In Pursuit of Barolo and Barbaresco: Visiting Piemonte, Italy

 

People go to Florence for the Duomo; Rome, the Colosseum; and Tuscany, the art. As the home to Alba white truffles and world-class wine, most people go to Piemonte for food and wine.

Italy’s most treasured red wines are found in the regions of Barolo and Barbaresco, located south of Alba in Piemonte. Made entirely from the Nebbiolo grape, it is natural to compare Barolo and Barbaresco to single-varietal Burgundy. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the primary grapes in Burgundy, grow all over the world. By contrast, Nebbiolo only really thrives in cooler-climate Northern Italy, and is harvested after a long, nail-biting growing season when any manner of things can go wrong and kill a crop. To hedge against the possibility of disaster, Nebbiolo producers also make wine made from less temperamental and more humble grapes like Dolcetto, Barbera, Arneis, Favorita, Freisa and Grignolino.

At first glance, the light, almost transparent, red hue of Barolo and Barbaresco is deceiving, and masks their powerful, complex characteristics of licorice, leather, hazelnuts, roses, violets, white truffle, high acidity and strong tannins. Many wines need to develop for at least 15 years. They are very reliable investments, though, as both regions have fortunately experienced multiple, consecutive high-rated vintages over the last decade.

A visit to Piemonte presents the opportunity to learn close-up about these exceptional, family-run wineries. Without any must-see tourist temples to distract, it’s easy to fall into a relaxed routine of scheduling winery visits around sightseeing and two-hour lunches in distinct, medieval towns. Though Michelin-starred restaurants are ample, it’s better to eat at the abundant local trattorie serving impeccable traditional dishes and housing extensive wine collections.

Sketching An Itinerary

The wines vary tremendously so it helps to understand a little about them before creating an itinerary full of winery visits. I scheduled visits based not just on favorite producers, but their use of different winemaking techniques and crus. I also veered toward smaller-scale producers.

My trip started in Serralunga d’Alba in the Barolo region. Serralunga is an ideal homebase for visiting the wineries of Cavallotto, Paolo Scavino and Vietti in nearby Castiglione Falletto. Later on in the week, I moved to La Morra, on the other side of Barolo, as a launchpad for visiting Barbaresco and La Morra producers.

By staying in two different places, it was easier for me to experience the various communes and restaurants that dot the region. Perched at the top of a steep hill, Serralunga is a sleepy pedestrian-only town with cobbled medieval streets and a castle. It is worth a brief stop for the castle, as well as a 12-table restaurant called Vinoteca Centro Storico, which is on the bucket lists of every visiting restaurant professional. (I’ll tell you why later.) The relatively more chaotic La Morra has a mix of modern and medieval buildings, and teems with mopeds, cars, tourists, shops and enotecas.

What Matters (or Not) About Barolo and Barbaresco

Differences between Barolo and Barbaresco

The soil. The climate. Barbaresco produces more approachable wines than Barolo because it benefits from a milder climate and shorter ripening season. The limestone soils of Barbaresco make more feminine, less tannic wines that require less aging. On the whole, Barolo is bigger, more tannic and acidic, and requires more aging to develop. Within Barolo, there are significant differences depending upon where the wine is grown. Calcareous marl soils in La Morra and Barolo commune produce lighter-hued, softer and more floral wines, whereas in Serralunga, sandstone yields grapes that produce more muscular, structured wines that need more aging. Castiglione Falletto wines are somewhere in the middle.

Blending v. Single Vineyards

Historically, Barolo, in particular, was made from blending wine from various sites throughout the area. The idea of producing a bottle that came from one cru, or designated site, is a relatively modern idea dating back to the swinging 1970s. Even so, placing the name of the cru on bottles did not happen until about the 1980s, and then it was viewed with suspicion. And even more so, the crus were not officially demarcated until 2007 and 2009 for Barbaresco and Barolo, respectively.

I do not intend to make these wine regions sound like the Wild West, though it does demonstrate how they are constantly evolving. By today’s standards, Maria Teresa Mascarello’s dogged adherence to the tradition bestowed by her father, Bartolo, to produce only blended Barolo, seems downright renegade. The vast majority of other producers make wine from specific crus and label them accordingly. Opponents claim that single-vineyard wines are marketing-drivel and pander to international consumer demands. They point to marketing abuses by certain larger producers in taking liberties with labeling crus on the bottles, thus rendering some crus undefinable and meaningless (as is arguably Bussia, which covers more terrain than it should and may be a dubious indicator of quality).

But, it’s hard to deny that many single vineyard wines are great examples of terroir. They are not going anywhere soon, so anyone who really wants to appreciate Barolo should not take a side about blending versus single vineyard wines. Both types are outstanding.

The Controversial “Modern” Techniques

People have strong opinions about this subject. What I’m referring to is the so-called modernization of winemaking in Barolo and Barbaresco, beginning in the 1960s.

