Thursday, May 31, 2012

Fennel, Chili, and Yogurt Roast Chicken/Nutzie's Pulled Pork

It's springtime, and that means farm chicken time at the Commissary. Two 4-lb beauties from J&D Moore's farm in Watseka were waiting for me in a cooler next to my weekly vegetables the last time I made a pickup. Frequent readers of this blog will recall that I'm always looking for new and ingenious ways to cook up chicken beyond the standard roasted or fried varieties - Wall Street Journal's May 10-11 weekend section again came to my rescue with a recipe for fennel, chili, and yogurt roast chicken, provided courtesy of Chef Ignacio Matto from Brooklyn's Isa Restaurant (there are also instructions for a parsley salad, but I skipped that this time). The recipe prep is really simple, consisting of using a mortar and pestle to grind whole black peppercorns, fennel seed, garlic, red pepper flakes, and salt into a paste that coats the chicken (along with a little olive oil). After 10 minutes on a hot broiler pan in the oven, Greek-style yogurt is spread on the pieces to further tenderize, flavor, and cut some of the spice. You can see my results in the photo above (which, granted, doesn't look all that appetizing - my photo skills could use some work). The final dish was a little more aggressively spicy than I was expecting (the progeny, loath to touch anything with more flavor than a Grape-nut, of course declined to participate), but certainly not unpleasant. The 10 chicken pieces I managed to (sloppily, I might add) butcher from the whole bird were nicely tender, juicy, and fully cooked after only 25 minutes of oven time. I suspect we'll be eating this variety of roast chicken again sometime, possibly marinating the chicken for a couple of hours in advance per the chef's advice.

In the same newspaper issue (a page or two farther in), I found a nice recipe for mom-and-pop pulled pork, developed over the years by a Massachusetts restauranteur nicknamed "Nutzi", whose version includes a pork loin (with or without bone) roasted in the oven for several hours in lieu of wood smoking (the addition of liquid smoke provides the missing wood flavoring), then slathered in homemade barbecue sauce. I wasn't exactly seeking a new pulled pork prep, but I clipped the recipe nonetheless and filed it for a future occasion where I might need to feed a large group. Coincidentally, that occasion arrived sooner than I planned as 10 adults and 7 kids came by the Commissary for a little Indy 500 watching party this past Sunday. I was able to track down a 5.5 lb bone-in pork shoulder (no loins around) at my local ethnic grocery and brought it home. I placed it in a Dutch oven with about 2 cups of beef stock to help keep it moist and about a tablespoon of the liquid smoke (which is pretty potent stuff, I soon figured out, making the house smell like a bonfire in short order), covered it, and cooked it until it was fall-apart tender, about 4 hours. Once the pork is ready, the instructions call for you to combine it with a generous helping of the barbecue sauce, a bright red and tangy concoction with ketchup, Dijon mustard, apple cider vinegar, onions, garlic, brown sugar, honey, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, chili powder, salt, and black pepper (whew). The meat tasted pretty good to me without it, but not wanting to deviate, I took a leap of faith and dumped in the sauce, which melded pretty well with the pork (although I might tone it down a little next time). For chow time, I served the sauced meat with hamburger buns, sliced gherkins, and a mustard cole slaw from one of my Saveur issues (I think I wrote about it here last November). Feedback from the visitors was pretty positive, with about 4 of the 5.5 lb of meat disappearing into the ether. As of this posting, I'm still happily working on the leftovers and waiting for the wood smell to completely fade from the family room upholstery....

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Lucky's Sandwich Company

In my never-ending quest to utilize my frequent Cubs tickets as an excuse to explore the dining minutiae of Wrigleyville, I stopped in at a relatively new joint for dinner before first pitch at a recent evening game. Lucky's Sandwich Company popped up on my radar screen when the family on one of my greeter tours mentioned that they had to try it while in town because "it had been featured on Man vs. Food". Now, I don't usually rely on that show as my most reputable measure of approval (if you haven't ever seen it, the places that the host, Adam Richman, visits all have some sort of mega-eating gimmick), but given that one of its two locations is close to the ballpark (3472 N. Clark) and their showcase menu items are sandwiches piled high with meat, cheese, fries, AND cole slaw (a la Pittsburgh's Primanti Bros., the originator of this sandwich style, allegedly devised so that truckers could eat the whole meal with a single hand while driving), I made a mental note to try it sometime this season.

