Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Niche in St. Louis

The hostess at Niche was friendly when I called to check on availability, and I had no trouble getting in at the last minute without a reservation. The dining room was decorated with warm colors, and the staff appeared professional - even clean-cut compared to your average scruffy, inked Chicago restaurant worker. It’s a wonder that despite those characteristics, the closest comparison I can think of for Niche is Schwa. Creativity at Niche abounds, but as at Schwa, it tends to take the form of unique, surprising ingredient combinations that don’t just work into a delicious dish, they change the way you think about food. Though Niche (and probably Schwa too) had a couple of modern things such as an “espellete soil”, for the most part the cooking was straightforward and recognizable. Execution and ingredient combinations were what made it special.

The staff was a chatty bunch on a not-too-busy Sunday night, and after hearing that I was from Chicago and chatting with me a bit about related things, they peppered me with generous helpings of stuff I didn’t order. I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone gets treated this way at Niche, but it did feel special. First came an amuse bouche of an egg shell that had been emptied, then re-filled with a rich egg custard and small-diced shitakes, then topped with briny Missouri caviar that literally popped in my mouth. A fantastic start.

Before I ordered, I mentioned that I was teetering between two appetizers. So, of course, they brought a taste of the one I didn’t end up ordering. “Carrots three ways” one variety lightly pickled, a second variety roasted, and a third variety prepared some way I can’t remember. Each had it’s own sauce or accompaniment, a cumin-flavored yogurt and the aforementioned espellete soil being the only two I can recall. I’ve been a food soil hater, but this dish made a compelling case. The espellete soil was a lot crunchier than the potting-soil-textured stuff I had recently at Blackbird, among other places.

Next came a real highlight: the “BBQ Trotter”. Pig trotters had been thoroughly smoked, then the meat was pulled and compressed into a cylinder before being poached a la torchon. Half-inch disks were sliced from the log, rolled in brioche crumbs, and then deep fried until crisp. In case that doesn’t sound rich enough, these deep-fried trotter disks were plated with overlapping same-sized disks of foie gras terrine. A fascinating array of bitter, acidic components – tobacco, calvados, and grapefruit - snapped the dish back into amazing balance.

After some palate-cleansing lemon-thyme sorbet from the kitchen, my final dish arrived: White and dark meat chicken compressed together in a visually interesting way, then cut into a rectangle and topped with crisped chicken skin that adhered so well it seemed to have been placed that way by nature rather than man. Dueling sauces sat under the chicken: on one side a foie gras-sherry reduction, and on the other, one of the most interesting and delicious things of the night - parsnip-picholine olive puree that apparently contained little more than olives and parsnips, yet was so compelling and unique, it really stuck with me. A scattering of house made, maple flavored granola garnished the plate, and provided crunch and a little pleasant sweetness.

I’ve put the address below, but apparently Niche is moving to a St. Louis suburb some time soon. Go, but check where it is first.

1831 Sidney Street St. Louis, MO 63104(314) 773-7755

P.S., Apparently a bunch of Niche alumni are now cooking in Chicago. Most at places with names like Blackbird – no surprise there. It did surprise me to hear that someone who had a prominent place in the Niche kitchen is now running the kitchen at Public House. For no good reason, I had written that place off as another mediocre downtown bar with food-as-afterthought. This news begets a reconsideration.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Oh, You, Stressed?

I wish so badly that this conversation was recorded.  I can only hope to recreate the essence of the phone conversation between my mom and myself.

Mom: ... Can you do "X" for me.
Me: Yes, but not right now, some other time, I'll call you.
Mom: Are you feeling okay?
Me: No, I still have that stomach thing.
Mom: Is it because of your period or your things, your fibroids?
Me: No, it's not in my uterus area, it's more intestinal, I think it's stress related.
Mom: Oh you, stressed?  In that lovely cute house and perfect life?
Me: I know, right, first world problems
Mom: What?
Me: You know, everyone has problems, sort of thing
Mom: Yes, you think you are rich and someone else has money problems and they have the same amount of money as you.
Me: Something like that.
Mom: That reminds me, I've been meaning to tell you.  You should really start putting money away.  Brian doesn't have retirement and if something happens, I mean, if he dies, he has diabetes and you'd have nothing if something happened to him.
Me: thanks mom, you are really helping my stress.
Mom: (flustered) well, I was just trying to help
Me: Okay, talk to you later.
Mom: Don't forget I need you to do "X"

Thursday, February 23, 2012

I Know, I Know: And This is Way Too Much Personal Information, I'm Just Warning You

I know, I'm like short an entire weigh in post and you know I can use this blog thing for something besides a weekly weigh in.  The thing is, I got really sick.  I know, I just was sick.  I got over my cold and husky cough and then I was hit with the worst stomach issues imaginable.  I tried ever thing google could tell me to do and nothing worked.  I went to the doctor's yesterday who was like, "odd, usually these things last a couple days and you've had this a week now.  That's so odd.  BTW there's nothing I can really do for you."  He did give me a prescription for Imodium and the thing is I didn't need Imodium, I welcomed needing Imodium.  I was praying for some sort of release, if you know what I mean.  My stomach was in complete knots to the point where I was having trouble sleeping.  But hey, it cost me $50 co-pay to have a doctor give me a unnecessary prescription and tell me homeopathic remedies was bullshit (thank you by the way, peppermint tea is gross!) and for me to take that prescription anyway and have my first night of full on sleep in days, I'll take it.  My diet is so bland now I might as well be an 80 year old man but I think the worst might be over.

