Yes, Chef.

Marcus Samuelsson stands out in the world of celebrity chefs for several reasons – he’s a star here in the United States, but was raised in Sweden, and his cuisine is global in many ways … but he’s black, and that fact alone would make him close to unique in the clique of American celebrity chefs. Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, but his birth mother died of tuberculosis when Marcus was only about four, after which he and his sister were adopted by a couple in Goteborg, Sweden, where his soccer career stalled out because he was too slight to keep up with his competitors, only to lead to a career in the kitchen that forms the basis for his memoir, Yes, Chef.

Samuelsson came to national prominence during a lengthy run as the executive chef at New York’s Aquavit, a Swedish restaurant that included a casual menu serving traditional Swedish fare and a fine-dining menu where Samuelsson could stretch out and use Swedish cuisine as the basis for a more progressive and comprehensive approach to food. I tried Aquavit shortly before Samuelsson departed and was highly impressed, especially by the fish, both its quality and preparation, including a hot-smoked salmon plate that forever hooked me on smoked fish. He’s also responsible for the best food item Starbucks has ever sold, a chocolate cinnamon “bread” (in the sense that banana bread or Northern corn bread are “breads,” when really they’re just cakes) that was both delicious and paired quite well with coffee, even the stuff they call coffee at Starbucks. The recipe was included in a cookbook only sold at Starbucks locations, although I believe many of that book’s recipes ended up in his The Soul of a New Cuisine: A Discovery of the Foods and Flavors of Africa. His new venture, Red Rooster, has been a huge success despite a slightly off-the-radar location in Harlem, where Samuelsson lives, borrowing the name of a classic restaurant of the area while integrating old and new culinary traditions.

Samuelsson’s life and career follow a somewhat unexpected narrative path: After his very difficult beginning, he finds himself in a comfortable setting, raised by loving adoptive parents in a country where racism existed but not to the extent we face it here. Instead, Samuelsson’s challenges increased after he reached adulthood, facing institutional racism in the kitchen and his own naivete on the business side of cooking, while also watching several friends and colleagues die far too young and eventually finding himself in a little trouble of his own making. He clearly has tremendous drive, as well as a deep passion for food (for flavors, in his words, and in finding new ways to combine them), but there are hints of regret sprinkled throughout the book for what that singlemindedness may have cost him when he was younger, some of which can’t be regained now that his success has given him the flexibility to have a personal life.

The book is written in the first person, in a style evocative enough to put the reader in the kitchens alongside Samuelsson, even though the prose likely came from his friend and co-author Veronica Chambers, who first received widespread plaudits for her own memoir, Mama’s Girl. I was never conscious of the story coming through the second filter of a co-author, even though it’s hard to imagine Samuelsson writing so clearly in what is at best his third language (he seems to speak at least four). First-person narratives can suffer from excessively florid prose, but here Chambers stays out of the way and lets Samuelsson’s story, which is compelling enough to require no embellishment, take center stage.

If Yes, Chef has a flaw, it’s that the treatment of the highs and lows of Samuelsson’s life often feels a little cursory; friends and colleagues die, and we get a page or less of grief, and Marcus has moved on. He’s up for the James Beard Award against some amazing competitors, and then, boom, he’s won it, and we’re on to the next subject. His victory on Top Chef Masters, coming right as he was preparing to cook the first state dinner of Barack Obama’s presidency, receives very little discussion, even though his win that season had its own interesting narrative – he wasn’t near the top in any challenges until the final sprint, like his friend and season three winner Floyd Cardoz. Samuelsson appears to open himself up to the reader at many points of the book, like discussing his daughter (the result of a one-night stand when he was still just 19) or the experience of reconnecting with his extended family in Ethiopia when he was in his 30s, that it’s jarring to see other significant life events receive superficial treatment in a book that could easily have added another 20 pages without feeling long.

