Sunday, December 25, 2016

Au Shit, our journey to Au Cheval (The Best Burger in America??)

The famous Au Cheval Burger 
I've never owned anything of great importance in my life. It seemed like a privilege afforded to only those who deserve it. The ones who had it all "together". I've been a vagabond for so long, that it seemed superfluous to collect silly material objects. I'd rather spend my time and life making the people around me beautiful.

Lately, however, I've come to realize that my inability (or perhaps reluctance?) to collect material objects is rooted in my blatant disregard of traditional paths.  While most of my peers settled down, had kids, and bought houses, I was off blazing a most nontraditional trail. I do not mean by this declaration to belittle or chastise traditional choices. All choices are valid ones, so long as they remain true to one's values.

Going off the tried and true path has added a few brilliant failures to my record. But why on earth should that matter? I think that failure should be celebrated in a cacophony of sound.

Speaking of brilliant failures, this post is going to be vastly different than any posts I've previously concocted. In this post, my friend Lauren and I chronicle our journey to go and try the purported best burger in America! We failed twice to get in to Au Cheval in Chicago, but found other journeys on our path to the legendary burger.


The Path to Au Cheval: A Journey, a Legend, and a Life Affirming Adventure

Lauren and I have been friends for almost 5 years now. We met in the hallowed halls of 20 Rockefeller Plaza, during our brief stints working for Christie's. It was a harried time, Elizabeth Taylor's jewels demanded all of our attention, but our friendship flourished. It has survived my moves away from New York City, to London, and finally culminated in our joint moves to Washington, DC. And so, a vivid description of our journey in Chicago...

 Day 1: Little Goat Diner and Duck Duck Goat

The monstrosity known as "The Goat Almighty"
In a harried attempt to thwart the notoriously long wait at Au Cheval, Lauren and I decided to try our luck at a lunch seating. I arrived 20 minutes after the place opened and the wait was already bordering on 2+ hours. 

We were reluctant to waste a good day in Chicago, and settled on starting an impromptu tour of Stephanie Izard's Little Goat Diner in West Loop (we had reservations at another one of her establishments later in the day).

Our conclusion for Little Goat? Completely overhyped and underwhelming. While there, we indulged in a blue fish crostini, fries, and the unholy creation known as "The Goat Almighty". The flavors on the blue fish crostini, which consisted of cream cheese, pickled jalepenos, and blue fish, did not seamlessly meld on the crostini. A crostini that was far too thick to use as a serving vehicle. The fries were cut so thin that they ended up having the texture of potato chips. Finally, the burger was far too ambitious, so much so, that each individual meat on the burger seemed horrifically neglected. Instead of doing one meat perfectly, Stephanie decided to do three meats (goat burger, braised beef, and bbq pork) in an unspectacular fashion.

Duck Duck Goat:

After a brief 3 hour break, Lauren and I returned to the West Loop to try our luck at Stephanie's Duck Duck Goat, Izard's take on Chinese flavors.

A delicate butternut squash broth
We started with a beautifully made wonton soup in a butternut squash broth. The flavors in this soup were so well balanced that nothing competed against each other on my palette. The wontons, however, left much to be desired. The filling was overwhelmed by the wrapper, and the wrapper was rubbery.

Next, Lauren ordered a shaved broccoli and rabe salad. We were both convinced that we could have seasoned and prepared these vegetables much better on our own. The greens were under-salted and overwhelmed by sesame oil and garlic.

The Sichuan Eggplant with Goat Sausage followed closed behind the greens, and we finally understood some of the hype around Duck Duck Goat. The sausage and eggplant combination was heavenly.

Finally, we finished with the hand pulled beef slap noodles. Stephanie traveled to China to learn how to make these noodles by hand, I think she needs to fill some of the gaps in her noodle education. The flavors of the dish were excellent, but the noodles themselves did not have uniform thickness nor were they as thin as traditional Chinese noodles.

Overall, although the flavors at Duck Duck Goat were excellent, the restaurant itself still has a long way to go.

Take 2: The Publican and Au Cheval

On Saturday morning we were energized and ready to try again with the behemoth that is Au Cheval. Both Lauren and I prepped for the burgers with a quick early morning workout and began the 45 minute walk to Au Cheval. We were going to make it through the door this time, no way anyone was stopping us!

"It looks like it's going to be a 2 to 3 hour wait, and the kitchen closes by 3, we can't guarantee that you'll get in."

Lauren and I glanced at each other.

"I don't care, I'll camp out at the bar from 3 to 5 while we wait for the kitchen to open again."

Lauren replied with determined resolution. She was ready to sell her soul for the burger that Bon Appetite had named the best burger in America.

So off we went to The Publican to get through the wait.

We hunkered down at The Publican and decided on what "appetizers" we would wait with. Lauren picked a few oysters and I chose a savory monkey bread.

We went around tasting the oysters from different states and farms and quietly traded notes on which were our favorites. We enjoyed the savory monkey bread with a delicious beer cheese as I feverishly checked our place in line. Two hours later the line showed that we went from 60th in line to 10th. We nodded and made a beeline back to Au Cheval.

