Sula Finds Comfort (But No Photo) at Ombra; Pang Calls Arami the Sushi Standard
Two new Italian spots get compared-and-contrasted by Mike Sula this week, and he doesn't entirely use the good one to beat the glitzy one with. Bar Ombra, the little cicchetti bar carved out of part of Acre, he finds a bit claustrophobic given its neighborhood bar aspirations, but is largely admiring of "what came directly from that kitchen: triangular crustless tea sandwiches (tramezzini), soft white bread bedded with whipped mortadella or shrimp suspended in peppery horseradish aioli; sweet-and-sour, wine-and-vinegar-marinated fried sardines (pesce in saor); arancini, whose brittle golden crust breaks over creamy pitch-black squid ink rice; thin slices of cold beef tongue in salsa verde; artichoke hearts with salty aioli, flash-fried and flowering; and on and on."
The other one he tackles is the sceney RPM Italian, which he immediately snarks at: "If your idea of a night out is to worry about what everyone else is wearing, may I recommend RPM, the sprawling new spot from Melman siblings R.J., Jerrod, and Molly, and the vapid, reality TV celebricouple Bill and Giuliana Rancic?" But he does have guarded liking for parts of Doug Psaltis' menu: "there's some good stuff here, more than enough to make a decent meal, particularly a tuna carpaccio bolstered by the acidic tang of fermented black garlic, squid ink spaghetti tossed with chili and fresh, sweet King Crab meat, ribbons of cold poached veal dressed in creamy tuna sauce, and huge cross sections of grilled octopus tentacle, steaklike and dressed with celery and pureed chickpea." Ironically, the Reader winds up running a photo from RPM rather than Bar Ombra, because apparently the Ombra team were still ticked off at his review of Acre (which honestly, wasn't that bad). Hopefully people will read the words and not just look at the picture. [Reader]
Kenny Zuckerberg also looked at Bar Ombra, especially in light of a recent dismissive print review which he feels missed the two main points of the restaurant: "baccala mantecato and sarde in saor. Having prepared these things more than once, I can tell you that as simple as they seem when you eat them, they are not easy to get right. Baccala mantecato is what some people call Italian brandade, but unlike brandade, this Venetian version has no cream or potato to ease the emulsification process... Bar Ombra gets it right, producing a luscious, uncomplicated and delicious spread that sits atop simple polenta squares or triangles... Bar Ombra’s sarde in saor is not as true to tradition as versions throughout Venice, but I may have liked it even more." [Fuckerberg on Food]
Presumably motivated by her Top Chef fame (though he also says he was inspired by her dish at Chicago Gourmet), Phil Vettel checks out Beverly Kim's work at Aria. His verdict: "Kim's Asian-accented food defies easy categorization. She'll knock out a row of pork-shiitake dumplings, perfectly traditional but for the cognac lurking in the hoisin sauce, then present cumin-seasoned, Mongolian-style lamb ribs alongside edamame-mint puree (a clever turn on the lamb-mint pairing). Mussels swim in international waters, i.e., an aromatic broth containing Japanese ale, Chinese five-spice and tomatillo chilies." The downside is that service at Aria isn't always what it should be, and he wishes she would update her menu more often. [Tribune]
Kevin Pang also hits an Asian restaurant— Arami, where he observes the chef at close range and intensity: "Every cut through a hamachi or salmon was the most important incision in the world. He wriggled the long blade through a piece of octopus, and out emerged a rippled slice, undulating and beautiful." For Pang, Arami is the standard to measure our explosion of lookalike sushi places by: "The problem with the trendier sushi spots is this: As aesthetically impressive as the plates may be, the often-overload of components cancels out flavors. And sashimi-grade fish is very expensive. Every bite, then, becomes an indistinct, $18 clump of rice, seaweed, spicy mayo and soy sauce... At Arami, maki rolls (the cylindrical style of sushi) average no more than four ingredients, partitioned into one-bite portions, each taste uniform and encapsulating. It's the mark of a chef who prefers his diners experience one carefully designed flavor." [Tribune]
Michael Nagrant loves the food, is flummoxed by some of the logistical issues at Publican Quality Meats, which hasn't entirely figured out how to be both a butcher shop and a sardine-packed lunch spot, "But once you tuck in to the eats, all is forgiven. Sarge’s Mom’s” meatball sandwich features luscious beef orbs soaked in a garlicky, deeply savory and spicy tomato “bravas” sauce punctuated by bright bursts of mint and gooey nubs of artisanal queso fresco (Shepherd’s Hope Cheese from Minnesota), all nestled into a thick, buttery Texas toast-like bun. Though it is Spanish-inspired, it puts a Godfather-worthy hit out on any competing Italian meatball sub... Ultimately, I’m cowed by the supreme beauty and foodie plenty of PQM." [Sun-Times]
Julia Kramer is generally happy with Allium chef Kevin Hickey's reinvention of the Four Seasons' dining as a funkier, porkier thing: "Anyone who’s skeptical of whether the chef of what used to be a froufrou hotel restaurant can pull off this type of casual, comforting food—and with aplomb—obviously never has had Hickey’s hot dog. This man was born to make bacon buns, pull-apart rolls topped with crisp strips of bacon that arrive in a charming cast-iron dish." Her criticism is that the beverage program didn't get the memo about attracting a younger, less moneyed crowd: "you’ll have a much harder time escaping the hotel’s atrociously expensive beverage program, which, as far as I’m concerned, seriously undercuts everything Allium’s remodel seems poised to do (e.g., bring in a younger, local audience; encourage neighborhood folks to see the restaurant as an everyday rather than special-occasion spot). Defying basic pricing logic, every beer—whether it’s a can of PBR, a draft pour of 312 or a Bell’s Amber Ale—is $7. There are six bottles of red wine available for less than $50; most hover just below $100." [TOC]
Stockyard Palate's Johnny Offal finds "blue collar love" in the Phlly cheesesteak at Monti's: "At Monti’s you can order [with liquid cheese], although rather than the more traditional, and less flavorful cheese whiz, Chef Gottwald has sourced an intensely flavored aged cheddar sauce that really brings it. The meat is Black Angus rib eye which is sliced super thin and grilled to perfection, all piled onto a roll from Amoroso’s Baking Company, which is shipped to Monti’s from Philly par baked... So there you have it, really good food that you don’t have to score tickets for, travel to the Randolph corridor for, or anxiously follow twitter to find out about. I love Monti’s, it’s not about guest DJ’s, or pretentious hype, but just about friendly folks and quality food." [Stockyard Palate]
The list of really good fish tacos in Chicago is quite small but Serious Eats Chicago declares that Korean-Mex taco joint Del Seoul has one: "When Del Seoul first opened, it seemed to have the Korean basics down, but still needed help with the tortillas, which weren't as fresh and soft as I'd like... To my astonishment, it now serves one of the best fish tacos in the city. May I present the Sambal Fish Taco ($3.95), a tempura fried piece of haddock topped with pickled red onions, Napa slaw, and a spicy sambal sauce, all housed in a fluffy flour tortilla. The tempura frying method is an inspired choice, since it produces a particularly crackly crust. It easily stands up to spicy sambal sauce, losing none of its crunch along the way, while the crisp cabbage just adds to the harmony of textures. [Serious Eats Chicago]
Our review of Blackbird and Sixteen is here.