When I arrived at Lucky's about an hour prior to gametime, I found a small bar/restaurant styled in the faux rustic manner now most commonly found all around the ballpark (What happened to the Mongolian bbq place? Where are the sushi bars of my 2002?) packed with Cubs fans, most of whom looked to be in for a long night of drinking. I squeezed into a single seat at the corner of the bar and placed my order, a pastrami and cheese with a complimentary glass of Chicago's finest tap water. The sandwich arrived as advertised (see above), a monster in a basket. Napkins in tow, I proceeded to eat about 3/4 of the thing before calling it quits. Quality-wise, it wasn't the worst sandwich I'd ever had and the price (only $7.50) was certainly right, especially for this neighborhood. The fries weren't bad (although I doubt they were hand-cut in the little kitchen, given the daily volume they must go through) and the slaw had a nice crunch/tang to it. My two main complaints were 1) they sure didn't use much meat and 2) the bread was just plain white, a little thicker than your average supermarket loaf, but really nothing special. After doing a little post-meal analysis on the web, I saw some pictures of comparable Primanti Bros. sandwiches that appeared to have similar meat mass/bread type, yet I recall its version (from my one and only encounter with it in 2008) to be much more satisfying. Could it be that the 70+ years of practice in Pittsburgh results in a better product? Higher-quality ingredients? The answer may be one or both of these things. In any case, I wouldn't recommend Lucky's outright for a meal, but I could see myself returning with a group of friends for a late night snack to soak up some excess beer....

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Tin Fish - Chef for a Day

Last month, Hackknife Jr.'s school had its annual evening fundraiser party, featuring copious alcohol, standard banquet fare (with the exception of some macarons secured from a mystery bakery in the city that were delicious), and numerous auction items, some desirable (3-night hotel stay in Spain), and some not so much so (White Sox memorabilia). I had my eye on an offer from a decent local restaurant (Tin Fish, which I've written about in this blog) to shadow the chef for a day and see how a professional kitchen is run - lo and behold, after a brief bidding war, I won the item for the small price of $150 or so. Giddy with anticipation, I called up the restaurant and scheduled my visit for this past Monday (my logic was that a night early in the week would be slower, leaving the chef more available to spend time with his interloper).

I have to admit I was a little surprised that the receptionist told me to show up anytime after 5pm, thinking that during the dinner service would be the worst time for some foodie schmuck to be hanging out in the kitchen, getting in the way of hot orders while asking dumb questions about mise en place (not to mention that, in my twisted mind, the best stuff to see - fish gutting, vegetable prep, stock making - would happen before noon). In any case, wanting to be a good guest, I followed orders and arrived at the hostess stand at 5:05p for my tour. After a brief conversation, Chef Mike (who had no idea that he was slated to have a visitor that evening) welcomed me into the back and got me a spare chef's coat, which I proceeded to misbutton, leaving no doubt to the casual onlooker as to who didn't belong there.

Anyway, to my delight, Chef Mike (who is actually the restaurant's sous chef, as Chef/Owner Curtis and Executive Chef Tobias were off that evening) and his staff were nothing but gracious and accommodating to me. I had stowed a spare granola bar in my pocket just in case I was so preoccupied with kitchen duties that I didn't have time to eat dinner; as it turns out, eating was about all I did while I was there (apparently, the house forbids tour recipients from actually doing any food work due to liability issues - no chopped-off digits for me), including the following indulgences:

-A platter of spicy sauteed shrimp with a to-die for creamy buffalo sauce (Chef Mike told me that Chef Tobias brought the sauce recipe back with him from a job in France)

-Spicy ahi tuna rolled in black peppercorns

-A fantastic bowl of roasted pepper and crab bisque (they were trying to clear space out for the next soup - I was happy to help)

-An equally-fantastic bowl of white clam chowder

-A plate of grilled halibut placed atop a bed of smashed potatoes, roasted tomatoes, and prosciutto, all drizzled with lemon butter sauce

-Chef Mike's caramel apple and vanilla ice cream pie with a graham cracker crust

-Even a bite of the staff meal, an impromptu Mexican "calzone" stuffed with nopales (cactus), chicharron (fried pork skin), and cheese, topped with a spicy green salsa (obviously not for the customers, this being a seafood-focused establishment).

I was offered more to eat (and also drank 2 beers) beyond that, but had to refrain from doing further damage lest I explode. When not stuffing my face, I was busy quizzing Chef Mike about his background, the provenance of the restaurant's ingredients, various cooking techniques, menu selections, and staff operations, all of which he answered thoroughly and patiently. I'm grateful that he spent so much of his evening with me when, clearly, he didn't have to (it probably did help that it was a relatively slow night, but no matter).

All in all, I came away from the experience pretty impressed with the way Tin Fish is doing things. My initial fear was that I'd see how they went about the business of making food and would be put off by short cuts, shoddy ingredients, etc., not wanting to eat there again. If anything, I feel even better having seen that they make nearly everything (except breads and pasta) in-house and are very quality-driven, as opposed to the local Applebee's trying to turn a quick buck. I'll certainly keep them near the top of my list of places near the Commissary to get a great meal and entertain family on special occasions (that is, if I'm allowed back on the premises)...

