Sandwich Optimization Problem – An Homage to Sandwiches

I love sandwiches.  All kinds of sandwiches.  From tea sandwiches to 3 foot subs, I adore sandwiches.  Sandwiches are the ideal food.  Portable, nutritious, and versatile.  I would eat a sandwich anywhere.

Some of you may be wondering what my all time favorite sandwich is.  While I usually have trouble deciding between food, I have a very clear favorite in this case.  Almost.

The best sandwich I’ve ever had in my life was at Bouchon Bakery, in Yountville, California.

The second best sandwich I’ve ever had in my life was also at Bouchon Bakery, in Yountville, California.

Mmm... Oh God.

I wish you could taste this right now.

A bit of background: Yountville is located in the Napa Valley and has the highest concentration of Michelin stars per capita anywhere in the world.  The town is centered almost entirely around gourmet food and world class spas.  Several of the restaurants in Yountville are headed by the man many consider to be the best living American chef: Thomas Keller.  Bouchon is his bakery.

When I was vacationing there last March with my mother, we shared a turkey sandwich and a portobello sandwich with a beef jus. (Side note: a picnic is the perfect place to share two sandwiches.  I’m a big believer in Diminishing Marginal Return of Food, and I love to sample, so I’d almost always rather eat two halves of two different sandwiches than one whole sandwich.  I think it’s a little strange to do this if you’re eating the sandwich in the same place it was made though.)  Both sandwiches far exceeded my expectations.

To this day, I really can’t say which I liked more.  I remember that lunch as being one of those rare moments in which two halves of the different sandwiches complemented each other in playful conversation.  It was just a great sandwich eating experience, all around.  A perfect Northern Californian spring day with two beautiful sandwiches and a box full of pastries.

Which brings me to my next point: what makes a great sandwich?

Going off of the ideal set by Bouchon, a great sandwich doesn’t need to have a lot of ingredients.  Nor does it need to have a lot of height and heft.  What I liked most about the sandwiches I had at Bouchon was the perfect ratio of ingredients.  Sometimes I feel sandwiches can have too many ingredients with dull flavor.  Sometimes sandwich makers will try to compensate for this by putting a lot of substance between the bread.  That’s not what makes a perfect sandwich though.  (At least, not in my mind.)

A perfect sandwich is manageable and minimalist, while still expressing a coherent idea.  The turkey sandwich was a riff on the classic turkey-cranberry-cheese sandwich, but the coleslaw-relish added a perfectly balanced bright crunchiness.  No unnecessary pickle-lettuce-tomato (filler).  The portobello was perfect as well.  Crunchy fresh baked bread, mushrooms tender in a way no deli meat could ever be, and swiss cheese adding a perfect gooey richness to each bite.  The jus was unbelievably beefy without being overly salty.  And I would even argue the compactness of the sandwich and manageability of each bite made it easier to focus on the flavors and textural interplay.  With sandwiches, less is more.

I’ve had some good sandwiches in Chicago.  Bari’s makes good italian style subs and focaccia sandwiches with great cheeses and cured meats.  XOCO is a fun place to go (I’ve had the ahogada and cuban, both very good).  I’ve yet to try Grahamwich (I think I’ll give them a try in the next few weeks now that it seems they’ve worked out their kinks.)

As far as sandwich chains go, I’d have to side with Potbelly’s over Jimmy John’s.  I would prefer either to Subway.  They’re all fairly comparable in price, but Subway uses terrible ingredients and sandwich making technique.  Plus, when I go to Subway I feel as though I’m in a public restroom.  Potbelly’s has a better meat to bread ratio overall and their sandwiches produce the most optimal bites (good distribution of ingredients).  I also prefer the menu options at Potbelly’s to JJ’s.

I’m not really sure how to conclude this string of thoughts on sandwiches so I’ll end with this fact:
Americans eat 45 billion sandwiches each year.  (source)


Z&H – A Review

I know my reviews can be a little wordy, so I’ll try to keep this one relatively brief.

Last Tuesday, I went to Z&H for lunch around 1:40.  I ordered the 90 Miles to Mosak ($7.50), which contained pork belly, ham, swiss, onion, mustard, and pickle on French bread.  I sat down in the back and my sandwich came a few minutes later, along with a few pieces of potato salad.  I ordered a medium coffee and my total was something like $10.  (Which I put toward my rewards account.)

My initial impressions of the sandwich were fairly positive.  If pressed for specifics, I prefer a slightly wider loaf for my sandwiches (for a better crust-filling ratio, in my opinion).  There was also a lot of mustard and the pork belly was more salty than rich.  Overall, I thought the sandwich was a little dry and out of balance.  The quality of the ingredients was apparent and overall I enjoyed my sandwich, but I think the concept could have been improved with the addition of some tomato or avocado, to bring some moisture and cut the saltiness of the pork belly.  The potato salad was good and simple.  The potatoes were dressed just enough and cooked through without being mushy.  A nice touch.

