MagoGuide Winter Tour 2012

Our interests go beyond our travels in Europe. This journal entry tells the tale of a trip that we took from Montana to Arkansas in the winter of 2012, towards the beginning of December. We were frankly sick of car travel before we were done, but thoroughly enjoyed the cities we visited as well as the restaurants in which we ate. Here are the highlights of this memorable trip.

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Five thousand miles, three cities, and four celebrity chefs on twelve ply studded tires

We needed to make a quick trip to Arkansas between Thanksgiving and Christmas so that my urologist would not feel neglected during the holidays. Yet the thought of air travel during the annual period of consensual madness — when airports are converted into gulags for deranged adults herding their evil children onto constellations of thousands of moving parts flying in loose formation that are assembled, maintained, and flown by some of the most disgruntled workers in the macro economy — followed almost immediately by a cystoscopy was just a bit much. I guess it could have been worse. I could have booked the excursion on a Greyhound with a proctologist for a seatmate, but instead we opted to ensconce the MagoGuide Team in our Sequoia (nick-named Telperion due to its silver color — no snide comments from LOTR fan boys please), and go in search of celebrity chefs, as well as about 2,000 miles out of our way.

Like T.E. Lawrence sneaking up on Aqaba, we crossed a culinary wasteland that began slightly east of Livingston Montana and continued to the outskirts of Chicago. This gastronomic dearth (Question for the citizens of the Roughrider State: how can you have the lowest unemployment rate and the worst restaurants in this spiral arm of the galaxy?) was made infinitely more painful by the fact that Telperion was shod for off-the-grid Montana. The combination of twelve-ply tires embedded with metal spikes (almost certainly illegal east of the Mississippi) made for a very stiff ride accentuated by a continuous shrill whine just at the hearing threshold. The upshot is that we spent three ten hour-plus days on the road from Polebridge to Chicago suffering from a combination of loose fillings and unremitting ennui (Follow up for the Flickertail State: given all of the money you are raking in from the oil boom, why can’t you build a cell tower or two?) punctuated by two eminently forgettable nights in Billings and Fargo.

Thus we did not begin to review restaurants until we reached the Chicago suburbs. Since at that point we still had 1,500 miles to go, we decided not to review the restaurants we patronized in chronological order but to rank them through a modified Delphi technique that evolved as Telperion gradually removed all of the cartilage in our spines and set the controls for our audio canals to permanent ring. Each of the three team members voted after each restaurant and the totals were averaged. The reviews are presented in an ascending Lettermanesque order, contain snarky comments when the voting went against me, and have qualitative assessments associated with the value-for-money issue that are drawn from the rest of the team who care about such things.

10. Lola – Michael Symon

Address: 2058 East 4th Street, Cleveland OH— Get directions
Website: lolabistro.com
Telephone: (216) 621-5652
Get more info....
Rostra rating: 2
Lola! on Urbanspoon

I have a genuinely schizophrenic and ruinously expensive love/hate relationship with celebrity chefs. I admire them as businessmen and hate them as cooks. I am simultaneously enthralled and repulsed by the way they have promoted and profited immensely from a food culture that has done nothing to make Americans cook for themselves or even eat better. They have erected gastronomic temples to expense account dining while excavating the most lucrative game show since Twenty One.

And yet, like moths to LED lights, Team Mago continues to be drawn to them. In conjunction with romance novels, soft porn masquerading as mini-series, and bacon, celebrity chefs and their glittering food emporia are guilty pleasures that beckon even in the worst economy since the Great Depression. Not too long ago I decamped for a week to Las Vegas where I did not spend a penny on any game of chance but twice a day, like the most degenerate gambler on the strip, I dropped a small fortune on a celebrity chef’s restaurant. I emerged from my gastro-bender far heavier and significantly poorer, chanting the never again mantra to any and all who would listen as I stumbled out of Mario Battali’s wine bar in the Venetian in search of a taxi back to Montana and solvent sanity.

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But back to the Winter Tour. Prior to our trip, Michael Symon was the reigning celebrity chef for at least two thirds of the MagoGuide Team. After all, what’s not to like about a “meat-centric” chef of Greek and Sicilian ancestry? Our plan was to hit his Cleveland and Detroit restaurants and sample one of his B-Spot burger joints in between, but we over-swilled to such an extent in Chicago that we had to cut Detroit and the B-Spot chain from the itinerary in order to reach Fayetteville in time for the scheduled video tour of my bladder. As Telperion labored to move a significantly enhanced payload into the Eastern Time zone, we convinced ourselves that we had only cut peripheral eateries from the Symon corpus.

Cleveland marked the mid-point in our trencherman’s holiday. After Chicago, we fully expected the hits to just keep on coming in the city where Alan Freed coined the phrase rock n’roll. Then we ate at the flagship of Simon’s culinary fleet just one week shy of the seventy-first anniversary of Pearl Harbor, and suffered a meal that will live in infamy. Perhaps we were just swept up in a wave of bad juju for celebrity chefs. Guy Fieri had recently been eviscerated in the New York Times after all, and Nigella Lawson has published a faux Italian cookbook featuring a “seriously delicious meatzza” that I would not feed to Kim Jong Un’s dog. But no, Lola suffers from a far more banal scourge: the maestro’s attention is clearly elsewhere.

The starters and sides were the best of what can only be described as a mediocre yet expensive meal. The fries came in second for the trip; in fact we had two large helpings. They are cut small like the frites that accompany mussels in Brussels and served in a wax paper cone without a side trip to heat lamp purgatory, but do you really go to Lola for fried potatoes?

Next in line was the octopus served with chiles, roasted garlic, radicchio, and elongated potato chips. It was a nice dish, the chiles in particular giving it a needed kick, but the octopus was slightly overcooked — a sin in either Greece or Sicily. The first course got noticeably worse with the black bean soup, which was a flavorful puree significantly weakened by the addition of whole beans that were undercooked (a legume theme that continued throughout the meal).

The main course, like the second wave of aircraft at Pearl Harbor, completely sunk the meal. The best dish was beef hanger steak served with pickle sauce, chiles, and fries. The perfectly cooked meat was a genuine onglet cut from the plate and not a tarted up flat iron steak, but how hard is it to get steak frite right? The large pork shank hailed from the hind leg and was competently braised, but its accompanying heirloom beans were undercooked and the fennel, Meyer lemon, and garlic compote decidedly lackluster. The combination of unctuous pork and chalky beans grated, to say the least.

The real gastronomic war crime, however, was the wild steelhead trout served with cauliflower, mushroom, radish, apple, and almonds. Having both caught and cooked this noble fish, I was appalled by how overcooked and dry it was.

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Dessert — consisting of chocolate-hazelnut flourless cake with beet parfait, dark chocolate-praline sauce, tangerine emulsion, beet paper, hazelnut ice cream — sounded a lot better than it turned out to be. None of it was bad, but it was basically over-described cake and ice cream. Coming at the end of serial disappointments, it was probably better than we gave it credit for being, but it ended up serving as a metaphor for the entire meal: fairly ordinary and inconsistently executed cuisine. We asked our eye-rolling waitress if Chef Symon was in the kitchen that evening and were curtly informed that he was in New York, the scene of his failed Parea restaurant. Michael, you need to come home to Cleveland, they are asleep at the flame top in your marquee restaurant.

Mago tip: Go to the bar or skip Lola for Lolita (see below). The bar at Lola is the best part of the restaurant. When we dined, it was packed (as opposed to the rest of the establishment) and the tenders were friendly and talented. You can order off the menu at the bar, which, believe it or not, is noticeably less noisy than the rest of the space. The noise level at Symon’s restaurants seems to be a common theme among reviewers that we can confirm for at least two of them. With respect to Lolita, as you read the review for that restaurant keep in mind that you can eat there for half of what you pay at Lola.

9. West Side Market Café

Address: 1979 West 25th Street, Cleveland OH— Get directions
Website: westsidemarketcafe.com
Telephone: (216) 579-6800
Get more info....
Rostra rating: 3
West Side Market Cafe on Urbanspoon
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This was the only establishment visited twice by the MagoGuide Team. We were in Cleveland initially because it is the epicenter of Michael Symon’s restaurant empire, but we quickly fell in love with this fascinating and largely neglected city that reminds me of Italy’s Genoa with its blue-collar approach to excellent yet unpretentious food. Having commandeered the Holiday Inn Express honeymoon suite as our Cleveland love shack, we found its financial district location in the 19th century historic Guardian Bank Building an excellent jumping off point for other nearby renovations of Gilded Age structures, the Warehouse District, the Cuyahoga County Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument (Mago tip: skip the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for this gem of a memorial to the American Civil War), and especially the West Side Market. A pleasant walk or easy bus ride from downtown Cleveland, this enclosed market complex dates to 1840 and is one of the best in the country. We made two extensive tours of the stalls prior to a lunch and a breakfast the following day, which left us planning to rent a place with a decent kitchen near-by so that we could cook our way through the complex over the course of several months.

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The West Side Market Café is a pleasant bar and grill tucked into a corner of the culinary complex where products from the near-by stalls are cooked to order and, like its counterparts in every major European market, you can find locals pounding brewskies from early morning until closing time (4AM on Friday and Saturday nights!). The café is first and foremost an eatery for workers who have spent the night toiling in anonymity so that Cleveland’s fortunate foodies can experience the ultimate culinary high of simply going to the market and making up meals by virtue of what is on offer just about every day of the year.

