Spiaggia's dining room Nice enough a space to make good things happen

Spiaggia's dining room
Nice enough a space to make good things happen

Yesterday’s post commiserated with myself for making mistakes when working when fatigued.
A posting I sent out early, the night before, when I was tired.
By return post, in real time, I received an email from a sweet person engaged in writing an eulogy for a lost brother, too, working when fatigued.

Kinda puts the seriousness of mistakes in perspective.
Love you.

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Today is Saturday, September 8
This is my 151st consecutive daily posting.

Time is 5.47am.
Thank goodness for that.
I’ve been getting up at 3.30 for the last three mornings.
5.15am rise is a godsend.
The weather will be fine for driving, cloudy and cool.

Today I’m not leaving for my drive immediately.
Might even stay until near check-out time.
Got to do tomorrow’s blog and some other things.
And the drive is only 4 hours.
To a town called Muscadine. or Muscatine.
I'll figure it out.




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To make my coffee work perfectly this morning, I bought a large size in the hot cup I had heated prior.
After drinking half, I threw the remainder out and bought a second cup which I also drank half of.
At home, I just mike it.

Why the expense?
The sheer hedonism of it.
I’m spending thousands on this trip and am not going to sacrifice my pleasure for economy.
I stay at inexpensive hotels.
That’s good enough for hot coffee throughout.

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Plans for today:
Blog and trip planning.
Walk The Loop.
Visit the Art Institute in the morning and again in the afternoon: about an hour and a quarter each visit.
And then dinner at the Publican, at a communal table.

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But now for last night’s dinner.
Spiaggia.
The restaurant in Chicago.
High praise from all over.
Ate there last night.
My story.

Dinner: choice of a 5 or 8-courses, 95.00 or 145.00 dollars
Wine pairing, an additional 95.00 or 145.00
Choose when you reserve.
Pay when you reserve.
I chose the 5-course (am eating big next night as well) and declined the wine pairing so I only had to pay 95.00 up front.)
In the event I chose the wine pairing and paid at the end of the meal.
A total of 240.00.

Staff was professional. In each of the two dozen or so visits to my table each person, this was definitely team service, knew exactly what she was doing and did it well.
The wine server had style. She knew the facts about the wine, the region, the grape, but she did not convey what we might look for in the glass. It’s all about what’s in the glass. My manuscript: Wine by the Glass.

While not white tableclothed, the dining room was attractive enough.
Big windows, open views, but nothing remarkable to look out on.
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We began with two pieces of bread, a dark rye olive loaf and a rye served with olive oil and honey poured over ricotta cheese.

Followed by a pair of amuses bouches, a piece of sopressata on a section of roasted bell pepper and a type of beignet, hot, who can resist a hot beignet of any description, with zucchini flower.
Both were terrific.

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Loveliest of the presentations. Covers enough of the plate to not get lost Layered beautifully with a large variety of tasty mushrooms and perfectly toasted hazelnuts. You can see that the egg whites wanted to be like a very soft meringue, not with occasional solid pieces.

Loveliest of the presentations.
Covers enough of the plate to not get lost
Layered beautifully with a large variety of tasty mushrooms and perfectly toasted hazelnuts.
You can see that the egg whites wanted to be like a very soft meringue, not with occasional solid pieces.


First listed course: Stracciatella e Funghi
mushroom, hazelnut, balsamico

The course of the night, in appearance and presentation. Had all courses been of this caliber, give it a one-star Michelin.

The balsamic is 15 years old and among the mushrooms are chanterelle, oyster, lobster mushrooms, trumpets, and himalayan cordyceps sinensis, I looked it up:

Ophiocordyceps sinensis (formerly known as Cordyceps sinensis) or Yarsa-gumba, Yarsha-gumba or Yarcha-gumba, यार्सागुम्बा (in Nepali language) is an entomopathogenic fungus (a fungus that grows on insects) in the family Ophiocordycipitaceae.

It is mainly found in the meadows above 3,500 meters (11,483 feet) in the Himalayan regions of Nepal, Bhutan, India and Tibet.

It parasitizes larvae of ghost moths and produces a fruiting body which used to be valued as a herbal remedy.
However, the fruiting bodies harvested in nature usually contain high amounts of arsenic and other heavy metals so they are potentially toxic and sales have been strictly regulated by the CFDA (China Food and Drug Administration) in 2016.

O. sinensis parasitizes the larvae of moths within the family Hepialidae; specifically genera from the Tibetan Plateau, and the Himalayas that are found between 3-5000m ASL.
The fungus germinates in the living larva, kills and mummifies it, and then a dark brown stalk-like fruiting body which is a few centimeters long emerges from the corpse and stands upright.

