Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Atlantic Ocean, Irene, and Stomping Grounds Revisited

I just got back from a great trip to New England, visiting some old haunts from my time living in Boston, Providence and Vermont, as well as getting to know Portland a bit. For some strange reason, during all of my time in New England, I never set foot in Maine, which has always been a regret of mine. And these days, it seems like everyone I know is moving to one of the Portlands; I can totally agree with the desire to move to Oregon, but since I didn't know anything about what it's like to be in Maine, I thought I'd better find out. It was touristy this late summer, but beautiful, and ocean-sea-coast-y, and Portland itself has some pretty great restaurants (and, of course, its share of downright terrible ones: $50 for a gloppy crab roll and some fried clams? Gulp.). Initially, the idea in my head was to go to Hugo's in Portland or Arrows in Ogunquit, since these seem to be the great restaurants of Maine, and many of my fellow NECI alumni work in these places. But as the reality of just wanting to take it easy, nice and slow, not having to worry about making reservations anywhere, and not wanting to break the bank on a meal or two set in, we decided to not do too much planning, and fall into wherever we might fall in to. One great, great success was a bistro called Petite Jacqueline, with a head spinning foie gras terrine and solid bistro food everywhere you looked. Complete with the zinc bar, I was in heaven: steak tartare, the ripest tomato salad, beautiful cheese, etc. I can't say too much was unique to Portland, but give me a good Bistro, and you have my heart. And the $1.95 "domestic" beer down the street wasn't bad, either. 'Cause you see, they consider Allegash and the like domestic.

Problem is, I don't think I got a great feel for the character of Portland in the short amount of time I was there. Hurricane Irene moved in and pushed the flight out of Boston back a couple of days, but we thankfully made it to Vermont a day ahead of the storm and were able to go to American Flatbread, site of so many great meals for me: a nice, long sit with a beer by the bonfires in the lush valley, then kiln-fired pizza of the tastiest variety. This is a place where every morsel of food need not be described--a place where the convergence of atmosphere and food, done properly or, more importantly, with oodles of heart, makes the entire experience memorable.

We stayed in Vermont a couple more days with the storm delay, and this allowed me time to see some people I needed to catch up with. As the storm hit I met a former chef of mine in a bakery run by an old classmate; we chatted and drank coffee as the rain built up. From there, I made a visit to a dear friend who introduced me to the world of wine while I was at school in Vermont. He made a lovely dish of rabbit braised in cream and mustard, porcini risotto and roasted eggplant to go along with a couple great bottles of wine from the Loire Valley. We ate and caught up, watching the storm develop in a rather picturesque setting. From there I made a move to Burlington to look at the stormy Lake Champlain, thinking Champ would be enjoying the storm. If he was, we weren't able to see him, so as the worst of the storm hit, we made it back to the hotel and waited it out. The next morning greeted us calm and clear, but unfortunately, much of the damage was to come to those in Vermont, and became evident as we made the move down to Boston for the flight out: flooding like I've never seen before in the many valleys of Vermont; rivers running high, dirty and angry; bridges taken out and entire sections of road missing; farms and crops buried under water. Some people have been stranded without running water or power, homes ruined, for the past few days. It's devastating for sure, but the people of Vermont and all over New England are resilient. The rebuilding will be expensive, and will take time, but Vermonters will (and already have) come together to pull themselves out of the disaster.

All the extra time afforded a trip down to Providence for the evening, and while there, I was able to visit some old places I used to frequent: a great bar named The Wild Colonial, where I used to go with friends to be demolished at trivia, Thayer Street, where all the kids from Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design hang out, and just a general walk about of the entire east side hill of the city. The enjoyment of the extra time turned into a killing of the extra time, as we decided to forgo the hotel room that night as the flight out would happen at 5am, making the room a bit moot. This meant a midnight visit to Fenway Park in Boston, then a reluctant return to Logan airport to wait it all out. And take it from me: food options aren't all that great in an airport in the midnight to 5am stretch. Thus, a return to the nostalgia of Dunkin' Donuts: terrible, terrible coffee, but made so, so good when ordered "regular" (read: reg-yuu-lah in Beantown), where they add about a cup each of cream and sugar to the coffee, making it more milkshake-like than anything else. I used to drink this all the time out there, and kind of separate it in my head from coffee--Dunkin' Donuts is something all to its own, special in its own way.

