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Monthly Archives: May 2008

Eat Gourmet, Shop Gourmet

Sweet and Savory French ToastSince Empanada Boy has been on his diet (11 lbs lost!), I’ve had to find other people to accompany me on most of my cheap eats adventures. Luckily, there are always eager candidates to be found. I don’t usually have mid-week breakfast offers, but last week I met up with Mr. Fancy Food, a Wesleyan graduate who lives in Baltimore and runs Bradmer Foods, a venture capital firm that invests in niche specialty food companies. He was in Chicago for the All Candy Expo, scoping out the scene for one of his companies, a chocolate maker. Mr. Fancy Food is a true foodie and will seemingly stop at nothing to try the best a given city has to offer. I met up with him before he left for the airport, and he had already visited many fine restaurants. But when he is in Chicago, he always stops for breakfast at the Southport Grocery & Cafe for personal and professional reasons. It was there that we met at 8 am, entering as the doors were being unlocked.

Grocery GoodsJust as its name suggests, Southport Grocery & Cafe is a grocery store, selling high-end gourmet products from artisanal pastas to imported spices to small batch chocolate and house-made baked goods. Mr. FF’s chocolate company has some of its offerings on the shelves here. The racks of goods line the edges of the room and run through the middle. The area around the perimeter is devoted to cafe tables where diners can order breakfast, fresh sandwiches, salads and soups. Mr. FF is my kind of dining partner in that he was eager to order and share half of each dish. As the seasoned veteran, he recommended the stuffed French toast, filled with citrus-cream cheese struesel and topped with blueberry compote. This sounded decadent and delicious but a little too sweet for my early morning palate. On the advice of our server, we chose the sweet and savory French toast. This was made with challah, topped with rosemary-roasted ham, Gruyere and a side of mustard-infused maple syrup. While the challah, ham and cheese combo may be causing my ancestors to turn over in their graves as I write this, the results were delicious. The French toast was light and airy and the sweet-salty ham and cheese added texture and depth. All of this was made cohesive by the phenomenal syrup. It was sweet, but had little mustard seed balls floating in it. The combination made everything explode in my mouth.

Sausage Mozzarella and Pesto OmeletMr. FF is a big fan of Southport’s housemade sausage, and our second selection, the sausage, mozzarella and pesto omelet, gave us a chance to sample it. As it turned out, the omelet actually didn’t have as much sausage as I had been hoping, and what was there was a little too mild for my taste. The mozzarella gave the dish a good stretchy texture, but its mild flavor didn’t add much. Pesto dominated the flavor, but it wasn’t exceptional. I did like the potato salad that came on the side. This just confirms the validity of my normal rule about not ordering omelets at restaurants. I could do just as well at home.

On the whole, however, I enjoyed the atmosphere and the freshness of the food at Southport Grocery & Cafe. I’d like to come back sometime to try the steak and eggs (supposedly massive) or the hash. And now I know where to replenish my supply of pimentón de la vera, the Spanish paprika I bought when I was there. I’m sure there is a line out the door on weekends, but there’s something luxurious about going out to breakfast on a weekday morning. Considering that, I’ll try to time my next visit as Mr. FF did this one: 8 am on a Thursday morning.

Southport Grocery & Cafe
3552 N. Southport Ave.
Chicago, IL 60657

Southport Grocery & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Learning to Eat Laotian

Lao Laan-Xang exteriorThe May issue of Gourmet magazine was all about cooking schools around the world. One of the schools was in Laos, and the blurb about it said that Laotian food can be distinguished from Thai food by its heavier use of herbs, and its more bitter, less sweet profile. I knew I had tasted dishes at places like Pok Pok that were supposed to be Laotian in origin, but I was eager to try them again with these new rules in mind. My chance came less than a week later when Empanada Boy and I were in Madison. We hadn’t seen EB’s friend English Muffin Pizza for months, so we asked him if he would join us for dinner on Sunday before we left town. He suggested a number of places, but the one that stood out to us was Lao Laan-Xang, a Laotian restaurant so popular it had to open another location. As it turned out, EMP had been there the night before to celebrate his birthday. Still, he said he didn’t mind going two nights in a row because it is his favorite restaurant. Now that is dedication.

