CHICAGO BLUES

Where chefs release their inner Gwyneth Paltrow and peri-peri is from Macau

By Chris Pretorius 10 July 2020

(Photo by Sebastian Coman Photography on Unsplash)

It amazes me how the masses can be wrong about food. Part of the problem is living in the age of Yelp and Zagat where everybody is a critic. A good rule of thumb when dining out in the US is don’t follow the crowds. Of course, the point is moot now.

It has happened again. That little text from my tormenter at TGIFood that it’s my turn to write something for next week’s edition. Suddenly my world is turned upside-down. I pour a stiff whiskey and fall into a black hole. I will remain in that hole for the next week, agonising and racking my empty brain about something to write about. Fortunately we didn’t have an alcohol ban here in Chicago so I can at least keep pouring stiff whiskeys while spending time in the black hole. 

The problem is once I manage to write something and send it off I experience a brief sense of relief and then immediately plunge into another black hole convinced that I’m about to publicly make a complete fool of myself. More stiff whiskey. At least I’m not living in SA. I can’t imagine spending time in my black hole pouring a stiff dop of my own homemade mampoer or skokiaan or whatever the stuff was that people brewed back home during the no alcohol phase of lockdown.

I thought I could write about the restaurant scene in Chicago but that’s too depressing because there is no scene any more. In our current lockdown phase they’re only allowed to do safely spaced outdoor seating and takeout. Many people in the business agree that it’s probably not enough for most of them to survive. But rather this than what’s happening in the southern states where restaurants never got shut down and have now become super spreaders. Depressing. Also, I promised myself that I won’t write about the lockdown.

I must however admit that I experienced a little attack of schadenfreude when I saw a recent article in the NY Times about Fat Rice, a restaurant around the corner from me.

A forlorn looking Fat Rice, site of my peri-peri disaster. (Photo: Chris Pretorius)

A husband and wife team opened it about seven years ago to great fanfare and featured food from Macau, where the wife was born. They even won a James Beard award. I was immediately interested because food from Macau is not something you find every day. They were always booked out and it took months for us to finally get a table at five o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon. Strangely, all the waiters were wearing black T-shirts with the words “Don’t believe the hype” printed on them. Our waiter explained that the Chicago Tribune food critic gave them a lukewarm review so the owners made all the staff wear shirts with the above quote from the review. (Interestingly, Macau’s national dish is “African chicken”, a stewy chicken dish.)

Seemed a little arrogant but hey, what do I know. I ordered the chicken peri-peri because that was just before Nando’s hit Chicago and you couldn’t find peri-peri anywhere. Most Americans had no clue what it was, including Fat Rice, it turned out. When it arrived I thought perhaps he got the order wrong, because it looked like a stew. Like chicken curry in fact. But the waiter assured me that the stuff in front of me was indeed peri-peri and that the chefs should know because one of them was from Macau. I pointed out that peri-peri originated in Portuguese east Africa, not Macau and that I have actually eaten it in Mozambique and it certainly did not look like this. Also it didn’t taste anything like peri-peri. I mentioned that I probably should have heeded the advice printed on his T-shirt. Needless to say, we never went back.

It always amazes me how the masses can be wrong about food. Part of the problem is of course living in the age of Yelp and Zagat where everybody is a critic. Only a few cities have managed to sustain daily newspapers with professional food critics so, in 90% of the US, food mayhem reigns. Basically in Fat Rice’s case, the professional food critic was right and everybody else was wrong. A good rule of thumb when dining out in the US is don’t follow the crowds. Of course, the point is moot now.

But to get back to my little bout of schadenfreude. A few weeks ago the Black Lives Matter protests broke out and Fat Rice changed their website to address human dignity and the plight of black people and how their hearts were bleeding and how their restaurant’s philosophy has always been to serve and uplift the community etc etc. There was an immediate backlash from all their ex employees and it turned out that the two owners were actually two-faced jerks with a history of workplace abuse and making derogatory statements about people of colour, even throwing plates at them in front of a packed restaurant. The blowback got so raucous that it eventually got a front page in the New York Times food section and last week Fat Rice closed down for good.

I know it’s unseemly to kick the restaurant industry when they’re down but this just reminded me of another case of the munching masses being utterly bonkers. The culprit happens to be a restaurant next door to me called Buona Terra. Actually it is so next to me that I can see it from my back porch. When people hear we live in Logan Square they alway say how lucky we are because we live near their favourite restaurant, Buona Terra. Who thought deconstructed Italian fare could be so popular. In their case the deconstruction is not happening, not because they’re fancy-ass tattooed chefs with shaved heads but because they are just plain clueless and can’t cook.