The obvious comparison here is to Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones, and Butter, another memoir by a successful chef, but one written by a chef with more training in creative writing than in the culinary arts. Hamilton’s prose shines, elevating her story from good to great; Samuelsson’s story is stronger, and might have suffered from Hamilton’s literary flourishes, but could have benefited from the level of introspection she showed in her book. Nothing in Yes, Chef goes as deep as Hamilton’s examination of her marriage to an aloof Italian doctor and, by extension, into his family in Italy, yet a similar treatment of Samuelsson’s visit to Ethiopia would have made the book even more compelling.

Next up: Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga, author of the Man Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger, which I read and reviewed in 2010.

NYC eats + Flip Burger in Atlanta.

Mario Batali’s Lupa, a “Roman-style osteria,” focuses on traditional Italian dishes (both primi, pasta dishes, and secondi, proteins), done with top-quality ingredients and many elements produced in-house. In Italy, you’d typically have a primo and a secondo at a high-end restaurant, but the portions at Lupa were too large for us to order that way, so we each went with a starter, a primo, and dessert.

Everything I had was strong, but there were minor execution issues with both the appetizer and the dessert that didn’t match the memorable primo. That pasta dish was a special that night, house-made pappardelle with a soffrito-based duck ragout, meaning it had no tomatoes in it. The ragout was hearty and rich but not heavy and was correctly seasoned, while the pappardelle were cooked perfectly al dente, of course. The starter, a salad of arugula, radish, fennel, and radicchio, comprised top-quality vegetables but was slightly overdressed – not enough to have it pooling on the bottom of the dish, but enough that the vinegar overpowered the peppery/spicy produce underneath it, which was slightly disappointing. For dessert, the zuppa inglese – an Italian spin on an English trifle, with the sponge cake soaked in espresso – was marred by a crunchy powder on top that was too hard to chew; I’m assuming the powder was there for texture contrast with the soft trifle (custard and soft sponge cake) but ended up detracting from the dish as a whole. My wife’s fresh mozzarella di bufala appetizer came with a strongly-flavored herb/olive oil mixture, with the fresh oregano taking over the dish a little, a combination I really liked but she didn’t. Her main course was asparagus agnolotti in a light butter sauce, tasting, as it should, strongly of fresh asparagus (in the agnolotti and shaved over the top). Her favorite dish of the night was the hazelnut tartufo, which I didn’t try.

I’m nitpicking here because of where I was – these are minor execution issues, not problems with concepts or ingredients. But I expected a 70, and paid like the restaurant was a 70, but what I got was more 60 or strong 55, recommended, but not a place I’m racing to visit again.

At Citi Field on Saturday night I had my first experience with the cult favorite burger joint Shake Shack; locations in stadiums, like airports, aren’t always the best way to judge a food outlet, so this may be low, but I’d grade the meal as a 60 shake, a 55 burger, and 50 fries. The caramel shake lived up to the name, smooth and strongly flavored (although it’s weird to have any caramel ice cream product without salt), with perfect mouthfeel – no iciness, no graininess. Shake Shack’s burgers are made from a proprietary blend of beef, which their site says is antibiotic-free Angus beef, “vegetarian fed, humanely raised and source verified,” and the burger does taste very strongly of good quality beef – salty, and a little greasy from the grill (albeit in a good way, not like Smashburger’s). As fast food burgers go, it’s better than In-n-Out’s, but In-n-Out destroys Shake Shack in the fries department, as this Shake Shack’s weren’t freshly cut (I don’t know about regular locations) and I could very easily have skipped them. They also have, or at least say they have, a strong commitment to sustainability and limiting their footprint, which doesn’t make the food taste any better but is always nice to hear. If their regular locations are better than the stadium stand – their menus are more extensive, and the food is probably even fresher – I couldn’t see choosing In-n-Out or Five Guys over this.

