2013 in Review

My Most Impressionable 2013 Eating and Drinking Experiences

The whole point of blogging is to create a written record of what you did/didn’t do and liked/didn’t like, because as you age, it’s tough to remember anything without writing it down. To that end, here’s my year-end wrap-up of dining and traveling in 2013, the places that made the strongest impression on me, for good or for bad:

The Good

Cinco Jotas at EL Ideas, Chicago

During the NRA show, exhibitor Cinco Jotas teamed up with EL Ideas for an entirely Iberico ham-themed dinner. It was a wild orgy of culinary excess that involved an entire leg and a professional carver from Spain at our disposal, several ham-focused courses by Phillip Foss and his team, and lots of BYO wine. You haven’t seen people go crazy unless you’ve seen them with unfettered access to a leg of Cinco Jotas jamón. Seriously, though, eating (and eating) a heritage product like acorn-fed Iberico ham never gets old, even if you’re sweating ham the next day.

Tanta Chicago

I wrote about my experience at Tanta during previews. At the time, I wasn’t sure how Tanta would fit in to the patchwork of tourist-centric restaurants in River North. Judging by the crowds, it seems like it’s a hit. Although the food certainly is delicious and the menu approachable, I still find Tanta’s popularity intriguing. Maybe Tanta’s success is a commentary on the type of food, price point and atmosphere that is in demand in River North more than anything else, but its success might have the extra effect of opening up Chicago to other similar imports or attention by international chefs. I think that would be a good thing.

Pujol and Quintonil, Mexico City

These restaurants are the real deal. As Mexico City dining continues to gain greater attention, these two restaurants stand above a very dense pack of excellent chef-driven restaurants.

Raku, Las Vegas

I finally made it to this beloved Japanese restaurant in Chinatown after hearing, again and again, how great it is. It is. I still dream of the sweet smoke that emanated from everything they grilled. The housemade tofu with the texture of fresh ricotta. The green tea salt. The pork rib. Food that was bold–and confident–with great service to boot.

Gramercy Tavern, NYC

I’ve been going here for years. Maybe it was the multiple visits on my last trip (I stayed only a few blocks from there), but, boy, I’ve been really missing this place lately. I visited during early September, when seasonal produce was at its height. A simple crudité plate was a study in vegetables — 3 types of beautifully executed, intensely-flavored sauces were paired with raw, tempura, blanched or roasted vegetables. A place that well understands seasonality and its ingredients, and is uniquely warm and comfortable as well, never goes out of style.

Yakitori Totto, NYC

I finally–and I mean, finally!–made it to Yakitori Totto, a popular mid-town restaurant located on the second floor of a non-descript building. It was about 85 degrees outside that late June night, and about 99 degrees inside Yakitori Totto, but somehow, that made it more appropriate. Not a dud here, food-wise. Pork neck was, by far, the standout, but egg dishes, rice dishes, they were all solid as well. At the end of the dinner, after ordering what seemed like enough dishes for an army, it was pleasant to see a relatively reasonable price charged for a meal in Midtown Manhattan.

Bemelman’s, NYC

A Bourdain favorite, I visited for the first time this past June. A New York must. It’s not just that Bemelman’s seems to represent so perfectly the Upper East side given that it’s part of a luxury art deco historic hotel, which is ornate and well-appointed beyond your wildest dreams. It’s that, to reach Bemelman’s, you have to go through the lobby and down a far remote corridor to a windowless, back room bar, itself a window into another time. Where else has murals by a famous artist (painted in exchange for room and board), or a truly talented piano player who plays compellingly during the afternoon, as if anyone could possibly have anything else to do during the afternoon than while away at Bemelman’s? Although the drinks are definitely reflective of the atmosphere (and clientele), the bartenders know somehow, magically, to make a proper classic cocktail even though they don’t have handlebar mustaches, speakeasy garb, or ironic facial hair.

Bar Ingles, Lima Peru

The Peruvian version of Bemelman’s (kind of) is Bar Ingles, in the Country Club Hotel in Lima. There’s something about this hotel–perhaps it’s the obvious colonial theme–that embodies South American dictator culture at its finest. Though I jest, the traditional European decor and finely-trained servers may simply be the hallmarks of high-end hospitality the world over, but, let’s get down to business, make a mean Pisco Sour. The meanest. This is a plush safe haven to kill time when, say, you’re waiting for your 2 am flight back to the States.

