Saturday, October 31, 2009

Second City -out and about in Chicago

What a boring week I expected. The call came asking me to journey to Madison, Wisconsin. In my 43 years, not one soul has ever mentioned a reason I should visit Madison, Wisconsin. I know it’s a college town but since I’m not of college age, I saw no intrigue in this trip. Oh well, after the previous week in New York, a little down time in a boring place was welcome. I guess I could try some cheese. I landed late on a Monday night and grabbed a quick hotel next to the airport. Tuesday morning, I was at work at sunup. By noon, my phone was blowing up about an emergency in Chicago and I needed to get there ASAP. Chicago… Madison… Chicago… Madison… Chicago it is. Showing my geographic ignorance, I had to look at a map to see where the hell I was. Turns out, it’s only a 3 hour drive but if you’d have told me it was a 4 hour plane ride, I’d have believed you. By early afternoon, Madison, Wisconsin was clearly in my rearview mirror. If I missed any wonders that town had to offer, I’d have to settle for some dining experiences in Chicago as a consolation.

After a few hours getting some work done, I found myself in a downtown Chicago hotel on State Street. Everything was in walking distance, it seemed. Some short steps from my door was a restaurant I’d driven or walked by on previous visits. I’d always said I wanted to eat there but never had. Tonight I was going to the Weber Grill Restaurant. Chicago is famous for its steak houses and Weber is famous for its grills, so the marriage of the 2 has to be the perfect gastronomic love affair. Deciding to give this place a try was not an easy call though. Also in walking distance were Gino and Geogetti’s as well as The Chicago Chop House. Both of these restaurants set the bar pretty high for a great steak in the city of great steaks. Still, I wanted to stay true to the commitment of trying something new and the opportunity was ripe.

Usually the experience of a great Chicago eatery comes with an aura of dining in a 1930’s backdrop. Dark, hardwood walls with dim protruding sconces and dark paintings of men in suits. White tablecloths and crystal glasses with middle aged men having late night business meetings over a porterhouse and baked potato. That’s the Chicago I think of. You can toss that idea out the window at Weber. The clientele on the night I visited was a mix of youth and tourist. The room was large and open. The length of the restaurant is an open kitchen and the back wall is a row of stainless kettle grills under massive ventilation fans.

Conversations were loud, beer seemed to be the drink of choice and wait staff were running fast to keep up. The bar where I wanted to eat was packed 3 deep so I ordered a drink and proceeded to wait. I would not be deterred. Once I finally elbowed my way into a seat, I got a menu and ordered the French onion soup and a hand cut, dry aged New York strip. The soup was exceptional with a rich blanket of Gruyere cheese hiding the luscious, sweet onion laden broth below. My steak followed. It was perfectly seasoned, perfectly medium rare and perfectly unpretentious. There’s something about steak in the Midwest. As the cuts are being shipped to butchers shops around the country, there must be some clandestine gatekeeper whose job it is to reserve only the best beef for Chicago. While they did provide me with a steak knife, a butter knife would have done the job. I had a fantastic meal at a fraction of the price I’d have paid at one of the aforementioned steak houses.

On the second night, I strode out into the blustery wind that gives the city its nickname. The day had been unseasonably warm for October, but after the sun set and the wind picked up, fall was making its presence known. My plan for dinner was to find a corner bistro or pub or whatever looked good without looking too hard. I walked a few blocks down Rush Street then doubled back toward State Street. I walked by an Italian place with no intention of stopping in initially but the wind was beginning to wear me down. Ok, at the very least I would have a cocktail at the bar at Osteria Via Stato. The décor was slightly haughty and perhaps a bit pretentious but the bar was warm and inviting. I asked to see a menu while sipping a Manhattan –a bartender recommendation since they make their own sweet vermouth. I was blown away by their inspired offerings. This was one of those places that I wanted to try everything and I almost passed it by. This is not your typical family style Italian fare of lasagna and manicotti. While there were traditional dishes on the menu such as classic carbonara and pappardelle with a signature 3 meat ragu, there were less conventional dishes like a hunter’s stew made with quail, rabbit and housemade sausage or the slow cooked pork shank with Tuscan kale and white beans. This was a fortuitous find.

With too many wonderful choices, I asked the bartender if the kitchen could present a few small plates in lieu of full entrees. That way I could taste more. She checked and it was no problem to get a side order portion of anything –so to ordering I went. Grilled baby octopus with roasted fingerling potatoes was first.

Exquisitely tender and bathed in butter and lemon, the octopus had that ideal texture and flavor and the potatoes were an unexpectedly wonderful accent. Great dish. I’m going to have to try to work with octopus. Next plate was the special for the night: beef short rib risotto. Need I say more? Decadent, creamy and rich are the only words that come to mind. I’m rarely speechless when it comes to food but this is close.

Last was the cavatelli. There are several different pronunciations for this, none of which sound like the spelling. “Gav-a-deel” is the one I’m most familiar with. Hand rolled pastas about an inch and a half long made with ricotta cheese then sautéed in butter with a wild mushroom broth, these are the best cavatelli I have ever eaten.

