A Review for Lao Hunan

http://chicagoweekly.net/2011/11/16/the-peoples-spice/

A review I wrote for the Chicago Weekly.  An upgrade, if not an update.

I’m currently writing a review of my experience at EL ideas tonight which will likely be published in the forthcoming issue of the Weekly.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone (all four of my friends/family members who follow my eating blog.)

 

-L

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Goat Week @ UChiFood

A busy weekend for UChiFood: Girl and the Goat on Friday and Birrieria Zaragoza on Saturday.

I left from Hyde Park around 7:30 Friday night with two friends and arrived at Girl and the Goat (hereafter referred to as GatG) around 8:30, without a reservation.  We were quoted a 45 minute wait and seated within about 30 minutes.  With one dining restriction to consider (no pork) we quickly set to work making our menu selections.  After some discussion, we decided to start with the Bloody Mary Bread and order two selections from the Veg, two from the Fish, and one from the Goat.  We ordered the chickpea fritters, hen of the woods ragout, hiramasa crudo, mussels with lamb chorizo croutons, and the goat belly confit.

The bread was very good, soft, dense, and fresh from the oven.  I don’t miss free bread service at most restaurants and this was a much better way to start the meal than serving a recycled mixed bread basket.  There are three choices to select from – the bread we chose came with a Worcestershire butter and celery pickle relish.

Next came the chickpea fritters.  The flavors were great, but the textural and temperature contrast between the different components of the dish really allowed for it to stand out.  The cool mozzarella balanced out the crisply fried fritters and the dish was rounded out by the caponata (mix of fresh chickpeas, eggplant, and other vegetables.)  I would order this dish again.

We came very close to not ordering the hiramasa crudo after seeing the plate delivered to the couple next to us.  It looked to be a few thin slices of yellowtail topped with a sauce and meager accompaniments ($16).  After taking a bite, the couple insisted that the dish was a “must order,” so we decided to try it on their recommendation.  This dish stood out that night as being one of the only courses which tended toward restraint or minimalism.  The yellowtail was excellent, it was topped with small green chili slices, a sort of cream sauce, and confit pork belly.  I enjoyed it, but there were about eight bites to share between the three of us.

After the crudo came the hen of the woods ragout and the mussels.  The ragout was very creamy (almost like a bisque) with a nutty spice which lent the whole dish a sort of sweet kick.  It was an odd combination of flavors which brought out the sweetness in the mushrooms and the sweet potato agnolotti.  My table probably enjoyed this course the least and I don’t think I would order it again.  It seemed as though many of the dishes at GatG were focused on delivering on flavor rather than balance and I think that was most apparent in this course.

The mussels were very good.  They were exceptionally large PEI mussels (some of the largest I have seen anywhere) served with lamb sausage croutons in a wonderful broth.  This was probably my favorite course of the evening, along with being the best value ($12.)

We rounded out the meal with some confit goat belly with crab ‘n’ lobster (?!)  The goat belly was excellent, well cooked with some crispy parts (think carnitas.)  The accompanying crab and lobster was strange, but not untasty.  The whole dish tasted good, but I was still confused about the flavor pairings afterward.

Declining dessert, we settled the bill and ended up paying around $32 per person, less than I was expecting to pay.  I was anxious that GatG would not be able to meet up to the hype, but I was not disappointed.  All in all, a very reasonable night out with ambitious flavor pairings and interesting dishes.

I give GatG  four stars:

On Saturday, I ventured out to Archer Heights to try Birrieria Zaragoza.  Birria is a mexican stew from Jalisco so a Birrieria is an establishment which sells birria.  Birrieria Zaragoza has a narrowly edited menu, which includes birria in two portion sizes, quesadillas, salsa mocajate, birria tacos, and tomato consomme.  The restaurant closes at 7:00, and in typical college fashion we arrived 20 minutes late (at 6:40.)  Despite our last minute arrival, we were treated incredibly graciously.  When I tried to order a beer, I was informed that they did not serve alcohol but were a BYOB establishment and we could run out and buy beer a few blocks down Archer.  We placed our orders for salsa and a quesadilla and plate of birria each an left to find beer.  After walking several blocks, we arrived at the store they had directed us to only to find that it was closed for renovation.  We ended up walking around for several blocks in an attempt to find beer and ended up at 7-9-11 25 minutes after we’d left the restaurant and picked up a 12 pack of Pacifico.

