27. December 2013 01:47
“Every earthly thing has a beginning and an end.” Wrote a three-star General in a book on winning warfare. Planning for the end gets one ahead he said. He referred to wars, countries and relations. Not silly, civilian things like restaurants. And yet, given our relatively short time on a very long-lived planet, pets and restaurants are the few things that we outlive routinely. I ate at Wild Ginger in Seattle and was overcome by having outlived so many of my favorites.
It’s hard to quote pop-culture because of its increasing bankruptcy. But there was a scene in The Walking Dead where a character known as “The Governor” (played with repellent brilliance by David Morrissey) performs a monologue about his departed wife. She called him before the apocalypse and he didn’t answer. She didn’t leave a voice mail. “What did she call about?” he muses. If he had known that that was his last chance to speak with her, would he have found the time? What if I knew that on May 2nd, 2009, I would eat at Vong for the last time? Would I have ordered more? Would I have tipped better? I don’t know. 12/16/2010 was my last meal at Opera and 12/30/2010 at Red Light. Any dinner in the West Loop neighborhood usually began with a Mango Martini and tuna appetizer at Red Light. I miss it greatly.
The tuna tatakke at Red Light. The vegetable curry pizza at Vong’s Thai Kitchen. The multi-prepared Duck at Opera. The Chao Tom (shrimp over sugarcane) at Le Colonial. Save for the Rush-street located yet inexpensive Vietnamese, not a single restaurant remains. This is a travesty. In 2009, Elizabeth Gilbert gave a TED talk in which she said that she realizes that her greatest accomplishment may very well be behind her. There is great insight in that statement because it’s so often true with many things and many people. The pop culture name is “one-hit-wonder.” It would be a great shame if Chicago’s best accomplishments in Asian cooking are getting more distant in the rearview.
Anyway, Wild Ginger: there is not a single dish I’ve had here that wasn’t stellar. But the duck is in a category alone. It’s far superior to any I’ve had before or since and I would not be surprised to discover that they sprinkle it with dopamine reuptake inhibitors. If you like the Shrimp/Sugarcane at Le Colonial, you’ll love the lettuce cup here with sea bass. The price, though, you may not. I thought that about the prawns but given how many showed up on the plate, I suppose the average price per prawn was fair. If you recall Red Light and the Mango Martinis…the Mango Daquiri at Wild Ginger is required. I ended up wolfing down so much that I could barely move. This happens every time and can result in an abbreviated evening as we just go home and fall asleep in our clothes since we’re too full to bend over and untie shoes. I do this routinely at steak houses and a place in South Beach called Barton G but this is the only Asian place capable of hitting me in the belt. Trust me, this is saying something.
Seattle is not known for its excellence of service. Although not as bad as LA, Seattle is still West Coast when it comes to energy and speed. Wild Ginger (and Toulouse Petit, Toulouse Petit review) is a shining beacon of exception. I cannot recommend Wild Ginger to you more strongly. Eating there will expose you to flavors you may have forgotten existed. You will receive service so exemplary that it alone pulls up Seattle’s dismal average. You will be reminded of a class of Asian restaurant that has all but left Chicago. Perhaps you, like I, will sprinkle your epicurean evening with a few flakes of nostalgia. And, if you had the privilege to know them, great memories of dear departed friends.
21. December 2013 06:30
Dear Tru, writing you this letter is a little like telling your female friend that she’s gained some weight. She knows. You know. Everyone knows. It usually makes no difference. But occasionally, the friend wakes up one morning and decides she looks like dough. And begins the gym FOR REAL – not just working out the jaw East Bank style. And when we see her in a month she looks amazing because she didn’t have that far to go. You are that friend and I can only hope that your (rock) bottom is higher than that of most.
You and I started dating in 2000. A mere several months after you emerged out of the Lettuce womb. You are my longest-term relationship. My dinner partners have come and gone but you have still remained. My 4-star go-to. My standby. Like a Minnesota Fats, you had no need to hustle others. You made your living by being consistently excellent, no matter what. Against you, others formed their measures. Sadly, your meter-stick has lost some length throughout the years.
I have always thought your dinners to be like gold and diamonds: they owe their value to their scarcity. Some accused you of theatrics but I believed the theater to be important. The “service” part of food. I enjoyed the synchronized pours and the artistry. Both on the walls and off. Gone is the Warhol Marilyn because it (probably) belonged to Mr. Tramonto (Unlimited). But the art of the dining room most certainly did not. Why are we seeing its extinction? Did he take the service with him in the divorce?
My favorite part of dinner was always the wait staff. Unlike other 4-stars, Tru had the novel insight that its diners did not necessarily wish to sit for hours at a foodie funeral. And the waiters would engage the patrons at precisely the level of volume and activity that the patrons wanted. No longer. Yesterday, service was distant, unforgiving and slow to join the punch-line. It made me miss the Tru of old.
Ironically, even though the food is the easiest part for 4-stars to get to perfect, you didn’t even do that. Borrowing from Trotter, you underwhelm the appetizers and main courses and then overdo desserts as if it were a zero-sum investment. Like the balding guy who starts to grow a beard thinking the hair below compensates for the lack above. It doesn’t. I hated this behavior about Trotter’s and I was very disappointed with yesterday’s emulation of the same. But I must admit that what I had was excellent. It always is. Especially the cheese. Can we trade a few desserts for a higher cheese allowance? My household spends more on fermented milk than on gasoline. Our car gets 9 miles per gallon so you can imagine the value of this statement. And yet, we had not a single one of the cheeses on the menu. This is an accomplishment we admire. Unfortunately, I bet the menu is not available to mortals.
Anyway, our years are spent chasing Lettuce Entertain You gold status. Once we reach enough to maintain, we look for places to blow the accumulated rewards. I hate to tell you that next year we will look elsewhere. You probably won’t miss us because our spending is a rounding error on your books. It is said that critics are legless men who teach running. But what I would hate to see is a small group of dedicated nomads do to you what groups did to the Holy Roman Empire. I am not ready to move you out of memory and into history. I don’t want to write the first chapter in the Decline and Fall of the Tru-man empire just yet.