Excuse me Sir, is that a beef shank you’re holding?

November 9, 2010 · Posted in Restaurants · 1 Comment 

On Wednesday, October 20th, several Green City Market “cheerleaders” as we were called were invited to Mado by Rob Levitt to eat an entire beef shank.  Unbeknownst to us at the time, it would be one of the last feasts held at this location by these chefs.  Rob and Allie have since left Mado to open their own butcher shop, and we eagerly await their new project.  What follows is, to the best of the author’s memory, a retelling of what was served at this banquet that would have made a Roman aristocrat blush.

Every year, the Green City Market hosts a Harvest Celebration to promote the market, showcase top chefs, and raise money.  Rob was one of the featured chefs, and was talking about ribeyes that he had gotten in and subsequently sold out of it almost immediately.  Some of the aforementioned GCM (Green City Market) “cheerleaders” were upset that these ribeyes were no longer available, so Rob proposed an entire beef shank.  From what I could tell though, these pieces were actually cut from two different animals.  During our feast, one of the ribeyes was brought out to another table, and I would not be surprised to learn Rob had located an ancient herd of mastodons, and was actually sourcing his steaks from there.  It was easily 60, maybe 70 pounds.

But that’s neither here nor there.  After inviting myself along to round out the group, Lauren Golanty, Kyle Schott, Dave & Sarah Rand, Abby Csanda, Brad Boman and Sara Gasbarra seated ourselves right in the middle of the restaurant and waited for Rob & Allie to wow us with their culinary prowess and maybe clog our arteries a bit too.

It started as expected, with their homemade charcuterie plate, which consists of chicken liver pate, smoked sausage, and pork rillettes.  The pictures are a bit dark, because it’s rude to use your flash in a restaurant, in case that hasn’t been brought up before.

Charcuterie Plate

Next came an assortment of antipasti, which includes one of my Mado favorites, the grilled cornbread with smoked paprika butter and fried farm egg.  Paprika butter!  So simple, yet they thought of it and I didn’t.  That’s why they cook and I eat.

There's paprika butter under there somewhere!

They rounded out our antipasti with:

– Roasted carrots with ras el hanout goat cheese, pistachios, and cumin honey

– Citrus cured lake perch with fingerling potatoes and pepperonata

– Sunchokes with preserved lemon and parsley

The carrots and sunchokes were amazing, both in separate ways.  The carrots, while sourced fresh and local, were an incredible melange of flavors, the spicy and nutty pairing nicely with the sweet in the honey and goat cheese.  The sunchokes, on the other hand, relied almost strictly on their freshness for the pop of flavor as you crunched down.  For those paying attention, you’ll ask how something can rely on freshness for its flavor when it uses preserved lemon.  Quite right, I’d respond, and say “well except for that part.”  The preserved lemon helped add a light airiness to the bite, and the dish contrasted quite nicely with the richer, deeper flavors in the carrots.

I'll take one of everything, please!

Next up was a three course shot that included a challenge for Rob and Allie.  You see, Sara and my’s friendship relies primarily on the fact that we are crazy Italians who spend the majority of our time at the Green City market discussing Rome and spaghetti carbonara.  And they were going to bring out penne with ragu bianco.  A bold move, I might say!

I should have known better than to doubt.  It was incredible.  The ragu was so flavorful, I almost forgot there was pasta.  I’m pretty sure I tried to drink the remains of the broth.

They also brought out a salad, mainly because I think their lawyer advised them to for liability sake, should anyone need resuscitation, they could say they offered greens at the least!

They finished off the…I guess this was the primi, if we’re going with the Italian theme…with pan-fried morcilla with braised greens and migas.  Blood sausage, in other words.  Topped with bread crumbs that had been…wait for it…deep fried.  Yes please.

Mado was BYOB, and we had definitely brought.  However we also drank, and right around this time figured out we were going to run out very quickly.  What happened next was both awesome and frightening, depending on how you look at it.  Brad makes one phone call, and ten minutes later four bottles of wine get delivered to the front door of the restaurant.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t have a wine delivery service willing to bring wine to whatever BYOB I happen to be at.  I’m not sure who this Brad character is, but in my opinion best not to cross his path!  He’s obviously got people.

