Monday, May 17, 2010

Is Black Dog Doggin' It?

Dogging it
: "Working slowly or just pretending to work, when supposed to be working; particularly if others are working their fair share." (Urban Dictionary)

In all the years I've been writing about local foods, I have consistently declined to do restaurant reviews. It's just too small a town, and people are too thin-skinned. Find any fault with how someone operates, and, instead of appreciating a little constructive criticism, they are setting your inbox aflame, telling you never to darken the doors of their establishment again. Criticize someone's favorite eatery, and it's like you've dissed them personally.

In addition, after 35 years cooking and a brief stint working under a chef who was recently up for a James Beard award, my standards for both food and service are pretty high. Which means that I'm almost always disappointed at what you get for your money when you eat out. Order a steak medium-rare and have it delivered to your table way past well done. Politely send it back and have a replacement sent out 40 minutes later, after everyone else in your party has finished dessert and is fidgeting to leave. Wait staff who are rude, incompetent, or simply ignore you. Who needs the tsuris?

The last restaurant meal I thoroughly enjoyed was at St. John's, in London, more than a year ago. So I spare myself – and everyone else – the aggravation and eat at home, and eat pretty well too, even when I eat very simply.

But since the old Todd & John's re-opened as a barbecue joint, more than a year ago, people have been telling me that I HAVE to try it. Some friends even raved about it, saying they would eat there ALL THE TIME if they could. But there have been detractors as well, telling me they thought the food was nothing special. But it was suggested, darkly, that people would say that to me just to curry favor and that, if I hadn't tried it myself, I must be scared of the competition or at least of the comparison.

So, today, when my bud Perrigi and I had a ton of mulch to unload and 5 tons of compost to pick up, we did what real men do – when they're dogging it: we went out for lunch first. Perrigi hadn't been to Black Dog either, so we gave it a try. I tried the Burnt Ends from their brisket, which most people had mentioned as the best thing on the menu. The sandwich I got was not disappointing, exactly, but it was remarkable just how little flavor the meat had. I'm willing to believe that it was beef, but it had less real meaty flavor than Stan Schutte's pork. And despite the dramatic claim of being "burnt," they had almost no smoke flavor at all. Just a whiff of spice and smoke. The only real flavor came from the sauce, which was fine. But sauce does not make the barbecue. At best, the flavors complement the meat while acid in the vinegar cleanses the palate and leaves you hungry for more; at worst, it covers a multitude of sins in the meat or in the kitchen.

Since the menu claims that their briskets spend 12 hours in a wood-fired smoker, I'm at a loss to understand how the final result could be so bland. Pleasant, but bland. Last week, I sampled the best barbecue I could find between here and Memphis, and this was definitely a couple notches below that. And the best barbecue that Murphysboro and Memphis had to serve up was a notch below what I enjoy at home. And I don't claim to be anything more than a barbecue beginner. I think it's simply the case that if you start with great meat and do your best not to screw it up, the result will be better than just about anything you will find at a restaurant.

So, again, I'm not necessarily disappointed with the food. For $4.99, my meal was perfectly acceptable. You can certainly pay more and eat worse in town. Still, if I had my druthers, I'd pay twice as much for one of Farren's wagyu burgers any day.

What is both disappointing and a serious concern is the claim I keep hearing that Black Dog buys its meat from local farmers. This is simply not true. So today, at lunch, I asked our server if they bought their meat from local farmers, and she replied, "Oh, yes, we do buy some!" This she quickly qualified by saying, "We try to buy what we can." And, when pressed, "I know we get some meat from Triple S Farms." When I last talked to Stan Schutte and asked how much meat he had sold to Black Dog, his terse response was "ZERO." The closest he came was having them order some meat from him and then back out and leave him hanging when it was time to take delivery. I don't have any problems with places buying conventional meat and doing the best they can with it. But it is a problem if they are buying cheap, conventional meat and then misrepresenting it as coming from local producers. One bite will tell you different.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Fat Duck Cookbook, by Heston Blumenthal

Originally released as the Big Fat Duck Cookbook (and selling for the enormous price of $250), I recently got ahold of the plebian version of his cookbook when it turned up on the shelves of my local library. As much as Heston Blumenthal’s 3-star cooking is firmly grounded in the latest scientific understanding of the elements of food, the end results are more of a synaesthetic fantasy. In other words, it’s an enormously fun read, but the food is not something anyone in their right mind would be tempted to recreate at home. Here’s a taste:

“The first opportunity to try out what we talked about came in October 2006. Moët & Chandon were honouring Nick Knight with a masked ball at Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole’s Gothic Revival villa, and he invited me to provide canapés. Nick had created a dream-like set-up, with fencers in one room and what appeared to be a leopard pacing through another. We turfed one of the rooms, ‘planted’ lime trees, set up a tape loop of English summer sounds – the buzz of wasps, pastoral violins, Richie Benaud’s cricket commentary on a distant radio – created by my friend the DJ and producer Matthew Herbert, and wheeled in an ice-cream van and a couple of handcarts to serve up black-and-white slush puppies (renamed Dalmatian puppies) and a sundae with vanilla and strawberry ice cream garnished with black olive and leather purée. There were sorbet-pink balloons filled with helium and cut-grass oil; each was stamped with the words ‘SUCK ME,’ and when people did, the room was filled not only with squeaky voices, but with another classic summer aroma.

