The Kitchen Brigade in "Downton Abbey" (2011)
by John Mariani
TWO COASTS. . . TWO WINERIES. . . TWO ANNIVERSARIES
by Mort Hochstein
by John Mariani
The Billy Goat Tavern, Chicago
vivacity of the Chicago dining scene continues
new gastropubs and the emergence of yet another
molecular cuisine restaurant serving lab food. There’s still
a commitment to Midwestern hospitality, and here
are some new places and new faces I like right
800 North Michigan Avenue
NoMi (North Michigan) has always been a splendidly situated restaurant, perched above the Avenue on the Gold Coast are, and its history of fine chefs has now been extended with the appointment of Ryan LaRoche, 34, who has had long experience at places like Tru in Chicago, and Joël Robüchon L’Atelier de in Las Vegas. At NoMi he’s showing all the influences of global cuisine in thrilling, light dishes that begin with the “Ocean Bar” featuring a large selection of oysters, shellfish, crudi and ceviches in addition to sushi, which has always been featured here.
You don’t see nettle soup on many menus outside of Italy, and I’m glad LaRoche (below) has brought it to American attention, for it's a splendid flavor, deep and intense. Just-pulled mozzarella, glistening and creamy, stacked up with some of the best I’ve had this side of Naples, and there’s was nothing to dislike about foie gras—now happily back on Chicago menus after a freakish moment of prohibition—with kumquats. A meaty prawn and avocado salad was good and refreshing.
LaRoche gets his cooking textures just right, obvious in pan-seared sturgeon and a dish of juicy, braised pork cheeks. He devotes as much attention to desserts like a wonderful fromage blanc parfait and brioche beignets that are difficult to stop eating ever after a full meal here. And there's the key to his cooking: nothing is labored, no dish contorted, nothing overly rich. You go through course by course with sheer satisfaction and a smile.
NoMI's extensive wine list features a selection of more than 500 labels of wines.
There is now a Garden terrace with 30-foot teak and
concrete bar, and the main dining room has gone more
casual, alas, now without tablecloths. But service,
from start to finish, is first rate.
NoMI Kitchen is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, seven days a week. Dinner appetizers runs $11-$26, main courses $26-$39, with entrees to share higher, for two.
110 East Pearson Street
For a generation now, Tony Mantuano has been a guiding light for chefs in Chicago, doing a refined cucina italiana at Spiaggia, whose consistency makes it perhaps the best restaurant in the city. Now, going way down market, Mantuano's opened a place where you can get a perfect espresso and brioche on a quiet morning, dig into the mozzarella bar and have a consummate pizza—from a list of 18--at lunch--then come back for a bustling dinner that might begin with a glass of prosecco, some lovely cured meats, and a selection of jars containing Tuscan chicken liver spread, baccalà, crudi, and treviso and goat’s cheese with marmalade.
Then you must consider the rosticcini dishes, maybe marinated chicken scented with rosemary and lemon or skirt steak with grana padano cheese, or Modenese guanciale-wrapped sweetbreads with sage. Still hungry? Probably not, even though these are small plates, so go back another night for rock shrimp polpette or a Tony Beef sandwich with crispy shallots and spicy tomato sauce. Have some luscious gelati and you’re happy.
You should know about the nightly specials
too, Monday through Sunday, like Monday’s porchetta,
Friday’s fritto misto of seafood, and Saturday’s
“not your grandma's’s braciole,” which may or may
not be as good as my grandmother’s, but if it’s
Tony’s, it’s going to be terrific.
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Antipasti run $3-$9, pizzas $14-$18, and a lot of small plates $8-$16.
2656 W. Lawrence Avenue
It is, of course, a cliché to say that a small family-run restaurant is a labor of love, but it is certainly a back-breaking way to make a living, even if love is involved. This becomes evident at Goosefoot, which is a ways out from downtown in what I’m told is the burgeoning Lincoln Square neighborhood.
Here, in a tiny room that only does one seating of 34 people a night, Chris Nugent, formerly at Chicago's Les Nomades, and his wife Nina serve an eight-course, $90 tasting menu, B.Y.O, which is amazing since restaurants make their real money from wine and spirits. (They offer the locations of nearby wine shops.) There is also a 12-course menu available.