After our thirst was satiated it was time for the main course.  The beef shank, in all its glory.  The restaurant literally stopped and watched in awe as Rob carried this massive steaming hunk of meat out to our table.  After David Hasselhoff was seated…

When pressed, Rob said that he had just done a “normal braise” to the beef, which means a mire poix and a red-wine based sauce more or less.  However, he must have braised it for more than 8 hours at a really low temperature (200-225?). I’ve made legs of lamb that are about 7 or 8 pounds, and they braise for at least 8 hours.  This was much much bigger.  Alongside he served it with toasted bread, and a marrow reduction.  I’m pretty sure I saw Lauren try and put the leftover reduction in her purse, until she realized there were no leftovers, and the little drops were liquid.  If you stared at the meat too long, it slipped off the bone without even the assistance of a fork.  The outside was perfectly crispy and browned, while the inside was incredibly tender.  There are almost no words to describe – so here’s the one picture we took with flash that night.

Yes, that IS a beef shank you're holding!

Not a bad way to go out, Rob and Allie.  Not a bad way at all.  I’ll be in line when The Butcher and Larder opens.

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The Foodyssey.

February 3, 2010 · Posted in Travel · 9 Comments 
Sing in me, O Muse,
Of the man of many hungers,
Who wandered full many days
After he had sacked
The sacred citadels of Parma, Bologna & Modena.
Many were the foods
In whose cities he saw
and whose stomachs he learned,
aye, and many the woes he suffered
in his heart upon the return to America…

It is almost impossible to begin this post because the events that transpired cannot adequately be put into words.  No amount of language, hyperbole, or linguistic trick can describe how you feel as you sample delicacies prepared in restaurants older than your country.  To taste gourmets foods in the lands of their origin.  And so I will attempt, with the help of my muse, to describe the bounty one encounters on a trip through Emilia-Romagna.

Our travelers start the journey in Parma, home to parmigiano-reggiano and prosciutto.  Almost immediately upon exiting the train station you can smell a salumeria.  You have to love a city that smells of cured meats.  On your way into the city center, you will encounter two gastronomias that resemble dueling vendors trying to outdo one another with the beauty and deliciousness of their wares.

Here is Gastronomia Garibaldi.  Note the legs of prosciutto hung lovingly on the walls, better alone than any Christmas stocking could ever hope to be.  This is what pigs in the USA long to be.

Across the street we have Salumi & Formaggi (meat and cheese).  What a great name.  Those are in fact gigantic wheels of parmigiano-reggiano.  You know in Duck Tales how Scrooge McDuck dives into piles of money?  If I could I would dive into piles of cheese and cured meats.

After finding our hotel, we ventured out in search of the perfect dinner.  We got sidetracked, as you do here, by the cutest wine and cheese bar I’ve ever seen.  It was about a foot wider than the bar itself, so we shuffled past and upstairs, where they kept books about wine making and terroir and how to properly butcher pigs and meats and…you get the idea.

Do you see that cheese on the plate?  Take a good look because you can’t get it anywhere else.  They make it somewhere (I suspect it’s a secret, magic cave of deliciosity) nearby and it tastes almost like a brie.  With honey.  Don’t let me forget that.  See, I adore honey and so now I’ve got cheese and meat and honey and red wine and my tastebuds feel like Odysseys strapped to the ship’s mast as he passes the Sirens…wanting just a little more of the temptation…just a little bit more.

So do we indulge in this temptation?  In Italy, the correct answer is and always has been yes.

Trattoria del Tribunale.

Why not start with cheese?  Because if you call this just cheese you deserved to be shackled to a donkey and mocked.  This is somewhere between cheese and ambrosia.  By itself it is a meal, and the perfect blend of saltiness and nuttiness in the cheeses in Parma is unrivaled.  It’s change your life, walk out in traffic because it can’t get any better than this good.

