Sunday, December 30, 2012

Thai Curry with Red Kuri Squash

With winter now here for good at the Commissary, we recently received our last couple of farmboxes for the season. As you might have guessed, root vegetables (carrots, turnips, beets, etc.) and squashes make up the vast majority of our end-of-year bounty. Last winter, I got a red kuri squash and was able to turn it into a pumpkin-like pie; this time around, since we'd been knee-deep in pies from Halloween onward, I decided to seek out a savory recipe for the red kuri squash that arrived. I stumbled across the following Thai curry recipe from fellow blogger CarpeSeason that sounded like it was worth a try. A long time ago, I attempted a yellow Thai curry that didn't go over so well; nonetheless, I happened to still have the yellow curry paste in the fridge to stand in for the green curry listed in the recipe. Because the family is spice-challenged, I really dialed back the curry amounts, using less than a tablespoon of curry paste and only slightly more than 1 Tbsp. of curry powder. For the extra vegetable, I went with the blogger's recommendation of broccoli, buying a big bag of frozen florets (I think it was 12 or 14 oz.). Everything else was followed to the letter and I served the steaming curry to my hungry housemates atop small mounds of basmati rice. As usual, the progeny turn up noses; however, Mrs. Hackknife and I were quite taken with the results, happy both with and without the green onion/cilantro garnish. This recipe is definitely a keeper, although I'll probably need to procure a different type of squash next time since, like McRib, red kuri only appears once in a blue moon...

McRib is Back

I'm aware that this post is silly, pointless, possibly nauseating to some of you, and obvious filler in an attempt to pad my postings total before the end of 2012, but I just had to write a brief homage to McRib. Like Haley's Comet, it only comes around once in a while (and is quite possibly also made from space rock) and that time is now until supplies are exhausted, I suppose. Mrs. Hackknife is the consummate McRib fan, always eager to hear of its return and almost first in line to get one. Me, I don't mind waiting a week or two until my better sensibilities are sufficiently worn down and I slink over to the nearest McD's, almost too ashamed to speak my order aloud to the waitstaff. Yes, its main part is derived from unnamed, mysterious pork leftovers/entrails synthetically fused together with meat glue and God knows what other nasty chemicals, but it's so tasty, with the sauce and the pickles and the raw onions and the long bun (which wasn't all that good this time) that only emerges from the McDonald's warehouse for this sole annual purpose. McRib, I know you remove months from my lifespan, but I salute you, anyway...

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sweet and Sour Onions

Not surprisingly, many publications that we read here in the Commissary use the late year holidays as an excuse to unleash myriad Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year's recipes on an already-beleaguered audience simply trying to survive the mass hysteria until early January. Some recipes are classic (about 80 different ways to prepare stuffing, for example), some are nouveau (cornbread with creamy poblano chiles), and some are not necessarily specific to the season, but sound good anyway. This was the case with a recipe I recently saw in a weekend issue of the Wall Street Journal, featured in an article highlighting so-called "alternative" side dishes for Thanksgiving. Paul Bartolotta is a Milwaukee-based chef who specializes in inventive Italian dishes - Mrs. Hackknife has had the good fortune to dine in 3 of his restaurants (Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare in the Wynn Las Vegas, and Bacchus/Ristorante Bartolotta, both in Milwaukee) over the last few years, each time without me, I might add (but I'm not bitter or anything). His contribution to the WSJ article was a version of Cipolline in Agrodolce, or sweet and sour onions, a traditional Italian side dish. Although I'd seen another sweet and sour onion recipe before (in my ever-present and oft-referenced April 2010 issue of Saveur), Chef Bartolotta uses chicken stock, some butter, and red wine vinegar to play up the savory aspects of the dish (the Saveur recipe includes raisins, no butter, and only balsamic vinegar, which I assume results in a sweeter finished product). When the time came to make a simple noodles with pesto sauce entree one Sunday night, I decided to roll out Chef Paul's onions for a side.

There's nothing terribly complex about the dish prep, although I think I may have overdone it a bit on the caramelization step, as a few of the onions ended up slightly singed (burned food is never a desired result). Luckily, the problem was isolated and the rest of the recipe proceeded without incident. The finished onions were dark, complex, and a little on the rich side - Mrs. Hackknife enjoyed it, but only in small doses. As with many of the sweet/sour vegetable recipes, it doesn't look like there's a lot in the pan when you're done, but what's left is very, um, concentrated in flavor. Next time I choose this for a side dish, I'd like to give the Saveur recipe a whirl to see if that version is a little less decadent than Chef Paul's...

Monday, December 17, 2012

Italian Superior Bakery/Frietkoten

As we approach the finish of another calendar year, I recently read about another longtime Chicago food establishment planning to close when 2012 is over (you may recall that Ramova Grill, dishing out chili and diner fare since 1929, scraped grease off its flattop for the last time this past spring). Italian Superior Bakery (931 S. Western) has been churning out pizzas, traditional Italian breads, and (up until a few years ago) pastries at the western end of the Little Italy neighborhood since 1933. At the outset, the bakery business in the tight-knit Italian community boomed, forcing the founder to move up the block to a larger location at the corner of Western Ave. and Taylor St. in 1940 (where the bakery still sits today). However, as the demographics of the area shifted over time from Italian to Eastern European/Hispanic, the demand for artisanal baked goods slowly declined from its peak around 1960 to the point where production had to be scaled back to part-time in 2005. Finally, as of a few months ago, the family of the original owners made what had to be the painful and difficult decision to close the bakery at year's end. Always a sucker for nostalgia (and a good slice of pizza from the Motherland), I decided then and there to ensure I stopped in for a visit on one of my frequent trips into the city before the ovens went cold for good.

I arrived at the bakery on a cool-yet-sunny Thursday morning around 10 (I didn't want to get there too late lest they be sold out of some product). The storefront is pretty unassuming (see photo above), while inside, the decor was sparse and cases/shelves mostly bare, making for a pretty somber atmosphere. The lady behind the counter quietly explained the details of the bakery's imminent closure and it was clear that they were already preparing for this eventuality (I felt like some dark dirge should have been playing in the background). Luckily for me, there were still goodies to be had - I selected three different kinds of ready-to-eat pizzas (onion, sausage, and a ricotta-vegetable combo), cut up in large slices (approximately 6" by 4" each) and wrapped in white butcher paper, a steal at around $3 apiece (and I suspect the counter lady even gave me extra pieces for no charge). I also picked out an oblong loaf of fresh Italian bread and had it sliced for sandwiches. All in all, my $15 bought a lot of food and I was anxious to try some, so anxious that I gobbled up a whole slice of room-temperature ricotta pizza while I sat in the car, the garlic and olive oil doing wonders to help clear out my sinuses. Later on, the whole family got to sample the remaining slices, with Mrs. Hackknife and I favoring the sausage, while the kids favored, well, none of them. The sliced Italian bread had wider appeal, making great toast and sandwiches for a few days after the fact.

After my bakery visit, I conducted some other business downtown before realizing that I needed a snack before heading home - fortunately, the French Market in the Ogilvie Transportation Center was nearby. With my stellar visit to Fumare for pastrami fresh in mind, I made my way to another stand I saw there called Frietkoten. The folks at Frietkoten primarily serve Belgian-style fries along with custom dipping sauces, all to be washed down by Belgian beers, a little bit of Brussels in Chicago. The fries come in giant paper cones (see photo below) and are all fresh-cut/double-fried to maximize flavor and texture.

I opted for a harissa mayo (harissa is a bold spice mixture frequently used in Middle Eastern cuisine) to dip my fries and a Blanche de Bruxelles (a Belgian wheat beer from Brasserie Lefebvre) for liquid refreshment. The fries were definitely well-prepared, with a fluffy interior and a crisp outside. I was a little disappointed with the flavor, though, finding them to be a bit bland - I'll allow the possibility that my zinc lozenge (I'd had one a little earlier to help ease my cold) was responsible for slightly muting my taste buds. I'll be happy to give the fry guys in the Market another chance when my head is clear and sense of taste is unadulterated...

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Farewell, O Snack Cake Friends

When I first heard the recent news about the impending liquidation of Hostess, I suspect my reaction was pretty much the same as a lot of people who came of age in the 1980s, which was "Wow, I haven't had a Zinger in, like, 20 years, but that's an awful shame". And then my next thought was "I know that they're full of carcinogens, lack any sort of nutritional value, and have an undefined shelf life, but what kind of parent would I be if my kids went through their entire childhood deprived of the opportunity to ever try a Twinkie?", so, of course, I had to rush off that very afternoon to my local neighborhood gas station to stock up on Hostess products before the mad crush of wistful 40-somethings cleaned out the remaining inventory. Luckily, I wasn't too late - actually, the Hostess rack was full and I was the only one there (perhaps I overestimated the attraction of these dessert sins against nature). Initially shocked at the number of offerings in the Hostess repertoire (I had completely forgotten about Snoballs, Honey Buns, the fruit pies, and a few others), I stuck with a few core items and brought home a package each of Twinkies, Ding Dongs (chocolate cakes filled with cream and shaped like hockey pucks), and chocolate cupcakes (one of my personal favorites).

