22 December 2004

Shmooze and swag

Derrick Schneider, one of my favorite online food writers, wrestles with shmooze and swag: Blogs need to address this topic more and more. A number of companies have started schmoozing food and wine bloggers in the hopes that we'll promote their products. I've gotten press releases, offers of samples from wineries, notes from publicists about movies, and even an offer from a publisher to help me design a contest so I could give free copies of books to you... I have a label in gmail called "Rent this blog!" for all these. I'm glad to see that marketers view us as influential, but I think our greatest strength is strong, independent opinions. Pick up just about any mainstream food mag if you want to read text that's shaped by advertisers and devoid of personality.

21 December 2004

Celebrating tee-totally

Sarfraz Manzoor shares what the holidays are like for him: "I have never tasted alcohol in my life. Trying to explain why is something I have to do with tedious regularity. I usually cite religion, and that is partly true; I was raised in a Muslim family where drinking was beyond forbidden: it was unthinkable. Yet others who shared that background later took to drinking; I did not. It was not so much religion that stopped me as habit and the desire not to disappoint my mother and the memory of my father."

19 December 2004

Digestible criticism

The Observer's Jay Rayner has his way with a London mogul's newest London eatery: Before I ate at the Paternoster Chophouse, the latest venture from Terence Conran, I regarded his restaurants as slick, professional but ultimately soulless businesses, which placed the emphasis on function and form rather than food. Then I had lunch. Now I regard them as slick, professional but ultimately soulless businesses, which place the emphasis on function and form rather than food. There are occasions when meeting expectations can be seen as a virtue. This isn't one of them... Dead shellfish is not a confidence-inducing measure in a restaurant. You cannot help but start to worry about episodes of food poisoning, which is not a good thing when your companion is the managing editor of your newspaper, and the man you negotiate your pay with. (Note to self: avoid poisoning boss.)

18 December 2004

The mastermind behind all of this is known as Tim

The FT's Nicholas Lander tries Bangkok's best restaurant, the unprepossessing, almost century-old Chote Chitr: "Chote Chitr boasts just six tables with a central aisle that allows the staff and the restaurant's dogs equally easy access to the tiny kitchen. The furniture, crockery (with forks and spoons only), paper napkins and lavatory are basic with the kitchen range boasting no more than three gas-fired woks alongside a jumble of pots and pans, cases of Coke and a television set. The dishes—a staggering 400 of them—are written on four menus hung on the wall. The mastermind behind all this is known as Tim, a middle-aged woman whose plump figure matches the size of her smile."

17 December 2004

Hong Kong bites

The Globe & Mail takes a bite of Hong Kong: You don't need a glittering emporium to eat well in Hong Kong. Start your day at Law Fu Kee in Central, an amiable hole in the wall specializing in congee, simmered-to-velvet Chinese rice porridge laced with ginger and spring onion. Condiments range from shredded pork to fish head; as with pizza, you design your own. Arrive early enough, and you'll see family members shaping shrimp dumplings by hand and prepping noodles for the lunch trade in a flurry of flying fists.

10 December 2004

Death of a Dublin caf

Goodbye to the ghost of James Joyce, licking his fingers over sticky buns and drinking the only cup of coffee in the country that didn't taste like heated-up bog water... A reminiscence of Bewley's, described by Irish poet Brendan Kennelly as "the heart and hearth of Dublin": Her name was Attracta. She had eyes like mountain lakes and a faint smell of freshly gathered hay about her. On that long ago wet Thursday afternoon we sat among the coloured tiles and bustle of tea trays in Bewley's café in Dublin. I can't recall the conversation, only the memory of scooping thickly creamed iced coffee out of elegant long stemmed glasses, every spoonful a glorious indulgence.

World of Mondovino

Here's a link to a look behind the world of wine and wars of words in Jonathan Nossiter's doc, Mondovino.

08 December 2004

Deli in da Bronx

The Gothamist goes deli on Bronx's Arthur Avenue: the pics are smoky-tasty-mmm.

07 December 2004

New comics by Kevin Huizenga and Anders Nilsen

MONTREAL-BASED DRAWN & QUARTERLY Comics brings the two newest solo voices on their roster to Quimby's for signings: Chicagoan Anders Nilsen's "Dogs and Water" and Kevin Huizenga's "Or Else #1," putting his "Supermonster" mini-comics into a regular format. Huizenga's free-associative knack is best shown in "NST 04," which obliquely traces the course of an ill-fated relationship through light reflecting off tombstones at night, the smell of baking bread, and the overnight musings of the night owls at a burger shack whose name, "Katchor's," nods toward a master draftsman of urban night. It's quiet, modest work, but moving nonetheless. Nilsen's book, whose earlier work includes "Big Questions" and "Ballad of the Two Headed Boy," (which won a Xeric award) is more elusive, a succinct and apt summation of a troubling dream that includes more than one iteration of falling, and sudden stops that begin again, repeating the misfortunes of the protagonist, perambulating an open highway with a stuffed bear strapped to his back, encountering aggressive, antlered deer, inadequate rowboats on rocking water, blizzards, wolves bearing submachine guns in their maws, and gunshot girls dead on the verge as they're about to be eaten by wolves, crashing helicopters, mutes sent to help. It's a loving treadmill.

[Newcity, 7 December 2004]

06 December 2004

Jury duty for your butt

James Wolcott rhapsodizes over his recent colonoscopy: Anyway, don't let anyone deter you from a colonoscopy with their icky anecdotes. The Demerol drip is divine, the test can nip trouble in the bud, so to speak, and once you've had it, you won't need another for five years. It's sort of like jury duty for your butt, though perhaps that is not the most precise or felicitous analogy.

02 December 2004

Richard Kern, Softly

It's Richard Kern week in New York, with several events upon the release of "Soft," his new book of nudes.

Lyric of the day

From Owen's "Good Deeds":
Maybe my mom's right,
Good deeds will not save the world

30 November 2004

12 perfect pubs

Just came across the Times of London's recent roundup of England's 12 perfect pubs: George Orwell wrote in 1946 about his perfect pub, called The Moon under Water, where the beer - stout in particular - was in good nick, unpretentious food came in generous portions and the barmaids called the customers “dear." As he was the original Grumpy Old Man, Orwell spoilt this idyllic picture by telling his readers at the end of the piece that The Moon under Water was pure fiction, too good to exist.

29 November 2004

Tellering too much

From the Independent: "It was much more difficult peeing in a plant pot than I thought it would be," says Juergen Teller in his Teutonic, monotone voice. He's referring to a self-portrait in his new book, "Louis XV," that shows a butt-naked Teller urinating on a phalaenopsis orchid. "I did manage it once but then the camera wasn't working and then there was no pee left. So, I waited a couple of hours before I tried again and I couldn't go and there was just dribble coming out. It was really... er..." Humiliating? I suggest. Still, you can't feel too sorry for the 40-year-old photographer. He may not have hit the plant pot full flow but he did get to romp with the legendary actress Charlotte Rampling and shack up in the £4,200-a-night Louis XV suite—hence the book's title—of Paris's most deluxe hotel, the Crillon."

27 November 2004

All-American pie

The lede to Nigel Slater's ode to chicken pot pie in the Observer makes me very happy and very hungry. (There's a recipe at the end.) "The Huntington is [an] ivy-covered grande dame [that] greets you with a complimentary glass of sherry and the promise of a hot chicken pie in the bar, a dish whose domed pastry crust hides a filling deep enough to go swimming in.

"The Huntington is like a hotel from another time; where they slip a quote from Byron under your door at night to let you know what kind of weather the dawn will bring. This is the sort of place where the barman remembers what you had to drink last night rather than how much. It is here that the barstaff expertly remove the crust from your home-made pot pie, then lay it on your plate and spoon blissfully mild chicken and velvety sauce at its side. The dish is then left on the table for you to help yourself to seconds."

26 November 2004

Absinthe makes the heart

A new UK brand of absinthe hits the market: There are few business models for marketing a product that has been banned and blamed through the decades for an assortment of miseries, from serial murders and insanity to the careless brush strokes of Vincent van Gogh... "Absinthe should taste like a bottled alpine meadow. For me, what's exciting about Jade is not just a question of whether they're good compared to others... What's really significant is that it's the first serious product that's begun the process of reclaiming absinthe's historic birthright."

21 November 2004

No more Classic Italian Cooking

Marcella Hazan says no more cookbooks: Hazan is calling this her last book. ''I'm old, I'm 80, and it took me four years to write this,'' she said recently over breakfast with her husband, Victor, at Payard Patisserie in Manhattan. Victor, to whom she has been married for nearly 50 years, was alarmed by the noise in the patisserie but soon homed in on the pastries, adding footnotes to Marcella's thoughts.

20 November 2004

Toffee toffs

The Independent chooses the 50 best food shops in Britain, with links for many of the purveyors, such as The Toffee Shop of Cumbria: A family business founded in 1910, Toffee Shop toffee is still made in the company's original copper pans, from recipes 90 years old. It is prepared in small batches, from sugar, butter and syrup or black treacle, mixed by hand, and broken up using a hammer. Toffee Shop fudge is made with butter, sugar and milk, with no glucose, glycerine, margarine or cheap flavourings. The results are delicious, without ever being cloyingly sweet, and the Toffee Shop is something of a national treasure.

19 November 2004

All about apples

Free PDF download of the beautiful, full-length, full-color cookbook published by Tasting Menu books, "All About Apples", subtitled "A tasting menu from Scott Carsberg of Lampreia," the highly regarded Seattle resto.

15 November 2004

Paris Reviewed

Calling it "the DNA of literature," the Paris Review will build a complete library of PDF files of their author interviews online, starting with the 1950s, including Faulkner, Henry Green, and Nelson Algren, on "Man With the Golden Arm": Well, if you're going to write a war novel, you have to do it while you're in the war. If you don't do the thing while you're there—at least the way I operate—you can't do it. It slips away. Two months after the was it was gone; but I was living in a living situation, and... I find it pretty hard to write on anything in the past... and this thing just got more real; I mean, the neighborhood I was living in, and these people, were a lot more real than the Army was.

12 November 2004

Oranges are not the only food

English novelist Jeanette Winterson, author of "Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit" and "Lighthousekeeping" is opening an Italian deli on the ground floor of her four-story Georgian home in east London: "Winterson's house in fashionable Spitalfields was once a greengrocer's shop.. and still bears the sign "Verde's & Co. Importers" over its still immaculate shop windows. When Winterson bought the house it was practically derelict. It took two years to restore it to health andshe was thrilled when a neighbour told her it had once had a board outside reading "JW Fruits"... The new deli will be called Verde's, making thrifty use of the original sign, and Winterson insists that it will not compete with the English delicatessen that already exists... next door.. The best-selling author is gearing herself up for her new role. I will sometimes serve in the shop. But that will be a matter of luck.