When we finally, sheepishly walked back into the restaurant it was already 10 minutes past 7:00.  Our friend who had stayed had been talking with the owner, Johnathan, for half an hour.  The kitchen had held off on bringing out our food until we came back.  Rather than being annoyed, our waitress was concerned that we’d gotten lost.  We were served within a few minutes of getting back and the food was absolutely outstanding.  The quesadilla was perfect, especially with the home made fire roasted tomato salsa, onions, limes, chilis, and cilantro.  The birria was like a plate of the best, most succulent pot roast I’ve ever had.  The tortillas were hot and fresh – tender and pliable so as not to break under the heaping portions of goat and consomme piled on.  After we’d finished our meal, we stayed to talk with Norma, Johnathan’s wife.  The restaurant is family owned (almost all of the staff are family members) and the emphasis on authenticity and service is commendable.  Birrieria Zaragoza is another restaurant which has received lots of hype and recognition, but this dining experience completely blew my expectations out of the water.  The food is outstanding, but beyond being talented restauranteurs, the members of the Zaragoza family are some of the warmest, funniest people I have met in Chicago.

I will definitely be back soon – taking care to arrive earlier and with beer on hand.
I would be incorrect in giving Birrieria Zaragoza anything less than five stars:

Coming up this week: I attempt to knock another two restaurants off my shortlist, Nightwood and Piece.  And maybe going blonde in between.


Kuma’s and Davanti – Burgers and Beer

I figured I would do a post on burgers for a few reasons:

  1. I had a burger at Kuma’s and Davanti Enoteca this week.
  2. Burgers are delicious, affordable, agreeable, and low key and thus good for early-fall-quarter catch up dinners.
  3. I have not updated in a while and sometimes when this happens I get yelled at (I’m starting to think the only thing less cool than having an eating blog is having a poorly maintained eating blog.)
This is problematic.

Burgers are delicious.

Kuma’s

I landed back in Chicago last Wednesday and somehow the stars were in line and I ended up going to Kuma’s a few hours after I arrived in Hyde Park and ran some errands.  We left at 9:00 and arrived some time after that, happy to find that there was no wait.  This was my second trip to Kuma’s and the time before our five-top waited about an hour for a table [This was thankfully a shorter wait than the touristy-looking couple who had arrived before us were made to sit out.  The rumors about wait-time discrimination appear to be true, though ymmv.]

I had an unmemorable beer while I pored over the menu and anxiously considered my options and tried to avoid being pressured into ordering Mac’ n Cheese.  I ended up ordering the Plague Bringer, mostly because I had seen it on TV two days prior, which inspired me to return to Kuma’s in the first place.  I ordered another beer – this time a Dogfish Head Midas Touch, which was good.  I tried the milk stout as well, which I also liked.

The Burger: is hefty.  A 10 oz. patty on a pretzel bun with various toppings (in this case, roasted garlic mayo, tortilla strips, hot sauce, garlic, Pepper Jack, and sliced jalapenos)  Served next to a bed of fries – I think these are fresh cut, different from the waffle fries I was served when I came a few months prior.  The fries were acceptable, at the very least they did not distract from the burger (unlike the perfectly crisp fries I had Friday at Del Seoul – a difficult act to follow.)  The burger was spicy hot, by which I mean it hurt me to eat it.  My eyes watered and I saw stars along the dimly lit bar.  In my relatively limited experience, Kuma’s burgers are juicy, a characteristic which is complemented well by the soft and dense pretzel rolls.  The burger toppings are also assisted by the bun (the canvass of the meal) and its springy cushioning – Kuma’s burgers are large, but not top heavy.  The bulk of the mass is concentrated in the bottom half of the bun and everything is held in place by the spongy bun.  Overall, a great burger.  I ended up paying about $30 for two beers and a burger, which is not unreasonable considering I hadn’t eaten that day as I had been traveling.

