Saturday, January 18, 2020

In restaurants we find significance

Rustic duck terrine with Swiss chard at Cellar Door Provisions

    Well ... the boys are back at school.
     Quite the winter break. A solid month. Fun was had. We went to a movie—the weirdly-hallucinogenic "Cats." We ate Lou Malnati's pizza. Twice. We played Settlers of Catan and Bananagrams. We had a big sprawling Hanukkah party, attended a bris. We rang in the New Year. In the middle, I had an new hip installed. They took over dog-walking duties, as per plan.

     We hit our favorite places: Francesco's Hole in the Wall, twice. TAVA in Morton Grove. Blufish and Fuji Yama, where we were sad to discover Irene, the stern overseer, has retired. Just when she had finally come to accept us....
     Fancier restaurants were occasionally involved. Some, the boys went to without the old folks. The younger met a friend at Booze Box ("Good name," I muttered) the self-described "Japanese small-dish and drinking establishment celebrating savory, Japanese Izakaya-style small plates and Japanese street food that is meant to be casual and intentionally full of texture, fat and salt" (maybe it's a translation issue) located under Sushi Dokku. 
     Speaking of translation, the older boy met a friend at Avec, leading to my inevitable remark:  "I remember when it was still called 'With'..."
     That isn't much, as far as jokes go. An eye-rolling, dad joke. But it's my joke, and I'm sticking with it. "With," of course, would be a puzzling name for a restaurant, and the idea that it would then go upscale, develop pretensions, and start calling itself "Avec"—"with" in French—maybe you have to be me to think that's funny.
     That crack pretty much sums up my approach toward pricy dining. I try to bring a little Midwestern clear-eyed skepticism to the process. Or at least as much as I can and still go, and have fun, or try to. Can't spend all our money on painful medical procedures....
     The truth is, I'd never go, left to my own devices. I never wake up thinking, "I'd really like to drop $500 on dinner tonight." Nor my wife. But the boys coming home is an increasing rarity; my strategy, rather than the typical parental lay-on-the-guilt-until-they-crack approach, is this: if they have fun while they're here, maybe they'll come home occasionally. 
     So their visits are a kind of permission, a fog of goodwill that gets puffed over chi-chi eateries we would otherwise view harshly were my wife and I to slide ourselves to chew the chow. Not that we would ever do that. Typically, when I see a list of new restaurants, I've never been to any, never heard of any, and don't plan to go. They could open a restaurant called "neil" featuring all the favorite dishes of my youth and I'd look at the food porn color photo, read about the Michelin stars and James Beard awards, muse "I should go there someday" and then forget all about it.
    The boys, however, both really like high-end restaurants. Restaurants are their marker of significance, and I told them to put their heads together and figure out a few places they wanted to try over Christmas break. Whatever they picked would be a whole lot cheaper than flying to Mexico and going out to eat at the Ixtapa Denny's.
     They came up with three: Elske, Omakase Yume and Cellar Door Provisions. Naturally, I had never heard of any of them.
     The first two I'm going to parse next Friday, in my column in the newspaper which (talk about burying the lede) resumes after medical hiatus on Monday. 
    Our final fancy dinner, which, perhaps to their relief, won't fit in the paper, was last Saturday night at Cellar Door, a tavern-like farm-to-table place on Diversey. Interesting little dishes —roasted beets, poached salmon.  A rustic duck terrine with chard. (It was weird. On Tuesday, I could feel the column-writing circuits start to hum, to glow red, as if something unplugged were now  plugged in. Suddenly, the systems booted up and we were back in business).
    Some Cellar Door offerings were a tad too rustic. My older boy tasted his Fable Farm Fermentory Emanation cider—made from "foraged apples," aka apples found rotting on the ground—and suggested my wife might like it.  
    "It tastes like fermented garbage," she said.
    "It tastes like how garbage smells," my younger son elaborated, handing the glass back, his face twisted in disgust. 
    "Exactly!" the older boy said, brightly. "But in a good way!"
     The server was a Gen Z type in a stocking hat and hoodie flat-aspecting  the food over. At least she swung by frequently, which was enough. I liked sitting in the window on a stormy Saturday night, watching the snow fall (I might be a cheap date, as in my post-surgery mode, I still like anything that involves getting out of the house).  When she asked how our dessert was, and we told her that our ice cream so salty we could not eat it, she barely registered the complaint—her expression said, "Unhappy? Tough, here's your bill." My philosophy is, don't ask if the answer isn't going to spark some kind of reaction. Then again, I have a drawer full of t-shirts older than she is, so I suppose the need for some latitude is to be expected. We all must learn our trades, and if this finds its way to the Cellar Door folks, well, let me spill the beans: friendliness can be hip, too. Maybe it was my fault; I skew old for the room's demographic by a good 20 years. Maybe the chill was intentional, the point being: we can't have all these old people eating here, driving away business. Message received.
    Looking back, I all-too-well grasp the scam aspect of expensive restaurants—both places that served bread charged extra for it. Omakase Yume appears presents itself as a prix fixe restaurant, as you'll discover next week, but that's more theoretical than real. The prix fixe meal is only the beginning. Not to complain. Dining out costs money, and you're paying both for food and to forge memories. Though this crop of new places makes me even more secure in my general strategy of returning again and again to those few restaurants I already know and love. Not that any of these places were dogs. But they weren't the oh-my-God-I-have-to-come-back-here-and-eat-MORE experience of first encountering, say, Green Street Smoked Meats. Which is why I always go to new restaurants, when asked. Because one of them might be Green Street Smoked Meats. Unless you're open to new experiences, you'll never discover anything. Bottom line: the boys were happy, which made my wife and me happy, and if they want to come back for spring break, well, the offer stands.   


