient enough is to be found in broasted chicken.

January 11, 2010

Last Exit

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 6:10 pm by lostfourwords

To have a critical eye and/or “scientific” perspective on food necessitates an emotional and/or aesthetic detachment from the joys of eating. Worse yet, the ambivalence steadfastly grows: as you uncover and analyze patterns in flavor profiles and combinations, as you better understand food properties and chemistry, eating well becomes something akin to a math equation, albeit an elegant one.  Food is to be admired from such a stance, to be sure, but loved? Rather difficult.

The need to pass through such intellectual concerns first vastly complicates a person’s aptitude for culinary pleasure; it is rarely expressed as a result, or it is articulated in useless words rather than sensation. All that is left is modest surprise: those moments when food is somehow not itself, when it challenges culinary memory and expectation. The best chefs practice such slight of hands all the time, but the surprise factor shines most brightly when it is unintended: when it is the mass-produced, artificial; when the banal accidentally is something else. So it came to be that my most recent memorable food experience involved a bag of chips.

Just chips: a German cult favorite of sorts by Lorenz known as “Curly Peanut Classic”, though the item itself was for the Polish market (thank you, Jerry’s!). They are, yes, peanut flavored, though not peanuts in and of themselves: beyond copious MSG, it’s primarily a corn-based product…and the rest, gladly, is in Polish. They were on sale for $1–for three bags. Do the math on the kind of crap being dumped into these doodles.

The beauty of the snack is its synthesis of a familiar yet unlikely taste and texture: you first experience the airy, weightless crunch of your typical cheese puff/doodle, leading your tongue and brain to expect the ensuing salty and rubbery sensation of dehydrated cheese–but no. Upon crunching the chip you experience a very dry, almost oaky, flavoring–the Lorenz food chemists have somehow cloned the flavor not of the peanut but of its skin. That would be, on its own, disgusting, yet it works here, the gritty presence of both corn and (artificial) nut working out a truce to coexist in a flavor loop that seems to have no beginning or end. And so: to ask of enjoyment would be utterly irrelevant.

One wonders how genius these lil’ doodles must taste when eaten in some acid rain-soaked arboreal forest of northern Europe.

One wonders how genius

January 10, 2010

What it means to be a Chicago restaurant in 2010: The Purple Pig

Posted in Contemporary, New restaurants tagged , , , , at 5:45 pm by lostfourwords

It’s very early in this restaurant’s life, and I’mma let it finish (working the kinks out, I mean), but let me damn The Purple Pig with some faint socio-cultural-historical praise: what Maggiano’s and Bandera were to Streeterville in the 1990s, this place is to Boul Mich in the 2000s. Young restaurant, will you serve and properly execute a modest, likable concept (e.g., Bandera), or will you soon be an embarrassing sign of our past culinary ignorance, the vittles-as-malling-of-America (e.g., Maggiano’s)?

Time will, of course, tell. But here’s what a restaurant concept that’s trying not to be a concept is in 2010: it serves plenty of pig parts, has “schmears”, discombobulates some pan-Europa, pan-ContempAmer culinary concept that only investors could come up with; has communal seating that took into account absolutely nothing of what human beings need when, you know, sitting at a table; can be easily replicated in St. Louis. It is intentionally small, the better for people to buzz and mill in its complete lack of a waiting area. (Liked waiting in the elevator hallway at the original Heaven on Seven? Great! There’s even less room here.) It lets its customers bring their own snobbery: the dopey looking girl who came in after us, without so much as being prompting or offering us a pleasantry, asked if we had been to The Spotted Pig–you know, the NEW YORK CITY restaurant (yee haw!)–and if we could compare stated/real wait times and the proportions of porcine-related menu items. Rhetorical question, it seems: of course she had been; this place seemed more “piggy” to her, and when in jest I noted the euphemistic nature of our present restaurant, she simply started talking in earnest about pig tails. (Maybe she was making a dick joke that went over my head?). Later, the absolutely blitzed trixie sitting next to us, studded out as and strutting like nothing so much as a peacock, proceeded to order the most impressive display of drunk food I’ve ever seen: a full charcouterie plate, bone marrow, brandade, lardo–the latter of which she repeatedly dropped into her lap, completely unawares, always smiling.

