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4 Days, 4 Zurers, 2 Cities, and 10 pounds of flesh.

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4 Days, 4 Zurers, 2 Cities, and 10 pounds of flesh.

Seth Zurer | Mar 22, 2004 10:12 PM

When my family comes to town for any stretch of time, it usually ends up being a fairly concentrated stretch of eating: this week was no exception.

My brother arrived on Wednesday, and we went directly to Hot Doug’s for a quick lunch (my parent's flight was delayed, so they got in an hour later, and also went directly to Hot Doug's). I had the Irish Bangers and Mash, plus a bratwurst, my brother had the rabbit sausage of the day with feta and mustardy cream sauce, and a polish, I think. There is not really the same hot dog culture in DC as in Chicago: I've posted about the hot dogs of my youth in the past. My brother liked the place a lot, but seemed aghast at all the condiments that get added to a sausage when you drag it through the garden. But he got a kick out of Doug, and enjoyed the atmosphere, and was astonished that the place could stay in business with such limited hours. Next time I’ll take him to Gene and Judes, for the non-roscoe-village Chicago dog experience.

That night, I performed at UIC in a for-hire production of my Chicago culinary-political performance art cooking show. Eugene Sawyer’s sweet potato pie turned out fine, and after the show, my family and half the audience headed to Spoon Thai for a secret menu feast. I wrote a little about this meal last week, highlights were the pork neck laab and gaeng som, and my mother’s opportunity to trot out some phrases in her 35-year-dormant Thai.

The next day, my parents ate at Manny’s for lunch, (I had to stay at work). They loved it. My mother claims there is no corned beef like it to be found in DC, and my father was especially taken with the rye bread and latkes. It occurs to me that I haven’t been to Manny’s in a couple of years – I remember feeling like the corned beef was a little dry the last time I went; maybe we should arrange a little lunchtime get-together for the hounds there later this month for quality control.

Thursday night was the night for my father to be a big spender. Café Spiaggia was a winner. I’ve been in Chicago for 9 years, and before this week had never been to Spiaggia or the Café before. Remember that thread from last month about there being no restaurants in Chicago that approximate the restaurant experience in Italy? From a food perspective, you can scratch that. Café Spiaggia’s menu is extremely Italian – antipasti were simple and pristine: carpaccio with arugula and shaved parmigiano, fruity olive oil, extra large capers and salt. A salad with almonds, fennel and radicchio. Tuna crudo daubed with an intense radioactive green basil infused olive oil and lemon.

Pastas were also intensely satisfying. Light gnocchi with braised duck; an outstanding rough cut square pasta “alla chitarra”, perfectly al dente, better than almost any fresh pasta I’ve had outside of Italy, an elegant pumpkin ravioli in unctuous sage butter, a flavor that makes me feel like I’m being swaddled in a dryer-warm linen comforter. The only pasta that didn’t shine was my perciatelli all’amatriciana. The pasta was both overcooked by about a minute and over sauced, and the chili pepper in the sauce came in the form of a single whole sautéed Anaheim pepper perched on a mound of sauce, instead of dried chili distributed evenly throughout the dish.

Main courses: I had a dish of Osso Buco that inspired moaning. I really moaned. Seriously. You should eat that osso buco; like tomorrow if you can. Salmon with crisp guanciale. Veal tenderloin suffused with rosemary over polenta. Roasted Red Snapper with potatoes. Nothing was fussy on this menu; everything was prepared in line with the Italian philosophy of allowing suberb raw ingredients to flourish in presentations that accentuated only what was good about them. Really incredible.

Dessert: My mother had Italian munchkins: bomboloni coated with sugar, hot from the fryer, My father had a panna-cotta like fior di latte with spiced citrus (although it was listed on the menu as Frutti di bosco, which is usually mixed berries; the waiter later admitted that it was mixed berries one menu ago, but the forgot to change the Italian, and didn’t reprint, since people don’t usually know the Italian words anyway). Kerensa had a semi-freddo that was more pudding than gelato, but was very chocolatey, and I had a trio of gelati: pine nut, hazelnut, and cinnamon. These are the kind of Gelati that I think everyone on the board could agree on (are you reading this Chicago Mike?). Pine nut that my father said tasted more like the essence of pine nuts than eating an actual handful of pignoli. (Aside: our gold standard for Gelato is San Crispino in Rome, which when I first visited had a “susine” (wild plum) flavored sorbetto that tasted more like plums than plums taste like plums) We also shared a dish of gorgonzola gelato, mostly out of a skepticism that it would taste good. Our skepticism was not warranted however: it was great, not intensely stinky but assertively gorgonzola-accented heavy cream.

There were only a couple of things about the experience that weren’t quite up to the Italian experience: the espresso was disappointing, thin and sour, with an initially attractive crema that didn’t stand up to the sugar test. And the price. If only Chicago had a restaurant that paid as close attention to Italian foodways that had prices I could afford to pay regularly on my own. Café Spiaggia was wonderful, one of the best meals I’ve had in the last 8-10 months. I’ve been off high-end eating for a while, partly out of financial necessity and partly out of the desire to explore the obscure and inexpensive. While this meal doesn’t make me any less interested in the harder to reach and harder to read menus of Chicago’s immigrant communities, it did re-spark my interest in starting to save up for a couple of special occasion meals out at established faves.

A couple of other things about the café: the staff hit exactly the right note for my family: good humored and welcoming, without any pretension or snootiness. At one point, after 3 or 4 glasses of wine, the maitre-d’ came over to see how we were doing. My mother said, “Let me tell you something, this is really great. Seriously, you should know, we are very picky! We go to Italy frequently and love to eat there, and we really like this restaurant! So it’s a real good compliment!” He laughed and said “Wow! Thanks for making sure I understood, now I feel good.”

Friday, we ate our way through Milwaukee, on the Wiviott tip-sheet. I’ll post in detail on another board: Speed Queen for pork-shoulder and ribs; Jake Levin’s for the most idiosyncratically delicious pastrami sandwich that has ever passed my lips; Kopp’s for frozen custard and a magic chrome frozen-custard-pooping machine, and a brief non-food detour to the terrifically designed art museum on the lakefront.

Saturday lunch honors went to TAC Quick, where the kow mun gai (hainan chicken rice) was very good but didn’t quite line up with the versions my parents had enjoyed lo these many years ago in Thailand’s market stalls, chicken slightly over cooked and not quite greasy enough and a sauce that was thinner than he remembered. I enjoyed the kow mun gai, not having such a specific and demanding standard for the dish, and I really loved the boat noodles (guaytiow rya), thin angel hair pasta in an opaque beef broth with flank steak and beef balls and lots of cilantro and herbs. K had green curry with chicken over an omelette. Then to a St Patrick’s Day party in a subdivision of Sauganash renowned for its barbecue.

Finally, Sunday morning bagels and schmear enroute to O’Hare from NYC Bagel and Bialy in Skokie, which are a little puffier than I like them. The mini-bagels are a little better, but they are still not dense enough. The bagels from the Bagel on Broadway actually appeal to me a little more than these guys, but the cream cheese in Skokie is beyond reproach, and I love the giant thin poppy seed bialys.

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