Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Beer & Bacon Day

Back when we attended our underground dinner this past June (see earlier posting), Mrs. Hackknife and I were clued in to a little foodie secret: there's a bar in town (Paddy Long's, 1028 W. Diversey) conducting a beer and bacon tasting. Yes, that's right.....you can actually pay someone to give you five different bacons paired with five different beers. What's more, we were able to get a discount on the tasting via a Living Social deal (only $20 per person versus $35 at full price). Having secured our discounted date w/pork and barley, we anxiously awaited the evening of our reservation, which finally arrived a week ago Saturday. But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself as there were other noteworthy encounters with the two products of honor that day. Let me explain....

Those of you who are frequent readers may recall that I've got a side initiative going on this year where my brother-in-law Dan, cousin-in-law Bobby, and I have been trying to tour and sample the wares of as many local breweries as possible. Having already visited Three Floyds' in Munster and Two Brothers in Warrenville, we scheduled sort of an impromptu tour to Revolution Brewing (a relatively new microbrewery located at 2323 N. Milwaukee) the same afternoon as the tasting at Paddy Long's. With our tour starting at noon and the beer/bacon tasting at 7, I somehow managed to convince Mrs. Hackknife that it would make the most sense for me to simply stay in the city until our tasting and just meet up with her later. Seeing before me a long day of alcohol/bar food consumption, I felt the need to fortify myself with a good breakfast, including homemade pancakes and turkey bacon ("Are you insane? We're having bacon for dinner!" Mrs. Hackknife helpfully noted, but turkey bacon doesn't really count, right?). After meeting up with the boys and with a cold Cross of Gold golden ale in hand, we received the grand tour of Revolution Brewing's operations. The production area itself was pretty small and the tour pretty laid back, but what they lack in space/pretension, they make up for in beer quality. All 3 beers I sampled there that afternoon (the Scottish ale and a Belgian dubbel fermented w/unrefined Mexican sugar by the name of El Clavo y La Cruz were the other two) were mighty tasty, as was the pepper and egg pizza (poblano cream sauce, baby red potato, red pepper, jalapeno, mozzarella cheese, and scrambled egg, with bacon added for a buck, of course) they helped me wash down. The only black mark on the visit was having to watch my beloved Boilermakers cough up a 28-13 4th quarter lead in E. Lansing to No. 11 Michigan State, eventually succumbing 35-31, but I suppose I can't hold the brewery responsible for the football team's shortcomings this season (sigh).

Feeling the need for a venue change and a twinge of nostalgia, we headed into Bucktown towards Dan's old condo and a favorite nearby watering hole from days past: Piece (1927 W. North), a great microbrew joint and New Haven-style-thin-crust pizzeria where we have spent many good times (including Dan's bachelor party). The restaurant is part owned by the guys from Cheap Trick, which might help explain the emphasis on beer/pizza. I decided to stick with a strict liquid diet this time, choosing a rye ale called Worryin' Ale. It was good, but Bobby's Wingnut IPA was definitely better (and this from someone who doesn't generally like IPAs). Vowing to also get pizza on our next return visit and bidding Bobby adieu, Dan and I opted to refuel at a much lauded BBQ place just up the block called Lillie's Q (1856 W. North), part of the city's healthy (I mean size, not, um, medically beneficial) crop of new BBQ restaurants to open in 2010. Lillie Q's bills itself as "Southern-style", which can mean a few different things; regardless, the meat was outstanding no matter how you classify it. We both chose the tri-tip beef sandwich, served without sauce on a buttered brioche roll, with me adding cole slaw on the sandwich and a side of beans for my order (see Photo 1 above). The combo of smoked beef, crunchy slaw, and rich buttery bread was nothing short of sublime. The beans were a little sweet for my liking, but the main course clearly didn't disappoint and I can't wait for the opportunity to try the pulled pork there.