Chicken and papayaThe smaller, original location isn’t open on Sunday nights, but EMP says he likes it for its intimacy. We were limited to the larger spot, which is perfectly pleasant. It was also completely packed when we arrived. We waited at the bar for a while and sampled a Laotian beer, fittingly called Beer Lao. It had more substance than many of the mass-produced Asian beers I’ve tried, and it hit the spot. We finally got a table about half an hour later and were able to order our food. The service was pretty slow from here on out, but delicious food greatly diminishes such concerns. In an attempt to get at the heart of Laotian cuisine and put the bitter vs. sweet question to a test, I decided to order one of the “House Specialties.” The description focused on the side salad— made with unripe papaya, dried shrimp and chili peppers— so much that I thought is was the main component of the dish. But when it arrived, I was surprised to find the chicken leg piece dominating the plate with a green papaya salad on the side. I was surprised, but I was not disappointed. The chicken had wonderful, crackly, spice-laden skin, recalling some of the chicken I tried at Pok Pok. The meat beneath it was a little dry, but the depth of flavor kept me interested. The accompanying papaya salad was bright with tangy fish sauce and vibrantly spicy. I had ordered it “adventurous” on the restaurant’s spicy scale, just one step below “native.”

Catfish in Banana LeafEmpanada Boy tried another choice from the list of specialties. His was a catfish filet coated in dill and a little spicy chili and cooked in a banana leaf. It came with a spicy-sweet dipping sauce and steamed vegetables. The fish was incredibly moist and flavorful when he unwrapped it. The dill played a significant role, but there must have been something else giving it an extra layer of flavor. Perhaps it was the banana leaf itself. The steamed vegetables were a somewhat boring side note, but the fish was superb, dipped in a little of the sauce and eaten with a bite of sticky rice.

Pineapple curryEnglish Muffin Pizza ordered something different from what he’d had the night before. It was a peanut curry with sweet pineapple and tofu. The flavors were interesting, but not as complex as either of the other two dishes. I also found the peanut and pineapple combination to be a little too rich and a little too sweet. It needed more spice or more of the tang that comes from fish sauce or bitter herbs. This dish was similar to the curries I’ve tried at many a Thai restaurant and seemed to be more oriented toward flavors that appeal to an American palate.

But, hey, what do I know about Laotian food? Not very much. As I thought about the food I tried, I had a hard time recognizing the bitterness that the Gourmet magazine article had described. While spicy, my green papaya salad definitely had sugar in it. And it was similar to one I’d tried at Spoon Thai in Chicago. My chicken was savory, but not what I would call bitter. It too probably had some sugar. The sweet curry was obviously not a good example of this principle. EB’s dish may have fit the bitter, herbal description the best out of all of ours. Still, those weren’t really the first descriptors that came to mind. Maybe, despite its hardcore spice scale, Lao Laan-Xang is toning the traditional flavors down for its clientele. Or maybe Laotian food is more diverse than the brief magazine article suggested, with some regions sharing more Thai characteristics than others. Or perhaps it is a combination of both factors. All I know is when you face such unanswerable questions, the only thing to do is break away from the analysis and enjoy the food. And that is exactly what I did.

Lao Laan-Xang
2098 Atwood Ave.
Madison, WI 53704


1146 Williamson St.
Madison, WI 53703

Old World Milwaukee

Three Brothers exteriorMilwaukee is a city imbued with German and Eastern European immigrant history. These cultures are so central to its past that they color the city’s present to a degree that’s especially obvious to an outsider like myself. Both times Empanada Boy and I have visited the spectacular Calatrava-designed Milwaukee Art Museum, we’ve seen shows dedicated to German and Eastern European art and design. German food and beer is so prevalent that it seems to appear on most bar menus alongside burgers and fries. To me, this gives Milwaukee an added dimension and makes it a fascinating place to visit. German culture is certainly the most obvious influence, but when Corn-y Uncle invited Empanada Boy and me to come up and meet him for dinner at Three Brothers, a Schlitz-brewery-turned-Serbian restaurant (pictured here), I was excited to delve into another of the city’s longstanding ethnic traditions. Before heading over to the restaurant, we drove together to Von Trier, an old-fashioned German bar.

Von Trier interiorVon Trier is so heavily decorated with murals, vintage steins and last year’s (or five years ago’s) Christmas decorations that I can think of no better descriptor than the one Corn-y Uncle used when proposing we go there: Rococo. They literally still have the Christmas village figurines on the ledge above the bar, and we spotted wreaths with red bows still clinging to the facade. We sidled up to the long wooden bar and selected from the many beers— local, German, Belgian and more— on tap. The darkness and the ornate walls prompted imagined scenes of manly gatherings of years gone by.