The progeny were initially skeptical. "What are those?" asked Hackknife Jr. "What do they taste like"? I tried to explain that they were treats that Mommy and Daddy occasionally sampled as kids, not mentioning that their consumption proved to be a gateway to a lifetime of obesity for many of our bretheren. "Well, what's in them"? "Lots of sugar and other stuff that's not particularly healthy", I said, conveniently omitting the dubious provenance of most of the additives. "How are they made"? "No one really knows, H.J. It's a closely guarded secret involving space-age technology and the miracle of modern chemistry. I don't believe there's any actual baking involved during any point of the process. If you think about it too much, you might go insane. Just try them", I said. Although the cupcakes and Ding Dongs were both a solid week past the stamped "Best by" date on them, not surprisingly, they were just as edible and tasty as I remembered, and both kids gobbled them right up. Hackknifette wasn't crazy about the Twinkie, but her brother seemed to enjoy it, as did his mom and I. A few days later, I heard that there'd been a shipment of more Twinkies released to the marketplace before production was to be halted; however, having scratched the 20-year Hostess itch and satisfied with my parenting acumen, I resisted the urge to go out and get more, deciding to let the taste memories drift off into the great synthetic sunset of nostalgia...

Monday, December 10, 2012

Camp Washington Chili/Triple XXX Drive-In

When I learned that we would be spending Thanksgiving in Cincinnati this year, turkey and the traditional fixings were definitely not the only dishes on my mind (man cannot live on stuffing alone), as southwestern Ohio is known as one of the chili capitals of America. Why Cincinnati? Apparently, a number of Macedonian and Greek immigrants to the city started selling a local version of chili con carne in the early 20th Century as part of the offerings at their hot dog stands and the trend took off from there. Today, there are a few fast food chili franchises (such as Skyline and Gold Star, whose little chili dogs with mustard are one of my favorite guilty pleasures) that dominate the local market; however, I had recently read about an independent chili purveyor named Camp Washington Chili (CWC) that's been in business since 1940 still ladling out bowls of its famous chili at a diner in the namesake neighborhood of the city. This, I thought, would be the perfect place for us Hackknives to grab lunch one day to break the cycle of nearly weeklong Thanksgiving food monotony.

The Camp Washington neighborhood, named for a military training camp sited there during the Mexican War in the 1850s, is located a few miles north of downtown Cincinnati and reflects the blue-collar, industrial vibe that distinguishes much of the metro area (if you travel there via I-75 South like we did, you pass right by the gargantuan Ivorydale soap works, formerly the hub of Procter & Gamble's worldwide production). CWC is just a stone's throw from the expressway in a modern diner - the original restaurant was demolished in 2000 when Colerain Avenue was widened (there's a nice portrait of the old building on the wall, underneath the James Beard Award plaque). Despite the new digs, the chili recipe has not changed: patrons can get chili served plain or with beans in a bowl, moving up to a plate if they opt to go 3-way (chili on top of spaghetti and smothered with finely shredded cheddar cheese), 4-way (same, but add chopped onions), or 5-way (throw beans on there as well), plus oyster crackers if you please. Other chili offerings include the house good stuff poured on fries or on hot dogs. Invoking the "go big or go home rule", I chose a plate of 5-way chili and a chili dog for comparison.

When the order arrived at the table (see photo above), my first thought was "Gee, they must go through a s$%&tload of shredded cheese in this place"; indeed, if not for the bun, a casual observer might be hard-pressed to identify which plate held the hot dog. After a few bites, however, the picture was crystal-clear: the 5-way chili was tremendous, with nice notes of cinnamon and cloves melding with the ground beef (at least that's what I think it was - no way to be sure) and sauce, and a slight hint of grease holding the whole production together. Not quite as enticing was the chili dog, as the sausage itself seemed to be pallid-gray and mostly flavorless, an afterthought underneath a riotous mound of other ingredients. Still, this was dime store chow done fabulously well - I'm already thinking about my next plate of 5-way on our return trip (I'm also looking forward to trying a side of goetta, the local meat-and-oatmeal breakfast sausage developed by the city's German population), which will hopefully be not too far off.

As you might expect, we spent the remainder of our visit to Ohio stuffing ourselves to the gills, but we weren't overindulged enough to skip lunch on the way home to the Commissary. Our return trip ended up conveniently passing through West Lafayette, IN during lunch hour, just in time for us to grab a quick bite at one of my favorite places, Triple XXX Drive-In. TX3 has been a Purdue institution since it opened in 1929 as one of many "thirst station" outlets across the country selling Triple XXX Root Beer (based in Galveston, TX). The owners claim to be the oldest drive-in restaurant in Indiana and the last thirst station selling Triple XXX Root Beer (which continues to be produced, by the way). Much has changed in the Levee neighborhood where TX3 is located - just in the 20-odd years since I graduated, an entire apartment, retail, and entertainment village has sprouted where there were formally dive bars and budget motels, but the drive-in is still slinging top-quality hash (in the form of great burgers and hubcap-sized pancakes) from within its distinctive orange-and-black structure. I started out eating here as a not-very-worldly college student (having breakfast while perusing the Sunday paper), returned several times as an adult (one of my proudest foodie experiences occurred here, as I managed to stomach, even enjoy, a Purvis burger topped with peanut butter after spending the morning at a nearby hog rendering plant - charming, I know), and now can say that I've dined here with my kids.

TX3 has no tables (only counter seating) and it's gotten increasingly difficult to get in since they were featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives a few years ago, so we were fortunate to get 4 stools together (no doubt some of the crowd was drawn away by the Indiana-Purdue football game going on at the stadium up the hill). Hackknife Jr. and Hackknifette were happy to color while waiting for lunch (see photo above).

The burgers and milkshake are all made to order from fresh ingredients (nothing frozen here). I went for the Boilermaker Pete (3 patties with American cheese and grilled onions) and the house onion rings, along with the root beer, of course. This burger (see photo below) was much better than the Boilermaker Pete facsimiles that the kitchen staff in the dorms would occasionally serve (not that we cared - we scarfed them up anyway, fodder for high metabolism).

I've never had the house milkshake (Mrs. Hackknife tried a vanilla one and can vouch for its awesomeness), nor the pork tenderloin sandwich (an item that's popped up on my radar screen since having spent some time in Iowa a while back), but I suspect they'll both be on my next order ticket. Until then, Boiler Up!...

Friday, November 30, 2012

Joan's Favorite Squash Gratin

The Hackknives spent the Thanksgiving holiday in the company of my dad's side of the family in Cincinnati this year (yes, we got some stellar chili - more on that in a subsequent posting). When my brother Dave and sister-in-law Amy first agreed to host all of us many months ago, I'm pretty sure they didn't intend her to be 8 months pregnant when late November rolled around, yet here we were and here she was less than 4 weeks from her due date (it's going to be a boy, by the way). Obviously, my parents and other siblings didn't expect Amy to be responsible for preparing the Thanksgiving feast in her condition, so we all pitched in to pull everything together. Considering the able-bodied adults that were present, I probably wouldn't count myself to be among the top 5 cooks in the house (and maybe only slightly better than my nieces and nephews, the oldest being 11); therefore, my best hope was to leave the marquee items (like the turkey, stuffing, etc.) to the pros like my stepmother and simply step in with one or two safe, humble dishes that would quietly rest in the background, then just get out of everyone's way.

We brought a few produce items with us on the long car ride from the Commissary, stray farmbox ingredients like cranberries, butternut squash, and sweet potatoes. From this, of course, I was able to assemble my basic whole berry cranberry relish, but also was able to attempt a recipe I'd made note of in the November issue of Chicago Magazine called Joan's Favorite Squash Gratin. Joan, in this case, is the wife of Chef Bruce Sherman, whose under-appreciated restaurant North Pond (at least I'm told it's under-appreciated as I haven't actually dined there) has been a fixture in Chicago's fine dining scene for almost 15 years now. When deciding whom to select as a focal point for a holiday menu article, the magazine editors were astute enough to feature Chef Sherman and his selected recipes, which included (besides the squash gratin) scrumptious-sounding dishes like gingersnap-crusted rack of pork and bourbon applesauce. It was the gratin, though, that caught my attention as being relatively simple to prepare and potentially-worthy of a place in a Thanksgiving spread being consumed by discerning relatives.

My first steps during preparation didn't start so well - I had a hard time peeling the butternut squash and had to make do with a 10"x13" glass baking dish in place of a gratin pan, forcing me to scale down the ingredients a bit (there was no way I was going to fit 2 lb. EACH of sqaush, potatoes, and yams in a 10"x13"). With the two ovens full of other baking goodies, I increased the cook time by 15 minutes or so, plus added foil to the top for the first 30 minutes (as was the consensus from the other cooks in the kitchen, even though the recipe doesn't mention this) before removing it for browning. Given that this was the first time I'd tried this dish, I was understandably a little nervous about the result, but I needn't have been - almost everyone who tried it gave it a thumbs-up, including my dad (who has a bit of a hard-to-please reputation foodwise). The feedback was so positive, in fact, that I'm considering a repeat performance for when we host Xmas Day dinner at the Commissary in a few weeks. Looking at the ingredients, though (heavy cream, cheese, butter, etc.), it should have been tasty, no?...

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Slurping Turtle

After meeting my brother-in-law Dan and cousin-in-law Bobby for craft beers (all of which were terrific, by the way) at Revolution Brewing one recent Saturday afternoon, the missus and I headed downtown for the evening. Our ultimate destination was a fundraiser for my cousin's son (a foundation and webpage have been set up to support their efforts - I encourage you to check it out here), but, first, we needed to get dinner somewhere in the neighborhood. On a whim, I suggested we try to get into Slurping Turtle (116 W. Hubbard), a relatively new eatery opened by rising star Chef Takashi Yagihasi, who arrived in Chicago from Japan with stops in Detroit and Las Vegas on the way. ST is Takashi's 3rd restaurant in town, the others being his namesake fine dining outpost Takashi (where we happen to be dining next month for the first time) and ramen stand Noodles by Takashi in the State Street Macy's food court. The concept here is izakaya, or Japanese casual small plates, a tasty trend that has spawned a number of local places over the past 12 months, including Yusho, Roka Akor, and the now-defunct Chizakaya, all of which have received some level of coverage in this blog.