There’s little to brag about in the
décor, which is based on banquettes, bare
tables, and shades of pale gray-green. And
because the room is small, when it's full, it's
Dishes change all the time, so I can only give you a sense of what awaits you at Goosefoot, like a small beginning of lobster, scallop, Hubbard squash, licorice root and curry. There was a sweet sunchoke soup with potato, shrimp and truffle essence, and roasted quail (left) with spiced beluga lentils, ginger and compressed apple, all artfully designed around the main ingredients, so things look a bit twee on many dishes. For dessert there was chocolate with sea beans, orange and mulled wine. There are some passé trendy ideas here, including a liberal use of foam, and there are no alternatives to what’s listed on the single sheet of paper.
Goosefoot is expensive, but the personalized
experience at Goosefoot and obvious adventure of a
set menu can be worth it, especially when you bring
your own wine.
Goosefoot is open Tues.-Sun. for dinner.
Yusho bills itself as an Asian small plates yakitori restaurant, and that it is, but you need to be careful of not over-ordering—which the waiters urge you to do--or the bill can easily mount up fast. It’s a good sort of drop-in place, too, and despite some excellent local reviews, when I dined midweek, it was far from jammed. You can sit at the counter or take a booth, or a table to the rear. You'll be cordially greeted and seated whenever you go.
Yusho is own by chef Matthias Merges, formerly of the soon-to-closeCharlie Trotter's, where whatever devotion to meticulousness he learned is exacted here in the tastes, spicings and textures presented, including three types of fried skins—chicken, pork and salmon. There is also twice-fried pork with lime and matcha (finely ground green tea), and I recommend the succulent beef tongue with soy, bitter kale and a sharp bite of horseradish. Tofu with too tiny bits of pork was rather bland, though seas urchin with nori seaweed, shiso and “Buddha's hand” (a multi-fingered citron) had a delicious chemistry.
As is often the case in Asian restaurants, desserts don’t come up to the scrumptious levels of American sweets, so that kalamansi with peanut butter and coriander and soft serve black sesame, coffee and “crunchy business" were nothing to rave about. Better you should order more savory items.
There are some signature cocktails here, along with a half dozen sakes, plenty of artisanal beers, and some well-chosen wines that may go with most of this food.
Yusho is open for dinner Mon.-Sat, for “Sunday noodles” on Sun. till 5 PM; dishes range from $3-$14.
Four Seasons Hotel
120 East Delaware Place
The once staid, but always very, very good, dining room of the Chicago Four Seasons has been transformed into a colorful, more casual modern dining room of mahogany, big barrel leather chairs, low lighting, and big splashes of abstract art. The cuisine has changed too, once French-American, now under a farm friendly concept developed by Chef Kevin Hickey, a Chicago guy who’s cooked in California, Dublin and London. “Our menu gives guests the opportunity to have whatever dining experience they desire,” he says. “Diners can try two or three small plates, or splurge on a larger entrée or a premium, regionally sourced cut of meat.”
One glance at the large menu proves his point, from luscious, hand chopped bison tartare with waffle chips, zippy beer mustard, and quivering egg (left) to a well-wrought scallop-and-green garlic risotto. There’s an emphasis on Midwestern generosity here, shown in his hefty boudin blanc sausage with morcilla grits and a welcome shot of chimichurri.
Hungry for a light lunch of just some burrata with crusty bread? It’s on there. Pasta? Try the summery mint gnocchi with a rich, lusty lamb bolognese ragù and sheep’s milk cheese. Heading to a Sox game? Try the nice, fat Chicago style hot dog with “homemade everything.” There is a well-marbled wagyu-style skirt steak with cheese and herb fries that could double for a deluxe Philly cheesesteak, and sliders of the shortribs with white Cheddar and an assertive horseradish aïoli was one of my favorite dishes here.
It's obvious that Hickey really loves his own food—too many Chicago chefs still cook for show not taste—and I can just see him noshing on those sliders before service, maybe finishing off after service with a cheesecake sundae of blackberries, Graham cracker crunchies, cream cheese mousse and grapefruit. Maybe he'll take some home. It would be a sin to waste food this good.
Unless you order beef tenderloin ($65) or ribeye
($52), the prices here are very reasonable, with
smaller plates $10-$17, main courses $14-$32. The wine
list could use a lot more labels under $50.
