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Chicago Gourmet Mon Sep 27 2010
Another food festival is behind us, and after the double-whammy of food coma and hangover has cleared (and nooooo, it didn't take a full 24 hours, some of us just have day jobs, jeeeez), it's time to look back on some of the highlights (and disappointments) of this year's Chicago Gourmet. The prevailing complaint, echoed in both the fog of overheard conversation as well as in the specific comments of my new coffee-line friends Aaron and Mary Beth: not enough food! As with years past, the booze outweighed the bites, which can get dangerous when we're talking consumption by actual weight. As new friend Mary Beth noted, "A lot of old ladies in the bathroom seemed like they were really having a hard time with that much alcohol." Yikes, not good for the old ladies (a not-insignificant demographic for C.G.), and not particularly more good for the folks who shelled out upwards of $90 for an extended meal. More thoughts on the ups, downs, and possible old-lady pleasing next steps for Chicago Gourmet...
The best things I ate at Chicago Gourmet were the first and last dishes I tried. Graham Elliot Bowles was basically the first recognizable face I saw at the festival, and I bellied up for his little "taste of Italy," a balsamic foam studded with tiny bits of crisp proscuitto, creamy ricotta and half a sweet, small fig. The magnitude of everything that had been accomplished in that tiny plastic cup didn't quite hit me until several hours later, after many more bites. But unlike so many others, Graham Elliot's mini-dish was somehow much more than the sum of its tiny parts. It didn't just taste good -- it actually did kind of taste like Italy. (The Italy of my mind, anyway. Which tastes pretty rad.) And unlike many of his peers, it made me want to really visit his home base. Of course, despite being presented with the perfect opportunity, I didn't tell him this. He kind of scares me, even though he was jovially posing for plenty of photos with adoring fans.
The second thing I tried was the Publican's smoked kumamoto oyster on a head cheese cracker, with Liberty apple slaw. Which sounded both totally cliched (just throw some caviar and truffle oil on there, why doncha?) and tasted totally awesome. Not a small feat, when head cheese is involved -- memories of that fourth grade English class in which we tried delicacies described in the classic Little House on the Prairie... Haunts me to this day. Shudder. But the Publican's head cheese managed to be rich and still light, cracker-thin with a patchwork of alternating spongy, melty fattiness and tougher, harder, crisp meatiness. A smoky, gamy (in a good way) oyster and sweet, tangy apple were the best possible toppings for the such a complex cracker. At the end, after what seemed like a parade of slider sandwiches (Rosebud's prime rib slider was an exception, thanks mostly to a cheddar bun that hugged the meat and made the horseradish sauce shine), Sepia's smoky-sweet merguez lamb sausage with lentils and a bright, parsley-based salsa verde was the perfect bite to bid the festival adieu.
Not all bites were good news, however. One of the disappointments, for me, was IPO's grilled melon with peekytoe crab salad, all dressed in a cloyingly sweet chili sauce that could have been squeezed from a plastic takeout packet -- and did nothing to pull the rest of the disparate plate elements together. Dirk's Fish and Gourmet Shop was a presence both days in the seafood tent, and was a study in the shellfish challenge that seems to be continually played out on Top Chef. Laughing Bird shrimp with coconut curry and pickled cucumbers was a good idea in theory (and I heard positive commentary on the second day) but the shrimp was mealy, over-cooked and overly fishy smelling. L20's tandoori prawns, right now, was as much a study in contrasts, thankfully.
There were a few mehs for me as well -- Japonais' dessert dish looked soooo pretty (shiny gold plate! shiny gold leaf!) and sounded exciting (yuzu jelly and pepper meringue!) but tasted sort of like chalky Turkish Delight. But most of the dishes were tiny validations of some of my favorite Chicago spots, as well as future faves: The Purple Pig, Mexique, Sunda and, of course, Dominick's, who provided a much-needed cheese and accoutrement selection. Even a buerre blanc cooking demonstration from Shelley Young of the Chopping Block was a great reminder that funny, personable cooking talent is a backbone of the city's culinary talent -- even when it's not on TV.
One of the tensions I see working itself out across Chicago's menus is the relationship between "gourmet" and "popular." We seem poised, as a food-loving culture, perpetually on the brink of tumbling headlong into debt for the sake of our taste buds -- kobe beef sliders, oyster shooters, champagne, Alinea. These are the emblems of both "good taste" as well as tastiness -- even though they're not always earned. (Lobster roll at Manor, I still have not quite forgiven you. Demon roll, bad!) To say nothing of access. Is a restaurant inherently better because it's difficult to get into, or will cost me two weeks' pay for dinner?
If one of Chicago Gourmet's greatest strengths is its ability to pull you up to the front of the rope line, size you up, and let you loose to play among Chicago's toppiest-shelf chefs (for a sizable bribe at the door, of course), one of its greatest weaknesses might be the short-sightedness of its definition of "gourmet." Don't get me wrong -- it was great to see Lao Szechuan and 5411 Empanadas representing, but these were unexpected surprises. Presumably this has something to do with the price-point of providing modern-day loaves and fishes for the crowd of thousands. But it would be great to see Chicago Gourmet work with some of our city's culinary up-and-comers, the French Market vendors or the food truck legions that have emerged in the past year. How great would it be to see food truck reps passing out their wares on the go to all the poor souls wasting away in line? (More Cupcakes gave it a go with passed appetizer-style trays sent out with staff members who were almost instantly mobbed by the grateful masses.) It would also be great to see the locavore movement more fully represented with some vegetables in the spotlight at next year's event -- meats, cheeses and breads are by far my favorites, but "gourmet" does encompass more than just proteins, fats and carbs. (Or so I'm told.)
Better line and sign logistics, more and more-varied food, more Groupon opportunities to extend access to a broader audience. And maybe we'll finally get a festival worth its salt.