We wandered in starving after two hours of ogling the goods in the stalls. There is a full bar with eight or so beers on tap. We sampled the Christmas ale, a winter warmer by the Great Lakes Brewing Company, which was like liquid gingerbread with an alcoholic kick. With the first part of Operation Hangover Cure well underway, we focused on the second and third major food groups in order to determine whether the extended family that runs the place could wield salt and fat to good effect. We had to wait about twenty minutes or so for the fryolater fest of walleye po-boy with salt and pepper potato chips, fresh cut fries, and buttermilk onion rings to arrive, but it was well worth it.

The fish and bespoke chips were exemplary and the fries came in a respectable third for the entire trip in a very tight field. The onion rings, considered by the team to be the real test of any dive, were merely good. For desert we gunged some more of the Christmas ale along with lamb sliders that were cooked a perfect medium rare (no instructions were solicited or given on this matter, these folks simply know how to cook fresh ground lamb).

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The next morning, again hungover and now in a somber mood for having to leave this wonderful market without cooking out of it for a minimum of six weeks, we bought supplies for the next leg of whining spine compression and sought solace in l’ultima colazione. I whiled away the time waiting for our orders by casting numerous and envious glances at a table of market workers and their nurse girl friends who had just gotten off an ER shift and were downing Christmas ales enlivened with a shot of spicy buttered rum as fast as our friendly waitress could fetch them.

Both of my teammates opted for sandwiches containing a fried egg, sharp American cheese, and spicy bacon on a soft roll. Although these offerings were inhaled before their plates got cold, the consensus opinion was that next time they would order this dish with the toasted rosemary bread that I had with my breakfast (yes!!), but which I managed to appreciate only a fraction of due to the predatory attentions of my tablemates. In addition, my colleagues’ study of the twenty-somethings behaving like we used to engendered not winter warmer envy but regret that we did not sample what appeared to be very serviceable hash browns.

My choice involved smoky hash and eggs, which is not a breakfast served in Amsterdam or even Seattle, but a dish composed of cured beef, pork smokies, Yukon gold potatoes, and mustard sauce with 2 poached eggs. The mustard sauce, rather than being an afterthought affectation, absolutely made the dish: an Oeufs Plombier to rival any Eggs Benedict (although upon our almost inevitable return to this establishment I intend to try their version of edible pornography in a head-to-head comparison). We also ordered two sides of fresh fruit with lime, honey, and mint that were nothing short of spectacular, which is not surprising given the fruit’s proximate provenance, but extremely unusual for breakfast fare in places that charge an order of magnitude more for their food.

Given the praise that I have heaped on this establishment, its amazing location, and my vow to return for many more restorative meals following a morning of strenuous food shopping, one might wonder why its ranking is so low relative to other restaurants in this review. Indeed, I fought long and hard with my teammates over West Side Market Café’s standing for well over a thousand miles, and I was still voted down in favor of essentially jumped up Tex Mex served in a slightly pretentious food court, but I will be over it by the time the review is finished.

Mago tip: Use the upstairs rest rooms. The unisex bathroom adjacent the bar requires securing and then returning a key attached to a foot long rubber spatula that has clearly seen better days in terms of both utility and hygiene. It is not something you want to touch even before you enter the room of convenience, much less after you wash your hands.

8. Frontera Fresco – Rick Bayless

Address: 111 North State Street, Chicago IL— Get directions
Website: www.fronterafresco.com
Telephone: (312) 781-4483
Get more info....
Rostra rating: 3
Frontera Fresco on Urbanspoon

Our first meal in Chicago proper was a celebration of cucina di povera convened amidst the glittering detritus of modern consumerism. Squiffy from mulled wine at the nearby Kristkindl Markt and still scarred physically and emotionally from a recent encounter with Kroll’s Diner in Bismarck North (by God) Dakota that was more of a black and white Twilight Zone re-run than a meal, we rode escalators to the Frontera Fresco branch located on the seventh floor of Macy’s flagship State Street Chicago store. Rick Bayless’ small ecosystem of Mexican street food restaurants represents tasty revenge for anyone who has ever suffered during and after a session at a strip mall “Los Craporlales” boasting “authentic Mexican food,” but actually serving sludge extruded from some vile alternative Orwellian universe where the resistance forces of Occupied Mexico have substituted chain restaurants for suicide bombers and thereby successfully liberated every state in southwest “America” by poisoning the entire Tea Party demographic.

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The food court at Macy’s is where Plato would have chowed down on “small-batch, chile-infused salsas and stone-ground, all-natural tortilla chips” if he had the munchies while ripping off the theory of forms from his teacher Socrates, who sensibly one has to admit given how Western Civilization has turned out, distrusted new fangled innovations like books (scrolls, whatever). While it is perfectly true that this food court — sporting multiple fast food outlets by the likes of Marcus Samuelsson (what does either Ethiopian or Swedish cuisine have to do with burgers and fries by the way? )— comes very close to the apotheosis of such culinary locations, it also reaffirms the old saw about porcine employment of cosmetics. In short, you are still in a glorified cafeteria located in a cavernous temple to Penia, the daemon of poverty and credit ratings.

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But the food is well worth fighting the line and the understandably brusque but efficient servers. The MagoGuide Team are all unrepentant tamale sluts, so we ordered both versions on offer: chipotle chicken made with stone ground corn and chipotle salsa, green chile containing fresh corn, roasted chiles, creamy goat cheese, and ricotta served with tomatillo salsa. The chicken version was very competently executed, but the veggie alternative stole the show. However, one of the reasons that I am still chapped about this restaurant edging out the West Side Market Café is that, while I fully concur with my colleagues that this was the dish of the meal, I cannot credit it with belonging to the genus tamale. A tamale without corn meal mush is the functional equivalent of pane con milza without spleen.

Now Chef Bayless might retort that my argument boils down to ignorant gringo sour grapes, but in fact even cursory research reveals that the tamale is a ten thousand year-old Mesoamerican MRE that was designed to utilize ground maize in an efficient and highly portable fashion. I’m just sayin’ that calling a delicious collection of Mexican-themed vegetables and dairy products a tamale is an insult to the culinary legacy of the Mayan civilization, and therefore a pretty dicey thing to serve up in December 2012 notwithstanding Chef Bayless’ unequaled contribution to authentic Mexican cuisine in this country.

On top of that, my companions rightly complained that the tortilla chips (handmade daily) were over cooked with a slightly burned after taste. This impression was confirmed the next evening when we dined at Topolobampo (see below) where the same chips were cooked a’ minute and rushed to the table rather than par cooked and left to desiccate in a warming bin. We also sampled chicken and chorizo tacos on artisan corn tortillas with Chihuahua cheese.

Altogether the food was a clinic on how to cook real Mexican street food, which should be the mandatory minimum sentence for anyone convicted of opening three or more Mexican chain restaurants. Also all of the salsas (jalapeño cilantro, tomatillo, chipotle, and habanero) were extraordinary, especially the killer habanero whose garish burnt orange color contrasted nicely with, and significantly enlivened, the guacamole — which pretty much needed a hit of liquid fire. The availability of superior Mexican and local beer as well as wine by the glass was a very nice Platonic touch, creating a Mexican gemutlichkeit that replaced the dying buzz of the gluhwein.

Mago tip: Bring sunglasses, especially if you spent a lot of time with the sisters cava and rioja the night before. Evidently even the Platonic form of a food court must be lit like an operating theater. This makes for great food photography, but it can be a little hard on the old synapses around the crack of noon.

7. Hot Doug’s

Address: 3324 N California Ave, Chicago IL— Get directions
Website: www.hotdougs.com
Telephone: (773) 279-9550
Get more info....
Rostra rating: 3
Hot Doug's on Urbanspoon

UPDATE:  Hot Doug’s will be closing for good as of October 2014.  Too bad.

Our second lunch in Chicago involved a haj to the Mecca of tube steak. Hot Doug’s actually tied with Frontera Fresco, but my fragile ego has not really recovered from the ignominious placement of the West Market Café in the review hierarchy. Besides, I am the one writing up the reviews and far more of a sausage savant than a taco tout. Finally, this eponymous establishment came the closest to breaking my heart.

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To continue with my play on Plato, this is where the philosopher would have stopped off for a snack on the way from Macy’s to the Allegory Cave (where indirect representations are put down until they mature into symbols). Hot Doug’s really is a place where the gods would eat hotdogs — although I did not see an ambrosia dog amidst the numerous offerings that included brandy-infused Portuguese chorizo with saffron rouille and iberico cheese; foie gras and sauternes duck sausage with truffle aioli, foie gras mousse and fleur de sel along with pear-infused elk sausage with foie gras dijonnaise and mustard-seed gouda cheese. Yet all of these uberhaute offerings were just the type of dogs that Anthony Bourdain binged on when he drug his entourage into this fine establishment and automatically doubled the already considerable waiting time.

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We had spent the morning feasting our eyes on Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpieces in Oak Park and were not in the mood for those Rococo dogs so prominent in Bourdain’s paen to Hot Doug’s, but something more in harmony with Chicago and its quintessentially American contributions to both cuisine and architecture. My companions both decided upon the “Paul Kelly” described as “Bratwurst: Soaked in Beer – sort of like Paul” adorned solely with sauerkraut. I thought long and hard about “The Sal Tessio (formerly the Frankie Pentangeli, the Virgil Sollozzo, and the Luca Brasi) Italian Sausage: It’s not personal, it’s strictly sausage,” but I finally decided that this dog was really a thinly disguised New York transplant, and like the envious little Bourdain wannabe that I am, chose the celebrity special for that day composed of Saucisse de Toulouse with rustic pate and creamy Dijon mustard.