11 November 2004

The world from a balloon

The photographer Rankin, whose career began at Dazed & Confused magazine, answers questions from the readers of The Independent, such as, Could you be a war photographer? No. God, no. I'd shit my pants. I wanted to be a war photographer when I first started at the London College of Printing, but I realised pretty quickly that I was a portrait photographer. But I don't think I would find roughing it difficult, although I'm more used to five-star hotels these days. I'm anti-war—all war—and I think that everybody should be. I would rather photograph the world from a balloon.

10 November 2004

Dog pennis

Shanghai cuisine, from the Guardian's Stuart Jeffries: I have never, or at least not knowingly, had a dog's penis in my mouth. But Shanghai dining offers many such opportunities for squeamish westerners to broaden their oral experiences. Rohnie, our translator, picked up the menu... and read from the chef's recommendations. "You could have dog's feet," he suggested helpfully. My British dining companion and I shook our heads. "Or dog's brains?" Christ, no. "Maybe you'd prefer dog's organs." We exchanged bilious glances before asking Rohnie precisely which organs we would be offered. "Heart, liver, and the others." We passed. "Or dog's pennis?" "Actually, it's pronounced 'penis'," said my dining companion, taking refuge in pedantry, as people who face extreme dining experiences understandably do.

03 November 2004

Waiting on Ohio

Rodan: Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, 12:06am.
(Click to enlarge.)

02 November 2004

Either outcome

Friends are having a vote tally party tonight, and I intend to part with at least two bottles of 1982 Sassicaia, hoping they're still as sturdy as democracy, not tampered with, not yet spoiled.

James Wolcott calculates his evening plans: I am preparing myself for either outcome today. Should Kerry win, I will post an important statement called "A Time for Healing," or something equally noble-sounding. Should Bush win, I shall post a statement of philosophical resignation tentatively titled "Good, Go Ahead, America, Choke on Your Own Vomit, You Deserve to Die." The latter will probably require a little more tweaking.

01 November 2004

Green food

The lime in the chili and the lettuce on the curried chicken salad match the green of Shannon`s jacket.

Filter, Milwaukee below 6 Corners, Chicago.
(Click to enlarge.)

What a meal is worth

English photographer Peter A. Rossi writes about a recent assignment, shooting suburban London resto Just Around the Corner, where customers pay what they think the meal was worth. "When people don't pay what the owner thinks appropriate (about £20 a head), We just thank them nicely and give them their money back. These people know they don't belong here, they try you out and by giving them their money back nicely, you ensure that they never return."

31 October 2004

Procrastination technique

Choreographer Mark Morris in the New York Times Magazine's Domains column: Procrastination technique? I leave whatever it is out and I convince myself that staring at it is a perfectly legitimate form of work.

30 October 2004

Iggy pops

The Observer's Miranda Sawyer has a ball with the exuberant Mr. James Osterberg down in Miami: He looks amazing, as he always has done. Whippet body burnt to leathery teak, hair blonde and straggly, face like a cartoon: boggle eyes, sunken cheeks, turned up nose, shark grin... 'Well, hey!' says Iggy, enthusiastically. 'Come on and look at my river! Isn't it beautiful?'... In a city of show-stopping women, Iggy's girlfriend, Nina, could get a man arrested: a green-eyed, half-Nigerian, half-Irish amazon, who gave up air hostessing to take care of him. They have been together five years. Her looks really tickle Iggy: 'I'm the old git with the chick with the bam-BOW, the [Rolls] convertible, the little old rock band ... the kinds of happiness that eluded me at 14 are mine now!'

28 October 2004

Avedon's Democracy

Richard Avedon died September 25 in San Antonio, a handful of images away from completing his Democracy portfolio for the New Yorker. But the November 1 issue has 50 images across its 32 pages, and it's mostly wonderful. The opening spread's Statue of Liberty-costumed Kucinich delegate is sweet and striking; juxtaposing the eyebrows-raised smirk of Bill O'Reilly with the snakeheaded mischief of James Carville is clever; Jon Stewart's one-handed, slouch-eyed variation on Munch's "The Scream" precedes a pudgy-jowled Karl Rove, working the choirboy smile; an injured Army Sergeant's burnt, stalwart face is sized against Sean Penn's obstinate mug; the penultimate spread is strong black-and-whites of young soldiers; and it concludes (pages 90-91) with the two largest headshots of the series, two earnest politicians wearing white shirts against Avedon's trademark white seamless, two grownups looking serene and angelic, a pairing of images so striking and right that my eyes well with water again with the spread here in front of me, Jimmy Carter, 80, and Barack Obama, 43.

27 October 2004

Refer madness: no nummy nim

From today's National edition of the New York Times, a "refer" box inside the article
Kerry Attacks Bush Over Loss of Explosives

sit at, consec teur adipis cing elit, 10
a diam no nummy nim euismod tin-
cindit laoret dollore man 20 a ali

26 October 2004

Crying games

A portfolio of photographer Sam Taylor-Wood's crying men, from her show, Sorrow, Suspension, Ascension, at Chelsea's Matthew Marks Gallery, plus an appreciation by the Village Voice's Leslie Camhi: The collective desolation appears utterly convincing. Willem Dafoe wipes away a furtive tear; Robin Williams' brow convulses with anxiety; a red-eyed Tim Roth gives the camera his all.

Landscapes with a Corpse

Japanese photographer Izima Kaoru outdoes David Lynch in the bodies-in-a-brightly-colored-field department; there are hints of parallels to French auteur Bruno Dumont's L'humanite and Twentynine Palms, too. At New York's Von Lintel Gallery.

Digging Deroo

Bright, empty rooms by the Dutch photographer Wijnanda Deroo at Robert Mann Gallery in New York. Of her work, the gallery press-releases: Deroo is well-versed in the vernacular of the commonplace—there is an echo of human presence in the unremarkable architecture and objects she photographs.

25 October 2004

The world into which I was born...

A long and heartfelt review of the Tate Modern's Robert Frank retrospective by Adrian Searle in Tuesday's Guardian: I cannot look at the London that Frank photographed in the winter of 1952 without thinking that it's a faraway world, and yet also the world into which I was born. A place of smog, top-hatted city gents in Threadneedle Street, short-trousered kids on cold wet cobbles, a slick black hearse parked in the grainy, washed-out morning. Black-and-white photography, seemingly, was made for this, for the rancid light of the London Underground, the 1930s still clinging like fog to the early 1950s.

And here's a look at the history behind Frank's long-suppressed Rolling Stones documentary, C--------- Blues.

I am betting

I am betting that you have not read Simone Muench's poem, Eating Olives in the House of Heartbroken Women.

...My sister is backlit from the open window
unaware of her loveliness. The only
sound, the chew of fruit.
Faith is in small things, she says
passing me the jar that smells
of creosote and roses

23 October 2004

The big empty

Sean O'Hagan, in the Observer, gets a rare audience with Robert Frank in the 80-year-old director-photographer's Bleecker Street digs. The author of The Americans has a career retrospective opening Thursday at the Tate Modern. "'The kind of photography I did is gone,' he says. 'It's old. There's no point in it anymore for me, and I get no satisfaction from trying to do it.' He says this without bitterness or regret, but with a sad matter-of-factness as ingrained as the lines on his face. 'There are too many pictures now. It's overwhelming. A flood of images that passes by, and says, "why should we remember anything?" There is too much to remember now, too much to take in.'"

22 October 2004

Expecting snail porridge?

Gastronomic games—salmon coated in licorice jelly, sardines-on-toast sorbet, red-cabbage gazpacho—via the Globe & Mail: The psychology of food at Fat Duck is just as important as the chemistry. Some of the dishes play games with the diner's expectations, and how they affect the taste of something. Even the same mouthful can taste radically different if your expectations change halfway through... Snail porridge sounds like a deliberately disgusting joke. But if you've paid $70 for it in a top-end restaurant, you're much more likely to enjoy it.

Opening wide

In our world of manufactured "reality" television and an appetite for memoir, some things have remained trade secrets, and for good reason. (Bloggers, their lovers and their fathers, often live to regret online indiscretion.)

But 30-year-old French Laundry-trained "avant-garde" chef Grant Achatz, lauded as chef-partner of Trio, including a 2003 "rising Star Chef" nod from the James Beard Foundation, has chosen to let the sun shine onto his new project, Alinea, on the eGullet foodie website, since mid-August, with interactive glimpses of his "food lab" where the menu is being refined, down to the style of tableware. (An "alinea" is a symbol for the start of a paragraph: ¶.)

Starting with the meeting of globetrotting entrepreneur and epicure Nick Kokonas, the narrative's laid out like a mouth-watering movie trailer. Kokonas writes, "I think a lot people come to a chef with their pre-existing vision of the restaurant they want to build. I didn't even want to build a restaurant before I saw his vision." His vision? "To create the container in which we create the experience," he told eGullet readers. "I think that's the very exciting thing for me that I've never been able to have a part in."

Groundwork? "Nick and Grant drove down every street within a chosen geographical band, armed with a giant map and a set of green, yellow and red markers. Once they had found a set of acceptable streets, they asked a realtor to show them every space available on them."

And time's available, too: "Instead of populating Alinea's menu with previous favorites from Trio or 'trial' dishes that have been only roughly tested, Grant and his team will take six months [with kitchen staff on salary] to devise, develop and perfect the dishes and delivery modes that will appear on Alinea's opening menu."

Readers want to know about financing and partnerships. Achatz wants to talk about "identity." "After looking at several restaurant's logos, I became even more at a loss as to what a logo is." The site's studded with an exactingly detailed, almost Socratic questioning of cookware and kitchen arts, and of "identity as an ever-changing process more than as a static object, something deeply historical and contextual—that is to say, as rooted in the moment and the place (neither of which are static, though we pretend that both are)." After de-and-reconstructing notions about "transcending the plate," Achatz weighs in with 1,700 words about the preliminary kitchen design, promising to upload blueprints. It's a specialized audience that can prompt, "Could you possibly elaborate just a little on the make and model of the centrifuge?" There's a lot of give-and-take, and just a little of what a Twin Cities reader wrote of the online project: "Are we the privileged or what?"

[Newcity, 21 October 2004]

21 October 2004

Loving the hate

David Gordon Green talks to USC's Daily Trojan: Green [recalls]... a letter he received from a teenager responding to what he felt was Green's dismal "[All the Real] Girls." The dissatisfied fan spewed for eight pages about his hatred and even contempt for the movie. Green's response: "If you care enough to hate, great!" Instead of taking it as a personal attack, Green is amazed by this passionate reaction to his film. This more-than-flustered fan spent a great deal of time and energy in responding to Green's movie. How many other directors can inspire that?