The return to Chicago has found a very relaxed and (now, after a good night's sleep after skipping one) well-rested me, and I'm ready to dig my feet back into the midwestern soil and continue on my quest to eat the best food of all levels, be it the solid patty melt at the diner down the street, or 3-star cuisine way beyond haute (incidentally, while driving through Massachussetts, I heard a captivating interview with Alinea's Grant Achatz that reminded me that on all levels, we (should) cook and eat because we love food at it's most basic, sensual level). And of course, to continue on with the beloved Salon. This month, I'm busy with a side project, but am offering two Salon dates as of yet. I still have a couple seats open for this Saturday's Vegetarian Salon, and I'd love to see those seats filled--tickets available here. Otherwise, here's to New England, and a speedy recovery to those affected by Irene, and to the good food that brings us all together!

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Trip, A Sabbatical, A Coupla Salons

Last night we had a great Late Summer Salon--we cooked up a bunch of beautiful food from the area and got to know some really great people. This menu was inspired by an upcoming trip I'm taking to New England, and thus included two of my favorite things from my time living out there: Italian sausage and maple "creamies". Outside of Fenway Park in Boston, whether you're lucky enough or not to be heading inside to watch the Red Sox win, all kinds of stands are grilling sausages and then piling them into buns with grilled peppers. Simple, right? But so good--and the atmosphere makes it all complete. Last night, we braised ours--searing them first, then adding peppers of all kinds, onions and garlic; a little red wine and some stock. All those flavors melted together and--well--good things happened. Moving on, the creamie is something I discovered during my time living in Vermont--basically maple soft-serve. The taste of maple and cream together is seemingly made for each other, and last night was a happy improvisation from the original plan to make a honey tangelo ice cream. I'd made my ice cream base, and when I went to spin it, I found that my ice cream maker was kaput! I was distressed, and slurped down a few spoonfuls of the sweet cream base, pondering my next move. I decided to line a shallow, wide bowl with plastic wrap, pour in the base then freeze it. When we were ready, I turned the frozen "bombe" onto a cutting board, sliced it into wedges and drizzled it with some really good maple syrup--instant creamie, and so good. I led all the Saloneers in licking the plate.

Moving forward, this week will take me to New England to visit these favorites in the flesh in Boston, Portland and my old stomping grounds of Montpelier, VT (where I will be visiting my favorite restaurant in the world--no hyperbole there--American Flatbread). It'll be a week of eating and notalgia-izing and general relaxing. I'm also hereby announcing two new Salon dates for September, a month that will find me stepping back a bit to focus on another great project that has arisen for me here in Chicago. But never fear! The Salon remains a strong focus for me and I hope to see you at one soon. Click on a link for tickets:
  • Vegetarian Salon: It's high time we run another one of these--as you know, we're not about replacing meat with boring faux-meats. We're celebrating all the gorgeous vegetables available to us here in the late summer in several different preparations, letting each vegetable and grain be what they are--delicious and nourishing! Come explore all of the bounty from the local farms in this highly market-driven Salon; based on what I find at the market, we'll prepare a full and delicious meal. The Salon is BYOB, please bring whatever you'd like to drink! Saturday 9/3/11 at 6pm. $50.
  • Tuscany Salon: Come join us and those tall Chianina cows in the Salon as we go under the influence of one of the great food regions of the world, Tuscany. The menu will be set the day of the Salon, but count on some big, hearty fare to go along with your big red wines--BYOB as always! Saturday 9/17/11 at 6pm. $60.
Here's to New England and the late summer, and see you soon!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Let's Squeeze Another Salon Outta August, Shall We?

