Our economy. New "me too" products.
The closing of our profligate, overexpanding, overspending retailers. Sorta.
And restaurant menus. Dishes designed around whatever it available and in-season. A little more pragmatic than "farm-to-table", a little less sexy than the literal and usually fibbing "seasonal". Market-Driven conveys seasonality and practicality in a northern climate where agriculture is limited in the 6 months of winter and early spring. Market-Driven. Yeah. I like it. It says a lot while saying so little and you can almost see the wink and a tip of the hat from the MBA in the back
office who is constantly coming up with new jargon to say simple things.
Sportello, Boston chef and restaurateur Barbara Lynch's new counter service Italian spot ("Sportello" is the term for 'counter service' in Italy), is a..wait for it...market-driven restaurant in Boston's hip waterfront neighborhood, Fort Point, near the new ICA. Sportello is bright and airy and open and fun and an inviting lunch space. I don't know about dinner. Yet.
From the outside, however, Sportello is marginally visible, though it is signed.
Once you find it, though, you know you are in the right place:
And you walk in the door and are hit all at once with a bright, well-lit, scrupulously clean room with white accents. The counters glow.
For those who enjoy watching their food being made, the open kitchen provides opportunity to observe cooks and staff shuttling from one station to the next as they put together your meal.
Menus serve double duty as placemats. Notice the menu underneath the salad? Mizuna, fennel and Parmigiano-Reggiano salad was a simply executed exercise in restraint. Just a pinch more salt would have pushed it into sublime.
The first thing that arrives at the table after you meal has been ordered is a small dish of ricotta with a dollop of jam and olive oil, accompanied by house-made bread. It is a sweet, salty taste of nostalgia. It made me think of the bagels with cream cheese and jam favored by my father shared during the Sunday mornings of my youth.
Eric, a college friend who may be the only person I know who has had more careers than I have, came with me to Sportello. He paid for our wings and beers at the bar during the Superbowl. It was my turn to reciprocate.
We both swooned when our pasta arrived. He had the gnocchi with mushrooms and peas (with a hint of truffle oil...argh). I had the pillowy gnudi, beautiful dumplings filled with airy ricotta and tossed in brown butter with walnuts with Parmigiano-Reggiano.I'd first had the gnudi at the Spotted Pig in NYC about 5 years ago. These dumplings were lovely, though the walnuts were just a hint too bitter for me. Both dishes were lovely, simple, and well-executed.
We ate every last bit and even supped up the sauce with the remaining bread.
For dessert, we inspected the pastry case and contemplated each chocolatey tart and homey sweet.
We settled on something small - finger-sized eclairs, made with vanilla bean pastry cream. The pate a choux shells were still firm - yep, they were very fresh, likely made that morning.
For those who like to end their meals with a souvenir or two, Sportello carries a line of jams and grains and oils and treats (and Sportello t-shirts!) displayed on a shelf near the take-out counter:
At night you can make your way to the basement, where Lynch operates her craft cocktail lounge, Drink. I'll have to plan that night out for myself sometime soon.
Sportello 348 Congress Street Boston, MA 02210-1236 (617) 737-1234
If you watch Anthony Bourdain, you probably saw his recent episode that took him to Chicago. One of his stops was Hot Doug's, the encased meat emporium, and one of my favorite places to grab lunch before I left town last month.
For those who haven't been to Chicago, don't read the New York Times, missed the episode, or just live under a rock, Hot Doug's is perhaps the finest Hot Dog joint in North America. Doug Sohn, the proprietor, takes your order, day-in, day-out, rain or shine. If he's not there, Hot Doug's is closed because the whole team is probably on vacation. Sometimes in France.
Doug designs his specialty sausages, which range from wild game to more (relatively) tame variants on pork, beef, poultry, lamb and sometimes shrimp. The menu can change daily, and acolytes check the menu online before heading down for what is at least a 15 minute wait to order at the counter. On weekends, holidays, vacation days and during the summer, the lines are usually much longer. I've waited about 45 minutes on a summer weekday. Vacation frees up the schedules of the student set, who can eat fresh cut fries and a dog for around $5. I've never gotten out of Hot Doug's for less than $12 - the premium priced sausages are in the $7.50 range and I always want to share a second one, just for curiosity's sake.
Though I've never ordered more than 2 sausages at Doug's, I've seen customers order every single sausage on the menu and make their way through each of them, usually in the name of a birthday or a special visit to Chicago. On Friday and Saturday, Doug pulls out the duck fat and fries up some of the best frites I've ever had for $3.50 - delightful duck fat fries cut thinner than his regular fries.
If they can find it, tourists love Hot Doug's. They photograph everything. The Hot Doug's sign in front:
Their hot dogs and sausages:
And their friends, posing with Doug. Actually, I'm the tourist in this case. That's my friend Jenny. She's been a regular at Hot Doug's since he opened his first location, which burned down years ago. He spent his time off at Wrigley Field, catching up with the Cubs.