Fully sated, I waddled back to the car and did everything in my power to summon the intestinal fortitude to psyche myself up for the beer/bacon tasting yet to come. After picking up Mrs. Hackknife at the train station, we arrived at Paddy Long's early and were directed to spots at the bar. The tasting started about 20 minutes late and we had repeated issues with the bacon girl passing us over in favor of the tables behind us (inevitably, she would run out before getting to us, then forget that we never received any, causing a bartender to head frantically back to the kitchen to have the chef cook up some more - this happened to us no less than 3 times). Service issues aside, we sampled the following beer/bacon pairings: Metropolitan Krankshaft with Irish bacon, Trumer Pils with peppercorn bacon (see Photo #2 above), Lagunitas IPA with Danish bacon, Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale with hickory smoked bacon, and Stone Smoked Porter with maple brown sugar bacon. Of these combos, we liked the 2nd and 5th the best, although most of the bacon seemed especially fatty (even for bacon). We received a few extra pours of beer as compensation for the extended waiting, but all in all, I'd have to say that it wasn't quite the great experience we'd hoped for (i.e., if you don't get a discounted deal like we did, don't bother).

After all of this excessive consumption, you might think that I'd suffer some consequences, and you'd be right as Beer & Bacon Day was followed by Soothe-Stomach-with-Oatmeal-and-Stay-Close-to-Restroom Day on Sunday (alas, I'm not as young as I used to be)....

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Passport To France

Last week, Mrs. Hackknife dragged me along (ok, "dragged" probably isn't the accurate word to use here as free food was involved) to a social event co-sponsored by her employer (Deloitte Consulting) at the Union League Club of Chicago (65 W. Jackson Blvd. for those of you playing along at home). This event, entitled "Passport to France" is held every year in Chicago by something called the French-American Chamber of Commerce and is intended to celebrate the release of the latest Beaujolais Nouveau wines during the third week of November. Since we here at the Commissary are very enthusiastic about all things France (despite the fact that I personally have no direct lineage to the French people and my wife's family, being part Alsatian, have a tenuous connection at best), I was more than happy to accompany her as she used the opportunity to do a little client schmoozing with her co-workers.

We arrived at the club around six in the evening and headed up to the Grand Ballroom on the 6th floor, suddenly realizing that we'd been here once before for a Catholic Charities wine tasting festival in January 2005 (given that we hadn't yet learned the fine art of bucket spitting when sampling many, many wines in a short time period, the event aftermath went badly for both of us due to, say, excessive refreshment fatigue). Food sampling started out with a table of very French cheeses, such as Roquefort, Camembert, and Brie along with baguette slices. We also at this point opted to try some of the Georges DuBoeuf Beaujolais Nouveau, which, truth be told, wasn't particularly good (for those of you unfamiliar, Beaujolais Nouveau is made to be a very fruity, only slightly dry red wine and it's something of an acquired taste, if not mostly a marketing gimmick). This was followed by a brief photo session with an event photographer, who promptly generated a long sequence of digital pictures of me and the missus in front of various Frenchy-related backgrounds (vineyard, barrel cellar, Eiffel Tower, fountain, etc.), posting them on his video screen for all to watch ad nauseum. After about 5 minutes of this, it began to creep me out for some reason; fortunately, new people came to take photos and they soon replaced us as the display victims.

By now, the 5 restaurants operating tables at the event had started serving their food to the guests. We stopped by LM Restaurant first, which was serving an organic tomato soup (good) and a duck rillette (very good, although the bread underlying the duck spread was exceedingly crunchy). Next was Beef Bourguignon from L'Eiffel Bistrot & Creperie (good broth and veggies, but not particularly tender beef - since this dish is bistro food at its most classic, you would think it should be a slam dunk for these guys, mais non). The house chef at Union League Club provided a nice beef short rib with butternut squash risotto, while Bistro 110's roasted suckling pig w/mashed potatoes was nothing out of the ordinary. Last, but certainly not least, came my most anticipated table: Mexique, a new Mexican-French fusion restaurant that's been generating some buzz of late (for example, their pan-seared skate wing was recently cited by Chicago Magazine as one of the top 25 Mexican dishes in town). At first glance, one might be surprised to find such a restaurant at a soiree celebrating French culture; however, those of you who are world history buffs out there might remember that the French actually occupied Mexico for about a decade in the 1860s in an unsuccessful attempt to establish a sympathetic monarchy there (i.e., in the hopes of countering US hegemony in the Western Hemisphere). Whether or not there was any substantial co-mingling of Mexican ingredients with French cooking techniques during this period is a little hard to verify. Myth or no myth, Chef Carlos Gaytan of Mexique has built his restaurant around this concept, which I found to be intriguing at the very least. He and his assistants were passing out little cups containing dried cranberries at the bottom, topped with butternut squash soup, a few pieces of spicy pork belly carnitas, and a dollop of apple cinnamon foam to finish. It was nice to look at and very tasty to eat, with a great balance of sweet-spicy-tart flavors all in one gulp. Clearly the standout in the room, it was the only item I went back for a second time (Mrs. Hackknife found it to be a bit too spicy for her tastes).