Monday, May 21, 2012

iNG Living Social Menu

I receive daily offers from both Groupon and Living Social (LS), most of which immediately end up in my discard bin. Every once in a while, though, something arrives that manages to snag my attention; in this case, it was a Living Social offer for an 8-course dinner at iNG, including drink pairings, a signed menu, and kitchen tour. iNG (an acronym for "imagining new gastronomy", at least that's the on-the-record explanation) is one of two restaurants (Moto is the other) run by Chef Homaro Cantu, both of which fall in the vein of molecular gastronomy. Moto was the first and most critically acclaimed, resulting in a cookbook, a short-lived tv show, a food research & design firm, and celebrity chef status for its founder and two underlings (Richie Farina and Chris Jones, recent contestants on Top Chef: Texas). iNG came around a little bit later, replacing an earlier spinoff eatery (that was called Otom) next door to it on Fulton Market Street (both restaurants share a kitchen). The stretch of Fulton Market on which Moto and iNG are located is turning into quite the hot spot for innovative dining, with our friends Next/Aviary just up the street, Publican and Publican Quality Meats a block away in the opposite direction, and new ventures being announced (including a gourmet doughnut shop and a Latin fusion restaurant) almost weekly in this formerly downtrodden neighborhood.

Although we'd heard much about Chef Cantu and his exploits, neither Mrs. Hackknife nor I had dined at either of his establishments (the missus had appetizers at Otom for a work function once). The LS deal was valid for only Tuesday and Wednesday nights (presumably in an attempt by iNG to get butts in the seats on slower evenings), so after checking her work schedule, Mrs. Hackknife gave me the go-ahead to sign us up. We were both quite looking forward to our experience, even in the afterglow of the stellar meal we'd had at Vie just 3 short nights before. Unfortunately, not all was well. Up to the night of our dinner, I had at no point ever communicated with the restaurant - everything was arranged via LS. It was on the train ride into the city that I happened to notice the fine print at the bottom of our vouchers stating "Please contact iNG prior to your dining experience so that a reservation can be secured for this voucher" or something to that effect. Hmmm....I thought, would've been nice if that had somehow been pointed out earlier to me, so I tried calling the listed phone number (which was the restaurant's receptionist line) and promptly reached voicemail instead of a person on both attempts. By that time, my ride was pulling into the station and I resigned myself to sorting the issue out upon our arrival on iNG's front doorstep. After asking us if we had called for a reservation (which, of course, we had not), the hostess managed to find our name on a voucher list for the evening and, although seemingly a bit flustered, assured us that this wasn't a problem (foreshadowing alert: I should have picked up on this as the first sign of potential trouble).

We were directed to our table and had a few minutes of solitude to admire the futuristic decor (including a curved wall covered in tiny white tiles right next to us) before one of the waitstaff came over to explain the service for the LS menu. Each of us were given a paper menu folded into a cube (quite ingenious, actually) that listed the 8 courses, plus the drink pairings that would amount to "a lot of booze" as I believe the waiter put it. The cube contained a popcorn ball mildly spiced with Thai chiles inside (reminiscent of what Graham Elliott serves) as an amuse bouche. This was followed up with our first official course, a cobia ceviche (see below) served with avocado, watermelon radish, cucumber, and crunchy tortilla strips (a very tasty 3 bites except for the fact that you had to look pretty hard to find the fish), well paired with a slightly dry Adelsheim rose wine from Oregon (not a region particularly known for the non-floral variety of roses).

Course #2 was a small block of salmon garnished with a half of orange, a crisp ginger cracker, and salad greens that we were instructed to dress with a pipette (something I don't recall using since high school chemistry class) full of strawberry rhubarb vinaigrette. This dish was paired with a cocktail that came to the table in separate components, a Belgian lambic beer in a tall shot glass and a test tube containing a mixture of vodka, green chartreuse, cherry, lime, and sour ale, the 2 of which we dumped together in a tumbler full of ice. Although the salmon and its accoutrements was fine and was enhanced by the cocktail, the whole concept of this course seemed a little out of left field (science lab?).

Next up was our first meat course, intended to evoke spring thaw. A bowl of pork belly pieces was topped with kombu seaweed and surrounded by small white bits of maitake mushrooms, which clumped together and floated atop a miso broth looking like shards of ice atop a thawing pond (at least, I guess this is what it was supposed to resemble - you be the judge below). It may not have visually worked, but the flavor combinations were great in my opinion (Mrs. Hackknife did not agree, finding hers to be a little bland). The beer that accompanied the pork belly, another Belgian (Brouwerij Van Steenberge's Atomium Pale Ale), was fantastic and will be sought out for the Commissary fridge.

The fourth dish presented to us consisted of 3 small pita disks of shredded lamb, one each featuring hummus, tzatziki, and tabbouleh as the spread underneath the lamb. They were delicious, but really tiny (I could have used about a dozen more) and disappeared quickly from the plate. Yet another very good Belgian beer, a Abbaye de Leffe Brown Ale, was the drink pairing. At this point, I should probably mention that the pace of service had been slowing with each passing course. We noticed that a number of diners had all arrived around 7 pm (like us) and appeared to be having the LS menu at roughly the same rate; that is, we all seemed to be simultaneously waiting longer and longer for the next plate to emerge from the kitchen. In addition to the flagging pace, it was becoming apparent that the service itself lacked the polish that would normally be expected when you're dropping significant money on an 8-course tasting menu. The waitstaff was young, enthusiastic, and friendly, but made some obvious mistakes (long lapses between table visits while waiting in vain for food, setting down drinks while another server is describing the food course and vice versa) that were magnified by the delays in the back. The vibe felt, well, almost TOO casual for the surrounding environment.