Anyway, when we arrived, we were fortunate to get seated right away at a communal table before the bulk of the hipster throngs started to appear. I would describe the decor as being cinder block-modern, minimalist to the point of being almost prison-like, with the exception of two giant black and white photos of Chef Takashi as a child back in the fatherland. Lucky for us, the food was much livelier than the setting - our server recommended a couple of items from the bincho (Japanese charcoal) grill to start, a slab of Washyugyu beef (produced at an Oregon ranch that uses the same storied techniques as Wagyu ranchers in Japan) and some asparagus spears wrapped in bacon. This was followed up with my two favorite plates of the visit, a decadent pork belly steamed bun with pickles that rivals any I've had in a place not operated by David Chang, plus some sinfully-good pieces of crispy fried chicken cooked in duck fat (see photo above). The first piece of the bird I took was boneless, leading me to immediately declare in my head "Takashi, you magnificent bastard, you've created the perfect chicken tender"; however, reality intruded when I realized that the remaining pieces did, in fact, contain bones (as do most chickens, by the way), which only slightly dampened my fried poultry lust. Last, but not least, we concluded the meal by splitting a good-sized bowl of tonkotsu ramen (thin noodles in a pork broth with braised pork shoulder, pickled mustard greens, and braised mushrooms). I'd definitely return to ST for the pork buns, fried chicken, and bincho items, although I suspect you can get a bowl of ramen from Chef T's noodle bar in Macy's that's just as good for a slightly lower price (and with fewer hipsters)...

Monday, November 26, 2012

Pelagia Trattoria

Two Monday nights past, the missus and I found ourselves out to dinner in Tampa. Why Tampa? Well, we were visiting on a quick trip (less than 24 hours, in fact) for a confidential project whose details I'm not able to divulge at this time, but suffice it to say that, should said project occur, it would result in big changes to both the Commissary and this blog (more details will be revealed as they become available). Anyway, once I discovered that I'd be traveling to west-central Florida, I did what I usually do prior to arriving in an out-of-town locale - I scout out places to get a good meal. Other than Bern's Steakhouse (allegedly one of the best in the country, at least if you believe what those lists in the airline magazines tell you), I wasn't familiar with any of Tampa's dining establishments; however, typing a Google search that included "top chef" and "Tampa" dredged up a worthy candidate in the form of Pelagia Trattoria, a well-regarded Italian restaurant whose head chef was awarded a local "Top Chef" award in 2012 (no affiliation with the Bravo show of the same name). Not only did PT's menu sound good, perhaps most importantly, it was located within 3 miles of where we were staying, which meant we could get a free ride there and back via the hotel shuttle (we had no rental car).

Given that we'd be dining on a Monday night, I wasn't too concerned about us needing a reservation to get in. As it turns out, I was right about that - when we arrived at PT around 8:30p, we appeared to be the sole patrons. The restaurant is situated between what appeared to be an upscale mall and a high-rise hotel, not necessarily good karma if you're hoping to have a stellar dining experience, but Mrs. Hackknife and I were pleasantly surprised to receive great food along with very attentive service. We started with a couple of small plates: some octopus cured with garlic and mint (a fresh and healthier take on calamari) and something I'd never seen before, that is, the house's take on a deconstructed Caesar's salad called Caesar fondue (see photo below) consisting of grilled baby romaine lettuce, shaved Parmiggiano-Reggiano, a toasted focaccia crouton, and a cup of dressing for dipping these items.

For the entrees, Mrs. Hackknife selected a mind-blowing duck and foie gras risotto, while I chose a seafood tagliatelle, or at least I thought I did. There was a little confusion between me and the server, as I asked for the seafood "pappardelle" (a different type of wide noodle from tagliatelle), not realizing that I would get the following dish instead:

What you see is the restaurant's pappardelle with traditional bolognese sauce and Pecorino cheese, the only dish on the menu that's served with pappardelle. Even though it wasn't what I ordered, it did look good (and the waitress was kind enough to box it up for us to take back to the hotel, where I can vouch for its deliciousness - I sneaked in a couple of bites before bed).

When my actual order arrived at the table, I was still very pleased despite the mix-up. My seafood tagliatelle contained shrimp, scallops, clams, saffron, and guanciale (see photo above), a nice blend of surf and field Italiano-style. Sadly, we were too stuffed for dessert and our trip to town was too short to eat anyplace else besides the hotel's breakfast buffet and the airport Friday's, so I can't comment further on the status of Tampa's dining scene, but let's just say that I may have significant opportunity to do so in the near future....

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Johnny's Wee Nee Wagon

Although I'm not currently in the market for a rental property, I've found a blog entry on Chicago's vintage restaurants that was posted on Domu's website (a local apartment finder service) a while back to be exceedingly helpful (you can see it for yourself here). For instance, I learned that Schaller's Pump in Bridgeport is the city's oldest continually operating tavern and subsequently added it to my list of venues to visit on greeter tours (as I also did for Margie's Candies and Swedish Bakery). While idly perusing the restaurant listing, I stumbled across one place that's not too far from the Commissary: Johnny's Wee Nee Wagon (15743 S. Crawford, Markham), formerly known as Willie's Wee Nee Wagon, serving up red hots since 1955. Although Mrs. Hackknife grew up in nearby Oak Forest, she'd never heard of Johnny's/Willie's, let alone visited, so I took it upon myself to drag Hackknifette there one Friday at lunchtime to check it out.

Less than a mile down 159th Street from my now-favorite local BBQ joint Exsenator's (but on the other side of I-57), Johnny's is situated on a hardscrabble plot of property among tire yards and auto body shops. The building itself is low-slung and tiny, dropped next to a large, unpaved lot that seems to be a preferred overnight parking spot for semi-trucks barreling down the adjacent interstate. Diners are first greeted by the hot dog statue pictured at the top, a whimsical fellow whom I've seen at a few other mom-and-pop fast food establishments.

Once inside, my little girl and I were confronted with a surprisingly-expansive menu, featuring (among other things) hot dogs, tamales, burgers, tacos, wraps, many different sandwiches, enough fried appetizers to put a bowling alley to shame, chili, shakes, and 60 flavors of soft-serve ice cream. In order to keep things simple, I stuck with the basic hot dogs, plain for Hackknifette and full-on Chicago style for yours truly. We also shared a bag of small fries while perching on a couple of the few barstools at the windows opposite the counter (see photo above). The dogs and fries were decent, but nothing I would deem destination-worthy. Better was the regular cheeseburger I ordered once I determined that the one hot dog hadn't adequately filled me up (more research, you know).

It's worth mentioning that Johnny's namesake owner (John Cappas) has a bit of a colorful past (to say the least). As a youth, he ran with a wild crowd and fell into drug dealing, eventually earning enough cash and notoriety to land himself a 45-year prison sentence. The stint in the big house apparently turned around the young man's life - he studied law, gained a 30-year reduction in his jail term, earned a culinary degree on the outside, and saved up enough dough (legitimately, this time) to buy the old hot dog stand and rename it as a testament to his now-cleaned up act (although he hasn't completely shunned his sordid past - at the restaurant, you can buy a copy of his memoir "Tall Money", featuring cover photos of his younger self embracing the gangster lifestyle a la Scarface, with a free hot dog thrown in for good measure). As far as I could tell, the stigma of old transgressions hasn't affected his business as a steady stream of customers came and went while we were there. Regardless of the backstory, if we ever return to Johnny's for more, I'd be anxious to try one of the house specialty dogs, such as the Pitbull (bacon, lettuce, tomato, and mayo)...

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Do-Rite Donuts/New Maxwell Street Market

A week ago Sunday morning, I met up with two hungry tourists visiting from Canada, Yulena and Scott, for a greeter tour. They were in town taking a training class for work and wanted to experience some of Chicago's more unique dining options while here, so I was happy to take them to a few places nearby the Loop. No weekend morning is complete without donuts and this seemed like a great opportunity for us to stop in at Do-Rite Donuts (50 W. Randolph), just a short walk down Randolph from the Cultural Center into the Theater District. Do-Rite is under the Lettuce Entertain You (LEYE) restaurant group and popped up in early 2012 when the gourmet donut craze was just starting to reach its peak in town. The executive chef and co-owner of the shop, Francis Brennan, has had an interesting couple of years - he was the #2 man in the kitchen at L20 when brilliant-but-mercurial wonder chef Laurent Gras departed in search of greater freedom, abruptly leaving M. Brennan in charge of a newly-christened 3-Michelin star restaurant. Obviously, maintaining that elite level of service is daunting for even seasoned chefs (let alone one in the captain's chair for the first time), and it wasn't too long before he transferred over to a lower-profile LEYE property, Petterino's, leaving the world of glamour cuisine behind. With extensive experience in breadmaking and an emerging market for top-shelf fried breakfast dough, one can easily imagine LEYE's founder Rich Melman sitting down with Chef Brennan to propose carving out a small corner of Petterino's lobby for a retail gourmet donut operation on Randolph (also maximizing use of the restaurant's kitchen during what would normally be downtime overnight and early morning). Having now been at the shop, I can say that a VERY small space was set aside - there's enough room for a walk-up counter and some display bins. If you want to sit while eating your donut, you'll have to do it outside, which is exactly what we did on this brisk morning at some patio tables set out on the sidewalk. Faced with a variety of choices, I went with the cashier's recommendation of the pistachio-Meyer lemon combo (I didn't get a picture, but Serious Eats Chicago has one here), which I found to be a sweet, tangy, crunchy delight (that is, after I inadvertently took a mouthful of Yulena's pumpkin donut first - sorry, Yulena). My guests also seemed to enjoy their selections of PB&J bullseye and (what remained of the) pumpkin donut.

