June 9, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Chicago: Hog Butcher of the World Takes on Veal Grazing Airs

Politically correct veal makes fine osso buco.  Photo: Steven Richter
Politically correct veal makes fine osso buco.  Photo: Steven Richter

       I can’t believe I’m in Chicago, the city that outlawed foie gras, and I’m sitting here with four orders of the so recently verboten foie gras on rhubarb compote arranged like a centerpiece at hottie Restaurant Takashi. The duck liver excess is a deliciously Byzantine gesture by our charming host after his third Scotch.  My sister-in-law wins the recycling prize by requesting the last order to take home for breakfast.  Too much is barely enough, I’m discovering, when you’ve been imported from New York for the launch of a new politically correct mother-fed free range veal.

        I’m not a big fan of veal. The last time I thought veal piccata was really something special I was 12.  Well yes, I do appreciate a great veal chop (I usually have a taste or two of the Road Food Warrior’s) and once upon a time I served a mean stuffed breast of veal.  I’m wild for sweetbreads…yes, of course, that’s veal too.  But when I got an invitation to fly to Chicago for the launch of a new “French veal” - that’s what they said - I couldn’t resist.  A few days to eat in Chicago…a chance to escape the mad clutter of my desk.

Devi’s Hemant Mathur grills yogurt-marinated chops in the backyard. Photo: Steven Richter

        Then I began obsessing about veal. French veal, they said. Why would anyone import French veal to the “Hog Capital of the World?”  Don’t we have our own veal? Who has euros to spend in this economy? And never mind how green those babies are - how lovingly raised - think of the carbon miles.  I worked myself into a politically correct lather.  (Not a foam, just a lather.)

        Well, it turns out these meaty adolescents are pasture-raised all over America using Limousin stock of French heritage on farms approved by the fervent Strauss Brands brothers of Milwaukee. Randy Strauss gives me his card – “Nature Gives. We Accept.”  After eight years of suffering a president who takes his marching orders from God, this sounds a wee bit evangelical for a cynical New Yorker like me.

        But if the Meadow Reserve Veal resume is to be believed, these Limousin offspring will be living well right up to the…sorry…inevitable dénouement.  Raised alongside Mom, feeding on green pasture and mother’s milk exclusively, without hormones or antibiotics, delivered to market with its own documented birth certificate, i.e. traceable to its birth place at a farm certified by Strauss.  That’s what attracted Chicago’s family-owned Allen Brothers, big time prime beef purveyors, to become the exclusive distributor. Compared to formula-fed veal, Meadow Reserve Veal will have 52% less total fat, 53% less saturated fat, 43% less cholesterol, 57% more iron and 69% less sodium, or so goes the press release.

Allen Brothers’ Todd Hatoff and Devi’s Suvir Saran talk veal. Photo: Steven Richter.

      Does that mean the meat tastes better?  That’s why we’re gathered, Chicago foodniks and press, at a big cookout in Art Smith’s backyard. Smith, still basking in his ten year glow as Oprah’s chef, now owner of Table 52, is a consultant to Allen Brothers, as is my friend and co-conspirator in gourmand adventure, Suvir Saran, creator of Devi.  Gilaafi Seekh veal kebabs from an improvised tandoori tended by Devi Chef-partner Hemant Mathur are tangy and tender.  Veal sausage pizza with arugula, veal and parmigiano kulcha with a spicy remoulade, plus Smith’s deep-fried catfish, lead us to the veal buffet -- crispy sweetbreads and veal marrow bones, veal tenderloin, tandoori veal chops, veal osso buco -- with Goan shrimp curry bubbling away, just in case.       

Chef Saran dishes up Goan shrimp to carnivores. Photo: Steven Richter.

     You might not want to trust me given my lavish junket and the Peninsula Hotel suite, but it does seem that the coddled progeny makes very juicy osso buco, especially luscious tenderloin and, except for some over-cooking, a stellar veal chop. The Road Food Warrior testifies his is the best he’s ever eaten. According to Davi’s Mathur, several guests brought their medium rare veal out to the backyard grills for more cooking.  “That’s Chicago,” a recent New York transplant assures us with a shrug. When Meadow Reserve Veal goes into the next Allen Brothers catalog - cooked and raw - you can see for yourself.