20 October 2004

One of those daze

Really want to finish reading the newspapers, but I'm running so late; I meant to transcribe a David Gordon Green interview about Undertow, and my piece for next week about a conversation with Cornell West about his Democracy Matters needs a last polish, but I also need to sketch out a question list for an interview this afternoon with Alexander Payne and Virginia Madsen about his lovely new movie, Sideways, as well as make notes for my photo presentation at tonight's 20x20x20x20 event at buddY Gallery, which is almost directly after a tasting at Wave, the new restaurant at the W Hotel Lakeshore.

But the coffee's not clicking. Jason's in the cafe, too, posting notices about the Modernist Society's next Last Thursday event at Darkroom and I wind up sitting down to proselytize for William Gibson's Pattern Recognitions when I discover he's never heard of the writer.

Plus! A last-minute email from the fashionistas at the New York Times! European designers bid farewell to ladylike clothes last week. Spring fashion will look younger, looser and more gamine than fall's dressy effects.

Out-of-doors, the sky is gray and you can feel mist on your cheeks.

18 October 2004

17 October 2004

Libertine, 40something, seeks respect

Nouveau pornographer Terry Richardson wants you to buy his book—and his shtick. Writes Sean O'Hagan in the Guardian, Richardson's non-fashion photography, which he considers his most important work, has gone the other way, his images becoming ever more hardcore in their depiction of Terry's own sex life.

The exhibitionistic photographer recounts going clean three years ago: I was at the bottom, man. I'd just broken up with a girlfriend three days before, and I'd gone on a binge over Christmas. I'd done $100 worth of smack, taken a bunch of Valiums and drunk a bottle of vodka. I put on a suit and tie for Christmas, then it hit me that I was all alone. I went to sleep hoping that I wouldn't wake up. That's when the guys found me, and sent me off to rehab.

16 October 2004

Team America: Jonny Stewart goes to Washington

Jon Stewart: first Jewish president? Friday afternoon, the Man took on Tucker "I'm Calling It A Jacuzzi" Carlson's floppy hair, floppy bowtie and floppy tongue on Crossfire, speaking plainly about the useless "theater" that passes for debate on slaphappy shoutfests like theirs:

CARLSON: I do think you're more fun on your show. Just my opinion.

STEWART: You know what's interesting, though? You're as big a dick on your show as you are on any show.

15 October 2004

Frankly spoken

Geoff Dyer has a loving appreciation of photographer Robert Frank in the Guardian: ...There is also a snatched, self-cancelling lyricism, a grainy yearning that never quite has the opportunity to manifest itself fully. Articulating something similar, John Cheever confided to his journal that "this nomadic, roadside civilisation [was] the creation of the loneliest travellers the world has ever seen." Unlike Kerouac—who considered Frank's view of urinals "the loneliest picture ever made"—Cheever did not have Frank or any other photographer in mind when he wrote this; but his "vision of the waywardness of man and the blessings of velocity" serves as a sidelong commentary on a world glimpsed and preserved in "The Americans."


Theremins are wooooo-eeeeeing everywhere this week: The new "special edition" of Tim Burton's Ed Wood has an extra that shows how the theremin was used in Howard Shore's score; in Friday's Guardian, musician and thereminist Bill Bailey previews a radio doc, Good Vibrations: The Story of the Theremin. Theremin, he writes, immediately roused the suspicions of the KGB—or rather, the equivalent at the time—who regarded the device as a state secret and monitored his work very closely. Or, more likely, they thought he was a weirdo who might do something stupid, like try to magnetise Lenin.

14 October 2004

Navel gazing

Meanwhile, photographer Jorge Colombo has collected some bellybuttons.

13 October 2004


After linking to the "Get off the internet and vote" competition, Heather Havrilesky admits to a few personal concerns about election night: It makes me queasy to think of November 2nd. I might have to stay in some kind of a beery haze all day. I'm definitely not working. The city should put a team of crisis counselors on call that night.

Land of Plenty

An interview with Wim Wenders about his latest, Land of Plenty, a post-9/11 perspective on America, as it opens in Germany. (It's an InDiGent production, shot on video in 16 days for under a mill.) Wenders tells Deutsche Welle, The idea for 'Land of Plenty' originated with the fundamentalist Christianity of the Bush era, from the anger that Christianity has been so perverted and used in so a perfidious manner for political interests. As a Christian, I know no other option except to be against war and to have solidarity with the poor.

12 October 2004

Per se for its own sake

A long, enthusiastic look at "superchef" Thomas Keller's Manhattan restaurant, Per Se by Jay Rayner in the Observer after a 15-course tasting: With each course we want to strike quick, mean and leave without getting caught, [Keller] writes, like some Norman Mailer of the stove. All menus at the French Laundry revolve around the law of diminishing returns. That is the more you have of something the less you enjoy it.

Rules of the game

Cross the street from the Frolic Room on Hollywood Boulevard, walk a little bit west and say hello to Jean Renoir.

10 October 2004


Whatever the word-of-mouth you've heard on Team America: World Police, it's earned a priceless ratings summary from the humorless MPAA, two decks of type that Matt Stone tells me that he and Trey Parker insisted be blowed up real good on glossy card stock and stiffed into the press kit. Team America, with its Jerry Bruckheimer shlock-inspired anthem of "Americuuuuh! Fuck yeah!" got its NC-17 finally tamped down to an R, for


07 October 2004


John Leonard makes sinuous sentences and he gives good rant, as in this review in New York of Tanner on Tanner on Sundance Channel: In my opinion, Elaine’s is part of the problem. Having found a place where everybody can be relied on to be almost as famous as everybody else, the trained seals of the syndicated pundit class, the talking soreheads of the cable blabbercasts, the indentured servants of the smelly glossies, the handicappers, jackalheads, hierophants, and flacks who write screen treatments of our “political process”—all those professional insiders addicted to what Joan Didion calls “the rapture of the feed”—are emboldened by each other to believe that they are the story, not Abu Ghraib, Medicare, Halliburton, stem cells, or assault weapons; not homophobia, corporate greed, reproductive rights, or economic inequality; not lousy schools, exploding prisons, Asian sweatshops, African famine, or ecocide.

109 words, if you weren't counting.

06 October 2004


Even at the risk of being punctual, we hustle down Clark Street at chilly sunset: 7pm's time for a reception at celebrity chef Rick Bayless' Topolobampo to promote a new "super premium" tequila, a highly distilled blue agave from Bacardi USA, called Corzo, a product that cost a reported million dollars to develop, and dubs itself "The Evolution of Tequila."

The bar fills quickly, whether from the weather, the promise of strong drinks, or dinner and a tequila presentation by chef-proprietor Bayless, one of Chicago's leading lights in the cookbook-and-foodie TV fame game. As servers swirl with trays of already-prepared salted margaritas, note-tasting, if not note-taking, starts right away over chips, smoky Frontera salsas and chunky guacamole. It's convivial: half a dozen friends have turned up, and we work to suss out the savor of the $50 tequila under the other ingredients. Even the vodka drinker in our midst is impressed. A couple of press kits are open on the counter, but no one's studying, only sipping. Still, the exacting process of the product's premise suits Bayless' philosophy of working with high quality, ideally organic ingredients. Where most tequila uses ten pounds of agave to make a liter of the clear stuff, Corzo uses only the "heart of hearts," with twenty-two pounds required to make the same amount. Factoids finished--as well as a couple or three drinks--the fifty are so guests are ushered into the next room to compare two varieties of the product, both of which, unusually, are distilled after aging.

The lights are low, the murmur convivial. Bayless, in signature chef's whites, unwinds several stories about his experience with agave in his many Mexican sojourns. The moment's warm, the most genial event I've been to in ages. Bayless is explaining the tallest stalk he ever saw in Mexico, towering more than ten feet above the agave plant on the ground.

Warmth of liquor, warmth of friends: hints of smoke and soap and other unlikely scents are exchanged, and one of our party describes the square, minimalist bottle, designed by fashionista Fabien Baron, as "80 proof Chanel No. 5." While we're considering the eau de agave, Bayless hesitates. A roomful of smiling faces looks up expectantly. "I'm sorry," he says. "I just can't do this." He hesitates again before exiting stage left. A Corzo representative steps in, describing the distillation process quickly and precisely.

Dinner's served in the main room. There's more whispering about the star chef's abrupt exodus, but one glimpse of the goodie bags on each seat shifts the chitchat: a signed copy of Bayless' 2000 hardcover "Mexico: One Plate at a Time" and a brick-heavy bottle of Corzo silver.

[from Newcity, 7 October 2004]

04 October 2004

Agave blues

A tasting Monday night for a new "super-premium" tequila at Topolobampo started at 7, a cocktail hour with servers swirling with trays of margaritas. Followed by a 45-minute, two flight tasting before a 9pm dinner might have been more 80 proof agave than anyone was expecting. Plus I needed to rush to the le Meridien for a 9:30 interview over drinks with the writer-director and cowriter-star of the unsettling terror movie, Saw. The days aren't as long as they were a few weeks ago, but still... maybe I can make it to Sonotheque to see Quantazelle by midnight.

02 October 2004

I cannot stand the myth of this...

Brilliant autumn sunlight this afternoon, last chance I'll have to see my gallery show on a weekend, maybe I'll go see Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place at the Siskel instead? I'd rather be writing. I go downstairs to the cafe to find necessary distraction. There's a line, a bustle, a wait, I exchange smiles or smirks with a couple people I know. While I wait, there's music playing, but I can't hear what it is.

My friend Josh played some songs at a small show, a benefit, in the summer, and he and the other performer on the bill were trying new solo material no one had heard yet. There's one song he played, wholly unlike anything I expected, probably the most beautiful song I'd heard all year, the strain in his voice for a certain note filled with ache. I told him so, and said I wanted to make something using it as the soundtrack. "Cool," he said. A couple weeks later, he gave me a demo, said he'd be tinkering with it some more, it won't be released for a while. I listened. I listened again. I love it. I collected the images I wanted to use, a performer I want to be in the short also said yes. I haven't thought about the project for a week.

Right after I order the caffeine, another song starts, and I recognize it emotionally before I recognize it consciously. All I can think is: I'm hallucinating, I've heard this song 40 times, but this can't... Oh yeah, I remember, Josh has been passing copies of the demo around.