Now fortified, we hopped on the Blue Line and headed a short ways south and west over to the new Maxwell Street flea market, held only on Sundays and a hotbed of outstanding Latino street food. Why is it called the "new" market? Well, the old one was an anchor of commerce for migrants newly arrived to Chicago from all over the country and the world throughout most of the 20th Century, giving them a venue to buy/sell goods on the cheap without the added expense of a middleman retail store (I recall my late grandmother telling me stories of trips to Maxwell Street as a girl with her dad to buy grapes for making wine). Sadly, Mayor Daley the 1st colluded with the University of Illinois-Chicago to procure a large chunk of Maxwell Street property for campus expansion in the 1960s and 1970s (the arrival of the Dan Ryan Expressway didn't help things, either), condemning the vibrant market to a slow death by strangulation, eventually vanishing completely in the 1990s. Since then, the 2nd Mayor Daley has attempted to resurrect the market on a stretch of Desplaines Street a few blocks north and east of the original. Although allegedly a shadow of its former self, I was surprised at the size of this new incarnation, with table upon table of tools, cell phone chargers, and toys available for your bargain buying pleasure. The food offerings were equally impressive - tacos, tamales, pupusas, shaved ice, roasted corn, menudo, and lots of other goodies rivaling those that I'd seen in Los Angeles just a few months back. After walking the length of the market and mulling over our booth choices, the 3 of us settled in to Green House of Steak's mobile operation (during the week, they serve up Mexican cuisine at 2700 S. Millard in the Little Village neighborhood) to get some tacos. I tried a lengue taco and was very glad I did - the meat was tender, flavorful, and crispy from the grill, with a wonderful homemade tortilla underneath and just the right amount of toppings (onion, cilantro, and salsa) for garnish, quite possibly the best lengue taco I've ever had (see photo above). Slightly less adventurous, but no less satisfied, were Yulena and Scott with their asada and al pastor tacos. I can see myself spending a long, happy couple of hours stuffing my face at this market on my next visit and couldn't wait to get home to start planning my return with Mrs. Hackknife some future Sunday morning...

Monday, November 5, 2012


Mrs. Hackknife and I recently had a long-awaited couples dinner date at a long-anticipated Chicago restaurant. The couple in question was Mrs. Hackknife's work colleague, Hanif, and his wife, Nicole, with whom we'd been trying to get together for about 6 months (as always, work/family schedules proved difficult to synch up). The restaurant in question was Nightwood (2119 S. Halsted), a much-lauded farm-to-table venture from the folks that brought us (the also much-lauded) Lula Cafe in Logan Square a few years ago, Jason Hammel and Amalea Tshilds. I'd been eager to dine at Nightwood for quite some time, going as far as to make reservations for us to celebrate my birthday in 2011 there; unfortunately, my grandmother's passing on the day of our meal forced us to postpone our visit. Oddly, it was the sudden closure of Bonsoiree (our original agreed-upon venue with Hanif and Nicole) that created this latest opportunity for us to eat at Nightwood, which was my backup choice for our dinner date (evidence that everything comes around eventually, I guess).

The restaurant is located on a relatively-quiet stretch of Halsted Street in Pilsen, a predominantly-Latino neighborhood that has begun gentrifying over to modern art galleries and coffee shops. The road layout in the immediate area is a little challenging to negotiate with the hulking overpasses of the Dan Ryan and Stevenson Expressways looming nearby, dead-ending a number of routes from the Loop that one would normally expect to go through (I had to pick up Mrs. Hackknife at her office downtown before proceeding back south to our destination). Once we navigated our way through the travel confusion and found a parking spot down the block, we stepped into the crowded-yet-jovial atmosphere of the bar area from the closed-in patio (now covered for the cooler months). Although a little cramped, our table was right next to the open kitchen, giving us a decent view of the goings-on inside. What was going on was quite tasty: a warm eggplant salad with peanuts, arugula, honey, lemon, apples, and ricotta; a whole Japanese mackerel, deep-fried and plopped on a plate with pickled watermelon, grapes, leeks, cherry tomatoes, and a foie gras butter (nice touch, I might add); and cheese/potato gnocchi interspersed with beef brisket shreds, sage, and parsnip jam, all of which we shared at the table as our appetizers. The entrees were just as impressive, with Mrs. Hackknife indulging in a chicken-fried lamb chop garnished with a melange of creamed spinach, fall tomatoes, and smoked Wisconsin trout and me blissing out on a fine platter of rich Michigan duck leg, applewood-smoked and served with arugula, romesco, grilled duck liver, and pears (see photo above).

Since I've been on a bourbon cocktail kick lately, especially at farm-to-table eateries (see Vie, Tupelo Honey, et. al.), I tried a glass of the house punch named "the Fog", consisting of Cane & Abel rum, Buffalo Trace bourbon, Averna amaro (a Sicilian liqueur), Fee's bitters, and Kilgus Farm milk, giving it the distinctive look of a White Russian - sadly, I can't say that I'd order another. Much better were our desserts, a decadent bittersweet chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream and milk chocolate hot fudge, plus a buttermilk panna cotta with glazed raspberries and citrus sugar cookies. The consensus at the table among the two couples was that our second dinner choice served us up a first-rate experience and, although Vie still gets my vote for undisputed king of farm-to-table cuisine in Chicago, I'd gladly dine at Nightwood anytime again (after consulting Google Maps, of course)....

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Bacon-Herb Wrapped Pork Tenderloin

With a head of red cabbage from our weekly farmbox and some bacon in the fridge, I set out on the Internet to find a new recipe for pork tenderloin recently (because nothing goes better with cabbage and pig than more pig). Chef Bobby Flay was kind enough to post his own bacon-herb wrapped pork tenderloin recipe online for the masses and it sounded delicious and doable enough for me to try. Step 1 involves roasting a whole head of garlic until it becomes spreadable like warm butter. The recipe advises about 45 minutes to do this; however, after that amount of time, my garlic head was merely soft, not paste-like. Unfortunately, I had gotten myself in a bit of a time crunch and couldn't really afford to roast the garlic for another 15 minutes, so I had to make do with what I had. Following along, I rubbed my mushy garlic cloves on my two pork tenderloins, placed my mixture of thyme, rosemary, and sage on top, laid 3 strips of bacon atop the herbs (the recipe calls for 6 strips to be wrapped all around the meat, although I couldn't quite figure out how to do this on the bottom half without everything coming apart during assembly), and tied the bacon down somewhat-securely with twine. Next, the tenderloins are supposed to be seared on all sides using a hot skillet - sadly, I didn't have a large-enough vessel to brown them simultaneously, so I seared them one at a time only on 2 sides (time crunch again), then cooked them in the oven a little longer than prescribed (about 25 minutes instead of the listed 10).

The final result is in the photo at the top. They didn't look bad and they tasted pretty good, leading me to wonder how good they could have actually been had I not taken shortcuts with the garlic and the bacon and the browning. If nothing else, I learned that this recipe is not ideal for weeknights, but better for weekends when I might have a little more time to deliver the goods properly...

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Next (Kyoto Menu)

Mrs. Hackknife and I recently attended the final seating in our current sequence of season tickets for Next Restaurant (the others being the el Bulli tribute and Sicily menus). Joining us at our table this time were Jose and Sandra, a young couple we'd met via Facebook eager as we were to indulge in this kaiseki, or multi-course meal inspired by traditional Japanese cooking and aesthetics. As explained by the little pamphlet that was first brought to the table by our servers, the chefs at Next did not intend to present a rigid reproduction of true kaiseki (more on that later); rather, their idea was to interpret and honor the concept using the autumn season in both Kyoto and the American Midwest as inspiration. Unfortunately, given our table location in the dining room and the restaurant's no-flash policy, many of my photos didn't turn out so well, so I included only those pictures that look halfway decent.

The first course of our dining journey was a delightful palate cleanser in the form of a hot tea made not with tea leaves or toasted rice, but with burnt corn husks (as those of us who grew up in the Midwest know, corn husks are a ubiquitous presence around here in the fall during harvest time). The subtle sweet and smoke flavors of the tea were enhanced by some incense-like burning hay that had been set alight in a vase by a server at a nearby table of other diners (this mild act of theatrics would actually be part of our second course). As is the tradition with kaiseki (and in keeping with the fanatical attention to detail exhibited by the Next staff), the course presentation and the serving vessels were a visual feast for the eye as well as the food was pleasing to the palate (see photo below).

After the tea, we received a small plate resembling a dark abalone shell with echoes of orange, black, and turquoise (see photo below). On the plate was a sizable chunk of chestnut tofu garnished with an artfully-smeared white miso paste and eight tiny cubes of green apple. The tofu paired beautifully with both my drink (a cocktail containing sake, non-fermented gewurtztraminer juice, shochu, and a liqueur made from the citrus-like yuzu fruit) and Mrs. Hackknife's (a non-alcoholic blend of the gewurtztraminer juice, lemon verbena, and green tea). Also arriving at the table was the aforementioned vase with our burning hay (no doubt perfuming some other diners' meal as it did ours).