Traditionally, Barolo was made using time-worn techniques constrained by harsh realities such as a lack of water and the devastation of war. Wines were aged in huge botti casks, passed down from generation to generation, that leaked and were rarely cleaned. When the younger generation took over winemaking in the 1960s, they, quite understandably, wanted to do things differently than their predecessors. Some of them did away with the big bottis in favor of aging wine in small barrels, known as barriques. Many of the resulting wines were bigger and consequently more palatable to Americans accustomed to big California cabernet sauvignons. It worked for awhile as critics like Robert Parker awarded them high scores.

Time cures all, and winemakers started to wonder if these new techniques really showed Nebbiolo in the best light. The new(er) practice of aging Nebbiolo in barriques can bring too many “foreign” flavors to the wine, like toast, vanilla and espresso. So bottis have reappeared (although they are cleaned, scraped and replaced more often). As fermentation and aging are now a combination of the old and new techniques, classifying a winery as “modern” versus “traditional” is misleading.

The Crus

Understanding the crus is the key to unlocking the varieties and complexities of Barolo and Barbaresco. Generally speaking, certain vineyards within Barolo and Barbaresco are regarded as producing more intriguing wines. It helps to schedule visits to winemakers, such as Scavino, Vietti, and Produttori del Barbaresco, who produce wine from a variety of crus. Just as important as where the grapes are grown are the farming practices employed in the vineyard. Canopy management, pruning, pest control and even planting grass between the rows, all impact the final product.

The Producers

By and large, wineries in Barolo and Barbaresco are proudly family-run. In this day and age, where wine is so often produced by corporate-owned estates, it is remarkable that major wineries are still passed down through the generations. As the wineries are inherited, they are occasionally passed down to daughters, so Barolo and Barbaresco possess an unusually high number of female winemakers.

These small(er)-production wineries are completely transparent about their winemaking, and will take visitors through their production facilities (or, in the case of Cavallotto, out to their vineyard) even on days when they are buzzing with activity. (When I was there in September, Vietti was harvesting Barbera right outside the door to our tasting room.) The families are welcoming, willing to talk in great detail about their wine, and will pour you an extensive tasting. Most of the time, they charge sweet little for this incredible experience or wave off any offer of payment. They are hardworking, smart and hospitable people, which is the primary reason why a wine visit to Piemonte is so rewarding and educational.

Next: My visits to winemakers in Barolo and Barbaresco, the international treasure that is Vinoteca Centro Storico, and why they consume so much Champagne in Barolo.

St. Kitts: Still Overlooked But Not For Long

You’re truly not prepared for the relative seclusion of St. Kitts until your 737 or propeller-driven regional plane lands at Robert Bradshaw Airport. There are no gates or jetways; you deplane in the middle of the tarmac and walk the windy 400 feet over to the terminal building, which is smaller than the average Costco. With surrounding mountains standing in as the airport’s natural boundary, the secluded Bradshaw airport looks the part of a Hollywood tropical destination.

After a short drive through neighborhood streets, the views of the mountains and sea reappear. As you approach your resort (probably in Frigate Bay), you’ll pass a few beach shacks, stores and restaurants, and that’s about it. Cruise ships drop anchor in Basseterre, the main port and commercial center of the island, but even on cruise ship days, the island feels uncrowded. And when the cruise ships don’t come in, you’re likely to share a gorgeous Caribbean beach like Cockleshell with only a handful of other people.

This seclusion on St. Kitts is not likely to last long. Though higher-end resort properties have been slow to develop–a planned Mandarin Oriental in St. Kitts was scrapped in 2013–a Park Hyatt is supposedly opening this year and Kittitian Hill, an upscale eco-resort, partially opened in late 2014. The latter, in particular, is poised to re-define St. Kitts’ reputation in the Caribbean, and it was one of the reasons the New York Times ranked St. Kitts No. 34 on its heralded list of 52 Places To Go in 2015.

For now, though, St. Kitts’ marooned-on-a-deserted-island vibe is still intact. The best way to enjoy St. Kitts is to go to a beach and grab a chair near a beach shack (a hut clad in corrugated metal painted with the name of the shack). When you’re hungry, take a table in the shack and order off the white specials board, and wait patiently for a full plate of Caribbean-inspired food made from fresh-caught seafood like Caribbean spiny lobster or snapper, or Jamaican jerk served with Caribbean rice and beans. Every island has its own signature hot sauce, and in St. Kitts, it’s Brimstone, made from local hot red peppers that is spicy with a tinge of sweetness. (Brimstone hot sauce is named for Brimstone Hill, the UNESCO heritage site built by the British beginning in 1690 that served as its fortress and military defense to protect investments in sugar cane plantations.)

In all their ramshackle glory, these beach shacks mask a culinary seriousness. They also serve an important purpose in providing clean bathrooms and sometimes showers when you’re at the beach, as well as keeping your beer or drink full.