In a fresh context, the song is lovelier still. "I cannot stand the myth of this," Josh repeats, and I realize, no, that's not what he's been singing at all. "Oh, I. I can't stand a minute of this." Someone in a nearby booth catches my emotional and distracted expression. I look toward her, I've never seen her with her hair down.

01 October 2004

Gone Dutch

If Babelfish is to be trusted, someone in the Netherlands
says this about my photo log: "For everyday platvloersheid, go to randomly which flog of a braziliaan, for foto's that the predikaat 'kunst' to deserve, verifies Friso's favourites Wolfey and Raypride from." Do they mean "photos that deserve to be called art"? Yow, I'm modest, I'd rather "predikaat kunst"...

Smilers with the knives

From the opening line of Manohla Dargis' review of David O. Russell's new movie, opening today in New York and Los Angeles—"The high-wire comedy IHuckabees captures liberal-left despair with astonishingly good humor: it's Fahrenheit 9/11 for the screwball set"—I can't tell what she's means, but it sure sounds good. The rest of the review zings—she integrates rafts of references and sidelong notions with watch-this-Elvis aplomb: "IHuckabees is a comedy of dialectics, in which opposing dualities slug it out like wounded lovers, but it's nothing if not deeply sincere. Mr. Russell [is] clearly furious about the state of things (you name it) but, like Jon Stewart, [he] slide[s] in the knife with a smile."

Armond White's up on the big white blanket, too, in New York Press: "The central character['s] opening narration—Fuck! Shit!—shows Russell translating a young adult American's interior monologue into a version of Tourette's Syndrome. Everything [the character] does can be described as a fit."

Typically featureless

Chris Petit was a movie critic for Time Out for half a decade before he was a novelist, and in between, he directed a couple of movies. In the Guardian's Saturday Review, John Patterson identifies "Petit's quintessential Englishness" while asserting that his "gloomily beautiful road movie Radio On stands alone. There is no other movie like it in the national canon... It looks and feels like a fragment of the new German cinema." Which was what fascinated me when I first saw this debut: German movies were still exciting and Petit's movie seemed less derivative than haunted, as if the Germans had colonized his English consciousness. Recently, working in an eccentric essayistic style similar to that of Patrick Keillor's London and Robinson in Space, Petit and language-laden novelist Iain Sinclair have made several experimental video projects drawn from their shared fascination with how we move through cities and countrysides.

But 25 years ago, there was Radio On (after the Jonathan Richman song). Petit is less interested in narrative than in new and unEnglish ways of looking and seeing, Patterson writes in this keen appreciation, in love with the sensual delight of a camera moving forward through space. The film is peppered with long, coldly stirring shots from [a] clapped-out Rover, moving through a series of defamiliarised, Ballardian English landscapes—the Westway at night, the M4, Hopperesque filling stations... and what Petit's collaborator Iain Sinclair refers to as "typically featureless Petit fields." Petit attempt[s] to remake our understanding of British urban space, much as Godard discerned contemporary Paris's futuristic foreignness in Alphaville.

29 September 2004

Hartley working

The Girl from Monday, Hal Hartley's first movie since 2002's little-loved No Such Thing won't be done until sometime in 2005, but he's turned impresario, starting the Possible Films Collection, a new distribution company releasing Richard Sylvarnes' 2000 DV feature, The Cloud of Unknowing, today in New York for a week's run of 9pm shows at The Pioneer. Not only is the poster Hartleyesque, there's large type at the top that brands madly: "Hal Hartley's Possible Films Presents." The site doesn't mention that Miho Nikaido, the star of this "modern ghost story," is Hartley's wife.

28 September 2004

Robert Altman, 80 in February...

...yet he's making movies like The Company, television series like Tanner on Tanner, he and Garry Trudeau's Sundance Channel update of Tanner '88, and still finds time to stick to his ornery guns: "With the first series, I guess I got in as far as I want to get inside the political process... This time round, we were mainly looking at ourselves as filmmakers and looking at our flaws rather than someone else's."

The ultimate senior auteur

Strangest thing, being in a bar and glancing up at the TV tuned to ESPN and there's a making-of featurette and I see this dour 65-ish guy in an ascot, beagle-eyed behind enormous tortoiseshell glasses, and I think, holy heck, what is Peter "Who The Hell Made It?" Bogdanovich doing on ESPN? Turns out he directed Hustle, the Pete Rose biopic, starring Tom Sizemore under a Moe Howard wig. James Wolcott did the work so we don't have to, even paraphrasing Office Space: "Keeping alive an abandoned tradition, Peter Bogdanovich is the last director in Hollywood to sport an ascot. On him it doesn't look jaunty. His wunderkind years as the director of The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon are so far in the past that any touch of flair on him looks a little wilted now, though one appreciates the effort. But if Bogdanovich is no longer the cocky neotraditionalist he was in his prime--the ultimate junior auteur--he's still capable of doing solid, unpretentious, almost anonymous craftwork behind the camera, and his take on the Pete Rose saga... was a fascinating portrait of a life that needed the constant pump of stimulation."

27 September 2004

Wong turn

It's the day before Wong Kar-wai's 2046 debuts in China, and Time Asia gives it the cover treatment as well as featuring a Q&A with the estimable director. After 5 years of start-stop-start production, Wong's still chasing the tiger's tail: We love what we can't have, and we can't have what we love.


After seeing David Gordon Green's Undertow, I want to embrace the bright falling late afternoon Chicago light and walk north on Michigan Avenue toward the 66. But I decide to pause at the Mac Store and clear up the rest of the day's business on one of the 14 dedicated-internet iMacs on the second floor. I'm expecting to run into a recently unemployed friend who's been making the place his own drop-by office, but he's elsewhere. The place smells of freshly printed brochures. The security guard is smirking. A Peter Dinklage lookalike, down to the scruffy beard, with blonde accents in his hair, has his eyes pressed right up to one monitor, checking MSN Espanol; three very young faces are clustered around another, murmuring in German and someone's talking in Russian on a cellphone. Even with summer going, going, gone, European tourists taking advantage of the weak dollar also know where to find free stuff.

Wake Up, Writer!

A good, brief interview with novelist Jonathan Ames, promoting his latest, Wake Up, Sir! is up at The Modernist: I went out to Lake Michigan just now, and that was kinda cool, but there did seem to be a fair amount of garbage washed up along the edge, so I just put my feet in. I kind of thought of swimming in there because on this little book tour I’ve swam in the Pacific, I swam in Puget Sound, so I go "Oh, I’ll swim in Lake Michigan,” but then I’m like, “Well, what’s the point of doing all these things just so you can do them?” But I put my feet in.

26 September 2004

In the mood for Wong

The Sunday New York TImes Magazine takes a look at the working methods behind the long-in-the-making, long-awaited 2046, the new dream by Hong Kong directing great Wong Kar-wai (registration required). A quote from cinematographer Christopher Doyle's writing: The way the film looks is its reality... 'Based on a true story' is such a lie. 'Based on a true color' or 'based on a strange dream' is what films cry out to be.

The sign of Leo's

Several months ago, I wrote a long story about a Wicker Park landmark, Leo's Lunchroom, a bittersweet piece about the owner of 15 years getting out of the business. Partly because of a cover headline and pull quote inside the paper (which I did not select), the article caused an unexpected amount of grief, with a bunch of readers presuming that the place was going out of business.

A few days after it was published, an employee told me in an exasperated voice how he'd had to chalk these words on the specials board: LEO'S IS NOT GOING OUT OF BUSINESS!! The deal closed later than expected, and after walking past the place last night, it seems that the new owners have problems of their own. Coincidentally, the board chalker was also walking down Division at the moment I took that picture, and he said, cryptically, "That's whatcha get," and walked on.

Songs that floated in a luminous haze

Bob Dylan's memoir, Chronicles, is excerpted in Newsweek. "I really was never any more than what I was—a folk musician who gazed into the gray mist with tear-blinded eyes and made up songs that floated in a luminous haze. Now it had blown up in my face and was hanging over me. I wasn't a preacher performing miracles. It would have driven anybody mad."

25 September 2004

One woman's vote for facial hair

"Let’s face it: men with beards are what I think about when I’m not wearing underwear."

American serendipity

There's an amusing confessional about city serendipity on Annie Tomlin's always-entertaining online thingum (I'll call it that, since she headlines her page "annie is not little orphan, and this is not a 'blog'"). The anecdote's built around a song that was stuck in her head this week, "Never Meant," by American Football (aka Mike Kinsella). Meaningfully meaningless, it was guitaring around in my head, too.

It's a hit

The new Rilo Kiley album is catchy stuff: a lo-fi copy of the lovely yet angry "It's a Hit" streams on the front page of their site.

Writing on the wall

I really, really, want, want, want, want this to be the name of a band.

24 September 2004

More bestest

Another flavored entry from Newcity's 2004 Best of Chicago issue:

Rainbo Club
A plain, squat box of a room that provides a view of every patron from any point you might stand, the Rainbo Club has acquired decades of legend and lore that ranges from Nelson Algren with Simone de Beauvoir to John Cusack and Uma Thurman, alongside the night-in, night-out workings of the lightly lettered, the paint-pattered, the freshly cute and mid-schooled. But like Francis Bacon’s longtime London haunt, the Colony Room, it is a space that grows with what (or who) you bring to it. A reputation for aloofness and disdain and insularity merely masks its true purpose: a dozen bars at once, where business is done, postures are poked, numbers are taken, sex of surprising variety is exacted. Everybody’s trade.

Collateral frottage

A Reader pointed me toward a reviewer reviewing three reviews of Michael Mann's Collateral, including my review/interview with Mann and commentary on Mann and cities on Chicago's NPR affiliate, WBEZ. The mind foggles.

I read the news 343 years ago today, oh boy

From the ongoing diary of Samuel Pepys.

The Sun-Times reviews Frozen in Light

A notice on the group photo show, a positive one from the Chicago Sun-Times. Freelancer Margaret Hawkins ends by writing: "The nice thing about this show is that there is no point we have to get, no single tricky theme we are meant to tease out of some complicated or obscure artist's metaphor... It reminds us of how we all live two lives, in a sense, one private and one communal. It suggests the noisy simultaneous life going on around and among us, the life of a population and a landscape rather than a single... viewpoint. It reminds us of how diverse and vibrant and depraved and full of grace and problems all our lives are, whether we notice it or not."

23 September 2004

From my window

I live below a flight path.