I disagree with those who say Z&H is overpriced.  In my opinion, it’s one of the few places to get a decent meal within 20 minutes of campus.  I will go back to Z&H and order differently next time. I will update when I do, but for now…

Lunch at Z&H – $10

Three stars:


The Highly Anticipated Return of UChiFood

Hey everyone,

It’s been a grueling fourth week but it’s good to be writing about food again.  I think now is as good a time as any to make some formal announcements.

The First:

I’m interested in building a team to attempt this challenge: http://bartolinis.com/85bart.pdf

We’ll compete either this weekend or the next (2/6 or 2/12) and I’m fielding a team of four so there are three spots to fill.
Since I think there are more than three people interested in competing, I’m going to hold a preliminary competition in South Campus Dining Hall later this week.

The Second:

I’m planning on spending Chinese New Year dinner in Chinatown at Lao Sze Chuan.  If anyone is interested in going, they should email me and I will make reservations appropriately.

The Third:

BJ Iron Chef is happening next Saturday!  The theme will be announced at 9:00 AM this Saturday morning.  I will post a description of the competition and the menu we design when it is over.  If you’re in Linn Mathews and interested in participating, I will definitely be there.  Or, just come watch.  But it’s sure to be a lot of fun.  I am going to take this very seriously.

Relevant Rules:

BJ Iron Chef Competition 2011

The BJ Iron Chef competition will take place on Saturday, February 5. The theme will
be announced at 9 a.m. House teams will then shop and cook and bring their tasty
concoctions to Judson Lounge for judging at 5:00 p.m.

Each of the 6 houses of BJ dormitory will be invited to produce 1 team of Iron Chefs.
Houses will be limited to $35 for shopping for preparation of their prodigious meal
platters. Houses will be expected to show receipts both to provide (inconclusive) proof
that they have not exceeded the expenditure limit and in order to be reimbursed by the
beneficent Masters. Houses are not allowed to tap into their funds, even if they have
raised copious amounts of money by selling “ What Would Durkheim Do?” T-shirts on E-
bay.

The theme will be announced on Saturday, February 5, at 9:00 a.m. by email to the
BJ listhost, and the house teams will have to submit a meal of 3 or 4 dishes whose
relevance to the theme they can articulate with suave and pithy U of C eloquence –even
though of course the ultimate proof will be in the pudding (or soufflé)! Possible (though
highly unlikely) themes could be e.g., “ The Culinary Core (With Carrots!),” “ That Kid’ s
Caramelized Onion Comeuppance,” “ We Make It All from Scratch, NOT SCRH.” 2
NEW THIS YEAR: Each team should also prepare three copies of a menu with the
house’ s name and a list of their dishes, which will help the judges remember who is who
and what is what and be edifying for all.

The judges will consist of a distinguished panel of 3 hungry yet discerning VIPS
(Andrew Abbott, Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor
in the Department of Sociology and the College; John Boyer, Martin A. Ryerson
Distinguished Service Professor in History and Dean of the College, and Jolie N.
Nahigian, food culture scholar, co-instructor of Anthropology 25305 [“ Anthropology
of Food and Cuisine” ], and former sous-chef at world-famous restaurant, Charlie
Trotter’ s, Chicago). The dishes presented should therefore be large enough and divisible
enough for each judge to get a tantalizing morsel and houses may choose to prepare 3
separate plates containing all their dishes for easy tasting by each of the 3 judges. The
scrumptious scraps will go to the contestants and bystanders (in a manner to be peaceably
determined at the event).

The teams’ creations will be scored according to two basic categories: taste and
creativity. “ Taste” refers to (yes, you guessed it, ever-so-quick BJer!) taste; “ creativity”
refers to the creative process that went into the platter’ s concoction, including its
surprising yet incontrovertible pertinence to the designated theme; attractive or
interesting presentation; and the house teamwork that the platter ideally exudes like
aroma.

The judges will taste each house platter, consult the house menu, listen to the brief house
patter, ask any questions they have, and then retire well-nourished to top-secret Judson
Library to make a speedy yet judicious decision. While the houses eagerly await the
judges’ unerring judgment, they will be sustained by study-break foodstuffs and soothing
background music. The judges will return to announce the first and second-place winners.
Awesome prizes will be distributed. Although in the end, we all know prizes are mere
supplements to The Glory, the true motivating force behind BJ competitions. Everybody
will go home sated and proud to have been part of the SIXTH ANNUAL BJ IRON CHEF
COMPETITION. Yeah!

(rules written by the eminent Josh Scodel.)

I hope to see you all there!

