Thursday, October 20, 2016

South Side Communal - Eating at Chicago's Legendary Valois

Consider this the culinary last stand of a golden age of American dining.  Consider this the fucking Alamo.  Because almost nowhere else do places like this any longer exist.  Places that effortlessly celebrate, with an unflappable—and unwavering—generosity of portion size and heart, the convivial confluence and comingling of a spectroscopic multiplicity of class and culture over the once-sacrosanct shared experience of the deeply delicious, deeply affordable, hot meal eaten at a square Formica table among fellow diners with whom we might otherwise, in our own socially myopic lives, have precious little traffic.  Black.  White.  Rich.  Poor.  Students.  Day laborers.  Windsor-knotted portfolio managers.  They’re all gathered here, in this shining last bastion of a soon-to-be bygone era of American restaurantism, blithely unaware of anything approaching too-cool-for-school gastronomic irony, and happily impervious to hirsute hipsters and the douchbaggery of frat boys and popped-polo-collar bros now endemic—and with the seeming ubiquity of a near-biblical pestilence—to most big city food scenes.  Not here.  No way.  Not here on South Side of Chicago.  This place will suffer none of that.  Why?  Because it doesn’t have to.  Because this place is the one, the only, Valois.


Opened in 1921, Valois (which the local South Side Chicago-ese patois requires you to pronounce as Val-oiz) is an ethnographic study in Eisenhower-era dining milieu and the-future-is-now gastronomy of post-war America.  Valois is also a cafeteria in the best—and truest—sense of the word.  Enter through the East 53rd Street egress, join the s-shaped line (because there is always, always a line at Valois, yo), and behold the menu board mounted above the service line.  There, you’ll discover such hallowed dine-o-classics as the chopped steak sandwich and the perennially-venerable patty melt on rye.  There are opened-faced sandwiches, of course—hot turkey with mash [sic] potatoes, for one—and breakfast, always breakfast, served all day; omelettes [sic] pancakes, and breakfast meats in their forever-glorious and sundry forms, all at low, low Carter-era prices. 

[To wit:  despite the undeniable scrumptiousness of its culinary offerings, spelling is evidently not Valois’ forte.]

And as dazzling in sentimental wonder as the selection on the menu board might be, it’s the daily specials served up from the steam table for which South Sider Chicagoans line up and clamor, enduringly.  For there, behind the fogged-up glass of the age-old metal pass, are piles of pre-seared T-bones and New York strips (and brought up to serving temperature with a few, well-spent moments on an incendiary flat-top grill).  There, too, on the steam-heated line, are heaps of baked chicken, pre-fried catfish, and barbeque ribs—all of it a bona fide cornucopia of comfort food hall-of-fame classics.

For my meal at Valois last week, I ordered a time-honored cafeteria favorite:  I ordered the roast beef.  With my order came a side of mashed potatoes and gravy, peas and carrots, and a roll.  What I received after my order was served was a platter of food the size of a small dog bed and weighing as much as a boat anchor.  And, yes, the baby-shit colored brown gravy might have been straight from the jar; the mashed potatoes might very well have been reconstituted from dystopian-resistant dried potato flakes; the peas and carrots might have tasted, however vaguely, of a BPA-lined industrial-sized can.  With that said, however, I will avow, with a preacher’s deep solemnity and a missionary’s mighty zeal, my meal at Valois was—if not finest in culinary accomplishment in recent memory—then certainly the happiest in many months well-crowded with gastronomic merry-making contenders.  But how, you ask.  How could Valois—given its limited culinary capability and scope—be so insistently popular with South Side eaters, and—now—one of my all-time favorite places to eat in the food-lovers Brigadoon that is the megalopolis of Chicago? 

That’s easy.

Because the food of Valois attains a nirvana-like state of deliciousness in ways that other contemporary restaurants sired amid the zeitgeist of the post-post-modern culinary world of Food Network fetishism simply can’t.  Because Valois occupies—nearly alone—the liminal space of middle distance in the gastronomic world that is both unfettered by food trends (bone broth, anyone?), and purely undaunted by that mirrored Orwellian funhouse of culinary doublespeak wherein diners prattle on and on about “flavor profile” and “mouth feel” and “uniformity of chew.”  Because the food of Valois feeds you—fills you up—in ways that are almost Aristotelian in their nourishment of the soul so rarely—if ever—found beyond the four walls of your own mother’s kitchen.  Because the food of Valois is served by a standing army of Greek men—young and old—outfitted in standard-issue polyester snap-whites and peaked, paper hats.  And because—and this, perhaps, above all else—Valois is among the very last of its kind: a final holdout of cafeteria-style communal dining, whose penultimate mission, however tacit or implied, is driven by the provision of wonderfully tasty, deeply comforting, food priced affordably for any who should crave an open-faced sandwich smothered in gravy, or a slice of banana cream pie. 