‘wichcraft, Tom Colicchio’s mini-chain of high-end sandwich shops mostly around New York City, is a small marvel – charging marginally more than national sandwich stores like Panera that peddle massively inferior food. I’m not sure how widely you can expand this concept, but it’s great that it even exists and shows that it is possible to run a business with responsibly-sourced, high-quality ingredients, like pole-caught tuna or organic arugula, made on some of the best bread you will ever find at a sandwich place. My only criticism of that tuna sandwich, made with shaved fennel, diced green olives, and a very light touch of fresh mayonnaise, was that it was hard to keep the sandwich together, but the flavors worked well together. It’s a $9 sandwich, but a far better value than a $6, mayo-drenched tuna salad at a national chain.

On my last trip to Georgia, I did manage to run over to Flip Burger, Richard Blais’ high-end burger “boutique” that now has two locations in Atlanta and one in Birmingham, and features several different types of burgers as well as milkshakes made with liquid nitrogen, which sounds cool but does have the benefit of producing a smoother finished product. The shake was an even bigger star than the burger, just like at Shake Shack but better on both counts – I couldn’t pull the trigger on the foie gras milkshake, and the Krispy Kreme one just sounded too sweet, so I went for the caramel turtle shake, which was surprisingly balanced, sweet but also salty and even a little savory. For the burger, I went with the rbq, a 5.5-ounce patty of hanger steak, brisket, and short rib, topped with pulled smoked brisket, coleslaw, barbeque sauce, and “smoked” mayo; it was something of an umami explosion, rich and very meaty – if you like the flavor of really high-quality beef, this is your burger. I wouldn’t have deleted a thing. The fries are cooked in beef tallow, which I respect tremendously, but this batch was too greasy for me to enjoy, probably a sign that the fat wasn’t hot enough. Needless to say, I was still full about six hours later. Flip does offer non-beef options, including a “fauxlafel” burger, as well as salads and a full bar.

Osteria Mozza.

I had dinner on Friday night at Osteria Mozza, one of the most popular and famous restaurants in Los Angeles at the moment, joined by my friend and colleague Molly Knight, a known cheese enthusiast and a veteran diner at Mozza. The restaurant is the brainchild of three luminaries in American food, including Mario Batali, who likely needs no introduction. The primary force behind the restaurant and its neighbor, Pizzeria Mozza (next visit!), is Nancy Silverton, co-founder of the legendary La Brea Bakery as well as of Campanile restaurant, where she previously served as pastry chef. The third partner, Joseph Bastianich, is a vintner, restaurateur, and son of Lidia Bastianich, the matron of Italian-American cooking. Names like these don’t always guarantee success, of course, but in this case, the restaurant lives up to its pedigree. Everything we had was outstanding; I would say some dishes were more outstanding than others, but nothing we ordered was less than plus.

The server said the menus are updated daily, so there are no off-menu specials. We went with two starters, two primi (pastas), and one secondo (main), plus a dessert and two beers. I believe it’s the most expensive meal I’ve ever paid for myself, just barely surpassing Craftsteak. The wine list looked extensive, as you’d expect given Bastianich’s involvement, but as I can’t drink red wine and couldn’t see white standing up to the duck ragù I went for the smaller beer list instead.

For starters, Molly humored me by letting me order the testina con salsa gribiche, better known in English by the unfortunate moniker “head cheese.” It’s not actually cheese, but is a terrine or aspic made by simmering the cleaned head of a pig (or sometimes cow) so the remaining the cheek and jowl meat ends up set in a gelatin from all of the connective tissue that surrounds it. The resulting terrine can be sliced and served cold, but Mozza slices it thickly, breads one side, and pan-fries it, serving it with a sauce gribiche, an emulsion of egg yolks and mustard to which one adds capers, chopped pickles, and herbs. (One might compare this dish, then, to a hot dog with mustard and relish, but I wouldn’t want to be so crass about it.) The result is very rich, with the strongly-flavored meat surrounded in luxurious gelatin that produces a fat-like mouth feel, while I left thinking I really need to use sauce gribiche a lot more often at home. The pan-frying, by the way, gets rid of the one real objection you might have to head cheese – the stuff looks like the result of some sort of processing accident.