Driving Around the Island

A car rental provides the important means to escape the resort for meals. It’s also the best way to explore the island. Taxis are expensive–even the shortest trip runs at least $12.00. It took me no more than 5 minutes to get used to driving is on the left side of the road, especially because traffic moves slowly due to liberally-potholed roads and hairpin turns around the mountains. The main roads run along the edge of the island, so there are spectacular views of the Caribbean and the Atlantic–sometimes at the same time on Dr. Simmonds highway, which bisects the narrow, winding Southeastern peninsula that splits the Atlantic from the Caribbean.

Beach Shacks

My favorite beach shacks are on the Southeast Peninsula. Jam Rock, located on South Friars Bay, was a particular favorite for food and sunsets. The beach at South Friars Bay is small and the chairs at Jam Rock are dilapidated, but there’s a lot of pride in this Jamaican-owned shack that produces faithful versions of jerk and island-inspired seafood. Through the spotless open kitchen, you can see the white-coated chefs proudly plating food on china and garnishing them with spices and finely chopped herbs.

I went three times to the Spice Mill, which is cradled in the bend of Cockleshell Beach on the Caribbean side and has a clear view of the island of Nevis. Calling the Spice Mill a “shack” is a slight misdescription, because its spacious, spruced-up interior distinguishes it from other shacks and attracts a more upscale crowd. It’s still a beach shack in spirit, though, even if the beach chairs are posher and the bathrooms are some of the cleanest in St. Kitts. The food is also good, and they make a mean rum punch (not red from grenadine, God forbid, or bright orange from too much juice). If you want to splurge on champagne on the beach (not admitting anything), they’ll bring it over in an ice bucket and give you glass flutes. All of this while managing to preserve a laid back, boho beach charm. The Spice Mill should be everyone’s first beach stop in St. Kitts.

At some beach shacks, it’s tough to distinguish between the food and the ambiance. Does the food taste better if there’s sand between your feet? That’s how I felt when I went to St. Kitts’ answer to Señor Frogs, Reggae Beach Club. Reggae Beach, which does a robust business in t-shirt sales, is located on attractive Cockleshell Beach. Despite the touristy vibe, it serves a decent plate of food. I gave a pass to their popular beach cookout on Friday nights (the only night they serve dinner), and opted for a more tranquil weekend afternoon lunch when the cruise ships haven’t docked. Unoriginal as it may be, Reggae Beach is still worth a visit.

Upscale Evening Dining

The few truly upscale dining options in St. Kitts are in new developments like Kittitian Hill or Christophe Harbor. The Pavilion in Christophe Harbor is a private club that is open to the public for dinner only. The cliffside “Pavilion” denotes the well-appointed bar and restaurant that serves carefully-prepared though conceptually-safe food, undoubtedly the result of The Pavilion needing to satisfy the tastes of its private club patrons.

Even more upscale and infinitely more ambitious is The Kitchen at Belle Mont Farm, part of the determinedly aspirational investment property on Kittitian Hill. Kittitian Hill is an eco-resort and working farm that was built by Asia-based architect, Bill Bensley, who has designed other Conde Nast-caliber resorts. Located on the Northeast side of the island, you’ll need either a car or driver to get here, but definitely get here before the sun sets on spectacular views of nearby St. Eustatius and St. Barths islands.

Getting here is an adventure in itself, especially if you’re doing the driving. As you turn off the main road onto Kittitian Hill, your car dips and bumps along a dirt, potholed road that is gashed every twenty feet or so by drainage ditches. After driving for a few miles past fruit orchards–when you really start to wonder if you’re in the right place–you reach a small security shack, and after checking in, continue on to what they’re calling the “potting shed,” a decidedly un-shed-like building. There, you switch out your car for a chauffeur-driven golf cart that takes you up to the reconstructed sugar mill where The Kitchen is located. (Because it was raining after dinner, the resort treated us to a posh black car ride back down.) Once at the top of the hill, you walk through a grand stone entry past what they call the “Great Wall,” an arcade canopied by stone archways that lead you past the hotel’s secluded pool and the largest, best-equipped gym you’ll ever see at a hotel. (When I walked by, there was nobody using either the pool or gym.)

Who is Kittitian Hill appealing to? A resort employee told me they get a lot of writers, as the seclusion allows them to work. I have a feeling it’s meant to appeal to the Gwyneth Paltrow Goop jet-set who are tired of simple luxury but want to commune with the locals who carefully farm the fruit that goes into their energy drinks for their cleanses. Time will tell, though, if this is a new model of luxury — certainly Kittitian Hill’s lack of beach access and 30 minute drive from the airport are downsides. (I understand that the owners have acquired another beachside property that will provide the resort with a Northern black-sand beach in the future.)

