Who does your fries, my love?
The age of designer chefs is upon us. Not long ago I found myself at one of Michigan Avenue's tonier hairdressing salons, seated next to a pair of roller-bedecked dowagers who were holding forth about California cuisine.
"What do you think of Stars?" asked one, examining a well-honed cuticle.
The other gave a barely perceptible shrug, "Oh, I'm not into Jeremiah Tower," she replied airily, waving a hand that sported a rock almost the size of a crouton. I'm more of a Wolfgang Puck person myself."
So what kind of culinary cognoscente are you?
Can you match the chefs with their establishments?
A. Jean Joho 1. Scoozi
B. Jean Banchet 2. Jackie's
C. Joe Decker 3. Sole Mio
D. Jennifer Newbury 4. The Everest Room
E. Jackie Eschebar 5. La Tour
F. Jeff Jackson 6. Le Francais
Answers: A-4; B-6; C-1; D-3; E-2; F-5. If you got them all, congratulations; you're either a food critic, a PR flunky, or a compulsive reader of restaurant reviews. Now, how many Chicago chefs can you think of whose names don't begin with J?
This Year's Fashionable Garnishes
When nouvelle cuisine was in its heyday, a Chicago critic wrote, "The greening of America must refer to the mandatory sliver of kiwi fruit on top [of almost any dish]." Now that nouvelle cuisine has gone the way of the dodo bird and kiwi fruit has become a culinary commonplace, more raffine embellishments, without which no chef would dare to harbor immortal longings, put the finishing touches to entrees all over the city. Nasturtiums, squash blossoms, and similar flowery edibles head the list, giving new meaning to the phrase bouquet garni. Sun-dried tomatoes, whose popularity may stem from the fact that the fresh variety these days has as much flavor as a Christmas-tree ornament, garland everything from sea bass to pasta. Most rarefied have been quail eggs, but expect to see a lot more of them in the next four years . . .
Quail, a diminutive bird of little substance, has been appearing on menus all over town since the Republican National Convention. Some argue that the quail on the dish is preferable to the one around the bush, while others contend that the whole thing is a diabolical plot hatched by card-carrying members of the Quail-Growers Association, a powerful lobby funded by the NRA.
Turn Back the Hands of Time
A growing trend among Chicago restaurants, in an effort, no doubt, to satisfy every possible palatal predilection, has been too offer examples of Cajun, Thai, Italian--whatever cuisines are currently in--all on one menu. The prize for high-priced, lowest-common-denominator eclecticism goes to Arnie's, which recently served blackened sea scallops, grilled shrimp, Thai chicken doused with peanut sauce, barbecued ribs, sausage, peppers, and pizza all on one plate, all equally nondescript. Generally speaking, when a restaurant subscribes to the philosophy that "anything goes," the first thing to go is taste.
1988's Most Overrated Restaurants
Sole Mio, which serves overcooked food in overcrowded surroundings; Eurasia, which mixes East and West and generally comes up with culinary confusion; Benkay, for so-so meals at ah so! prices; and Charlie Trotter's and Jackie's, whose pretensions often exceed their grasp, so that wit and taste lose out to excess and contrivance.
Reductio ad Absurdum
The victual of the year may well be Optifast, whose stock skyrocketed after Oprah Winfrey revealed to all and sundry the source of her svelte new silhouette. (If we can get Geraldo to take the stuff, maybe he will vanish altogether. 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.) But now it appears that Oprah must return to solid foods: the latest word is that she plans to open a restaurant of her very own with none other than Rich Midas . . . er, Melman. Move over, Mike, Jim, and Harry.
Caviar to the General
Is the world ready for caviar-topped ice cream? Entrepreneur Carolyn Collins thinks so and has produced La Grande Passion Caviar--a whitefish caviar sweetened with the passion-fruit liqueur of the same name--for just that purpose. Winnetka Grill served it one evening on white-chocolate cream in puff pastry bedded on caramel sauce, and it tasted better than it sounds. Those who like a sweet, faintly fishy crunch atop their foodstuffs may like this product. Collins also sells, through Foodworks and other retail outlets, more conventional fish eggs--homegrown whitefish, salmon, trout, and sturgeon caviars that are far superior to supermarket lump-fish roe and whose prices provide a welcome relief from break-the-bank imports at Bloomingdale's, Neiman-Marcus, and their ilk.
And Now, the Envelope, Please
Despite the fact that restaurants are the second-most-likely-to-fail of commercial enterprises (the first being dry cleaners--didn't know that, did you?--whence we get the observation that opening a restaurant can take you to the cleaners), the year just past ushered in quite a few newcomers. Kudos go to Le Mikado, for turning French/Japanese cuisine into a tasteful combination that works; to Juns, for providing the freshest and most varied sushi and sashimi around at reasonable prices; to Coppi, for serving the kind of food you go to Italy to eat, and seldom find--hearty country cooking with top-notch ingredients; to Streetside, an elegantly brash addition to the Loop, for offering surprisingly good and interesting American fare; and to Hat Dance, Melman's newest, for bringing us Mexican dishes that are too refined for authenticity perhaps, but full of lively flavors and intriguing combinations.