Searching for Tony Bourdain

Foie gras taste on a Big Mac budget

north of the border

It’s no mystery that Chicago’s a food city. We have a Michelin guide and one of the most celebrated restaurants in the world in Lincoln Park (Grant Achatz’s 3-star Alinea), and there are dozens of high-quality restaurants scattered throughout the city. I’ve visited some of them, and consider one of them my favorite in the country. (This requires no discussion, since I’ve reviewed it twice. If you’re confused, read back a while.) I’ve been to every kind of restaurant in the city: High-end (Cafe Spiaggia), gastropub (our favorite, Frontier), classic American (City Tavern), and city icon (Hot Doug’s). Today, we tried something new.

Last year, for Michonne’s birthday, we visited River North’s famous Gilt Bar. As we’re attempting to save some money for the holidays and other purposes lately, we elected to celebrate her birthday at home. Her sister, Marcie, is in town for the weekend, and today, we decided to venture out for brunch. Our original plan was the IHOP in Boystown, or rising star Au Cheval (which we will visit sooner or later). Marcie uses the smartphone app Square, which deals with businesses who use mobile device networks to process credit card payments, and the app lists which restaurants in the city use the app. One of the places in Gold Coast, which I’ve heard about and have wanted to try, was on the list. So after we walked up the Mag Mile today, we ventured down Oak Street and onto Orleans, to BadHappy Poutine Shop.

Poutine, if you aren’t familiar (and there’s somethin’ wrong with you if you aren’t), is a hearty Canadian delicacy: pomme frites, cheese curds, and gravy. It’s open to interpretation and augmentation from there, and BadHappy makes a point of making it their own.

It’s a small place, probably an old bar, in an old brick building down the street from the Le Cordon Bleu school and near the Brown Line tracks. It seats 25, and when we got there at about 2:30, there were only 5 people inside, and three of them were in the kitchen. It’s an exposed kitchen, with Chef Tom clearly visible. The owner, whose name I never caught, came to the table and told us about the menu.

It was a short menu, which meant that the focus was on the food and on keeping things simple. (I despise restaurants with encyclopedic menus.) It’s a BYO, and they make a pair of bottomless vodka mixers. We didn’t look at the website before we went, or vodka would have been involved.

We ordered the bacon beignet dog, the chicken and waffles, and the poutine benedict, and as we are wont to do when trying a new place, we went family style.

The bacon beignet dog was just how it sounded: a deep fried sausage, dunked in a beignet  batter. It came dressed with egg-roll mustard, truffle mayo, apricot jam, whipped cream, and foie gras “icing,” All three of us had drank just a bit too much last night (some more than others), so this was manna from heaven. The batter reminded me of the New Orleans French Market staple, minus the mountain of confectioner’s sugar, and the sausage was amazing. Had I been alone, I probably would have just shoved the whole thing in my mouth.

The chicken and waffles was an upgrade of the southern classic, with vanilla crème fraiche and a maple-tabasco glaze. Perfectly crispy waffle, and the chicken was still hot and cooked perfectly.

And then came the Benedict. I’ve never had frites this crispy and well-seasoned, and each component worked independently of each other. The eggs were perfectly poached, the hollandaise (it was actually a chimichurri hollendaise) was smooth, and the cheese curds (and this is VERY important) squeaked just right when I bit down. There was some awesome Canadian bacon involved, as well as a truffle mayo. I consider this the best breakfast item I’ve ever had.

The walls had several framed articles from local magazines, praising the place, including TimeOut, the RedEye, and Chicago Magazine’s “Best of Chicago” issue. I see why the praises were so high. We’ve been talking all day about how much we enjoyed it. We spent ten minutes discussing the merits (or lack thereof) of Honey Boo-Boo and promised we’d come back soon, and we meant it. The dinner menu reads like a high-end River North restaurant had a kid with a greasy spoon diner in Montreal, in the best possible way.

BadHappy is, for us, at least, a very simple concept: comfort food, elevated. And deep fried, covered in cheese curds and gravy. It’s our new favorite restaurant in Chicago, and we felt comfortable instantly, as if we were dining in a friend’s basement. And that’s what food is about anyway, isn’t it?