The Kitchen serves as the resort’s restaurant but is appointed like any four-star restaurant. No expense has been spared–tables are made of thick carrera marble, and the custom, saloon-style stall doors in the bathrooms soar over ten feet high. As only a few travel bloggers have ever written about the place, it’s no surprise that only five other tables were occupied the night I was there in mid-February. The restaurant has only been opened since December, so the service, which aspires to provide the sort of polished, team-style service common in the world’s best restaurants, is still a little rough around the edges. The menu is a flexible tasting menu where you can order four or more dishes from a selection of 12. (Why don’t more restaurants do this?) The dishes are listed on the menu from lightest to heaviest, so ordering down the menu means you’ll be served them in the proper order. The food focuses on seasonal produce and local fish and meat (even so, the menu is fairly vegetable-heavy). A seven-course menu ran about $95.

It’s odd that I’ve heard almost nothing about The Kitchen’s chef, because the food was uniformly delicious, elevated and focused on clean Caribbean flavors. The plating and preparation was flawless. The website touts its local suppliers, perhaps rightly so (there’s a video of an islander catching fresh lobster) but does not mention the name of the executive chef who was in charge when I was there. I learned this information by googling press releases issued last year (his name is Christophe Letard), which might denote an uncomfortableness the resort has either with Letard or an executive chef period. Anyway, according to Chef Letard’s online resume, his prior experience is at the government house in British Columbia and a few other high-end Caribbean resorts. Given the dearth of other upscale resorts in St. Kitts, there is no feeder system for staffing, so Letard seems to be taking on the task of training The Kitchen’s workforce for a more ambitious, refined operation. His presence in the open kitchen was forceful, often loudly admonishing the servers for standing around instead of attending to diners, and correcting the cooks for not firing up dishes more efficiently. As abrasive as he seemed at times, there is no doubt that St. Kitts needs someone like him to get the island’s service into shape.

Which goes to my last thought – as friendly as the people are in St. Kitts, the service can sour very quickly, as they are often slow, untrained, or lacking a clear understanding of what their job is. This is not to discourage anyone from visiting, but I think as more resorts come on the island, the training will be more clear and consistent. But with that refinement comes a chipping away of the unspoiled seclusion that St. Kitts currently offers. Go now before that happens.

Places I like in West Michigan 2014 (Saugatuck-Douglas-Fennville edition)

I have been a part-time resident of this area for 8 years, mostly during the summer and fall months. Saugatuck, Douglas and Fennville is the tri-town resort area located on the Eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Saugatuck, with its New England-esque seaside town architecture, attracts the most tourists and has the worst restaurants of the three towns. Adjacent Douglas looks like a Midwestern Americana movie set,  and it’s less congested and has better food and drink options.

Fennville (where my house is) is the rural component of the three — its long agricultural history is apparent with miles of rolling farmland, orchards and vineyards. “Main Street” has become an ubiquitous cliché, but here, the main street literally bisects the sleepy downtown and a working freight train route cross-cuts it perpendicularly. It has only one restaurant of note — and a damn good one at that. When you approach downtown Fennville and see the cars lining the streets — they’re there for one thing and one thing only — Salt of the Earth, the farm-to-table restaurant that spawned from its brilliant progenitor, Journeyman Café, itself a farm-to-table restaurant, albeit more along the lines of Blue Hill in Westchester County, New York. It was the vision of Chef Matt Millar and served fine, ambitious food, and was even reviewed by the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Vettel. Alas, it was too ahead of its time to make a go of it. Its replacement, Salt of the Earth, is more casual and serves food that is more budget-friendly, standard-portioned, and the omnipresent pizza on the menu ensures that kids will do fine there, too. Voilà, it just celebrated its 5th birthday.

Some things to keep in mind when you visit the area:

  • You will not find Chicago-caliber restaurants here. Just as you wouldn’t expect to find great Southern BBQ in Thailand, why would you expect the same caliber of trend-setting, high-level dining in an area with a population of less than 10,000? In other words, it’s best to leave the city mindset at home.
  • Having said that, there are a lot of restaurants that are unspeakably — unnecessarily — bad. As in, you could make a better sandwich at home than the one they’re selling on their menu. Or the quality of ingredients is barely human-grade due to sourcing the cheapest stuff from Big Food Supplier. Some small improvements by lots of these restaurants would go a long way toward improving the food offerings.
  • If you like wine, there are several places that have excellent bottles on their wine lists without the mark-up of Chicago restaurants. Drink up.

where to go in Saugatuck

Phil’s Bar & Grille — the locals’ bar is still solid, especially if you stick with their broasted chicken. The secret here is the above-average wine list, which is reasonably-priced, and doesn’t gouge you on the by-the-glass prices.

Uncommon Grounds — go here for coffee and breakfast. They roast their own coffee, do a mean pourover, and their baked goods are fresh and genuinely homemade.

Marro’s *pizza only* Marro’s pizza is in style of Chicago Italian tavern, and it’s quite good. Italian entrees are hit and miss. It closes off-season, so go soon.