A common occurrence that we've noticed with the Next menus is that one of the courses often entails a platter with a collection of "snacks" and this one was no exception. Our kaiseki platter of small bites followed the tofu and featured a jumble of objects (intended perhaps to resemble a Japanese forest of maple trees in autumn - see photo below), including an amazing bite of pickled turnip wrapped with rich duck and red miso, creamy sea urchin (almost like a custard) sprinkled with grape-stem ash, tender poached shrimp with their heads removed and deep fried (the heads were impaled on sticks somewhat menacingly - this did not make them any less delicious), slices of crunchy lotus root chips, discs of karasumi (dried mullet roe, similar to bottarga and a rare Japanese delicacy), and hollowed-out yuzu shells filled with trout roe and the remaining shrimp parts. Although I found the busy presentation to clash a little with the harmonious concept of kaiseki, the snacks were all wonderful. The drinks for this course were a Seikyo "Takehara" (translated as "mirror of truth") Junmai sake and a blend of yuzu, pear, dulse seaweed, and bibb lettuce extract (which sounds somewhat disgusting, but wasn't at all unpleasant) for non-alcoholic.

Next up were three fish courses, each relatively simple when compared to the chaos of the snack platter. A few delicate slices of sashimi (one reviewer I read wrote that his fish were kampachi, medai, and salmon, but I'm not entirely sure which ones we were served, probably just whatever was freshest that day) were placed in a clear glass bowl with some wasabi, shiso leaf (similar to mint), and shreds of pickled ginger, neatly paired with another junmai sake (a Mizuho Kuromatsu Kenbishi, in this case) and a zippy ginger/white soy/cucumber/lime cocktail. This was followed by some braised abalone and abalone liver (in an actual abalone shell this time, not like the facsimile from earlier) with cucumber, red sea grapes, and some spinach-like kinome leaf, which we were told to eat last (the trick being that it acts as a mild stimulant, numbing the tongue). Once the feeling returned to my taste buds, I happily indulged in the subsequent course, a small vessel of brooding, dark broth consisting of rich maple dashi (rumor has it that the stock contained real-live maple branches in order to get the flavor right), shimeji mushrooms (meh), and a tasty log of anago (saltwater eel).

We now reached a point of the menu where we got a brief respite from seafood, a black bowl with matsutake mushroom chawanmushi (traditional Japanese egg custard) infused with pine. After never having eaten it before, this was the second chawanmushi I'd had in as many weeks, the other one having been at the now-shuttered Bonsoiree. The Next egg custard was definitely more restrained and less savory than the version created by Chefs Kim and Clark, an exercise in subtlety in lieu of fireworks (I have to say that I don't think I liked this one quite as much). The drink pairings (a Konteki "Tears of Dawn" Daijingo sake and a sweet potato, kyobancha green tea, and melon cocktail) helped liven things up a bit.

One last seafood course arrived at the table: skewers of grilled ayu fish, served atop a hibachi (which appeared to only be used for aesthetic purposes) and eaten whole (heads and all), garnished with sides of crispy fried ayu skin (like the best pork rinds), pureed wasabi leaf, and cured egg yolk (see photo below). This was enthusiastically washed down with one of my favorite beers, a Hitachino Nest Classic Ale.

Another vegetarian course followed (a bowl of deep-fried tempura eggplant with shiso leaf and a chrysanthemum blossom), which then led to what was probably the most substantial offering of the evening, a hearty, family-style hot pot of soup, rice, pickles, and amazing slices of beef (see photo below). I tried my best to ladle out equal portions of each ingredient to my dining companions, although I'm sure I failed (I swear I didn't take most of the beef - really). The shochu (a Hamada Shuzo "Kakushigura") and apple/barley/licorice drinks that came with the hot pot may have helped tamp down any unnecessary accusations that might have been hurled in my direction.

The first of our two dessert dishes (entitled "first snowfall") is probably the iconic course for the Kyoto menu, a dramatic plate of roasted persimmon, deep-fried yuba (tofu skin), and sweet soy milk custard, topped with a maple leaf that was also deep-fried and dusted with sugar (see photo below). I loved the presentation (especially the leaf imprints in the sugar on the plate) and enjoyed the majority of the ingredients; however, Mrs. Hackknife and I both agreed that we probably could have done without the edible maple leaf, which was a little on the bitter side. I almost feel bad about this knowing just how much trouble Chef Beran (the man in charge at Next) went through to find the perfect maple leaves to accompany this course (TimeOut Chicago has a good writeup on this topic here), but it is what it is. One final sake was poured for the last alcoholic drink pairing (a Narutotai "Namagenshu" Ginjo), as well as another tasty fruit juice cocktail with wasabi, honeydew, and buckwheat honey.

For our farewell course, a simple bowl of dark green tea was paired with a single warabi mochi (a variety made from bracken - a type of fern - starch that differs from other types of mochi, which are usually made from rice starch) that was dusted with toasted soy, a very nice palate cleanser to conclude the meal (see photo below).

By most measures, diners participating in this iteration of Next appear to be just as satisfied with the Kyoto menu as the earlier ones (indeed, Phil Vettel of the Chicago Tribune gave Kyoto a 4-star review), yet, inexplicably, the missus and I felt a slight twinge of disappointment about the evening's proceedings. After having discussed our thoughts on the car ride home, the issue certainly wasn't one of execution, service, or atmosphere (all of which were near-perfect as always). The nearest that I can explain is that, having had a few tremendous kaiseki meals in both Japan (Kyoto, in fact) and the United States, the version we'd experienced at Next just didn't quite wow us as much as those "traditional" kaisekis did. I acknowledge that the staff made very clear at the outset that what we would be served would be their own interpretation and, to their credit, I was impressed with how they entwined the "Autumn in Kyoto/Midwest" theme throughout each course (with all of the maple references, for example). Maybe this is just a case of us having too many preconceived opinions about a particular cuisine (i.e., Japanese food) at the expense of others with which we're not as familiar (such as Thai or Sicilian, two earlier Next menus that did wow us). Regardless, Mrs. H. and I are still very excited and curious about what the folks at Next are going to come up with, well, next...

Monday, October 29, 2012

Mitsuwa Revisited

While attending to some family business last week, I had the opportunity to visit my favorite Japanese marketplace, Mitsuwa in Arlington Heights a couple of times. The bee was first planted in my bonnet by my usual culinary oracle of late, Serious Eats Chicago, whose glowing assessment of the special toroniku shio ramen from the Santouka noodle stand in the market's food court made me want hot noodles and tender pork cheek for dinner on a cool fall evening (see photo below).

Although I got a little confused and ordered the "shoyu" version (meaning "soy") instead of "shio" (meaning "salt"), the steaming bowl of brown broth and its accoutrements (fish cake, chopped scallions, wavy noodles, single nori sheet, and, um, mushrooms) were mighty tasty. The thin slices of pork cheek that came with the soup were so tender and fatty that I'm pretty sure I blushed out of embarrassment at one point. Flush with porcine bliss, I staggered towards the front entrance and noticed workers setting up temporary stands for a promotional fall street food festival to take place starting the following morning. As luck would have it, I was already going to be back in the neighborhood the next day, so I conveniently added a return trip to Mitsuwa ahead of my other obligations.

Lots of new street snacks had appeared upon my second arrival: savory, sizzling pancakes, many different varieties of croquettes, including sea urchin, snow crab, smoked salmon, and corn (sticking with the themes of the season, I chose a pumpkin croquette, which was a bit on the greasy side, but pleasantly crunchy and slightly sweet), plus two glass cases of assorted mochi (gelatin-like rice cakes often stuffed with a dessert filling). My head was spinning with options as I chose 4 different ones more or less randomly (see photo below), two of them filled with sweet red bean paste and the others with purple sweet potato. The missus and I were able to enjoy these later that night after the progeny had gone to bed.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Fumare/Vanille Patisserie

When you travel to other cities (especially those in Europe, Asia, or Latin America), it's not terribly difficult to stumble across markets with vendor stalls selling prepared foods, fresh produce, meats, flowers, etc. all under one roof to the local populace. Given our entrenched culture of dining convenience here in America, such a concept didn't really get much traction in the states for many years as the Giant Corporate Supermarkets provided (and still do, to a large extent) everything one needed to eat quickly and cheaply at home (just add hot water or pop in the microwave for 2 minutes, and, voila!, instant dinner). With the emergence of the artisanal food movement over the past decade, however, the paradigm is shifting a little towards this fresher, healthier, less-industrial approach of eating. Case in point: Chicago has had one of these year-round markets (called the Chicago French Market, a bit misleading since there's plenty there that isn't rooted in France) for about 2 years now, located in the Ogilvie Metra Station downtown at Clinton and Randolph. Shame on me for taking this long to check it out, but I finally had an opportunity to do so on a greeter tour last Friday with some guests visiting from Los Angeles (another American city with some great markets, as I discovered back in August).

Our French market features stalls with diverse, hard-to-find-in-the-South-Suburbs products as fine cheeses (Pastoral), banh mi sandwiches (Saigon Sisters), Belgian fries and beers (Frietkoten), crepes (Flip Crepes), and Korean food (Bowl Square), plus much more. For my lunch selection, I made a bee-line towards Fumare Meats, a small deli stand specializing in Montreal-style smoked pastrami sandwiches that have been garnering rave reviews from the local press. I'm here to tell you today that all of the accolades are very well-deserved - my pastrami sandwich was nothing short of mind-blowing, brilliant in its simplicity of warm pastrami pieces on rye bread with no toppings other than a small side cup of Dijon mustard. Clearly, the intent of such a sparse presentation is to showcase the meat, of which there was much to love, a perfect blend of slightly crisp, peppery exterior with moist, fatty dark pink pastrami on the inside. Often times, I'm not a fan of rye bread, but this version was mellow and unobtrusive, merely providing a carrying case for the heavenly flesh between the slices. If I worked in the neighborhood (ironically, Mrs. Hackknife does, except she's rarely in her home office), I'd be chowing down on one of these sandwiches daily until my doctor cried "uncle".