You could build an entire meal just from Mozza’s selection of starters based around fresh mozzarella without getting bored, but we both zeroed in on the burrata (fresh mozzarella wrapped around a suspension of mozzarella bits in cream) with bacon, marinated escarole and caramelized shallots, which I think was my favorite item of the night. The saltiness and smokiness of the bacon, the acidity of the marinated escarole, and the sharp sweetness of the shallots were all beautifully balanced and gave depth to compliment the creamy texture of the cheese, which, while extremely fresh (of course), was mild in flavor.

I would have probably told you before Friday night that I wasn’t a big fan of potato gnocchi, but apparently I’d just never had a truly great rendition prior to tasting Mozza’s gnocchi with duck ragù, a dish we ordered primarily because I’ll eat just about any dish with duck in it. The ragù was strong, with deep earthly flavors and small chunks of tender breast meat, but played a clear second fiddle to those little pillows of love, lighter than any potato gnocchi I’d previously tried. It’s the kind of meat-and-potatoes dish I could stand behind.

Molly ordered one of her favorite primi, the goat cheese ravioli with five lilies sauce. The pasta was as thin as I’ve ever come across in ravioli, but with good tooth thanks to strong gluten development, wrapped around a thin layer of assertive chevre-style goat cheese; those thin wrappers produce a much better pasta/filling ratio than you typically get from filled pastas. The “five lilies” sauce refers to five members of the allium family – garlic, onion, chives, scallions, and leeks – which stands up well to the tangy goat cheese.

We went with one main, the short rib braised in Barolo wine and served over a very soft, creamy polenta. I’ve never met a short rib dish I didn’t like, and the braise was perfect, producing a rib that stands up on the plate but pulls apart with no effort. If I was to criticize anything we had all night, it might be that the exterior of the short rib was on the soft side, so it might not have been seared that much (it was definitely seared at some point) before the braise. But the criticism is a bit absurd, as the dish was still a 70.

For dessert, we went with the house-made gelato, mint chip and coffee side-by-side with a giant pizzelle with a faint anise flavor. The texture was perfectly smooth, no hint of ice crystals or of extra overrun; the coffee was a little sweeter than I like my coffee ice creams (but I admit I like coffee and chocolate ice creams to be as dark as possible), while the mint chip surprised with real mint flavor – not like an extract, but like actual mint leaves, brighter, fresher, and less harsh than your typical mint-flavored ice creams. (Plus, it wasn’t green.)

We sat at one of the two bars in Osteria Mozza and, at 7 pm on a Friday, didn’t have to wait to be seated, but there were no regular tables available before 10:30 pm at that point. (I actually love sitting at the bar in restaurants, alone or with a friend; you’re rarely forgotten by your server and you often get to see a lot of what’s going on in the kitchen, or at least what’s coming out of it.) The prices are not for the faint of heart, but as I said to Molly when we left, this wasn’t so much dinner but an experience, the kind of meal you might only have a few times in your life, but one you’ll think about for weeks afterwards.

Las Vegas and Utah eats.

I had a quick run through Vegas and Utah last week to see Kris Bryant and Marcus Littlewood and ate pretty well overall, with only one bad meal and a few gems in Utah.

First meal in Vegas was west of the Strip at Yassou Greek Grill on West Charleston, serving gyros, hummus, and other basic Greek items at very reasonable prices. Their lemon-herb chicken is heavily marinated and has a strong flavor without any compromise in the texture, and the pitas they use in their gyros are soft and thick, nothing like the dry pitas you get at the grocery store. The gyro passed my tzatziki test – when I held it perpendicular to the table, I didn’t get any glops of tzatziki, which means they sauced it properly. That gyro plus a side Greek salad and rice pilaf (just rice prepared pilaf-style, with no other ingredients) ran about $8.30 before tax and drink.