After two glasses of white wine (Chablis and Pouilly-Fuisse) and a couple of nice desserts (raspberry citrus lavender sorbet and Bailey's ice cream sandwich) from Ruth and Phil's Gourmet Ice Cream, we bid "Adieu" to the evening's festivities (Mrs. Hackknife had an early flight to catch and I was hankering to catch the end of the Bears-Dolphins game)....

Friday, November 19, 2010

Roasted Cauliflower with Yogurt and Mint/Cabbage Gratin

The farmbox strikes again! Last week, among other things, we ended up with a large head of cauliflower and a semi-large head of cabbage. We did a corned beef w/cabbage here at the Commissary a few weeks ago, but I don't think that any of us were ready for another round of it yet. And as for the cauliflower, I wanted to....well, I had no idea what to do with it as this vegetable doesn't really have the sexiness of, say, turnips, or the cachet of, say, kale when you think of it. Amazingly, while meal planning for the week, I came across the "Off Duty" section (as it's now described) in the new-look Saturday edition of the Wall Street Journal, and what should I see but a recipe involving cauliflower - a relatively easy recipe that actually sounds good. The recipe was contributed by New York chef Andrew Carmellini, who specializes in Italian food, although the cauliflower dish is Indian-inspired, with curry/cumin/coriander/fennel and a mint/lemon/yogurt sauce. I've found that side dishes with yogurt tend to pair well with spicier foods (the yogurt is cooling), so I decided to make it with our house tacos one night as I'm always seeking good veggies (and refried beans don't really count) to go with it. As it turns out, the pairing was successful and Mrs. Hackknife was very pleased (swooning, in fact - had I simply left the pan of roasted cauliflower out on the counter for a while, it probably would have disappeared).

Two nights later, I made a pork roast and decided to attempt a cabbage gratin as a vegetable side for it (pork and cabbage tend to work well together - just ask the Germans). This recipe comes courtesy of my trusty Joy of Cooking, which usually doesn't fail me and didn't this time, either. I was pleasantly surprised how well the flavors of Gruyere cheese, milk/cream, and breadcrumbs integrated with the cabbage, which you boil separately before baking it with the other ingredients. I had a little bit of Vidalia onion left over that I chopped up and threw into the mix as well (surprisingly, it seemed to enhance things, not destroy it). Mrs. Hackknife was even more impressed with this dish, as was I (mmmmm).....

Cabbage Gratin

Preheat oven to 375F. Butter or Pam a 2-quart baking dish. Dust the dish with 1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese or breadcrumbs. Bring 4 quarts of water and 1 1/2 Tbsp. salt to a boil in a stockpot. Add 6 c. (about 1 lb.) shredded cabbage and cook for 5 minutes. Drain cabbage and press out as much water as possible. In a large bowl, whisk together 2 large eggs, 1 c. milk or light cream (ed. note - I used a mixture of 1/2 c. skim milk and 1/2 c. heavy cream), 1/2 c. grated Gruyere or Emmentaler cheese, 1/4 c. all-purpose flour, 1 tsp. salt, 1/2 teaspoon caraway seed, and 1/8 tsp. ground cardamom. Add the drained cabbage (and chopped onion, if you include it), mix well, and add to the baking dish. Cover top with 1/4 cup grated Parmesan or Gruyere cheese. Bake until golden on top, about 40-50 minutes.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Publican

