In the News


The Michelin star review came out a few weeks ago, and Chicago was given its share of glowing reviews and awards. As expected, Alinea came out with three stars for its stellar presentation, service, decor, inventiveness, Charlie Trotter’s, the Chicago institution, received two, and a sizeable handful of restaurants received 1 star.

Seriously? This is Art.

Michelin stars were originally designated by the Michelin Tire Company as a roadside guide to assist in helping the vacationing French population find food and lodging that was worthy of pulling off the motorway and adding to the overall enjoyment of a trip. It has since evolved into a high-stakes Zagat’s guide, more about showcasing the inventiveness and consistent creativity of the restaurant and the chef to create a full-scale dining experience for its guests.

As I read through the list of restaurants that had been awarded stars and dispensations, I saw the same familiar names. Rick Bayless’ Frontera and Topolobampo, both great and consistent restaurants, were there. So were Graham Elliot, Blackbird, Tru, Moto, L20, and many others that I recognized. With the exception of Moto, most of these establishments tend to stay away from Molecular Gastronomy, but, at least in those that I’ve had the pleasure of dining, they tend to make the dinner more about the experience as a whole, rather than simply sinking in to the flavors of a dish.

In Japan, there is the concept of Omakase (お任せ), that equates to leaving it to the discretion of the chef to create your dining experience. Here, we have the tasting menu, where portions of everything are served, giving you little bites and inklings of what the kitchen is capable of, and on what concepts your palate is willing to pontificate.

Most of the high end restaurants, where you’ll be expected to spend well in excess of $100/person when all the wine is served, have a tasting menu. I’ve been through a few in my life, most notably at the French Laundry in the winter of 2001, and it really plays to the strength of the kitchen that so many elements come together in harmony while giving you the flavor that evokes a very specific, visceral reaction.

This explains why Ratatouille is an excellent movie, but so much more.

Food has the power to transform and transport, and on the menu and in reviews, no restaurant has been more successful this year, or more talked about, than Grant Achatz’ and David Beran’s Next. The concept behind the menu is seemingly simple: variations on a theme, with their concept and entire menu changing quarterly. Thusfar, they have been inarguably successful with menus, in order, from a concept of Paris in the year 1906, Thailand, and according to reviews, the most personal menu of Childhood.

Through the brilliant idea of a concept album per menu, the dishes and feelings are stripped down and rebuilt on a frame of nostalgia. Courses appear at your place in a gift wrapped present, a lunchbox (offerings of fruit roll-up, pudding, and a note from dad), on a beater (as Foie-sting, a foie gras mousse accompanying donuts), and my personal favorite, a painted plate with a fisherman’s scene, reminiscent of many a refrigerator drawing.

I haven't even eaten here, and I get nostalgic.

And like everything else on the menu, it’s all eatable. Edible.

***

Through Grant Achatz’ twitter account, I found a companion chef who is doing something that I wish more people could take advantage of. Brandon Baltzley, with a Chicago restaurant pedigree broader than his 26 years, has opened up CRUX. I stumbled on it while leafing through his blog, also a great read, and while still curious about what’s happening behind its doors, I’m fascinated by the concept.

CRUX is a micro-restaurant. Two nights a week, their culinary collective gets together in the concept of shared fate with ten diners, and puts on a ten course menu that they have created, also using variations on a theme. As I’ve followed him on twitter, and continued reading  his blog on the evolution of the menu and its components, I become more interested in how these dishes come to be, and how a concept like this, where chefs are allowed to cook what they want, how they want, in an atmosphere that is less outwardly manic and instead insanely creative existing between the mind and the plate at their own pace.

It is a concept like this that makes me realize why I take pleasure from cooking from the mind. Yes, in a restaurant setting, under the watchful eye of an executive chef or silent partner, you can turn out incredible plates of food. Unburdened by the constraints of stifled creativity, as you cook for someone on your own terms, you come to understand more about who you are in your own kitchen.

Read Brandon’s blog. Tell me that a Dungeons and Dragons themed dish isn’t one of the most creative ideas you’ve heard in terms of concept, presentation, flavor, and execution. It’s remarkable, the ideas that spring forth when brainstorming what your dinner could be.