Clearbrook Grill *wine only* Go here only to have a good bottle or three from their respectable wine cellar and skip eating. The restaurant with its Colonial-inspired decor might invoke nostalgia in a good sense, and the view out to the golf course is beautiful on a nice day. Clearbrook once had a formal dining space with decent food along with a Wine Spectator-blessed wine cellar, but they were understandably the victims of economic-downturn retrenching. Clearbrook needs to overhaul its menu and charge more for its food and source better ingredients. (If you must eat, order a steak.) The wine cellar remains, the wine is still reasonably priced, and it’s a civilized place to watch a game on TV.

Where to go in Douglas

Everyday People Cafe  — Though the menu hasn’t changed much over the years, I still think this is the place to go for a “night out” in the area. The menu mostly plays it safe, but the food is generally well-executed by Chef Michael Bild, who oversees a kitchen that often puts out banquet-level covers on summer weekends. More than that, the vibe is fun, there is a verdant outdoor patio in the back, and it’s always crowded, so be prepared to wait for a table. Their burger is fantastic – intensely beefy and appropriately juicy, served simply with pickles and frizzled onions — it’s one of my favorites anywhere. On weekend afternoons, their Bubbles & Bites lunch — including champagne, raw bar and build-your-own-bloody marys —  is one of your best options for a leisurely lunch.

Pizza Mambo — The best pizza in the area — thin-ish crust, tavern cut, and high-quality ingredients. The antipasto salad is an embarrassment of riches with salami, prosciutto, grilled sausage, hunks of parmigiano-reggiano and provolone cheese, giardiniera and a variety of olives.

Farmhouse Deli — Caterer/chef Christine Ferris’ deli is doing a lot of great things in-house, including roasting meats, making soups and carry-out salads, and creating a global assortment of refined sandwiches. This is the area’s more modern version of the Hampton’s infamous Barefoot Contessa. Farmhouse Deli also stocks epicurean groceries, cheeses, and charcuterie. It’s great for lunch or for supplementing dinner. Also, it’s one of two places for decent coffee in Douglas (Equal Exchange). (Don’t say I didn’t warn you not to go to Respite, where the default coffee is “flavored.” Last I checked “Cookies on Call” in Douglas was serving Intelligentsia, if you consider that to be decent.)

WayPoint Restaurant — located behind M&M Blue Star cafe, it is a decent option for a classic, diner-style fry-up breakfast in Douglas. Order carefully (don’t do eggs benedict or anything that strays too far from short-order diner fare), and you’ll do fine. I would get coffee elsewhere first and bring it with you to the restaurant lest you’d prefer to drink Gordon Food Service’s finest. No ambiance to speak of, unless you think eating in the waiting room of your dentist in the 1980s counts as adequate restaurant ambiance.

Petter Wine Gallery — go here to drink wine. Unlike most places that reserve their best bottles for their bottle lists, PWG opens bottles that retail between $18- $50 to taste or drink by the glass. The wine bar is located in an interesting art gallery–a unique setting for a glass of wine or two. The wine shop also offers some of the best retail bottles in the area — including a great selection of European and California bottles — if you want to splurge for a barbeque or picnic.

Where to go in Fennville

Salt of the Earth — pretty much the only game in town. Committed to responsible, quality, and local sourcing. Chef Matthew Pietsch — who has comparatively elevated kitchen experience for the area — is genuinely talented. Unfortunately, the pizza, which was once stellar years ago, has undergone so many changes that the most recent incarnation is not worth ordering (the crust is now too doughy). Lately, the best thing Salt of the Earth is doing is brunch — housemade sausage, farm-fresh eggs, and house-baked bread and jam made from local fruit ensure that breakfast will be a winner. Again, bring coffee with you — or better yet — have a breakfast cocktail, as the coffee served here by Contreras Coffee is bitter beyond drinkability. (The terrible coffee here is a serious deficiency that I wish the restaurant would correct.) Concerts on Tuesdays in summer and Sundays in the off-season attract some of the area’s best folk, country and bluegrass acts, and are well-worth attending even if you’re not sold on that type of music. Don’t forget to visit the garden off of Main Street that supplies the restaurant with some of their food.

Crane’s Pie Pantry & Bakery— Skip the restaurant in Crane’s Orchards and head straight for the adjacent bakery. Go here for their homey, decidedly non-fussy pie and ice cream (the apple butter version is particularly good), and freshly made and ridiculously cheap apple cider donuts (sixty cents apiece). I also recommend their Apple Butter bread (do you sense a theme here?). The orchards or Gary Crane’s farm across the street are both great places to pick tree fruits like peaches and more apples varieties than you can imagine.