You know I don’t award this rating lightly (it’s been a while since I awarded one of these), but this one deserves it.

Rating: Religious Experience

BadHappy Poutine Shop is at 939 North Orleans Street in Gold Coast.

Postscript: They sell t-shirts for $15, and you’ll want one. We don’t buy t-shirts from just anywhere. The last restaurant we purchased merchandise from was Brasa Rotisserie in Minneapolis.

the carnivore twins

When M and I decided to celebrate our 9-month anniversary (about two years ago, mind you), we decided to do it somewhere other than Chicago or Fargo. We met halfway, in Minneapolis/St. Paul. I love the Cities (vernacular I picked up from almost 3 years of living in Fargo), and we always enjoy our time there, even when it’s just for a few hours. Our favorite diner in America, Mickey’s Dining Car, is literally in the middle of downtown St. Paul (hash browns cooked in lard, anyone?), and there’s great food in every neighborhood of both cities.

Initially, we had considered fine dining, but decided that because this wasn’t a huge milestone, we wouldn’t do that to ourselves. Instead, we decided to visit a place that she had seen on Travel Channel, thanks to television’s king of competitive eating. Adam Richman.

Brasa Premium Rotisserie is the brainchild of James Beard Award winner Alex Roberts, who owns Alma (one of the Twin Cities’s most well-known restaurants). He started it because he wanted to do something more primal than serious artistry in the kitchen, but in creating Brasa, he moved from fine dining to feeding the soul.

Brasa has two locations: One in Minneapolis, and one in St. Paul. On our visit for the anniversary dinner, we went to the St. Paul location, which is slightly larger than its over-the-Mississippi counterpart. Our server offered suggestions of how to order, because the menu is primarily by-the-pound roasted meats and creole/soul food sides.

We ordered a quarter-pound each of the chicken, pork, and beef, and three or four sides. I don’t remember all of what we ordered (this was fall of 2010, so it’s been a while), but I remember being completely obsessed with the plantains and the slaw. I expected the pork to be the highlight of the meal, but it was the chicken that stole the show.

Dessert was equally amazing (I had a berry crisp, and she had something involving chocolate, if memory serves), and we were, again, blown away. After dinner, we had their house cafe con leche, which they refilled and then gave it to us in to-go cups as we left.

Here’s the best part: For three different meats, four or five sides and cornbread, dessert, artisan bottled pop, and the coffee, we paid less than $50. We vowed to return.

This past weekend, I was in Minneapolis to drop off a rental car and catch the Megabus back to Chicago after attending the wedding of two very good friends outside of Fargo. I had three hours between dropping off the car and catching the bus, so I needed something to do. After figuring out that the Minneapolis Brasa was only a 30-minute walk from downtown, I took my suitcase with me and crossed the Mississippi, to find the smaller, but just-as-welcoming, Minneapolis twin.

It was 2:30 on a Sunday, and it was hot, so there weren’t many people there. The garage doors were up (both locations are in old gas stations) to let air circulate, and the patio had several full tables. I elected to sit near one of the open doors. As I ordered, I looked around and remembered our first experience. Expectations were high.

I ordered the smoked beef sandwich with fried onions, cheddar cheese, and barbecue sauce, with a side of the collard greens. These, unlike normal greens, were made with the pulled chicken, instead of bacon. And a Mexican Coke.

My server, who suggested the greens, brought the food, and along with the sandwich was a pile of fresh tortilla chips. And by fresh, I mean these things were still hot. They came with a small cup of a red dipping sauce that would destroy any salsa I’ve ever had. When I asked what it was, she told me it was a house-made roasted red pepper sauce. I wanted to bathe in it.

The sandwich came on a soft ciabatta-style roll, and the beef was perfect–seasoned well, roasted just enough to show the smoke ring around the edge of the cut, and falling apart as I tore each piece away. And the greens were transcendental. Just as good as The Southern’s, but with a more mild flavor and a lightness that I’d never had before with slow-cooked greens.

I explained my first experience to my server and told her why I’d come looking for them, and she, along with Chef Roberts (who was nearby), were elated. The twins have received numerous accolades, but I’ve neglected to write a proper review until now. To date, I consider Brasa one of my favorite restaurants in America, and a place I will visit every time I visit the Twin Cities.