And we hadn’t even had dinner yet!  So I’m skipping on the picture of risotto because I can’t figure out how to take a picture that doesn’t look like oatmeal.  You know, just porcini mushroom risotto with fresh grated…what do you think we grated on it?  Right then.  As you do.

This beautiful creation was a braised beef stew that fell apart before you ever touched it with your fork.  I think there was polenta but frankly I’m not sure.

The next day we did some…stuff?  And then ate again.  There’s a few churches and whatnot.  But come on, we’re here to eat.  So we did.

It’s a good thing Italy wasn’t on the way back from Troy, or Odysseys never would have made it home.  Homemade torteloni stuffed with fresh herbs and ricotta cheese in a sage butter sauce.  Jenni had to restrain me at this point.

I’ve been around the world eating delicious food.  I’ve eaten at Alinea, twice.  Il Mulino, twice.  Been to restaurants owned by Batali, Emeril, Wolfgang (the good ones, not the crap ones), lived in Rome for six months, had duck at an incredible restaurant in Paris, eaten amazing pastas all over southern Italy and had breakfast so good I almost cried at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon.  I know what good food is.

And then.

And then I went to Bologna.

Bologna, the capital of Emilia Romagna, therefore the food capital of Italy, and therefore you probably won’t find a city more responsible for such an incredible array of excellent food products in the world.  Dinner was in the student district where a very surly hostess tried to sit us right next to two people in an EMPTY restaurant.  She literally pulled the other half of their table away and wanted us to sit next to them.  In an empty room.  When we asked to move it was like we punched her cat or something.  It was all okay when these dishes arrived:

Tagliatelle con ragu on top, and rigatoni al forno on the bottom.  The tagliatelle was excellent, but just a warm up to the rigatoni.  Mushrooms, sausage, and a slightly sweet, acidic cream sauce that blended so smoothly with the spice in the dish.  Of course, fresh grated Parm cheese on top.

THAT dinner proved to be nothing but a teaser for tomorrow’s lunch.

Osteria dei Poeti.  An old wine cellar beneath a palazzo serving pasta “fatto a mano” – made by hand.  This tagliatelle con ragu…it’s not an exaggeration to say it changed my life.  The meat has actually been braising since the late 1600’s.  The pasta itself is delicate and at the same time perfectly hearty.  But it’s the sauce that works its magic on you as soon as you smell it.  On a cold day, when you’re freezing, it warms you all over with the power of a fire, warm blanket, hot chocolate, chicken noodle soup AND pasta all in one.  Then it tucks you in, serves you warm milk and cookies, and reads you a bedtime story.

The picture doesn’t do it justice and neither do my words.  I have found my last meal.  That’s all there is too it.

For dinner we tried a more modern restaurant in Bologna.  (In Italy modern is like 1700 and beyond but this was really modern)  Expecting to be disappointed somewhat we were just wowed again.  Jenni ordered stuffed pasta with pumpkin and bacon, smothered in a balsamic reduction that had hints of chocolate.  I ordered papardelle “fatto a mano” with porcini mushrooms and bacon (of course).

Our traveler’s last stop was Modena, home to Ferrari and aceto-balsamico, commonly called balsamic vinegar in the US.  Like Champagne, it can ONLY come from Modena or it’s not real aceto-balsamico.  The goal:  find real balsamic and bring back spoils for the uninitiated to try.  The result: lunch like you’ve never eaten.

My friend Francesca Amadei recommended this restaurant to us which, for security purposes, shall remain nameless.  She told me it was “familiar” and that Ada the owner/chef/waitress/everything would tell stories and poke fun at us and whatnot.  What actually occurred was beyond all expectation.

It really is this woman’s house, and there are maybe 15 spots.  If you’re late, get out.  Vegetarian?  Sorry, get out.  Don’t eat pork?  Um, you’re in Emilia Romagna.  GET OUT!  Lunch was 4 primi piatti, 1 secondo, 2 dolci, caffe, vino, and three or four sides, I can’t remember.  All through lunch Ada herself was serving, clearing, cooking, and regaling us with stories of her lewd past.  She is truly a one-woman show in and of herself, and is more than reason to go.  If you can find it.  I’m not telling where it is.