We added a couple mountains of fries to our dogs, managed to grab a scarce table, and had a great time eating and watching the local characters that both work at and patronize the place. My choice was very French without being pretentious and I found myself wishing that Hot Doug’s had a beer and wine license. This was definitely a dog that would go very well with wine, perhaps a Morgon with a little bottle age, or for the day after the nouveau is released, washed down with several plastic cups of hair of the dog. The rest of Team Mago lamented the lack of a good helles on tap.

The fries were very good, but not quite crisp enough. Perhaps the relatively short line and associated wait times resulted in an excess of fries at the point of origin which then had sat too long under the lights when they should have come piping hot from the vat.

Mago tip: Go on weekend off-hours. What triggered my culinary crise du cœur, and what that rich snarkmeister Bourdain did not see fit to share with us mere mortals, is that the duck fat fries are only available at the weekend. I was so disconsolate that I failed to ask the reason for this arbitrary and completely out-of-character policy for such a great dog dive.

The reason for off-hours visitations (whenever those may in fact be) is that the line for Hot Doug’s is often well out the door and down the block. Waits of over an hour are frequent around meal times and seats in the small eating area are hard to come by. Also, unless you order two or three dogs for yourself, you are bound to experience finisher’s regret long before your appetite is satiated and therefore pine for several of the offerings that you considered but reluctantly rejected while in line. If this happens to you and the line is short enough to allow a second fueling, do not hesitate. I did and the line tripled while I held what in retrospect was a pointless and ultimately self-destructive internal debate about blunting my hunger for a high-end restaurant that evening.

6. Emilio’s

Address: 4100 West Roosevelt Road, Hillside IL— Get directions
Website: www.emiliostapas.com
Telephone: (708) 547-7177
Get more info....
Rostra rating: 3
Emilio's Tapas Bar on Urbanspoon

The third day out from Polebridge was the worst of the trip. It is supposed to take ten and a half hours to drive from Fargo to Chicago. Despite the fact that Fargo is touted as one of the most livable cities in the country, the entire staff of a Starbucks spontaneously began begging us to take them with us when we foolishly disclosed our destination prior to our initial caffeine in-take. As a Montanan, I was a bit surprised. It was a mild morning with no more snow than is usual for a North Dakota summer, but these people were even more desperate to blow town than we were. What the map website did not know, or chose not to tell us, is that those ten point five temporal units do not take into account the Einsteinian time dilation that kicks in as you circle the greater Minneapolis-St. Paul accretion disk for a subjective eternity as stud noise slowly destroys your consciousness.

Our reward for circumnavigating the black hole that lies at the center of the Mall of America turned out to be a Holiday Inn Express wedged tightly between O’Hare airport and a very busy rail line. My mental state had collapsed to the point where I was actually looking forward to surrendering unconditionally to a luke-warm delivery pizza washed down with a six pack of Colt 45 tall boys, but my team mates were made of sterner stuff. Their triumphant discovery that Urban Spoon had returned to our tricorders, after absenting itself in eastern Montana and refusing to acknowledge our increasingly desperate entreaties for thousands of miles, led to about fifteen minutes of giddy anticipation until it became clear that the only non-chain restaurant within a parsec or two was a tapas place sheltering in a strip mall behind a tattered façade that had clearly seen too many culinary pretenders. We went there anyway.

Emilio’s turned out to be the surprise of the trip. We called to make reservations, mainly to see if they laughed, but also to allow a little time to metabolize some Dutch courage in order to soften the anticipated blow of disappointment. But jumbo jets on close approach competing with freight train horns rapidly convinced us to face up to our choice stone sober. We arrived an hour early and mentioned this fact upon entering Emilio’s to a woma who had owner written all over her. She replied that we were welcome to wait in the car until our reservation time and then cackled with amusement that spread infectiously to the staff and several tables of diners. By the time I was seated to discover that there were three excellent cavas for sale by the glass, I had decided that I was going to sleep at Emilio’s on the table rather than drive back to a bed located at the intersection of O’Hare’s active runway and Amtrak’s Chicago switching yard.

The booze news just kept getting better. Emilio’s was having a wine sale and I quickly snagged a Rioja Gran Reserva for a sweet forty bucks. The waitress showed up with a decanter unbidden and actually found some decent crystal glasses. We blew the money we had just saved on cava as we perused the large plastic menu and waited for the wine to breathe.

Readers of MagoGuide (yes, this is a very optimistic assumption, copious cava does that even in retrospect) will know of our passionate devotion to traditional tapas, particularly as they are served up in Catalonia. For this reason, I despise tapas restaurants in the United States. They are an order of magnitude more vile than Mexican food chains because they add pretensions to food that is often far worse and always more expensive than a Tex Mex binge when it is so late that standbys such as White Castle have shut down for the night. Doubtless there are authentic and excellent tapas places in the larger American metroplexes where for the price of a plane ticket to Spain you can dine quite well, but I would not know since I always opt for going to the country of origin for food if it is cheaper to do so.

Emilio’s was the exception that proved the rule. We noted that the place was three-quarters full on a Sunday night, a promising sign indeed. I am not saying that the food was in the same ballpark, league, or sport as, say Cal Pep, but for three Interstate refugees in desperate need of a culinary locale where “best restaurant in town” was not a direct cognate of “steak” it was the oasis where Lawrence stopped off for a new set of duds right before he slaughtered the garrison at Aqaba (at least in the movie, the actual battle for Aqaba occurred for the most part at a Turkish blockhouse at Abu al Lasan, but I digress even more than usual).

Since we were half in the bag when the food arrived, I will not swear that we actually ate the following dishes or that there were not one or two more than recounted, but Team Mago did work very hard to reconstruct this unexpected mini-feast over the next week as the miles rolled by. The pa amb tomàquet was just fine (the bread got better over the course of the evening, once we had demolished the somewhat stale first offering) and it came with Serrano ham that was not thinly disguised cheap prosciutto, but a product that had once (albeit at least 6 months ago) been on the Iberian Peninsula. The manchego wasn’t from Costco either and the olive oil was Spanish. When, instead of a frittata in drag, we were served a real tortilla, our bliss rose to a level unknown since they shipped the V Queen off to Homeland.

There were some slight disappointments. The octopus was unremarkable (in fact, I barely remember it) and the bacalau in tomato sauce was really quite good, except that it was not reconstituted salt cod. I noticed at once and the waitress confirmed that they used fresh cod, allegedly because it has a milder flavor. Well, if she had said almost no flavor so that it was completely masked by the excellent spicy sauce, I would have agreed. Instead I smiled as she refilled my glass and told her it was delicious. Surprisingly, the patatas bravas were the worst dish we ate. The sauce was fine, but the potatoes were baked instead of fried. As someone who has been known to walk ten miles to sample “the best” patatas bravas in Barcelona, I would have been appalled if I had not been so, uh, happy.

Bobby and our waitress

The two best dishes (that we remember) were grilled eggplant stuffed with goat cheese served with tomato basil vinaigrette and mixed greens and fried ravioli stuffed with rabbit. There were many more dishes that I would like to have tried (and perhaps I did, if only in an alternative universe). In any event, from what I saw at adjacent tables confirmed my opinion of a consistent and conservative kitchen, just what you want for tapas.

Our very pleasant and attentive waitress pushed us hard to keep up the pace through dessert, but we found ourselves at the tipping point of satiety and pleaded for respite. She brought dessert anyway, along with another round of cava on the house (they had made their numbers on us by that point and probably figured that the half bottle of bubbly would not keep too well anyway). Dessert was puff pastry stuffed with squash and served with whipped cream. It did not strike me as particularly Spanish, but it was an excellent end to a not quite memorable but nevertheless remarkable meal.

Mago tip: Call ahead to order wine and go for lunch if possible. If I ever engineer a karmatic experience so terrible that I have to relive the trip from Fargo to BFE Illinois, I intend to put the time to good use by calling Emilio’s and ordering the wine ahead of time. They have a very good selection of Spanish wine that could profit from several hours of breathing and the staff is quite knowledgeable so that you could pick out several bottles of both white and red and have them chilled or decanted prior to your arrival. Then just order food until you are full, as if you were in Spain. I would also prefer lunch to dinner at Emilio’s, especially on Sunday, when it would be a very pleasant place to avoid the twin perils of the Jesus economy and football religion

 

Note from the photographer: Sorry there are no pictures from Emilios. We weren’t expecting anything special, so didn’t take our usual photos. Who knew?

Bonus Mago hotel tip: Don’t stay nearby; eat and move on to Chicago. Eating at Emilio’s is great but staying in Hillside Illinois sucks (not to put too fine a point on it). We fled the Holiday Inn Express for

Hotel Indigo located on 1244 North Dearborn Parkway in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood. Indigo hotels, the newest addition to the Intercontinental Hotels Group, is a boutique chain with properties throughout the US with additional locations in Canada, Mexico, Central America, the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. Each hotel has a unique design and neighborhood focus. We thought our Gold Coast Chicago property had the look and feel of small European hotel with all the amenities and accouterments one would expect from a very good US hotel that catered to discerning tourists and business travelers alike. Loyalty points accrue to the Priority Club Rewards Program that includes more than 4,500 hotels worldwide. OK, end of advertisement.