Simple and sumptuous with a pan roasted rich flavor, these were the star of my dinner. I can’t imagine a better meal. I left this almost-passed-by restaurant completely satisfied.

Chicago is a city full of life and wonders and the great food is only one of its draws. If you pass through town, I also recommend The Green Mill –Al Capone’s old hangout, which looks much like it did in the 20’s. The booze is legal now, there’s usually some live blues playing and the atmosphere is engaging. Kingston Mines is a one of a kind blues bar where the artists are always noteworthy and they have two stages so that when one band ends, another begins. Passing-through-town celebrities frequent this unique bar and I’ve had some great times here.

It wasn’t such a boring week after all.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Start spreading the news -New York

New York City. What can anyone say that hasn’t already been said? If you’ve been there, you already know and if you haven’t, you can only imagine. I’ve visited the city maybe a dozen times. I’ve eaten deli sandwiches so big that there is a difference in air temperature from the top to the bottom. I’ve mopped up amazing Ethiopian spiced meals with the spongy flat bread they serve. I’ve wandered the amazement that is Chelsea market, marveled at the unending choices of street vendors, sampled dim sum in Chinatown, picnicked in Central Park and dined at The Four Seasons. Yet, I haven’t even scratched the surface. The city holds so many culinary wonders that thousands –thousands, of books, articles, periodicals and blogs are solely dedicated this one-of-a-kind city. The sensory cacophony is overwhelming. That’s why I love it so. It’s the rush.

I was in town on business during a crisp, fall week recently. My work kept me much busier than I’m used to and I really only had late night dinners to enjoy and unwind. That’s fine by me though, because the best food you’ll ever taste is only 2 blocks from wherever you’re standing in the Big Apple. In most cities, I turn to the internet for guidance on where to get the best local fare, but not in New York. The best way to experience food culture of this metropolis is to simply go for a walk. You won’t travel far. My first day there was a bit of a blur. I worked late; very late. I didn’t get to my hotel till around 9:30PM after a 14 hour day. I was pretty exhausted. In these situations I typically order in and keep my expectations low. Greasy and poorly flavored Chinese food or some chain restaurant pizza is my standard. But here, in the world’s most diverse gastronomic town, I’m just as excited to order in as I would be to dine in any fancy restaurant. On this night, it’s pizza.

A trip to New York without eating pizza would be like going to the beach on a hot summer day and not even putting your feet in the water. It’s anti-American. It’s heresy. I ask the guy at the desk for the number of the closest place that delivers and he gave me the number for Tostino’s Pizza. I didn’t ask him for the best; just the closest. I didn’t have to. Any sub-par pizza place in New York would last about 3 hours. An hour later, a perfect pie was sitting in front of me and I was in heaven. Notice those black, crunchy bits yet each slice was designed to be folded in half and eaten in messy fashion. Not laden down with heavy ingredients or thick sauce, this pizza represents Americana, New York style. Of course you can get good pizza around the country (although every good New Yorker will argue that –they say it’s in the water), but what you don’t get is the volume. If you accidentally pass the pizza place on your left, the one a block down on the right is just as fantastic. Had I gone home the next morning, this pizza in my hotel room was all I would have needed to be satisfied.

The next day was just as grueling at work. I got back to my room pretty late and pretty tired. Still I had to venture out. I was in the mid-town neighborhood of Chelsea and I knew there was food to be had. In mid-town alone, there are around 2500 restaurants. I didn’t have to go far. Stepping out into the cool night, I walked all of a block before an Italian bistro caught my eye. Restivo’s has a patio out front (for the warmer days) and an inviting bar just inside the front door. The room was a bit dark –just soft lighting, and I thought I caught a glimpse of Frank Sinatra sitting at one end. The smell from the kitchen permeated every corner of the room. I could smell sauces, garlic, pasta and spices. Perfect. This looked like a great place for a late dinner. The menu was exactly what I expected. Classic Italian fare with few frills.

No one sits at a bar in New York without talking to your bar mates. It’s just a simple rule. So I began chatting with the two guys next to me and it turns out I was chatting with the owner, Joe Restivo. Joe embodies every bit the part of a New York Italian bar owner. Thick accent, perfectly combed black hair, a little on the heavy side (I’m not one to talk) and ready to strike up a conversation at the drop of a hat, Joe explained the Menu to me. Tonight I was having Ossobuco over a mushroom risotto and for an appetizer, I went with escargot (not really Italian but a favorite of Joe’s). The snails were buttery and tender and had none of the slight toughness that I’m used to with escargot. Just another testament to New York that the quality of the ingredients here are superior to just about anywhere else I’ve been. Of course, the Ossobuco was perfectly braised and super tender with a rich, silky flavor infused with the tomatoes and spices it was cooked in. Another perfect meal.

