Saturday, February 26, 2011

Chicago's Cafe des Architectes and My Cardinal Rule of Restaurant Dining

I would like to share with you today my cardinal rule of restaurant dining: food in restaurants should not be difficult to eat. If it cannot easily be cut apart, chewed apart, portioned into reasonable-sized bites utilizing the cutlery at my disposal, picked up as a finger food and bitten into reasonable-sized portions without half of it landing on or around my plate, slid onto a fork, stabbed onto a fork, or in any other reasonable and passingly polite way transferred from YOUR plate to MY mouth, you should not be serving it in your restaurant. Fine dining is already intimidating enough for a lot of people - what's proper etiquette? which fork do I use first? what's the proper way of ordering? how can I not make an ass out of myself in front of this waiter who just greeted me in French and told me he would be my "emissary" to the restaurant for the evening? Really, all these rules of decorum - whether real or simply perceived by the insecure diner - can be daunting, but once you get past all that -- past ordering the wine (oh thank god there's a bin number and I don't have to try to pronounce it!!!), past ordering the entree ("What's 'ratatouille'???" "I don't know, I never saw the movie!"), and are finally at the point of being able to relax and enjoy yourself, your mono-lingual fumbling through the Fratalianish menu comfortably behind you, the last thing you expect to encounter is having to fumble with your food. But too often chefs get a little too stuck on visual presentation and fail to account for any practicality in the act of actually EATING it.

Take for example the "Pintxos" at Cafe des Architectes in Chicago. "Pintxos" is French for "tapas" which is Spanish for "small plates" which is American Bougie for "appetizers." Basically the pintxos menu is a small plates menu, served daily from 4 to 7 p.m. and only available at "Le Bar" (that's what it's called, srsly). The pintxos is a combination of toppings - think chorizo with crushed tomatoes, Manchego with black olives - served on crostini. At only $5 each, they're a wonderful and inexpensive way to sample a number of different items. I always prefer going this route since I like to be able to taste more for less, especially without having to lock into an expensive entree I may or may not even enjoy and will probably get sick of eating after just a few bites. I get bored with food easily. Unless it's cheese.

And yes, I also ordered the cheese plate while I was there.

I selected the asparagus + goat cheese and the beef tenderloin + roquefort pintxos. The presentation was lovely: two large crostini piled high with thinly-sliced asparagus/sliced tenderloin and crumbled goat/roquefort cheese, diced tomatoes, greens, held together (but not really) with a toothpick on a plate EXACTLY big enough to fit the two crostini. So cute! So clever!

How the fuck do I eat it?

At this point in your meal you are intractable ... you've already come this far, after all. You're not about to let it all come crashing down around some damn crostini. With steely determination you grab your fork and butter knife and begin sawing into this pretty dish. The crostini cannot - WILL NOT - be cut. It is toasted but still chewy; as you saw back and forth the only thing you succeed in doing is knocking all of the toppings off of it, which ultimately means they end up all AROUND the plate because the plate is *just* big enough to fit them in the first place. With dedication you decide to pick the crostini up and eat it as finger food - it's only a few bites, really; this seems perfectly appropriate. But alas, the toppings are piled too high and are too unstable--no sooner do you attempt one bite than half of the tiny artfully diced tomatoes end up on your plate, in your lap, on your chest, in your cupped hand and all over your fingers. Pretty much everywhere but your mouth, really. Then one of the large gobs of goat cheese plops onto your phone as you still have the crostini raised to your mouth with which you are trying to gently pull and shake the loose toppings in the greatest danger of going over thereby coaxing them down your gullet, then the crostini itself gives in and the whole bloody mess ends up in deconstructed piles on and around your plate, and despite this place having the word "architect" in the name you're pretty sure it wasn't meant as a Derrida reference.

You are undeterred. It is now a matter of principal.

Surely there MUST be some way of eating this. So now you determine that you must first eat the majority of the toppings off the crostini THEN eat the crostini with just a few sparse toppings on it as finger food because CLEARLY you cannot pick up the whole thing nor can you cut it into manageable pieces for ease of edibility. I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. So you pick up your fork and resolutely begin eating the individual toppings. Until you get to the thinly-sliced asparagus. Which is too long to be slid onto the fork, and too thin and slippery to be stabbed onto the fork, and too ungainly to be picked up crostini-and-all and consumed as wholly without the fork.

You start to panic. The diced tomatoes are everywhere. It looks like a four-year-old child ate at your place setting. You've stained your shirt, soiled the table linens and the napkin on your lap which thank GOD you remembered to put there or else you'd have to buy a new pair of jeans for the remainder of your stay in Chicago, your food is all over your face and fingers and you STILL haven't figured out just how in the holy hell you're supposed to eat these things and you're humiliated because you KNOW the entire staff has seen your struggle and are probably laughing to themselves about it and you think to yourself, THIS is the fine dining experience??? You're convinced it's you; that you're doing something wrong and that everyone else is effortless and graceful in the way they delicately eat these dishes.