Rating: Religious Experience

Brasa Premium Rotisserie has two locations: 777 Grand Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota, and 600 E. Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

the transition

Our namesake, Anthony Bourdain, made an announcement this morning: He is ending his current project, No Reservations, on Travel Channel, at the end of this season.

But that isn’t the end of the story. Instead of retiring to his New York apartment or to his long-time-fantasy retirement country, Vietnam, he’s got a new job: Hosting a Sunday primetime show on CNN.

Starting in early 2013, he’ll be hosting a new travel, food, and culture show on the cable news channel. While I don’t always agree with their political stances and analysis methods, some of the international reporting on CNN is excellent. He’ll be joining the likes of Anderson Cooper, Fareed Zakaria, and Christiane Amanpour. Their international reporting is almost as good as that of the BBC and NPR, and this can only bode well for Tony. He will also provide commentary and analysis across other CNN platforms.

In a tweet, Tony said, “Moving with same ZPZ (Zero Point Zero Productions–his No Reservations production company) crew over to CNN to do another world travel show. Congo? Libya? Finally?” While these places are not terribly safe these days, CNN will give him the resources to explore parts of the world that Travel Channel, and its parent company, Scripps (which also owns Food Network), would not.

I am saddened that No Reservations will come to an end, just as I expect The Layover will after the second season, but I am excited to find out how this new show will develop, and am excited to see where he goes next.

the beautiful letdown

Michonne graduated from DePaul University’s law school last weekend. We knew that her family would be in town, and we wanted to find a nice, upscale restaurant at which we could celebrate. We’d heard of a place in Gold Coast with a well-known chef and a style of food close to our hearts, so we made reservations for five at Chef Art Smith’s Chicago restaurant, Table 52.

Chef Art Smith, some of you may recall, got his start as a celebrity chef in much the same way as the namesake for one of our lower ratings: Rachael Ray. Art Smith was once the private chef of Chicago’s media matriarch, Oprah Winfrey. A Georgian by birth, he also owns a pair of restaurants in Atlanta, and by reputation and association, is a Chicago favorite.

Table 52 is in a small, old-style house in one of Chicago’s wealthier neighborhoods, and the decor screams “Old South.” Not by coincidence, the food is very southern, at least in name and flavor.

We sat at a table by the window on the second floor of the restaurant, which seemed dimly lit at first, but became brighter as the sun set. M’s sister, Marcie, had a perfect view of the CVS at the corner of Clark and Division, and after waiting for a couple minutes, our server came to our table to take our drink orders. M and her sister ordered a Prohibition Manhattan, her dad and I each ordered a beer, and M’s mother ordered a Vodka Gimlet. The server also brought us a pair of amuses: A southern-style biscuit stuffed with cheese, and some very good deviled eggs. The biscuit was quite good, if a little bit crusty. The eggs were good, but I’ve had better at our Noble Square standby. (If you’ve been around here a while, you know which place I’m talking about.)

Marcie and dad both ordered salads: Mar ordered the beet salad, which had a nice bit of heat, likely due to chili oil, and dad had the spinach and tomato salad. It didn’t look like anything earth-shattering, but he declared it “Good.” He is a man of few words, so I consider that a compliment.

M’s family is as interested in food as I am, though everyone in the family has either an allergy or strong dislike, so everybody stuck with something semi-familiar.

For dinner, my choice was easy: Fried catfish. One of my favorite southern dishes. Marcie and I both ordered this. It was, for lack of a better word, typical. The crust was semi-hard and the fish was mild, as I’d expect catfish to be, but with no special flavoring. The grits and greens, however, were quite good. Not as good as our Bucktown spot, but still good.

Michonne ordered the lamb loin, which I tasted, and was very good. Cooked perfectly medium-rare, well-seasoned, and flavorful. I would still prefer the lamb I had at The Hotel Donaldson, but this was very good.

Dad ordered the fish special. I missed the fish’s name, but he again declared it “good.” It was a mild whitefish with vegetables.

Mom had the crab cake and the house macaroni and cheese, which arrived in a southern trademark cast iron crock. The crab cake, she said, was very good, and the macaroni and cheese was excellent. I still, and will always, prefer the mac and cheese made by my favorite Chicago chef (again, you know who he is), but this was excellent.

