Tuesday, November 12, 2013

My Thoughts on Michelin and the Next Conundrum.

So today the 2014 Michelin Guide Chicago stars were announced. This red book generates a lot of chatter in the Chicago restaurant community and among enthusiastic diners.  A few weeks ago I said on social media that I questioned the continuing relevance of Michelin, particularly in Chicago.

Basically there was very little change in the starred restaurant list from last year. There are 5 new restaurants receiving stars and congratulations to these folks. They work very hard and it's nice that their accomplishments are recognized.   But of all of the restaurants on this list none are restaurants that I eat at regularly, and few are places anyone I know eat at on a regular basis.  Now, most of the starred restaurants are pretty pricey and not really the kinds of places that I, or the people I know, can afford to eat at on the regular. And that's fine.  Are they good restaurants? Well as a friend of mine said today "Michelin is still a too-short , patchwork list of bad-to-OK-to-good one stars" And I think this nails it. Where Michelin does hold some relevance is in the 2 and 3 star list. Of course not so much for Chicagoans, but for people traveling here. Where should you go for a blow out, price is no object meal on your trip to Chicago? Look to Michelin's two and three star list.
But that really doesn't hold any relevance to me.
Then there are the "Bib Gourmand" award winners. This award is supposed to be given to favorite restaurants that you can get two courses plus a glass of wine or a dessert for under $40. Again, this list is pretty wide ranging, but when you get to these kinds of places I can see a wider range that won't necessarily mesh with my opinions.
All of that being said, what really has me questioning the relevance of Michelin, for diners like myself, is that of the half dozen or so restaurants that I would consider myself a regular at, not a single one is on either list. Now, I'm not talking about places that fall outside of what Michelin typically reviews, super hidden little gems, odd ethnic places, or far off suburban locations. These are restaurants that are widely talked about, doing quality creative food, and their absence on either Michelin list leaves some very knowledgeable food people dumbfounded. Look, I dine out quite a bit, more than the average person, heck, I dine out more than I ought to, and there's a reason I go back to these places over and over again. They're really good. The food is often seasonal, the service is professional and friendly, the dining rooms are comfortable, and the wine/ drink lists are well done. But what it's really about for me is the food. And that's what Michelin says too. So how can we have such a wide gap between what Michelin thinks is worthy of their little awards and what I (as well as those very knowledgeable food people I mentioned earlier) think? Clearly they're looking at these places from a different point of view than I am. Since Michelin fails to recognize some of these outstanding places their list is really irrelevant to me. Again, that's not to say that award recipients aren't doing good, even great food. Often they are doing just that. They're just not places I choose to, or can afford to dine at regularly. And I'm OK with Michelin not giving the places I like their stars. But people who run these places work really hard and not making the list, at least to some of these people, hurts. What I would say to them is "Keep doing what you're doing. You're great at it and your customers appreciate it. After all isn't that all that matters?"

Michelin confounds.

And speaking of food, how is it Michelin continues to ignore  maybe the most important restaurant in the country, Next. Last year Michelin went on about how Next was too difficult to get into with their ticketing system. OK, I can sort of see their point. But should that really exclude Next? No, it shouldn't because Michelin says it's ratings are all about the food. This year getting tickets to Next became much easier.  This year again, Michelin left Next unrated. Why? Well this year a Michelin spokesperson said in an interview "it's hard to get in there and it hasn't been open long." Excuse me? Virtually every day tickets are available. Tickets are slowly released throughout a menu run and not all that hard to come by.  And not open long enough? Come on! This is the end of Next's third year in business. Grace on the other hand, which deservedly received two stars today, has been open for less than a year. As Mike Gebert wrote in the Reader today "If you can't figure out how to evaluate a restaurant which has sold out every night for 2 years, you're apparently the only one with that problem."

My friend Josh sums it up nicely in his blog

"1. Chefs and some media folks start posting about their excitement, anxiety, and predictions
2. The rest of us either join in or start complaining that Michelin is stupid (note: the latter group is no fun and should be shunned)
3. Some of the list leaks. Nothing leaked is remotely surprising
4. The stars are officially announced. Some choices are good, some are not so good. Glaring omissions are made
5. Everyone goes back to what they were originally doing, since honestly who cares what Michelin has to say about Chicago."
So that's what I'm going back to doing. Eating at great restaurants that I really enjoy, regardless of what some anonymous inspector grading places on mysterious criteria is doing.
Oh, those places left off either of Michelin's lists that I love (in alphabetical order)
That's my list of stars and it's probably irrelevant to you.