Davanti Enoteca

I first visited Davanti Enoteca in mid-November of last year, soon after they first opened on West Taylor.  The experience was memorable – we arrived on Saturday around 6:00 as a hungry party of eleven, waited 90 minutes for a table, and left as a happily content party of ten.  This time, I came for dinner with a friend and we arrived at 6:30 on a Monday to no wait.  As it was a Monday, my friend and I both ordered the burger and a beer special for $10, and decided to start with an order of the “vasi” (Tuscan toast and toppings served in small mason jars.)  We went with the buratta, olive oil, and black pepper vasi, which was tasty but not transcendent.  Buratta is an exceptionally creamy and delicious form of mozzarella (sort of a purse of mozzarella filled with ricotta cream, roughly the size of a fist) and the vasi was simple and good but did not exceed my expectations for buratta.

The burger and beer were exceptional.  I had the burger the last time I came and was very happy with my decision.  This time, I had essentially the same burger, plus a pint of Peroni, for a buck less.  I’m not really sure how an $11 burger + $6 beer = $10 burger and beer but that it exists is more important than how.  To be honest, I did not expect a great burger from an Italian wine bar, but the Davanti Burger hits all the right notes.  It’s a decently sized burger (6 oz?) topped with bacon jam, cheese curds, roasted tomatoes, arugala, and garlic mayo.  I’m sure everyone can agree the bacon jam is amazing, but the cheese curds really did it for me in this case (confession time: I am a sucker for ooey melted globs of fat).  The bacon jam adds some extra flavor beneath the patty while gracefully resolving the issue of having to chew through too-thick-too-thin-too-chewy-too-crisp bacon in a burger.  The fries were shoestring, which I do not prefer.  I am not especially particular about my fries but shoestring fries are a pain in the butt to eat.  It take a bit of work to gather four suitable toothpick-like fries and dip them in ketchup together and the reward is only about half of a regular french fry.  That having been said, I ate all of them.

Both burger beer experiences were very good, though in distinctly different ways.  Kuma’s takes its burgers very seriously, as evidenced by their aggressively worded list of rules posted throughout the establishment.  Davanti is more laid back and friendly (the manager stopped by our table after we had settled the bill and thanked us for coming, +1.)  Kuma’s has an extensive list of burgers, each named after a heavy metal band and given a unique set of toppings.  Davanti only has one burger, but it somehow manages to strike a wonderful balance without compromise.  Going to Kuma’s is something of an ordeal, partially because it is in Andersonville, partially because of the wait, partially because of the noise, and largely due to the heft and size of the portions.  Both times I have gone I have cleaned my plate, but not without some sense of struggle or achievement (as a side note, when I went to Kuma’s last week, one of my friends ordered the Dark Castle set of four sliders and managed to eat one and a half.)  Davanti is more manageable, but not less satisfying.

If pressed to evaluate Kuma’s and Davanti quantitatively–

Kuma’s Corner – four stars:
Davanti Enoteca – four and a half stars:

While it may appear through a review of my recent reviews that my rating system suffers from a Yelp-like inflationary problem, rest assured that my reviews are largely centered around the eating experiences I have found to be more interesting and worth sharing, so there is some degree of cherry picking.  Also, I do my best to avoid eating at bad or poorly reviewed restaurants.


Quick Reviews on All the Restaurants in Hyde Park I’ve ever Gone to (Part 1)

Bonjour Bakery and Cafe

Good fresh bread, even better fresh and slathered with some fresh butter and sea salt or goat cheese.  Pastries are good but expensive.
The French bread here has a finer crumb, which makes it better for cooking with in many recipes (brioche for bread pudding, sliced baguette for crostini, etc).