I spent an hour or so chatting with Joe. He’s owned this restaurant and the apartments over it for years. He talks of hard work and I learn a lot about what it’s taken him to be successful. Joe owns a corner of New York City and that is no small feat. Nowadays, he spends much of his time on a farm in Pennsylvania but his passion for his work and his city come through. If I had only a few hours in the city, it was Joe I really wanted to meet.

There are so many reasons to visit New York, but as a foodie, the culinary experience is my favorite. But the museums, shows, shopping and pure amazement at the concrete jungle would make for a fantastic visit and with the holidays right around the corner, the city becomes pure magic. I’m not sure when I’ll be back but I’ll be just as awed the next time.

Note: I was so exhausted on this trip that I forgot my camera. These photos were the result of internet searches. I can't take credit for that.

Friday, October 9, 2009

No one does Crab like Baltimore

As a foodie, when I think of Maryland, I think of one thing: crab cakes. These meaty seafood delights are a dream to eat. Arriving in Baltimore very late on a Friday night, I knew that there was a sweet hearty shellfish dinner in my near future. I was consumed with the idea of crab cakes. Certainly you can get crab cakes all over the country and I’ve had plenty of them, but a few things about the Maryland version stand out as the best. While you may be inclined to think it’s the Blue Crabs from the Chesapeake Bay that are the reason, it’s actually how they make them but more on that in a minute.

The Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in North America. It’s home to a bountiful amount of wildlife and the ecosystem where salt and fresh water mix is the perfect home for Blue Crabs. Each year, 75% of the crabs are harvested and the remaining population has been responsible for replenishing the stock. These harvests are tightly controlled and this system has worked for decades. Unfortunately, as we infringe on the land surrounding this magnificent well of life, the effects of runoff into these watershed lands has been pretty bad for our little friends the Blue Crab. These once abundant crustaceans have dramatically decreased in numbers leaving the local fishing industry a mess. The good news is that efforts are underway to stem the tide of population reduction and it seems to be paying off. Add to the solution that Blue crabs are found throughout the east coast and Gulf of Mexico where harvests and populations are abundant. In fact, in Baltimore where the demand for crab is the highest in the nation, much of the crab consumed there come from these other regions. The bottom line is that while we work hard to rejuvenate the Chesapeake, we can still enjoy the delicious sweet Blue Crab.

Maryland is certainly the most famous part of the country for crab but they are not alone. Ask someone from the Pacific Northwest about sumptuous crab and they’ll begin extolling the Dungeness Crab. Peekytoe Crabs from Maine are celebrated for their sweet pink meat and make a fine crab cake as well. Yet, it is the Blue Crab that still has command of the crab cake industry and for good reason. They achieve a perfect trinity of brine, sweetness and texture that leads to an ethereal crab eating experience. As far as different preparations go, there are many. A Google search for “crab cake recipe” will yield a plethora of versions. For me, less is more. The perfect crab cake has few ingredients and, for god sake’s, mayonnaise is not one of them. It’s crab CAKE not crab SALAD.

As I often do, I asked the concierge for the best crab cake recommendation in the area. While he pointed me to the G&M Restaurant where they have been voted best crab cake in Baltimore for the past 5 years, he also suggested that the best place in the inner harbor was right across from the hotel. Happy to get a great meal by walking across the street, I headed over to Luna Del Sea Bistro.

The patio was bustling on this warm end-of-summer afternoon. This is a small eclectic bistro with a diverse menu. While my eyes danced around ambitious offerings of pastas, mussels, clams and steaks, I really only had one meal in mind. A short while later, two 8 ounce crab cakes were placed in front of me. That’s a pound. I saw nothing but crab; no onions, no peppers, no fillers. This is why Maryland crab cakes are better than any other crab cake on the planet. While I’ve had others I enjoy, the residents of Baltimore demand a pristine rendition. Crab isn’t just the star; it is one of only a couple of ingredients. In my opinion, you shouldn’t be able to pick out anything else clearly. That’s what was I was looking at on my plate. As my fork slid easily through this cake, huge morsels of pure crab had the perfect blend of cohesion and flakiness. I was in a good place. No one is in a bad mood eating crab cakes. These were as perfect as any crab cake I could have had. Not one flake of that meat was missed. I was satisfied.

In a conversation with the manager, I learned that these are made to order. 8 ounces of jumbo lump crab meat get just a teaspoon of mustard, a teaspoon of a crushed Japanese cracker (I didn’t press him for info on that –I should have), and a dash of Old Bay seasoning. It is then formed into a smushed softball sized patty and baked till lightly browned. Not exactly NASA engineering but perfection none the less. Less is more.

So –while I recommend the crab cakes at Luna Del Sea, there are many fine places in Baltimore to enjoy them. A couple of years ago, the Owl Bar at the Belvedere Hotel catered a lunch I attended. Those crab cakes still stand out in my mind and I’m a bit disappointed I didn’t make it over to G&M as well. Ahhhh, another time. For now, I have my recent memories and a seafood store to get to.