It is known in English colloquially as caterpillar fungus, or by its more prominent names yartsa gunbu (Tibetan: དབྱར་རྩྭ་དགུན་འབུ་, Wylie: dbyar rtswa dgun 'bu, literally "winter worm, summer grass"), or dōng chóng xià cǎo (Chinese: 冬蟲夏草).

The wine service was top of the line, a detail much appreciated. Check out the glassware.

The wine service was top of the line, a detail much appreciated.
Check out the glassware.

O. sinensis is classified as a medicinal mushroom, and its use has a long history in traditional Chinese medicine as well as traditional Tibetan medicine.
The hand-collected, intact fungus-caterpillar body is valued by herbalists as medicine, and because of its cost, its use is also a status symbol.

This fruiting bodies of the fungus are not yet cultivated commercially, but the mycelium form can be cultivated in vitro.

Overharvesting and overexploitation have led to the classification of O. sinensis as an endangered species in China.
Additional research needs to be carried out in order to understand its morphology and growth habits for conservation and optimum utilization.

Thank you, Wikipedia


In Spiaggia, the mushrooms are presented on a bed of egg whites stirred in hot broth.
Being picky, my duty, parts of the bed had solidified and lost that unctuousness that a perfect bed would have.
Picky but it did distract my enjoyment.

The course was served with a ‘Patergarten’ Pinot Gris, Paul Blanc, Alsace, 2015: good fruit, attractively tight, and a touch of sweetness made the wine an excellent pairing.
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Next came Tortelloni di Vongole
clam, shallot, lemon zest, Calabrian chili, fennel

I won’t quibble about the name choice.
Served was not a large tortelloni, but four pieces that were a cross between tortelloni and tortellini.
The pasta was delicious and perfectly cooked, a brilliant-touch chewy.
But the stuffing was bland. (perhaps ‘bland’ the too common adjective found throughout the courses.)
Worse was the sauce, a reduced wine and olive oil with a touch of tomato. Went nowhere with it. Was not integrated with the pasta it lay under.

The wine, another white, ‘Le Pied de Samson’ Viognier from the domaine of Georges Vernay in the Rhone Valley, 2015: good fruit, deep woods flavors – dank, mushrooms, excellent minerals, and juicy, makes you salivate.

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Pesce Spada alla Ghiotta
swordfish, summer squash, summer truffle, caper, tarragon

This presentation was poor. Uninspired. Several garnishes sitting languidly on the swordfish, wondering what they were doing there.
It was nice tasting.
Does that sound like a 250.00 dinner? A one-star Michelin?

The wine, a red, ‘Clos du Cras Long’ Givry, Premier Cru from Danjean-Berthoux, a 2013 burgundy: excellent; young but rich.

If she were a little girl you'd want to take her hand and look for her parents. Obviously lost. Exactly how it looked when it arrived. Tasted pretty good.

If she were a little girl you'd want to take her hand and look for her parents.
Obviously lost.
Exactly how it looked when it arrived.
Tasted pretty good.


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Maialino Calabrese
suckling pig, melon, corn, controne, fennel, paprika

[editorial note: controne is a legume, a small white bean, cultivated by Benedictine monks in the 18th century in the Campania, in the village of (wait for it)... Controne. —hhd]


This was very good. A bit of a crust on the chop gave it an excellent texture; the fruity sauce was perfectly balanced. Simple.
The problem, simple.
I will stay home and cook simple.
Who I am.
Out? I want artistry.
Not in this plate.

The wine was the PICK OF THE NIGHT: ‘Tranoi’ Ile de Beaute Rouge from Santamaria, Corsica.earthy, low acidity, but an explosive nose of spice and licorice.

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Tutti Frutti
baba, rose, panna cotta, fruit, melon sorbetto

This was a nice dessert; a nice presentation, and the sorbet was deliciously evanescent.

The wine, a Banyuls from the Domaine Madeloe, Roussillon, N.V.
Very nice. Low tannin but the fruit acids kept it alive.
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So I sat at my table in the glow of the wine tasting and a nice meal, relishing the moment.
Thinking of Paris, seven one-star restaurants in seven nights.
Each one a gem.
This was nice.

But nothing I’d be proud to serve to my guests.
This chef, award-winning, best of, etc. needs to spend some time as an apprentice to a chef noted for zippy flavors; noted for artistic presentation.
Everything good about the restaurant, except the food average only.

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Post Scripts
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So that’s it for me.
Looking forward to the next part of the blog, Howard’s reactions.
Note that Howard gets the blog late in the day and his mind must work awfully quickly.
He and I are each a little off center in our views.
I love his addition.