Cafe Corea

One of the few safe places to sit down and have a good meal in Hyde Park.  (An exaggeration, but not by much)  Staff is friendly and accommodating, I believe the restaurant is family owned.  The Jap Chae is a good bet, as are the hot soups.  Marginally more expensive than most Asian restaurants in Hyde Park, but markedly better.  Comforting food well prepared.

Cedars Mediterranean Kitchen

Overall, disappointing.  Hyde Park’s attempt at a mid-range “Mediterranean” attempts to make up for in ambiance what it lacks in originality and quality of ingredients.  The dishes I’ve sampled have been hit-or-miss, but there is better, cheaper food to be found at the Nile.

Chant

I went here for dinner last spring quarter, I will never come back.  The “Asian fusion” concept is poorly executed in every sense.  The decor and layout are tacky and impractical, and the food is uninspired and in some cases highly contrived.  The reason I have a hard time liking Asian fusion restaurants is that so many times the product of the fusion ends up being a compromise of the originals rather than an innovative and nuanced approach to an old classic.  Noodles Etc’s attempt at a trendy, mid-range fusion restaurant is no better than most cheaper restaurants in Hyde Park.

Edwardo’s Natural Pizza

Edwardo’s offers inconsistent food and consistent poor service.  Giordano’s has better pizza, service, and atmosphere, though it’s farther from the quad.  Either way, the only time I eat deep dish is when I’m going to dinner with friends from out of town, in which case I have better things to do than watch servers argue with each other and ignore patrons for 90 minutes.

Giordano’s

See above.

Harold’s

A must.  Sometimes the quality of the meat is poor, but apparently they have a 7 day return policy (?!) so I guess if you want to, you can ask for a new one.  Or just shell out another $3.51 and wait 10 minutes for a second half dark meal if you’re too embarrassed to ask for a refund.  Perfect when paired with a crisp champagne.

A note: everyone has their own preferences when it comes to ordering Harold’s.  I usually go with the half dark fried hard mild sauce salt and pepper.


Part-Time President of the Clean Plate Club

A question I get asked a lot is “So, are your parents, like, really into food, too?”

This question doesn’t have a simple answer.  At best, it has a compound answer (since I have two parents).
But I would say neither of my parents has a great love of food.  My mother eats small portions of simple food, usually quite slowly.
My father is often very busy with his work, leading him to eat quickly and indiscriminately.

Neither of them are very invested in food, which is fine.  Food, I think, is another one of those things that you get out of it what you put into it.  Sometimes I think I could be just as interested in video games or coleopterology, but I guess somewhere along the line I chose food.

I wonder sometimes how much people really enjoy food, relative to one another.  I went to an exhibit at the Renaissance society about two weeks ago where the assistant director gave us a tour.  During the tour, he mentioned that he never liked to go to art shows with friends and family.  Just a day earlier, I started thinking about how I’ve stopped going to the movies with my friends and family.  When I was in high school, and especially the summer after high school, going out to eat and watching movies at the cineplex constituted a huge part of social interaction.  Of course, there were kids (especially math/science kids) who liked to go on hikes together and other people (more mainstream math/science kids and the people they were friends with) would go rock climbing.  And there were other people who liked to do other things.  But eating and going to the movies were the two generic, agreeable passive activities people my age would tend toward.  And it made sense for us to do them when we did get together.  Each activity would take up about three hours of time, which is about the length of time you can appropriately multitask and make small talk without running out of things to say.

So, I think my own interest in food really developed the summer after I graduated high school, when there was nothing else to do.  I had a car, no job, a decent amount of money saved up and no shortage of dining companions.  Since food was really the only decision I had to make, I started spending lots of time drawing up lists of things I wanted to try.  Within a few months, I acquired a good  breadth of knowledge of South bay dining options.  Similarly, my goal for last quarter was to gain an introduction to haute cuisine in Chicago.  I decided to retire my project this quarter and focus on something new.  So I decided to try writing.