Next up (after a sizable wait) came the wackiest dish of the evening - a deconstructed chicken pot pie composed like a scene from a bathtub (entitled "April Showers"). This course contained a capon breast formed to resemble a bar of soap (embossed with the word "iNG") topped with a savory foam that looked like suds, garnished with a crunchy piece of toasted brioche (made to be a "sponge") resting on cauliflower and Tokyo turnip. For the coup de gras, our server squeezed out dollops of white and green cream onto the plate from what appeared to be shampoo bottles (the drink pairing was a J. Hofstatter Blauburgunder, or Pinot Noir, from Alto Adige in Italy - no word on what part of the bathroom this was supposed to represent). I liked the way the various components melded together (it really did taste like chicken pot pie), but the whole presentation seemed whimsical for whimsy's sake, not really fitting into the overall theme of the menu. The picture below doesn't do it justice.

It was now time for the miracle berry course. What is the miracle berry, you ask? The miracle berry comes from the so-called miracle fruit, a plant native to West Africa that contains a compound called miraculin. Miraculin is a natural sugar substitute that, when consumed, actually changes the shape of the taste bud receptors on the tongue so that the sweetness of whatever is being eaten is enhanced. Chef Cantu is a big fan of using the miracle berry as a trick technique in his modern cuisine (as are his disciples - Chef Chris Jones once used it during a Top Chef quickfire challenge). For our course, we were given a simple glass of unflavored tonic water, a wedge of lemon, a wedge of lime, and a small packet containing a miracle berry tablet, which we were instructed to place on our tongue until it completely dissolved. In theory, once the tablet did its thing, the sour lemon and lime would taste sweet and, after squeezing their juices into the glass, create an all-natural Sprite-flavored soda from the tonic water. Mrs. Hackknife found that this sorcery worked very well, while the effect on me wasn't as pronounced as I'd hoped, leaving me with yet another mildly-intriguing-yet-not-entirely-relevant dish.

The tablet's magic was supposed to last for about an hour, long enough to help improve the sweet factor of the two dessert courses that followed. The first was a little flowerpot full of goodness called "May Flowers" (see photo below).

The pot contained unsweetened lime curd mixed with pieces of hazelnut and tea cookie, described to us as an unorthodox take on key lime pie. Without the miracle berry, the curd would have been exceedingly tart, but was mellowed instead. I really liked this dessert. Mrs. H did not, not even after washing it down with the accompanying Kabinett Riesling (sweetened more to the level of an Auslese by the berry).

Last up was our "Easter Egg Hunt" dessert, but not before an almost-interminable wait (15 minutes?) by 6 or 7 tables all hanging on this one dish. Mrs. Hackknife speculated that the kitchen must have screwed up something and had to restart. Or maybe none of the patrons had called ahead to secure a reservation like they were supposed to (due to the poor communication from LS) and the kitchen was overwhelmed by this point (despite the fact that the dining room wasn't even half-full). Whatever the reason, the worst part was that the waitstaff played it off as if nothing was amiss, not offering apologies, explanations, or even the courtesy of eye contact during this awkward time. With an early morning flight yet to follow, my increasingly-agitated wife was about ready to bolt when the plates finally arrived.

I can't exactly recall the composition of the dessert (it contained chocolate, brandied cherries, and graham cracker, done up to look like some sort of gothic Easter egg massacre. Very rich and tasty (melding well with the black forest two-ways - whiskey, chocolate, and cherry - drink pairing), but awful to behold.

As soon as we polished off the final course, Mrs. Hackknife ran for the valet while I settled up the bill. We didn't want to stick around for the kitchen tour, which was good since none was offered anyway. I couldn't get a good phone connection in the dining room, so I had to guess at the exact voucher numbers to write on the bill (no one has called me to complain that they weren't correct, or maybe, in keeping with the general level of disorganization, they just haven't figured it out yet). It's a shame that we had a poor service experience at iNG, as the food wasn't bad and even excelled at times. Sadly, at this price point, we expected much better and probably won't be going back anytime soon. LS didn't exactly impress me either - I got an email the morning after our visit reminding me to call the restaurant to secure a reservation for my dinner that had already occurred (not much help now, is it?). I think it might be high time to head towards the loving arms of some lowbrow dining for a little while....

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


One of the stocking stuffers that Santa brought Mrs. Hackknife this past Xmas (and forgive me if I've already mentioned this) was a little deck of cards containing a $10 off coupon for each of 52 different restaurants in the Chicagoland area, many of them fine establishments ripe for us to visit. We used one of the coupons at Vera last month, then continued our way through the "V" section of the deck by reserving a table at Vie Restaurant in Western Springs last evening (should we continue to follow suit, the city's one and only Dutch eatery "Vincent" will be next). Vie has been on our hit list for quite some time, having opened up in 2005 to rave reviews and still going strong after 7 years (even with head chef Paul Virant now helming a second well-respected restaurant - Perennial Virant - in town and recently joining the ranks of cookbook authors with "Preservation Kitchen"). Chef Paul is one of the city's pioneers of the farm-to-table movement, espousing that philosophy long before it became the ubiquitous trend it is today, and has forged strong ties with various Midwest suppliers to ensure that he's getting the best ingredients possible for his creations (you can actually click on highlighted foodstuffs on the website menu to see where they originate, such as rhubarb from Spence Farm).