Also, brief food update: although most evenings this week were met with disappointing dinners from the dining hall or pre-packaged shrink-wrapped box, the next week promises to be a great week in food.  I’m planning on having Chinese New Year dinner, dinner at Kuma’s (finally), and probably somewhere interesting and exciting on Saturday.

In  the near future: expect a review of my experience at Z&H last week, a review of my dinner at Les Nomades, a review of dinner at Schwa, and possibly some discussion of the significance of plating (particularly following my involvement in Iron Chef).  Also, an overview of restaurant week and my top picks for lunch and dinner.

As a side note, I will be instituting an open door policy this Thursday for my room starting at 11:00 am to the time I leave for dinner at Chinatown.  Feel free to stop by, say hi, and hang out for a bit.  We can talk about food or other things (if it comes to that).


Apologies…

Sorry for the lack of posts over the past few days.
I’m in the middle of midterms and study abroad apps.

Look for a new post on Saturday.
(Happy 4th week, everyone.)

Edit: also, the past few days have been particularly bad eats.
If you find me, please feed me.  Thanks.


Surviving on the UChi Dining Plan

This may sound silly, but I almost never have a desire to eat dining hall food.  I know everyone complains about it, but I actually would sometimes rather not eat than eat in the dining hall.  Case in point: last week I ate in the dining hall three times.

It’s not because I’m prissy.  (I’m not.)  Last week I went to Harold’s twice.  There are a lot of days I would rather make the trip to Harold’s and pay $3 for a meal than go to the dining hall for a free dinner.

I don’t eat in the dining hall often because I rarely find satisfaction in dining hall food.  Some of you have heard me say this before, but dining hall food leaves me feeling physically full and spiritually empty.  My extreme indifference toward dining hall food comes from what I acknowledge to be an unorthodox attitude toward food: I eat because I want to find enjoyment and fulfillment, not because I’m hungry.  I can comfortably go more than a day without eating, and I can also eat a good amount of food in one sitting.

I don’t expect anyone to adopt this viewpoint (it’s admittedly not very healthy), but most people can appreciate a good meal.  Food matters to all of us, it’s just an unusually high priority for me.  That being said, I did not start a blog so I could complain about food over a thousand words a day.  I’m actually a very proactive person.

So, some constructive criticism and guidelines for coping with dining hall offerings (this applies mostly to South Campus Dining):

1.  Get eggs for breakfast.  Real eggs, not those powdered military rations they prepare by the tubful.  And don’t be afraid to ask for less oil and other modifications.  Instead of an omelette, I usually ask for a scramble.  This improves the overall texture of the egg, in my opinion.  As always, this is a matter of personal preference.

2.  Biscuits or toast with honey butter and a dash of cinnamon or salt.  Admittedly, not very nutritious.  But I’m usually provided with a sense of home-style comfort.

3.  Pizza with oregano.  And other seasonings, on the right of the pizza bar.  This is available most of the time in the dining hall.

4.  Grilled cheese.  Assemble a grilled cheese at the sandwich bar with bread and cheese of your liking.  Take it to the grill station and patiently wait 10-20 minutes to get someone’s attention.  Ask them nicely to grill your sandwich for you.  Make sure it is cut diagonally.  This actually makes the sandwich taste better, since there are more bites with a preferable crust/non-crust ratio.  (opinion)

5.  Always toast your pita.  One run through the toaster can resuscitate cold, stale pita for a few minutes, giving you enough time to eat it before it turns back to stone.  Two runs can further improve texture and temperature or potentially kill it again.  Choose wisely.

6.  Mix and match different stations.  Make a chicken sandwich out of the breaded chicken breast at the euro station (usually a decent option in its own right).  Add some cheese from the salad bar to your baked potato.  Put some guac in your salad.

There’s also a really simple sauce I make at home you can try: peanut butter + soy sauce + sugar, microwaved.  Some variations include sriracha (rooster hot sauce) and vinegar.  Mix the three ingredients in an approximately 2:2:1 ratio and pour over tofu, noodles, or blanched vegetables.

There are more variants others have come up with.  Some girls microwave spinach and water to boil it.  Spencer tops off soda water with apple juice (I really like this combination.  It’s been my dining hall beverage of choice for some time now.)  What most of these variants have in common is an emphasis on simple, unfussy meals.  I generally find the more work the dining hall puts into developing something new, the more likely it is to be inedible.

Do you know of any good dining hall mods?  Perhaps we can work together to make a more palatable dining experience.


Review – Cafe Iberico

Well first off, having publicized this project to friends as “my food blog”, it might be appropriate to clarify what I mean by this.

This isn’t a blog about cooking, it’s actually a blog about eating.  There may be some offhand references to recipes, baking, and the like.  But ultimately, I came here to eat and write about eating.