Starship Kitchen – Part One

The entire length of Chicago can be traversed, north to south, by car, of course, but it's one of our biggest cities, and that can be a challenge. However, the Chicago River, dwarfed by the nearby Lake Michigan, is nonetheless a major waterway. A far more relaxing way to get around is by Chicago Water Taxi. If you have nothing better to do, there are also regular tours by boat of the city from this special vantage. You do pass under a lot of bridges as there is a bridge about every two blocks (the River does divide the city in half). The Lake Street Bridge, which is actually a drawbridge, and is the bridge closest to the only inlet from the lake, which means it's the only way to get boats into or out of the lake from the interior. This bridge, and Lake Street, are very near the heart of the Loop, and the fabled Golden Mile. It is about a mile and a half from the Lincoln Park neighborhood, where Charlie Trotter's eponymous restaurant, and the subject of this two-part essay, was located. (photo: H. Dinin. © 2018)

The entire length of Chicago can be traversed, north to south, by car, of course, but it's one of our biggest cities, and that can be a challenge. However, the Chicago River, dwarfed by the nearby Lake Michigan, is nonetheless a major waterway. A far more relaxing way to get around is by Chicago Water Taxi.
If you have nothing better to do, there are also regular tours by boat of the city from this special vantage. You do pass under a lot of bridges as there is a bridge about every two blocks (the River does divide the city in half). The Lake Street Bridge, which is actually a drawbridge, and is the bridge closest to the only inlet from the lake, which means it's the only way to get boats into or out of the lake from the interior.
This bridge, and Lake Street, are very near the heart of the Loop, and the fabled Golden Mile. It is about a mile and a half from the Lincoln Park neighborhood, where Charlie Trotter's eponymous restaurant, and the subject of this two-part essay, was located. (photo: H. Dinin. © 2018)

The last time I was in Chicago was May 2002. I was with my late wife on what I want to say was a business trip, but I don’t recall the precise details. And besides, no matter. It turned out to be a lovely time of the year to be in the Second City, for sure for the weather. However what made the trip memorable was my primary reason for being there.

Linda may have been there for business. She was manager of a global program that was one of a broad range of corporate services offered by a company called IBM. However, I was on a rare excursion to accompany her, because the fates and the many interconnecting gears of business had fortuitously aligned so that, after years of enticement, we could fulfill a long held out invitation from one of my closest friends. A former colleague, which was how we originally met, Philip had come to be a regular at gatherings all over the country. He was an account supervisor at an industrial ad agency based in Boston that represented, aside from a full roster of industrial, commercial and technology clients, a number of trade organizations.

One of Phil’s more interesting accounts entailed some wing of the turkey growers of the United States. It was his job to oversee the formulation and execution of communications strategies to ensure Americans ate a growing share of their diets in the form of the flesh of the bird that Ben Franklin preferred as his choice for national bird of the country he was instrumental in founding. No doubt part of the reason for more and more year-round meals including turkey was a product of the intentionality of a sustained marketing campaign. A large part of the major objective of the advertising and pr effort was to ensure that people understood that turkey was, in effect, not just for Thanksgiving.

Among his duties, Phil was expected to accompany food service industry bigwigs – people like the national food and beverage managers of major restaurant and hotel chains – when they assembled for the larger trade shows. There was no bigger show than the one for the National Restaurant Association, or, as it’s known, “the other NRA.” The gustatory version is impressive in its own right. At present, it serves over 380,000 member eating establishments. It was of comparable size in 2002, and attendance at their annual convention, always held in Chicago and usually in May, was a necessity for exploiting the leverage of having so many important target customers accessible for shmoozing.

After years of wining and dining the executive managers and chefs of the restaurants among the most recognized, presigious, highest volume, or distinguished for gustatory excellence in the country, Phil had acquired a cadre of restaurateurs, maîtres d’, hosts, bookers and the like at the most desired tables in Chicago. He was recognized on sight, and a last minute reservation was usually no problem.

For the course of our friendship of over 20 years at that time, Phil and I shared a love of food savory to the palate and lovingly prepared. This meant we mainly enjoyed the fruits and the comforts of entertaining one another at home. Or, once we no longer worked under the same roof, gathering for lunch, which was easiest, or dinner at a restaurant, usually a hidden gem or little-known local masterpiece of a dive that happened to serve incredible dishes. More often than not it was ethnic.