This is my friend Drex, slurping down a fountain drink. We're waiting for our order. The wait is seldom longer than 5 minutes.
The clientele at Hot Doug's is diverse and all are welcomed. Those who dawdle at the counter get a sharp reprimand from Doug, unless he's trying to slow the crowd so that no one is left without a table.
At lunch time the place fills up with workers from the slot machine manufacturer across the street, Waste Management, and other not-too-out-of-the-way offices. After school the place is packed with the loud-talking, space-hogging high school set. In between just about everyone and their grandmother shows up, cash in hand. Hot Doug's is cash only.
Doug has two menus - the specials and the regular menu. In the above picture, the regular menu is on the right. The ever-changing specials include the Celebrity Sausage (you have to be tuned into local news to get all of the jokes), the Game of the Day, and the Specials board. The day I took these pictures (obviously not during the winter) the specials were especially interesting:
I ordered the Cognac and Bacon Pheasant Sausage that day. It was lovely. Foie Gras Mousse? Oh yes.:
Doug sometimes makes statements about demographics with his encased meats:
Yep, Chicago has become a much more ethnically diverse city since the advent of the Hot Doug. And how delicious it is.
I was there on a Friday and, of course, ordered the duck fat fries. Saturated fat? Yes please.
And the fries:
Here's a Chicago-style dog (well, actually it is a chicken sausage, my standby "Dave Kingman") with everything PLUS giardiniera, a spicy relish made from carrots, peppers, cauliflower and hot peppers. Notice the pickle spear and the tomatoes? Mmmmm. Salad!
Jenny ordered a Thai Chicken dog with satay and fried onions that day:
This is a jalapeno-smoked chicken sausage with mole and cotija cheese:
This is a ribeye sausage with chimichurri...
Mmmm. These pictures get my tummy rumbling and make me miss Hot Doug's.
I think there's a seat for you, whenever it is you get to Chicago:
3324 N California Ave
Chicago, IL 60618 (773) 279-9550
A Shawon Dunstan/Dave Kingman (I go with a grilled Italian chicken sausage) with everything: pickle, tomato, grilled onions, giardinera, mustard and whatever else Doug Sohn includes in 'everything'. Background: hand cut fries.
Alice Waters' farm-to-table (F2T) model for the restaurant, crafted over the more than 30 years of Chez Panisse's existence, has morphed into something rather snicker-worthy in this era of designer salts, house-made and house-cured everything, and the restaurant kitchen garden - and farm.
Does every item offered by a restaurant need to be lovingly plucked from the earth with ceremony and pomp and long menu and verbal description, or should the pedigree of a restaurant's ingredients be an assumption, stated unobtrusively at the bottom of a menu rather than emphasized and reemphasized with every dish? Does a diner need to know everything about the provenance of the meat, vegetables, oil, salt, sugar, flour, nuts and the rest of the mise-en-place to truly enjoy a meal? Restaurants no longer seem to trust that diners will appreciate the foods they are being served, so long-winded descriptions have become de rigeur in fine - and some, not-so-fine - restaurants.
Exclusivity and differentiation has always been the goal of competitors in a crowded marketplace. In a country where the French Laundry's Butter Poached Maine Lobster travels coast to coast with the speed of chefs dining at the much ballyhooed restaurant and photos of a great meal are posted to Flickr within minutes of being eaten, it seems that excellence and originality are no longer enough. Rare, coveted ingredients, perhaps ingredients with only a single producer are now de rigeur for many chefs. If that ingredient is grown exclusively for the chef, so much better.
In a recent article in the San Jose Mercury News of San Jose, CA, Michelin-two starred Chef David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos, CA (and, full disclosure, my former employer - I worked for him over 10 years ago), explained the thinking behind his sourcing mission:
"I wanted to create a great American restaurant,'' he says. Manresa had to reflect "all the flaws, all the brilliance, all the quirks'' of his personality, and he also wanted it to mirror the character of its setting.
To assure that, he forged a partnership with Cynthia Sandberg's Love Apple Farm in Ben Lomond, the two-acre biodynamic garden that provides all of Manresa's fruits, vegetables and eggs.
"You go to the farmers markets, and you see every chef in town buying the same Swiss chard and peaches and carrots,'' he says. "It's great stuff, but how do we set ourselves apart?The answer's obvious. You have to grow it yourself.'' (emphasis mine)
Can a diner, once a vegetable has been prepared, really tell the difference between the Swiss chard she has at one Michelin two star and another? Or is differentiation about bragging rights, the ability to say that only your restaurant has that particular raw ingredient, which, to be fair, cannot be compared on a real-time basis by the diner with the same raw ingredient from another source? Given Kinch's statement above, it seems having your own garden or farm is about bragging rights, as it is near impossible for a diner without a 'photographic' memory for taste to accurately compare two products not prepared in an identical manner and served at different times in different contexts.