  1. Replies
    1. I guess that depends on how one feels about circumcision. My own thinking is that while I wish they'd leave it up to the kid, all in all, it's not really my business.

    2. We don't leave religion or politics up to our kids—not without a struggle. I consider opposition to circumcision to be just another species—albeit a minor one—of messing in other people's business.

  2. Having once spent the equivalent of a months salary to experience the now shuttered Charlie Trotter's, only to leave unsatisfied and with the feeling that my fiance and i were treated rudely as a matter of course. "Butter service to go along with your bread service?" That just seemed overkill.
    We left to seek out Honey 1 Barbecue in order to sooth our gnawing hunger.
    The food was impressive, but definitely not worthy of the $1,000 plus price tag.

  3. I forgot all about TAVA! The house I grew up in is near there and after moving mom to a nursing home I haven't had cause to go that way, I think a trip to TAVA constitutes cause.
    Also you make me grateful that my stepkids like the dingier, off the beaten path type places. Expectations fall a little lower and pleasant surprises are more frequent than not.

  4. "I remember when it was still called 'With'..."
    Sounds like something I would say.

  5. I guess the youngsters think it sounds cool but I don't understand the appeal of "street food." I would rather have restaurant food or home cooking or a picnic. We have a couple new Greek street food restaurants nearby and I love Greek food but I wonder about how hygienic the streets are in Greece.

  6. Outrageous prices, bad service, and bad attitudes seem to be endemic to a lot of these new joints...the ones with the hip and clever names that are here-today-gone-tomorrow, before they ever get to be old joints. Staff are often rude and condescending and patronizing. They act like they're doing you a huge favor by providing even the rudiments of service. The "vibe" (ugh) that they project is one of "I'm only doing this until my big break comes, and just because I'm working here doesn't mean I have to like it, or need to be congenial." That's both unforgiveable and inexcusable, and maybe even grounds for termination. It does not leave a favorable impression (and first impressions are everything in the restaurant game). Nor does it help the staffer's bottom line (with a hefty gratuity).

    Young foodies will go out to these places far more frequently than older folks. For that generation, restaurants have become what rock concerts were to an earlier age cohort. Gotta hear the newest band live. Gotta try the latest bistro, or eatery, or whatever the food critics are calling the newest and hippest restaurants this week.

    But there are only so many foodies with that kind of money to burn, who can eat out three or four times a week. The rest grow tired of being continually disrespected, conned, insulted, ignored, demeaned, overcharged for tiny plates of unpalatable slop, and baffled by goofy names and other faux bullshit, no matter how good the reviews and how new, hip, and shiny the decor.

    Hence this cartoon from a couple of years ago--in a neighborhood bi-weekly:

    Wife: "Hey, a new restaurant just opened down the street."
    Husband: "Cool...we should go there some time...before they close."


  7. We visit our son in Chicago twice a year, two weeks at a time. He always takes us to unique places in Chicago. Most are reasonably priced. Our last visit, my son wanted to do something special for my 70th birthday. He did something similar to what Neil experienced insofar as he and his girlfriend to us to Alinea’s. Certainly not a place I would routinely frequent but he knows I am more about experiences than things, it was a great way for him to do something very special or me.
    Special it was. Besides the uniqueness and deliciousness of the food, the atmosphere and overall experience, it gave me a chance to express how lucky I was to have someone as special as him as my son.


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