“There was also a camping stove serving up Nitro-Scrambled Egg and Bacon Ice Cream, but the real magic featured in the presentation of chewy sweets with edible wrappers… Occasionally, too, the guests crowded round the camping stove would be amazed to see a tail-coated magician pluck a petal from a rose, drop it into a frying pan and toss it until it turned into an egg, whereupon he cracked it into the pan, which he then handed to a chef who used it to make ice cream …” (121)

For all of you hoping that I might try to emulate some of these feats of legerdemain for this this year’s Lar-B-Q, I’m sorry to disappoint. Food is fun, and the Lar-B-Q is always leavened with a fair amount of silliness (I am working on a bacon bourbon caramel popcorn for this year’s event), but turning food into a circus act, sideshow, or freak show (honestly: leather purée?) is so not my thing. Blumenthal is fascinated by the science of cookery and, for a little, light, bedtime reading picks up a hefty catalog of laboratory equipment to stimulate his dreams of new culinary creations.

While I share his fascination, my bent in the kitchen is all in the other direction. He is driven to create dishes that are ever more refined, more elaborate in their production, and more reliant on the latest scientific technology. In my cooking, I’m increasingly interested in returning to basics and seeing what can be done without electrical gadgets – with a mortar and pestle, with fire, with my own senses of sight, smell, touch, and taste.

This contrast in cooking styles was brought home to me, as I brought Heston’s book along with me on a trip this past weekend to Memphis. Mention Memphis to other people and they might think of Elvis, Graceland, and Sun Records, but Memphis makes me think of barbecue. Although we were lucky enough to score tickets to hear Nora Jones at the grand, old Orpheum theater, we preceded that with a pilgrimage to the shrine of Memphis barbecue: Charles Vergos’ Rendezvous restaurant. (The dry-rubbed ribs were nicely spiced and almost as good as mine; the pulled pork from the shoulder was dry and disappointing.) The day before, making a mere 60-mile deviation from our route, we sought out the 17th Street Bar and Grill, in Murphysboro, Illinois, whose barbecue team had won more top awards in the Memphis in May competition than any other team in history. The ribs here were also very fine, with just the right touch of fruitwood smoke, but still not as good as mine.

(I don’t mean to brag, since the superiority of the ribs I cook at home is not necessarily a reflection on any skill of mine; there’s only so much magic a restaurant can work with the sad material that commercially-produced pork has become.)

Barbecue is about as basic, as elemental, as cooking can get. Dig a pit, make some charcoal, cook the meat in the smoke of the charcoal, slow and low, until done. In many ways, the simpler, the cruder the setup, the better the barbecue. It’s the antithesis of Heston Blumenthal’s “laboratory,” where he cooks up his food. And yet. And yet. As I chewed on the tougher, connective tissue in the pork shoulder and ribs, I couldn’t help thinking that even a tradition as venerable as barbecue might still be improved, that some cross between Heston’s high-tech and barbecue’s low-tech might yield the tastiest ribs, pulled pork, or brisket ever.

Specifically, the technique of cooking meat sous-vide or in vacuum-sealed bags has enormous potential for breaking down the tougher, connective tissues while never taking the temperature of the meat beyond medium-rare and drying it out. Can one have juicy, meltingly tender ribs that still have the crunchy exterior and deep, layered flavor of traditional barbecue? That would be the holy grail!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

This Little Piggy Went Running Instead of Going to Market

I was bummed when I realized that the first farmers' market of the season was going to be on the same Saturday as the Illinois Marathon – but probably not half as bummed as my friend Lisa who manages the market and had to deal with 15,000 people running rings around it, effectively land-locking it or car-blocking it.

Since the race started at the same time as the market, I had to choose between getting my hands on Prairie Fruits Farm's goat cheeses and Blue Moon Farm's spring greens or running 13.1 miles in the brutal, warm, muggy conditions of central Illinois. That was a no-brainer, and if I wasn't crazed enough by the start of the race, I was pretty well brain-dead by the end of it.

Still I achieved all of the lofty goals I set for myself: 1) don't die, 2) finish the race, and 3) break the 2-hour barrier. I cut this last one pretty close. My running buddy and I kept up a good pace until about mile 11, when the sun came out, my brains were baking in my head, and my heart announced that it was just about outta here. So I turned my running buddy loose and walked for a couple blocks, while I persuaded my heart to stay inside my chest. Then I started jogging again, and at mile 12 I was able to start running again, and when I got to the football stadium and saw that my time was 1 hour, 59 minutes, and 30 seconds, I gave it everything I had and sprinted across the field to the finish line. Beat my goal by all of 3 seconds. That's a .04% margin. Cutting it so close, I guess you could say I ran a cabinetmaker's race.