Billy Goat Tavern

Time to spare after a press screening in the Loop and before an early evening presentation to potential buyers at Zolla-Lieberman Gallery in River North, where some of my work is in a group photo show. So I'm trying to figure what food's fast but good. I consider my options on the walk across the Michigan Avenue bridge over the River, resisting my first impulse, the Billy Goat Tavern. But I give in, not caring to be imaginative and I'm glad I wasn't. Yum: good, old-fashioned cheeseburger that I pile high with thick-sliced dill pickles, with even more slices on the side, the savor of a good hamburger dill, but still tasting of cucumber and with some of the barrel tang you'd expect from a dill bought on Delancey Street.

Enduring Love

The first four minutes of the adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel of the same name are a grabber. (You have to have iTunes installed in order to view the clip.) The general release seems to have been pushed back to November.

Old hands on deck

Press launch party on Wednesday night for the Chicago International Film Festival's 40th anniversary, I make a jokey non sequitur while saying hello to festival founder Michael Kutza and veteran publicist/producer's rep John Iltis, "Which is it? Do you owe John $20 or does Michael owe you $20?"

And a photo op is born.

22 September 2004

Richard Kern & The Modernist

Just got around to checking Richard Kern's contribution to The Modernist's ongoing series of pictorials, "Furniture and Naked People."

Nice Eames furniture. (Registration required.)

Chicago Antisocial

The first installment of Liz Armstrong's print-only column, Chicago Antisocial, roars into the redesigned Chicago Reader with a profile of the publisher of Vice magazine during a Chicago visit last weekend. "Earlier that evening an attractive young Asian lady had caught his eye," Armstrong writes. "She noticed, and struck up a little tete-a-tete with him. McInnes told me, 'I wanted to f--- the shit out of [her] until she starting talking'... But though it's full of newfangled fashions and up-and-coming artists, Vice is actually about complacency. Hey, the magazine seems to say, we're not all the same, and we never will be—so how 'bout we crack some dirty jokes and f---?"

Liz Phair walks into a bar…

A favorite among the couple hundred unsigned entries in Newcity's 2004 Best of Chicago:


Liz Phair walks into a bar…
It’s about three minutes long: Liz Phair walks into a bar, nods to the knowing boy bartender for a drink, pulls out a sketchpad and starts to make a pert little charcoal doodle of him, and all the while, the Doors’ cover of Brecht and Weill’s “Alabama Song” plays: Show me the way to the next whiskey bar, or surely we must die, or surely we must die, the Lizard King intones, Show me the way to the next little dollar. A flash goes off: Liz looks up, sees a second flash as a couple tussle across the room in an old-fashioned photo booth. She wipes her palm across the sketch as the drink arrives. Bartender pats the bar, grins, the drink's on him. She smiles back, begins to write furiously: I bet you fall in bed too easily with the beautiful girls who are shyly brave and you sell yourself as a man to save but all the money in the world is not enough…

Small Bar Wicker Park

Notes on a new neighborhood space, from last week's Newcity.

With dwindling numbers of licenses and the preordained disappearance of old-style twentieth-century Chicago taverns, there's a new niche for latter-day neighborhood hangs: the nouveau dive. Extending their Logan Square franchise southwards, there's a contender on the Near West side: Small Bar Wicker Park. Building out the Division Street storefront that most recently housed Ohba (and before that, Rambutan), proprietors and longtime friends Troy and Ty Fujimura, Jesse Roberts and Phil McFarland have crafted a clean-lined but wood-dark room, with lighting and bits of decor salvaged from Masonic lodges, schools and churches. There are fifteen beers on tap, including Bass, Stella, Bell's, Guinness and, from this region's own Two Brothers, French country ale drawn from "Domaine DuPage." (It's a tasty amber, not too sweet.) .... Saturday's special is small beers for a small bar, domestic shorties, grenades, or ponies; whatever you might call them, seven-ouncers including Hi Life, MGD, Rolling Rock and Budweiser...

Small Bar Wicker Park, 2049 West Division, Chicago (773)772-2727

Obento & more

After weeding through minefields of Brazilian teenagers at fotolog.net, I'm starved for pages fixated on food, like Minmin's fotolog with your daily dose of tidy bento box and the group fotolog +++ LOVE Ramen! +++.

One of the site's founders studiously snaps his meals before tucking in.

Chicago International Film Festival Press Launch

Last night's view into the Loop from the 36th floor of Hotel 71, during the Chicago International Film Festival's 40th anniversary press preview.

12 September 2004

Best of Chicago 2004

Best personal encounter with a celebrity
Jerry Springer

The sun shines bright on Michigan Avenue, but it always even brighter when the most unlikely of gladhanders is casually pounding the pavement, getting the cheeriest greetings and giving them in turn by well-wishers left and right. No Cusack, no Corgan: is that Jerry Springer, rouser of the rabble, in the nice business suit, the politico’s winning smile? Indeed. He’s such a likable presence when you catch him on city streets, and seems so liked by everyone who “Hey!!”s and “Halloo!!!”s, you almost have trouble imagining anyone remembers what he does for a living.

Best film with a Chicago scene in the last year or so
The Company

Robert Altman’s first dalliance with digital video is more post-documentary morsel of implication than a true drama, but it’s filled with rich, offhand glimpses of Chicago. The most emphatic would be the dance numbers in Grant Park with the skyline gleaming against the night. But while Altman’s inarticulate characters say hardly a thing, the city is a powerful presence, starting with the North Wabash where the production prepped and shot much of the movie, including the not-Joffrey Ballet dance studio and third-story glimpses of the El in the background of Neve Campbell’s character’s apartment. Then there are the understated appearances of Neo, Marché, and an Old Town tavern where Campbell and beau-to-be James Franco flirt with looks and posture across the bar, a pool table, an old-fashioned phone booth, all to Elvis Costello singing “My Funny Valentine.”

Best Movie Theater to see blockbusters
AMC River East 21

The big screens of yore are a fading memory, and now cinema’s definitely a “medium”—at least in the scale of the screens where you can watch the brightest and biggest and loudest of movies. Fifty years ago, a movie theater like the Century would take up half a city block, instead of merely two new floors atop the shell of a wedding cake façade. Two years ago, “new build” megaplexes were planned across the city and suburbs before the financing fell through, so downtown Chicago’s got but one big, shiny pleasure dome. Many of the amenities may be duplicated in the ‘burbs, but the proximity to downtown, river North and all the bus lines running to Navy Pier are one more plus to the stadium seated, sonically crisp surround sound, generally bright projection that mark a movie at River East 21.
22 E Illinois St (312) 596-0333

Best place to drink tequila
Salud Tequila Lounge

The best place to drink tequila is on a deserted, white sand beach along the Gulf of Mexico at sunniest sunset, but closer to home, Wicker Park’s Salud eases the pain. The owners of Cans (and the late Big Wig) took over the Holiday Club space, gave it a sleek, appropriately smoky, below the border, below-the-belt décor. For non-tipplers of tequila, there’s a full bar, but the fifty or so specialty tequilas are the attraction, dividing into "Blancos," unaged clear tequila bottled after distillation; mellow "Reposados," aged in wood tanks or barrels for up to a year; and aged "Anejos" are matched by an imposing selection of "reserves de casa," with a range of cognac-like entries that bite the palate and the wallet. Signature items like Roasted Pork Tenderloin are designed to complement the tequila savor.
1471 N. Milwaukee Av., (773)276-7582

Best new restaurant (opened in the last year or so)

Moving across the alley, the partners of Blackbird, including James Beard Award-winning Paul Kahan, partnered with chef Koren Grieveson, to turn a 1,500 square foot storefront into a 49-seat wine bar that finally makes small dishes the new big thing. Intense flavors of an elevated minimalism, drawn with shrewd discernment from across the Mediterranean, are to be savored daily, including palate-tingling handcrafted salamis. An immense woodburning stove from Australia isn’t the hottest thing: it’s the crowds from dusk to 2am, shoulder-to-shoulder to share the gustatory delights and serendipitous camaraderie.
615 W. Randolph, (312) 377-2002

Best ice cream shop
Margie’s Candies

Hurry up, order a Turtle! Gimme some hazelnut truffles! Quick! Grab that booth. Wasn’t it all this way in the days before we were born? Endless summers and root beer floats and the sugarlicious half-gallon monsterific World’s Largest Sundae? Shakes to literally take your breath and hand dipped candy and amazing marzipan and chocolate sauce and eighteen percent butterfat superflavors? (There’s a rumor than one page of the menu has actual food on it.) A Bucktown mainstay since 1921, legend holds that this third-generation family-owned institution has hosted everyone from Al Capone to the Beatles to Liz Phair. Margie’s motto: "Highest quality, best possible service, and be proud of your product." The hot red-orange script of the Margie’s neon is one more old-fashioned, even anachronistic, element to savor.
1960 N. Western Ave, Chicago, (773) 384-1035

Best place to buy denim
US # 1

Felix Unger-neat, this Milwaukee Avenue storefront with the blah façade holds a mini-museum of skinny hipster-guy clothing, mostly from the 1960s-1970s; along with all kinds of gaudy shirts you wouldn’t be caught wearing tucked in, there’s a wall of jeans from faded to black to blue to bell bottoms and flares and boot cuts and back in. (Plus the boots to wear them in.)
1509 N. Milwaukee 773.489.9428

Best place to buy foreign magazines
Europa Books

Feeling stateless on State? Europa Books embraces more than a couple of lingua francas in their inconspicuous storefront, with foreign dailies in several tongues and an emphasis on Latin American language as well as titles in French, German and some Italian and Portuguese. (How many languages do you want your Harry Potter paperbacks in?) From Hello! to a variety of Vogues, Europa is as packed as a Southwest jet with fashion, fashionista, food, music, movie and soccer periodicals to bring your niche of the world closer.
832 N. State, Chicago, (312) 335-9677

Best brunch place

Low-key and uncluttered, Flo is an oasis of calm on a busy thoroughfare. The Southwestern taste-of-New Mexico menu is a treat day and night, but breakfast and brunch at a decent price in the emerging neighborhood are the best. There’s huevos rancheros, a red chile enchilada, a tasty chorizo scramble, and breakfast tacos are a treat: corn tortillas grilled with cheddar, stuffed with portabello and scrambled eggs with puddles of red chile and a pile of black beans. The egg sandwich—scrambled with roasted red papers, spinach and basil mayo on brioche is tangy, too. Add to the savories the out-of-place charm of the room with its understated folk art and the charmed diners and Flo is a place to savor. Specials change every couple of weeks and there are a variety of mimosas and sangria.
1434 W. Chicago (312) 243-0477

Best restaurant
Green Zebra

Shawn McClain’s sprung from the mostly seafood menu at Spring (with partners Sue Kim-Drohomyrecky and Peter Drohomyrecky) and foodies are flocking from around the nation as well as the gentrified West Side: a vegetarian menu, largely made up of small plates, that even the most inveterate meat-eater can enjoy the taste of? What have you done right to get almost 1,400 words—“enough… true winners [to make it] far more than a curious and noble experiment”-- in the New York Times and in the International Herald tribune, covering most of a broadsheet of newsprint? Named after a variety of heirloom tomato, the chartreuse room, seating bout 50, is sedate and soothing in a familiar Chicago kind of underminimalism. But it’s the thirty or so items on the menu on any given visit that wow, including inventive salads, a rich polenta and an avocado panna cotta, tomato gelee and crème fraiche concoction won’t be forgotten. One chicken and one fish dish is on offer each day, and butter is not a no-no.
1460 W Chicago, (312) 243-7100

Best thing about the Daley-Tribune feud
Important issues continue to be ignored

“The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” “The Mayor is pissed!” “The multibillion-dollar conglomerate is pissed!” There’s a silent slapstick move that’s been described as the “spread-eagle and scram”: get caught at something, jump in the air while making a big face and run like hell. Questions about crime, health, education, the concentration of media power in the hands of an immense corporation, the concentration of civic power in a politician who will not let go? “No, he did it!” “No, they did it!” Whimper, whimper, whine, c’mon, kids, let’s put on a show.