At Chicago’s “Best New” Takashi        

Tuna carpaccio, spring roll and trio of tofu at Takashi. Photo: Steven Richter.

        With just two nights for our own free range cuisinary roaming, a consensus of critical raves has brought us to a corner booth upstairs at Takashi in Buck Town.  I haven’t a clue where that is exactly in relation to the fabulous lake or downtown’s couturier shopping minefield but the driver does.

        It’s a
Kampachi sashimi. Photo: Steven Richter
little dark upstairs in the small cottage nestled among the boutiques and urban funk of Buck Town, but not too noisy, civilized in fact, and prices are civilized too – just $68 for the chef’s seven-course tasting, with entrees topping out at $28. Menu descriptions barely tell the tale. On the plate Takashi Yagihashi’s food is complex and fussy and mostly delicious. This is the chef who made a name at Ambria, won Beardie fame at Tribute in Farmington, Michigan, went on to Japanese fusion at Okada in Las Vegas at Wynn.  Now he’s come back to Chicago. There’s a memoir in that trek, I suspect, but we’re into dinner. 

        I love kampachi sashimi with garlic chips and pink radish, the perfection of seared foie gras against the tart sweetness of rhubarb, and the puree of garlic and onion soup that gets poured by the waiter over carefully cooked shrimp.  Splendid grilled quail hides under a thatch of greens and shitake on brown rice with Chinese sausage and a Japanese pepper sauce. After we’ve eaten and shared tastes, still more plates arrive. The tofu trio is the chef at his most Japanese – formal and sensuous - and the sesame chicken-stuffed spring roll I passed over as a least promising opener surprises with a sensational crunch of jicama, asparagus and peanuts to dip into kaffir lime-curry aioli. A smoky broth transforms everyday halibut wrapped in tofu skin into an exotic.  An utterly new taste for me.


Wasabi-crusted New York strip and miso-glazed Yukons. Photo: Steven Richter

        When the six of us have feasted on duck-fat fried chicken, wasabi crusted strip steak and marvelous salmon, sliced into long filets to sandwich eggplant, served with a crunch of marcona almonds and pickled cauliflorets,  I see the curtain slowly descending. At that moment the encore of foie gras arrives, numbing the desire for dessert in some of us, igniting it in the rest. Cocoa ginger cake with dark chocolate ganache comforts those for whom dessert must be chocolate. For me, a yuzu gelee tang makes sheep’s yogurt panna cotta deliciously refreshing.

1952 N. Damen Avenue 773 772 6170.


The Case of the Purloined Chef        

One Ruhlmann escargot is more than enough. Photo: Steven Richter

        I didn’t think twice about where to meet our friend Rebecca for lunch. It had to be Brasserie Ruhlmann, where Christian Delouvrier had signed on to authenticate the croque monsieur and onion soup. I’ve had a soft spot for Delouvrier since the days he served the despotic Alain Senderens as chef de cuisine of Maurice in the Parker Meridien. Years later he
Profiteroles cheer us up. Photo: Steven Richter
had surpassed his own global savoir-faire in his finest hour stepping up to Grey Kunz’s range at Lespinasse.  Tossed live onto the funeral pyre at Alain Ducasse in the Essex House, he went off to woo Miami before signing on to tend this seed of the Rockefeller Center brasserie.

