Monday, April 25, 2011

Baconfest 2011

Yes, you read correctly - every year (or at least now 3 years running), there is a festival in Chicago "entirely devoted to America's favorite cured meat" in all of its various forms and glory: Baconfest! (exclamation point added by the author, not part of the actual event title, although it probably should be). Somehow, the inaugural Baconfest and its recurrence in 2010 eluded my usually-savvy local food radar, but once I caught wind of it (it smelled sweet and greasy) this time around, I jumped at the opportunity to score a pair of tickets for us, the entirety of which disappeared in only 30 minutes on the day that they were released.

As Mrs. Hackknife and I quickly discovered when we arrived at the UIC Forum on the big day, there are apparently many people that are waaaaaay more into bacon than we are (for example, you don't realize how many bacon-themed t-shirts actually exist until you've been to an event like this - my personal favorite was one that said "PETA - People for the Eating of Tasty Animals" on the front and "There's room for all of God's creatures.......right next to my mashed potatoes" on the back). The line of nearly 1,000 crazed carnivores snaking outside the building eventually made its way indoors to find 50-something local restaurants, bars, butcher shops, and bakeries (yes, bakeries) passing out their best bacon-influenced dishes, a foodie bacchanalia the likes of which made even me (no shrinking violet in such matters) descend into a melange of disgust and guilt a couple of times. We started the afternoon's meat orgy at Miramar Bistro with a small, yet potent plate of caramelized pork belly (which is basically uncured bacon) with wilted escarole and maple pineapple chutney, soon to be followed by a rather-large sandwich portion of Kick Ass BLT (Benton's bacon on bacon-braised Texas toast with aioli, tomatoes, and iceberg lettuce) from the good folks at the 694 Wine and Spirits table. Feeling giddy and emboldened (and with hands mostly full of trash - we determined early on that there weren't enough garbage cans around), we wandered over to Girl & The Goat's table, where we were presented with a little cup of spicy bacon and tomato soup by no less a luminary than past Top Chef champ Stephanie Izard herself (when passing me the soup while I was still chowing down on my BLT, I pleaded to her that I was eating as fast as I could). David Burke's Primehouse had whiskey caramel bacon candies (what they called "bacon daddies"), which I didn't care for, but Mrs. Hackknife quite enjoyed. There were bacon-infused Bloody Marys from Bar Fifty/50 (very spicy), bacon "cannoli" filled with maple and bacon marscapone from Atwood Cafe (damn, that s%#t was good!), bacon and foie gras moon pie from Big Jones (tasty and probably the most egregious use of rich ingredients in the history of mankind), bacon banh mi from the Bristol, spinach and bacon ravioli with parmesan and brown butter sauce from La Madia, spicy bacon grits and cornbread from Heaven on Seven, and on and on. Piece served bacon pizza with its house-made Big Black Mariah porter beer. Spacca Napoli handed out seemingly-large plates of pasta and cheese pie with guanciale (when I expressed dismay at the robust portion size, Jonathan Goldsmith commented something to the effect of "well, we're Jewish here"). I actually attempted to eat a whole mini-hot dog bundle (smoked bacon wrapped-Monterey Jack stuffed homemade hot dog w/pickled jalapenos, salsa fresca, and lime aioli) from Old Town Social AND a mini-bacon cheeseburger with a bourbon bacon milkshake from Park Grill (sublime) within a few minutes of each other. Sable Kitchen's applewood smoked bourbon bacon jam on a crispy polenta cake with St. Andre cheese fondue was amazing, Nonna Santi's bacon biscotti, not so much. The bacon and cheese empanadas from Terzo Piano were terrific. By this time, I was pretty sure I was going to need some sort of medical attention, yet I tried to soldier on as best as I could. Wow Bao had bacon, egg, and cheese baos (little stuffed buns). Our friends at Meatyballs Mobile (visited on the street earlier this year) convinced me to try the Coq & Balls (ground chicken and Nueske's bacon meatballs in red wine sauce) even when I probably shouldn't have. The Ziggy Piggy bacon sundae bar that Cafe des Architectes was offering made me recoil like a vampire from sunlight. Many tables began running out of food, which was just as well, because other than hipsters walking around nursing cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, everyone appeared to be worn down in a daze of overindulgence. The urge to quietly weep started to fall over me as I considered the list of incredible restaurants whose wares we hadn't yet sampled (the Bedford, Boka, iNG, Inovasi, Magnolia Cafe, Piccolo Sogno, Province, Vie....) and, due to my lack of portion control, would not be able to. Then, recognizing one possible sliver of space left in my digestive tract, I gamely tried a piece of bacon chocolate cake (that's what you see in the photo at the top of the posting, a cake slab with a slice of bacon protruding), enjoying the smoky-sweet morsel now, knowing for certain that I would be paying later. After that, I was pretty sure I didn't want eat bacon ever again; however, going back over the menu list while writing this entry, I get giddy in anticipation of Baconfest 2012. Will you be there?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ireland Trip/Sheen Falls Lodge