I’ve been to the original Mesa Grill location in Manhattan but haven’t had a chance to get back in nearly two years, so I dropped into the Caesar’s Palace location on this trip and decided to branch out, trying two appetizers and a dessert, for research purposes, of course. The blue corn pancake with barbecued duck was dominated by the flavor of the hoisin sauce on the duck; hoisin’s sticky-sweet flavor and texture make it the elephant on the plate, and in this case it wiped out the flavor of the duck itself. I liked the presentation and am certainly a fan of shredded meat in a crepe or pancake, but all I tasted here was hoisin. The creamy wild Mushroom Grits with poached egg, charred serrano sauce, cotija cheese, and blue corn tortilla were better, very creamy as advertised, with only the serrano sauce (which tasted largely of burn) failing to add something to the dish. For dessert, the bartender recommended the churros with chocolate dipping sauce, which were the second-best I’ve had, behind only the version at Toro in Boston.

One bad meal on the trip was at the highly-touted Hash House a Go-Go in Imperial Palace, one of two locations in Vegas. I went for breakfast and ordered the top hash on the menu, a roasted chicken hash with rosemary and asparagus. The dish was incredibly dry, especially the chicken, all white meat and often inedibly tough. Great concept – who doesn’t love a good hash? – but horrid execution.

I made a day trip to St. George, Utah, from Vegas – just under two hours each way, including a very cool drive through the Virgin River Gorge – and had an unbelievable lunch at the Painted Pony, which I would say is in “downtown St. George” except that there doesn’t seem to be much to it besides downtown. The Painted Pony is the sort of local restaurant of which Gordon Ramsay would approve, at least for lunch, with simple dishes focusing on fresh, vibrant flavors. Their torta ahogada sandwich comes on this absolutely perfect ciabatta-style roll and features roasted beef tenderloin, caramelized onions, bell peppers, and cotija cheese, with a rich red sauce on the side, so the sandwich becomes a sort of New Mexican take on French Dip. The side salad was also fresh, with walnuts and julienned apples, and none of the wilted leaves that often plague mixed greens.

I skipped their opulent desserts to hit up Croshaw’s Pies on the, um, west side of town, which was a good call. Their “very berry” pie is sweet-tart with its mix of raspberries and blackberries, and the crust was soft and butter, more tender than flaky, which is how I prefer my pie crusts anyway. It didn’t have great structure, since the filling wept slightly on to the plate, but the compensation was that it didn’t have the slightly gluey texture that comes from using too much cornstarch. Croshaw’s recently opened a second location in Mesa, Arizona, on Brown Road well east of the Cubs’ facilities.

NYC Eats, September 2008 edition.

Those of you who track me on Twitter or Facebook know that I hit Bar Americain on Friday, after getting recommendations from several readers and even people in the business who saw my note on Mesa Grill from April. At BA, the smoked shrimp salad sandwich was very much as promised. Served on a dark Pullman loaf with watercress inside, but the salad had a rich, sweet smoky flavor (I think hickory, but I’m no expert on smoking woods). I had never had or even heard of “smoked shrimp” before, and other than an excess of dressing (mayonnaise-based, but thinned out with vinegar), the sandwich was outstanding. It’s served with real French fries – no batter or coating, just potatoes, served with a remoulade dipping sauce – and all meals come with a bread basket that includes these amazing, savory cornbread sticks with black pepper.

The one new breakfast spot was Mon Petit Café, which does indeed strive for that Parisian-café look and feel. I met BP’s Joe Sheehan for the meal, and I am pretty sure I ordered wrong: feeling the need for a big protein infusion, I went with the ol’ EMPT, scrambled with bacon and a baguette, although I ordered a croissant on the side. The bacon was ridiculously good – I could have eaten a half-pound of it, no problem – while the eggs were sort of overcooked on the inside so that some of the eggs’ liquid had leaked out. The croissant was amazing, as was the chocolate croissant that Joe Sheehan ordered (dessert for breakfast is a big thing over in France). Joe noticed on the restaurant’s Web site that they have good-quality bagged tea if you ask for it; the alternative is Lipton, which just makes dirty water. I’m giving a grade of “incomplete” here, because I need to go back and order something more appropriate.