A little more on shared fate: As a diner, you are putting your trust in who is preparing your meal. With the concept of CRUX, a restaurant on such a small scale, (10 diners at a community table in a dining room the size of, well, somebody’s dining room), there is little buffer zone between the diners and the chefs. The feedback is immediate, and the chefs trust that their diners will be honest and open with it, as in this capacity, it serves to better the reality of their true cooking. It is to the advantage of both diners and chefs to be honest and equal with one another so that they can leave the table with an experience unmatched, one that is exclusively and authentically that of those in the restaurant at that moment in time.

I haven’t been to Next. I haven’t been to CRUX. I don’t know if I’ll get the opportunity to go, but I’d like to find out more. As these concepts become clearer in the minds of their creators, I want to be aware of their evolutions. One of the largest oversights of the year, in many Michelin followers opinions, was that Next was not awarded a star. Some joked that maybe it was because the reviewers couldn’t get a reservation. Others said that it was because the reviewers didn’t know what to make of the menu. They said the same thing of el Bulli, unquestionably the most influential restaurant of the last 20 years, when it opened. Now it is the standard to which top restaurants are compared.

Baltzley has worked in Michelin-starred kitchens before, according to his bio. It may not be necessary for CRUX to be awarded a star. In the way that you get to share something so personal and intimate as your own cooking with a select few, the satisfaction of a meal well-served may be enough. It may just be that stripping the veneer off the modern restaurant kitchen to get back to the heart of cooking may bring about a change in the way we view our food.

I look forward to it.

Microrestaurant Video 1 from Pouya on Vimeo.

Follow me on Twitter!

Follow me on Facebook!

As promised from a post of late last night, today, I did indeed go to the Tamalli Space Charros food truck. I’d like to say that it was an experience, and (spoiler alert!) the food itself was good, but I think the theme of the day centered more around exploring the city and walking around with my iPod. In addition to listening to a great interview with Craig Ferguson that spanned 2 hours, ranging on topics from chance encounters with Billy Connolly and Peter Cook to every sober comedian’s worst fear that it was the booze that made them funny, it was a well-rounded piece of nerd-journalism that was a welcome addition to my morning/afternoon trip around the downtown.

Now, where were we? Ah, yes. The food truck. Tamalli Space Charros was founded this past January by a trio of former workers at Frontera Grill with an emphasis on El Movimiento Estridentismo, or the Movement of Stridentism. A close cousin to the European Surrealism of Dali, Freud, and Breton, the Mexican Stridentism of 1921-1927 was a multidisciplinary art movement where  “Latin American poets, writers, journalists, photographers and musicians (but not painters) adopted aesthetic attitudes similar to those of the Futurists: they proclaimed the power of the future and the death of all things academic.” (1)

Whoa. So how does this translate to a food truck?

“We’re taking tamales to a new level, and to new audiences,” says the sombrero-clad leader of the group, who has asked to go by his character’s name, Aztlan Cardinal. The photographer and performance artist is speaking on behalf of the entire TSC Collective, a clutch of seven international artists who’ve appended their names to the Propeller Fund grant supporting the project. Their proposal outlines a “long-term performance art project addressing the interaction among body, food, machines, wireless poetry and the city”(2)

Did I see any of that when I walked up to the truck for my lunch? Nope. Still in its infancy, the truck itself was not looking particularly like a spaceship today. There was a fin running along the top painted with primary colors, and the truck itself was plain, with the look of brushed steel. Two things about this- one from my own musings on life and the future, and one life lesson that everyone should know: First, it’s not about fancy packaging (although the afforementioned sombrero and Luchadores mask was a nice touch). It’s what’s inside that counts. Second, and this may prove to be more important than the first- If movies and art have shown us anything at all, it is that if it looks like a spaceship, it’s probably not a spaceship. It’s either a Delorean or some guy in a Bigfoot suit, or some creepy combination of both. Looks can be deceiving. If this truly was an intergalactic messenger vessel of delicious tamales, this would be the perfect foil, wouldn’t it?

*Shakes fist* Woooouldn't iiiiiit!? (Yes.)