5. Proof on Main

Address: 702 West Main Street, Louisville KY— Get directions
Website: Sent email 3/12/14
Telephone: 502-217-6360
Email: www.proofonmain.com
Get more info....
Rostra rating: 4
Proof on Main on Urbanspoon
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After Chicago and Cleveland we needed an evening in a culinary decompression chamber before we surfaced in The Natural State. Thus, our last stop before Fayetteville was pure indulgence. Anyone who has not had the pleasure of a stay at the 21c “chain” of museum hotels should book a room forthwith (there are currently two links on their website, one in Louisville and the other in Cincinnati). Voted one of the top ten hotels in the world for the last three years running by readers of Condé Nast Traveler magazine, the 21c Louisville property is a series of rennovated19th century warehouses on downtown Louisville’s West Main Street.

21c is a boutique hotel and restaurant embedded in a contemporary art museum. My two favorite pieces are the leering Pan that greets patrons at the bar and the urinal in the men’s room, which is semi-transparent to the outside. You have to try it to believe it, but be sure to station a witting co-conspirator on the other side of the wall in order to experience the full effect (unfortunately, this is essentially a single gender experience in that the ladies room is not equipped with the functional equivalent of this “exhibit”).

This was Team Mago’s first stay at the 21c Louisville property and our second visit to Proof on Main in the last two years. We looked forward to a good meal and were not disappointed. The kitchen is currently in the hands of Levon Wallace, an alumnus of Charlie Trotter’s, which served its last meal at the end of August — an event that threatened the cancellation of our entire journey since I have always wanted to eat there. However, the goddess Addephagia rewarded our persistence by giving us a chance to savor an aftertaste of Chef Trotter’s legendary skills at 21c.

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The restaurant is named Proof owing to its location in a former Bourbon storage area and it is possible to order flights of artisan whisky or have a meal with various Bourbons paired to each course. We wisely chose an excellent Catalonian Tempranillo instead.

The meal began quite well. I have always liked the way they serve bread at Proof. A half baguette comes to the table partially cut and clad only in a small paper loincloth. You get to tear the bread apart with gusto at table while perusing the short but well-thought out menu.

We decided to implement Chef Art Smith’s approach (see below) and ordered only appies and sides with the single exception of a buffalo burger, which we requested cut into three pieces. Our waiter enthusiastically supported our efforts and complied obligingly with our request to bring the dishes as they exited the kitchen, which meant a bit more work for him but insured that no food lingered under heat lights. It also created quite a contrast between our spontaneously celebratory table and the rest of the space, which had been occupied by Louisville aristocracy in gowns and tuxes obviously dining prior to some gala event elsewhere.

I got the feeling that both the kitchen and wait staff voted in favor of the Montucky delegation in their Carharts and cargo pants, who spent their time photographing each dish as it appeared and pounding Tempranillo to the semi-disguised annoyance of the well appointed patricians moving through their staid comestible progressions.

The first wave out of the kitchen consisted of a great charred octopus dish that put Lola’s offering (see above) to shame along with bison tartar and a warm ricotta concoction. The octopus was correctly par cooked and then finished on the grill, giving the noble cephalopod the perfect combination of smoky crunch and chew. The bison tartar consisted of tiny cubes of meat, a product of good knife skills in the kitchen as well as a lamentably rare understanding that tartar should never be made with ground meat. The traditional treatment (anchovies, capers, Dijon mustard, etc.) fell just short of spectacular due to the virtually inexplicable absence of a raw egg quivering atop the mound o’ meat.

The ricotta dish was a disappointment only because we had assumed that it would be baked with olive oil in a wood fired oven (a traditional Sicilian preparation we have become addicted to over the years). Instead we got a creamy dip accompanied by toasted slices of a sour dough boule (the second great bread of the evening and a nice touch in not simply repurposing the pregame baguette).

The second wave contained a very commendable goat merguez, an excellent buffalo burger and fries, as well as a fantastic butter bean salad. The goat sausage suffered only in comparison to Stephanie Izard’s treatment of this increasingly haute meat (see below). The bison burger was not only cooked to a perfect medium rare, but the best tasting specimen of its type that any of Team Mago had ever sampled. The secret, of course, is that Proof mixes enough beef leaf lard into the grind to get the lean to fat ratio into the 70 to 30 range.

The fries were good, but faced stiff competition from the rest of the trip, placing fourth in a very tough field.

The butter bean salad was voted dish of the evening by 2/3 of the MagoGuide Team, with my vote for the bison tartar rejected (as usual). Let’s just say that this retro gem is not your mama’s butter bean salad, usually assembled by opening various cans of cellulose mush fast approaching their expiration dates. No, this dish clearly started with fresh beans and contained roasted cauliflower, judicious employment of herbs, and an unapologetic hit of garlic.

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The third wave was a bit uneven and the source of non-trivial bickering amongst Team Mago, which was eventually resolved with another half baguette and more Tempranillo. The braised greens were not very well received by my dining companions, who due to their deep southern roots, believe only collard and mustard greens worthy of the appellation. The use of tomato-based pot liquor further muddied the waters, although no one at the table objected to the inclusion of excellent artisan bacon in this dish. While my teammates eyed the greens suspiciously, I devoured them in their entirety and sopped up the pot liquor with the scantily clad baguette.

My problems lay with the crispy fingerlings, which were neither fingerlings nor crispy. My gaffer grows four varieties of fingerlings in Montana and the potatoes that came to our table were at least three times the size of Russian Bananas, which are the largest type he plants. In addition, these potatoes were apparently boiled, smashed and then finished in a hot pan to impart a nice crust. As a dish of smashed and roasted potatoes they were exemplary, but they were not crispy fingerlings.

The meal now threatened to disintegrate into senseless bickering over authenticity concerning the terms “greens” and “fingerlings,” but we came to our senses with the realization that not a molecule remained of either dish. Unable to contemplate more food, we had one more glass of Tempranillo and then wandered off to enjoy the interactive and often erotic art scattered throughout the hotel before retiring.

On the way out of the restaurant we chatted with the front room staff concerning the new 21c Bentonville Arkansas property. Encouraged by the new and opulent Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art funded by a chunk of the Walmart fortune, the 21c owners have identified this incredibly affluent and very Christian area as the next grand experiment in their effort to create “an innovative union of genuine Southern hospitality, thoughtful design, and culinary creativity.” All we can say is good luck and you can count on many visits from Team Mago when next we sojourn in Northwest Arkansas.

Mago tip: Take a 21c road trip. The next time you want to get away for a few days triangulate a gastro-journey to all three 21c properties (the Bentonville property is accepting reservations for March 2013). There is a heartland culinary revival underway in both Cincinnati and Louisville, and — unless the local Baptist Taliban torches 21c Bentonville — the movement has now targeted Northwest Arkansas, which has more millionaires and really bad restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the country. Vote for tolerance and good eats with your gullets by staying and dining at all three of these delightful properties. 21c museum hotels are a trend worth supporting.

4. Topolobampo – Rick Bayless

Address: 445 North Clark Street, Chicago IL— Get directions
Website: www.rickbayless.com
Telephone: 312-661-1434
Get more info....
Rostra rating: 4
Topolobampo on Urbanspoon

Topolobampo was the only genuine gourmet temple we entered on the entire trip. Our plan for the Rick Bayless empire was to sample tavern food in the Subura for lunch (see Frontera Fresco above) and then to repair to the Palatine for a sumptuous Lucullan experience. Mission accomplished, but the meal at Chef Bayless’ premier restaurant, while exceptional, revealed deep divisions within Team Mago.

Despite a genetically ingrained love of food and wine, the Mago crew is seriously ambivalent about full frontal fine dining. One faction finds the whole experience uncomfortable and exorbitant, invariably characterizing a Michelin three star as “that fancy restaurant” without regard to locale or type of cuisine. The “fussy food” bloc is balanced by a contingent whose bucket list is made up solely of very high-end establishments, but is cursed by serious bouts of taster’s regret when a long-anticipated meal fails to live up to expectations (as is often the case).

Thus, it was with more than my usual trepidation that I entered Topolobampo decked out in the best threads I could coax out of my rolling duffle bag. It did not help that Topolobampo shares the building, kitchen complex, and bar with the much more casual and lively Frontera Grill. We were ushered through this very convivial space into the far more elegant and sedate atmosphere of the serious food niche in the Bayless gastrosystem. My expectations faced an immediate set-back (I have wanted to eat at Topolobampo for at least a decade) as I realized that people were having a lot more fun at Frontera Grill just a few feet away (and, my colleagues will gut me if I do not point it out, paying a lot less money for the privilege).

Our wait goddess, who took charge of us with grace and skill, quickly allayed my mounting fears. She must have introduced herself at the onset of the evening, but due to an encounter with a viniferous Ursus arctos horribilis later in the evening none of us can remember it. Given the MagoGuide Team’s gender diversity, marital status, and sexual orientations, it seems impossible that we were all instantly in thrall to the petite and alluring female brunette, but that is what happened. Not only did she possess deep expertise with respect to the extensive menu and daunting wine list, she was also professionally attentive throughout the meal without hovering. Most importantly, however, she pointedly did not treat us like underdressed hicks takin’ pics as we moved each dish to the area of our table that had the best light and took multiple exposures from several angles before we masticated the edible art.