Go to Valois while it’s still there.  I urge you.  I implore you.  Because nothing this good ever lasts forever.

Your link: Valois

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Smoke On the Water - Calumet Fisheries

Smoke.  It’s from whence those first flavor gods of gastronomy came, and where they have since remained.  From the first cook fires of our human ancestors 2.3 million years ago (fire being that exothermic evolutionary-cum-culinary primogenitor and prime mover which greatly reduced the time/energy quotient for chewing and digestion, and which then allowed—through that seismic act of cooking food—our earliest bipedal and newly big-brained cousins to walk, upright, into the happy spotlight of anthropological modernity) smoke has endured as the primary flavoring agent in world cuisine.  “This art of mine is an empire of smoke,” says Demetrius in The Areopagite.  And while our own contemporary cuisine has recently emphasized more “molecular” methods of preparation like, say, the thermal immersion circulators of sous vide cooking, nothing, and I mean nothing, boy-o, sets an omnivore’s mouth to watering like the olfactory bouquet of smoked animal protein borne up on a sunny, summer wind. 

The ancient art of smoking animal flesh to preserve it and render it magically delicious lies at that culinary confluence and crossroads where science and sorcery always seem to meet.  Find fuel (ideally low-resin hardwoods, in our case, like hickory, like oak), drop a match on it, then kick back in your lawn chair—cold can of PBR in hand—and watch the magic happen to your favorite hanging meat.  Because what happens is this:  the antimicrobial agents in wood smoke (phenol, formaldehyde, acetic acid) launch a withering series of Bruce Lee roundhouses at the thorax of the rancidification forces found in protein (with a priori concomitance and all-around bro-hugging with salt-curing or drying, yo) while the cellulose and hemicellulose in the smoke (they being aggregate sugar molecules in the hardwood) caramelize the meat and impart the sweet and fruity signature aromas (and flavors) of wood smoke.  Whew.  But only the white-belted hipster disciples of Harold McGee would care about such food nerdism, yes?  What we care about—you and I—is that the smoking of animal proteins invariably produces foods of such elemental savor, that some of us—deep in the reptilian swamps of our ancestral brains—will gladly stab our fellow dining companions with a fork should our shared meal experience ever devolve into a contest as to who gets that last smoked filet.

In traveling over 7,500 miles by car across the United States this last summer, I came across dozens of renegade culinarians and roadside restaurateurs who have gone apostate in forsaking most of the cooking methods of culinary modernity to instead make glorious and sublime—with nothing more than the simple caress of wood smoke and time—the most quotidian of animal proteins.  A few of these purveyors come to mind:  the whole-hog goodness of Parker's in Wilson, North Carolina; the unctuous low-and-slow mutton of Old Hickory in Owensboro, Kentucky; the Kansas City-style beef at The Piggy in the one-stoplight town of Walker, Minnesota, just an hour-and-change south of the Canadian border, where the burnt ends were so good I wanted to Keith Moon the joint, trash it, lest the secret of their supremacy ever make it to their maple-leafed neighbors but a stone’s throw to the north. 

But among the temples of gastronomy I visited this summer—and wherein the ancient gods of flavor yet live in perfect equipoise inside a tango-white veil of pan drippings and wood smoke—just one of these houses of the holy stood above its culinary brethren in eminence and the primacy of its proteins.

Calumet Fisheries of Chicago, Illinois. 

That’s right, friend-o:  we’re talking fish.

To say Calumet Fisheries is in the city limits of Chicago might be technically bang on, sure, but that simple declarative misses the fact—and badly—that Calumet Fisheries is situated at the extreme south end of the city, next to a drawbridge, above the miasmic Calumet River, in an insistently infecund stretch of industrial wasteland more evocative of the god-doesn’t-live-here-anymore wilds of Gary, Indiana, than the yankee-hotel-foxtrot triumphs of Chicago’s magnificent megalopolis, at city center, twenty (or so) miles to the far more prosperous north.

But step into Calumet Fisheries and you’ll know on a bio-molecular level palpable in your own teeth and skin that you, my friend, have entered the sactum sanctorum of American smoked fish houses.  The holiest of holies.  A Delphi of good eating.  And the place you need to experience this kind of cuisine.  Because there’s a fucking James Beard award on the wall, for one thing (the 2010 recipient’s medal in the Beard’s America’s Classic category, to be precise) and the immediate redolence of wood smoke and fish oil so thick that one can taste it through the simple act of breathing.