Frequent readers of this blog (both of you, that is) may recall that late last year, we took two out-of-town trips with the Hackknife progeny, one to California (which generated enough foodie material for a posting) and one to Disney World (which did not). Apparently deciding that domestic plane travel with a 2- and 5-year old wasn't challenging enough, we just returned from a jaunt to Ireland with said children and Mrs. Hackknife's mother. The trip statistics would probably strike fear and pity into most reasonably-level-headed parents: two trans-Atlantic flights, two stopovers at JFK in New York, nearly 800 miles driven in an overloaded British minivan (read: smaller than ours) on the wrong side of narrow Irish roads in all manner of weather conditions and terrain, one carsick child, one child afflicted with stomach flu (same child), one hotel with no elevator, and difficulties adjusting to European-style resource conservation measures (small hot water tanks, tiny washer/dryer, etc.). That being said, we actually had a pretty decent time and can bore you, er, share much video and pictures if you're so inclined to sit through the gory details.

From a dining perspective, I think I can summarize my Irish experience in two parts. Number 1, if there was a potato famine at one time in this country, it's apparently ended with vigor as the restaurants serve chips (fries) with pretty much everything you order, including often times breakfast. I enjoy chips as much as the next bloke (and these were usually the kind I prefer, thick-cut, not too done), but by the end of the week, I wouldn't have been disappointed if I didn't see another chip as long as I lived. Hackknifette, on the other hand, largely derived whatever nutrition she got over the 7-day period by consuming not much besides chips (in fact, she's enthusiastically promoting Ireland in her own blog as an ideal travel destination for fussy-eating toddlers). Number 2, the general quality level of Irish cuisine is surprisingly good for the most part. This may have something to do with the fact that we spent most of our trip in the southwest part of the country, which is more rural, has a reputation for higher-class dining/hotels, and has better access to top-shelf ingredients (such as fresh seafood, artisanal butter/cheese, grass-fed beef and lamb, etc.) than other regions. Regardless, we certainly didn't go hungry during our visit. One particular meal stands out enough that it warrants detailed mention later in this posting; however, for the sake of brevity, I'm going to simply call out some of the food highlights of the trip rather than attempt a blow-by-blow account of each and every meal.

Our first dinner after arriving in Kenmare (our base of operations for the trip) was at a Spanish place on Main Street (that's actually the street name, by the way) called Salvado's Bistro. Mrs. Hackknife and I enjoyed our respective entrees (venison and duck), but the standout dishes were two tapas plates, one a bruschetta-like bread dish, the other a braised pork belly. It certainly wasn't the best tapas I've ever had; however, this meal put us on notice that we shouldn't expect the greasy fish and chips-based Irish cuisine of the past on this trip (although there was still plenty of that to be had if we wanted it). We encountered many of the varied types of ethnic restaurants (Indian, Italian, Chinese, etc.) that we've come to expect here in the US, but my preference was to nosh on now-spiffed up traditional Irish stalwarts such as beef and Guinness pie (at Blarney Woolen Mills), local crab cocktail/brown bread (pub in Kenmare), lamb curry boxty (a boxty is a kind of thick crepe, eaten at Bricin Restaurant in Killarney - see Photo #1 above), mussels fresh from the bay (John Benny's Pub in Dingle - see Photo #2 above), and the ever-present full Irish breakfast (consisting of toast, roasted tomato, Irish sausages [AKA bangers], Irish bacon [which is more like a fried ham slice], fried potatoes or (yes) chips, white pudding [congealed pork fat mixed with oatmeal], and my personal new favorite, black pudding [congealed pig's blood mixed with filler], which actually sounds disgusting, but is quite delicious). Even the old fish-and-chips plate has gone upscale in some places, with Kenmare boasting its own high-end chippie shop on Main Street, offering three types of fresh fish (hake, cod, or whiting) caught in the local waters, deep-fried to order and served with chips of about 20 different varieties (alas, I didn't get to sample their wares as this was the night that Mrs. Hackknife and I had our fancy dinner chronicled below). We discovered that Wisconsinites were not the first to invent fried cheese, as we found several restaurants serving deep-fried Camembert (to great effect, I might add) as an appetizer. Lastly, I found that it's difficult to get a bad sandwich in this country, at least in the southwest part, whether it's a club sandwich in Askeaton or a tuna and corn salad on baguette from Prego in Kenmare (enthusiastically consumed as lunch during my 10-mile hike through the Irish backcountry) - the bread is fresher and the meats/cheeses are better quality than the slag that usually passes for everyday filler in sandwiches over here.