The menu itself is a testimony to Bayless’ organizational skills and flexibility. I am almost always frustrated at restaurants of similar caliber where a tasting menu is available only if the entire table orders it. At Topolobampo, there are three tasting menus, and a table can have any one of them per diner. For an extra charge, each dish in the tasting menu can be paired with wine chosen particularly for that course.

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It took a while to sort out our orders as we sipped aperitifs and enjoyed an amuse bouche of seared tuna with a Mexican onion marmalade served in spoons that looked like they had been bent by a gang of paranormal flatware designers. The “fancy food sucks” faction declared an interest in a fish appetizer and a salad, while the “I am finally in Bayless heaven and I will eat the table linen if our wait siren recommends it” contingent could not decide who would take one for the team by plumping for a tasting menu that did not include the world-famous twenty-nine ingredient mole. In the end we both went for the Topolo Classics tasting menu and the wines paired thereto.

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We began with octopus and squid aguachile. The octopus tentacles were pasted together with some form of seafood glue and then run through a deli slicer; combined with the squid in a small pool of juice extracted from limes, cilantro, and Serrano chiles and then covered with cucumber wafers and two types of molecular gastronomic pellets made from squid ink and Galapagos tomatoes. The dish was quite good and it paired successfully with a 2011 Terredora Di Paolo Fiano Di Avellino.

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The “this meal is going to cost half of Mexico’s GDP” contingent, however, took the round on points. The coctel de atun tropical, essentially a glass of tuna ceviche with tomatillo guacamole and mango salsa, had two things going for it: taste and chips. While the zippy aguachile and the agar agar flavor bombs masked the rather subtle tastes of the squid and octopus, the robust seaporkiness of the sashimi grade tuna was accentuated by one of the best ceviche preparations any of us had ever tasted. It was absolutely delicious when consumed atop the perfect bespoke tortilla chips (supposedly identical in content and construction to those we found wanting at Frontera Fresco, see above). Our “I can damn well drink what I want with fancy food” faction paired the dish with one of three Belgian style beers on tap. The chosen brew tasted a lot like Leffe Brun but was much better, delivering a perfectly rounded mid-palate with a just a hint of bitter aftertaste.

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Next came Three Bites of Oaxaca, which turned out to be mini-tacos with different contents: 1) beef tenderloin and black beans, 2) chorizo with passila salsa and a quail egg, and 3) red chile pork loin with avocado-tomatillo salsa and pickled tomatillos. Since beef tenderloin and pork loin are my least favorite cuts on both animals, it was a pretty sure bet that I was going to be underwhelmed with their tacito variants, and I was.

The chorizo with the quail egg, however, was immediately voted the best small bite of the trip. Ever since that night I have been embroidering a fantasy breakfast in the bar of a Montana casino composed of a dozen of those pig and egg bundles accompanied by a pitcher of red beer (that would be draft PBR and bloody mary mix thank you very much) with Tanya Tucker blasting in the background. Good ol’ Rick, whose daddy ran a barbeque shack, must have had me in mind for the wine paired with this dish, because the 2008 Leopardi Brut Rose from Penedes, Spain was basically an extremely high-end red beer. I had never had what the ‘rents call “pink champagne” from Spain, but I will be drinking a lot more of it in the future. More brut than rose, the wine was a perfect counterpoint to the spicy chorizo — cutting through the adipose mouth feel to leave the palate ready, willing, and able to ingest many, many more such morsels.

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The fish course was arctic char and lobster in black and white mojo. Being total newbies to this cuisine, we had to interrupt our photo session to find out about mojo on our tricorders. Evidently a rather ubiquitous sauce that may have originated in the Canary Islands, but whose variants seem to share only copious amounts of garlic in common, our Mexican version came with fried char and roasted lobster accompanied by savory white camote (sweet potato) flan, sesame-glazed cipollini onions, and smoky green beans. The beans failed to make an appearance (perhaps a menu typo since they were in the very next course?), but the dish was still too busy. I liked the mojo a great deal, but it pretty much overwhelmed the char and the lobster. The mojo would have been much better with rabbit in my opinion, as would the wine — Bayless’ own label Topolovino 2009 Syrah-Grenache blend from Central Coast, California.

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The centerpiece of the tasting menu was a wood grilled rib eye and seared foie gras with Bayless’ classic Oxaxacan black mole composed of chilhuacle chiles and twenty-eight other ingredients, accompanied by corn husk steamed chipil tamal, unctuous black beans, and smoky green beans. For this course the “you could remodel a kitchen for what we are paying” party was served an ensalada otonal consisting of Nicholas Farm sunchokes infused with Yucataecan black recado (a chile paste dating back to the Mayans, again a gutsy call in December 2012), roasted chestnut crema, roasted Brussels sprouts, and Bayless Garden bulls blood beet greens. A tasty and difficult to replicate salad to be sure, but upon sampling the rib eye, our in-house contrarian did the only honorable thing and admitted to having ordered the wrong dish.

This victory over the forces of frugal dining, however, was tarnished by my personal disappointment with what was essentially the sauce that won Top Chef Masters for Rick Bayless. Let’s start at the strategic level: the course was essentially a platform for the mole sauce. Fair enough, but the ingredients amounted to a deconstructed tournedos Rossini. Yes the rib eye was a superb cut of meat and I will eat my body weight in foie gras at the drop of a toque, but do these two proteins really show off the mole? I found myself wishing that Topolobampo had not played it safe and instead paired the mole with hare or grouse and antelope liver (known as prairie foie gras in Big Sky country).

The operational level contained the biggest let down, however. The mole itself was lacking in that it needed salt. Fortunately there was a shaker at the table and with a moderate application of salt the multiple layers of this deeply flavored sauce were much more discernable, even vibrant on the palate. But with all due respect to Chef Bayless, where was a freakin’ saucier spoon when I needed it? This showcase sauce was not meant to be sopped up with bread or other anything else, and if you are going to add French affectations like foie gras, why not put some useful Gallic cutlery at your customers’ disposal? The lack of salt and the proper means to savor the mole are the type of oversights that usually keep you bottled up in one or at best two star land, and inexplicable for a restaurant of Topolobampo’s stature.

On the tactical level, the accompanying starch and vegetables were uneven. The chipil tamal did nothing for me. It wasted the mole by soaking it up and blunting its impact. The unctuous black beans were served under the chipil tama and thereby diluted as well. I thought that the smoky green beans were the best thing on the plate next to the mole sauce, but my erstwhile ally against the “we could eat at incredible food trucks for a year on the price of this meal” faction deserted me declaring them inedible.

The paired wine went a long way to retrieving the dish and healing the culinary partisanship amongst the MagoGuide Team members. The 2006 Benegas Lynch Meritage from Libertad Vineyards of Mendoza, Argentina worked with every component of the dish, as well as the Ensalada Otonal. I myself would gladly brown bag this exquisite grape juice with a package of pork rinds and a jar of koolickles.

Since I feel more than a little self-conscious in describing the taste and smell of a wine, given my not infrequent anti-wine snob rants that appear on the MagoGuide website (what is “a slightly chunky style” anyway?), I will let experts in the field comment on this wine. The best review I have found on this wine was by Michael Schachner, who declared it “huge as a grizzly bear”. Now that is wine speak that I understand. The rest of his oenological blather about “a light medicinal character” complicating the wine’s fruit and a finish that “features dusty tannins” I leave for others to decrypt. Also, I am decidedly old school in that I will buy anything that Robert Parker Inc. rates above 90 and the Wine Advocate rates the 2006 Benegas Lynch Meritage at 92. For my part, I will just say that the while the employment of 50% cabernet franc in the Bordeaux blend did not quite come up to white horse standards, it certainly delivered a lively alabaster pony. Team Mago begged our wait diva for more than the single glass allocated to the tasting menu, and she readily complied, sending our bill over the fiscal cliff.

Despite all of the criticism, petty and salient, we chose this dish as the chef’s recipe best suited of all those sampled on the trip for replication by those of us the professionals refer to as “hobby cooks.” When you strip away all of the Mexi-haute embellishments, the obese bird guts, and slab o’ USDA prime bovine, the foundational component remains the mole sauce. Yes, I know that Bayless has in the past demurred from publishing his recipe, that the key ingredient chilhuacle chiles are difficult or impossible to find, and that the chef has admonished imitators that it took him twenty years to perfect the Oaxacan mole, but in the wake of a 2010 White House dinner he coughed up the details, which we located on our tricorders at the Huffington Post of all (cyber) places.

This recipe contains substitutes for the elusive chilhuacle chile, and while it is long on ingredients and preparation time, it requires neither culinary prestidigitation nor custom hardware to execute. Like bread, risotto, fresh pasta, or (perhaps more aptly) demi-glace, a superior, if not outstanding mole is the product of repetition. By the time you make the Bayless mole ten times, your family will love it — once they recover from mole fatigue, that is — and after twenty to forty reps you will be a cult hero amongst your more discerning dinner guests. An artifact of mole obsession will be that you also develop an impressive array of components to serve it with. For example, Bayless served it with ahi tuna when he won Top Chef Masters, and I would love to try it with riciola steaks in Sicily, kid in Spain, or even horse in France.