Summer is pretty much at its peak, produce-wise, and I'm getting an overwhelming amount of great stuff coming through the Salon. It's amazing how good everything is, and it's high time to appreciate it all right now. That said, I'm taking a week or so to go back east (Boston, Maine and Vermont), and since that means that the Food on the Dole Salon is going to take a bit of a hiatus, I've decided to squeeze one more date into August before I leave (new September Salon dates to be released soon). We're going to cook a great summer evening meal this Sunday, August 21st at 7pm in the Salon; this will be highly market based with no set theme other than the enjoyment of all that nature is giving us right now. It'll be BYOB as always, $50, and since it is such a late add-on, we'll only run it if we sell all 6 seats by this Friday. I'd love to get some of you who've been wondering about the Salon in here, and even some of those of you have already been--come on back and let's just cook some really great food together! Tickets can be purchased here. Hope to see you soon!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Oh Joy, It's Happened Again, or, Food Like a Grandmother's Hug

Lucky, lucky me. I recently celebrated a birthday, and the epic weekend of friends and food and, of course, plenty of drink was marked by so many great things--a top notch dinner of lots of different plates at a nearby kitchen; a surprise gathering at a favorite bar; a lazy day of eating a huge Hawaiian box lunch at one of my favorite hangover cure places, Aloha Eats in Lakeview; a lazy slither into a movie theater to cool off. But the big highlight was the much anticipated celebration of food and drink at what is one of my favorite places in the city; the place I say first when people ask me what my favorite restaurants are; the place I think of first when I want to take guests to a great spot. The place? Anteprima in Andersonville. SO devoid of pretense and anything other than solid, soulfully crafted, thoughtful food; a menu that stands on its own without succumbing to the name-every-single-farm-that-every-single-item-came-from craze, despite the fact that they utilize more local farm produce than many of the restaurants in the city; a beautifully simple dining room that, like the food, relies on human touches and the quality of what is being offered above any over-the-top rock star touches or minimalist lack thereof. A great review I read just after it opened in 2007 stated that "despite having just opened, Anteprima has the kind of servers who seem like they've been there for years"--and this, of course, was meant in the positive--the place just has that warm, welcoming, giving atmosphere. Dishes are presented with an emphasis on the food being the food--not some sort of esoteric art display. In a city and time of so much overthinking happening about food, Anteprima is real.

So, what did we have? Well, I had more help this time, and we made our way through:
  • a cold antipasti of olives, stuffed baby eggplant, glazed carrots, beans, farro, radishes and chiles;
  • proscuitto di Parma with melon;
  • tuna carpaccio;
  • bruschetta with sweet corn;
  • the crispiest stuffed and fried zucchini flowers with tomato;
  • big, chubby pork meatballs;
  • grilled octopus with potatoes and chiles;
  • fried duck egg on tomato;
  • the long-time favorite orecchiette with lamb sausage and bitter greens;
  • ravioli stuffed with beets and ricotta;
  • spaghetti with anchovy and chiles;
  • trofie (short, thin, delicate spiral pasta) with green beans, tomato and pesto
  • braised goat (good lord, get me another!)
  • arctic char with salsa verde
  • bison flank steak;
  • lemon panna cotta, so well done, smooth, with a birthday candle in the middle;
  • apricots poached in amaretto with crushed amaretti cookies;
  • peach crostata
  • ...and of course a whole tub full of drinks and wine.
You'll notice my lack of detail above, mainly because these dishes really do speak for themselves and require no embellishment. When composing dishes for the Salon, or any restaurant I've worked in, I always seek to make the elements on the plate complement each other. Like a good pasta dish, there should really be no filler--no ton of noodles with a ladle of sauce on the top. No, these two elements should be tossed together, with equal billing. And this is how things have always gone for me at this restaurant. The service doesn't distract from the food; the wine doesn't overshadow the service; everything is in its place and plays its role in support of the other. And they all do it to such a high level, the result is one of the more relaxed, loving meals that one can experience. And the other important part of the equation? Those eating it. In this case I had some of my closest friends there with me--people who I'd eat anywhere on earth with without the fear of someone not liking something or someone wanting to have the server split the check 10 ways or someone doing anything other than just straight up enjoying themselves and each other. Maybe it's the marking of another year of my life talking, but you can keep your rock-star chefs with their haircuts, tattoos and jewelry; I'll take the warm hug of a loving grandmother over that every time.