Founded in 1948 by brothers-in-law Sid Kotlick and Len Toll (and it’s still family owned), Calumet Fisheries offers the kind of straight-no-chaser methodology in the purveyance of pure protein for which south-siders and intrepid Chicagoans at large have long and quietly clamored.  Step in and step up:  there’s only a counter and a person or three to take your order.  No tables.  No chairs.  And certainly no doting waiter to treat you like that rare and decidedly special snowflake-of-a-patron you undoubtedly are.  Not here.  No way.  Eating at Calumet Fisheries is eating at its stripped-down, proletarian best.  Get in, get out, and get busy with the business of filling your belly with almost impossibly good food from both river and sea. 

I first visited Calumet Fisheries on a sunny day last June.  I went with friends:  Chef Shin Matsuda, that fast-rising star of Chicago gastronomy, and he of Ani fame.  With us, too, came our constant companions, Gabrielle and my beloved X, to play, as per their usual, a two-person Tenzing Norgay tag team to our collective Edmund Hillary routine, with us, as they often are, up this and each of our sometimes-incautious culinary climbs.  We parked on the street in front of Calumet Fisheries, we four, and went inside.

To say Calumet Fisheries is a kind of Wellsian time machine borne to us from the culinary past is an understatement in the extreme:  the single-room interior is a Truman-era study in Sullivan-esque form-follows-function aesthetics, whose post-war, no-snark-zone austerity is merrily offset by a veritable bounty of workaday smoked fish.  Sable.  Eel.  Sturgeon.  Trout.  Everything the modern-cum-primitive pescetarian could possibly hope for, and everything every erstwhile pack-a-day habitué of no-filter Camels could ever dream, such is the amount of smoke on Calumet’s fish.  Take-away lunches are in the offing as well:  smelts, clam strips, and calamari are fried-to-order and served up in Styrofoam clamshells with a complimentary (if implicit) side of don’t-overthink-this-because-we’re-all-just-polishing-the-brass-on-the-Titantic polemic on consuming the fried culinary arts.

We ordered food—smoked and fried—and went outside into the sunshine to eat, cross-legged, in a campfire circle around manhole cover, atop a poured-concrete slab, in the middle of a field overgrown with jimson weed.  Chef Matsuda and Gabrielle ate fried whitefish with fries, while X set upon her fried shrimp.  I went with the fried frog legs and cole slaw because, well, because I’m utterly defenseless to the charms of cuisses de grenouilles anytime I see them on a menu, even one molly-bolted to the wall of a restaurant that sits next to an industrial canal.

I think we can all agree that the soundtrack to any great meal is that of the stunned silence of eaters contemplating the culinary sublimity in their mouths.  And that’s how the four of us ate:  happily, wordlessly, while blinking away the happy June sun.  There was unanimity in our loquacity:  the food was delicious—all of it—especially the smoked stuff, the salmon, the trout, elevated to greatness, as it was, by those great giving gods of gastronomy, and through the gentle anointment wood smoke and time.

That Calumet Fisheries still exists—defiant of all laws governing restaurant longevity—is reason enough to make the pilgrimage, I tell you.  But that it yet remains as a high-temple of the ancient praxis of smoking fish should cause you to drop to your knees and genuflect before its glass-encased shrine of smoked fish like the culinary acolyte you know you are. 