John Kessler, the Food Editor at the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, recently published a tongue-in-cheek piece called "How a Concept Might Backfire (hint, hint)" about how the execution of the farm-to-table restaurant can go horribly, terribly wrong. He imagines a scenario where a diner is trying out a new farm-to-table restaurant just before heading to the movies. He is in the midst of trying to order his meal when he stumbles at his entree choices:
"Now for my main course. I was looking at the menu, but it doesn’t appear that you serve any kind of meat other than pork.”
“Yes, the chef believes that pork is the only ‘cool’ meat. In fact, later in the evening he’ll come into the dining room wearing just a Speedo and a toque to show you his head-to-toe tattoos of primal-cut pork. Aren’t you curious to know where the Boston butt comes from?”
“Not really. I’m supposed to pick the breed?”
“Yes! Different breeds of heirloom pork have subtly different characters, and our sommelier would be more than happy to find a matching wine for the breed you choose. Trust me on this one: the Kurobuta rocks out a pinot noir.”
“Then let’s go for it.”
“Another excellent choice. I hope you realize that all of our pigs were humanely raised in an Inman Park Victorian and then personally slaughtered by the chef, who cried. Up until the end it was just like ‘The Real World: Atlanta’ for them.”
Though a satire, elements of this scenario are playing out in restaurant after restaurant all around the US. Don't get me wrong - I love F2T restaurants and patronize them as much as I can, if they are actually using their specially sourced and raised products unobtrusively and honestly in service of their cuisine rather than simply in service of a loosely defined farm-to-table concept that is more trendy than true.
Oleana, in Cambridge, MA, for example, has their own farm (and offers a CSA) in Sudbury, MA, but focuses on Chef/Owner Ana Sortun's vision of Arabic/Mediterranean cuisine. Rick Bayless' Mexican trendsetters Frontera Grill and Topolobampo have been using microgreens, tomatoes, peppers and herbs from Bayless' own garden for many years and have forged close relationships with local farms. And there are dozens and dozens more like them.
Seasonality is great. Local is great. Exclusivity is great. But what makes them come together is the greatness of the chef, her vision, and her execution. Without the fusion of all of these elements, however, you just have another trendy restaurant with mediocre food. And no ingredient, no matter how well it is grown or how much it tastes of local terroir, can rescue mediocrity.
I waiting in line at a strip mall for 15 minutes before they opened the doors to Sitka & Spruce, an improbably tiny restaurant in an inconsequential strip mall in Eastlake, near Capitol Hill. When the doors finally opened (they were running late) I was relieved that the restaurant did indeed have adequate seating for the assembled - dispelling the online rumor that there were only 12 seats in the entire place. More like 22 or 24 - still tiny, but I would be able to eat during the first turn.
Since I was in town for business, I was dining alone - I usually don't get in touch with anyone during my trips because my schedule is usually pretty hectic. They seated me at the communal table - with settings for 8:
The dining area appear to be much smaller than the "back of the house" (in quotes because it is largely open to the dining room). Here's a view from the bar to the pass to the back - it has the appearance of the most amazing home kitchen ever:
Every day there is a new market menu - written out on the chalkboard. Most dishes can be ordered as appetizers or entrees;
Suffering from terrible penmanship myself, I was able to decipher the menu with ease. The couple sitting next to me had more trouble ready the chalkboard. At least that's what I heard them telling the server.
I became rather obsessed with the super-fancy corn nuts they served us. At first I was extremely polite, eating one corn nut at a time. And then I dug in, with gusto, to the combo salted corn nut/lima bean nut/chick pea nut cocktail mix.
I ordered four small dishes - smelt, halibut crudo, a shellfish salad, and porcini and polenta. The smelt was amazing - so fresh, with wonderful flourishes of lemon and mild red pepper:
I didn't love the crudo, instead offering it to the couple on my right - thus opening up conversation which moved the dinner along in a much more engaging manner. Turns out she was an aspiring food tv star, and had just tried out - with many other Seattleans or whatever it is they call themselves - for the Food Network's Next Food Network Star. Here's the crudo:
The shellfish salad was lovely, though drenched in a tad too much olive oil:
I liked the large grains of the polenta, but the whole dish was too buttery, too rich for just one to eat. But I love them porcinis....
What I enjoyed most about the communal table was meeting the couple next to me who turned out not to be a couple but old friends. Nahide (the Food Network potential) shared some squab with me. She even posed for a picture for my joke blog.
Here she is tackling the squab:
As we finished up, the next group of diners waited for us to pay our check.