That's how lists like these work I suppose.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Oh Food Blogs!


It seems that Food Blogs are like assholes; everyone has one, and they stink.

Well that’s not entirely true, they don’t all stink.

There are a number of very good ones out there. Some of my favorites belong to folks that have become friends of mine. So, if you’re looking for some good Bloggage (I just made up a word!), without having to wade through a sea of horribleness,  check out these. They’re each different, written by good people, whose opinions you can trust, they’re not filled with horrible looking, dimly lit, out of focus food porn photos, and are blogs I read on a regular basis.

Sky Full of Bacon comes from James Beard award winner Mike Gebert. Mike is a great writer and film maker who has written for the likes of The Reader, Time Out Chicago, Saveur.com, and was the editor of Grub Street Chicago.  Mike’s unique point of view and compelling writing style make this a blog to read on the regular. Mostly revolving around local dining from dives to high end, but he also delves into local farms and markets, searching out info about where the food we eat comes from. This guy really knows food, but better, knows food people and gets them to talk about their passions. Dig deep and you'll even find a good number of celebs. If you're not so much the reading type, Mike produces some great videos and the sight is peppered with them.

From Belly to Bacon is written by my friend Mark S. This blog is all about cooking. Mostly about curing and preserving, but other methods are certainly explored. Mark brings readers into his very creative thought process in coming up with fantastic ideas in cooking. He takes you through the formulation and execution of dishes that you’d often never consider making, and makes them very approachable to the home cook.  Some of his projects take months or longer to execute (Ham!), some are made with items he forages, some are even right out of cook books. One thing that really compels me about Mark’s blog is that in the past few months I was researching ideas I had in food and twice(!) From Belly to Bacon came up on the top of my Google search. If you enjoy cooking you must read this.

OK, so this next one has a name that isn't exactly family friendly but F*ckerberg on Food is written by my friend Kenny Z. Now, Kenny is opinionated, to say the least, but he’s super funny, often in a sarcastic way, and super knowledgeable about food. He even cooked professionally for a time. Kenny is very good at telling you what he doesn't like, and why. I may not always agree with him, but I always enjoy reading his blog. When Kenny does like something, you should sit up and take notice, because this guy really knows food. The story of how this blog got its name is a good one. Kenny tried out a new sandwich place opened by celeb chef Graham Elliot Bowles. Kenny didn't like what he had to eat and, in that special Kenny way, tweeted about it. G.E.B. didn't like that and called him "F*ckerberg" during the back and forth banter.  So when Kenny started his blog, he already knew the name. He totally embraced it. If you're looking for no-holds-barred restaurant blogging, this is the one for you.

Finally here's a new comer to the Blog Party. Stuff I Eat by my friend Josh. There's only two posts, so there's not much I can tell you about what it is or will be. But what I can tell you is that Josh is smart, funny, and can talk food with the best of them. He has a level head, calls out silliness, and is sure to entertain and inform.

There are certainly more popular, celebrated, and perhaps even better food blogs out there, but these are some of my favorites.

You should check them out.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Is Sustainability Sustainable?

A business closed today. 

I guess some of you are thinking "Yeah, so? Businesses close everyday."

While you're absolutely correct, this one was different. This one was important. The funny thing is, while I did occasion this neighborhood shop, I was by no means a regular. I didn't know the staff like I do at a lot of places I shop. I didn't go in and ask what's good today or anything like that.  But knowing they're gone has affected me emotionally.

Why? Well, read this letter from the owner. 

It's sad, you know. Here's a guy who passionately went after the thing that's important to him and it just didn't work. But these things happen. Sometimes very little things affect the viability of a business. Espescially a small local one. So they close. It happens. 

But the one line of the whole letter that really got me was this one "...in the end I found that sustainability - an undying commitment to what that means - wasn't sustainable."

Can that be true? Are we doomed to fall prey to Big Ag feeding us GMO poison?

I say no. No we're not.

And what this really tells me is that while Mr. Friedman is the one suffering the loss of his dream, it's not he that failed, but us. We failed.

We failed to not buy our meat where we buy our toilet  paper.
We failed to support local business.
We failed to work a little harder and pay a little more for the food we eat.
We failed to support local farmers.
We failed to eat locally, seasonally and organically.
We failed.
Not him.