Dessert was, in my opinion, the best thing I had all night. I may have found the best pecan pie north of the Mason-Dixon line. The caramel was perfect, crust was flavorful and had a nice snap, and the pecans were fresh, sweet, and firm.

Michonne had a lavender-scented panna cotta, which arrived in a small mason jar. It was light, flavorful, and sweet.

Upon leaving the restaurant, Michonne put her parents and sister in a cab to their hotel, and she and I began our usual discussion about the place. We came to a conclusion: We were not impressed. For the price, our food was not mind-blowing, the service was lax (though the bussers were awesome), and the portions were entirely too small. Our drinks were not great, and my beer was not cold. It was cool, but not cold.  We felt let down, even disappointed. M was decidedly bummed, even depressed. I was frustrated, and still hungry.

In retrospect, we agreed, we should have gone to Frontier, and we won’t make the same mistake twice.

We’ve also decided not to expect anything of anybody once endorsed or made famous by Oprah. 

You all known I don’t like writing bad reviews (M sometimes says I’m too generous), but this was justified, and even deserved:

Rating: Rachael Ray

Table 52 is at 52 West Elm Street in Gold Coast.

comfort zone

If you’ve known me for a while, you know that I’ve been all over this country. I’ve yet to visit the Pacific Northwest, Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, and New England, but I’ve been west, north, east, and south, and I’ve fallen in love with every kind of food this country has to offer. However, I’ve always had a soft spot for the deep south.

Maybe it’s my time in New Orleans and my visits to the Carolinas and other parts of the deep south. Something about southern food has always been, well, comforting to me.

My brother and his girlfriend (you may remember them from such meals as our chef’s table evening at Frontier) are in town this weekend, and we wanted to find a good place we’d all enjoy. There’s a place with pretty high ratings just down the street from my favorite barbecue joint in the city, and I’ve heard a lot about it, so we made reservations at The Southern.

The food they serve is exactly what you’d expect from a place with a name like that: Southern classics. Fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits, fried chicken, pimento cheese, and pork chops. Some of my favorite things on earth.

We sat at a table in the back of their outdoor patio, and ordered whiskey shots. My brother and I ordered a beer (I don’t know why he felt compelled to have a Mexican beer, but I ordered a Louisiana classic–Abita Restoration Pale Ale, which was Abita’s first new beer after Katrina swept through the region), and Michonne and Veronica ordered what M called “Manna from heaven:” A maple bacon manhattan. With a full slice of bacon in it. Spectacular.

We ordered about half the menu. Two sides and an appetizer: Skillet cornbread. Southern cooked greens. Fried green tomatoes.

The tomatoes were awesome. Hot and sweet, with a perfect breading. The goat cheese, greens, and strawberries added a subtle savoriness that made it the perfect starter.

My brother ordered one of my favorite things in the world: Andouille gumbo. This was the best gumbo I’ve had since visiting Dooky Chase in New Orleans. Spicy, thick, perfectly salty, and thickened with okra. I’m a file’ guy, but this was perfect.

Veronica ordered the swordfish and grits. While I never had her fish, the grits were some of the best I’ve ever had. Only Jestine’s Kitchen in Charleston, SC, have made better.

Michonne ordered what the menu dubbed “The Piggly Wiggly.” A thick-cut pork chop with a spicy barbecue sauce. It was amazing. Tender, juicy, and awesome.

We all have a food item that eludes us. Mine is a stew that I had once in Kentucky called Burgoo. I’ve been looking for it for a decade, and when I saw that The Southern served it, I knew I had to have it. Normally, Burgoo is made with canned vegetables and squirrel meat, and it isn’t usually on menus. It’s usually made for community events like elections and fairs. Since there isn’t much demand for squirrel in this town, the Southern makes it with pork shoulder and beef shank, as well as sweet corn, okra, a couple confit cherry tomatoes, and lima beans. And an au jus that was poured tableside.

This was far superior to the Burgoo I had at that street fair in Lexington. The meat was falling apart and the vegetables added to the smooth texture and perfect flavor. I’ll be getting this again.