Best male radio voice
Ira Glass

Among dozens of id-i-o-syn-cratic radio voices from the world of guys in Chicago radio history we could pull out the still-hill-and-valleying antediluvian wavy-haired inflections of 86-year-old social troglodyte Paul Harvey (“Paul Har-veee NEWS.”); the unforgettable gravel of the recently passed Lu Palmer; the smooth-hip of 1970s-era John “Records” Landecker on “50,000-watt clear channel” WLS. Try as you might to think, um, of, well, another STORYTELLER who’s put his im, um, imprint on the inner ear of a generation or radio listeners passing on into their own comfy middle ages, we could, could, could do worse than attempt to mimic the rhythms of our very own, this Chicago’s Ira Glass. Love, lust, hate, deny: he’s still there at the end of the Pier, encouraging a new generations of storytellers to only, only hesitate when editing their digital sound files.

Best restaurant to go off the Atkins diet
Tufano’s Vernon Park Tap

There’s no need for excuses to pile on Italian cuisine family style, but if it’s a swift solid return to rational eating, you’re kicking for after getting all stringbeany and feeling munchy on Atkins, west Little Italy’s unadorned home of the piled-on pasta chosen from a wall-sized chalkboard would be our warm-and-friendly favorite after you’ve thrown down that set of body fat calipers. Weekends, the authentic southern Italian delights include splendid ravioli and cavatelli.
1073 West Vernon Park Place (312) 733-3393

29 June 2004

Pretty in Pink

Collaboraction hosts a prom. With plushies.

CALL IT site-specific revenge.

Arriving 10ish Friday night, I ask my friend where the Logan Square Auditorium is, the location of Prom: Just Like Heaven, the Collaboraction theater group's latest think-and-drink happening. "Look up. Above Lula," she says, pointing. The sky's alight. Smokers in mint-green and Pepto-pink taffeta gray the entrance air. The block-long building is topped with another cloud, a Lucy-in-the-sky nimbus, an itchy pink haze the color of a criminal kind of punch. All along the block, formal dresses come and go. Two women, all eyes, drink white wine in the warm night on Lula Café's sidewalk.

Upstairs, an imaginary 1980s are in full effect. Deadly clumps of hair gel dot the room. Houndstooth proliferates. Thirtysomething cool kids who've paid for tickets or wended their way onto the list are remembering the prom they never had and helping themselves to the open vodka bar to be real grownups and forget all over again. Visions of sugary John Hughes sequels dance in every head.

Several Collaboraction members are wreathed in minimal sheer gauze, and barebacked with angel wings stenciled onto shoulder blades, pale, bony ligatures against the spine. A tall angelette in stilettos circulates with a plate of clear gelatin shots. (She is a flock of hairdressers all by herself.) The rest of the dress is a mess: keeper of the Collaboraction Kool-Aid Anthony Moseley has it in spades in several loud costume changes and a mullet that could have been calculated in a prison metal shop.

The hep-geek cover band roars into "Let's Dance." Twenty-one-year-olds dance twerpily like the first time they heard the song when they were 4. One tall man throws his eyes around the room as he hands me an unsolicited vodka-cranberry: "It's a honey hole! Did you get laid at your prom?"

Haze grows. There's a heavy hand at the smoke machines, gusts ripe with the smell of a closet full of long-abandoned dry-cleaning.

Against a cloud backdrop, the photographer's dressed as fluffy pink swine, encouraging the smoochiest of group shots while tending to loaner wings and handout halos. The "Effen Heaven," a double-entendre on the vodka sponsor's name, is littered with stuffed animals, hula hoops, buffets of dark, gooey chocolate and a half dozen kinds of cheesecake. The door to the 7 Minutes of Heaven Make-out Room is closely guarded.

Those without pale pastel evening garb were encouraged to kit themselves out in plushie gear. One company member smirked behind a fat fuzzy dog nose, and a tall pink bunny worked his way on the dance floor amid women dancing to "Hungry Like the Wolf." Reddi-wip hickeys circuit the room: lots of squirting and licking from a half dozen canisters. And the bartenders, like the music, do not stop: I know this much is truuuuuuuuuuue... is a perfect exit note.

[Newcity, 29 June 2004]

27 April 2004

Subdivision Street: America: the passing of an era at Leo's Lunchroom

Studs Terkel used Division Street as a metaphor for America. The years I've lived here, I've always counted on it for a sandwich or a cup of coffee.

Last Thursday night, Leo's Lunchroom, once the only place for a bite on the block, has its windows covered with brown paper. Handwritten signs say they're closed for "stuff and things," "repairs and stuff."

It's the fifteenth anniversary party, or at least that's what I knew walking in the door. Sheila McCoy, 41, has been running its small, friendly confines since May 1989, and for the past ten years, by herself. Almost all the staff's been there almost as long. Ten years, twelve years, not uncommon. (One of the cooks has never held another job, starting as a dishwasher when she was a teenager.)

Not everyone in the room knows that McCoy's passing the restaurant on to new owners in a few days, just as she took up the small diner space from the real-life Leo. She'd long resisted the entreaties of "speculators," who were interested in offering a sweet price for a teardown. If there was to be a new Leo, she wanted it to be someone who'd keep the place going, pretty much the way it is.

So she found a restaurant realtor instead of a regular realtor. It was Christmas of 2003. "I'm just done, I dunno, you reach a point..." She thinks, then puts it simply. "I'm not learning anything."

Toward Memorial Day, other employees will likely leave. Everyone's thinking of a life change after years in the place. It's centrifugal. "Out of the nest," she jokes. "Here we go, everyone's going.

"It'll be a new energy, their own way, building on what's existed," she tells me between hugs, kisses and friends bringing champagne and whiskey and good wishes. She's wearing red-and-white cowboy boots and an intermittent volley of tears.

Twelve-year veteran and Sunday brunch mainstay Terry West is moving to Florida to fundraise for the Kerry campaign. He's calling it a "sexy house party." Someone's sent an Irish-green horseshoe floral arrangement that seems as funereal as it is lucky. "This has to be the saddest party I've ever been to," another patron says, her coffee cup topped with red wine.

In "Division Street: America," Terkel talks a lot about community being the basis of faith in one's fellow man and in the future itself, while recognizing that "the nomadic, transient nature of contemporary life has made diffusion the order--or disorder--of the city."

It's a belief in the faces you swim amongst through a given day. At the party, faces you can't quite put to names remember the olden days, that century past when Wicker Park was an affordable option for the young, poor and artistic.

McCoy turned 41 last Monday, moved to Pilsen from above Leo's on Wednesday, had the party on Thursday, then flew to Cleveland on Friday for her brother's fiftieth birthday.

It had been a hectic week, but running a smaller restaurant is always hectic. She bought Leo's in 1988 and opened in May 1989, and hasn't had a partner for ten years.

It's not a prefab lifestyle. "I'm not much of a boss," she says. "I just expected everybody to respect others. Don't show up, you get yourself fired." There was the occasional bad egg. She'd "feel almost violated" when money would disappear. "You'd know who it was."

In a café--and especially, a kitchen--that small, "you're working with the same people all the time. I'd try to rotate the schedule enough so nobody's stuck with the same person. I know there's a lot of screaming and yelling when I'm not around. It's kind of like Mom walks in? Everyone calms down."

After college, she moved to Chicago from Cleveland. "It was the way Pilsen can be now, cheap places to live," McCoy recalls. "A bunch of us lived in a six-flat, $400 for a three-bedroom."

"It's my favorite bar that's not a bar," a passing patron says. It's like everyone offering good, if bittersweet, wishes about the one who got away.

Before McCoy took over, "Leo's wife was the driving force. She died in 1986 or so, he didn't really care anymore. The hours changed to 5am to 11am, for the guys with the Racing Forms." Leo was raring to go. "He handed me the keys, said, `There's split-pea soup in the fridge.'"

The back of the house changed, she says, but the paneling, the black-and-red asbestos tile floor and the curved S of a counter with the thirteen stools remain the same. "We never thought of it as thirteen," she says as if she'd never counted them. "The numbering started with the tables, one-two-three, and then the stools start at four." The walls are peeling with layers of postcards, almost two decades of yellowing Wish-I-Was-Theres. The "CA$H ONLY" is still in place.

"There wasn't anyplace to eat around here except the Busy Bee" (the Polish diner under the Blue Line at Damen, gone now almost five years). There's food piled throughout Leo's tonight. Customers mingle behind the counter, in the kitchen and the back patio.

On the line, employees and patrons are "doin' the Hustle." As with any house party, people are congregating in the tight, cramped kitchen. "It's like a party on a submarine," another customer jokes.

More 1970s standards play, common fare at Leo's. "Where do we go from here?" the Alan Parsons Project song goes, "Now that all the children have gone?"

Apropos of nothing someone's saying, "This place, Gold Star, Rainbo, that's it," considering joints that still have the same owners and similar clienteles from the past. (The manager of the Rainbo Club watches, tells an employee, "Remind me if the Rainbo ever closes, not to have a closing party.")

So many familiar faces if not names, the fiftysomethings who've moved on and away from the Wicker Park of the last decade of the century past.

The new owners take possession later this month, and McCoy will teach them the ropes. The place was on the market only a week as a going concern. "I like the new guys. They're young, they have ideas. They made an offer based on a drive-by." They're keeping the breakfast and lunch, she says, adding in Lebanese dishes, maybe delivery. A pack of three-foot blondes are underfoot, another hungry generation.

