By Michael Nagrant
Batman eats at Ben Pao. Rather, according to last month’s tabloids, his alter-ego Christian Bale does. As I recently wrote of Katie Holmes’ order of Gino’s East pizza, you figure folks who have millions of dollars could find themselves a first-rate food concierge to point them to better fare. Bale is after all an extremist who almost starved himself to death for his role in “The Machinist.” Comparatively, a stop in Chinatown for spicy Lao Szechuan stylings or the Yunnan delicacies at Spring World is like a Sunday cruise in the Batmobile.
Truth be told, while the Ben Pao menu contains crab rangoon, it’s always walked that Lettuce Entertain You line of being chain-like, but with creativity. It’s actually pretty good. But with so many independently run blood, sweat and soul-drenched restaurants in Chicago, it feels dirty to devote a thought to corporate spots, many who don’t buy locally or consciously.
Lately, though I’ve been wondering if eschewing the mainstream is a food critic’s dilemma alone. After all, serious indie-rock critics cover major-label releases, and few cinema journalists passed up the chance to review blockbuster eye candy like “Ocean’s 13.” Of course, in some of these cases, reviewing is an opportunity for smug scribes to skewer mainstream darlings with their ironic daggers.
For me there is no such irony. I probably understand Bale and Holmes more than I know. My dirtiest secret is that I love the Olive Garden salad. I know it’s probably just prepackaged bits of frozen iceberg lettuce spit out from a commercial food shredder, tasteless black olives from a petri dish that have never even seen an olive branch, pepperoncinis crossbred to remove any sense of real spiciness so as not to offend “families,” all tossed with a sweet Italian vinaigrette and if you are lucky, the hapless waiter or waitress will offer a fresh crack of pepper from the spicemill. But, throwing all these commercialized ingredients together yields something tasty.
In this same vein, I’ve found the thrill of clawing my way through the back alleys of culinaria, but looking for new takes on organ meat or bringing along translators to read menus or speak with interview subjects at ethnic joints has recently taken a back seat to convenience and comfort.
Three weeks ago, I found myself on a Michigan road trip, ordering the Baconator (including six wilted strips of unsatisfying wimpy fast-food bacon) and a Frosty, aping old weekly college habits.
Two weeks ago on a date night with my wife, a rarity due to our 4-month-old son, I skipped recent independent openings like Sepia (which I eventually got to—maybe the best opening of 2007—try the pork rillette with pistachio brittle and the smoky grilled octopus) in favor of a pre-movie dinner at P.F. Chang’s on Wabash. And damn, if I didn’t have some of the best service I’ve had in years. Lately at high-end spots, there’s been a moment where my server is gone for so long, I start imagining they flitted off to do a line of coke and passed out in a bathroom stall. At Chang’s, our server aptly described how dishes were cooked and how drinks were mixed, and she was always nearby.
The food was spot-on, from spicy orange-peel shrimp to toothsome pan-fried noodles. Interestingly Chang’s even offered a regional “Flavors of Yunnan” menu (Spring World would be proud). My only quibble was that the Yunnan wontons, which aped one of the best deep-fried ham and cheese sandwiches I’ve ever had, featured Spanish serrano rather than traditional Yunnan-style ham.
However, the moment that scared and delighted me most in my recent descent into the franchise underbelly was the discovery of the Bennigan’s Monte Cristo: bread piled with ham, turkey, Swiss and American cheeses, battered and golden fried like a donut, dusted with powdered sugar and served with red raspberry preserves. My wife had one for lunch last week and brought home an hours-old portion for me to try. I figured I’d take one cold bite for kicks and make fun of it. After the first taste, I slammed the whole thing down Kobayashi-style and wanted another fix. The zeppole-style doughnut crust, the marriage of sweet and savory, might be the fattiest and ultimately most satisfying thing I’ve discovered since the Aussie fries at Outback Steakhouse.
But man can not live on chain fare alone, and I am happy to report that the Violet Hour (1520 North Damen), which recently opened in the old Del Toro spot, is the most exciting thing to happen to cocktails since Nacional 27’s seasonal market-fresh drinks. Featuring eight different kinds of ice, culinary-school-trained bartenders, freshly squeezed juices and seven kinds of homemade aromatic bitters from partner/chief intoxologist Toby Maloney (try his Iron Cross, a wicked take on the Pisco sour), craft cocktails have arrived. Based upon my observations in this column, I know that the vodka and Red Bull we’ve been drinking is about comfort and convenient habits. That being said, we are a city of discriminating eaters and drinkers at heart, and Violet Hour deserves a toast.