I love southern cooked greens, and these may have been the best I’ve had. The presence of cayenne gave it a swift kick, and the bacon balanced the spice. As for the cornbread, it came with butter and honey, but needed neither. I could have eaten this all night.

We decided to end the night with dessert. Ty and V ordered the cheese plate, which included one of the best blue cheeses I’ve ever had (it was a Louisiana blue cheese), and we ordered the blackberry cobbler. It was not overly sweet and the crust was perfect.

The Southern is also involved in a pair of other ventures: A food truck that serves their awesome macaroni and cheese, as well as a brick-and-mortar offshoot of the food truck, which I’ve visited several times. They serve literally a dozen variations of macaroni and cheese, from New Mexico green chile to pulled chicken with blue cheese and buffalo sauce.

The atmosphere, we remarked several times, was very comfortable. We felt like we were in a backyard somewhere in the south, surrounded by a wood fence. Our service was excellent, and we never once felt rushed or impatient.

Georgia-born chef Cary Taylor has a big winner here, and there’s no sign of him losing momentum. Everything he’s done in Chicago has been successful. Between the dinner menu, the awesome brunch menu, other special events The Southern has every week, and the food truck and mac and cheese store, we will make several more trips to our little piece of the deep south.

Rating: Food Porn

The Southern is at 1840 W. North Avenue in Bucktown, and The Southern Mac and Cheese Store is at 60 E. Lake Street in the Loop.

honorable mention

When I was 18, my uncle took me for my first trip to the North American International Auto Show at Cobo Center in downtown Detroit. We spent all day gawking at, discussing, and fantasizing about, muscle cars and concept cars. He spent 30 years as an employee of Ford Motor Company. He’s retired from the company now, but to this day, he still calls it “Ford’s,” like Henry still runs the place. That, my friends, is the sign of someone with a deep respect and love for the company and the industry, so I trust nobody with information about automobiles more than I trust him.

He began developing my love for the Mustang that day (I stop and look whenever I see one), and after the show, he took me out for a ride in his Mustang. We hadn’t eaten in hours, and were looking for food. We could have eaten in Greektown, Mexicantown, Corktown, or Hamtramck, but he took me to a place in Dearborn across Michigan Avenue from a Ford dealership and a Bob Evans. When we walked in the door the the nondescript red building on a residential corner, I had no idea that my life was about to change.

We walked into Miller’s Bar, and the first thing I noticed was that there was no hostess. There was just a line. People waiting for tables to open, and three waitresses working the uncharacteristically quiet dining room and bar. Everybody was eating. I had no idea what this place served, but as soon as Chris (my uncle) told me how the place worked, I fell in love.

The “menu,” at the time, had six items on it: Hamburgers. Cheeseburgers. Fries. Onion rings. Fish sandwiches (served only on Friday during Lent, because the Detroit metro area is heavily Catholic). And then he said this:

“There’s no menu, so there’s no prices. It’s all on the honor system. You tell the bartender what you had and he tells you what you owe.”

No menu? So how do people know what they make?

“The guy who runs this place knows everybody. And if he doesn’t know somebody, he finds somebody who knows them and they tell them what’s available.”

I love it.

So we finally sat down, and Chris ordered for us. Two cheeseburgers, medium-rare. Fries. Cokes. There was a jar of pickles on the table along with the mustard and ketchup. Onion was available on the burger by request. I could smell ground beef (actually, it’s ground round) cooking ten feet away on the flattop, and almost no conversation because everybody in the entire dining room had full mouths.

My burger arrived on a sheet of wax paper and the fries came in a red-and-white-checkered paper carnival food bowl.

From bite one, I knew I’d never love another burger again the way I loved this. It was a tender, meaty, and well-seasoned half-pound patty on a plain bun, with nothing else on it. I was so hungry, I didn’t bother with mustard and pickle (the only way I eat a burger like this–I let the meat speak for itself). The grease dripped down my arm, in the best possible way, and the cheese was so melted, the only evidence that it was ever there was the unmistakable flavor of American cheese in every bite. Otherwise, it was yellow goo. Awesome yellow goo.

The fries were crispy and fresh-cut. They were salty and greasy and awesome. Bar food at its finest.