I don’t understand anything anymore.

Fine by the restaurant. Jimmy Bannos Sr. was out taking Salahi-style photos with a large group of older couples, one of whom, between lapdances, hit the narrow aisles—sucks to be you, server—for a twirl to “Africa.” (That is, for the uninformed, Toto, not Vampire Weekend.) The rest of the playlist was equally precious: “Pokerface.” “Public Affair” (the Jessica Simpson cover). “Bad Romance.” “Idioteque.” “Just Dance.” “Africa” “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Really.

Oh, yes yes yes: the food. You know, how it is: everything on the menu—which in spite of its single page has to have at least 60 items on it—has a high Q score in scarfability (or whatever the fuck Guy Fieri says). So new! So Cal-Med! Lots of location scouting, by which I mean that the people behind this place clearly had a couple of meals at The Bristol, Avec, and The Publican—yet somehow ended up on Harlem Avenue to finish. Whereas Koren Grievson’s flavor profile at Avec generally relies on the bright qualities of acid (citrus, vinaigrettes, etc.), here taste is proffered by some imaginary Nonna: lots of Italian herbs and olive oils, a ready hand with the salt. Of all things, the neckbone gravy, a thick ragu with fatty and oregano-y notes, was shockingly good.

But the gravy was in service of what ultimately amounted to nothing more than your typical goat-cheese-tomato-and-toast-points dish, and that pretty much sums up what’s on offer here at the moment: promising elements, mixed sums. A dish of cuttlefish was overwhelmed by salty vinaigrette and rosemary, though these elements were perfect for the accompanying almonds. An endive salad, brightened by orange slices, went overkill on the blue cheese. Fried brussel sprouts tasted like potato chips—well, Munchos—but seemed to have come from the mind of a stoned teenage foodie: too much thyme, too much lemon. A milk-braised pork shoulder was masterfully cooked, tender to the fork—and drowned inexplicably (as in: not described so on the menu) in mashed potatoes and gravy that made it look straight out of a Stouffer’s box. Olive oil soft-serve ice cream had the right texture, the right addition of olive oil drops and sea salt slicking the top, but tasted more than anything like the wood stick on which ice cream bars rest.

Does this restaurant want to be The Publican, or does it want to be Sunda? That’s unclear right now, and only the execution and evolution of the menu will provide the tell. Be patient, and hold for a few weeks or a month: The Publican was a rather frustrating restaurant for six months before getting its wings; it may take even longer for PP.

January 9, 2010

On Chicago Restaurant Criticism

Posted in Media tagged , , , , , , at 6:10 am by lostfourwords

Voracious newspaper readers—the few of us left, anyway—generally have a “Come to Jesus” moment that defines later habits of consumption of old gray ladies. And though I could point to my early elementary era forays into box scores as a seminal literacy moment, what remains most visceral amid the growing fog of memory is reading a Phil Vettel review of the long-gone Mango, at the time (e.g., 1995) a Contemporary American pioneer. I was 16.

I haven’t gone a meal at home without reading about food since.

I read everything produced by the area publications, the work of everyone—even Pat Bruno, whose very mention demands I note, and this will not be the first time in this post alone, that he is the least abled writer in Chicago(catharsis, ah!). I’ve watched the reporting evolve, seen the democratization of restaurant coverage that has, for the most part, benefited from the pressures of the newfangled Web 2.0: coverage has expanded, both the critic and reader have (generally) matured into well-informed patrons of varied cuisines, and a sense of fun—one that matches that of the foodie—is creeping in. Of course, traditional restaurant criticism is doomed: the future belongs to sleuths on LTH Forum and the obsessed on Serious Eats that focus solely on a single niche (e.g., pizza, Thai food) and explore only those narrow avenues. But you knew that already.