"A whole new energy," she says with enthusiasm. "I'd be as excited opening a new place myself." We talk about joints she likes to escape to, and she muses, "I wonder if I didn't work for Leo's if I'd ever have gone to Leo's."

She remembers the early days. It was working when "we started getting people's UPS deliveries." Parents would come in with regulars, they'd say, "Thank you for feeding our son!"

"There are so many old customers from out of town telling me, the first meal they had when they moved to Chicago was here." Still, she's shy. "Someone at a function downtown tells me they love my French toast? `Oh, great,'" she says, laughing.

Soon after moving to Chicago, the communications company she worked for was absorbed by IBM. Her first job, first office job, right out of school. "I took a leave of absence," she tells me.

From the job or the corporate world? "Both. I went on the [Grateful] Dead tour then!" Returning, she bonded with a band of Michiganders and bartended at Phyllis' Musical Inn. "Phyllis' never had music until the Michiganders came to town. There were old appliances stored where the stage is now." McCoy thinks the owner of Phyllis' wanted Leo's, so when she took it over, she was fired, started drinking at the now-defunct Czar Bar, then bartending. "Peter Margasak had this zine, he started booking bands in there 1989, 90." Until a change of ownership sunk Czar Bar, she split her time between Leo's by day and bartended at night.

As McCoy recounts the history, first names of fallen proprietors cascade like autumn leaves. "It was less populated then, I mean, we'd put a chair out in the middle of the intersection, you'd sit there and watch the traffic go by. The cops were more concerned about "young girls being in the wrong neighborhood. No taxis would come." But, she says, when she moved to Chicago, there's something she misses now: "little bars on every corner."

Leo's opens at 8 in the morning. The bottom of the menus reads: "Think of it as a little slice of heaven right here in Wicker Park." Rick Marshall, wearing the neighborhood's boldest horn rims and grandest goatee, has run the day shift a decade or more and gets there at 5:45 because purveyors work early.

"It's the best time of day," he says, "Make coffee, read the paper, wait for the bread guy to show up, bullshit about whatever." He doesn't consider himself a manager.

"Chaos always kind of worked," he says quietly with his shy smile. "When I first moved here, I had no money, no job. Six bucks, I could eat rice and beans from Arandas for a dollar, have three beers at the Gold Star and leave a tip."

He said he told his friends back in New York, "Wow, what a great city! $280 rent and a buck for a beer!" We're both quiet over the present beers. "What a city, man," he says.

"The neighborhood doesn't need it anymore." McCoy seems to mean, there are restaurants all around. But new blood can make it more than an artifact of the Liquor Park done gone. Wicker Park's different now, the land of the privileged 22-year-old and the walkers of Golden Retrievers. Phyllis' had their annual Fourth of July band blowout in their beer garden last year, she remembers, when the cops came, said there'd been a noise complaint, someone's baby can't sleep. "It's like this one customer said at the party, it's like a manhole cover opened in Schaumburg or somewhere, sucked everybody up and spit them out here."

She shrugs. "If not now, when?" I wonder aloud why she didn't do it sooner. "It's just the time to move out." I wait expectantly for her to continue. "I'm just tired of doing it! The aches and pains, doing it fifteen years."

Will she miss anything? "It's gonna be odd not to have to go there 7am every morning, go shopping every day. I'll miss going to the market, seeing my meat guy, my chicken guy, my dairy guy, three-four days a week."

And the future? Maybe opening another place, observe another restaurant for a while. For now? "I promised a friend I'd do a triathlon this summer for breast cancer, and I couldn't train for that while working."

Marshall's ready to move on, too, before it becomes a job rather than what I describe as "what you do." "It hasn't been a job for ten years," he says, "It's been Leo's."

Money changes everything

Veteran film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum is one of the most invested voices in writing about movies. When there's a subject he's spent decades thinking on, he's nonpareil—the legacy of Orson Welles, the urban space of Jacques Tati's movies like Playtime, the movies of his friends Jim Jarmusch and Raul Ruiz, with his playful puzzle films. The pantheon-ringing title of his new collection, "Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons," suggests that he would be taking on the likes of Harold Bloom, with some sort of embrace of Bloom's canonical harrumphs, or perhaps a creation of categories like those of Andrew Sarris' 1967 "The American Cinema." While the introduction does attempt to contextualize the oppositional character of the cinemas and directors in the book, such as Iranians Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Hungary's Bela Tarr, Elaine May and Asian masters like the Taiwanese Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, the volume is essentially another compendium of reviews and articles for Film Comment and other publications. The virtue is having the best of his immersive recent work in one place; the disadvantage is in recalling how descriptive writing sometimes needs a prescriptive balance, particularly in Rosenbaum's persistent bugbears: the studio system, publicists, and the profit-driven movie distribution system. What makes trawling through his later collections, especially his previous jeremiad, "Movie Wars," wearisome are the same refrains, about "the reductive canons of studio publicists" and "the mass media's implied insult to the audience largely by kowtowing to Miramax and refusing to acknowledge any alternatives..." It's thrilling to read his take on Rear Window as "a moral investigation," or a roundhouse dismissal of "Natural Born Killers," Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction as "comforting lies," but soon he's railing at the "cultural commissars" again. Rosenbaum never seems cynical, but dispirited in his quest for audiences for movies he feels speak to "the contemporary world." There's also a near-Masonic grid of almost-gossip and cryptic surmise throughout, but all is forgiven when he finds beauty in a movie like Taxi Driver, "an oddly ravishing treatment of mental imbalance... Munch meets... Gershwin."

Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Johns Hopkins University Press, 456 pages, $35

[Originally published in Newcity, 27 April 2004]

14 February 2004

In case of fire: looking for sex in Cicero

Two more clueless fucks we could not be at this point in the evening. We are going to look for trouble, but we have no idea where we are going. Instead of coming into the city from the 'burbs, Frank and I are just two guys doing research going the other way. We are hoping trouble will be looking for us, too.

How much more contemporary can you get? Get a few guys together with a couple of twenties and some singles burning in their pockets. Do they know where they're going when they're a) hoping to objectify and ogle a few edifying female forms; b) trying to determine the cost of the more essential sexual transactions, only for the purposes of setting a market price, of course; and c) wanting to be humiliated and quickly taken for the entirety of one's meager roll by a disdainful, exceptionally unkind female whose standards you will truly never know?

We figure our whole-hearted lack of research will pay off. We're not looking for Gentlemen's Clubs, because we are not gentlemen. Most guys now expect flesh pits to be franchised offerings-McDonald's-of-sex to take your Big Mac to; brightly lit, squeaky clean, adequately bounced for troublemakers wholly unlike yourself, being the well-upholstered pillar of the community who would wake in the morning with a hangover but no regret. But that holds no savor. Not for us Chicago's translucent pasties. We are going to Cicero.

We plot strategy at the press feed for Iron Mike's Grille. Ditka shimmers past, notably slim, face redder than a Maine lobster, clutching a beer and stogie. He is an inspiration to us both. We refuse the temptation to ask Da Coach for names, numbers, jock-taught stripper bonhomie. Still, we have not brushed up on proper store-front cathouse comportment. We figure to wing it. Worse, we realize, sampling the hooch, neither of us has the number of the joint that An Esteemed Elder had suggested as a fine and proper ground zero from which to begin. (That night, we learn it was bulldozed several years ago over its intermittent bursts of civic bad manners.)

We whip down the Eisenhower toward Roosevelt Road, further back among dead presidents. But we're sniffing out a different dead man's legend, the enduring Capone-era rep of Cicero as the frontier town just across the city limits. We move into an all-embracing, invisible pillow of cornstarch reek.

Cicero looms in the most industrial way. We pull over for a moment so Frank can use his cell phone to 411 the numbers of some likely joints. Nope. Nope. Doesn't exist. No listing. Sorry.

More deeply uninformed, we head the other way and soon pass a promising joint. First, however, we want to check out a bar that's been recommended by a local, who assured us all questions would be answered within. Craning his neck back, Frank asks, "How much sexual heat can you invest in a place with the sign, 'Ample Parking in Rear.'"

At the bar we've been directed to, we have to buzz and be examined through a one-way mirror. Our goateed faces pass muster, tall thin Mutt and shorter, not-so-thin Jeff. As we pass under the bar's neon sign, Frank observes, "You notice the 'Good Food' part is burned out."

We order beers and I reminisce about the bar just up the road, The Midnite Hour, where, about ten years ago, I had been in my last major bar fight. I feel nostalgic. It was the room where I realized that if I were a truly large man, I'd probably be in jail somewhere in Tennessee today.

This bar's not just blue-collar, it's blue-collar just-after-getting-off-work. Instead of mingling, we continue to plot. "Whenever customers would complain about paying their girls up front," I ask Frank, "Do you know what madams used to tell them?"

"No, what?"

"'Why, darlin', in case of fire, of course.'"

In the men's room, I find a "novelty" machine and click in a couple of quarters.

When I return to the bar, Frank says, "The red light over the register went off."

"What do you mean?"

"You bought a condom. It went off when you bought it."

"You're lying," I say.

We examine the package together-"Evening Magic... The modern pre-shaped condom in four colors." We don't open it to see if it's like Neapolitan ice cream.

"Here's the part we should worry about," Frank says, turning it over. "Store at room temperature. Avoid excess heat."

No one cares that we're here. We proceed to have the kind of warm-belly, weak-minded conversation that leads brothers-in-law to drink more and plan hunting expeditions on which one will be grievously, unforgivably wounded. We are bonding when we are supposed to be on a wild cooch chase. The bartender leans against the Craftsman Tool calendar on the side of the cash register.

"Tuesday is usually bad weather because it's my day off," she says, barely mustering the energy to reminisce about the day before.

"Whenever it rains or snows on Tuesday, you know Judy's not working," a patron interprets. Another of many long pauses fills the room. A customer who entered after us says in a musical Russian accent, "I have this bakery delight, Judy, this bread, you want to try it? I just came from the factory."

When he goes to his car to fetch it, the interpreter lights up a cigarillo, says, "Yeah the pita bread, whatever it is."

The Russian gives Judy the fresh staff of life. "That's not Greek bread," the interpreter laughs, "It says Chihuahua! That's a torta-jero!"

We finish the suds and move next door to peek into The Awesome Midnite Hour Lounge Open Until 6am. A small crouch of a hunch of a sorrow of a man makes a solitary display of terrible posture, agleam in the dim yet glassy blue light suffusing the bar.

We return to the club that Frank had spied. The room is strangely silent and still. Girls mill. On a couple of televisions, a toupeed man forms words that are lost to the strains of Madonna's "Borderline."