        Alas, Ruhlmann West is a vast terminal with a few attempts to honor the great art deco designer Émile-Jaques Ruhlmann but not enough gumption to honor the absent Delouvrier.  “He doesn’t come that often,” the waiter confides, delivering a lukewarm and broken lobster bisque.  Not that everything we tasted was an insult. The meat itself at the base of Le Burger Ruhlmann is actually good, just badly mucked up by cherry marmalade and caramelized onions. Organic chicken is not all that bad half submerged in bow tie pasta oversauced in a cheesy soup. But the too warm tuna tartare looks dangerous.  Lurking under pastry top hats are snails in a swamp of fat.  Crustless macaroni needs some TLC.  With grim resolve we move on to dessert.  I must say the profiteroles with pistachio griotte ice cream and apple tarte Delouvrier actually cheer me up.  I’m not sure if I’d urge the absentee chef to come quickly and defend his name or simply delete it.

500 West Superior Street 312 494 1900.


Dark Victory at Boka

How sublime can a scallop be? Boka knows. Photo: Steven Richter

       Dinner next night at Boka was an afterthought when we couldn’t get into Laurent Gras’s torrid new L2O. No one I asked hinted it was going to be quite so good.  It’s been less than a year since Giuseppe Tentori stepped out of his chef de cuisine clogs at Charlie Trotter’s to bring his contemporary global vision to this block down the street from the Steppenwolf Theater and so close to the vaunted revolution at Alinea.

        Why am I bypassing Alinea?  I just don’t have the patience to sniff vanilla beans or press a spice strip on a pin to the roof of my mouth. I want a social evening, not a three hour performance. I am in the mood to be pleased not amazed.  And Tentori had described his cooking at Boka to Chicago Tribune critic Phil Vettel as “simple food.”

        Alas, a
Baby octopus in delicious melee. Photo: Steven Richter
chorus line of flickering votives in the midnight blackness does little for Chef Tentori’s marvelous food. Of course, as fashion demands, every plate is a still life, on a black tablecloth, though the colors are barely visible.  It’s the scent and the taste that tells the tale of how good the chef’s not-so-simple dishes are. That is just one exquisitely voluptuous sea scallop fleshed out with grapefruit, lotus root and hijiki and surrounded by a savory puddle of pea wasabi sauce.  One sublime scallop. Squid torsos come stuffed with chopped scallop and shrimp on wilted spinach on a plate brilliantly littered with black tapioca and bits of pineapple. Think it reads like a bizarre gathering? Well, it’s wonderful.  Octopus, heaped with Peruvian potato, barbequed eel, Granny Smith apples, mussels and yogurt horseradish cream, may sound like a three-ring circus but somehow it all comes together.  And wild mushroom broth with stinging nettles poured over egg raviolo on an onion porcini ragout is a sensuous hit too. Ditto, licorice braised short ribs with broccoli hash and cauliflower-Yukon potato mash and the chamomile dusted quail starter I choose as an entrée – the legs crisply fried, the trunk in juicy rare slices alongside a semolina goat cheese croquette.

        As professional mouths not knowing when we’ll be this way again, we taste everything:
Boka’s amazing vegetable tart.Photo: Steven Richter
Hillsborough oysters on the half shell with a surprisingly delicious mango horseradish. Kumamotos with black radish mignonette. Crispy veal sweetbreads with maitake mushrooms, favas and an oregeno mole.  Angus strip-loin with mushroom spaetzle.  And mostly delicious sides, like mushroom ragout with pickled garlic, Chinese black rice, and mint cucumber salad with pink peppercorns – simple, indeed, and as refreshing as a lemon ice between courses. With entrees $25 to $38, dinner with a bottle of wine and tip could easily run $200 for two though I’ve no doubt our tasting binge costs as much as a Gucci bag, maybe even alligator.

        Something sharply citric and something chocolate is my usual dessert requirement.  I’m not willing to end a delicious evening with the toasted tarragon cake and candied fennel salad or milk chocolate cremeux with picholine olives on this sweets list.  But pastry chef Elizabeth Dahl wins me over with coconut tapioca, banana fritters and passion fruit sorbet with rum – one of those sense-reeling moments.  Indeed, I love all her barfly sorbets: grapefruit-Campari, blood orange-Aperol and Limoncello, as well as the coffee inspired ice creams and cookie plate with fruit gels.

1729 North Halsted Street. 212 337 6070.


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