At Kitchen Stadium Polebridge, however, our mole madness will involve game: specifically a medley of antelope tenderloin, big horn sheep loin, and haunch of mule deer fawn. Starch will be supplied by the gaffer’s fingerling potatoes roasted with a coating of Bad Byron’s Butt Rub. Mago’s version of smoky green beans will take the form of haricots vert bundles secured in a quarter inch strip of smoked pancetta and then pan fried in Hutterite butter. As for the wine pairing, well we have several cases of grape juice in the cellar that have Lynch on the label too. Although this grizzly dens up in Pauillac as opposed to Mendoza, I think that the 1989 chokes pretty good right now and would form the third leg of a strategic culinary triad bonding the mole and game together.

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Dessert was cake and ice cream, a standard on this trip for reasons I have yet to completely fathom. Chef Bayless’ version was far superior to Chef Symon’s, consisting of classic tres leches cake infused with toasted hazelnuts garnished with Oaxacan chocolate ice cream, vanilla-poached quince, bespoke ricotta, hazelnut crumble, and two kinds of meringue. The accompanying wine was a Niepoort 10-year Tawny Port, which I found to be the least successful pairing of the meal (actually my fourth or fifth glass of Benegas Lynch Meritage was a much better partner for this dessert).

Mago tip: Go to the bar early and enjoy the best of both restaurants. Both the Topolobampo and the Frontera Grill menus are available at the shared bar, which seats thirty people. Reservations are hard to come by for Frontera Grill or the bar, so go early and orchestrate the best happy hour you have ever attended. The only downside is that the wait goddess apparently does not venture outside her Topolobampo temple to serve mere mortals at the bar.

3. Table 52 – Art Smith

Address: 52 W Elm St, Chicago IL 60610— Get directions
Website: www.tablefifty-two.com
Telephone: (312) 573-4000
Hours of operation: Mon.-Sat.: 5PM-9PM; Sun 10:30AM-1:30PM, 4PM-8:30PM
Get more info....
Rostra rating: 4.5
Table Fifty-Two on Urbanspoon

We developed an endearing little call and answer bromide on this journey as we made our way to each celebrity chef venue. One member of Team Mago would wax rhapsodic about the prospects of encountering the culinary owner/operator in question. This speculation would automatically trigger a lecture from the Supreme Dalek on the topic of why celebrity chefs were never in their restaurants. Then, once we were seated in the restaurant, our third teammate would inquire sweetly as to whether the cuisinier in question was on the premises only to be patronized with a stock reply from the wait staff to the effect that the chef was off expanding the borders of his imperium intestinum, and by implication, a bit too busy to cook for the likes of us.

So we had completed two thirds of this entertaining if repetitive ritual when we entered Table 52 to find Chef Art Smith hanging out in his own dining room. From the outset I had been dubious about putting this place on our must eat list for the trip. For one thing, Art Smith specializes in the type of classic southern food we cook and eat all the time, and I concede mastery of collards and fried chicken (cooked in my grandmother’s one hundred year old cast iron skillet) to no hominid. Secondly, we were in the culinary cornucopia of Chicago and the opportunity cost of choosing a familiar and not too difficult to execute cuisine weighed heavily on me. So, as usual, I was outvoted and I have never been such a happy loser.

Table 52 is a renovated 19th century carriage house with two dining rooms. The downstairs one where we ate could hardly be called American southern in décor. The large wood fired oven behind the bar gave it a distinctly rustic European feeling, while the pressed copper ceiling preserved the structure’s Pre-Great Fire heritage. On the night of our visit, which constituted the mid-point of our journey and the birthday or our senior teammate, the more formal upstairs dining room was devoted to a private function.

Chef Smith made the rounds among the diners once the majority of the tables had filled up. We did not get the perfunctory grip and grin that I was expecting when it was our turn to meet the chef. He chatted with us for over 20 minutes, regaling us with tales of working for Oprah, growing up in rural Florida, and cooking biscuits in a Piemonte mountain village. Not only is Chef Smith a great raconteur, he also took serious interest in what we were ordering. If I sound star struck, it is because I am, but not because Chef Smith gave us so much of his time during our meal or made us feel genuinely special — like all great restaurateurs he obviously has the people gene.

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No, I remain in awe because I actually learned something very useful during our conversation. When he heard what we were planning to order, Chef

Smith urged us to add some additional side dishes. He said that whenever he dined at someone else’s restaurant (and don’t you just wish you could throw that phrase out at random?) he was mainly interested in the sides. I thought about this as we ate and in the days that followed. From experience I knew that sides are often the best product of a kitchen and they are portioned somewhere between appetizers and main courses, allowing the diner to sample more of chef’s cuisine without being restricted to the appetizer niche that would otherwise be the case. More importantly, I decided after following Chef Smith’s advice at several of the remaining restaurants on the trip, a tasting menu does not accomplish the same gastronomic objective that ordering a bunch of sides does, since the theme and progression are dictated by the chef and not the diner.

In the days and miles following our meal at Table 52, Team Mago designed a saturation review of a single restaurant composed of at least three visits, one devoted solely to sides, one to appies and desserts, and one to mains that has more mains on the table than the number of diners. Based on Chef Smith’s revelation and our subsequent experience, I think that this approach may well become known as the Mago Methodology and I expect it to yield a much better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of a great kitchen.

Quality time with the chef was tempered by uneven service throughout the meal. Our server was personable, knowledgeable, and distracted. I got the feeling that the combination of a big private affair upstairs and the presence of the boss in the front room for most of the evening slightly unhinged the poor guy. He certainly had a lot of tables to cover (perhaps regular downstairs staff was sucked into the vortex upstairs) and would also disappear completely from the room for noticeable periods. The friction loss started when I ordered a rusty nail only to be told that the restaurant was out of Drambuie (huh, what does full bar mean to you?). I settled for a house Manhattan at the waiter’s suggestion and it turned out to be a more than decent variant of that particular cocktail (although I would have thought that a southern restaurant would not shy away from the maraschino cherry that is probably my favorite part of the drink).

The amuse-bouche of deviled egg and drop biscuits with goat cheese and Parmesan set the tone for the entire meal.

We followed them with fried green tomatoes garnished with Tasso ham, ginger vinaigrette, ricotta, and green romesco sauce. I was very surprised that my tablemates only gave this dish a B-plus. I thought that they were some of the best of this genre that I have ever eaten. The explanation seems to be that U.S. southern food shares a fundamental aspect with Italian food in that “good” really means the way ma or grandma made it.

There was no such dissension concerning the southern pickle board, which consisted of zesty pickled vegetables, house-crafted jam, charcuterie, artisanal cheese, and (not on the menu description) a small mason jar of the tastiest lard this side of Schmaltztown. Having appropriated the term “pig candy” from Chef Smith some time ago while watching him as a judge on Iron Chef, I was delighted to learn that he also walks the walk. We hoovered up the lard, noisily scraping out the mason jar and smearing it on excellent cracker-like flatbread that had recently exited the wood fired oven. MagoGuide Team verdict: pig and pickles rule!!

Cornmeal-crusted catfish

The mains arrived with a series of increasingly questionable southern pedigrees. The cornmeal-crusted catfish served with bacon, cheese grits, braised collards, and a hush puppy was both pure bred and best in show. Catfish can compete with Dover sole if it is carefully sourced, the filet cut thick, and fried by someone who knows what they are doing. Chef Smith’s version touched all the bases.

The next dish was cassoulet composed of duck confit, pork belly, black eyed peas, ham hock, and garnished with cornbread. OK, cassoulet hails from the south of France, and black eyed peas and ham hocks put a distinctly old south stamp on the preparation, but it seems a bit of a stretch to call this American southern food. Stretch or not, it was delicious. The cassoulet was dry, but not in a bad way. I am used to much soupier versions of this dish, but I loved the deep extracted flavors of Chef Smith’s approach. Any regrets I might have had about lacking liquid for the excellent corn bread that served as a jaunty prop for the duck leg and thigh confit was eliminated in the first bite because the cornbread came presopped with cassoulet cooking liquid from the kitchen. Now that is what I call fine dining.

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The final main strained its ties to south of the Mason/Dixon line almost to the breaking point. Given our proximity to the masonry of the wood fired oven, and the fact that our pizza warning lights had been flashing low ever since a horrific encounter with Pizzeria Uno based on really bad local advice, we just had to order the Farmer’s pizza topped with currents, cheese, and caramelized Vidalia onions. The ties were tenuous, but not non-existent. If one views the Vidalias as a substitute for the cipolle di Tropea, then this could be considered a southern Italian pizza, although the Calabrians would almost certainly have added a little heat to the pie, which in fact it could have used. Aside from that omission, the oven produced an excellent pizza that had less than a nodding acquaintance with the four-inch thick version so popular in Chicago for reasons that continue to escape me.

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Our sides were more of Chef Smith’s redoubtable collard greens, which is not to say that mine aren’t better, and his award winning mac and cheese. I once again found myself in the minority of Team Mago concerning this iconic dish. My colleagues thought it well deserved the epithet of Oprah’s favorite dish. My problem was not with the Table 52’s preparation but with the whole genre. I am married to a comfort food diva and I have been known to walk around the block for authentic Italo-American eggplant parma, so this is not a matter of food snobbery, but I just do not get mac and cheese. Why has this dish become a comfort food staple when the much maligned and by far guiltier pleasure of fettuccine al Fredo has been allowed to disappear down a culinary memory hole? Needless to say, such heresy did not stop me fighting for every last sub-atomic particle of mac and cheese on the table.