New York City, generally

Everyone who is interested in food and eating should go to NYC at least once a year, if they can. I love Chicago, but there is too much going on here to miss.

Husk Bar, Charleston, S.C.

Even more so than Husk The Restaurant, I cherished my time at Husk Bar. An adjacent building (I’m guessing it was the old kitchen and slaves’ quarters for the great house now occupied by Husk The Restaurant), this is the place to cool your heels and drink bourbon. If you’re hungry, have some country ham.

McCrady’s, Charleston, S.C.

I thought McCrady’s really showed off Sean Brock’s culinary chops. The high-end versions of Southern classics were serious, intellectual, inspired and truly delicious. One of the most refined tasting menus I had this year, and at a fraction of the price. I have to admit that I enjoyed my meal here far more than the bland one I had at Husk.

The 2013 Chicago Standbys

Vera

I need to have a small plates and wine-focused place to go to when I don’t know where else I’d want to go. Vera is my go-to place to relax, stop by to kill time on my way somewhere else, or to just “eat.” Meaning, I just want a delicious, satisfying plate of food and good wine. Vera answers that call every time and has solidified its place as the “go-to” in my life.

Telegraph

I have long followed Sommelier Jeremy Quinn’s unusual wine selections for years (too many to admit) at Webster’s Wine Bar. I’m thrilled that his wine selections are now seriously paired with seriously good food. The monthly wine tastings curated by Quinn that are paired with wine-appropriate food by Chef Anderes is one of the best bargains in town.

Rootstock

Rootstock hasn’t budged from prior years as my late night, early evening, whenever-I-just-want-to-drink-and-have-a-bite, or when I just want one-more-drink-before-going-home place. It’s about as perfect a wine bar as you can get. The food is good, too.

Davanti Enoteca (Taylor St.)/Three Aces

I go to the movies a lot during the winter. Before or after, and sometimes both, you can find me at either of these two fine places. Davanti is a really solid restaurant that, for whatever reason, doesn’t seem to be taken as seriously as it should. The pastas are almost always beautifully done and the wine is wonderful. What more do you need?

People complain about the service at Three Aces, but I always sit at the bar, and I’ve always had great service. Though the Italian food here is more creative and loosely translated than at Davanti, it seems to be the only bar food I actually crave, even if their bolognese is a tad salty at times. The pizza isn’t my favorite, but is $5 at times, which makes it a great bargain. I tend to stick with entrees (like the buckwheat gnocchi) or their delicious burger and bolognese fries and I’m happy.

Grace

I don’t eat top tier meals in Chicago all that often (who does, really?). I don’t subscribe to Next, so I’m not committed to any one place for high-end meals. For me, the place to have a splurge meal is Grace. In just one year, Chef Duffy has honed his food into something distinct, fresh, innovative, seasonal, bright, unique, and challenging in a way that doesn’t scare diners or shackle them to their chair for six hours. The pacing is perfect; my last meal lasted no more than three hours, and I left feeling full without hating myself. The service is personable, knowledgeable and confident. The room is pleasantly buzzing. This is what all splurge meals should be like.

Fat Rice

After going to Fat Rice on opening night, I was scared off by later talk of lines and crowds. Chef/owners Abe and Adrienne have responded to the waits with a customer-friendly option: the next-door salon, where you can comfortably wait with a drink and order snacks. During recent visit there, I waited 10 minutes for my table, but would have been comfortable waiting there for twice that time. As for the food, the explosive, dynamic flavors of their version of Portuguese-Macanese food is worth every national accolade they got. I’ll be back more during 2014.

The Disappointments

Show over Substance (Central, Lima, Peru; é by José Andrés, Las Vegas; Cook It Raw, Charleston)

Lima is more than willing to set its cuisine on a world stage. The problem is that, what happens when the world comes to judge? Central, the flagship restaurant by Virgilio Martinez, is second only to Gaston Acurio’s Astrid y Gaston in Lima. Judging it by international standards, the service is amaterish, and the plating is at once highly stylized (two swaths of food down plates) and terribly ugly (brown food sauced by brown food). There appears to be a lot of intellect behind the food that doesn’t really translate coherently on the plate.