I had read quite a bit about Chef Paul's exploits (plus those of Chef Nathan Sears, his lieutenant now in command of Vie's kitchen) and was really excited to finally experience his cuisine when we wandered into the restaurant for our 7:45 reservation. Although the decor is a study in gray shades and is relatively muted, the bar and adjoining dining room were abuzz with activity that wasn't readily evident from the quiet downtown Western Springs street on which it's located. We were directed to what my wife referred to as the "be seen" table, the only 2-top plopped seemingly out of place in the middle of main aisle, although we were happy to just roll with whatever extra attention we attracted (indeed, the restaurant's general manager stopped by halfway through the meal and asked if I was the one who had spoken to him on the phone earlier in the day - to secure the VIP seating, I suppose - I think he may have confused us with someone else). After a little peptalk from our "sort-of awesome" server (as Mrs. Hackknife described him at one point), we ordered a round of cocktails, Mrs. Hackknife her usual martini, and I one of the house's signature libations, a Buffalo Trace Bourbon-based manhattan containing brandied cherries and beer jam, a syrup made from reduced stout. I'm not normally a bourbon or manhattan drinker, but this potent potable was fantastic and was a great accompaniment for the duration of my meal.

For an amuse bouche, we were given small plates of tasty whitefish served atop a bed of what appeared to be pickled ramps (I may not be correct about the garnish on this one as my memory is failing me and the dimly-lit room foiled any attempts at photos - I really need to get a phone that has a camera flash). Feeling good so far, our appetizers arrived at the table. Mrs. Hackknife had ordered a dish of fried smelts with trumpet mushroom escabeche (having been to Vera recently, we now know what that preparation means), wood-grilled spring onions, wilted spinach, fried kale, and preserved Meyer lemon, while I dove into my charcuterie plate containing 4 kinds of heavenly house-made cured meats (including lavender salami, bresaola - an air-dried salted beef, and an amazing prosciutto sporting a melt-in-your-mouth ribbon of pork fat), apple preserves, greens with mustard vinaigrette, and about the best damn croutons I'd ever had. Next up, we split a bowl of the cream of green garlic soup, which was studded with chunks of tender chicken and spring vegetables. Our waiter mentioned that this soup was making its first appearance on the menu today and asked for our feedback - we gave him two thumbs way up.

Things got even better with our entrees. Having already had an abundant amount of fish during the week and not in a beef mood, I chose the chef's herb tart topped with chevre goat cheese, spinach, watercress, caramelized onions, green garlic, and roasted garlic vinaigrette, a complete study in spring flavors and textures. Mrs. Hackknife, however, one-upped my plate by getting the lamb combination, a mind-blowing concoction of house-cured crispy lamb bacon mixed with slow-roasted shredded leg of lamb, both piled atop curried fingerling potatoes, smashed spring peas, pickled leeks, and mint lamb jus (washed down with a glass of tempranillo). She kindly let me eat several bites of her dish after professing it "the best lamb she'd ever eaten" and I was nearly inclined to agree, only nitpicking at the slightly overpowering amount of mint. Our waiter explained that they roast the lamb leg over a wood-fired grill for 6 hours, then braise the meat in liquid for another 4 hours, yielding the softest, succulent sheep one could possibly imagine.

Dessert did not disappoint as we began plans to sell our home in the south suburbs so we could be closer to our new friend, the Western Springs roasted lamb and his little buddy, lamb bacon. Mrs. Hackknife enjoyed her apple and brown butter tart paired with malted ice cream and a glass of Cotes de Jura dessert wine, while I found myself perfectly sated by my Valhrona chocolate mousse with shortbread cookies and Rocky's Revenge Bourbon Stout syrup. Chefs Virant and Sears clearly demonstrated to us this evening that they're masters of the seasonal ingredient and we can hardly wait to return (just to seal the deal, they even let us keep the $10 off coupon to use again)...

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Morrie O'Malley's/Schaller's Pump

As of late April, I have completed my training and am now an official Chicago Greeter, with a laminated badge, business cards, cap, and polo shirt to prove it (hope they don't eventually regret letting me into the club). For my first ever tour, I was tasked this past Thursday with showing a pleasant chap from England around town. A baseball enthusiast (yes, a pretty rare breed in the UK), he had decided to spend his 30th birthday in Chicago seeing the Cubs play at Wrigley Field, sampling our humble city's tourist attractions, and doing other things as varied as taking the train to Milwaukee (for a Brewers game) and trucking out to Woodstock to see the town square where the majority of the Bill Murray flick "Groundhog Day" was filmed (had I met up with him sooner, I might have attempted to talk him out of this). Although he was aware that we have two major league baseball teams in town, he had a little trepidation about going down to the South Side (having heard stories back home about notoriously crime-ridden public housing that's now mostly demolished) for a White Sox game, so I offered to walk him around U.S. Cellular Field and Bridgeport so he could see the neighborhood for himself.