This week, I made the effort to check on their Tamale Spaceship website to see if they had a menu, so I could know beforehand what I was getting into. They did not, so I went in blind, again. Fortunately, I made it to the truck, and they had a menu for perusing. Take note, Chicago Food Trucks: Word of mouth is great, but having menus? A Must.

This menu resembles, but is not, the menu that I saw.

I got up to the counter, and sure enough, there was a smiling man in a Mexican wrestling mask, cape, and sombrero, who greeted me with a friendly “Hello, amigo. What can I get you?” For his sake, I’m glad that Chicago food trucks have not yet embraced cooking on site, because with that cape, it would soon be curtains for his outfit of choice for the day.

I ordered the two flank steak tamales and black mole  with sesame seeds. In addition, they also had Mexican Coca Cola and Jarritos. In hindsight, I should have ordered one, because although there wasn’t too much heat to the dishes, a tamale with meat and a heavy sauce will stick to your ribs, and all you’ll ever want is a bit of refreshment. I know nothing on a day such as today that would be as refreshing as one of those drinks, but alas, I wasn’t thinking.

Today,  they were parked on Clinton and Lake Street underneath the Green Line El stop. This, my Chicago and non-Chicago friends, is where the French Market is. I’ve been wanting to check it out for a while, but it’s a little bit out of the way if I’m walking. Since, however, it was right there, I decided to take my tamales and go in search of a fresh fruit accompaniment to my meal.

The French Market itself is not unlike other markets such as the Reading Terminal or my beloved Pike Place Market, but with music blaring and $50,000 meat cases cranking out chill, it all felt a little sterile to me, almost too clean. With the markets in which I have worked, I love that people bring their own goods, and that they set up their wares on sawhorses with planks and plywood tabletoppers. This didn’t have the same feel to me, and for a French-style market, the meat and seafood selections, once again, were sorely lacking.

(They were selling Farm-Raised Vietnam Swai as Sole fillet. Gross.)

However, upon wandering past the fresh pasta dunk-tanks and soulless, everpresent Teriyaki stall, tucked in the back corner, I found Frietkoten.

It’s a Belgian-style fry shop. They serve them in cones. With sauces. Game on.

The cones themselves are huge, and it’s $4 for a petit and $5 for a grand cone. With it, you get a cup of mayo and a cup of ketchup, and for 75¢ extra, you get one of their many sauces. I chose a green tomato and chili mayonaise, which didn’t remind me of anything but a mayonaise with a slightly more acidic tang to it.

So the sauce wasn’t great, but the fries now had their choice of not three, but four dipping sauces thanks to the mole (By the way, not the best combination). With my petit cone of fries, my two cups of mayo, ketchup, mole, and tamales, I made my way over to a standing table in the corner, and snapped this shot.

Not too shabby. The fries, which on the sign the owners painstakingly reminded us from multiple angles that they were fried twice, were twice fried, and a bit of alright. Piping hot, just a little bit of salt, and much better than any other fries I’d randomly pick up on a day off, they hit the spot. The spot after that was hit with my two tamales, which were moist with that bitter chocolate sauce tinged with a hint of tahini.

At that point, I wished I had a beer. While at Frietkoten they do serve Belgian beers from a bottle as well as two taps from Two Brothers and a hard cider or two, as I looked up from my pile of starch and meat, the counter just seemed too far away.

Oh, that cider sounded good, though.

***

As I walked back through the downtown with a wrestling match of dueling cuisines in my belly, I thought what a great city this is to have little places like a Euro Fryshack and, improbably enough, a Lucha/Charro style tamale truck. I’m fortunate to live in a city where things like this pop up all the time, but more than that, I realized that the scope of your culinary creativity is only limited by how far you are willing to go to achieve it. How many sauces will it take before people start coming back for the fries? Is it the masks, the tamales, or a combination of both that is going to set this business afloat? It’s that kind of entrepreneurial spirit that makes me want to seek out and patronize places such as these, and if the idea and the food are both good, they’ll get me as a customer.

Check out the links below for more on Mexican Stridentism and the Mexican Food Truck experience. Also included is a fantastic slide show about the Tamalli Space Charros’ story. The pictures, while worth a look and a chuckle, prove that there is more to a tamale than meets the eye.

(1)  Mexican Stridentism- What Is It?