Indeed, it was our great fortune that what is still the best Turkish restaurant I’ve ever dined at—idiosyncratically open only for lunch, mainly because of the location, which was the only spot the immigrant chef/owner could afford at the time—was two blocks from the office we both worked at mid-way in our careers as ad men. “Sultan’s Kitchen” has opened, and quickly found itself serving lines out the door, on Broad Street in the financial district. That’s because that’s where the greatest concentration of an audience jaded on fast food and sandwich machines congregated every busy day, on account of they had to for work, and they appreciated inexpensive, healthy, incredibly delicious meals prepared to order, and could be done either dining communally on the spot, or taking an entire meal back to the desk, and all for about ten bucks.

That’s the kind of fare Phil and I especially appreciated, but mainly for the care in the preparation and cooking, the quality of the ingredients, and the infectiously friendly attitude of chef Özcan Ozan. But I have gotten ahead of myself, and diverted you from my tale of a visit to a meal at the signature restaurant of another master of the kitchen, an American named Charlie Trotter. So, let’s back to Chicago from our detour to Boston. By the time, Linda and I showed up there, Phil had become as conversant with the bill of fare and the wine list of Chicago’s finest. As conversant as he and I had become with the variety of kebabs that Ozan had on offer every weekday.

In 2002, Charlie Trotter was at the pinnacle of the culinary food chain in the United States. Always named as one of the top three chefs on virtually any list at the time, Trotter was a known genius for inventiveness, for being an unrelenting perfectionist in every aspect of fine dining, and, at time, it was said, a ferocious boss, who earned the respect of his staff, but was inflexible in demanding as much from each of them as he clearly did from himself. There was a softer side to Charlie, which he wasn’t afraid to hide. A human side. Evident enough in the daily presence of his mother, who served as a kind of auxiliary host and ambassador of the mission of the Trotter eponymous restaurant on Armitage in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, not too far from the lake.

Charlie Trotter’s was considered a kind of mecca—a clichéd designation for a place that, in fact, was substantiated and reinforced by invariably being named the best restaurant in a city full of great places to eat. On the one hand, it was the kind of place that could still require “gentlemen will wear jackets in the dining room,” but, on the other hand, this kind of requirement seemed not too fussy when it was well-known that you couldn’t get away without spending well over a hundred dollars a person for dinner, and far more with wine. And yet, tables were impossible for dinner except well over a month or two in advance.

When I had first-hand experience of how my friend Phil was excluded from such obstacles, not only at Trotter’s, but virtually any other table in the city, I was very proud of him for having acquired the skills necessary to thread that particular needle. He had given me a standing invitation, any time we could manage to be in Chicago to join him for dinner—even if, and I didn’t understand the import of this provision at the time, it was a last minute rendezvous. He said I simply, if possible, someday had to eat at Charlie Trotter’s.

Which is how we ended up at the front door of what I otherwise thought looked like not much more than a stately urban brownstone building of an owner who was enjoying a solid, if modest, round of success. Phil met us at the door, and we entered, and immediately Phil was greeted by everyone on staff within eyesight, including the maître d’, by name, with a broad smile. We knew instantly we were in for a memorable evening. (Part Two, tomorrow)—Howard Dinin


A Writer’s Quick Lunch

Often in the heat of crafting a story one is caring about deeply, or sometimes merely with the fires one feels under one’s feet or tender parts because a deadline approaches, a battle rages within the writer. Cave to the hunger that rises from the pit of the stomach (especially if the subject matter under discussion is food) and take a break for lunch—and lose all that priceless time away from the keyboard or the notebook—or settle for something that can be consumed on the fly, with one hand in fact, but will hardly satisfy the deeper needs of a finely tuned palate?

Going out is out of the question. Unless you live a block or two from some hipster haven, it means retrieving your vehicle, dealing with the vagaries of traffic and parking, and then contending with the inevitable pitfalls of the hit or miss availability of an immediate table, finding precisely the right choice of viands on the menu to suit the delicate mood shaped, in part, by the degree to which you are immersed in your subject, how good or bad you feel about your success with the discovery of a succession of mots justes to enliven your prose, discovering that the list of draft beers does not include your current favorite lager… This is what is meant by the potentialities of art as a source of suffering for the artist. Well, probably. Sort of.

Far better, in fact, to have minimal provisions on hand to make a deceptively simple dish, which nonetheless has sufficient layers of flavor to satisfy the most demanding palate. And all within a timeframe that places no demands on your ability to stay in command of your day.

Here is a simple preparation, essentially the currently very trendy artisanal toast, or more accurately ciobatta toast, that draws inordinately high freight from clientele when eating out, but costs comparatively little in actual outlay at even the better groceries. It has only a few primary ingredients, and otherwise calls for the usual assortment of garnishes and enhancements by way of herbs and spices that any minimally provisioned kitchen should always have to hand.