Why? Because it's cheaper and easier. We failed.

And that's too bad. It's too bad that our food system has lied to us and told us that food is cheap and easy. It's not. Well, not if you want to eat good food.

Cleetus Friedman is a hero, who, as my friend Mark said, was a guy who "fought the good fight."

So let's all try a bit harder this time. Shop at a local butcher. Buy your produce from a farmers market. Stay away from products with non organic soy and corn that are nothing more than GMO products forced down our throats by the makers of Agent Orange (and these things just might make your pubic hair fall out.)

Work a little harder to shop locally. Ask about the food you buy and eat. If it came from half way around the globe how good can it really taste anyway?

Mr. Friedman, you likely won't read this blog, but I wish you all the best and keep fighting the good fight. I'll try not to fail you in your next venture.

Follow Cleetus on Twitter @CleetTweet

Saturday, January 26, 2013

No, It's Not All About You

OK, this post isn't so much about food or cooking so if you are looking for that you can stop reading now.

The food world has taken a funny turn over the past few years, and a few events in the Chicago food scene in the last couple of weeks highlight a lot of wrong in it.

So it got me to thinking, just where did it all go wrong?

From the time I was young what fascinated me about food was not only the act of cooking and eating, but  more how it brought people together around a table enhancing family and community. And as the food movement grew, and more and more folks got interested in eating and cooking well, a community of like-minded folks grew. We talked with one another about what made a certain restaurant great, or about how a certain ingredient or technique could make a dish you like to cook so much better.  Tips were exchanged, friendships were made. It was really great. The media became interested in our passion and the community grew.

Then somewhere along the line things changed. No longer was food about gathering and enjoying the sense of community. It was all about "Look at me!"
 "I'm eating something or someplace that you can't. That makes me cooler than you."
 "I was the first to eat at so and so's new restaurant."
The focus turned from community to self. And that makes me sad.

These people seem to look at the food world as a way to enhance their own self esteem.  Somehow people with very little idea about food, who rarely, if ever really cook something, can appoint themselves "experts" or "reviewers" because they can post their (often misguided, ill-informed) thoughts on sites like Yelp.

A perfect example of this, and one of the events I mentioned earlier that took my brain down this path, was a "review" of a highly anticipated new restaurant in Chicago. The author of this "review" was the very first customer this restaurant ever served.  So what does he do? Frankly, he pans the place. Now, I don't know this person, and he may be a perfectly nice guy. He may love to cook at home. But, his "review" (notice I use the quotes whenever I use that word?) shows a clear lack of understanding about the very nature of this type of restaurant. But he trashes it while standing atop a pillar of self appointed authority. Basically he's saying "Look at how cool I am, I was first in the door and the chef didn't kiss my ass while I snapped photo's of him, while he was trying to work on a very important night. I could have used some bread too." Sigh. Do you see a sense of community here? What I see is a lack of understanding and an attempt to boost ones own ego.  Sad.

The other event that got me to thinking about all of this was an actual review by a paid critic. In this review the critic spent 4 of 13 paragraphs writing about his fellow diners at this restaurant where the seating is communal. Whether what he wrote about these folks is true or not is unknown to me, but what sparked from the review, sadly, was a lot of chatter on various food chat sites not about this restaurant or its food, but rather outrage from the people written about, and who knew more, who was right, and who was the better diner and person. Again we see this "It's all about me." And that's sad.

Many of these people (or people like them) refer to themselves as "Foodies." DAMNIT! I hate that word. If you ever hear someone refer to themselves as such it's highly likely that they are an insufferable jerk.

Finally, this last event takes the cake. This one is so absurd that there's actual discussion about whether or not it's all just a big ruse. I'm not going to even discuss it because writing about it more makes me feel like I need to shower. Read it for yourself, but remember I warned you, it's slimy. If you are ever in the presence of someone with this card please, do us all a favor and tell them how disgusting they are. I sure will.

It's like these three episodes are all some sort of joke. The food community has actually become a parody of itself.

Where did it all go so wrong? I don't know. Actually I don't even care.  But I just want people to remember, food isn't about exclusivity, or who's first, or who's right or wrong, or who knows more. It's about taking an active role in community and family. It's about sharing, it's about friendship. Next time you eat or cook keep these things in mind.

It'll make for a much more enjoyable experience.