1.1 Orecchiette con pomodori – the roasted tomatoes bursted with a sweetness that could make Willy Wonka himself blush.

1.2 Sage and Rosemary Tortoloni stuffed with ricotta.  The pasta was dark green and tasted of sage and rosemary.  The best pasta itself I’ve ever had.

1.3 Lasagna Bolognese

1.4 Tortellini in brodo

2 Braised pork shank with roasted vegetables – do I really have to explain again that braising is the best way to cook anything, and pork is the best thing to cook, so when you braise pork…well…if Michelangelo sculpted food he would have sculpted braised pork, that’s for sure.

At the end….

At the end of the meal she asked us and one other table where we were from.  Chicago and Boston.  The entire restaurant erupts – everyone had family, friends, or worked or lived in one of those two cities.  Instantly we were all friends.  As you bask in the warmth of the kitchen, the warmth of the food, and the warmth of new friends, you realize you’re living la dolce vita, just like they say you should.

As you stumble back out onto the street, eyes adjusting to the light because it took you three hours to eat lunch, you can’t help but want to stay, to throw everything else out the window and just LIVE, here, now, delicious, full, amazing life the way it was intended to be.

As Homer had two stories so too will we – our next trip goes to Mantova for a home cooked meal that redefines lunch yet again.

A dopo tutti…

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Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh….Milano!

January 20, 2010 · Posted in Recipes, Travel · 1 Comment 

My passport is almost a full ten years old, and needs to be renewed in 2011.  About 8 years ago, I also washed it.  Yeah, I know I know.  But that doesn’t change the fact that I washed it.  So it’s a bit frayed and, as I discovered in Istanbul, the part near the picture is actually starting to come apart.  The kindly border patrol agent (Round ’em up, as fast as you can, with one truck, or this country’s gonna be way too big!) at the airport wouldn’t let me pass for about 15 minutes because he didn’t trust it.  Several supervisors were called over, all of whom looked at him like he was an idiot because my passport’s only been stamped about 15 times in the past few weeks.

My favorite part was when he asked me – “Where are you from in the States?”

Me – “Chicago”

Him – “But you’re going to Milan.  Why are you going to Milan?”

You’re right buddy, because everyone leaving Istanbul should be going immediately home.  Ya’ jerk.

Then, on the plane, I get up to use the bathroom, and one of the two lavatories has been marked “occupied” for almost 20 minutes.  There was a very long line to use the facilities so I counted.  I knocked on the door to no answer, so I start thinking there’s a terrorist on board putting together some sort of bomb!  After several attempts to ask the stewardesses what was going on, one finally spoke enough English to tell me the bathroom was out of order.

Needless to say, after being taken for a ride several times, I was so happy to land in Milan.  Almost immediately I started smiling again and felt better.  There’s just something in the air over here…

I found my apartment very easily, got settled in, and met my roommate Abby when she showed up.  Per Facebook, I immediately bought several bottles of wine and started enjoying the fruits of the land.

Despite the dollar being worth about 1 Euro cent, wine is still super cheap over here.  So too are Belgian Ales.  My favorite beer, Chimay Blue, costs about $9 in the US.  It costs 1 Euro 50 cents over here.  Fantastic.

Apertivo

Milan so far has been cold and rainy, so I haven’t gotten too many shots of things outdoors.  Which means I’ve spent my time indoors, usually in bars or restaurants.  And usually at apertivo, one of the greatest things ever invented.

Basically you pay for your drinks and get an unlimited amount of buffet style food from about 6 to about 9.  The more crowded the place, the earlier it tends to end for some reason.  The buffet isn’t going to have the best pastas, but the pizzas and contorni (sides, veggies, etc) are always good.  You won’t find meats either.  But you will get incredibly full for the price of a few beers, which is nice.  Apertivo has been about a four to five times weekly occurrence.

Tall Italians

Quick side note here – there is an unusual species of people here, one I am not used to.  This idea of the “tall Italian.”  We’re talking ladies about 5’11, 6 feet and guys 6’2″, 6’3″.  Very interesting – at Easter mass in Tropea in 2003 I was the tallest person in the building by at least a foot.  Tropea is in the very south of Italy, FYI.  Up here it’s different – I don’t stand out at all.