Buona Terra, known for deconstructing its Italian fare. (Photo: Chris Pretorius)

If an Italian restaurant can’t do a basic pasta with tomato sauce they shouldn’t be in business. The key of course is a long gentle simmer to caramelise the tomatoes and bring out their sweetness. It is so simple, but there should be harmony between the ingredients. What you don’t want is a mess of undercooked tomato chunks, half raw onions and chunks of garlic sticking between your teeth. I think they try to emphasise the freshness of the ingredients, but why not then just do a bloody salad? A well made tomato sauce tastes perfectly fresh when served over pasta with a good glug of olive oil. It doesn’t need to be half raw.

I suffered from garlic breath for at least a week after that infernal meal. Even trying the trusted old remedy of gargling with vodka didn’t help. (Most breath fresheners contain alcohol so if you cut straight to the vodka part you get more bang for your buck.) And trust me, I gargled my way through a few bottles. Actually the pasta they served with the “sauce” was so al dente that you could snap them like twigs and I probably could have used one of the pasta splinters to pick the garlic from my teeth. I like al dente pasta but this stuff was a joke. Add undercooked tomatoes, onions and garlic and you get the picture. Oh, and did I mention no salt? I felt like sneaking over there in the middle of the night and nailing a copy of Marcella Hazan’s recipe for Sugo Fresco di Pomodoro to their door. And they are always booked out. Yelp strikes again! So much peril just within a few blocks of my house.

It may not seem like it but I do like eating out and I miss going to restaurants. And I do hope most of them survive. Who knows, maybe during this down time some of the hot young chefs could even have some tattoos removed. Maybe everybody will have forgotten about the whole tasting menu and small plate craze. Or the whole sharing thing. I go to restaurants to share in the atmosphere, to share companionship, conversation and laughter, not my food. My heart always used to sink when a waiter beamed at us and announced that the chef’s philosophy was to encourage people to share. Like it was some sort of spiritual experience. And my sinking dark heart would murmur, tough, buddy, but I ain’t sharing none of my food with nobody.

Ordering shared plates for a table makes for a really awkward situation. Especially when the diners don’t know each other very well. First, vegans and gluten free people need to be taken into account. Then the carnivore gluttons get all coy because they don’t want to reveal their true natures and cause offence to the food sensitive ones. It’s like workshopping a play, a practice I’ve never believed in. You always end up with something half baked or an undercooked sauce with not enough salt. Finally, after an agonising period of compromising and polite but desperate strategic manoeuvring and endless smiling and nodding, the food arrives, by which time I’m so starved that I just want to load my plate and stuff my mouth. (When Americans feel awkward they tend to nod a lot.) But no, I have to play along and pretend that the whole ritual is really fun. And then of course there is the matter of who gets the last lonely little morsel sitting there in the middle of the table. More often than not it ends up going back to the kitchen followed by my hungry eyes because everybody is too self-conscious to just grab it. Painful, and not why I go to restaurants. I go to restaurants to relax, talk a lot and drink a lot, not to relive something resembling my first date.

Up there with the sharing thing is when the server asks whether we’ve dined in the restaurant before. I’ve gotten wise to that one because if you stupidly answer in the negative, prepare yourself for a lecture about how to read the menu and oh how lucky you are to share in the chefs’ enlightenment after discovering their true tattooed inner souls during their farm to table journey. Like Paul falling off his donkey on the road to Damascus. Before you know it they start naming all the goats the enlightened owners milked that very morning, just for you! The religious experience of picking organic heirloom tomatoes on a small farm. It’s like they’re trying to set you up for a guilt-trip in case you don’t like the food.

What’s with all this philosophy in the kitchen anyway. When did that sneak in? I don’t want to go on a spiritual journey when I go to a restaurant. I want to eat. Cooking and serving a good meal is not enough any more. It’s like some chefs feel the need to release their inner Gwyneth Paltrow and turn something you thought was just dinner into a deeper and more meaningful event. Blame it on the Pilgrims but Americans certainly have a streak of missionary zeal in them. Shut up and cook. A plate of good food will do me just fine.

Superkhana International from where we departed on one of our ‘Very Meaningful’ culinary journeys. (Photo: Chris Pretorius)

I really do like restaurants. Really. And it’s not just about the food. It’s about the buzz as well. Of course, bad food or service can be a real buzz killer but the food is just one part of the big picture. It’s about being part of the world, part of a bustling city. Only now that they’re gone do I realise what an integral part of city life restaurants are. Dining with friends, surrounded by strangers, eavesdropping on conversations, soothed by the sounds of clattering plates and clinking glasses, one gets lulled into feeling all is okay with the world. I don’t even need to dine. Just strolling by all the bustling neighbourhood restaurants gives me a feeling of contentment. I even miss crossing the street to avoid seeing the suckers dining at Buona Terra. I miss them all and hope they all survive these terrible times. Bon Appetit. And don’t forget the salt. DM/TGIFood

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