Earl’s Farm Market — go here for U-pick or We-pick berries and South Haven’s popular Sherman’s ice cream. The on-site bakery carries good, unpretentious pies and cookies. These are the type of baked goods your grandmother would make (assuming your grandmother doesn’t give a hoot about the fat content of the butter and likes the flakiness given of shortening to a crust).

The Tasting Room at Evergreen Lane Farm & Creamery — La Mancha, Nubian and Saanen goats are raised here, milked at nearby Windshadow Farm, and between the two farms, they create some of the most fantastic goat cheese you’ll taste. Sample the varieties here on the farm.

Local Products Worth Picking Up

Palazzolo’s Gelato — once served in one form or another at the ultra-snooty former bakery Pasticceria Natalina in Chicago. The gelato is made in Fennville and can be found in grocery stores in the area, including Fernwood 1891, a general store/art studio in downtown Fennville that carries the most varieties. (You can also buy Evergreen Lane cheese here too.)

SeedySalt bread — One of the farmers/bakers at Kismet Bakery was purportedly the inventor of local cult favorite bread, SeedySalt, back when it was served at the Journeyman Café. It’s a sourdough bread topped with, as the name suggests, a variety of seeds and coarse French sea salt and baked in a wood-fired oven. It’s really good. Available at Kismet Farm or Summertime Market on Blue Star Highway in Douglas. You can find the facsimile of SeedySalt made by Salt of the Earth at various grocery stores in the area or at the restaurant. The two are virtually indistinguishable, flavor-wise, but I think the superior bread-making skills at Kismet give it the edge.

Earl’s Farm Market 5-pepper hot sauce — Available at Summertime Market in Douglas and Earl’s Farm Market in Fennville. Medium-hot and a little sweet, the variety of peppers suggest a Hungarian-style hot sauce rather than a Southern barrel-aged Tabasco.

Evergreen Lane Creamery cheese — Available retail throughout the area, including Farmhouse Deli, Fernwood 1891 and Summertime Market.

American Spoon Foods — Available lots of places, I know, but the shop in downtown Saugatuck carries some staples that should make it to your cottage or on to your picnic table: Whole-Seed Mustard is made with Michigan Sparkling wine, which sweetens the intense bite of the mustard seeds and causes them to burst on your tongue as you eat it; the concentrated, complex Dried Chile Salsa is a great accompaniment to eggs, meat and almost anything savory; and the Leelanau Apricot Preserves, made with Leelanau Peninsula apricots (the best I’ve ever had in Michigan) is more pleasantly tart than the cloying apricot jam made with California apricots.

BBQ wines at Fenn Valley Winery — It seems strange recommending reds from a Michigan winery, but a consistently reliable, non-vintage fruity red called “Capriccio” made by Fenn Valley (it is even sold by the liter box, it’s so unpretentious) will be a thousand times more enjoyable with your smoked barbeque meats than the high-alcohol, raisin-y, oft-recommended California Zinfandels. For something more substantial, I like the Meritage, a dry red blend of locally-grown Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

 

 

If you ever find yourself in Columbus…

…as I did for several months, you’re going to want to know where to eat. For much of the end of 2013 into the first half of 2014, I essentially relocated to Columbus due to an on-going/never-ending work project. You know you’ve departed your dear Chicago for a long while when Foursquare (now Swarm) welcomes you home when you check in at Port Columbus Airport (and generates a report of the places you visited during your “trip” to Chicago).

Adjusting to Columbus had its ups and downs. One thing is for sure, the people who live here are very sure that Columbus is the best place to live, work, eat and drink. (They’re also quick to tell you how “clean” it is. It’s true; Columbus is very clean.) I can’t be so enthusiastic — in order to find a restaurant in Columbus that I’d gladly go back to, I had to make my way through many mediocre, overrated local favorites: Barcelona Tapas, Mitchell’s Steakhouse, De Novo, Elevator Brewery, etc. When I travel for business, I’m a firm believer that there must be diamonds in the rough–even in the greater downtown areas–that are perhaps not perfect, but perfectly good.

Two initial notes: One, stay at the Hilton. Two, many Columbus restaurants appear to be clones from other cities. The Pearl Restaurant, Tavern and Oyster Bar riffs on NYC’s The Dutch, and Marcella’s seems like a near-duplicate of Chicago’s Quartino down to the font on the menu. The infamous NoMAD chicken made an appearance on my room service menu at the Hilton. There’s even a taco joint called “Bakersfield” that seems to directly conjure up Big Star (minus the humongous patio and scene).

Another somewhat-interesting factoid is that Columbus is an incubator of sorts for chain lunch concepts. Based on what I’ve seen, I’d expect a lot of Chipotle clones coming soon to you — concepts where you choose your appropriately-ethnicized version of chicken and its scarfing-vehicle (tortilla, lavash, etc.), then you run down the line stuffing it with an abundance of culturally out-of-context and culinarily-discordant toppings.