The Food

I mean come on, that’s what we’re doing here, isn’t it?  This is supposed to be a food blog and I’m in ITALY for Pete’s sake!  We practically invented food!

Speaking of the invention of food, let’s dispel with a little food myth right off the bat.  The Chinese did not teach the Italians how to make pasta.  Please.  Let’s take a look at this from several angles shall we?

1 – The myth says Marco Polo went to China and brought back recipes for making noodles.  However Italian cookbooks predating his visit to China contain recipes that call for pasta.  So chronologically that’s a big fail.

2 – Let’s look at noodle construction.  While certain similarities do exist for the most part Chinese noodles look and taste nothing like Italian pastas.  I like Chinese food and noodles, but they’re not the same.  So on texture, appearance, and taste large differences exist.

3 – Rice noodles.  Both cultures use rice extensively and yet the Chinese make rice noodles and the Italians make…not rice noodles.  Why didn’t this technique transfer over?  I don’t know.   Probably because the Italians already had their system figured out.

Points 2 and 3 are more or less observational but point 1 can be fact-checked, so if you disagree go do that…

Now.  Where were we?

Ah yes, we were making a poor man’s Bolognese sauce and sneaking sips from that big magnum of wine you see in the background.

Instead of taking the full three or so hours I caramelized some onions, browned some ground beef and pork, and simmered with some tomato sauce for about 30-45 minutes.  Then topped with some fresh ground pepper and freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano and served over bucatini pasta.

Here’s my fellow Booth student and newly acquired sous-chef Toshi working some cheese magic over a beautiful spread:

When all was said and done, we laid it down like this:

I mean, picture kinda says it all.  That’s about how we’ll be doing it from here on out.  Much more of that to come.  Spaghetti Carbonara is on deck – Toshi wants to learn how to cook a bunch of different Italian foods so we’ll be working our way through some traditional dishes here.

After my Italy for the gourmet traveler book showed up, I had a list of places to check out in Milan.  By far my favorite so far (and, will probably remain for the time I’m here) is Gastronomia Peck.  It’s a specialty food store selling all different kinds of cheese, meats, steaks, seafoods, chocolate, tea, oils, coffee and on and on.  They won’t let you take pictures, but at the cafe upstairs there are no such rules.  So here you go:

Prosciutto e Mozzarella

Lasagna Bolognese

Due cappuccini.

Peck is an absolute must-go and will be re-featured here.  I will give a much more descriptive run-down of the food after one or two more visits.

In the interest of time I’m going to stop here for now.  In the meantime since these events have taken place, I went snowboarding in the Alps, ran into Giorgio Armani himself, made spaghetti carbonara, gone inside the Duomo, and may have set up an interview with an MD from one of the Italian banks.  So that’s what we’ve got to look forward to.

But now I’m heading off to Modena, Parma, Bologna, and Mantua.  Back in a week!

Ciao tutti!

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Banh Mi & Le Camargue

December 28, 2009 · Posted in Travel · 1 Comment 

This will probably be my last post before I leave Vietnam and since the sandwich deserves more space than what I’ve actually done in the past few weeks, I will hopefully update from Milan.

Travel & Leisure recently published a list of 30 foods worth traveling for, and the food from HCMC is a Banh Mi sandwich.  Located at 37 Nguyen Trai street, it is a small street cart selling one of the most amazing sandwiches I’ve ever eaten.  It’s only open from 4:00 p.m. until about 9:00 – but get there early because the lines start almost immediately.  Heaping mounds of ground pork are grilled over a small wood burning stove, and seasoned with some sort of magic Vietnamese spice.  The sandwich is fairly simple from there – silver dollar size pieces of pork, about 6 to 8, cucumbers, carrots, cilantro, and a slightly spicy chili sauce.

The completed sandwich

Grilling the pork.

The best part – these sandwiches cost 10,000 VND apiece – right about $0.50.  Alex and I ate two.