Virgil’s BBQ was right across the street from my hotel, and though I’ve seen it fifty times I never managed to make it inside. Their pulled pork sandwich (ordered without sauce) was solid average, but not above it. The meat was extremely moist and I received plenty of burnt ends, but they apparently didn’t trim the meat at all, which meant first removing a huge portion of pork fat from my mouth, then lifting the lid performing surgery on the mound of meat to remove any other slimy bits. The meat had no clear smoke flavor or flavor from the dry rub used before smoking, but because it was smoked properly, it could rest somewhat on the laurels of the flavor that pork develops no matter what wood is used to smoke it. The side of barbecued baked beans was a waste of time, and the iced tea was too bitter. I wouldn’t mind trying their brisket, and the pork was good enough to go again since I’m usually staying in the vicinity. Incidentally, the sides that come with the sandwich are French fries or (cole slaw with potato salad). Not only is that weird (one side vs. two), but who the hell orders French fries in a BBQ joint?

Between doubleheader games on Sunday, I went to Flushing’s Chinatown and tried Sentosa, a refugee restaurant from Manhattan’s Chinatown, now on Prince Street a block away from the Main Street stop on the 7. I’ve had Malaysian food twice in my life, including this meal. I stuck to dishes that were obviously Malaysian, since the menu was sort of a pan-Asian thing with lots of Chinese or even Chinese-American options on it. The roti canai with chicken curry featured a large, thin, slightly sweet pancake that is meant to be dipped in the curry sauce. The dish got the obligatory one-pepper label for “spicy” (there were no degrees of spiciness, which is apparently a binary variable in Malay cuisine), but I’d give the coconut milk-based red curry about a one or two out of ten in terms of spiciness. The chicken was dark meat, of course, and there were two potato cubes in the tiny bowl. For an entrée, I went with nasi lemak, which I think is the most famous Malaysian dish out there, a sort of deconstructed fried rice that’s served with a giant mound of white rice that was cooked with coconut and cloves and is surrounded by accompaniments: curried chicken (more of a brown curry this time), a sweet/spicy mixture that apparently contained anchovies (whatever it was, it was very chewy), picked vegetables (mostly cabbage and carrot), sliced cucumber, a hard-boiled egg, and roasted peanuts. I mixed and matched haphazardly, skipping the hard-boiled egg entirely and trying to avoid the temptation to just eat all the rice, which was completely infused with coconut flavor. Everything but the anchovy mixture was excellent, and unlike the barbecue lunch, it didn’t push me into a meat coma afterwards.

Mesa Grill.

Friday afternoon found me in Manhattan, and I had about a 45-minute window for lunch while I was downtown, so I decided to fulfill a long-standing goal and headed to Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill. Overall, I was quite impressed, especially after the disappointment of Mario Batali’s Otto last year.

I sat at the bar and asked the bartender which fish dish he would recommend; without hesitating, he pointed to the ancho chile-honey glazed salmon. It was, as promised, outstanding. The salmon was covered with an ancho chile rub, seared, then glazed with honey and roasted. The three sauces (a spicy black bean sauce, an unidentified sauce that seemed to be based on roasted peppers, and a jalapeño crema) were all layered underneath the fish, so I could start by tasting the fish on its own and then add sauces to my liking. The spicy black bean sauce was the best option, spicy but not hot, with an earthy flavor that helped offset the spiciness both of the sauce and the rub. The crema was the worst, with almost no flavor, like little dollops of bland crème fraiche. The salmon was prepared medium-rare, slightly below where I like it, but the fish was incredibly fresh.

The pre-meal bread options are a bit different. One was a very plain, fresh white-flour roll, good because it was still warm, but otherwise not bringing much to the table taste-wise. The other was a corn muffin, although that doesn’t give you much of a feel for it. It was cornbread, shaped like a muffin, packed with yellow corn, made mostly with stone-ground blue cornmeal, with flecks of bell and jalapeño peppers, dense and moist and definitely heavy on the fat (which keeps a muffin or cake moist). I had a hard time getting through the entire muffin, although I toughed it out in the end.