Your link:  Calumet Fisheries

Sunday, June 28, 2015

For What Ails You in Pittsburgh - Cure

Hospitality.  The word comes to us from that etymological mac-daddy of dead languages, Latin, and it enters our own tongue in the late-14th century from the nominative hospitalitas for “friendliness to guests.”  Ancient Greeks (the Stoics in particular) believed the idea of hospitality to be a sacrosanct ritual of human kindness with the offering of a plate of figs and honey being the apotheosis and deliverance of divine rite.  Contemporary people (especially we restaurant habitués of the post-modern West) have taken a decidedly more relaxed approach to hospitality; we’ve conflated it with that dark-prince of conceptual doppelgangers, good service, and suddenly, for us, that perfect wine pour, that deft and expertly-timed application of the table crumber, has supplanted—in theory and in practice—that once-sacred bequest of tree nuts and mead.  That our beloved maître d’ is able to produce, instantaneously, and on sight, our favorite Pouilly-Fuisse is now (and heterodox to all reason) far more comforting to most of us than the offer of dry shelter and a friendly smile.  And that sucks.  Big time.  Because at some point between these two epochs and cultural polarities—ancient religious ritualism and the unmitigated douchebaggery of present day food culture—I’d like to think hospitality once occupied a golden age.  An age of spontaneous giving.  A time of selfless conference—from keeper to stranger—of both sustenance and mirth.  An idyllic age of travel when a voyager could quit the road and rest his weary bones among people whom he’d never before met, but who could be relied upon to provide food and conversation, simply for the asking.  For many of us modern dwellers, Starbucks—yes, Starbucks—has been the closest we’ve yet come to this illusory ideal.  But I’m here to tell you, friends, I’ve found the place, where true hospitality yet lives.  The place where the hungry journeyman is received with demonstrable largesse and a palpable conviviality of heart.  The place where the food is so very fucking good that it makes you want to stab yourself in the eye with your very own fork.

And that place is Pittsburgh’s magnificent Cure. 

To wit:  I was traveling by car—Chicago to Washington, D.C.—across that food desert and American turnpike that stretches from Gary, Indiana, to Breezewood, Pennsylvania, and beyond.  Mile after mile of endless culinary wasteland occupied by a veritable army of pernicious and highly hostile gastronomic kings and smiling clowns convened in rest areas under golden arches as bastions of dietary surrender.  I was trapped, boy-o, hemmed in by the turnpike.  I had nowhere else to go, and nothing to eat.  So I pulled my car over and sent up a flare.  A virtual Hail Mary.  A shot in the dark.  I tweeted Melissa McCart, dining critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, whose work I have followed with particular interest over recent years, and whose journalistic and gastronomic acumen is second to none.  I would be passing through Pittsburgh at dinnertime, I explained in my tweet, and would she, could she, recommend someplace in Pittsburgh that I might eat?  Melissa’s response to my query was nearly instantaneous.  Her list of recommendations (what to do, what to eat) was more replete than that of hotel concierge.  There were breweries, bakeries, baseball games, and, of course restaurants.  Lots of those.  One name at the top of her list caught my eye:  Cure.  Maybe it was because I was a Robert Smith fan when I was too young to know any better.  Or maybe it was because the name, Cure, temporarily placated my hunger on the inherent promise of proving an eventual panacea for my sudden craving for meat.  Cure struck a chord.  So I made my decision with my usual punctilio, which is to say with all the arbitrary whimsy and caprice of a drunk throwing a dart at a mounted wall map to see where he would next travel.  But choose Cure I did.  I hit the gas.      

Cure is located in the Pittsburgh borough of Lawrenceville.  For a restaurant of Cure’s caliber and craft, it’s a highly unlikely spot.  Situated on the banks of the Allegheny River, Lawrenceville—with Cure newly in it—was, until very recently, the kind of neighborhood one might visit to purchase, say, a commercially-available blow job, or a pharmacological silver bullet—packaged in consumer-friendly dime bags and vials, no less—that one could aim at (and temporarily decimate) one’s own, um, existential despair.

But what I found among the sleepy ruins of a once-vital Pennsylvania mill town was an extraordinary gem of a restaurant.  Simultaneously hip and homey, walking into Cure was perfectly analogous to slipping into a warm bath—warm, comfortable, and deeply inviting.  I walked into Cure, scruffy and bleary-eyed, wearing a t-shirt and jeans and boots, looking every bit the man who had just driven five hundred miles on an empty stomach.  More importantly:  I walked into Cure at exactly 7:15 on a very busy Saturday night without a reservation.  I repeat:  Saturday night.  Without.  A.  Reservation.

The hostess looked embarrassed for me, as if I were that mouth-breather at the party who has just bumped his nose on the unseen sliding glass door.  I was a dimwit, a rube, and she took real and immediate pity on me.  There were no seats available, she informed me, not even at the bar; the two open seats I was looking at had been reserved long before my arrival.  I took the news with a cool-no-problem shrug of feigned resignation, then showed her my phone and Melissa’s list.  Which of these other Pittsburgh eateries would she recommend I try next, I wondered?  The look of pity turned to empathy and deep commiseration.  No matter where I went in Pittsburgh, her face suggested, it would still be Saturday night, and I would still be arriving without a reservation.  The hostess looked at me again, a bit sideways this time, and bit her lip and nodded.  She would seat me at the bar on the condition I would complete my meal—light snacks only—by 8:00, when the reserved party of two was scheduled to arrive.  I gave her my word.  We made a deal.