I was certain it was IBS or spastic bowel (google doctor) but my doctor seemed sure it was some sort of virus that was having its way with me.  Maybe my immune system was shot from a terrible 3 week cold and then to follow with a stomach virus was too much.  I have no idea.  But I was so bummed and lost thinking I had IBS, there is no cure, notice from my lack of prescription remedies, and I felt so hopeless, I really felt like what if I stayed like this, how was I going to survive, how could I live with constant stomach cramping, every day all day and all night, with no relief anywhere, not even passing gas?

I also thought maybe this was brought on by stress.  I have stress, oddly enough, crazy stress that people walk around with when their husband owns a small business and they do the books, but gee whiz, I've had stress WAY WAY worse than this, I was once 3 weeks from foreclosure.  I answered the door when a sheriff gave me the notice.  I know stress and I've never had any sort of issues like this.

Maybe it's because I'm 40.  I wouldn't think things would have sudden onset but, get this, I woke up one morning and ever single item with print on it is too freaking small.  I can't read anything anymore.  I refuse to wear bifocals, dammit.  I was just trying to read a bottle of aspirin for dosage and was doing the old person pull it back and forth in front of my eyes until I could read it (I know aspirin is bad for my stomach, migraine trumps all).  I just don't recall this problem back in September when I was 39.

If it was stress and my stress was somehow lightened by deep meditations and thinking of the white light going into my stomach (hey, thanks again, google), I found out today my brother's wife is pregnant again.  They emailed me!!!! Thank you Jesus!  Thank you, thank you, thank you.  I guess my reaction horrified them last time, I don't care, just thank you for emailing me.  I was able to write a very appropriate response and spend the afternoon private feeling sorry for myself.  Hey, it's better than feeling sorry for myself in public.  No one wants that.  And I'm happy to report, NO TEARS.  No pulling over on the drive home and wailing my brains out in an abandoned gas station while my husband comforts me with sure we have $10,000 to drive to New Jersey for egg donation sure we do, honey...

...No, we don't.  We really don't.  White light, hi there, white light.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Don't Forget the Bayless Flagships

For good reason, much of the Rick Bayless talk lately has been about his wonderful new O’Hare tortas spots. Frontera Grill and Topolobampo seem to get less attention now, but based on the meal I had a couple of weeks ago they’re no less deserving . In fact, of the 12-15 meals I’ve eaten over the years at Frontera, the most recent one - where I sat at the Frontera bar but ordered from the Topolo menu - was the best ever. So special, in fact, that I’m confident in saying that no matter what hot openings we continue to have, Topolobampo remains at or near the top of the list of Chicago's best restaurants.

The gordita inflada, simultaneously lighter and crisper than any gordita I’ve ever had, was stuffed with flavorful greens and topped with a dead-perfect slow poached egg (showing that the Topolo crew is respectful of but not beholden to ancient technique, I suspect that an immersion circulator was involved in this dish). It’s an ultra simple preparation that’s outstanding mostly for its perfection in cooking technique, but it’s elevated still by tangy aged cheese and a salsa negra that I damn near licked off the plate.

A terrine of foie gras and ripe plantain was among my favorite foie gras preparations ever, and the many components came together in perfect balance. Ultra-rich and crisp croutons made with brown butter. Cocoa nibs sweetened and caramelized just enough to retain only a bit of pleasant bitterness. More of that phenomenal salsa negra, made extra earthy and complex by the addition of reduced sherry. Sharp arugula dressed with a bit of lemon to add a light and refreshing touch to a rich, incredibly well balanced plate of food.

The two dishes above were among the best I’ve had anywhere, but even they were no match for dessert. I remember reading somewhere about Frontera’s pastry chef being a rising star, and I believe she recently won a prestigious award of some kind. Whatever praise is laid upon her, it’s understated. Topolobampo’s fuyu persimmon cake just might have been the best dessert I’ve ever had. The cake itself was moist and generously but not overwhelmingly spiced. It was topped with homemade persimmon spoon fruit, and served with “cream cheese frosting ice cream” that could not have more delicious or a more perfect match for the spice in the cake and the natural spiciness of the persimmons. But what really made this dish was the whole wheat tuile garnish. The first bite was a jarring one, as the tuile is utterly devoid of sweetness. At first I wondered what it was doing on a dessert plate, but then intermixing bites of that very earthy, lightly salty crisp with the sweet and spicy rest of the plate revealed its brilliance. I was floored.