"Gimme oysters and beer for dinner every day of the year and I'll be fine", Tin Cup Chalice, Jimmy Buffett, 1974

This past Saturday evening, Mrs. Hackknife and I joined a number of her coworkers/spouses for a fun evening at The Publican, a self-described "beer/pork/shellfish" emporium located on a once-desolate, now-heating up stretch of Fulton Market Street (especially with the pending arrival of Grant Achatz's new restaurant/bar a few doors down) on the Near North Side. This was our 3rd visit here since it first opened in early 2009 and we have yet to encounter a bad plate of food; in fact, we were so impressed after our first trip that we jointly decided, should we ever opt to practice restaurant monogamy (unlikely as that seems), The Publican would be a strong candidate for our eternal dining affections.

Since we had a relatively large group, we ordered a bunch of dishes for everyone to share, including a platter of 6 West Coast/6 East Coast oysters (not exactly being an oyster connoisseur, I couldn't discern much difference between the two I ate, although they were both delicious), fried sardines, a Catalan fish stew (it could have used more broth, perhaps the only slight misstep of the night), La Quercia cured ham (from Iowa), a paper cone of spicy pork rinds, a potted rillette (basically leftover pork pieces mixed with fat and cooled), pork belly, a whole roasted chicken with frites, and (whew) a couple of vegetable sides, including brussels sprouts and roasted squash. As you can imagine, this was a sizable amount of nosh, made more difficult by the fact that I had foolishly stuffed my face at Cousin Bobby and Gwen's housewarming party before we had even arrived, leaving me in an uncomfortable position of distended gluttony by the time the last dish emerged from the kitchen. I was only able to consume a single beer (Blanche de Bruxelles, a witbier from Brasserie Lefebvre in Belgium) during the whole meal, although Mrs. Hackknife let me sample one of her Two Brothers Heavy Handed IPA (she had 3 of these altogether, emptying out the restaurant's remaining stash).

There are still several items on the menu that I'm itching to try (some of the more exotic offerings that don't really play well in a group setting, such as blood sausage and sweetbreads), so a return visit is inevitable.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Los Angeles Dining Notes

Ah, Los Angeles.....the sun, the movie stars, the traffic, the-eyepopping-number-of-strip-mall-Korean-BBQ-joints-and-taquerias.....it's all there. I had November 6 circled on my calendar for quite some time as the date of my good friend (and blog follower) Jaime's marriage to his lovely fiancee, Lydia. As the big day approached, I came to the realization that LA happens to be arguably the best city in the country for mom-and-pop ethnic restaurants, especially for Asian and Latin American cuisines. This knowledge came about mostly from reading reviews by Jonathan Gold, the LA Metro area's pre-eminent food critic and from Saveur magazine, which devoted an entire issue earlier this year to the virtues of Los Angeles eating. Now amply fueled with bravado and exuberance, I compiled a hit list of potential restaurants to visit while in Southern California: Bazaar, Campanile/Tar Pit, Animal, El Parian, Phillipe's (which claims to have invented the original French dip sandwich), plus the ever-present food trucks (which are still illegal in Chicago). The reality, of course, proved to be much less glamorous as Mrs. Hackknife and I had the progeny in tow on this trip: Jack-in-the-Box, Johnny Rockets, and two visits to McDonald's, to be precise (I admit that I may have had overreaching ambitions).

All was not lost in an avalanche of fast food mediocrity, however. There were still several high points on the trip for foodie fanatics like myself, beginning with the rehearsal dinner two days before the wedding, graciously hosted by the groom's parents at their home in Pacoima. Apparently, one custom in the local Mexican community is to hire a taco cook when hosting a large dinner gathering. The taco man at our gathering prepared a scrumptious array of taco choices, including carne asada, al pastor (i.e., pork cooked on a spit with pineapple juice for tenderizing), and pollo (chicken), along with salsas and sauteed jalapenos/onions for garnish. I was able to indulge in all three of these varieties (see Photo #1 above), but not as much as I would have liked due to child management responsibilities. Also sadly missed was the homemade nopales (cactus salad) prepared by the groom's mother, which I'm told by FOH Adam (who is becoming a regular fixture in these postings) was delicious (so much so that he expressed his admiration to Senora Quevedo, who then prepared another entire container of nopales for him to bring home to NYC - I trust that this fed him well on the 6-hour flight back).