I did want at some point to clarify that I don’t really think of this as a “food blog” (even though I sometimes refer to it as “my food blog”).  In my mind, it’s really more of an eating blog.  Additionally, I’ve never considered myself (nor have I referred to myself as) a foodie.  I know the term “foodie” isn’t exactly well-defined, but there’s something about it which I find off-putting.  When I hear “foodie”, my mind processes the word as a portmanteau of food and yuppie.  A foodie (to me) is a person who gets overexcited when things like bacon or cupcakes or bacon cupcakes come up in conversation.  I find this sort of reaction is contrary to my understanding of my own relationship with food.  I like to think that I care about food just the right amount, or at least approach it with a basic rationality.  I don’t think food should be treated as an object of worship or subject to fanaticism, but with thoughtfulness, reflection, and moderation.

Coming from me, that last word may have caused some of you to choke on your coffee, but it’s true.  To further clarify, for me, competitive eating and regular eating are two distinct ideas.  It takes a relatively small amount of food to satiate me (small relative to the amount it takes to actually make me full).  I like to eat and I like to compete, but when it comes time to competitively eat I’m all about the sport as opposed to gluttony.  That being said, I’ve never been one to leave portions of uneaten food on my plate (more as a display of frugality and appreciation than overindulging).  But either way, I think a good attitude toward food requires a degree of self control, which is often downplayed or omitted by self-described foodies.  Lately I’ve been realizing that truly enjoying eating requires taking food down from its pedestal and appreciating it for what it is, rather than glorifying and objectifying it.

While most of you had probably reasoned out these conclusions years ago, these are the food thoughts which have been going through my mind this week.

Happy eating,
L

Since I've received some complaints about my posts being large blocks of texts without any pictures of food to break them up. Dinner from Saturday - Oxtail Pho from Pho 888.


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).


Coming to Terms with Food Fetishization

I’m sure by now many if not most of you have seen foodporndaily.com
If not, or if you feel like looking at pictures of delicious looking food, click the link.

Starting this blog, I thought about all of the things I wanted to include: reviews, ideas, food philosophies, and the occasional snippet about my adventures with food. I also thought about what I didn’t want this project to include.  I noticed that one of my posts showed up on foodpress this morning, so I visited the foodpress site.  In an article explaining how to increase the chance of being featured on the site, the author explained that including pictures is crucial to attaining a greater readership:

“Images are critical when it comes to food. People want to see the food, not just read about it.” – source

Dear readers, is this true?

Food blogging can quickly become foofy – something I’d like to avoid. While I don’t take myself very seriously, I am fairly invested in food.  Many food blogs are centered around the production and consumption of food. That’s interesting, but I’m more concerned with the way food makes me feel and think.  The experience of dining is by nature, fleeting.  That is why I like to engage my brain by taking in all of the sensory elements working together to create the experience.  Taking pictures of food can be nice, but it’s something I don’t generally do for a few reasons:

  1. It takes away from the immediate experience of eating.
  2. It can be inconsiderate if you are dining with others or in a restaurant.
  3. The idea of cataloguing food by capturing it in photographs seems a bit possessive to me.

These are all subjective viewpoints, which are not even necessarily rational.  But I believe in the sanctity of food (I realize that might sound antiquated to some).  How is it possible to focus on eating if you are trying to decide whether to keep your flash on or turn it off?  It’s a modern problem, but by a similar principle I would not use my phone during dinner either.  Admittedly, the question of courtesy is not generally two sided.  Instead, it is more a reflection of consideration.

The other problem I have with obsessive food photography is the fetishization of the eating experience.  See this article from the New York Times.  My main concern with this type of behavior is what the heck are these people going to do with all these food pictures?  Taking pictures of oatmeal and porridge is even more bizarre than taking pictures of a thoughtfully plated dish at an expensive restaurant.  (Be sure to read my forthcoming post on plating)

But either way, I think transience is a part of the essence of food and the dining experience.  What does it mean to take the food out of dining or the dining out of food?  It’s no longer an organic experience.  I don’t bring my electronics to the dinner table and I don’t bring up food at inappropriate times outside of meals.  Isn’t the way food makes you feel more important than how it looks?

What do you think?  Does food photography enhance or detract from the dining experience?