The bar:  it’s my favorite place to sit and eat at any restaurant.  It’s at the nerve center of any food purveyor, and it sits neatly at the confluence of front and back-of-the-house cultures.  It’s a restaurant’s heart and soul.  Sit at the bar, order a drink, and within minutes, you’ll know everything—the good, the bad, the ugly—you’ve ever wanted to know about a place.  Who’s working high, who arrived late, who will be knocking boots with whom after the end of that night’s third shift:  it’s all there—the spectacle of restaurant theatre—for any patron willing to pay the price of admission:  careful attention.  The bar is also where magic can happen, as it did on my visit to Cure.  Because I had Colin as my bartender.  Because in all my years frequenting that last, lone stool at the end of the bar, I have rarely, if ever, encountered a bartender so genuinely magnanimous as Colin.  He greeted me with a smile and welcomed me with a menu.  He poured me a draught (Small Crop #3—low alcohol and refreshingly delicious—brewed just up the street from Cure).  Colin made me feel invited, as if he was truly happy to serve me.  And when he explained the dinner menu, he struck that perfect (and all too rare) equipoise of food knowledge and enthusiasm, without the slightest soupcon of that millennial I-know-my-shit-and-you-don’t snobbery now endemic to most menu presentation. 

Colin was the very definition of hospitable.  When I mentioned that I had only until 8:00 to complete my meal, he smiled and told me to relax.  There was no hurry. Other accommodations for the eight o’clock party had already been made.  So I went big with my order.  From Cure’s Salumi di Mare offering, I ordered the bacalao en aceite (salt cod, yo) and the sockeye salmson “nduja” (in quotes to denote a spread typically made from pork, not fish).  From Cure’s “Snacks” portion of the menu, I ordered their beef tartare with oyster aioli, black garlic, and cured egg yolk.

To say that I lingered over each plate of food, savoring every bite offered me, would be disingenuous in the extreme:  I woofed it down.  I made a spectacle of myself.  I gnashed my food like a man who had not eaten all day.  And had I not been in polite company, I would have licked my fingers and my plate.  Because the food at Cure is that fucking good.  It’s beyond good, actually; it’s mind-bendingly delicious.  Chef and Cure co-owner Justin Severino has clearly triumphed in a way so few of his contemporaries have:  the elevation of elemental protein forms into dishes that are truly—and I mean truly—sublime.

Severino cooks with the economy and compression of a poet.  Nothing in his craft is superfluous, every ingredient, every texture, matters.  My bacalao was haiku.  My tartare was a sonnet.  Every bite I took tasted like some Horatian ode to the marriage of culinary terroir and umami.  And for all the elegiac elegance of these small food forms, Severino’s Homeric magnum opus that night was a pasta dish, his Squid Ink and Leek Ash Gnudi (in a Bolognese of octopus, beef heart, and guanciale, no less), a dish so profoundly good, so deeply delicious, that it made me want to throw my chair, to break my beer glass, in the same way reading Eliot’s The Wasteland (or better: dropping a needle on Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols) made me want to herald the discovery of something extraordinary by making a big fucking noise.  Because there was small revolution there, at the end of my fork.  Because now, for me, and all-things Italian, everything had suddenly changed.  Because of all the pastas I’ve yet tasted in my career as enthusiast and eater, I’ve not encountered one quite like it.  Severino’s is both mutinous and supreme.

For the record:  I did not throw my chair.  Instead, I reacted with finer aplomb:  I made the two young women sitting next to me eat from my bowl to ensure (for my own peace of mind) that Severino’s pasta was not some hallucination on my part, some trick of an over-hungry mind.  They covered their mouths and threw back their heads and laughed, and by their laughter, I knew exactly what they thought, and which no words could adequately express:  that Severino’s gnudi was really that good.

What I know of Justin Severino, the chef, is that he’s killing it (in the parlance of industry speak, yo, that’s as good as it gets), and that he’s a quixotic and boundlessly talented culinarian performing at the top of his game.  What I know of Justin Severino the restaurateur, the public figure, the man, is that he will leave his kitchen, in the middle of service to check on his guests, to make sure that they are—each and all—actually happy.  That Severino (or any chef of his caliber) does this suggests that in his quest for culinary excellence, he has succeeded in maintaining his sights on that most important aspect of all culinary endeavors—hospitality.

Thank you, Chef Severino, Melissa McCart, Colin, and the entire staff at Cure, for treating this weary traveler so very, very well.  And thank you for the extraordinary hospitality.

I can’t wait to hurry back.

Your link to Cure

5336 Butler Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15201


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