It’s quite filling, while also being satisfying, and yet each serving maybe comes to three dollars out of pocket.

Best of all, from start of preparation to sitting down to consume should take less than a half hour.

Ciobatta toast with fresh tomatoes and two cheeses
7 inches – of an 18 oz sperlonga loaf (or one 6 to 7 inch ciobatta roll)
3 medium – roma tomatoes
1-½ ounces – of a good aged cheddar
1-½ ounces – of low-moisture whole milk mozzarella
3-4 tablespoons – of extra virgin olive oil (a good cooking grade is sufficient)
½ teaspoon – dried basil
½ teaspoon – dried oregano
Sea salt, fine to medium granulation
Fresh ground black pepper

An ample lunch for two hungry writers eager to get back to work

An ample lunch for two hungry writers eager to get back to work

 

Wash the tomatoes, and cut ¼ to ⅓ inch of the stem end off and discard or composte. Cut each tomato in half length-wise. Squeeze each tomato half gently but firmly over the drain of the sink to remove seeds, and set aside. When you’ve seeded all the tomatoes, chop roughly and reserve.

Grate each portion of cheese using the large holes of a box grater, or equivalent, into a bowl, and mix with your fingers until evenly blended. Reserve.

Cut the section of sperlonga loaf (or the ciabatta roll) in half lengthwise. Using a brush or or your fingers coat the exposed crumb of the bread with some of the olive oil, and allow to soak in for about a half-minute.

In a toaster oven, using the bagel/toast setting, place the bread halves face up on the rack in the middle of the oven. Toast until lightly browned along the edges. Remove to a clean cutting board, or directly to an oven-proof tray lined with aluminum foil that fits in the toaster oven, for coating with the toppings.

Coat each half of the toasted bread evenly with the chopped tomato. Drizzle lightly with olive oil, salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle the basil and the oregano evenly on the tomatoes. Allow to sit for a minute.

Spread the grated cheese blend evenly and carefully over the tomatoes on each sandwich half. This is done most easily with your fingers.

Transfer the prepared toast halves to the oven-proof tray, if you have prepped the toast separately. Otherwise, when ready, transfer the tray to the middle rack of the oven.

Bake for 6-8 minutes at 325°F, or until the cheese has thoroughly melted.

In a toaster oven, set the control to broil and broil the toast for a scant two minutes to lightly brown the cheese. In a conventional oven, you will probably have to raise the tray to a higher position closer to the broiler element and be more mindful of how quickly the cheese is browning.

When done, remove and transfer to dishes to serve.


Variations on a theme of ciobatta toast

1. Add Avocado

You can readily turn this easy meal into more of a feast by adding an avocado and making it the ultra-fashionable avocado toast—allegedly the favorite of all millennials.

Simply take a ripe (but not too ripe) avocado, and cut it in half lengthwise. Discard the pit and the stump of the stem.

With a very sharp narrow blade, cut the meat of the avocado into thin (⅜") slices along the length of each half. Gently (gently!) buckle the avocado half in your open hand and loosen the slices. With a large serving spoon carefully release the slices from the skin and remove them in the bowl of the spoon in a single scooping motion. Done right, you'll leave behind no residue, and you can discard or composte the skins.

When the toasts come out of the oven, let them cool a minute and then artfully arrange the slices of each avocado half evenly on top of the cheese on each toast. Serve.

2. With extra time, make a salsa of the tomato

If you have some time, and can afford it for a more leisurely, but even more savory meal, add the following steps to the preparation of the chopped tomato.

After coarsely chopping the tomato, place in a medium bowl and sprinkle with sea salt and a few twists of freshly ground black pepper.  Add the basil and oregano at this point as well. Grate one garlic clove and add to the bowl.

If you like you can also finely chop either a thin slice of sweet onion or a single scallion with the dark green part of the shoot removed. Add this to the bowl.

(optional) If you're into a little spice: seed and stem a fresh red Fresno pepper or a single Serrano pepper. Chop very fine, and add to the bowl.

Drizzle with EVOO, maybe a teaspoon. Add a few drops of a good balsamic vinegar. And mix all the ingredients in the bowl until blended. Allow to sit for at least five minutes.

After toasting the bread, when ready to add the toppings, add the tomato salsa, as directed, using a slotted spoon. Make sure you leave the excess marinating liquids (oil, tomato residue, etc.) in the bowl. Otherwise the toast will get soggy as it cooks. Unless you like soggy.

Finish the toasts as directed.

Howard Dinin