We started further east along the lakeshore at Soldier Field (home of the Bears since 1971) before hopping on the El and disembarking at 35th Street. One lap of the Cell and a short walk later, we arrived at Morrie O'Malley's (corner of 35th and Union) for lunch, home of one of the better Chicago-style hot dogs on this side of Madison Street. Morrie's is not a big place (mostly outdoor seating) and is only open during the warmer months, primarily to serve hungry Sox fans before, during, and after games just down the street. We both opted for the standard hot dog combo: a Chicago dog with everything (mustard, relish, tomatoes, onions, pickle, cucumber, sport peppers, and celery salt), homemade fries, and small soda, all of which were tasty if not pretty representative fare of hot dog stands all over town. I most appreciated the framed picture of old Comiskey Park hanging on the wall, which I was able to utilize as a visual aid for my guest.

After our nosh, I wanted to stop by Bridgeport's oldest (and, allegedly, Chicago's oldest) tavern, Schaller's Pump (3714 S. Halsted), continuously serving drinks to South Siders since 1881 (they don't have a website, but the link here takes you to a great description of the place by the Chicago Bar Project). Much like the similarly-aged Ramova Grill up the street, the classic-yet-unadorned interior of the bar belies its rich history. Located literally across the street from the 11th Ward Democratic Headquarters (home to more than a few prominent Chicago politicians over the years), one can imagine how frequently the elder and younger Daley mayors must have conducted business dealings (clandestine and otherwise) inside (you can see pictures of both of them on the walls). The front door is for decorative purposes only, so we had to enter on the side near the parking lot. My English friend wanted to try a beer that he wouldn't be able to find back overseas, so I suggested Old Style (not exactly my favorite, but about as close to a local beer as we were likely to find in this joint), which was served to us in cans by a bartender who was more than likely a member of the Schaller family (running the place since Prohibition ended). According to rumor, the butt steak sandwich is a house specialty that may warrant a return trip - for now, we were content sipping our barley shakes and admiring the ancient cash register behind the bar. All told, not a bad way to spend a few hours on a Thursday afternoon....

Monday, May 7, 2012

Smokey Barque

I wouldn't consider myself to be a barbecue aficionado, but I'm starting to get to the point where I am a little dangerous. I've become aware that there are regional versions of it here in the U.S. (3 of which - Texas, Kansas City, and Carolina - I've had the opportunity to sample) and that Chicago has a sort of minor barbecue scene of its own that's evolved from new residents making their way up from the South, primarily the Mississippi Delta country. Thanks to a great documentary produced by local food writer Michael Gebert (who goes by the handle Sky Full of Bacon), I learned that Chicago's preferred meat cuts for barbecuing are ribs/rib tips and hot links (a type of spicy sausage) and that many pitmasters in town use a glass-enclosed smoker (referred to as an aquarium smoker) that appears to be unique to this part of country (if I'm incorrect about this, please forgive my naivete). I also discovered from said documentary (and a few other media sources) that we actually have some award-worthy barbecue joints in the south suburbs, such as Exsenator's in Markham, Cole's in Robbins, George's in Harvey, and Uncle John's in Sauk Village (a branch of the original on the city's South Side). I plan to visit all of these places at some point, but, until then, we now have our own local barbecue place a scant 10 minutes from the Commissary, that being Smokey Barque in downtown Frankfort. We had heard via some friends that Smokey Barque had moved into the old Jenny's Steakhouse location on Kansas Street and was worth a visit, so one evening when Hackknifette and I were solo, I took her there for a little daddy-daughter meal.

We arrived at 5pm, right as the doors were opening for dinner, and were the first ones to be seated in dining room (which, not surprisingly, had a honky tonk vibe and decor). Our server helpfully pointed out the four squeeze bottles at each table containing the house-made sauces to accompany the meat: the spicy-tomato Texas, sweet Memphis, tangy mustard South Carolina (my favorite), and also tangy mustard (but with tomato) North Carolina. What I had somehow missed is that the plate of homemade seasoned potato chips brought to the table (they were complimentary) were intended to be sauce-testers (which was fine, since by themselves they were just mediocre). I ordered a kid barbecue pizza for Hackknifette and chose a 2-meat platter for myself, containing beef brisket, pulled pork, and sides of fried pickles and the house baked beans with burnt ends (see photo above). I thought that both sides were great: the rich, tangy pickles nicely contrasted with the spicy dipping sauce and I could probably have eaten a tub of the beans, made even better when washing them down with a Humboldt Brown Hemp Ale. As far as the meats....well, not so much. The pulled pork was moist, but lacked any spice/flavor and really needed the sauce to amp it up. The brisket was the opposite - it came sauced and well-seasoned (I enjoyed whatever spice rub that was used), but was a little on the dry side. Hackknifette turned her nose up at the pizza (barbecue not being her cup of tea) and didn't really touch her fries. For the sake of posterity, I snatched one off her plate to try and found it to be soggy, like it had only been fried once instead of a second time to crisp up the exterior.