The wine list made up for the absence of a maraschino cherry in my Manhattan. My only complaint about this eclectic and right-sized compendium is the anti-Boomer font size. We tried several of the offers before we settled on a 2009 Dreadnaught Syrah from Man o’ War vineyards in Waiheke, New Zealand. You can read elsewhere about this vintage concerning its “lifted aromas of speck and peat” (would that be bacon and dirt?) or “large presence of fine grained tannins” (tannins are made of wood?). Team Mago, however, voted Dreadnaught its highest appellation, that of “cow poop wine” (and we mean that in the best possible way), confidently besting Topolobampo’s Benegas Lynch Meritage by a length and a half for best wine of the trip.

Throughout our meal, Chef Smith spent the majority of his time in the downstairs dining room seated with a sweet older lady who looked like she had just fallen off a charm bracelet. She turned out to be his mother and we could barely refrain from gawking as they had an animated meal during which the chef helped himself frequently to his mother’s wine glass (try that in my family dude and you are going to pull back a bloody stump). He came over to our table several times to inquire about the food and tell us about the gathering upstairs, which turned out to be a cookbook launch dinner for Blackberry Farm. The chef brought us some of their Singing Brook sheep cheese along with local apples, both of which were excellent and went particularly well with the Dreadnaught. The cheese and fruit were the perfect substitute for Table 52’s wonderful looking desserts that are served up in such ginormous portions as to discourage sharing even one amongst three well fed gluttons. Chef Smith was charming to the end, agreeing happily to a picture with his biggest MagoGuide Team fan at the end of our meal.

Given the embarrassingly gushy tone of this review, our MagoGuide reader (singular intended, sigh) could well ask why Table 52 only ranked third. There are two answers: 1) the food was great but just too familiar for me to give it a higher score (I go to restaurants to eat what I cannot cook); and 2) my beloved companions lost their collective minds along with their objectivity over Michael Symon’s pizza (see next review). The bottom line is that while Chef Smith produced the most memorable meal of the trip, which is important but not paramount, he did not serve up the best food (the sine quo non of MagoGuide).

Mago tip: Go for brunch and order lots of sides. The only non-evening service at Table 52 is Sunday brunch. Given Chef Smith’s emphasis on family dining and prominent admonition that “everything tastes better when shared,” his Sunday brunch should be spectacular. Indeed, I regret not trying what reads as a much more interesting menu than the dinner one. And in keeping with the maestro’s advice, there are more and different sides to be had at brunch.

Author’s Note: We liked Table 52 even better the second time we visited in the fall of 2013.  You can see that review at Art Smith’s Table 52.  Here are some pictures from that visit.

2. Lolita – Michael Symon

Address: 2058 East 4th Street, Cleveland OH— Get directions
Website: lolabistro.com
Telephone: (216) 621-5652
Get more info....
Rostra rating: 3.5
Lolita on Urbanspoon

If Lola was Michael Symon’s fall from grace then Lolita was his redemption. After our very disappointing meal on the SS Symon’s flagship restaurant the night before, we were more than a little apprehensive concerning the galley aboard his barque bistro. Our initial impressions, however, were very positive. The space is more intimate and lively than Lola. In fact, this restaurant was Lola originally, going diminutive only when Chef Symon opened his downtown showcase. Unlike that rather soulless venue, you can still feel the background radiation of Symon’s rise to celebrity chefdom in his old culinary stomping grounds.

The good vibe took an early hit at the crowded bar where I had no trouble getting a rusty nail (Mike please send Art a bottle of Drambuie for his next birthday), but I was stunned to learn that Lolita serves no beer on tap. The absence of draft suds at Lola was somewhat understandable, albeit a blemish on the Symon coat of arms (a winged hog snarfing Brussels sprouts from a fryolater?), but for her little sister this was one of the few miscues we encountered all evening. I mean, dude serving pizza without draft beer is like roast beef without Yorkshire pudding, Beijing duck without rice pancakes, frick without frack, yin without yang — in short a serious blow to the Lolita’s culinary feng shui.

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I got over it when we were led to our table in an elevated section of the dinning room that had a very good view of the open kitchen with flame top and pizza oven manned by three redoubtable line cooks. We decided to take Art Smith’s advice and build a meal around ‘tizers, pizza, and sides. Our first course comprised charred eggplant dip, roasted bone marrow, and crispy pigtails and ears.

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Eaten progressively, each dish was better than the last. The eggplant turned out to be a baba ghanoush mouse that drew on Chef Symon’s deep Mediterranean roots. In addition to the eggplant, it comprised feta cheese, lemon, chili, toasted cumin, and our first encounter with the pizza oven in the form of an excellent focaccia-like flatbread.

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The marrowbones were simple and delicious: butter of the gods served up with a tangy salsa verde that cut through the divine mouth feel, scallions that imparted a crunchy counterpoint to the overall silky textural decadence, and slathered on grilled bread that also emerged from the fecund and versatile wood fired womb that dominates Lolita’s kitchen.

Both of these superb appetizers were instantly eclipsed by the swiney confection that fairly snorted “signature dish.” The large pigtail came in chunks of increasing diameter, starting at the tip and progressing to the base of the spine. The smallish pig ears (clearly from a different sized animal than the one that “donated” the tail) were cut into small strips and fried (separately I should think) into nuggets of total crunchage. The tail tasted like super-extracted roast pork and the ears provided a bacony texture that was a perfect foil for the fennel-onion agrodolce sauce, pickled chilis, and liberal hit of cilantro. A final bonus was that there was no way to eat this dish other than messily. All three appetizers were perfect examples of the cuisine we had coming looking for in Chef Symon’s Cleveland.

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Next the cheese pizza arrived built with tellagio, provolone, mozzarella, ricotta, grana pandano, and fresh herbs. To my enduring surprise, my hard bitten, cost conscious, and cynical colleagues immediately went into multiple simultaneous foodgasms. Now look, the pizza was very good, the third example of superb product from the pizza oven, and an olfactory prompt for the question as to why I cannot remember a single bite of bread at Lola, but it was no better than a dozen examples of the craft to be found in Rome without trying very hard. And yet two thirds of Team Mago declared their eagerness to carry Chef Symon’s love child to term by the second bite. My only explanation is that for cooking, as with most creative processes, context is crucial. In any event, the irony is inescapable that, at least as far as MagoGuide is concerned, Chef Meat Centric pulled his huevos out of the fire with a meatless pizza.

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I saved my culinary climax for the fried Brussels sprouts, another Symon forte, which stormed the palate supported with bold Mediterranean flavors supplied by anchovies and capers along with walnut-enabled crunchitude. My idea of a last meal would be a bowl of these puppies accompanied by a vat of the crispy pigtails and ears washed down with a magnum of Krug Grande Cuvée (dessert? stigiole of course).

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Unfortunately, the entire team agreed that the sweet potato gratin (gruyere, caramelized onion, and rosemary) triggered a bout of post-gastrocoital depression. The dish was under-seasoned and there was a layer of regular potatoes underneath the sweet potatoes. Maybe these interlopers were white sweet potatoes, but if so they had very little flavor and they imparted a flabby texture to the gratin. This dish constituted an affirmation of Chef Smith’s counterintuitive implication that the sides are the test of the kitchen. It is also the main reason that Lolita ended up in second place. In fact, if it had been up to me, these indifferent taters would have combined with Lola’s disappointing performance to land Chef Symon behind Chef Smith in our restaurant rankings, but that viagra ‘za totally deranged the rest of Mago’s crew to Symon’s enduring advantage.

As we ate, the action in the kitchen became riveting. Upon a close reconnaissance of the flame top on my way to the little food writer’s room, I had decided that the order strips clipped directly above the burners were definitely precarious. Sure enough, as the yummy noises from my colleagues triggered by the pizza reached their peak, a very long order burst into flames as the beleaguered line cook desperately juggled pans on every available burner. He somehow managed to keep the rest of the orders from igniting while he finished the dishes right on time, simultaneously shielding all of them from a rain of ashes. Clearly, it was not this food dude’s first rodeo, but that fact alone makes we wonder why the order bar has not been relocated to a safer part of the kitchen (perhaps because it is just too much fun for the rest of us?).

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Dessert and wine were afterthoughts. The Lulu 62 Pinot Noir I drank went well with the food, but it did not enhance the experience. One MagoGuide Team member had no problems with the Fattori “Valparadisio” Pinot Grigio della Venezie, but no superlatives either. My other colleague was impressed with the range of bottled beers on offer, while noting that this did not make up for the lack of draft beer. For dessert we split an order of decent sorbet, the components of which none of us could remember as we rolled out of Cleveland for Louisville. The best that we could come up with was some type of cactus flower flavoring (does that even make sense?)

My sole regret is that I was not able to eat at this restaurant when it was still the original Lola, Chef Symon was playing the piano (amidst burning order strips?), and still striving for those broad sunlit uplands of celebrity status. The entire meal left me with the feeling that what we had experienced the evening prior at Lola was a classic case of gastro-overreach. Symon is a world-class chef, so it is not a case of virtuosity but of venue — Lolita is his terroir. In retrospect, he should have stuck with the original location and iteratively perfected a menu that could punch significantly above its weight, rather than succumb to the siren call of opening a dedicated fine dining venue.