We sit at the bar and are approached by a five-foot, middle-aged Chinese woman, dressed in white shirt, black pants and vest. From her stern expression, I expect her to say, "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Ilsa." There's not an ounce of subtext in her makeup. We are pigs and we must pay. We must order drinks.

We are two copacetic smiles anxious to be told the happy lies. Two goatees ready to be mistaken for properly heeled goats.

"Genuine Draft or High Life?"

"High Life," Frank says, grinning.

We are approached by a woman who shows us her Bubble Yum while she chews. We envision her doing a performance-art project: "Suzanne Somers Is Chrissy Snow." She tells us the rules. She recites the prices. Now we know: $150 in the backroom for forty-five minutes. We've never danced that long before.

The ample ebony thighs of a woman in a too-small nightie are being traced by the pale, yet hairy wrists of a large, baritoned man. We call him Turtleneck Tommy. "You must be my lucky star," Madonna sings, "Because you shine on me wherever you are."

The liquor is sequestered in a thoroughly illumined broom closet. Another stern woman--think Frau Blucher from "Young Frankenstein"--is riding herd on the Jack, Chambord and Grand Marnier.

I wonder if a fleshstress will press her case in the men's room that has no lock.

"Are you guys in a band?" is the usual query. "You don't look like the usual guys we get in here." And that's basically what Jocelyn says when she walks up. She has that essential Polish-Russian-German look, a lanky, coltish art-babe type. Blonde, patrician. We discover a bit more by the verbal quotation marks as well as raised eyebrows she displays at her stage name.

"So why's there no stage show in Cicero?"

Seems the mayor keeps issuing a series of two-week bans on the up-front dancing, although the backroom boogie seems to be in full flourish.

"Why not turn Cicero City Hall into a strip club instead?" I venture. "That heritage is a blessing."

Turns out, she's in a band. We have mutual acquaintances. "How's business?" Frank asks. "I'm still stripping," Jocelyn says. We settle in for a nice long chat about the music scene, how Chicago acts generally find better treatment on the road. Here we are three city folk in a titty-winkum bar in a nearly be-legended 'burb, none of us bothered that we are somehow failing to exact the expected transaction. We pay for the eight-dollar drink that goes only to the house, ready to pay for more.

"So, uh, would you like to go into the back room?" she asks. We smile, squint, bite our fingernails.

"I guess that would be a little weird at this point," she agrees.

I slip Jocelyn two fives as we say goodnight, in a way the eagle-eyed shouldn't be able to see. "Close your eyes and think of music."

07 February 2004


Talking simplicity with Spring's Shawn McClain

BUCKTOWN'S SPRING RESTAURANT is one of the most celebrated of the past year's openings. Seven months in, it's exceeded the expectations of partners Sue-Kim Drohomyrecky, Peter Drohomyrecky and 34-year-old chef Shawn McClain. After seven well-received years as chef/partner at Evanston's four-star Trio, McClain wanted to expand on what he knew as both manager and a chef, and to work with innovative cuisine in a more affordable setting. McClain believes in simplicity, and we talked on a snow-slushed Friday afternoon about all that is crisp and cool, and the meaning of three-star reviews.

PRIDE: Is there a school of Chicago cooking right now, with simplified cuisine emphasizing freshness and quality?

MCCLAIN: Yeah. Absolutely. I'm sure it's going on all over, but I think Chicago had a definite gap, a need for it. You had your high-end restaurants that started back with Charlie [Trotter]. Very high-line and very oriented around the presentation. Then you had your true, blue-collar solid Midwestern food on the other side. Blackbird is the pre-eminent example [of how] you can put out tremendous food with a lot of heart and a lot of style and not do it in a way that intimidates people, that it's very approachable.

PRIDE: You mean, the quality shows, but it isn't incomprehensible, it's not, "Oh this is good for you." You understand it in the first bite.

MCCLAIN: Yeah. [Blackbird] also incorporated a lot of the smaller markets and farms into the menu, things like that.

PRIDE: But it's also hand-in-hand, isn't it? More restaurants using local, specific produce means more farmers can subsist or succeed. Is that important to you?

MCCLAIN: Absolutely. I think as you get farther along in this business, you start to realize different things. In my case, as I get older and more mature in my cooking, the old adage of going back to the fundamentals, the basics, really grows more important. When you look at those fundamentals, you want a new purity is those products. You meet these farmers who have that same kind of passion about what they do—these products of the earth, like vegetables—it inspires you to support them. Just today I had an interview with a guy from Indiana who's part of the Green City Market, he's one of the farmers, he's smaller, but he wanted me to go through his seed catalog. He really wants to grow something that we can use. It's a great relationship.

PRIDE: There's that great romantic image of the chef going to the green market or the meat market at dawn, deciding the day's special—aha!—in that moment. But the seed catalogue, it's like you're getting to browse for what you'll have in twelve weeks—

MCCLAIN: —Sometimes forty weeks. We're talking all the way through to the fall. The old romantic, go-to-the-market and pick tonight's meal [image] is an idealism, and everybody would love for that to happen, but in reality, you serve a lot of people every day and you have to have some food available every day of the week. Mike Altenberg at Campagnola in Evanston is 100 percent organic and political-minded about it, which I have completely respect for, but that's a hard business decision to follow through. For me, it's finding a balance, doing as much as I can to support the smaller guy and independents.

PRIDE: The ideals sound great, but how do you deal with volume when you require these micro-produced ingredients? Is your turnover of meals higher than it was at Trio?

MCCLAIN: The volume here, we're doing three times the amount of sheer people, four times as many as at Trio. That changes the whole dynamic of everything down to preparation of single ingredients, to producing enough for keeping your menu. We did a lot of tasting menus there; we have yet to start that here. It's a learning process every day.

PRIDE: How long have you been open?

MCCLAIN: Seven months.

PRIDE: The kitchen didn't seem be-grimed and aged like a long-term kitchen, lived and cooked-in but walking in, my eye was drawn to how every corner seems to have something stuffed in it, different things above and around every station, as if things had found a place that at least one person knows why it's there.

MCCLAIN: Oh, I hope so. We're in a very tight spot back there. The geography of the space itself forced us to put the kitchen there. It has to be, has to be efficient. For an organization of a business, it also means better productivity and I like to be organized on top of that.

PRIDE: There's two kinds of acclaim. Folks writing about the hot new flavor, then the customers who come back. Which is more gratifying? What's the virtue of each? You have a successful business, that's a start, you get to keep your job, you get to keep working at your cuisine.

MCCLAIN: That's an interesting question. Because there's an image of myself, and I've opened the restaurant with Sue and Peter, it's a shared partnership. We had very modest expectations. Our plan and our goals were for the business to be profitable, to create an environment for our employees that we'd all enjoy. Restaurant communities have a lot of family-oriented things around the business. It's taken off quite a bit and a lot of the focus is on me. I'm not real comfortable with that. But what I enjoy about that part is what it does for the staff. It makes the staff very proud of the restaurant, and they're proud to say they work here. Not because people are writing [about us], but that helps. It helps people who are learning the business. On the other hand, which is much more important to me, we're learning our first business. We are succeeding thus far. And it's very early in the scheme of things, but that, to me, takes the pressure off day to day so that we can put more emphasis on creating an environment where people want to work. That's always been our goal. It's never been money, it's never been fame and acclaim and all that stuff. But in this day and age, in the restaurant business, you open a restaurant and you need public relations. It's unbelievable. It's really important how you market to get your name out there.

PRIDE: I'm always gratified to linger around a restaurant bar during the National Restaurant show and see all the chefs schmoozing, the booze in front of them, and after the round of Chef Paul this is Chef Dave from Cleveland, this is Chef John from Kansas City, it gets down to talking about meals. Just food. Nothing about the business, the press.

MCCLAIN: Yep. Yep. Yeah. It's, y'know, it can be glamorized by the Food Network, but the true people doing the craft are just that, craftsmen who are interested in what they're doing, passionate about what they're doing and they try to do something different, and make their own niche. We thrive so much on our contemporaries. We get so much information from each other. It's very hard to stand alone and take credit because there's so much that you take from people and you borrow. You make it your own, but...

PRIDE: Then you're back up again the next day at some god-awful hour doing it all again. Another day taking the heat.

MCCLAIN: That's good, though. That's the good part of it. If it was just a matter of just coming in and cooking? That would be a nice day. It's all the other stuff that gets thrown in that kind of takes your day for a ride. Being an owner for the first time, a principal owner, all that other stuff comes in quite a bit!

PRIDE: The desserts are your own. Isn't that unusual for a chef to take on? Looking over the menu, it seems like you're worked flavor complements through the entire meal. Why is that important to you?

MCCLAIN: Since I've been in Chicago and formulating my own style, say, in the last five to ten years, I noticed a lot of restaurants with outstanding food, across the board great service, and then really putting the last emphasis on dessert. Creativity-wise, they went by old standards, which are fine, some of the classics are great. But I felt like a lot of people were just like, "Aw, it's just dessert."

PRIDE: We've got some chocolate, we've got some berries—

MCCLAIN: Right, right. It is challenging in that way to create something different, but you have so much room to do things with flavors, whether they're savory flavors or dessert. Chefs I've worked for and with put a lot of effort into creating interesting things out of savory food, but I just couldn't figure out why they didn't spend the same amount of time on their desserts. I thought, when I do have my own restaurant, I want to make the desserts different. I want to try different things. Another thing I don't see on a lot of menus, is our desserts are printed on the regular menu. So you get a chance to see them, which I think—

PRIDE: As a diner, you get to consider how it all fits together instead of, this is an afterthought.

MCCLAIN: Exactly. You go to a restaurant, "Are you ready for dessert, or would you like dessert," I wish I had known, that sounds good, I wish I had known. Different menus are presented for dessert, but [we give] you a chance to have a sneak peek. It fits the overall theme of the experience from start to finish.

PRIDE: You used the phrase "mature cooking." Define that. And where are you headed?

MCCLAIN: I went through a time where I worked for chefs, in the late eighties, early nineties, who were more about presentation, more about the Wow effect. There was that whole eye candy, sensory overload that first started. The focus was much more on presentation. As I grew up and took some more time in the cooking, I think your priorities change back to the simplicity of flavors. Now I just look for: how can I make this as simple as possible, still present well, have some color contrasts and maybe I use a different kind of plate with a different kind of food, but I want the food to be the focus. I want to look at the individual ingredients now. Say instead of buying carrots from a high-line producer, [buying] mass-produced carrots which are genetically altered, which a lot of vegetables are, which are fine, they look great but they don't taste like they should. These are vegetables I've grown up on. But I'd like to get back and understand what food can taste like.

[Newcity, 7 February 2003]