Obviously, we didn't have the greatest experience here our first time out. I overheard our server telling another table that management had decided to stop offering cornbread on the menu after finding it difficult to achieve "consistent quality", which makes me wonder if that problem is extending to some of the other dishes as well. There really aren't a lot of restaurants like this in the southwest suburbs, so were they to iron out the kinks, I think Smokey Barque could be very successful in the quest to satisfy the locals' craving for smoked meats. There are enough interesting dishes on the menu that I'd be willing to give them another try sometime, maybe with a larger group...

Thursday, May 3, 2012


Mrs. Hackknife and I found ourselves with a plethora of work and family-related events this past Saturday. One party (a first Communion/birthday combo) had to be passed on, while another (3-year old birthday party) was skipped due to Hackknifette's late-hour cold, leaving us with an early afternoon bowling retirement party downtown and a work karaoke gala far out in the suburbs later that evening (rest assured that there was no singing on my part). In between, however, was something rarely occurring these days: a few hours alone in the city to dine sans progeny at the location of our choosing (within reason, of course - Alinea probably wouldn't have been able to host us, for example). Mrs. Hackknife has been jonesing lately for yakitori (a type of Japanese bar food whose exact nature is debatable, as we'll see in a minute) and, as it turns out, Chicago now happens to offer a handful of these places (it's something of a trend at the moment). I'd been reading a bunch of positive buzz about Yusho (2853 N. Kedzie) lately, a newer restaurant in Avondale by head chef Matthias Merges (Charlie Trotter's right-hand man for many years finally making a go of it on his own) claiming to serve yakitori-inspired dishes and was excited to find out that they could seat us at 5pm, giving us enough time to still make it to our evening event relatively early. So, after (badly) bowling a few frames and throwing back a couple of cold ones at the retirement bash, we detoured off the Kennedy on our way to the 'burbs to get us some Yusho.

When we arrived, the missus and I were in fact the very first table to be seated, watching an army of casually-dressed staff (which we appreciated, given that we were both in jeans) prepare for the dinner service. The overall vibe was more saloon than club, with upbeat Japanese pop/punk songs on the sound system and lots of brown wood in lieu of black lacquer in the decor. When our waitress came by to get drink orders, we opted to go non-alcoholic by trying a couple of the house's recommended dry drinks - I quite enjoyed my homemade pineapple soda and Mrs. Hackknife sipped on a more-complex-than-you-could-imagine artisanal tonic (subtly infused with ginger and mystery botanicals) before eventually also yielding to the pineapple soda's allure. As can happen when one visits a small plates eatery these days (see Vera), everything on the menu looks worth exploring (damn you, one-chambered stomach), but sanity forced us to narrow our selections down to a brief 6 or 7 of the most heralded offerings that I'd gathered from various press sources.

We started with crunchy sheets of chicken skin (see photo above), coated with whole grain mustard, garlic, and togarashi (a Japanese blend of hot pepper spices), which were delicious, if not quite as mind-blowing as I first envisioned. Thoughts ran wild in my head about how this dish might have been prepared - I'm guessing that the skins had to be pressed flat for some period of time and heated (fried? dehydrated?) to get the crispy, yet not greasy, texture. In any case, for obvious health reasons, I'm sure it won't be making a regular appearance in the Commissary anytime soon. Next up was one of the evening's off-menu specials, a giant Hama Hama oyster (fished out of Hood Canal near Puget Sound in Washington State and known for its large size/cucumber flavor) topped with shallots, ginger, and lardo that Mrs. Hackknife and I fought over for the last bits.

The oyster was followed up with another special, the kimchi-topped pork belly seen above. This was in my opinion the best dish of the night and I found myself uttering an unprintable expletive upon consumption, with the sweet kimchi serving as the perfect foil to the rich pork, which had an amazing crispy exterior, yet soft and creamy interior. Slightly less-expletive worthy, but a still tasty plate of takoyaki (a Japanese dumpling popular in and around Osaka) luxuriously stuffed with salmon roe and topped with bonito flakes, scallions, and chiles arrived next. There were no leftovers.

The steamed short rib buns (see above) we received after the takoyaki were the source of some controversy. Topped with peanuts, pickles, jalapenos, and cilantro, I thought they were delicious, while Mrs. Hackknife wasn't quite as enthralled, both for the bun texture (chewier than she'd like) and the fact that this was technically a Korean dish (to say nothing of the kimchi we had earlier). In fact, she argued that several of the dishes we ate didn't conform to the definition of "yakitori" as she interprets it (based on her 3-month residency in Tokyo), which is strictly limited to meat, fish, or vegetables grilled and served on a skewer. I have a feeling that this debate will probably continue back at the Commissary until such time as I can identify a place in town that prepares their yakitori in such a manner (if you know of one, please feel free to share).

Our final savory course was the twice-fried chicken pieces shown above, glazed with kanzuri (a yuzu-based chile paste) and lime, and finished with some matcha (green tea powder), served with spicy dipping mayo. Although the plate looked good, it actually fell pretty flat, the evening's biggest disappointment. I found the chicken to be somewhat dry/chewy and we probably could have done with only 2 pieces instead of 4. This was clearly an unfortunate misstep.