é by José Andrés is an 8-seat restaurant behind Jaleo in The Cosmopolitan that stages two, very expensive culinary shows every night. It’s a Vegas-style schtick that takes the poof and magic of modernist cuisine, and puts it front and center. I’ll accept that I’m jaded, but this is a show for people who are totally unfamiliar with this style of cuisine. If you are familiar with this food, you’d expect the food on the plate to taste better. The culmination of the magic tricks were wan, tasteless, science experiments. Skip the Vegas show, and eat this style of food in more serious venues.

Cook It Raw! is an unfortunately named, week-long seminar of sorts for some of the world’s elite chefs (not all are world-class) that culminated, for the first time, with a BBQ that was open to the public. This made sense given the theme (Southern foodways). However, several chefs who were represented to be in attendance (Andre Chiang, Dan Barber, Ben Shewry, among others) were no-shows at the BBQ. The theme was loosely interpreted (tacos by “The Mexicans”, i.e., Javier Tellez, Enrique Olvera, and Alex Stupak), ignored entirely (Canadian food) or just badly executed (Albert Adrià’s dish was one but not the only one). A disappointment on the whole, but an excuse to go to Charleston and eat well elsewhere.

Las Vegas Strip in General

This is hardly a revelation, but I can’t seem to get my mind around how, for all the investment per square foot in restaurants on the Las Vegas Strip, the food only seems to be getting worse. Even finding a solid drink is tough, too, among all the Blue Hawaiians and faux-tinis. A strange place, culinarily, that seems to have perfected the synthesis of suburban chain restaurants and urban celebrity chefs.

Blue Hill at Stone Barns

I saved this for last, as it was the biggest heartbreaker. I’ve long been a fan of Dan Barber, his seasonal philosophy and his fearlessness in serving food that he raises or grows. The food was knock-your-socks-off delicious. The wine service was among the worst I’ve ever experienced, and tempered the rest of the meal. It was a terrible service experience that I don’t intend to repeat anytime soon, food notwithstanding.

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Mexico City At Its Finest (Quintonil and Pujol)

Myth: Culinary travelers should only eat “street” food when they travel to Mexico City.

Reality: There is more to Mexico City than tacos, flautas, and pozoles, delicious though they may be. Mexico City is, without question, one of the world’s great cosmopolitan cities. Like all cosmopolitan cities, it has world-class museums, a thriving business center, trendy boutique hotels, and, naturally, some of the world’s best restaurants. A short stroll around tonier neighborhoods like Condesa and Polanco reveal restaurant after restaurant upon wine and cocktail bars. To eat only street food in Mexico City is like visiting Chicago without going to a Paul Kahan restaurant. 

You should eat street food. (For that, I highly recommend Nicholas Gilman’s book, “Good Food in Mexico City: Food Stalls, Fondas & Fine Dining,” or the Culinary Backstreets blog.) The cultural benefit to eating street food in a city like Mexico City is not that it’s necessarily so unique that it’s worth seeking out for itself, but that it puts the food in context. Pozoles are commonly eaten at markets, and tacos al pastor are usually eaten off-the-street, perhaps after late afternoon drinks in Condesa.  If you have tacos on a Sunday afternoon or as a mid-afternoon snack at a market, you’re eating like a native; tacos all the time — well, you’re eating like a tourist backpacker.

I’ll rephrase: You should eat street food, but not exclusivelyMexico City is regularly placed in the upper echelon of global dining due to a group of extremely talented Mexican chefs that are worth seeking out. Based on my visit there, there is abundant local pride for these chefs, and the broad attention they’ve brought to the vast traditions and varied pantry of Mexican cuisine.

“From cab drivers to bus boys, they asked me, ‘Are you going to Pujol?'”