151 West Erie Street
Ryan Poli has always
been well regarded in town and I have shared that
regard ever since he was as a place called Butter. Tavernita
is his newest place, and it is huge, vast, going
from bar areas to dining rooms, all as loud as a
jack hammer, and it’s very tough to carry on a
conversation here, which is why most of the young
clientele seem perpetually on their iPhones. If
that’s your style, then you’ll find it a place to
drink, dig in with friends on small plates, and
The menu here is rife with Mediterranean dishes, particularly a large array of tapas-style items, from the oysters and crudi to cured charcuterie, from an “en pan” selection of flat breads; then there are “platos” of everything from grilled baby octopus, soups, pastas, and parilla-style grilled meats.
Here are some of the dishes I really enjoyed: hamachi with avocado, lime, jalapeño, and cucumber; blistered pimientos shot through with with sherry vinegar that you just pop into your mouth and let work their incendiary charms; escalivada, a mélange of eggplant, red peppers, hazelnuts, romesco and goat’s cheese on crostini—tastes that will never go out of favor; crunchy-soft croquetas with fine Serrano ham and saffron aïoli; and a sensationally delicious corn pudding with shrimp, chile poblano and herb salad. If you’re not yet tired of pork belly, you’ll like the bocadillos with sweet-tangy apple jam, pickled red onions on a buttery brioche bun.
I don’t quite understand the “kegged cocktails” (isn’t a cocktail supposed to be made to order?), but there are many small estate wines served on tap, and tap house-made vermouth, in Spain called “vermut de grifo.”
Tavernita serves lunch Mon.-Fri.; dinner Mon.-Sat.; brunch Sat. & Sun. Dishes range from $8-$21.
52nd Street (near 8th Avenue)
Danji is simply
decorated, with just 32 seats, a bar and counter up
front, and tables that have slender drawers that open
to reveal the menu. The service staff, even when the
place is full, which is every night, sometimes doing
five turnovers, couldn't be more cordial, none
brandishing an armful of tats, always ready to
recommend the right way to order, suggesting this or
that wine or beer, and urging you to be open to
flavors. The music is not too loud, thank God,
and the prices are modest. Kim prefers to send out the
small plates one or two at a time for a table, when
they are ready, because he likes to build towards a
crescendo of flavors and richness.
Danji is open for lunch Mon.-Fri. and for dinner
Mon.-Sat. Dishes range from $6-$20.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
TWO COASTS. . . TWO WINERIES. . . TWO ANNIVERSARIES
by Mort Hochstein
On the day I learned that Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars in New York's Finger Lakes would observe its fiftieth anniversary this summer, I also learned that Jordan Winery in Sonoma would mark its 40th at roughly the same time. What an interesting opportunity for a story about contrasts, I thought: a small hard scrabble New York winery and a well funded, top drawer California house modeled on the great estates of Bordeaux.
The contrasts were amplified as I developed my research. Doc Frank (left), as his neighbors knew him, was a penniless émigré from the Ukraine who came to the United States in 1951, worked as an unskilled laborer at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, and made little progress until Dr. Charles Fournier of Gold Seal recognized his credentials and experience and hired him to cultivate European grapes, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, at a time when the region’s growers felt only the hardy native labrusca and hybrids could survive the frigid winters of the Finger Lakes.
In 1962, Dr. Frank established his own winery overlooking Keuka Lake (below), scoffing at his neighbors’ reluctance to change. “I grew vinifera in Russia,” he declaimed, “where spit would freeze before it hit the ground.” Fiercely advocating the uprooting existing vineyards, he planted vinifera, showing that mounding up the soil around the vines in winter and improving grafting techniques would allow the more desirable grapes to thrive in the Finger Lakes. Irascible, opinionated, stubborn, and not always tactful, he often antagonized his colleagues, but also built a following of “cooperators” throughout the Northeast who adopted his techniques to propel the revolution which transformed the vineyards of the region.
He once showed me jars holding dead, almost skeletal baby chicks. “I fed them hybrid grapes and juices, and see what happens,” he gloated. Doc Frank detested the hybrids that had been created in France after the American root louse phylloxera devastated the vinifera vineyards of Europe, and he saw little future for the area’s native varieties. On another visit, he directed his outrage toward a neighboring winery, Bully Hill, where Hermann Weimer had been imported to prove wines made from hybrids and indigenous American grapes. “That Herman the German,” he ranted, “he’s poisoning America.” Weimer eventually left Bully Hill to create prize winning Riesling and Chardonnay at his eponymously named winery on nearby Seneca Lake, and never again made wines from hybrids. In the years that followed, he and Dr. Frank became friends.