I thanked the Gods every day for the downtown location of Café Brioso, which roasts its beans on site, pours over, and has richest latte I’ve ever had due to, I think, their sourcing of what they proclaim to be the “best milk in Ohio.”

One strong positive about eating lunch downtown in Columbus is that small-city economics preserves some truly great places that would have been snuffed out in larger cities by high rents or the slim profit margins that result from serving a lunch-only crowd. One such place is El Arepazo, a Venezuelan/pan-Latin eat-in/take-out restaurant that churns out delicious, carefully-prepared dishes to hundreds of office workers daily. It’s hard to beat paying $7 for an excellent arepa with assertively-seasoned braised pork or $10 for carne asada with excellent-quality, again, well-seasoned skirt steak. The real star at El Arepazo, though, is their house-made “cilantro” sauce, a bit of a misnomer, because it is a spicy blend of many ingredients beyond cilantro that I’d drink by the glass if offered. I miss this place every day now that I’m back in Chicago.

Sí Señor, another pan-Latin place but with a Peruvian focus, offers large, baked empanadas with the traditional filling of ground beef, eggs, and raisins, and South American-inspired sandwiches — the best in my opinion is the “Jumping Beef”, which is like a Peruvian version of Chicago’s Italian Beef. Consider the genuinely homemade desserts like a rich, Peruvian-style lime pie, a daringly tall trés leches cake, and a deeply-caramelized flan that is offered by the slice. Sí Señor successfully hits many high notes of the iconic Route 66 diner (meat, sandwiches, desserts) but with a distinct Latin focus.

Dinner presents more of a challenge. Every menu reserves real estate for a boring filet-and-mashed potatoes plate among other snoozer dishes that offer little in the way of conception, finesse or seasoning. Short North, the major restaurant area in Columbus, turns into a veritable club scene on the weekend. Walking up High Street, it’s hard not to feel like you’re on a smaller, less developed version of the Vegas Strip, between the gaggles of scantily-clad clubgoers and roving packs of bros. It’s hard to get much worse than the Arena District and the block-long Venetian-esque arcade that houses the Hyde Park Steakhouse, Bar 23 and Eleven. There’s even a Ted’s Montana Grill in the area. If you have to be in Short North on the weekend, get in a cab and eat at the comparatively mature, low-key German Village neighborhood a few short miles away.

There, you should eat at Harvest, an artisanal pizza place located adjacent to Curio, a craft cocktail bar. The cocktails skew a tad too sweet, but you won’t regret spending a little time in the vintage, low-slung brick house that has as much precious charm as, say, a curio cabinet. The pizza part of the business spills out onto a tranquil patio where the brick-oven pies may be a tad too creatively-topped, but the carefully-prepared crust make up for any shortcomings that offering a Hawaiian pizza may imply (by the way, it’s seemingly ubiquitous in Ohio).

Another worthy patio in German Village is Lindey’s, which has an enclosed garden with a back bar under the trees and among the fountains. Lindey’s food is executed as well as you’d expect an above-average hotel to make food, meaning that they can properly cook and plate a protein, pair it with an appropriate sauce and garnish, and select a filling starch. Lindey’s isn’t worth going to unless you sit outside — that is, if you don’t want to be reminded of 1980s banquet halls, as the tired inside decor suggests.

When the weekdays roll around again and it’s safe to go back to Short North, Rigsby’s Kitchen and The Pearl are favorites, although I feel like they both execute just short of the mark. Rigsby’s gets points for quality meat sourcing (such as beef from Pat La Frieda and some local whole hog butchering). It also has some well-executed, creative starters, and a good wine list. The bar area is a great place to have a solo weekday dinner. The Pearl gets credit for just attempting to be something more conceptual than most Columbus restaurants.

The place that most impressed me is somewhere in between Short North and downtown in a desolate stretch of road: Wolf’s Ridge Brewery. They’ve yet to distribute, so this is the only place in the world to try their impressive, house-brewed beer. The food is executed with polish and finesse, and hopefully, is a harbinger of a new style of modern American restaurants in Columbus. Patronize this diamond-in-the-rough before you succumb to another mediocre meal in Columbus.*

*Yes, I know about Jeni’s. Very good ice cream. Also: ubiquitous.

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.

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?

Dissecting the Michelin Hype & Is There A Bias Against Chicago?

I read this tweet by Grant Achatz yesterday and thought, here we go again, like it or not, it’s Michelin time:

Michelin less then a month away. How many three stars in Chicago this year? And any for Next? @curtisduffy @dcberan @MichelinGuideCH

Unlike Mr. Achatz, though, I’m less interested in predicting the restaurants that will win (or lose) stars than in the one part of his tweet about Next, which I think refers to the fact that Next has been shut out of the awards in any regard despite ceaseless national hype, the unquestionable top-tier talent of Chef Dave Beran, and the receipt of four stars for each incarnation by Phil Vettel of the Chicago Tribune.