I am not a delicate person. Most often I'm a bear with a bullhorn in a china shop full of anthropophobics with sensitive hearing. I'm loud and messy and clumsy. I prefer paper plates over china, licking my fingers clean over wiping them on linens, and eating with my hands over using utensils pretty much always. (I'm not sure how I got this gig as a food writer either. Moving along.) If there is something to be spilled, stained, dropped, knocked off a plate, flung from a plate due to a utensil malfunction, etc., I will be the person who makes it happen. So I understand what's it's like; I do. You don't have to be ashamed anymore! Much as I loathe restaurants that try to sell me on the idea of preparing and cooking my own food at three times the cost of me just doing it at home and having to cut my own salad greens, I ***HATE*** not being able to actually EAT the food I order because it's just too damn difficult to maneuver.

It always makes me think of my days in retail, may I starve and die a thousand deaths before returning to that realm. We would receive new visual directives, like extensive window changes that required 10-ft ladders, fishing line, wooden planks, 5-ft decals, 8-ft foam boards, 2 boxes of straight pins, a roll of packing tape, industrial-strength double-sided tape, 14-ft banners, 27 mannequins each wearing 3 layers of clothing and heavily accessorized, beaded chandeliers and added track lighting we had to install ourselves (go ahead: ask me about my last trip to the emergency room that resulted in 11 stitches), and we would be allocated less than $40 in payroll (or approximately one manager and one part-time minimum-wage associate working two hours each) to implement the directive. And all these times I would wonder, has anyone on the corporate visual team ever actually TRIED to set this within the same set of restrictions in personnel, time, and professional skill sets as they expect us to be able to do? Much like I wondered that I also wonder if some of the chefs in these high-profile kitchens ever try to eat some of their more visually striking creations with a plain old fork and knife.

They tasted great, BTW. Not trying to diminish that. Once I was able to Cirque du Soleil them into my mouth, that is.

All of that being said - and it was quite a mouthful! AY-OOOO! - I feel bad that Cafe des Architectes has to take the brunt of my wrath regarding challenging cuisine. It's not just them. It's actually a very fine restaurant with a clever and inventive French-inspired menu and really wonderful staff (Lisa at "Le Bar" was absolutely lovely: very engaging, clearly able to read her customers well, gave a great wine recommendation - the whole staff seemed excellent in this regard). I came here to try their Chicago Restaurant Week lunch menu, which sounded rather exceptional in a sea of some 200+ rather average-sounding menus. But being the perennially tardy person that I am, I missed the lunch menu and wasn't as excited about the dinner option, so I opted for the pintxos and, naturally, the French cheese plate with Brie de Meaux, Langres, Crottin Maitre Seguin, mango chutney, an OUTSTANDING balsamic reduction, candied walnuts, and crusty breads. The glass of Pascal Jolivet Sancerre Sauvignon Blanc I had to pair was absolutely delightful, and at $19 for a glass I could have bought a whole bottle AND a king-sized candy bar at Costco! Yes, my biggest gripe about this place specifically was the outlandishly overpriced wine list (see: Ravenswood Zinfandel, $14; Cakebread Cellars Merlot, $19...per glass).

It being located inside the ultra-sleek Sofitel Hotel, the decor is done in an edgy, dramatic art deco palette of red, black and white with a lot of play on geometric shapes and patterns seemingly echoed in the presentation of the dishes. Despite my above griping (come on, I NEVERRRRRRR get to do that anymore!), I did enjoy this place and would certainly visit again. Having not been to all the gastro-this-and-thats in Chicago I can still pretty comfortably say that I don't think this place is doing anything so terribly different than the others, but it is nonetheless an enjoyable meal. Check out their Restaurant Week lunch menu below to see for yourself why this place made my short list.

Café des Architectes

French | Lunch, Dinner
20 E. Chestnut St. | Chicago IL 60611
City-N.Michigan | 312 324-4000

Enjoy Executive Chef Greg Biggers' cuisine rooted in French culture showcasing products from Midwestern farmers at Cafe des Architectes. The restaurant is located in the fashionable Gold Coast neighborhood and is a modern restaurant with dramatic appointments created by interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon. Vibrant colors, overstuffed chairs, sprawling banquettes and lamps that employ upside-down toques as lamp shades grab your attention. The carefully crafted interior's design serves as the perfect landscape for the approachable cuisine crafted from ingredients procured from local farmers. "Top Ten Chicago Restaurant," Chicago Sun-Times, 2009. 3 stars, Chicago magazine, Chicago Tribune. Open Daily. B: 6am-11:30am; Br (Sat. and Sun. only): 11:30am-5pm; L: 11:30am-5pm; D: 5pm-11pm. Reservations accepted for lunch and dinner only.Valet

February 18-27, 2011
Lunch Menu

(choice of one)
Celery Root Velouté
truffles / micro salad / fresh herbs
Artichoke Salad
oven dried tomato / carrot mousse / lemon confit
Rillettes of Salmon
chives / crème fraiche / baguette croûton

(choice of one)
Shrimp Terrine
avocado / piquillo peppers / lemon
Grilled Red Mullet
dill / cider vinegar sabayon / spinach purée
Stuffed Leg of Lamb
ratatouille niçoise / winter spices / cardamom jus

Pistachio Cream
chocolate coulis / iranian pistachios / crisp
Pineapple Soup
coconut sorbet / brunoise of exotic fruits / vanilla
Chocolat Moelleux
cakey / creamy / crunchy