BurekWe soon bid goodbye to the Von Trier and headed to Three Brothers. This is a sparsely-decorated, house-like dining room with linoleum floors and a bar that looks like no one has tried its offerings for the last decade or two. After a few samples, we settled on a Montenegrin red wine made with the Vranac grape. It had the smooth tannins of Merlot, although some think it’s related to Primitivo, the Italian relative of Zinfandel. Characteristically, Corn-y Uncle planned ahead by pre-ordering one of the restaurant’s famous bureks. These flaky phyllo dough pies are filled with spinach, cheese (meat if desired) and a lot of other delicious things that aren’t too good for you. They take 45 minutes to prepare, but ours was ready to go about ten minutes after we arrived. It was flavorful with an excellent crispy skin and just the right amount of tangy cheese to balance out the richness. EB and I both remarked on how un-greasy it seemed, especially compared to the spanikotpitas of Chicago’s Greektown. We could have finished the whole thing, but we had another course coming. Corn-y Uncle got a couple pieces to take back to his hotel for breakfast.

moussakaConscious of the fact that Eastern European food and diets don’t really go hand-in-hand, Empanada Boy and I decided to share the moussaka. The large brick of deliciously layered eggplant and beef had a silky, eggy filling and a crackly top. It too, was remarkably free of excess grease. Corn-y Uncle tried the less-attractive, but equally delicious goulash, a chunky beef stew that came with dense little dumplings. The dumplings were a little heavy for me, but the dish itself exuded old-world charm.

For dessert, we shared a slice of walnut cake that was light and fluffy, probably thanks to egg whites. Everything we tried was simple, flavorful food that had obviously been prepared by hand. This combination of positive factors is altogether too rare in the culinary world these days. I so often visit restaurants where chefs try to glamorize “homestyle” food by making it ridiculously complex. Corn-y Uncle and I are not alone in thinking Three Brothers is unique; I did some research and found that Three Brothers’s owner Branko Radicevic received a James Beard Foundation Award in 2002 for small, regional, classic American restaurants. The fact that a restaurant serving fare from Serbia can still feel so comfortable and so definitively American is one of the great things about our country’s culinary tradition. I may never get to Serbia, but I certainly know where I’ll be dining the next time I’m in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Three Brothers Serbian Restaurant
2414 S. Saint Clair St.
Milwaukee, WI 53207

Von Trier
2235 N. Farwell Ave.
Milwaukee, WI 53202

Chip Shop (or How EB Hit Rock Bottom)

Fried mac and cheeseEmpanada Boy is now on a diet. I know, I know, it crushes me too when a man who loves food so much has to be reigned in. It’s not as if he’s had to punch new holes in his belt or anything, but we both agree that he could trim up a bit if he’s going to look like a young Paul Newman for the wedding. I also want to be sure he lives a long and healthy life with me. EB has done a fantastic job of sticking to his diet during his first week. He’s kept to his calorie limit every day and has even turned down birthday cake and beer. He’s riding the stationary bike as I write this. We both agree it’s for the best, but I can’t help thinking that this is something like the end of an era. What was the tipping point? The answer can be found somewhere in the depths of the fryer at Chip Shop.

Fish and chipsChip Shop is a British-themed fish and chips joint in Park Slope, Brooklyn. EB used to frequent it when he lived in the neighborhood, and he had been looking forward to dinner there months before we came to New York. We rounded up Vladimir Pudding and EB’s former roommate Bassdrum Crumb to join us. Chip Shop specializes in one mode of cooking: frying. A deep-fried pizza even appears on its menu. I was content with fish and chips, but the frying possibilities were too tempting for EB. He ordered a meal, which comes with a side, fish and chips and dessert. He started with a lovely ball of deep fried mac ‘n cheese (pictured above). It was actually pretty disgusting— just as lumpy, heavy and goopy as it looks. EB’s next course was the cod fish and chips. The fish was tender, but batter on these was too bready and lacked the fine crispiness I was expecting. The fries were decent, but not remarkable.

Fried TwinkieAs if all that weren’t enough, EB’s dessert was a Twinkie cut in half and deep-fried into two calorie-laden packets. Fittingly, they looked like empanadas dusted with powdered sugar. One bite revealed a gooey, fake creamy interior that could only be one thing. The fruit compote that came on the side may have been one of the only sources of nutrients in the entire meal. As that meal came to an end, the seeds of regret and self-doubt were planted in his mind. Empanada Boy was disappointed in the diminished quality of the food, acknowledging that it probably wasn’t worth the calories. It was a Chip Shop epiphany. And it wasn’t long before the diet began. I may not have exactly the same Empanada Boy when it’s all said and done, but I’ll have a trimmer, more studly guy standing next to me on wedding day.

Chip Shop (another location in Brooklyn Heights)
383 Fifth Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11215

Chip Shop on Urbanspoon