Still, let us bask a bit: at the start of 2010, the twilight of the idols, there is something to be said for the pecking order of. And since I’m eating Nutella out of the jar right now, let’s cheaply and conveniently rank order!

1)   Chicago Reader: Mike Sula and the other contributors to the section are really the only writers who fully grasp that good food/restaurant coverage is a synthesis of criticism, cultural reporting, and human-interest writing. For a weekly with a single, 1000-word column, the scope is unmatched: The Reader reviews the new and noteworthy; uncovers worthy yet unheralded ethnic and mom-and-pop eats before anyone else; and has an uncanny ability to uncover the few remaining enigmas of area food culture. The tone is evenhanded, detached—though the supplemental blog is a bit more informal and engaged—and focused on actually reviewing the food and dining experience; there is much knowledge displayed and dispensed here. Who knows if the publication survives this decade, but Sula continues to be the most informed and informative writer in the biz, and many of the contributors—particularly Mike Gerbert and David Hammond—follow suit.

2)   Chicago Magazine: You give them credit for singlehandedly making restaurant criticism matter, because that’s what continues to keep the bloated ship afloat. (Alas, the “Real Housewives of the North Shore is a long way coming…) Dennis Ray Wheaton was a snooze as the magazine’s chief restaurant critic, both in his coverage and his rhetoric; Jeff Ruby, his replacement, is a definite upgrade. The Mag deserves a serious slap, however, for introducing the sort of PR-masquerading-as-journalism bullshit that has infested nearly every level and kind of periodical in modern magazine journalism: the cutesy blurb, list, or shout-out that essentially copies the press blurb and grants unworthy hype, validity, and/or popularity onto the new solely because the concept sounds cool (see: Urban Daddy, Tasting Table, etc.); Dish, however, is a guilty pleasure. Though their dining cover stories invariably raise eyebrows and hackles for picking not-long-for-this-world temples of mediocrity, they tend to be particularly comprehensive—e.g., covering all major steakhouses or hamburgers—and can include an unknown gem or two. You could do much worse.

3)   Chicago Tribune: Phil Vettel’s great crime is that of competence: he does his job rather quietly and without much panache, taking the last word by default—or afterthought. If anything, the emergence of restaurant writing in alternative publications and bloggerdom have made him more entrenched: he still writes as if it’s 1998, and still prioritizes the two-star restaurant, the very thing Chicago has long (at least, I’d like to think) outgrown. The balkanization of coverage responsibilities at the Tribune, rather than optimize the paper’s depth and breath of coverage, has made it abundantly clear why restaurant criticism here lags behind both New York and Los Angeles: those cities have food writers (Frank Bruni/Sam Sifton and Jonathan Gold, respectively) who function as both anthropologist and jester; no dining experience is too great or too small if coveys insight into the city’s dining culture and/or offers some modicum of pleasure. Alas, Vettel is stuck on I-88, late to review a chain restaurant in Naperville; he’s not interested in what dining out means in 2010 because he has no idea what that is. The addition of Kevin Pang and Chris Borrelli to the section would indicate at least a few of the Trib corps do, though their “we-like-hamburgers-just-like-you!” approach can, at times, be grating; Monica Eng still brings that warm, maternal, and wise presence to her writing about ethnic food, though. Like so much else in the paper, the relevance and value of the writing continues to decline: I foresee a time when restaurateurs will not rush to hang Tribune reviews on their wall—and it may be sooner than you think.