Chicago eats.

So I had some ups and downs in Chicago, but I’m glad to say that after some mediocre meals to start, I finished strong.

The Oak Tree Room is in the same building as the Four Seasons, at 900 N Michigan Ave. I had read that they offered excellent cranberry-pecan pancakes, and I wanted to get some exercise, so I walked up there … and was disappointed. The pancakes were dry and flat, and the dried cranberries tasted more like candied fruit than dried.

Vong’s Thai Kitchen on Hubbard (near the Billy Goat Tavern) was another disappointment, not least because the service was comically bad. I still have no idea who my server was, and I ended up waiting about ten minutes to order (past the point where my menu was closed) and ten or fifteen minutes for someone to realize I was done and offer me the check. A waitress, maybe “my” waitress, did eventually come and ask if I wanted to try one of their “mini” desserts (which are apparently about $1.50) each, but by that point I was annoyed enough to just want to leave. Plus I had a gelateria in my sights for the afternoon.

Anyway, the food at Vong’s was also disappointing, since it’s not so much Thai food as haute cuisine served on a bed of Thai food. I skipped the pad thai, my usual bellwether dish for Thai restaurants, fearing it would be too sweet – let’s face it, there were no Thai customers in the place, and that’s not a good sign for the authenticity of the food. I ordered panang curry with “pulled” chicken, and the chicken part was very good, still moist and indeed resembling pulled chicken. But the peanut-dominated sauce was heavy and slightly bitter, and there wasn’t much else in the sauce besides the chicken and some peas. The complimentary salad of shredded daikon and carrots in a “Szechuan” vinaigrette (can we just call it a sesame vinaigrette? Is that so freaking hard? And why would I want a Szechuan vinaigrette in a Thai restaurant?) was very good, but a poor harbinger of what was to come.

Just across the street from the Oak Tree Room is an Italian deli called L’Appetito that purports to sell gelato. They don’t. That stuff is ice cream, a claim I can support by pointing out that I couldn’t get my plastic spoon into the stuff. Next.

I had dinner with a longtime email correspondent and regular on Baseball Think Factory, who goes by the handle “Shredder.” He suggested La Creperie on Clark, which is close to Wrigley Field without being right on top of it. Their savory crepes are all made with buckwheat, and I went with a chicken, goat cheese, and tomato crepe. It was delicious; the goat cheese was the dominant flavor, and it worked nicely with the béchamel sauce that filled the crepe. The chicken was white meat, a little overcooked (I assume it was cooked first before it was added to the crepe), but since it was sitting in the sauce it wasn’t a big deal. The tomatoes were fresh, but really, I could take or leave tomatoes. This was about the goat cheese, and the crepe itself, which was delicious, slightly nutty but not overwhelmingly buckwheaty.

Thursday’s breakfast was at Lou Mitchell’s on W Jackson St, near Canal. They’re known for their homemade pastries, so I asked the waitress what one pastry I should order, and I got this answer: “They’re all good.” Yeah, you’re a big help, sweetheart. I can see why you’re not in sales. I went with a coconut donut, which was one of the daily specials; it was a cake donut, very moist, but the glaze was sickeningly sweet and I only ate about a third of it. The Greek bread that came with the meal was a much bigger success, almost like a challah bread with a soft interior and a very crumbly exterior. As for the meal itself, I went with my usual EMPT, going for two eggs scrambled with bacon. The “two eggs” bit is a joke; the meal came in a seven- or eight-inch skillet, and the scrambled eggs took up half the skillet, which has to be at least four eggs considering how thick they were. They were cooked through, a touch dry, but good overall. The potatoes were sliced very thinly and appeared to be cooked solely on the flat-top in a pile, so that some were just steamed while others were nicely browned. Total $10.42 before tip.