After we did some other stuff for the rest of the day, we enjoyed a French dinner at Le Camargue.  Due to the whole “occupation” thing, the French food in HCMC is excellent.  Let’s do pictures first this time, then descriptions.

Top to bottom it is:

– Shallot chips

– Microgreens

– Foie Gras – about a 5 oz piece

– 8 oz Filet Mignon cooked perfectly medium rare

– Truffle salted potato pancake

The skewer on the side is preventing the roasted garlic and cherry tomatoes from escaping.  While perfectly cooking a steak, especially one as thick as this filet, is extremely difficult, the most impressive piece of this dish from a culinary perspective was the potato, in my opinion.  Most of the time one aspect of the potato pancake is off – either it’s not crispy enough, not flavorful enough, or the inside it either too soggy or too dry.  This one, however, was perfectly browned on the outside while the interior had the consistency of a perfect gratin.  And who can forget the truffle salt…

The construction of the dish was also interesting – if you took a full bite you encountered the sweet silkiness of the foie gras, the meatiness of the filet, and the delicate crunch of the potato pancake in perfect progression.

And, because everything here is so cheap, I saved the receipt so I could recreate the entire meal for you.

1 Mouton Rothschild

1 Artichoke “Cappuccino” soup

1 Sea scallops over mango chutney

2 Filet Mignon & Foie gras

1 Filet of Duck

1 Tube chocolat’ – three chocolate cookies in the shape of large straws, stuffed with marscapone

1 Turkish coffe, 1 cappuccino, 1 latte

$159.40

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Su Su Chicken

December 27, 2009 · Posted in Travel · 2 Comments 

In an attempt to be somewhat food-focused on this blog, here’s my first post dedicated solely to a restaurant.  Well, stall, actually, I suppose, when you get right down to it.  There aren’t so much tables, or bathrooms, or even permanent light fixtures.  It really is essentially a glorified street stall with about 10% more space.  The tables and chairs are all low, way too small for a person of my height to be sitting in, and I have to believe they’re actually kiddie chairs.  The restaurant spills out into the street where you can see the wonderful creations being basted as you walk by.  The establishment’s lights are strung up on the chain-link fence lining the sidewalk where most of the people eat their meal.  The beer is served warm, and you get a mug with ice if you’d like it cold.  (It is probably the most offensive beer I’ve ever had.  Yes, offensive.)  Homeless people will accost you.  The neon lights from the church across the street will flash at you consistently.

And yet, you will come.  You will hop a cab to District 3, and you will come.  More than once, most likely.  Because of the skin.  The skin is so perfectly crispy, so expertly cooked, that you can’t help but come and eat.  The meat so moist and tender you wonder if some sort of magician isn’t working behind the curtain, and the kitchen is just a facade.  And then, as your fingers are dripping with glorious grease, you take a bite of the accompanying tomato rice and fully submit to the fact that this can in no way be good for you.

It is of course, Vietnamese fried chicken.  But not fried chicken like you’re used to.  Legend has it that the owner created his own personal contraption that does not deep-fry the bird but instead constantly bastes it with boiling oil.  In fact the translation on the napkins reads “Chicken boiling fat”.  Fine words indeed my friend, fine words indeed.  The contraption looks like this:

The skin and meat are considerably less greasy than normal deep-fried chicken.  My educated guess is that because the chicken doesn’t sit in the oil, and is constantly draining, it retains the crispiness without getting soggy at all.

The finished version looks like the picture below.  As any good street stall or dive does, they serve one thing and one thing only.  Your dish consists of:

1 piece chicken.

Rice (optional)

A few tomatoes and cucumbers

Some sauce that’s totally superflous and also mildly offensive.  Not as bad as the beer but it’s close.

Admittedly the pictures did not turn out as I’d hoped, but I was slightly overwhelmed by the fried skin.

Our total dinner amounted to 7 of these plates and 3 beers.  The bill was 240,000 VND.  The current exchange rate is 18,475 VND per USD.  That means that our total bill was $12.99 or $4.33 per person.

I love this country.

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