4)    Time Out Chicago: I’m a fan of David Tamarkin: he takes his title of critic quite literally, and quite knowingly and convincingly takes new restaurants to task. But the TOC format is utter death: the 250 or so word limit on reviews clearly boxes the writers in, and as a result Tamarkin and Co. rather obnoxiously feel the need to try to rush to closure at the end in the most painfully false ways possible; the remaining elements of the Restaurant section are equally short, perfunctory, and generally without utility. Both Heather Shouse and Julia Kramer, Tamarkin’s compatriots, are in over their heads, though the former has gotten better, and Consume, the section blog, can be a fun read; I still think both would be better suited as the writers of the pre-release PR blurbs sent out by the publicists than as critics. The TOC M.O., to be the first to review notable new openings, ensures readership, but it ultimately tells the reader nothing particularly memorable or valuable; as a result, the “Top 100 Things We Ate” cover has been particularly banal these last few years. I’ve had this student before: ‘A’ for effort, ‘C’ for quality of work.

5)   Michael Nagrant: A veritable publication onto himself—quite literally!—Nagrant is, to be sure, a hustler: he’s worked the channels, made his deals—surely he worked for free or for less than the established rate to get some clips; I did the same at the start of my journalism career—and has shown up in the Sun Times, TOC, New City, that Alinea book, and so on. He’s got a decent palate—even if it is filched mostly from LTH—and he worked his ass off to get where he (modestly) is; he’s a pretty good interviewer, admittedly. He’s also quite definitively and stubbornly stuck in blogger mode, a distinctly amateurish writer who, it can best be said, reflects nothing so much as a flee-r of some such other Rust Belt city who discovered big cities have FOOD. Great story, to be sure, but painful to read: his pacing and coherence is awful—a recent review of Mr. Brown’s in Ukranian Village went nearly 500 words on Shabby Ranks and Chicago’s marijuana laws before describing the food he ate—and he seems incapable of either fully contemplating what he eats or its import. His taste for bad similes and metaphors abounds at levels over which even Pat Bruno would be incredulous: a single review in New City some weeks back featured cringe-worthy offerings like “dressed with more oil than a Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover model” and “bitterer than Alec Baldwin after his divorce from Kim Basinger.” (There’s a Serious Eats review that escapes me right now that is even worse.) His writing is invariably egocentric and bizarrely focused on irrelevant pop culture ephemera—unless the topic is Chicago restaurant criticism, in which he will write volumes on his own credibility. It’s clear that Nagrant is biding his time for a full-time role when Vettel or Bruno inevitably departs, but I would hate to see more worthy candidates—Sula and Tamarkin among them— for these jobs cast aside just because Nagrant is a better self-promoter.

6)   Chicago Sun Times: It is no small and damning praise to note that Pat Bruno, the Sun Times’s freelance restaurant critic, vastly predates the food blogging ethos: he has been obnoxiously self-centered, grammatically incompetent, and utterly food ignorant for decades now. This is a guy who freely states he prefers certain cuisines over others. Who continues to re-review the same 30 or so restaurants. Who most consistently describes food by relating “the goodness” or indicating a familiar dish as “not the best I’ve had.” Who continually makes factual errors about cuisines, ingredients, cooking styles. Who think he writes an advice column. (And who makes me write in sentence fragments. Repeatedly.) He has no idea what his job responsibilities, has no taste, and cannot write a sentence—and is continually employed by the Sun Times, who cannot so much as give a fuck, because to hire someone else would require time and/or effort, and nothing is worth that. But then, I can’t turn away: I read the guy, and surely other haters are out there. Because, surely, they’re not reading Thomas Witom’s suburban reviews. (Completely uninteresting factoid: a decade ago, when I was editor of a certain Chicago alternative publication, Witom queried me about a suburban restaurant review column, the very one he eventually was able to wring out of Conrad Black. While such an idea and its execution were as uninteresting in 2000 as it is now, I admired his persistence and continue to read his work out of respect for such an effort, which was still possible in that time before the End. Because you never know when you’ll end up in Wheaton and need a bad sushi restaurant to go to…)

Thoughts? We’re just getting started, folks.

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