Flush with contentment and feeling magnanimous, I stopped on my way out of the market to pick up a treat to bring home. Vanille Patisserie is strategically located near the main exit to the market so that you have to contemplate dessert before proceeding with your day. Packed in the display case among other pastries were many varieties of macaroons, those little French cookies that I'm now hooked on. I carefully selected 7 different types (mango, rose, violet passion, fig, raspberry, coconut, and Nutella) to populate a gift box for the missus and me to share after the progeny were in bed. While they weren't the best macaroons I'd ever had, they certainly were tasty, especially the mango, raspberry, and rose. In any case, I can see myself making many excuses in the future to detour through the market either before, during, or after a tour...

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


In Chicago, we're blessed to have a plethora of fine dining establishments at our disposal. The nice folks at Michelin agree with this sentiment, having designated Chicago in 2011 as only the second dining locale in North America worthy of its own Michelin Guide (San Francisco will be the third later this year, while New York has had one for a while). Some of these local upscale eateries have a globally-high profile (e.g., Alinea or the now-departed Charlie Trotter's), while others operate almost anonymously (e.g., EL Ideas) save for nutty foodheads like myself. Mrs. Hackknife and I recently had the pleasure of dining at a Logan Square restaurant that clearly falls in the latter category: Bonsoiree (2728 W. Armitage), unmarked on the outside and mostly ignored except for Chicago's Michelin inspector(s), who awarded its chef/owner Shin Thompson a single star in 2011 for his imaginative tasting menus in a BYO setting.

Before getting to our specific experience, however, I'd be remiss not to mention some backstory for context here. Only a few months ago, Chef Thompson announced his intention to open a new restaurant in the currently red-hot dining corridor around Randolph and Halsted. In order to free up some of his time for the new venture, he made what many considered to be a blockbuster deal in the culinary world, persuading another well-regarded local chef, Beverly Kim (fresh off her strong showing on Top Chef: Austin and rave reviews for her latest work at Aria in the Fairmont Hotel) and her husband Johnny Clark (also a chef) to sign on with him as partners at Bonsoiree. This move gave Chefs Kim and Clark a new creative outlet for their Korean-tinged fine dining concepts (and a bit of much-needed free time with their young son) while allowing Chef Thompson to garner some new buzz for the existing restaurant during the transition over to his new project. The strategy certainly got my attention; when the time came for us to select a dining locale with another foodie couple (a co-worker of Mrs. Hackknife's and his wife), Bonsoiree was at the top of the list and I made a late October reservation there for the 4 of us.

Filled with anticipation, I was greatly surprised to get a call a short time later from Matty Colson (the sommelier at Bonsoiree, another recent new addition to the staff) with the news that the restaurant was abruptly closing in 10 days. What happened? Well, neither Chef Thompson nor the Kims/Clarks were revealing many details, other than it was a mutually-agreed upon decision (no word on if it was an acrimonious split, although I suspect some hard feelings abound - in her Top Chef appearance, Chef Kim revealed herself to be both tough-as-nails and a lightning rod for controversy, someone whose bad side you wanted to avoid). In the meantime, Matty asked if we wanted to move our reservation so that we could dine with them before closing, and, not wanting to miss out on an opportunity to try Chef Kim and Chef Clark's cuisine, I reluctantly agreed (our companions had to bow out due to scheduling difficulties). After making the change, I wondered if I'd made an expensive mistake. During the last week of service, would the staff be motivated to give patrons the experience thought highly enough by Michelin to award a star or would they just be phoning it in until the kitchen shut down? As the day approached, I felt what could be described as excitement tempered by a small dose of dread.

Sunday night arrived and we traveled to Logan Square for our mystery meal (I had no idea exactly what kind of dishes we would be seeing, although I discovered later that the whole menu was posted on their website, a rare homework lapse on my part). We sat down at a table near the pass in a small, spare, Japanese-styled dining room, all wood, muted colors, and straight lines. Matty brought out the first of our 12 courses on the tasting menu, a Brie-filled gougere (a cheese puff common in French cuisine) topped with a pile of smoked hackleback sturgeon caviar, paired with a flute of champagne. I've eaten gougeres before (wouldn't hesitate to polish off a dozen of them, in fact), but this was the first I'd seen combined with caviar, and the effect was one of pure luxury, especially with the bubbly to wash it down. The next dish transported us from France north to Scandinavia, what appeared to be a Noma-inspired dish of a single oyster doused in a smoked elderberry mignonette and perched atop a bed of round stones and pine twigs. There wasn't a lot of meat in my oyster; however, the mignonette did its job of conjuring a boreal forest via flavors of smoke and pine.

The third course may very well end up being the signature plate of the new staff's short-lived tenure. A bowl of assorted orange, yellow, and purple carrot pieces (described on the website as being ember roasted "Thai style" - not really sure what that means) interspersed with mint leaves/dollops of white whipped yogurt and drizzled with coconut water appeared on the table. Visually striking (see photo above), this dish clearly echoed notes of Thailand and was delicious, although I found the smoke in the carrots to be a bit too prominent (apparently, smokiness is a preferred motif for the Kim/Clark team). Our drink pairing for the carrots was a nice glass of Cederberg Bukettraube wine, made from a lesser-known white grape variety in South Africa (indeed, I don't recall us encountering this varietal when we visited South Africa wine country in 2007) that has floral notes like a muscat, plus some herbal character like a sauvignon blanc.

What you see above was the dish that followed, a small container of traditional savory Japanese egg custard known as chawanmushi, in this case livened up with a little Jinhua ham (a dry cured variety from China), a splash of XO cognac, and some Chinook salmon roe. Given my dislike of undercooked egg products, Mrs. Hackknife was sure I'd have a problem eating this; however, I found it to be surprisingly tasty as long as I didn't think about it too much. Staying with Japan, our next course was a disk of roasted purple Okinawan sweet potato, dusted with nori (seaweed) powder and perfectly paired with a robust, earthy dopplebock from G. Schneider and Sohn in Bavaria called Aventinus (all in all, Matty's drink pairings were nearly spot-on each and every time, rivaling the heralded pairings from Grant Achatz's Alinea/Next empire in breadth and creativity). Plate #6 was a filet of poached Lake Superior trout, served with roasted potatoes/leeks and drizzled with a concentrated leek jus, which Mrs. Hackknife and I wanted to lap up like kittens enjoying a saucer of cream. This was a minimalist, well-executed dish enhanced by the glass of Melon de Bourgogne that accompanied it.

After the fish, we received what could be considered our first "traditional" Korean dish (supposedly the strength of the kitchen's repertoire), a small bowl of seolleontang, or "bone soup", usually made from slow roasting ox bones and other cuts of meat. The house version (see photo above) sported a small slab of bone marrow, pieces of omasum tripe, shreds of caramelized brisket, and scallions, a hearty riot of flavors all rolled up into a few slurps. Matty brought out an unusual wine to drink with the soup, a slightly-oxidized white from Lopez de Heredia in Rioja (Spain) that took a little of the broth's savory edge away (much like the splash of sherry added to turtle soup).

Staying with the meat genre, the next course served was a roasted squab (cooked medium rare) with mushrooms and pickled onions (see photo above) - not terribly inventive, but tasty just the same, although the breast featured some ultra-gamey bites that made me recoil a bit (not even the elegant pinot noir from the Pfalz region of Germany we drank with the squab could counter it). Better received were the two thin slices of duck prosciutto ("a gift from the kitchen", as Matty said) that proceeded the squab, resembling watermelon wedges and packed with rich, fatty goodness. Even more impressive was the following plate, which appeared at first to be just a pile of vegetables (including pickled radishes and kale chips); however, hidden within the pile was a decadent slab of foie gras mousse encrusted with crushed coffee beans and buckwheat grains for texture. The missus and I greatly enjoyed the mousse creation and the wine that came with it, a pale red from the Jura region of southeastern France. And as much as I hate to admit it, the chefs' kale chips were, well, better than my Commissary version (just a little, though). A dish containing a slice of smoked beet (topped with balsamic vinegar/crunchy bee pollen) and a slab of what I thought was a soft goat cheese (it actually turned out to be a vegan cheese made from cashew paste - sure fooled me) provided a nice bridge between the last savory courses and dessert, in spite of the 1990-ish edible flower garnish.

We received three separate dessert courses, the first of which you see in the photo above, an amazing "study in chrysanthemum": pavlova (one of Mrs. Hackknife's favorites) infused with chrysanthemum essence, topping a cured egg yolk mixed with chrysanthemum gel, dusted with powdered sugar, flower petals, and a little gold leaf. Again, there was some question tableside as to my ability to consume the messy egg, but I took one for the team (and was the better for it). Matty's drink pairing was another oxidized wine, this time an amontillado Sherry that melded quite well with the rich and sweet notes of the dessert. The second dessert (another kitchen gift - apparently, they were feeling generous that night) consisted of a blend of grapefruit pulp, malted barley, and coconut, simple yet full-flavored, nudging the experience back in the direction of Thailand (although the Floc de Gascogne, a fortified apertif from southwest France that accompanied the dish returned us back to Europe). One last echo of Korea came next, a take on the shaved ice dish known as pat bing su - in this case, wood sorrel granite played the part of the shaved ice, with additional flavors/textures provided by sweet mung beans and an aloe gel (all washed down neatly with a slightly-dry Kabinett Riesling).