In particular, Enrique Olvera of Pujol and Jorge Vallejo of Quintonil are two Mexico City chefs that should not be missed. For those keeping count, Pujol ranked No. 17 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (2 places behind Alinea), and Quintonil is No. 22 on Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Pujol aspires to demand the world’s attention with its stark dining room and somewhat somber service that mimics the polished four-star service in Europe and the United States. The night I was there, half the dining room was filled with Americans. (In fairness, it was Thanksgiving weekend, essentially vacation time for Americans.) Quintonil, on the other hand, feels like an undiscovered neighborhood restaurant.

Pujol

Olvera, who opened Pujol 14 or so years ago, is somewhat of a wunderkind. His menu is a journey through many of the building blocks of Mexican cuisine. It is cerebral, mature, and extremely refined. It refers to family recipes, such as the Mole Madre, and an amped-up version of an elote, utilizing (or paying homage to) an aunt’s recipe, which is served in a pumpkin filled with the smell of sweet smoke that wafts across the dining room every time it is served.

That Mole Madre is a signature savory dish at Pujol is evident by its placement on the tasting menu before the palate cleanser. I’ve had a lot of bad moles in Chicago that were two-note or off-balance. Few are transcendent. Olvera’s mole is “aged,” and “fed” over time like a bread starter. I tasted it on the 237th day of its existence. (For those wondering how long Pujol will keep a mole, the restaurant plans to toss it on Day 365 and start over.) It was rich and savory with developed dark bittersweet chocolate and dried-fruit notes–not unlike an aged Zinfandel–but with a subtle heat from chili pepper as opposed to alcohol. It was only served with a tortilla. It didn’t need anything more.

A huitlacoche dish was gorgeously delicate, balancing its earthy flavor against sweet pureed tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes appeared again along with chiles in a chilacayota squash dish. The squash was prepared filet-style as you might with a piece of fish, and distilled in one dish why Mexicans  have such a love affair with all types of squash. The rest of the tasting menu combined diverse ingredients in single plates but never strayed too far from authentic Mexican flavors and traditions — for example, in an homage to raspado, the classic summer refresher similar to a snow cone, chico zapote (similar to mamey) acted as a palate cleanser; tonka beans came together with ground cherries as a tart-savory dessert. Olvera is not trying to be the modernist Mexican version of Grant Achatz. He’s uniquely connected to and understands his culture’s cuisine, but he’s unafraid of letting it express itself as a more sophisticated version of itself.

Quintonil

The other side of the coin is the more casual Quintonil, which walks a line between heartier, more homespun food and refinement. Behind Quintonil are two young people, chef Jorge Vallejo, and his wife, Alejandra Flores, who runs the front of the house. (I have encountered few front of the house people who are as gracious, precise and warmly sophisticated as Flores.) Though deliberately more approachable, this food is no less delicious or modern in refining traditional food, and there is a special emphasis (at least when I was there) on blending the cuisine of the various regions. Although I had often encountered diced panela cheese in soups in Mexico City, I wasn’t quite prepared for how refined simple Oaxacan string-cheese can be in a soup. This soup was smooth and creamy, and made richer by chunks of crispy pork belly, and rounder by sweet plaintain. If comfort food is soulfully satisfying, then I guess this is Mexican comfort food at its best.

One of the more interesting dishes was ‘huauzontles,’ which is an oblique reference to the name of the restaurant (Spanish for amaranth). The slightly bitter huauzontles (a member of the goosefoot family) were boiled, minced fine, and served with a sweet tomato sauce and cheese from Chiapas. Mexico benefits from year-round production of crops like tomatoes and peaches that are highly seasonal in the Midwest. Thus, Quintonil and Pujol had the luxury of using tomatoes in November in pleasing ways to offset either the richness or bitterness of certain dishes, and Quintonil’s naturally sweet tomato puree was a welcome foil to greens that are not themselves a major culinary draw. Chilacoyota squash made an encore appearance at Quintonil, where it was treated quite differently than at Pujol, and served with a strong, savory mole, showing how versatile an ingredient pumpkin is. In a city filled with craft cocktail bars, Quintonil’s cocktails, made with a panoply of indigenous Mexican ingredients and Mezcals, were especially well-crafted.

Mexico City is a relatively cheap, three-and-a-half hour flight from Chicago. Rather than devote money to doing another season at Next, why not fly down to Mexico City to experience their gustatory coming out party?