Michelin as a gauge of restaurant quality is increasingly questionable. Its vague standards seem to be applied in a patchwork fashion from city-to-city. I’ve heard Hong Kong decried as the place with the most unworthy Michelin-starred restaurants. On the other end of the spectrum, I think, is Chicago, which seems to have had an unusually difficult time getting its restaurants awarded stars. So much that Michelin may be on the brink of losing any local credibility whatsoever.

The onset of the yearly Michelin announcement seems to have divided Chicago into two camps. One camp dismisses Michelin as an archaic novelty from the pre-internet days, and complain if it is given any attention (I’ll call them the “Emotional Distancers”). The other camp believes deep-down that Michelin is elite and influential, and mainly wants to see their city’s beloved restaurants afforded the prestige of Michelin star-designation (these are the “True Believers”).

If there’s one thing both camps seem to agree on is that there is a Michelin bias against Chicago. According to them, this is evidenced by the irrational omission of Next, and the inclusion of very traditional, predictable restaurants that aren’t highly regarded or talked about (remember one-star Crofton on Wells?). Other beloved restaurants (i.e., Ruxbin and Vera) have been lauded nationally but omitted from either the Stars or Bibs, causing more speculation and head-scratching. (That Chicago has endured being cast as such fairly recently only contributes to Second City angst.)

But could there really be an institutional bias against Chicago like people say? As with most things, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. A grand total of 19 Michelin-starred restaurants seems like a small number. But why would Michelin have it out for Chicago?  After all, isn’t it in their best interests to give out more stars, which would generate more hype and ostensibly sell more guides?

As with a lukewarm performance review, maybe your boss is a self-absorbed egomaniac, but there are probably some things you could do to improve your work performance before quitting in protest. Before anyone can dismiss the famously anonymous Michelin inspecteurs as unadventurous, staid, French food fuddy-duddies, is it certain that Chicago restaurants are satisfying the one criterion Michelin focuses on — service?  Food is subjective, but good service is easier to universally pinpoint. And if nothing else, Michelin sets a threshold for service that all starred restaurants consciously or unconsciously must meet. Unfortunately, as much as I love Chicago restaurants, a good number of them disqualify themselves from Michelin star status right out of the gate with sub-par service in three respects:

Overbearing Bussers. The bussers in Chicago insert themselves into the dining experience like no other city I’ve known. They regularly interrupt the dinner by slamming down plates or silverware, or by reaching through numerous times to refill an eighth-inch depletion of a water glass. Especially bothersome is when they take, without asking first, used silverware and place it on the bare tabletop for re-use with the next course (even though the tabletop has seen countless fingers and elbows that no amount of quick wipes of a much-used rag can truly cleanse). Often, they must be stopped from whisking away a plate with food left on it in what is an obvious effort to rush dinner and turn the table. By giving the bussers such a prominent role, restaurants are layering in another potential for discontent. If a diner had a good experience with a server, and a bad one with the busser, what do you think they’ll remember? It’s like why cheftestants shouldn’t prepare duos on Top Chef. Prominent bussing service increases the likelihood that people will leave the restaurant feeling short-changed of good service.

Over-Extended Servers. It seems like the servers at some of Chicago’s most chef-driven restaurants are harried and under-trained. They don’t take ownership of their tables, resulting in either the kitchen (see below) or the bussers (see above) taking control of the meal, and leaving the diners caught in the middle without an advocate. I don’t mean to harp on hardworking people, but better training and more veteran, polished service might be an improvement. And I’m not necessarily blaming the servers themselves; I think their employers — some of which are serving Chicago’s very best food — are doing everyone a disservice by not providing them with appropriate support.

Small Plate Frenzy. Small plates (and by that I mean, dishes that are meant to be shared, consisting of only a few bites, and requiring patrons to order at least 4 per meal) create a service minefield that can easily trip up a meal. With few exceptions, dining with small plates means, “whatever dishes the kitchen finishes first.” No order, no planning. So, the salad may come out after the meat dishes, or the table may end up stacked with several plates that came out at once. Sometimes, when the table is already filled with small plates, runners arrive with their hands full of more small plates (the actual plates being not so small), holding them aloft, looking expectantly at the diners to solve the problem of the lack of room on the table. In cases such as this, I’ve seen diners take on the task of rearranging plates, stacking them or even scarfing down what’s left on the plates a la Lucy at the chocolate factory. If a Michelin inspecteur has to rearrange his or her table to make room for more plates, poof! there goes your Michelin star (and probably also your Bib).

So maybe it’s true that Michelin is too traditional or hates the casual dining mish-mosh triggered by small plates and there’s nothing to be done, but I think it’s hard to write off Michelin as biased until the service improves. And just as I write that, I think back to the recent meal I had at New York City’s Danny Brown Wine Bar, a Michelin one-star…

NEXT: Danny Brown Wine Bar, or the Best Case of Anti-Chicago Bias by Michelin