Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Salon, Just Over 1 Year Old, Takes a Hiatus

Summer's coming, or is already here, or never really left, or whatever happened over the past six months in Chicago. We're in good position to start the craze of the new (outdoor) farmers market season, and rush headlong into applying smoke and fire towards copious amounts of meat. Naturally, for myself and Food on the Dole, this means we're taking a break to head to Montana.

It's been a busy, busy time for me since that first little Salon one year ago last March. And now, just as the last Salon guests of the season have left, we're going to take a little break and give the Salon a bit of a rest and rejuvenation period as I head out, for the summer, to work with my good friend Ryan in Bozeman, Montana on his wood-fired pizza business, with which he brings some of the best pizza you'll eat to remote (not to mention stunning) locations all around Montana.

If you follow Food on the Dole on Facebook, you may have seen some photos of the operation from a trip I took out there a few years ago to help in much of the same way. Aside from being an outstanding chef, Ryan is the kind of guy that drives around Montana, tearing down dilapidated barns for ranchers in exchange for the wood and tin they are composed of--the sort of old wood that gets re-purposed into gorgeous things such as door frames and bookcases and hydraulic trailers for pizza ovens. Pretty normal. Actually no, it's not normal. It's pretty outstanding, and it's the kind of thing, when this city boy is around it, that makes me feel a tad bit inadequate as I haven't the foggiest notion of how to tear down a barn, much less build beautiful things out of it. But hey--I'll leave that part to Ryan and focus on the food myself.
Since my trip three years ago, Ryan has expanded the operation by obtaining a second oven and mounting it on a truck. And not just any truck. This is a 1954 Chevy on a tow truck frame. It looks amazing, and the goal with this big beauty is to be a presence at the farmers markets/music festivals/whatnot in the area. And that is where yours truly comes in.
So, despite the challenges and hard work laying ahead in the upcoming months, this sounds like a pretty sweet way to spend a summer. If you haven't been to Montana, do so, and learn exactly why it is called Big Sky Country. Somehow, the sky is just bigger there. I don't understand why, and I suppose I don't have to--but I'll surely enjoy the stars and air and everything else up there this summer. And, I (not-so) secretly have hopes that somehow, just somehow, I'll run in to my hero Jim Harrison, who happens to live down the road. Fingers crossed he doesn't shoot at me.

As for the Salon, she'll go on a break while I'm gone. Perhaps Ryan and I will run an underground dinner now and then out there, perhaps I'll even be able to pull a few Salons off as well. But rest easy knowing that I'll keep writing and reporting on the usual F.o.t.D. experiences while out there, and that the Salon shall continue upon my return to Chicago. Best wishes to everyone for a great summer wherever you may be, and keep reading Food on the Dole/following on Facebook/following on Twitter to see what sort of food, cooking and eating mis-adventures I get into underneath that big sky out there.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Grumpy Cats and Pleasant Houses

We had a fairly epic jaunt of eating and (mostly) drinking the other day, starting down in Munster, IL at Three Floyds, where one can, after getting over one's aversion to strip malls and water towers, listen to Danzig at top volume while drinking several varieties of their top-notch beer (Three Floyds'--not Danzig's) and eating smoked meats. It's a great place, but of course, indulgence has to find a stopping point down there due to the long drive back. But since I was still all riled up once back in the city, and since we were kind of passing through the neighborhood, we stopped down in Bridgeport--a part of town I absolutely never get to for the simple reason that it's so far from me up in Lincoln Square--to visit a couple places that have been on the list for a while. Maria's Community Bar was recommended to me by my lumberjack/ham retrieving friend and yeah, it was great, and I wish I was in the neighborhood more to take advantage of it and its dark wood back room full of mannequin parts a guy spent the better part of our time there bringing in. It's got its fair share of super hipsters, sure, but what bar doesn't these days? And who cares when they've got a beer and cocktail list like they do, and still find room to serve Early Times Whiskey and Busch Classic and ask "are you sure?" when you order it?

Next door was the big winner, though: Pleasant House Bakery. I saw one of the chef/owners Art Jackson in Maria's as we entered, bringing some hot pies over, which leads me to believe there is some sort of symbiosis between the two places, and how wonderful is that? For those of you in San Francisco, it reminds me of the relationship between Rosamunde Sausages and Toronado--two places scratching each others backs rather than a big fish eating a little fish. Pleasant House itself has a really cozy looking kitchen, and is quite bustling as well: co-owner and pastry chef Chelsea Jackson was back there rolling dough as Art was back and forth from the kitchen to Maria's to back in the dining room talking to guests, doing it all with the same kind of genuine warmth I described when writing about Chris Nugent at Goosefoot. The counter-service menu is simple, and more importantly, everything is absolutely delicious and it seemed to me all details are completely attended to on every order. Lovely, flaky crust, gorgeously presented around delicious fillings, and chips that make you see why the British call them chips--crisp little chunks of potatoes fried up and awaiting a good dousing of vinegar. You get a really good feeling in this place--and I suppose that's why they chose the name.

All in all, this brief Bridgeport experience was really quite outstanding. And I'm certain there's much more to the neighborhood, but what a nice little corner, down there at 31st and Morgan, with the Bridgeport Coffeehouse across from Maria's and Pleasant House. Beer, meat pie, coffee. The order's up to you.

Back up closer to home in West Town, we stopped and drank wine and ate those tasty little fried chickpeas and deviled eggs they do at Lush, then made our way over to the usual end-of-night-well, The Chipp Inn, where we met friends who had just experienced the El Bulli menu at Next. We shared our respective stories of the day of such different types of dining, and remarked at how great it was to be in a city full of people that provide these experiences, all over cheap drinks in the neighborhood bar. Strolling home, plans were made for the big Sunday dinner, which is becoming a tradition of sorts at the FotD headquarters. We'd roast a large chunk of pork belly (previewed below) nice and crisp on the outside, tender on the inside along with roasted potatoes and charred onions after a long intermezzo induced by antipasti of braised broccoli rabe, pickled eggplant and buffalo mozzarella with green garlic. That Sunday has come and gone, and boy was it good. I'll write more about it next time.