Feeling pretty satisfied at this point, we nibbled on some mignardises (Earl Grey truffle, espresso crisps, and green apple chews - see photo above) while we waited to settle up with our servers. At nearly $200 a head, the meal wasn't cheap by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly seemed worth it to us. In the course of a few hours, we enjoyed a number of Korean dishes that were new to us, yet also went on a world tour of other storied cuisines that were often presented with a slight twist. Having reached the menu's conclusion, I had mixed emotions bouncing through my head - sadness/regret at Bonsoiree's imminent closing (much like when we ate at Spring), joy of having experienced Chef Kim/Clark's work before it was too late, elation (or was that just a buzz?) over the stellar and abundant drink pairings, and hope that we might dine again with this dynamic duo (a trio if you count Matty) at a future-locale-to-be-determined someday. Regardless, as to the question of the restaurant's quality and effort during their final week of operation, clearly we made the correct decision to spend our dining dollars here...

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Michiana Breweries

Mrs. Hackknife's cousin Bob (a beer connoisseur and overall bon vivant) is getting hitched this coming Friday. As one might expect of someone who enjoys spending time with a quality glass of suds, Bob chose for his bachelor party theme a daylong tour of microbreweries located in nearby northwest Indiana and southwest Michigan (a region collectively referred to as "Michiana" for those of you who are out-of-towners), an area that is easily accessible from the Commissary. So it was with great enthusiasm that my brother-in-law Dan and I left town on a bright fall Saturday morning, forsaking college football, Premiere League soccer, and general parenting duties in favor of top-drawer beer consumption (in careful moderation, of course - my days of binge drinking, never much to speak of anyway, are long past).

We first met up with the groom-to-be and the other members of our jolly bunch at Shoreline Brewery, located a few blocks from the lake in downtown Michigan City. I've previously written about Shoreline in this blog - in my opinion, it's a kid-friendly place serving decent food and pouring some beers that are really good, some not so much so. This trip, however, I had the good fortune of picking a winner, a Samuel Jackson's black IPA, which I found to be a nice hybrid between IPA (not usually one of my favorites due to the strong hops flavor inherent to the variety) and stout (the brewery's website describes this beer as being made with "six different types of malt combined with Galena, Pearle, and Columbus hops"). It paired well with the platter of housemade hummus, grilled pita bread, and assorted veggies that I ordered for the table to help take the edge off of these early libations (without food, I'd surely be blotto after two beers on an empty stomach - see Las Vegas, August 2010).

With the noon hour having come and gone, we loaded up the vehicles and made our way towards Stop #2: Greenbush Brewing Company in the small hamlet of Sawyer, MI. Sawyer is only about a 20-minute drive from Shoreline and consists of a few buildings scattered along a brief stretch of central business district that's a stone's throw from I-94. We arrived to find Greenbush's facility to be the clear hub of activity in the otherwise-sleepy town on a weekend afternoon, the noisy taproom packed with patrons enjoying the extensive selection of regular and seasonal offerings. Bob and I were first impressed by Greenbush at Baconfest in April and this encounter didn't disappoint, either - I was quite pleased with my sampler selection of Memento Mori (an Oktoberfest ale), Retribution (a Belgian ale with a touch of sweetness), and Distorter Porter (billed as a combination of porter and stout), each available in a 4-oz. pour for $4 or less (see photo below).

Not quite as impressive was the smoked brisket sandwich I ate to ward off any beer buzz (the meat was a little dry and lacking some flavor). Greenbush definitely has the brewing angle of the business well-covered - if they were to improve their menu a bit, I bet a taproom expansion will be needed posthaste.

Feeling flush and halfheartedly fighting a nap, I passively sat in the passenger seat while Dan directed us towards our final stop of the afternoon, The Livery in Benton Harbor (the rest of our party had plans to continue on towards Kalamazoo for the evening; however, us guys with kids back home were content to turn around after a last pop or two here). The Livery is housed in the basement of an old brick building (a former horse stable) in downtown Benton Harbor, a once-bustling, then dilapidated, now slowly revitalizing city on Lake Michigan's eastern shore. You can see the signs of gentrified urban life starting to poke up among the vacant lots and industrial yards scattered around the immediate neighborhood of the bar (see photo below).

As I was still feeling the effects of my Greenbush sampler, I was content to sip an orange cream soda (yes, I know, I'm a wuss) while the guys played in the bar's courtyard what may very well have been the worst display of bag tossing in modern history. My shame was eventually tempered somewhat by the one beer that I managed to rally for, described as a "hopped-up American red ale" called Danimal (named after a recently-deceased friend of the brewer). Although not as expansive of a beer list as Greenbush, the consensus from the bachelor of honor and company was that The Livery's brews were quality indeed, surpassing those that we found at Shoreline earlier in the day. And with that, Dan and I made our way back down the interstate towards Illinois, the only afterthought being a glimmer of desire to stop at Redamak's in New Buffalo for burgers, which was quickly forgotten in the fading daylight and hop haze immersing my consciousness...

Monday, October 8, 2012

Heaven on Seven/Toni Patisserie

I recently concluded a morning greeter tour without stopping for lunch with my guests like I usually do (they opted to forge ahead on their own with some other sightseeing plans). Feeling a bit adrift and not wanting to pop in to the usual joints nearby the Cultural Center, my eyes latched onto a sign at the corner of Wabash and Washington advertising a Heaven on Seven inside the adjacent building at 111 N. Wabash. HOS is a locally well-known Cajun restaurant that's been serving up gumbo and cornbread to Chicagoans since the early 80s. Even in the Food Network-crazy world of today, we don't have a lot of Cajun cuisine to choose from around here, so HOS has been our torchbearer for New Orleans cooking for the better part of 30 years. I'd once eaten at the River North location with some co-workers and had made a couple of visits to the now-departed HOS in Wrigleyville (it became a German brauhaus, somehow a more palatable option to inebriated baseball fans wandering by on Clark, which I guess already resembles Bourbon Street on most gamedays), but, unbeknownst to me, I had stumbled upon the original HOS that Chef Jimmy Bannos opened in an old coffee shop in the Garland Building (on, of course, the 7th floor - hence the name) in 1981.

My first impression upon entry was that the space is pretty small, yet packed with character. I could easily imagine a smoke-filled room of insurance salesmen and newspaper reporters hunkered down over a midday egg salad sandwich and a cup of joe in here sometime during the Eisenhower Administration. I took a seat at the counter and faced the wall that you see in the photo above, which was dominated by shelves of hot sauce bottles and a cooler filled with gargantuan slices of pie. The waitstaff was friendly, but a bit harried, as there wasn't much room for nonsense in the narrow serving walkway leading to the cramped kitchen area. Still, given the constraints on layout, the menu was surprisingly large, covering traditional breakfast, Cajun breakfast, burgers, and plenty of Creole specialties, including jambalaya, shrimp and grits, po' boys, and red beans with rice. Almost everything comes with a cup of gumbo.

I opted for the soft shell crab po' boy sandwich, which quickly arrived looking rather dramatic on the plate (see photo above). I had to break off a few of the appendages just so I could eventually close the roll. Although it didn't quite measure up to the amazing po' boys I had in New Orleans last year, this one certainly satisfied my immediate craving for Cajun (I'd probably try a different variety next time). My cup of gumbo that preceded the sandwich was fantastic, however, and would warrant a return trip on its own.

In lieu of a 1,000 calorie-slice of chocolate peanut butter pie, I left HOS in favor of Toni Patisserie (65 E. Washington), a French-style bakery and lunch spot literally across the street from the Cultural Center for dessert. Since I'm a sucker for macarons (something I thought the progeny might actually eat), I chose a couple of strawberry and pistachio versions sporting day-glow colors, along with an apple pastry and a chocolate-caramel tart to share with the babysitter (my mother-in-law). With a bit of time to kill before heading home, I located an empty park bench in Millennium Park and lustily eyed my purchase before diving in (see photo above). Everything in the box was rich and decadent (and messy, I might add - I don't advise trying to eat a chocolate-caramel tart half with only a couple of unused pocket tissues to clean your fingers), with the sweets bringing to mind a not-so-long-ago trip to Paris and its many associated sugary creations that soothed the soul.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Chicago Mini-Food Tour #3

With Mrs. Hackknife and the kids up north for a weekend with girlfriends, the time had arrived for my annual food-tour-within-my-own-city. As always, I meticulously researched my options and came up with a proposed plan for the day (Saturday) taking into account both the places I hoped to try and other non-food activities that were on the agenda (namely a 12:05 tilt between the Cards-Cubs at Wrigley and a visit to St. Boniface Cemetery on the North Side to look for the gravestones of my great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents). After taking leave of the family on Friday afternoon, I decided to start my chowfest early by getting some Chicago barbecue for dinner. On many occasions, I've passed a small bbq joint on an otherwise unremarkable stretch of 159th Street between I-57 and the Tri-State (technically, I think the suburb there is Markham) called Exsenator's (3349 W. 159th St. - no word on if the proprietor is actually a former politician). I'd always wondered if their product was worth a visit until I recently read some positive press on it, which finally spurred me to action. I arrived around 5:30p to find the modest parking lot next to the low-slung building nearly full and I deeply inhaled the hickory smoke wafting outside as I entered. Expecting to find a dining room, I instead wandered into a small lobby with three benches and a single server behind a plexiglass partition. Two of the benches supported patrons waiting for food, while a gentleman who appeared to be running a bootleg DVD business occupied the third, with his large case of unlabeled movies taking up a decent chunk of the real estate in front of the take-out counter. When the time came for me to place my order, I stepped around the case and chose the mini size combo of rib tips and hot link, plus an order of 3 chicken wings. After about 10 minutes (during which I witnessed a few DVD transactions occurring - I believe I overheard the man's price at $3 per movie or 3 for $5), my bags of smoked meat were delivered from behind the partition (using sort of a lazy susan) and I giddily hurried home to eat (too messy for the car).