We are lucky to have a lot of terrific restaurants in Chicago, and with the slew of enticing openings it’s tempting to try something new each time you eat out. But if you haven’t been to Frontera or Topolobampo in awhile, you owe it to yourself not to let more time go bye. These are special places operating at the highest level even by their own very high historical standards.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Chocolate Mousse and a Date, honey heart!

Weigh Day (Was Sunday)

I know I'm probably supposed to be disappointed in my weigh in this week but 2 things, 1) I weighed in a 219 on Thursday and never cheated and then went crazy up to 221 on Friday, then 220 on Saturday and in good form that I seem to be following I have to gain a pound on Saturday no matter what (I've done this 3 weigh ins now) so I was then 221.5.  I knew I wasn't doing anything wrong so how could I be upset.  I really find it quite comical.  Then today I weighed 219, so there you go.  Of course I started my period today so this week should be a humdinger for weigh ins.

Why I turned down dinner at Next el Bulli

Last night a friend very kindly offered me a seat at her party’s upcoming dinner at Next elBulli. My instinct was to say yes. In attempts to secure these tickets, thousands of people appear to have played a complex game with instructions that seemed written in Catalan then translated into English by a Chinese exchange student learning Spanish in Chicago public schools. Only a fraction of them succeeded. Of course I wasn’t going to turn down a seat that just landed in my lap, right?

Then my friend told me the price: $490. Those of you who have paid more attention than I over the last few weeks must have already realized how much this meal was going to cost, but I was shocked. $490 to dine at Next? Now, I’ve never spent anything close to that on a meal anywhere, but when I’ve dreamt such things, I’ve envisioned elaborate settings with gold chandeliers and Rembrandts on the wall. Truth be told I don’t remember much of anything about the setting at Next, but I think that probably means it was pretty nondescript. It was a room. It had a kitchen in the back. It was neither comfortable nor uncomfortable. Not beautiful and not ugly. A room where people eat. None of this is to say that I place value the expensive artwork or precious metals at the world’s most expensive restaurants. I don’t. It’s just that I couldn’t believe that a meal at a place with little to none of that flash could possibly cost this much. Who knows, maybe their videographer is actually the next Rembrandt.

Once the shock of the price wore off, I had some serious thinking to do. My instinctive reaction went from “yes, of course” to “Whoa! That’s a shitload of money!” My gut told me that I had to decline, but still – so many people practically begging for a seat to this restaurant, and here a golden opportunity has just landed in my lap. I asked my friend to give me a little while to think about it, which she kindly obliged. Her dinner is coming up in just a couple of days though, so I wanted to give her a decision quickly so that she could be sure to find a taker if I said no.

In the couple of hours that passed, I waffled. I went from “Screw it. I might spend that much on a few dinners in a couple of month period, so what’s the big deal if I spend it on one very special opportunity like this;” and, “I just used miles to pay for my trip to the Florida Keys, so I’ll put what I saved towards this;” to “I have a daughter who might struggle to go to college someday and a mortgage that’s for more than my condo is worth. Only an irresponsible idiot would spend $500 on dinner in such a situation;” and, “I’m not really convinced that I’ll even like the meal.”

Regarding that last thought, it may shock all of the Achatz/ Beran/ Kokonas fans out there to hear that yes, there is someone who isn’t convinced that he’ll even like this very special meal of theirs. I understand that elBulli is to many people what dining looks like when it has reached the pinnacle of perfection. I also understand that Adria himself said something akin to “The Achatz team is the only one that can pull this off.” I understand that the team’s other venture is often regarded as the best restaurant in the country, and that Next too has received high accolades. So, who am I to think this might be anything but the best meal of my life?

Well, I am a guy who ate at Next during the last cycle and thought it sucked. I am a guy who thought that the kitchen paid way too much heed to presentation and storyline at the expense of taste. I am a guy who hates the aroma of burning embers as part of a dish’s plating, and I am a guy who thought placing 5 or 6 disparate, uncomplementary toppings around a plate of macaroni was an insult to serious cooking even in the context of a menu called “childhood”.

So, in the end this is what made up my mind. I am simply not convinced that the kitchen at Next will cook a delicious meal. Will it be true to the techniques they learned from some master sent over from Spain? Almost surely. Will it represent hours and hours of hard work, studying, and overcoming obstacles? I bet it will. Will those things get in the way of it being a delicious meal? Well, I don’t know for sure, but I do know that this kitchen has shown that what matters to them does not matter to me, and in fact detracts from my enjoyment of food. So I passed.

Oh Energy Balls!