The day before the wedding found me running errands with the groom in-between some food stops. I mentioned that I thought a pupusa sounded good to tide us over until lunch, and within mere seconds, here we are stopping at a small, nondescript restaurant serving pupusas (which are small fried corn tortillas stuffed with meat/cheese, native to El Salvador). Unless you're dreaming of hot dogs or Italian beef, this kind of imagine-it-then-immediately-see-it food trick is just not possible in Chicago, even in its most-Latino neighborhoods. Anyway, we both enjoyed a pupusa revuelta (a mixture of cheese, beans, and chicharron, which in this context is not fried pork rind, but ground pork meat paste) with a smattering of curtido (like cole slaw, but with red chile and vinegar) and a horchata, which was less sweet and a bit spicier than those I've had back home.

After picking up fellow groomsman Adam, we made an attempt to get lunch at a famous food truck: Grill Em' All, the winner of the recent Great Food Truck Race competition on the Food Network, who features among other things such insane creations as a "Dee Snider" burger (with peanut butter, jelly, sriracha, and bacon). Funny thing about fame when you're a food truck - it turns out that lots of people want to eat your food. Even at 20 minutes to 2 (which is the end of the truck's lunch service), there are 15 people in line waiting to order and another 15 waiting for their orders to come out. With stomachs growling and considerable envy at watching happy diners acting like they've just won the burger lottery, we instead proceeded a few miles away to Fab's Hot Dogs, reputedly the best hot dogs in LA. Having scanned their offerings (reminding me a bit of a slightly downscale Hot Doug's), I settled on the most local of choices, the LA Street Dog, a bacon-wrapped all-beef wiener with jalapenos, mayo, tomatoes, mustard, ketchup, and grilled onions/peppers (see Photo #2 above). Although I don't typically favor tater tots over fries, the groom recommended the tots and I must admit they were very good, nicely browned and crunchy with a soft interior (nothing like the cement lumps I remember from my freshman year dorm in college). I will hand it to LA: if they want to designate the bacon-wrapped dog as the "official" local variety (as one local hot dog chain is proposing), I enthusiastically embrace this initiative.

Errands completed, some of the other members of the wedding party and spouses met up with us at Katsuya in Glendale for dinner, an upscale sushi restaurant, where we enjoyed many tasty dishes, including a creamy rock shrimp (so nice it was ordered twice), rainbow roll, sunset roll (with grilled eel), blue crab roll, and crispy rice/spicy tuna. My only complaint with the evening's proceedings had nothing to do with the food - although the Phillipe Starck-designed decor throughout the building was very nice to admire, apparently, I'm too stupid to figure out how to activate the Phillipe Starck-designed sink in the men's room, with which I did everything except stand on top of to try to wash my hands.

Finally, the wedding was upon us and all went well as the ceremony was elegant yet humble. With a few hours to spare until the reception and with Adam's resounding endorsement, us two tuxedo-clad fools joined the throngs of humanity down the street from the banquet hall at the perpetually-crowded Porto's Bakery, a local institution for Cuban delicacies. Not only is Porto's known for its cakes (they happened to be providing the wedding cake for our bride and groom) and pastries, they also offer a number of hot dishes. Following recommendations, we ordered some meat pies, potato balls, pork tamales, and cheese rolls and proceeded back to the hotel, where we encountered many famished wedding guests (mostly MIT engineers) camped out in the lobby bar who were more than happy to descend upon our tasty treats like vultures disassembling roadkill. I was lucky to get a couple of cheese rolls (which were like danishes stuffed with melted cheese - delicious) and a few bites of a tamale before only the packaging remained (and I fear some of that might have been consumed as well).

We had a great trip to Southern California, but from a culinary standpoint, we've only just barely scratched the surface of what LA can be to a determined foodie armed with a box of Prilosec OTC. I welcome future challenges in this great dining town, yea verily.....