I went to Cafe Iberico last night for dinner, on LaSalle in the North Side.  My party arrived at 7 and we were seated around 7:45.  Even for a Saturday night, this place was completely packed.  Fortunately the restaurant has several dining rooms, so the parties ahead of us were seated at a fairly steady rate.

The menu was extensive and vegetarian friendly.  The portions were generous and the pricing was fair.  We ordered about 2 dishes per person and the price per plate ranged from $6-12.  The food came out in a timely manner, though the service was spotty.  The food was decent.  We ordered the salpicon de mariscos, ensalata mixta, mushrooms, paella iberico, queso de cabra, and some roasted red peppers.  We had dessert, as well.  A banana in caramel sauce with vanilla ice cream.  Though the food tasted fine, it left me feeling unsatisfied.

Maybe the vague sense of dissatisfaction is a part of the tapas experience.  Eating tapas is basically like eating a bunch of appetizers.  They do taste good, but there’s little substance.  Beyond that, there’s no sense of a progression in courses.  There are no specials and after a little while, everything starts to taste like well executed bar food.  I noticed that almost every person in the 60 person dining room was holding a glass or pitcher of sangria (which went a long way to explain the noise level, which escalated steadily through the night).

But I know that this isn’t the way tapas has to be.  Take Avec, for instance.  Avec is an excellent restaurant in the West Loop on Randolph (right next to Blackbird) which features small plates and communal style dining.  Avec is more expensive than Cafe Iberico, and certainly less group friendly, but the food at Avec is much better.

My problem with Cafe Iberico isn’t necessarily with the food.  It’s with the menu.  I’ve eaten at restaurants with humbler aspirations than Cafe Iberico and I’ve eaten at restaurants with loftier aspirations than Cafe Iberico.  But the point is, these other restaurants have aspirations.  Iberico lacks a sense of direction and inspiration and is not, to me, a great food experience.

Dinner at Cafe Iberico – around $25
Two Stars:

Banana in Caramel Sauce with Vanilla Ice Cream


Excellent Meals for Around $20 – Longman & Eagle

I know I tend to write long reviews, so if you read nothing else of this post know this: you should try this restaurant.

Longman and Eagle is an award winning restaurant/bar/inn in Logan Park.  Last fall, L&E had the distinction of receiving the most eyebrow raising Michelin star in all of Chicago (excepting perhaps L2O).  L&E is very much the black sheep out of the Michelin selections for this year.

Which isn’t to say the food is subpar.  But it’s not what I associate with Michelin.  Longman & Eagle has a hip, lumberjack-y vibe and a simple, unpretentious menu.  Before L&E received it’s star, I never would have expected that  a Michelin starred restaurant would offer a PBR breakfast, unless it was ironically priced at $120.  Longman & Eagle offers one for $8.

My recommendation?  Go for brunch on a weekday.  L&E doesn’t take reservations and the wait on weekends can be unbearable.  Brunch is served every day from 10 AM – 3 PM.  Admittedly, it’s difficult to get to from UChicago without a car.  A one way trip takes a little over an hour.  But if you love food or just want to make a day of it, it’s worth the trip.  (Protip: if you’re taking public transit and anticipate having several stops across the city, use a day pass.  They’re $5.75 and available at some L stops and retail locations.  It’s useful to keep a few stashed in your wallet.)

I had the Peeky Toe Crab Benedict ($13).  It was wholly satisfying. Granted, eggs benedict is less about innovation and more about flawless execution.  But I was impressed by the layering of the flavors.  The old bay infused hollandaise was a nice touch.  A solid brunch offering overall, though perhaps lacking textural contrast.  Nonetheless, I was very happy with my choice.

My friends had the Wild Boar Sloppy Joe and the Roasted Beet Salad, which they both enjoyed very much.

To drink, I ordered a Bitter Whisper (a gin cocktail).  As a side note, Longman & Eagle takes whiskey very seriously (their slogan is “Eat, Sleep, Whiskey”) and offers $3 whiskey shots every day.

A great brunch and an excellent example of gourmet food within the reach of a student’s budget.  Deserving of a Michelin star?  In my opinion, definitely not.  Which isn’t to say I think L&E isn’t as good as a Michelin starred restaurant.  I just don’t think L&E provides anywhere near the same experience as the other starred restaurants in the city.  For one, there’s a lack of precision in the cooking and plating.  Michelin starred restaurants adhere to the strictest standards of quality, and the difference between two dishes of the same name should be near imperceptible.  My experience at L&E was excellent, but not Michelin worthy.

That being said, I would still highly recommend L&E for brunching in the city (and I actually prefer it to Lula Cafe,another popular brunch destination located about two blocks down the street).  The food, beverage, atmosphere, and value are tough to beat.

Brunch at Longman and Eagle – $25 (food, beverage, tax, and tip)

Four stars:

Longman & Eagle

The interior dining room of Longman & Eagle