Monday, December 31, 2012

My Favorites of 2012

This blog isn't quite dead yet. Sorry I've neglected it and I'll try to do better in 2013.

So here I sit on New Years Eve and I've been reading many "My Favorite Dishes of 2013" lists. Many of these are very astute observations from serious food people. So I won't bother to recite a best things I ate list here.  But I would like to list my favorite places to eat. Most are in Chicago, a few aren't. These are place you should go to.
I'm listing them in no particular order and I'll let tell you just a bit about each. You may agree with me, you may not, but it's my list.

Here we go.

-The Bristol If you live here you've likely heard of it. If you haven't you need to get out more. This 4 year old farm to table restaurant continues to crank out some of my favorite food anywhere.

-Vera Chef Mark Mendez presents amazing, contemporary tapas in the friendly dining room run by his charming wife Liz.

-Yusho Yakitori inspired dishes elevated by the talents of Chef Mathias Merges, former Chef de Cuisine of now shuttered Charlie Trotters. They're also cranking out some of the best craft cocktails in the city.

- Antepima Here's a place you don't hear much about in social media or on chat boards. This Andersonville Italian spot serves up some fantastic, traditional fare, focusing on local and seasonal ingredients.

- Chalkboard Here's another spot you won't hear much about on Twitter, but Chef Gilbert Langlois is doing some really good stuff in his North Center restaurant. Elegant, at times delicate, fare with a slight southern twist.

- Katsu The best place in Chicago for Sushi. Period.

- St. John Bread and Wine After dining here in July, while in London on business, I understand why chefs around the globe revere Chef Fergus Henderson as some sort of culinary Buddha. If you go to London and don't eat here, we can't be friends.

- Lotus of Siam I thought I knew Thai food, until I ate here. If you find yourself in Las Vegas, get off the strip and prepare to be rocked by what I think is the best Thai food I've ever eaten.

- Incanto Sort of like an Italian version of The Bristol in San Francisco, where Chef Chris Cosentino is bringing the joys of offal to the Bay Area.

In the words of Jack Burton, driver of The Pork Chop Express "I don't claim to have been everywhere of to have done everything" so I'm sure there are all sorts of places that could easily have made this list but these are places I love, that are serving great food and run by great people who care about what they're doing. If you haven't been to these get to them in 2013.

Happy New Year

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

You paid how much?

$500 for dinner?

I struggle with this.

What the hell am I talking about? Well let me start by telling you over 6000 people scrambled to do just that. And just over 1000 were granted the honor of doing so. OK, I admit that's a bit harsh. "honored" is just me being snarky. To be fair purchasing a $500 dinner was not bestowed upon individuals, but rather, much like tickets to a concert or Championship game if you were first in line you got the tickets.

Tickets? For dinner? Huh?

As some of you know Next, the restaurant opened last year by Chef Grant Achatz and business partner Nick Kokonas, doesn't take reservations but rather sells tickets. More about that process here.

Anyway, the most recent incarnation of Next is a tribute to elBulli, the now shuttered restaurant by chef Ferran Adria in Roses, Spain, once considered the best restaurant in the world. Getting into elBulli, if you can believe it, was even more difficult than getting tickets to the Next tribute to it. Only open from June through December, elBulli served just 8000 guests per year. Over 2 million people tried to obtain these prized reservations. The cost for the meal was roughly 250 Euros (about $325) per person. elBulli was a temple to molecular gastronomy, or as some call it, modernist cuisine. The world's finest young chefs would apply to work the 6 months in the elBulli kitchen for no pay. These internships, called stages in the restaurant business, gave many of today's great chefs experience with molecular gastronomy, from the finest practitioner of it in the world. Grant Achatz was one of these stages. Along with his time at The French Laundry, his time at elBulli helped form him into the great chef he is today. Thus it's appropriate that he pay tribute to Ferran Adria and this legendary restaurant.

Now, as you know from this blog, a $500 meal isn't exactly a Lesser Cuts meal. OK, I can live with that. Not everything you eat should be cheap cuts. But there's something about the thought of paying $500 for dinner that just makes me uncomfortable. Maybe it's my Midwestern sensibility. Anyway, when pricing was announced for Next elBulli I thought, gee that's priced out of my league. I'm not all that into molecular gastronomy even though I've had some fun and amazing dishes prepared using techniques considered modernist. But I've also had some dishes where these techniques actually made a dish worse. Give me a good braised short rib. You can keep the foams and airs.