Not everything was great. We dined next door to Salvado's one night at a place called D'Arcy's Restaurant, not so much necessarily for the food, but more so for the background story. You see, the place's owner (Aileen D'Arcy) is the granddaughter of Tom Crean, an Irish explorer well-noted for his being an integral participant in three major Antarctic expeditions by the British early in the 20th Century. Messr. Crean actually survived both the ill-fated Scott expedition (where 4 explorers, including Scott, perished after discovering that Roald Admunsen beat them to the South Pole by a month) AND the ill-fated Shackleton expedition (where the entire party was stranded for over a year following a shipwreck). During the first debacle, he was forced to walk 35 miles alone to safety, thus saving two of his fellow explorers, while during the second, he and his comrades overcame survival challenges so numerous and daunting (enduring an Antarctic winter with few supplies, sailing the world's roughest ocean via small, homemade boat with minimal navigational aids, traversing the interior of a once-thought uncrossable island with makeshift climbing gear, etc.) that mere words fail to adequately convey the magnitude of his accomplishments. He pretty much gets my vote for toughest man that ever lived. Anyway, back to the restaurant. Understandably proud of his exploits, his granddaughter created a very cool separate banquet room in the restaurant with his vintage photos and equipment, where we fortunately were able to dine that night. Unfortunately, Hackknifette was unusually cranky, Hackknife Jr. was ill, and the duck-pumpkin risotto I had wasn't particularly memorable. Mrs. D'Arcy was gracious enough to sign the book chronicling the Shackleton expedition that I had hauled to Ireland in my carry-on luggage (I think I embarrassed her by asking - probably not the first time I've been thought of as a stalker), but all in all, it wasn't the best experience (we'll try again someday, no book this time).

Which brings me to the pinnacle of dining on our journey - our visit to Sheen Falls Lodge for dinner. This lodge (a Relais & Chateaux property) was actually our 2nd choice for fine dining on the trip, but became our best option as the Park Hotel Kenmare (which is more renowned) was still closed for the off-season. This turned out to be a happy accident. First of all, Sheen Falls Lodge is situated in a much more picturesque location, nestled between a short, but broad waterfall and Kenmare Bay (Park Hotel is practically in downtown Kenmare). Second, given that the lodge had just opened full-time that weekend for the new tourist season, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. When we arrived for our dinner reservation, the hostess initially set us up in the bar for drinks and it became readily apparent that the restaurant patrons were going to be outnumbered by the waitstaff that evening (a Sunday night). The waiter brought our drinks, a bit of a spicy snack mix, and a very nice amuse bouche (fish samosa and a blue cheese/marmalade spread on a slice of brown bread) from the kitchen. Just when I thought we might actually be served the entire dinner in the bar, we were escorted to the main dining room, a French-styled salon with calming yellow walls, 18th Century decor, and a wood-burning fireplace roaring away. We were seated at the head table with views of the waterfall out one window and the bay out the other. Clearly, this was about the most elegant setting that we've yet encountered for a meal and most of the food hadn't even come out yet (not to mention the fact that we were completely alone in this magnificent salon save for the waiter and sommelier making occasional appearances to check on us - we were later told that we had the only reservation that evening). The seasonal menu (a blend of premium Irish ingredients prepared with French culinary techniques) didn't disappoint: after our amuse bouche, we resumed with a grouse and foie gras ballotine w/pineapple compote, followed by our first entree. I ordered a plate of smoked salmon and salmon tartare (caught from Kenmare Bay) w/creme fraiche, which was neatly presented on a black slate tray (see Photo #3 above), while Mrs. Hackknife had tagliatelle w/Kenmare Bay mussels. In between our two entrees, we were served a blackberry sorbet as a palate cleanser, then moved on to the final main course. For this, I chose quail w/onion marmalade and a thyme polenta (which was both artful and delicious - see Photo #4 above) and Mrs. Hackknife opted for black sea bass w/caviar foam (also delicious). We polished the meal off with a plate of 6 Irish cheeses (including Cashel Blue, Wexford Blue, and 4 others of the non-blue variety, ranging from mild/creamy to sharper/hard), which was large enough that we couldn't finish it, followed by chocolate mousse w/passionfruit sauce and a couple of mignardies (little housemade candies). All told, the bill came to a little more than $300, a total bargain considering the quality of the food, the attentive service (of course, the chefs in the kitchen were likely so bored that they were shooting dice between plating our courses), and the uniqueness of the experience, probably the dining highlight of our year so far and one that will be tough to beat down the road.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Gabutto Burger/DMK Burger Bar