In 1972, ten years to the day that Doctor Frank, underfunded, singlehandedly began building a humble, small winery, Tom and Sally Jordan purchased 275 acres of orchards in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley. Jordan had successfully developed oilfields in Indonesia, and, it is said, dreamt of purchasing one of the great French estates. He never believed the United States could produce equally fine wines until a sommelier in San Francisco introduced him to an early bottling of Beaulieu Georges de Latour, produced by renowned winemaker André Tschelitscheff, and that tasting redirected him to California. Intent on producing wines to rival those of Bordeaux, he found promising property in Sonoma where he hired architects to build a stunning French château-styled winery (below), enlisting Tschelistcheff as consultant; in 1976 he released the first of an unparalleled series of highly ranked Cabernet and Chardonnay wines. For a long time, Jordan focused on restaurants and hotel dining rooms but is now in more general distribution.
Both wineries are today very successful, but on different planes. Jordan produces about 66,000 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon and 33,000 Chardonnay annually while Dr. Frank Vinifera Wine Cellars releases about 45,000 cases, primarily Riesling and Chardonnay, and smaller amounts of Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, and its uniquely Russian specialty, Rkatsitelli. Dr. Frank’s rise to public recognition, however, came after three decades of struggle and two changes at the top. Doc Frank was skilled in the vineyard and in the winery, but was not a great organizer or businessman. His son, Willy, working full time as a traveling salesman in the camera business and traveling weekends from Long Island to help at the winery, altered its direction after his father’s death in 1984. One year earlier, Doc Frank, struggling and ill, had reluctantly turned the business over to Willy, who became even more of a road warrior, traveling night after night to sales events and wine dinners to promote the winery and the sparkling wine facility he had founded nearby while working for his father.
I never met Tom Jordan, though I had visited the estate and interviewed his daughter Judy, who went on to launch her own label, “J,” a sparkling wine. I overnighted at the stylish house, where I was treated like royalty, as were distributors, retailers and restaurateurs who had obtained a treasured invitation to the Sonoma showplace. You had to know the way. There was no sign at the long, unmarked road to the winery. On my most recent California visit, I found a small Jordan sign at the highway entrance and visitors—not only those in the trade--are welcome. They are, however, advised to write or call in advance. The small guest area is discreetly populated and I saw no signs of the bus tours that flood the tasting rooms of many California wineries.
Those and other changes came under John Jordan, an attorney, after his father asked him to take over in 2005. While Jordan has prided itself on fielding an estate wine, he and winemaker Tom Davis, who had been there from the first years, were redeveloping the vineyards, and for the first time, purchased grapes to fill gaps. Since that period, the wines, while still structured for the long haul, have changed to become less austere and more accessible at an earlier stage. John with his father Tom and mother Sally.
I knew Willy Frank well, attended several of his wine events in New York, and went sailing with him on Keuka Lake. He was a born salesman and a facile orator. In 1933, in a much smoother transition than Dr. Frank’s reluctant retirement, Willy Frank appointed his son Fred president and majority stockholder. Fred, who’d trained at the Geisenheim Institute in Germany, had run vineyards for 10 years as a managing director for Banfi Vintners on Long Island, thus bringing to the job a rare combination of winemaking and business background. He expanded the line to make a high volume Chardonnay line, added plantings, and enlisted skilled American, French and Australian winemakers to improve and diversify his production.
In July, I was in Hammondsport when Dr. Konstantin Frank Vinifera Wine Celllars celebrated its first half-century. Fred Frank staged a modest celebration for approximately 300 people , including 39 family members, at the winery, provided great tastings, a light lunch, tours of the grounds, a film about the winery and a few, thankfully , brief speeches by local notables. And that brings up the final comparison.
A few weeks earlier, Jordan also celebrated, staging elaborate, well attended, tastings and lushly catered celebrations for tradespeople and journalists in Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami and New York. The triumphal continental observances also included a competition in which Jordan awarded approximately $35,000 to artists who had created works honoring their cities and the winery’s four decades. As Mel Brooks famously declared, “It’s good to be the king.”
TAKE THAT, YOU FRENCH SWINE!!
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