Of course, we were able to rally to consider some interesting dessert options. My bowl of kalamansi (a very tart Japanese citrus fruit) custard with peanut cake and peanut brittle (see photo above) was off-the-charts fantastic, one of my favorite desserts this year (pretty high praise considered it contained no chocolate). Mrs. Hackknife ordered the homemade mochi, perfectly chewy and slightly blackened (think campfire marshmallow, but more toothsome), served with a couple of dark chocolate smears, also very good (although I still liked mine better).

By all accounts, we had a very good (at times outstanding) meal at Yusho with some very unique dishes that we're not likely to find elsewhere around here. Yet why did we leave feeling a little disappointed? Clearly, Mrs. Hackknife (although she enjoyed most of the food) was bummed about not getting the yakitori that she craved (and continues to crave). Speaking for myself, I think that the hype was just too great and I (maybe unfairly) was expecting a little more, especially given the unimpressive fried chicken, which was supposed to be a standout. Regardless, I'd be happy to return for the pork belly, peanut cake dessert, and any number of other plates that we didn't get to try the first time around...

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Thanks Jordan Raw Vegan Cafe

As much as I hate to admit it (and I'm going to likely incur the wrath of my wife's family and fellow residents if they read this), the south suburbs of Chicago are a....well,how can I put this delicately?....cultural wasteland of sorts. Although one can probably argue that suburbs by definition pale in comparison to the lifestyle offerings of the city to which they're attached, my 6+ years of living on this side of town have largely convinced me that the deficiency is a bit more pronounced here. This is not necessarily an indictment, mind you (of course, there are plenty of practical reasons why this is the best place to be in the metro area), just me trying to convey the sense of how vanilla our immediate surroundings can seem at times. It is with this tableau in mind that made my recent discovery of a VEGAN (not just that, but all raw food, no less) restaurant only a 20 minute drive from the Commissary all the more shocking (to the best of my knowledge, vegetarians and health food nuts are a rare breed in these parts). Apparently, someone at the Tribune also found this surprising enough to write a detailed article on April 22 about the place, known as Thanks Jordan Raw Vegan Cafe in downtown Lockport (you can link to the article here if you're interested). I can only recall ever eating at a health food restaurant once before (in Dallas, at the behest of a vegetarian co-worker futilely attempting to persuade his 20-something colleagues to abandon those poison Doritos) and I don't normally seek out this type of cuisine, but since I am here to benefit you, dear reader, I made it my business to go check it out and return with a full report.

The cafe itself is situated smack in the middle of Lockport's old business district, only a short distance away from Tallgrass (an excellent fine dining establishment) and the old Illinois & Michigan Canal that is the backbone of the town's history (ironically, it's also next door to a pizza and barbecue take-out joint). Inside, as you might expect, the decor is very calming and bohemian, with a few tables, a small bar with some seating, a tiny open kitchen, and artwork from local artisans lining the walls. When I arrived, one of the owners graciously came over to greet me, going so far as to sit down at my table and explain both the cafe's mission (it's a non-profit raising money to support local animal shelters and orphans with HIV) and food philosophy (raw/uncooked fruits and vegetables, grains, nuts, and beans, no meat, no dairy, only natural sweeteners). Almost if by cue, the restaurant's best customer, 87-year old Bob (a U.S. Navy veteran) sauntered in, showing up for his nightly meal (Bob is held up on the cafe's website as living proof of a vegetarian diet's benefits). Although I can't say for sure that all veggies all the time is the sole reason for his apparent longevity, I have to say that he did look pretty darn good for 87.

Anyway, after browsing the menu, I selected a Strawberry Bomb smoothie to start (almond milk, strawberries, banana, and agave), followed by the house special "lasagna" for my entree. If you're afraid that eating vegan means small portions, fear no more - my plate of lasagna was pretty substantial (see photo above), served with both a garden salad and a fruit salad. In place of the usual pasta sheets, the lasagna contained strips of zucchini, in between which were layers of Italian cashew cheese, pesto cheese, and basil ribbons, all topped with a fresh tomato marinara sauce. While my smoothie was nothing special, the lasagna plate and the salads were quite tasty (in fact, had I not known that I was eating all raw ingredients, I probably wouldn't have figured it out) and very filling. I didn't need to get dessert, but I did anyway, not being able to resist the house brownie, made with pecans, cacao, dates, and agave sweetener. Again, the portion size was large and I was only able to finish half the brownie (the other half came home in a doggy bag for the progeny - Hackknifette nibbled a bit, spitting it out and Hackknife Jr. declined completely to participate). I have to say that I wasn't enthralled with the brownie, which was a little leaden and a bit heavy on the date flavor (sort of a chocolate fig newton, without the cookie part). All told, though, I mostly liked what I ate (no small feat considering my omnivore, industrial food-tainted palate) and am eager for my return visit. Now if we could only get one of those Senegalese-Peruvian fusion joints to open up in Mokena....