I had the occasion over the last few weeks to try not one, but two very unique, very specialty burgers, which is a nice change of pace from the standard McD's version that we consume around here in a pinch. The first came from a kiosk at my favorite local Japanese marketplace center, Mitsuwa in Arlington Heights (I've blogged about this Nippon-wonderland in an earlier posting). Called Gabutto Burger, they bill themselves as the lone "Japanese-style" hamburger stand in Chicago (and, from what I can gather, about the only one of its ilk in America). I noticed them during my first visit to the marketplace last year and made a mental note to give it a whirl on my next trip. Now you may ask yourself, what exactly constitutes a Japanese-style burger? Well, according to the good folks at Gabutto, 3 things: 1) the patty is a blend of both beef and pork, 2) the burger is often served with a sauce, like teriyaki or demi-glace (which is what I had on mine), and 3) bakery-made bun (which isn't so Japanese, if you think about it). These qualities were all evident in the sandwich I ordered, the traditional "Gabutto burger" with cheese (I had to pass over the other varieties this time, namely the teriyaki burger, shrimp burger, and tofu burger), along with an order of original spice-flavor fries. Making my way to the seating area, I had to basically eat standing up leaning against a magazine rack given the large Sunday lunch crowd, but it was worth the effort. The demi-glace really added quite a flavor punch to the burger and the rest of the ingredients were good and fresh. The fries were a little bland, but better after I added some garlic butter powder and some wasabi mayo for dipping. Although I can't see myself eating one of these every time I stop by the marketplace (too much good traditional Japanese food here to pass up), I'll definitely have another someday (and maybe need to polish up on my demi-glace skills to try this at the Commissary).

A few days later, I was having beers with my favorite brother-in-law Dan and favorite cousin-in-law Bobby in the Hackknife ancestral neighborhood of St. Vincent DePaul, mourning the passing of my granny and her sister in the same week (the ladies were 91 and 96, respectively, God bless 'em), when I suggested a dinner stop just about a mile up Sheffield Avenue from our watering hole. DMK Burger Bar was opened in late 2009 by local chef Michael Kornick, who already had a fine dining establishment (MK) in Chicago to his name and has been garnering much positive press from the food cognoscenti. Unfortunately, 6 o'clock on a Saturday is a lousy time to walk into a restaurant in Lakeview and expect to be seated anytime soon, so we waited for about 20 minutes for a table to open. With the 3 of us in attendance, I'm pretty sure the average age of the patrons went up by at least 5 years, as the place definitely had a high hipster quotient - very loud (not conversation friendly), very cramped, microbrew beers and fancy cocktails on the drink menu, etc.). Anyway, after being seated and screaming out a drink order to the waitress, we settled in and reviewed the menu. Our party opted for some sea salt and black pepper fries for the table, along with an order of fried okra and dill pickles. For the main course, I chose Burger #2, which consisted of a grass-fed beef patty with spicy onion strings, Amish blue cheese, and chipotle ketchup, all on a bakery roll. Although not quite in the same class as my favorite burger of this similar variety (that would be Hubert Keller's Burger Bar in Las Vegas), the sandwich and its accoutrements were quite tasty, if not totally filling for the money (Cousin Bob noted that, while he enjoyed his bison burger, they were a little stingy with the meat). Dan dug his house-made peanut butter shake and I was pretty pleased with my Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale (as I would be with all things Dogfish Head). All in all, we agreed that we could return, but only on evenings when the local library club might be meeting there (Tuesdays?).