I unwrapped the packaging to see two trays, one filled with wings, sauce, and fries, the other with tips, hot link, sauce, and fries (see photo above). Each order also came with two slices of plain white bread (one of which I used as a bun for the hot link). Digging in, I was immediately blown away by pretty much the whole lot of it. The chicken wings were only lightly sauced, not dripping in the spicy glaze that's common to the wings you find most places these days (I found it pleasant that my lips didn't feel like they were melting off while I was eating them). Even though the fries had gotten a little soggy from being wrapped up on the 15-minute ride back to the Commissary, they were surprisingly good and well accented by the sweet wing sauce. The rib tips were just as good, a nice balance of lean and fat smothered (a bit too heavily, in my opinion) in a sauce that was a little less sweet and a little smokier than the version used with the chicken wings. The hot link was perfect, nicely smoked on the outside and seasoned inside such that notes of sage hit my taste buds first, followed by the moderate bite of red chili pepper. Other than the slight abundance of rib sauce, I guiltily enjoyed this sloppy feast from start to finish - I eventually had to stop myself from eating both sets of fries so as not to completely ruin my grand designs for tomorrow. Now that I know I can get top-shelf Chicago bbq mere minutes from the house, I'm kicking myself for not doing this sooner.

Saturday dawned to a cool, windy, and damp morning, with brief intervals of sunshine peeking out from behind the dark clouds (very Irish weather, I thought). I bundled up in a couple of layers and headed north into the city, arriving at my first destination in Andersonville (which quaintly smelled of toast as I walked its streets) just before the doors opened at 8. I'd just a few weeks ago read an article in Serious Eats Chicago about their picks for the best pancakes in town, with the top choice coming from a breakfast and lunch cafe called M. Henry (5707 N. Clark). The article contained a heavenly picture of M. Henry's blackberry blisscakes, a ridiculous tower of pancakes resting in a pool of dark red blackberry juice, studded with blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, crunchy oatmeal, and brown sugar, then stuffed in-between with a dollop of vanilla marscapone. One look of the photo and I immediately knew what I was having for breakfast to kick off my food tour.

The plate that arrived at my table wasn't quite as heavily stylized as the photo in the article (see above), but it was close enough. I can't conjure enough adjectives to describe the mouthfeel I encountered upon taking my first bite - fluffy, warm, sweet, rich, tangy, and crunchy all at once. I plowed through the pile of cakes as best as I could, making sure to leave just a little behind to avoid overstuffing myself early in the day (it's a marathon, not a sprint).

After hopping on the Clark bus to Howard Street and spending some time researching grave sites at nearby Calvary Cemetery, the Purple Line deposited me in downtown Evanston just in time for the 10:30a door opening at Edzo's Burger Shop (1571 Sherman), a small-yet-celebrated greasy spoon that is to the hamburger as Hot Doug's is to the hot dog; that is, elevating a humble fast food item to more of a gourmet experience. Eddie Lakin (the owner) works the register much like Doug Sohn does at Hot Doug's, talking with every patron and answering any questions to ensure the customers are making well-informed decisions about their lunch (or late 2nd breakfast, in my case). Notorious for being overcrowded at peak times, the restaurant was pleasantly empty as Eddie and I discussed the merits of adding Speculoos (a Nutella-like spread fashioned from grinding up gingersnap cookies that are normally served as an airline snack) to vanilla milkshakes for an unusual treat. Along with my Speculoos milkshake (which is off-menu, by the way - you need to ask for it), I opted for the special Lollapalooza burger (yes, Edzo's had a stand serving this very burger at the namesake Grant Park music fest in August), a 4 oz. griddled thin patty made from Slagel Farm grass-fed Angus beef, plus a schmear of Merkt's cheddar-bacon spread, spicy banana peppers, and a dollop of something called ketchapeno (a spicy mixture of ketchup and jalapenos). To keep the burger and shake company, I snagged an order of garlic fries to round things out.

I did enjoy the Lolla burger, but I don't know that I'd get it again. First off, I wasn't crazy about the bun that was used - it seemed, well, pedestrian given the higher-end ingredients in the rest of the sandwich. I also discovered that I wasn't a fan of the cheese spread, which came off as being a little gritty. In spite of these minor issues, the remainder of the burger went down pretty smoothly. My garlic fries were terrific, fresh-cut, double-fried beauties dosed with just the right amount of garlic butter and minced garlic (a vast improvement over the sludge I was served at Johnsen's not long ago). The shake was good (and abundant - the cook left me the metal mix cup containing a second helping), although I was a little underwhelmed by the Speculoos and would consider a different flavor (spicy Mexican chocolate?) on my return visit. Eddie is soon opening another Edzo's location, this time in Lincoln Park; however, that's sadly not close enough to make me a regular.

Full for the moment, I made my way to Wrigley to watch the Cubs fall behind, then take the lead against the Cardinals, shrewdly left the ballpark before they eventually lost the lead, and took the Clark bus up to St. Boniface Cemetery at Clark & Lawrence. St. Boniface is one of 2 historic Catholic cemeteries in the metro area (Calvary in Evanston being the other) and it happens to be the final resting place for a number of German ancestors on my maternal grandfather's side. My mom told me that she would occasionally visit the grave sites with family as a child, but to her knowledge, no one had been back there for around 50 years. Luckily, the information I collected that morning led me right to the marker of my great-great-grandparents, which was surprisingly large (apparently, they had some dough at their disposal....I did not know this). Flush with the feeling of success that only cemetery wandering can give, I walked a few blocks down Argyle to get a light snack at Furama (4936 N. Broadway), a Chinese restaurant also serving dim sum.

I had dumplings and steamed buns on the brain (see photo above), so I ordered a dim sum container of each, the dumplings stuffed with a mixture of shrimp/scallop and the steamed buns filled with bbq shredded pork. Both the dumpling wrapper and the seafood stuffing were a little bland (Furama isn't exactly known as a paragon of Chinese cuisine in Chicago), but I thought the pork buns were very good, if not overshadowed by the real star of the show, the red chili dipping oil that accompanied my order. If they bottled the stuff, I would be happy to bring it home and put it on just about everything.

Happy about still not feeling engorged, I decided to head back to my vehicle and drive down to Ukrainian Village, home to another much-lauded burger and dog joint, Phil's Last Stand (2258 W. Chicago). Even smaller than Edzo's, Phil's consists of a counter area, charcoal grill, bar with about 8 stools, and 2 small tables near the front. The folks at Phil's are known for their char dogs, char burgers, fried shrimp, and homemade mac & cheese, but I was there in search of a different and unique quarry - a char salami sandwich (first brought to my attention by Serious Eats Chicago) the likes of which are rarely seen in these parts.

The char salami is served on a grilled sausage bun and topped with tomato, mustard, onions, and cheddar cheese (see photo above). It's a little difficult to see from the picture, but the salami is actually sliced rather thickly (about 1/4" wide) before grilling, not the thin deli-style meat I was expecting. As a result, the charring is only a veneer on the outer surface, giving me the impression of eating just a warm salami sandwich. Still, this creation was good enough that I'm eager to return to Phil's so I can sample some of the other house goodies (like the hand-cut fries that I opted to pass on this time).

As the sun began dropping low in the western sky, I attempted to push the digestive envelope just a bit further, driving in the general direction of home so I could stop in at La Lagartija Taqueria (132 S. Ashland), conveniently located near the Mexican Consulate in the West Loop. The Serious Eats people had yet again clued me in to a potentially-significant menu item, this time a fried shrimp taco that allegedly is among the best of its ilk in the city. I ordered said taco with a single al pastor taco to go with it (just for sake of comparison to the al pastor I'd sampled in LA recently), washed down with a tamarind agua fresca (which tasted a lot like iced tea - I hope they weren't pulling a fast one on this gringo).

The shrimp that arrived at my table was HUGE and heavily sauced (see photo above, on left), intimidating enough to my swelling innards that I ate the al pastor taco first, which was pretty tasty (although I think I had better at the taco fest in LA). Finally gathering up the fortitude to attack the shrimp taco, I tried it and was....well, not too enamored. The shrimp seemed to have too much breading for my liking and there clearly was too much sauce, making a bit of a sloppy mess. In fact, the combination of fried food and rich topping was what finally put me over the proverbial edge. The weekend's grease and calorie quotas now significantly exceeded, I'm pretty sure I suddenly turned an alarming shade of green, so much so that my waitress didn't hesitate when I kindly asked her to remove my plate with the unfinished shrimp taco still looming large (she shot me a concerned look as she brought the bill). It was a somewhat uncomfortable drive back to the Commissary from there, with the rumblings in my stomach soothed only by the calming thoughts of the rice cakes, grape nuts, and oatmeal on tomorrow's limited menu....