(2)Here’s Your Art. Now Eat It.

Yesterday was the second 12 hour opening of the Copper River Season, from 7 AM to 7 PM up in Alaska. We’re fortunate in Seattle to get the direct flights loaded up with the finest fish, and this morning’s batch was spectacular.

The second opening gave us a fair amount of fish, and the sockeyes look awesome. You’re not going to get a fresher fish anywhere in the country unless you go catch it yourself.  Moreover, the Alaskan Salmon Fishing Industry has been evaluated and certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, an independent Third Party who monitors catch limits, methods of fishing, and environmental concerns surrounding commercial operations. Read more about it on their website, with a link at the end of this post.

With that being said, the price is already starting to drop. Where it started off at a price of $29.99/lb for pretty much everyone in the market here, the price for the second opening has already seen a drop of Five dollars per pound. Start getting your grills ready, because it’s going to come in quick, and it’s going to be great.

Soy-Miso Marinated Salmon with Green Bean Salad

2 lbs. Copper River Sockeye Salmon Fillet

2 TBSP White Miso Paste

2 TBSP Soy Sauce

2 TBSP Rice Vinegar

1 TBSP Brown Sugar

1/4 c. Canola Oil

2 tsp. Sesame Seeds

1 Squirt Wasabi paste

Green Bean Salad

1 Handful green beans, trimmed.

1 box cherry tomatoes, halved

1 TBSP White Miso

1 TBSP Mayonnaise

Splash of soy sauce

Splash of rice vinegar

1 finger fresh grated ginger

2 cloves minced garlic

sesame seeds

1 green onion, sliced diagonally, thin

For the Salmon: Take all the ingredients for the marinade, aside from the sesame seeds, and whisk together. Put your salmon fillet, either whole or cut into four pieces, in the marinade, and let it sit for at least a half an hour. Before you put it in the oven, it should have a dark, caramel color on the surface, and the marinade should just be penetrating towards the center of the fish. As a note, pat the surface relatively dry before you put it in the oven, as excess marinade will burn.

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.

For the green beans, get a pot of salted water to a boil, and throw the beans in until they get nice and green, about two minutes. They should still be a little crunchy, but after you pull them out, run them under cool water until they stop steaming.

For the dressing, just whisk all the ingredients together. It’s simple, fast, and delicious. (It’s also very healthy, shhhhhh!)

Add the tomatoes. Toss it with the dressing. Instant Salad.

For the salmon, place it Skin side UP in a baking dish, and put it in your preheated oven for about six to eight minutes. The skin should be nice and crispy, and as a chef’s hint, if you take the back of a knife and wick away any excess moisture, that’ll help it along. For added technique and a nice presentation, make some light diagonal slashes in the skin with a knife, as if you were making slashes in a loaf of french bread before baking.

Here’s the big secret to finding out if your fish is done: Take a fork, stick the tines in the fish, and wiggle it around. If it flakes, it’s done. On the sides, you should see the fat starting to sweat out the sides. That means it’s perfect. The marinade will keep it moist, and you’ll end up with a great dinner.  Slice a little bit of green onion and garnish over top for a fresh finish.

Serve it with some steamed jasmine rice, or get a quick box of couscous at the store, and you have a healthy, well rounded meal that is excellent, filling, and a taste of where we call home.

Marine Stewardship Council: http://www.msc.org/track-a-fishery/certified/pacific/alaska-salmon/alaska-salmon-1

 

 

A few weeks ago, the lady and I were down at the Market, and we decided to pull in to the Zig Zag Cafe for a drink. First, a little word about the Zig Zag. If you’ve ever been to Seattle, specifically the market, the secondary attraction behind the market is the Pike Street Hillclimb. The lowest level is the Waterfront, where you can find such gems as the ferry terminal, Ivar’s Acres of Clams, Ye Olde Curiousity Shoppe, and the Seattle Aquarium. The Third Level is, of course, Pike Place Market, home of delicious fish at the foot of Pine Street, the first Starbucks, and DeLaurenti’s Fine Foods, an Italian Market hosting Mario Batali’s dad’s Pancetta, an impressive selection of olives and European Chocolates, and great looking, authentically Italian-named cafe staff.