Lunch was at the Frontera Grill, accompanied by Jayson Stark. I went with the tacos al carbon, and asked the waiter whether I should get the skirt steak (traditional) or the duck, and he said it was a coin flip but he’d take the duck. Thank God for someone with the cojones to answer one freaking question. Anyway, before the meal came we had some chips and two salsas, one green, the other a dark red with some sort of roasted peppers in it, and both were outstanding, with the red salsa spicy but not at all hot, and both boasting gorgeous bright colors. The tacos al carbon ($15) came with a delicious and clearly fresh guacamole that had never seen the inside of a food processor, with good chunks of avocado still in it and hints of garlic and cilantro that didn’t overwhelm the fresh avocado flavor. The duck was delicious, but unfortunately had some gristle in it, something I haven’t encountered before, although to be fair I usually go with duck leg rather than breast. The meat was medium-rare, but more rare in some parts (where the gristle was) and medium in others. The best part of the dish was something I can only call a Mexican version of baked beans (frijoles charros), with red beans perfectly cooked (soft but al dente) in a reduced, smoky-sweet sauce redolent of bacon. Jayson ordered a shrimp dish ( camarones en salsa verde con hongos) that he said was one of the best things he had ever tasted.

My last meal in Chicago was probably the most interesting of the trip, mostly good, some less good. The place is called Twist, and it’s a tapas bar (tapas here meaning “small plates,” not Spanish food) down Sheffield, a block or two south of Wrigley Field. Overall the food was good, made from fresh ingredients and prepared right in front of anyone who sits at the bar (as I did). I ordered three dishes: braised beef tenderloin on a corn cake with feta and a spicy aioli, dates wrapped in bacon, and grilled “vegetables” (zucchini and yellow squash, as it turns out) on crostini with goat cheese. The last dish was the biggest hit for me; the bread used for the crostini was delicious, and there was just a dab of goat cheese sitting on a small spread of roasted red pepper purée sitting on the slab of squash. It was perfect, with accent flavors from the toppings complementing but not overwhelming the flavor of the squash, finished with a nice crunch.

The dates wrapped in bacon were excellent, except for one thing: the dates themselves were sugared, making for a bizarre, sweet note to finish the dish, not a flavor I’m used to experiencing in a savory dish. The bacon was perfectly cooked, and the dish came with a thick balsamic-based sauce with a gravy-like consistency, although I couldn’t tell you how much it contributed since “sweet” was the dominant flavor.

The big question mark for me was the beef tenderloin. The beef was marinated in something strong and acidic, most likely a red wine concoction, and was served shredded in a mound on a corn cake (very soft, with a consistency more like grits than polenta, and oddly enough, no actual corn kernels), with large hunks of feta cheese, chopped red onion and tomatoes, and then lines of a spicy “aioli” that was really mayonnaise with chili oil or hot sauce added. (True aioli doesn’t have egg yolks in it, but this sauce did.) Think about that flavor combination: the beef, cheese, onions, and tomatoes are all acidic and tangy, pleasant flavors in small doses but overwhelming in large doses. The only other flavor in the dish is the heat from the spicy aioli. The corn cakes weren’t sweet, and weren’t really salty, although it’s possible that all the sour/tangy/spicy numbed my mouth to the point where I couldn’t taste what they offered. The shame of it all is that the ingredients in the dish were good and the concept was as well: a piece of braised beef tenderloin, preferably served whole, on a sweet corn cake with corn in it, with a spicy aioli or mayo would have been perfect, simpler, cheaper to make, and less of a mess on the plate. There was a good dish hiding in here, but I couldn’t make it out because they went overboard with the additions.

All that said, I’d definitely recommend Twist as a pre-Cubs game hideout. At 5:40 on a Thursday game night, there was no wait, and the place wasn’t full when I left. The food was good, the place is nice, and you don’t have to deal with Cubs fans or tourists who view the game as an excuse to get hammered. I’m just hoping that the Twist chefs simplify some of their dishes to let the clean flavors of the ingredients come through.