Thursday, February 5, 2009

Sometimes, It's Nice To Not Have To Wear a Jacket In February

A friend of mine invited me into her restaurant this week for a tasting of her new menu. She’s been at it in the same place for about ten years now, and the quarterly menu change is a pretty automatic thing. Usually, I’ll go in, go down to the kitchen, and taste the plates put up along with the servers as they try the new dishes and get acquainted. This time though, I hadn’t seen her in awhile, so we actually just sat down to have lunch together and go over the new menu. It was a real treat, I ate a massive amount of a lot of things, and we caught up.

The food is simple American food, done in a gorgeous dining room and presented in a new way. First things first, the bacon and egg salad caught my eye--a no brainer American cousin of the Lyonnaise Salad. Baby spinach tossed with a warm bacon vinaigrette and big chunks of bacon, topped with a poached egg and a sprinkle of sea salt. The key in a salad like this is that the egg be poached perfectly and the vinaigrette warm, but not so hot that it wilts the spinach. You could even use the less expensive, more flavorful ‘regular’ spinach--it's got a lot of flavor, and in this salad of huge flavors it would be welcome. Great tangy vinaigrette and bacon fat--mmmm--and that great moment of breaking the egg--something that can only be done once, and then it’s done, like cracking into a creme brulee or popping a champagne cork, so special and momentous every time it happens. This egg was, in fact, cooked perfectly, and it made that moment a great one...the yolk oozed down over the salad and into the vinaigrette, and with a hunk of bread, it was a delight to eat, and so simple: bacon, egg, spinach, vinegar, salt. It reminded me of a salad I love to make at home--cut some lardons, render the fat out and get the bacon crispy, quarter red onions (that’s right, nice big chunks), sauté the onions for a bit, then throw in some pine nuts and thyme; deglaze the whole thing with a good vinegar (which, by the way, is so easy and delicious to make at home) and pour it all over a big bowl of arugula you cut from your garden while the onions cooked. Toss it all together; the fat and vinegar make the dressing, and now you’ve got all these great bits of garnish in there as well. This is a whole meal with the bread you baked; simple and cheap, relative to a more traditional “entree” type meal.

Other things I tasted were also good, like a lamb ragout with a fat, thin pappardelle noodle (strange description, isn’t it? But you get it...), the lamb braised well for a long, long time, but not too much--I always hear the voice of a chef at my school explaining that YES, it is possible to overcook something in a braise. I think that often times, cooks think that since something is cooking in a pot full of liquid, the meat will never dry out. That’s not the case, and if you have ever had pulled pork overly dependent on boring, sugary ‘barbecue’ sauce, you know what I mean. The key is to hit the window of succulence with something that you are cooking the hell out of. And a truly well done braise is special. As demonstrated in this picture of a man I made out of braised pork.

Of the desserts, a greek yogurt panna cotta was interesting; the thick yogurt offers a stability that lessens the need for gelatin--something that is so often used too heavily in panna cotta, resulting in rubbery cream, as opposed to that firm but meltingly unctuous texture of a really good one. The yogurt also lends a nice tang, and though this dessert is topped with a salad of citrus, the yogurt’s sourness adds a bit of diversity and complexity to the dessert’s flavors.

Needless to say, this was all I ate all day yesterday (I didn’t mention the truffle butter hamburger, apple dumpling, or wonderfully rich, soft, and smooth Camembert, either) and I feared for my traveling fitness: as I write this, I am on a plane to San Francisco to see my brother and do some serious eating and drinking (it is, after all, strong beer month in San Francisco). How does an unemployed guy afford a trip to San Francisco, you ask? Well, he has a brother with a million frequent flier miles, that's how.

Yesterday’s tasting followed a pretty heavy weekend also, as an old friend was in town and there was a lot of heavy eating: I made dinner (the Tuscan heavy sausage-stuffed chicken legs, white beans, braised kale and roasted potatoes) and we ate at the Hop Leaf (which by the way, has a mind blowingly good sweetbread dish right now with apples and beans, all sort of fricasseed together, accompanying the always wonderful ham sandwich and brisket sandwich). These two meals were bookended by the obligatory “visiting friend visit” to said Hopleaf for a sort of "opening ceremony of indulgence" beer session (I think at some point that night I was caught snatching the final piece of pizza next door at the Blue Bathroom (I’ll have to explain the BB in another post) via the oft-tried, seldom accomplished technique of putting the entire last piece into one’s mouth at once in order to stun competition into submission, amazement and, more frequently, disgust), and the exploration of a new place (new to me only, it’s been there for at least ten years and I just never knew) that sells really good beer (from brewers like Three Floyds and Lagunitas) for 2 bones a pint on Tuesdays. Unreal. The point here, the way I see it, is that I have trained well for a tour of duty (that duty being eating and drinking) in San Francisco with a guy who plans his trips to Chicago based on how many meals can be (un)reasonably squeezed into each day. We once ate a Gyros on the way to the Hopleaf (by the way, I fully recognize that I’m really, really talking about the Hop a lot, but I suppose it can’t really be avoided; asking me to shut up already about the Hop Leaf would be like asking Willie Mays to stop talking about stealing bases), where we drank several beers which, naturally, led us to order frites; all this, incidentally, was a kind of eye-opener on the way to Moody’s Pub for burgers.


I suppose I can see how this all makes me sound like a huge fat pig; I suppose in some respects I am. But this isn’t just about shoving gruel into my gullet; all this food really means something. And being able to experience it all, with others who care, whether in a great city like San Francisco or my home Chicago, or numerous other places (wait until I tell you about the Iowa State Fair!), makes me a lucky, happy huge fat pig. You know?
~"Freight Train", Iowa State Fair 2008 Prize Pig, 1300 lbs.~