Mago tip: Reserve the chef’s table and watch the fun or go for happy hour and save tons of moolah. From our good perch it was clear that a truly excellent view of the open kitchen could be had from the curved bar portion that sprouts to the right of the pass. You should bring a spray can of liquid skin, however, just in case the entire order bar spontaneously combusts. When Team Mago returns, it will be for happy hour, preferably during the World Cup finals, since we will be shopping and cooking out of the West Side Market along with Lola, Lolita, and most other good restaurants in Cleveland. There are actually two happy hours (early and late) Tuesday through Saturday and one on Sunday. Drinks are cheap and the five dishes offered are just five bucks each. There are also dishes that are not on the regular menu like mac and cheese and a Lolita burger. But I am willing to bet that by your tenth visit or so (and some well-earned generous tips), you can coax other dishes out of the kitchen and over to the bar if you are willing to pay sit down prices. We’ll let you know.

1. Girl and the Goat – Stephanie Izard

Address: 809 West Randolph Street, Chicago IL 60607— Get directions
Website: www.girlandthegoat.com
Telephone: (312) 492-6262
Hours of operation: Sun.- Thurs.: 4:30PM-11:00PM; Fri.-Sat.: 4:30PM-12:00AM
Get more info....
Rostra rating: 5
Girl & the Goat on Urbanspoon

I believe that I have fully disclosed the mortifyingly adolescent crush I developed for the supermodel masquerading as our waitress at Topolobampo, but I can state without a nanosecond’s hesitation that I would condemn her to a lifetime at the Chucky Cheese’s circle of Dante’s Inferno for a shot at being Stephanie Izard’s prep bitch in perpetuity. Michael Symon may have eked out a victory over her in Kitchen Stadium, but for Team Mago at least, her restaurant kicked his restaurant’s ass, twice.

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Chef Izard has built a restaurant that I would love to cook and live in, and I cannot help but think that was her intent all along. Girl and the Goat is billed as a “beer-focused, shared-plates casual restaurant” — evidently Chef Izard objects to the terms “gastro-pub” and “American tapas” (and really, wouldn’t you if it were your restaurant?). However you describe its culinary theme, MagoGuide Team burst through the doors of her 130 seat establishment about half a minute after it opened at 4:30PM, because we simply could not secure a table before 10:30PM on a freakin’ Monday. And we were none too soon. Behind us swarmed every dining type from people dressed worse than I was (not easy I would have thought) to suits with rolling bags stopping in for a bite and a beer before they fought for a taxi and raced to O’Hare to answer for their sins. The staff was great, accommodating everybody and offering them a choice between tables, the bar, and a section devoted to couches and comfy chairs along the windows facing the street.

We chose the bar and I am glad that we did. The noise level at the tables quickly rose to where I have trouble hearing what my tablemates have to say, and I am a very messy eater who has a hard time eating off what are essentially coffee tables while enveloped in cushiony splendor. Question for celebrity chefs and wealthy restaurateurs: when are dining couches coming back?

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Two years ago Chicago Magazine opined that “the most hyped restaurant opening that Chicago has experienced in a while is probably both a calculated capitalization on a budding brand and a roll of the dice.” All I can say is that if you ever end up at a craps table with Chef Izard, be sure to let everything you own ride on her next throw. Of the numerous awards that Girl and the Goat has won since 2010, the gold standard as far as I am concerned is Michelin’s Bib Gourmet. I have been disappointed by stared restaurants the world over but never by a Bib Gourmet, which is Michelin’s value-for-money category and definitely not composed of the gastro-neutronium remnants of culinary supernovae.

Chef Izard’s branding strategy is also on full display throughout the space, which began life as a manufacturing plant that lacked both plumbing and electricity. It is a very fun place just to wander around beer in hand. The lucky four diners who somehow obtain the seats with a reality TV view of the kitchen get to watch culinary art practiced on custom-built Jade Range technology. A trip to the loo reveals a phalanx of individual unisex compartments in the excavated basement. Simply staring at the walls is rewarding with their two hundred and fifteen yards of hand-frayed natural burlap in place of traditional finishings as well as burned vertical cedar planking.

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All of the atmospherics associated with Chef Izard’s self-described “badass” brand should be taken in before your food shows up, because Girl and the Goat has a menu that deserves one’s full attention. Our first dish was Izard’s take on pimientos de padron, a tapas standard throughout Iberia only slightly less ubiquitous than patatas bravas. These puppies, however, were the best I have ever tasted anywhere. Sheshito peppers were fried with a very light hand, dusted with parmesan, sesame seeds, and miso, then run under one of the two deuterium-fired salamanders in that dream kitchen. About one in five of the sheshitos came with a welcome blast of heat that went down well with the draft Broo Doo Harvest Ale from Three Floyds (Note to Chef Symon: this beer would be very good with everything we ate at Lolita. I’m just sayin’ if you are bit unhappy that you can beat Chef Izard in the functional equivalent of a professional wrestling match but lose to her in the realgastonomique of your own restaurants, a good to place to start upping your game is behind the bar.)

Next came, in my humble opinion (which is to say not in that of my esteemed teammates), the best fries of the trip. Billed as ham frites, these perfectly fried taters are double dosed with rendered pork fat, then dusted with powder made from dehydrated Nueski’s ham, and served with smoked tomato aioli and cheddar beer sauce. The complaint from the purists on Team Mago seemed to be that the dish succeeded too well, with the ham flavor overwhelming the fries. I have to agree, which is precisely why I liked them so much. Chef Izard has madeNorth Fork Improvement/Landowners’ Association presidents, with the year(s) in which they were elected: the humble spud a delivery device for pig quarks, just what you would expect from a Bib Gourmet restaurant run by the only female to win Top Chef.

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The fryolater went from strength to strength throughout the evening, as demonstrated by our next dish of tempura loup de mer filet napped with bacon sweet n’ sour tuna crema. The sauce really made the dish, demonstrating what a chef can do to improve a piece of exquisitely fried fish. When combined with the ham frites, you get Chef Izard’s take on fish and chips, and whether that was her intention or not is kind of beside the point (especially after one has had about four too many 7% Broo Doos).

Having dispatched Chef Symon, Izard promptly turned her sights on Rick Bayless and produced a breakfast dish slightly more sublime than the miniature taco stuffed with quail egg and chorizo that I drooled over several entries back. It took the form of wood oven roasted pig face medallions supporting a sunny side up fried egg and resting on a copse of crunchitude provided by a potato stix briar patch rising from a flavor swamp of tamarind, cilantro, and red wine-maple coulis. Fortunately, for the future of MagoGuide, the fried egg came from a (free range no doubt) chicken. If Chef Izard had served the pig’s face with a duck egg instead, I would still be there snarfing ham frites and begging her for the privilege of paying to become the chef de plonge.

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Not content with having won best breakfast for the trip, the girl brought her A-goat for the best entre of the journey. I have eaten a lot of goat over the years, but I had never tasted goat belly. With pork belly an imperative on every menu these days, I thought that Izard’s confit of goat belly served with lobster and crab chunks in bourbon butter with pureed fennel was a delicious way to thumb her nose at conformity. The Kilgus Farmstead goat was very lean and juicy (no doubt owing to the confit treatment) while supplying a wonderful texture contrast to the butter-poached shellfish. The fennel was turned into a sauce just this side of foam, which pulled the whole dish together.

After my first bite, I flagged down one of the wait staff that served us with such dispatch and attention that it seemed like we had three dedicated servers (at the bar!). I asked her for a wine suggestion to pair with the goat belly and she recommended a glass of 2009 Molnar Family Chardonnay (Poseidon’s Vineyard, Napa, California), which turned out to be just this side of perfect (like the duck egg, if there had been a bottle of Were Dreams Chardonnay on the wine list, I would still be in Chicago searching the West Loop area for rentals within staggering distance of Girl and the Goat).

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I cannot end this review without mentioning Chef Izard’s unique (in my experience) approach to bread. She treats the staff of life like any other food item on the menu, if you want it you order it and pay for it. Some might complain that having to pay five bucks or so for bread in a restaurant of this caliber is nothing short of gastro-gouging, but Team Mago did not see it that way. Indeed, rather than putting one over on her customers it seemed to us that Chef Izard is simply being honest about the stealth coperto hidden in the menus of most, if not all, fine dining establishments in the U.S. And on top of the excellent bread, your Lincoln buys you two incredible condiments. We had mushroom soup butter and tomato soup oil with our “not campbell’s” bread. The combination was so good that we were content to finish them up with the large boule in lieu of dessert.

In 2012 we returned to Girl and the Goat briefly on our way to New Orleans (see A NOLA Dust Up for more information).  Here are some additional photos of Izard’s fine food.

Mago tip: Go as soon as you can, because this cannot last. I hate to be cynical when it comes to such an outstanding example of modern, imaginative yet approachable cuisine, but Chef Izard’s attention span cannot keep pace with her branding expertise, impressive financial backing, and manic energy. The portents of celebrity abound: Anthony Bourdain anointed Girl and the Goat shortly before (and fortunately not contemporaneously with) Team Mago’s arrival. She has two more restaurant concepts in the works, one for a diner/bakery called Little Goat and one for a fast-casual chain focused on locally sourced chicken. Finally, there is a new storefront on Girl and the Goat’s website that retails apparel, accessories, and her (tellingly, first) cookbook,

Girl in the Kitchen. How far off can the TV pilot and the rest of the media empire be? Here at MagoGuide we have no quarrel with anyone cashing in on the unremitting physical and mental struggle that is the life of a culinary professional, we would just like to eat their food while all of us are still hungry. Best of luck Stephanie, and we will definitely be back to see how long the magic endures.


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