After we’d finished stuffing our faces, Chris went to the bar to tell the bartender what we had and he paid him. For two burgers, fries, and canned Cokes, he paid $8.05 for each of us. And then he dropped a ten dollar bill on the table, looked at me, and said, “I always overtip here. We don’t need this place going away.”

For every one of my dozen visits since (my hometown is an hour plus away), I’ve repeated this practice, except I’ve replaced Coke with a beer since I turned 21. I haven’t been in years, but think about the place all the time. Miller’s has become so famous, it’s been in magazines and on TV. GQ Magazine named it to its “20 Burgers You Have to Try Before You Die” list.

The menu’s expanded a little (they’ve added grilled cheese and grilled chicken sandwiches), but the honor system is still in place, and it’s still my favorite burger joint in America. I’d make the drive from Chicago, or anywhere else in this country, to Miller’s. As often as possible.

Miller’s Bar is at 23700 Michigan Avenue in Dearborn, Michigan.

unfinished business

I’ve had only one real regret since my arrival in Chicago when it comes to eating out. Last August, you may remember, we diverted from our original plan of spending an evening at a Ukrainian Village hot spot in favor of a restaurant we saw on “No Reservations.” It was the first time I’d ever really had a bad experience at a Chicago restaurant, and the first time either of us ever sent food back to the kitchen. We went so far as dubbing The Silver Palm “The Runaway Train” (because the dining room is in an old passenger train car). More than that, we never made it to our original destination: The Old Oak Tap.

Tonight, we finally made the trip.

I first found out about The Old Oak Tap from a book that my mother gave us, called “Eat. Shop. Chicago.” It lists all kinds of great local restaurants and shops that operate primarily as neighborhood spots, and this place is certainly a neighborhood bar.

The place opens at 5 pm during the week and most people who arrived while we were there arrived on foot. There’s a patio/beer garden in the front, just recently opened (because it’s in the 60s here this week), and the windows across the front of the restaurant allow natural light to set the mood. The fixtures inside are reminscent of the kind of pendant lights found in a church, and there are several plaques of white antlers on the wall. Wood accents dominate the place, and the walls are a calm green. Booths and chairs are comfortable, and music is loud, but still tolerable. We declared the place, “very comfortable,” and resolved early to return just for the ambiance and the comprehensive drink selection.

We sat at a table near the fireplace and ordered appetizers: fried pickle chips with Green Goddess dressing, and house-made pretzels with a horseradish mustard and a cheddar-stout fondue sauce. The pretzels were awesome–crunchy, not overly-breaded, and tart. Green Goddess, a ranch/dill mix, added to the flavor. As for the pretzels, these looked like a small croissant and were exactly what I like in a fresh pretzel: heavy but soft, and just a little salty. Mustard goes on everything called a pretzel as far as I’m concerned, and this grainy, spicy stuff improved each bite. As for the fondue, it reminded me of mall pretzel cheese sauce, with a little more flavor. I could have gone without it, but it worked anyway.

Monday’s food special is the signature Old Oak Burger (cooked to order, with cheddar, onion jam, and the house special sauce), and a choice of side, all for $5. Michonne ordered it with bacon and fries (which were impressive), and her friend Iris ordered it with the loaded mashed potatoes (the cheese sauce, bacon, and chives), while I ventured further down the menu.

I ordered the chicken and waffles. Sweet potato waffles, chicken fingers, a house-made peach jam, maple aioli, and andouille sausage gravy. I love sausage gravy, normally on biscuits, and this could have not been a better addition. The whole flavor profile was complex but also very rustic: sweet, slightly tangy, crunchy, and salty at once. If I hadn’t eaten so many of the pretzels and the pickles, I would have cleaned the plate. They do weekend brunch and I’m hoping it’ll end up on that menu along with the biscuits and gravy (which is my favorite breakfast item, but I digress).

While everything was very good, including the service and the atmosphere, we were decidedly not blown away. Yes, we will be back to The Old Oak Tap, but we won’t necessarily hurry back. One thing is for sure: We should have made this trip last August.

Rating: It Does Not Suck

The Old Oak Tap is a 2012 Michelin Guide recommendation, and is at 2109 W. Chicago Avenue in Ukrainian Village.