Anyway, a friend of mine is a huge fan of modernist food and badly wanted to try to get tickets for Next elBulli. Since he really doesn't know anyone else who would spend $500 on a meal,I told him if he got the tickets then I would go with him. But getting the tickets was on him. Well as luck would have it, he scored tickets and now I'm paying $500 for a dinner that won't happen until late April.

Every time I think “I paid $500 for dinner” I shudder. Sure there are people who can easily afford or justify this. I'm not one of them. This one meal will require sacrifice on my part. Saving a bit here and there, a few less nights out with friends, watching my personal expenses a bit more over the next few months, but I will be able to afford it. It will mean financial sacrifice for me, but ultimately I will be able to afford it. And that actually brings about a bit of guilt.

$500 for dinner? That's $1000 for 2 people to eat one meal. There are 16 countries in the world where the average income is less than $1000 per year. PER YEAR! And we're going to spend that on one meal! That's why it's a bit of a moral struggle for me.

But a meal like this is a once in a lifetime chance. Maybe even less than that given the odds stacked against people trying to get these tickets.

A friend who also got tickets to Next elBulli asked me what my expectations were for this meal. My response was if 2 of the 29 courses are “misses”, or if 5 or 6 are simply “meh” I'll leave disappointed. Now, I'm not going to look for disappointment. This is a meal prepared by one of the best chefs in the world, paying homage to the greatest restaurant in the world. It should be amazing. For the cost, I expect it to be transcendent. When I told this friend about my expectations for this meal he said that bar was set pretty high. “It sure is.” I replied “But I didn't set it, they did.”

Another conversation, with a friend who will not be experiencing this menu, revolved around the fact that people are often quality blinded by price, exclusivity, or simple ignorance. I'm not one of these folks. If something is great I'll say so, if it's less than great I'll say so. But a lot of folks can't do that. The soup at Next Tour  of Thailand was one of the best dishes I have ever eaten. However that isn't the case for some of the things I've eaten at Next.  On Next's Facebook page you can read reviews of Next Childhood where people loudly proclaim it the "best meal" of their life, and "perfection!"  Well, having experienced each of Next's incarnations I can easily say that, while creatively the most ambitious, and by far the most dramatic, Next Childhood was also the least successful menu from a culinary standpoint. The chicken noodle soup dish which many exclaimed as "fantastic", was a salty mess, and the mac and cheese that so many raved about was served to me with pasta so undercooked I should have sent it back (I totally chickened out!). But the theater of the meal was spectacular. Even though the chicken soup was not a good dish, the way it was served made me laugh. It was a gigantic bowl, making me feel like I was a child eating out of a bowl that seemed enormous. Just brilliant. I actually giggled out loud when the visual effect of the huge bowl dawned on me.Too bad the soup didn't reflect that. Now I'm sure many Next fanboys and girls will proclaim me a heathen for making such blasphemous proclamations but the fact remains, I can see when the emperor has no clothes. And I'll say so, and I'll tell you why.

So will I feel the four hours and 29 courses of Next elBulli is worth the $500 ticket price? I don't know. Can any meal really be worth $500? I'm struggling with that.

I'll probably struggle with the idea until that night in April when I dine at Next elBulli. Perhaps longer.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Not Just For Zombies Anymore!

Have you ever eaten calves brains? I bet most of you are saying "EWWWWWWW!" right about now. But after having not one, but two brain dishes this week I knew that these guts dishes needed to be blogged about.

When asked about one of these amazing dishes by our server all I could muster was "Calves' brains are like sweatbreads' sexier, older sister." And really that about describes them. Sexy. They are very delicate in flavor and so creamy in texture it's amazing. This elegant piece of offal lends itself to both rustic and refined preparations.

Still not sold on the idea of eating calves brains? OK well let me tell you about the two dishes.

The first was at The Publican. This brain was floured and deep fried, dusted with just a touch of curry, and served with beets and a lemon aioli.  Crunch exterior, creamy interior and a mild flavor that let the skillfully prepared aioli shine through.

The next was a special dish at The Bristol. These brains were lightly floured then pan fried with butter and served with a classic white wine, garlic, butter, and caper sauce. Close your eyes and, aside from the texture, you might think you're eating a super fresh pan fried walleye. Hold smokes was this dish spectacular.

I know that ordering brains might be pushing your limits, but you never know when you might find something new that is really delicious.

Oh yeah, they also go great with eggs.