Right in the middle lies 150 steps leading between the levels, and on a patio with a fountain, you can find the Zig Zag. The guys buy scallops and salmon from me, and I’ve always meant to go down there for a drink and an appetizer to show a little bit of support, but that day seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Look at this guy, will ya? This is a bartender. All others, take note. In addition to the wisely chosen seafood selections on the menu, they have a bartender, Murray, who has been named by many governing bodies as the best bartender in America. Playboy, bestower of gentlemanly titles, and the more professionally sanctioned Tales of the Cocktail c0mpetition/gathering that took place last week in New Orleans. As we’re constantly on the search for new cocktails, ones that are no-nonsense, Zig Zag is an uncomplicated stop on the tour of Seattle’s spirit walk.

With all the hype surrounding Murray’s drinks, the menu looked like someone had opened up your grandfather’s liquor cabinet and started pouring at random. All sorts of the so called medicinal liquors were there, as well as strange whiskey/bourbon/grain alcohol combinations. The main difference between Murray’s drinks and the drinks of everyone else (it is important to make that distinction, because there’s now officially Murray, and everyone else) was that this was a drink with purpose. It didn’t have floral overtones that lingered on the palate. It was, simply put, an original strong drink with balance, which is sorely lacking in all bars these days.

You can go to the speakeasies of the world and they’ll be able to make you a sling, or a punch, or a fizz, or a flip, but the drinks that they invent are with a twist. I don’t want a twist. I don’t want your take on something, because I’m not going to leave your bar thinking that I really needed to try the rhubarb syrup mixed with celery bitters. I just want to leave thinking “Hey, that was a damn fine drink.”

And drink, we did. Just one. Mine had a name like “Drunken Sailor with a Rusty Nail”. While it was akin to ordering an unfortunately named Pancake breakfast at the IHOP, the drink was uncomplicated, straightforward, and strong.

Enough about the drink, though. Alongside the drink, we got a small bowl of mixed green and black olives cured in oil, toast points, and a small bowl of hummus. In the dimly lit back corner of the restaurant, it looked like something was green in our hummus.

I looked closer, and it was fresh basil. It went so well with our cool drinks. I went up to the chef when I saw him come out of the kitchen, with my compliments.

“Yeah, it’s really simple. We just take our dried garbanzos and make the hummus from scratch, then add fresh basil at the end.”

Sounds simple enough.

Went home, bought some stuff, tested it, and here’s my recipe:

Hummus

1 lb. dried garbanzos

1 Small can or jar of tahini (8-10 ounces)

Olive oil

Salt

1 Lemon

Water

Fresh basil

***

Soak the garbanzos overnight. Next, drain them, fill a large pot with water and simmer them for about 2-3 hours over low heat. You can use canned garbanzos, but I like the texture result with the dried.

When you can pull one out and mash it with the back of a fork, pull the pot off the heat, draining the beans.

Grab your can of tahini, open it, and pour the whole thing in. Add a few swirls of olive oil and a generous pinch of salt, starting at 1 tsp and making your way up from there if you so desire it. Then, mash. Mash like you’ve never mashed before. Even with a hand blender, the hummus still had that rustic look. I don’t have a food processor, but I don’t particularly want one, either. Taste, adjust. Maybe put a little bit of black pepper in there.

Now, take your lemon and zest it. Zest it right into the hummus. Don’t be shy. Lemon is the vehicle with which you get the flavor to make your hummus burst with…hummusy goodness?

Yeah.

So zest it.

Then, juice it. Put all that juice right into the hummus and mix it thoroughly. Taste it again. Is it too thick? Add a little bit of oil. Too rich as well? Add a little bit of water. All the flavor’s there. You won’t dumb down your hummus by thinning it with water.

Then, the basil. If you have a plant, pull some leaves off of it, stack them on top of one another, roll them up, and slice it like you would if you were making those cinnamon rolls that came in the poppin’ fresh tube. Slice it into thin ribbons, so it looks like a swirl when you slice it. Congratulations. The culinary term for this is ‘chiffonade’, and now you can do it in the splendor of your very own kitchen!

