Monday, April 26, 2010

chicago 2010......


I don't know exactly when the food bug crept under my skin and burrowed down deep in my being. I guess it had always been there and that over time, the layers slowly melted away to reveal the beautiful and sometimes ugly and demented beast. At culinary school I delved deep. I was 21, surrounded by 17 or 18 year olds mostly. I felt behind in the game. I became a sponge...due to whatever motivation I felt at the time or once again maybe it was already ingrained in me. Recipes, technique, names, restaurants. I marveled over Trotter's 1st book. I had never seen food like that....had never heard of 1/2 the ingredients. I wanted to know, I wanted to taste, I wanted my hands and palate to be able to manipulate food in a new way. Food somehow became 3 dimensional and much, much bigger than me.

Years have passed, things have changed, things are still the same. My list of must dos and must sees keeps growing. One thing I have learned is that for me, nothing is more inspirational, therapeutic, or encouraging than eating someone else's food. I think back to school and my mental list of restaurants I had to try one day. It's changed some but the top 5 or 10, not so much. The food cultures I have most revered are the same. Frontera, Topolobampo, and Rick Bayless sit high up on some metaphysical pedestal. I read his books, marveled along with everyone else at how easily and humbly he mopped the floor of competition on Top Chef Masters. But it was all 2D. Like watching Avatar on a 13 inch black and white TV...with commercials.

That was until last weekend. Finally....two long paragraphs of sappy nonsense just to get to the point. I bore myself, I swear. Anyways, somehow my wife kept 6 months of planning under the radar. I'm very, very perceptive in a kitchen. Obsessively so. Take me out into the sunshine and normal life and I'm a dense, spacedog idiot. So, she had help I guess. Long story semi short, camping turned into "you need to not stay up late cause we're leaving @ 4am and shutup, I'm not telling you where we're going," or something like that. Something kinder sounding at least. I was actually sad that I was not gonna lay drunkenly in a canoe for 2 days. But my bag was packed....had been so for a week I found out. She's sneaky. A short jump to Houston had the wife and I wandering through the airport at a tad before 8am staring sleepily @ people drinking bloody marys and mimosas in terminal connector walkup bars. Insanity I said to myself, what is wrong with these people? It's barely breakfast, the sun and "today" a relatively new concept........Ten minutes later, there I am with the wife and sister-in-law, munching on the celery stick in my bloody mary. Peer pressure....or something. A couple hours and more surprises later, I was walking down the street in Chicago with my boy Brennan and the ladies on our coattails. We were in search of Bayless. All it took was a gust of wind to turn 8 years of sensory input into 3D. I didn't need to see Topolobampo, I smelled it.

The food was a revelation. Maybe not so much in presentation or delivery but in depth and range of flavor profiles. Heat by god heat. I had never had a meal, ok, I need to tread carefully here cause I'm already disagreeing with myself....I had never had a meal in a restaurant of that caliber that blatantly played with heat. Classical french cooking does nothing in the matter of heat. Bad mexican restaurants show little of the matter. No fine dining meal I could recall whispered even hints of the joyous wonder, the playful, lively, pulsating, salivating goodness that is heat.

Tis why I asked which of the 3 tasting menus I should go for. One had a fantastic sounding lamb ribeye and belly dish, the third had offal and goat.......the second our server said, had heat and was named after the Michoacan state in Mexico......I don't want to go too much further. It had ups and downs but two of the best plates, scratch that...possibly the two best plates of food I have tasted in my life at least in terms of their power of revelation or epiphany in the arena of taste. Slow-poached egg and seared pork belly with roasted tomato-habanero sauce, black beans, orange-dressed pea shoot salad, rustic tostada...... Smoky walleye capped with roasty arbol chile-peanut salsa. Uchepo crumble, roasted tomato-guajillo sauce, Nichols Farm beets, wood-grilled knob onions....

If you have never tried/opened up/researched a little....true Mexican cuisine, you're an idiot. I'm sorry but the walleye dish sang like nothing I have ever tasted and you know what? It was unflinchingly simple.
Oversauced at that but I did not care. You walked into Frontera and it was warm, it was busy, it was Mexican and it offered no apologies for preconceived notions, just the hint that not just good but fantastic things were to come and they did.
Biased you may say.....well maybe. I was not thrilled with my soup course and the desserts were kind of a mess but I didn't care. Does that make sense to you? A taste, a combination of them that is so raw, new, and revelatory that it didn't matter. A new color was introduced into the world.
Then Brennan, my most favorite sister-in-law Michele, and I took a shot of highly recommended and poorly received tequila, and onto the kitchen tour. Now, now, I could go on and on. Group consensus is that Brennan and I were gone 45 minutes. All I know is that I met a fantastically enthusiastic and driven dude whose name eludes me, ask anyone... names don't sink in....but we walked the line, squeezing past cooks and service staff bustling to get out of there. Walked the back prep line, the basement mise coolers, the produce coolers, meat, fish, and ended up standing in a refrigerated room talking about farm to restaurant onions, tomatoes, and smelling dried versus smoked pasilla chilies. We talked a lot of shop. I asked a lot of weird questions. Well, weird enough that we talked for that long moving from place to place. It was again a revelation, all of it.
We did lots more. What else did I learn? That I need to go back. Next time with a gameplan and a barf bag if the L is congested and I'm wicked hungover. My wife was trying for a great 30th surprise. What I got was more than all of these words could do justice....Thanks Becca. I love you always......

1 comment:

  1. read it today for the second time Mike, really enjoyed it, wish I could have been there..