Put the hummus in a bowl or on a plate, sprinkle it with a bit of paprika, some more lemon zest, maybe some sesame seeds, and that fresh basil. A perfect summertime treat!

If you choose to use canned garbanzos, I will not frown. Just like canned beans, they’re actually very healthy and a well cared for canned product. It’ll also save you about a day of prep time. As I mentioned, the texture of the hummus will be a bit smoother, but some people like that. For a hummus that resembles the tub that you get at the store, put it into a blender and hit whatever button it is that blenders have to make it smooth.

As you may have noticed, I didn’t put any garlic in there. Some recipes call for it, and some don’t. I read an article in the New York Times last month (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/16/dining/16united.html) that discussed the flavored hummus craze at length. If there’s one thing about this hummus that’s good, it’s that you can use it as a base for creating any number of delicious flavored hummi in your future.

Lastly, if you’re looking for a quick, cheap and easy accompaniment to your hummus, take a pack of corn tortillas, brush them with oil and cut them into wedges, sprinkle them with salt, and put them in the oven at 375° for 8 minutes. They’re about ten times as delicious as Doritos, much healthier because they’re baked, and a fulfilling way to make a snack at home.

One of the World's Biggest Plates of Hummus

For those of you who read the blog post yesterday, and who have been following the saga of Bill the Butcher as it unfolds, there is an update from the author of the original article. Says Matthew Richter:

Bill the Butcher, Seattle’s newest “local and certified organic” butcher shop, doesn’t disclose where it gets most of its meat, as discussed in this week’sfeature. “We don’t want to confuse the consumer getting into too many ‘this farm, that farm’ things,” one of the owners told me when I tried to find out the source of the meat I was buying.

There are 18 certified organic beef ranches in Washington state, as detailed here(you have to search the PDF for “cattle” to find the ranches). I hadn’t gotten through to all of them by the time the story went to press. At last, I have gotten ahold of all 18. Not one certified organic beef ranch in Washington state sells beef to Bill the Butcher.

Damn.

Damning.

It is less a case of whether or not they actually do get certified organic meats (as there may be out of state sources, which the article alludes to as being as far away from as Nevada), and more a case of their employees blatantly lying to their customers as to what the definition of local means.

We need to have a clearly defined status of local produce/product. The locavore movement did a great job of setting the 100 mile radius, but I’d like to amend it just a bit.  Anyone who can drive to a farmer’s market in the morning, set up and sell all day, and drive home before they have to get to bed should deserve to be called local. It still means low food miles if you can fit a day’s worth of broccoli in the back of a truck, drive it to the market, sell as much as you can to make it worth the drive, and come home, you’ve still put fewer miles on your car than it takes to ship a load of stalky asparagus and waxy peppers from Chile.

When I was at the Dane County Farmer’s Market (personal aside: one of the best run public markets in the country- more on that later), there would be people who would drive from Green Bay to Madison every Saturday morning by six AM, set up and sell until two, and drive back. There were Amish families who baked through the night and had a neighbor drive them down, wait for them all day, and drive them back two hours to rural Loganville, Wisconsin. Every weekend.

A friend who sold honey at the Farmer’s Market decided to sell his wares to Whole Foods, and he would drive to Minneapolis once a month, stock two or three stores, and drive home in the same day. Same with Chicago. He deserved to be called local.

Look at this picture:

How could you not want to take advantage of all the great things that are growing down there? You have a forest full of blackberries, morels, ramps, etc. A lake full of trout and crawfish, and beyond the mountains, acres upon acres of farmland and orchards.

The motto of the small farm is not “Crank it to Bank it.” A farm is not an enterprise, nor is it to be considered a gross tool of entrepreneurial wanderlust.  That’s selfish and unfair to the efforts that hardworking people put forth to run most small farms. So rarely are those who own the land as family farmers motivated by money. If it comes to them, it’s fantastic, but I highly doubt that they got into it to become millionaires. Like fishermen, a lot of them were just born into it.

The motto of the small farmer is closer to “All In a Day’s Work. Not Necessarily Thrivin’, but Survivin’,” and as Russ the Butcher pointed out in his Stranger Bio,

They’re doing what they love for very little money, and it’s good to give them a resource to get their product out.

That just about says it all. Thanks, Russ.