The hostess informed us that we had 15 more minutes to go and had it made it in time before the kitchen closed. Lauren and I mentally high fived one another, and prepared for the meat dream that was now firmly within our grasp.

That baby just couldn't stop drinking
We were seated and immediately ordered a few libations (I forgot to mention that Lauren's beautiful daughter joined us throughout this adventure). We both ordered the single patty (Note: Au Cheval's single patty is actually a double patty and the double is a triple patty) and an order of the Morney fries with a sunny side up egg. We debated whether to add bacon and egg to our burgers, but decided to try a classic burger with cheese. After all, there's nothing wrong with a good old missionary burger from time to time, it certainly gets the job done.

And then, it CAME....

Hark the herald angels sing!!!
OH! Ohhh Ohhh.....OHHHh Babbbyy!
As we bit into our first succulent bite of the burger we smiled in ecstasy. The patty was smashed (as all good burgers should be), had a lovely charred crust, and was salted to perfection. The burger had young slightly crispy pickles with a brine-y sweetness, a lovely mayo and onion secret sauce, and perfect slices of melty American cheese.

(In case you were wondering I have absolutely no issues with processed cheese, and neither does J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. So get off your high horse and read his article on the virtues of American cheese HERE)

We both died for the mornay and the fries were (I believe double) fried to golden perfection. I would go back for these fries alone.

The Ultimate Question

So was it the best burger in America?

Although it was delicious, and worth the wait, I think I would have to safely rank Au Cheval within the top 5 to 10 burgers in the country. I wouldn't call it the best burger in the country. I realize that Au Cheval suffers from it's designation as the best burger in the country, there is so much hype it has to live up to, but it is still one of the most delicious things I have had in my mouth.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

I rode the pain down, got off and looked up, looked into your eyes (Mediterranean Style Meatballs)

Mediterranean Meatballs
As I stand here on the precipice of so many changes in my life, I cannot help but acknowledge how far I have come. I am humbled, and on my knees, in awe of it all. Grateful for this broken kingdom I have.

I am reminded of Yudishtira's line in the Mahabharata, "I am glad my uncle gave me this ruined land for a kingdom. At least now, we have a challenge before us. I am grateful for a destiny that tests me".

As much as I have resisted, the wrong people, the wrong places, and the wrong decisions have always taught me the right lessons.

And after all those bitter potions, I believe that the right things DO come along. Friends who love you when you are unlovable. Lovers who can't help but think about you all day long. All day long spent thinking about that kiss that was just right. Just the right moments culminating in that magnum opus, one you've fruitlessly tried to construct before.

To the amazing, intelligent, and kind people who have filled my broken kingdom over the past couple of years, thank you for reminding me what magic feels like. I'm reflecting light because of the mirrors you've given me. You fill my eyes with stars, my heart with hope, and my stomach with butterflies.

A Profile of Love: A

This week's love profile is one I've been sitting on for quite some time. During my travels to Chicago I came across quite a few characters, but A topped them all. And so, his love profile...

How do you know when you've found the right guy?

It's like training a dog, girl you have to be a good trainer. Teach them how to sit stay and roll over. And I know because I was trained. You need to watch that show dog whisperer.

How did you meet your wife?

I was this guy that was just known for being single. Always traveling around having a good time with friends. I was on vacation in Jamaica with a good group of friends, and I end up meeting this girl at the pool.

She just blew my mind, I knew I met my wife after that first time meeting her. But she was only in Jamaica for four more days with her family, so she gave me her number.

What set her apart from all the other women you'd met?

I think the boys of this generation don't know what to do when a woman of quality comes around anymore. I didn't know I was a gentleman until I met her. She made me want to be a man and made me act like a gentleman.

She wasn't forceful she just acted like a lady and that made me man up to be what she needed me to be. When you see a keeper, you just have to step up and make it work otherwise you'll regret it forever.

How did you propose?

After six months of dating each other she called me up and said we could be friends if I don't want anything serious. Her exact words were, "I don't want to waste your time".

I couldn't imagine living life without her.

I didn't know nothing, I just knew that girl had me.

So I got down on one knee the next time we met in person. When the lady is a lady she makes the man be a gentleman. She was the first lady that made me want to act like a gentleman.

Did you two have an issues in the beginning and how do you resolve disputes?

A lot of men liked her and looked at her, so I had to get used to that. I used to get really uncomfortable and upset about that in beginning. She was definitely out of my league, but you have got to go higher and see if you can do it. I felt lucky that none of the other men in her life had the courage to step up and go for her.

But I was jealous, and I would pick fights over it. But not her, she was Ms. Cool. Even to this day I've never heard her raise her voice. She just put me in my place, "I'm not going to have that foolishness, have a seat and we can talk about it". She amazes me at her calmness and coolness.

Keeping in line with the theme of unexpected things coming into your, this week's recipe is based around these Thai chilies. I unwittingly received these amazing chilies from a really cool person! They were so amazing that I had to make a full size recipe instead of my usual single serving.

These bad boys
Mediterranean Style Meatballs
Serves: 4 to 6 people

Meat Mixture
4 Slices of French Bread
1/2 Cup Sweet Red Wine (like Chianti or Lambrusco)
1 lb Ground Beef
3 Garlic Cloves, Minced
1 1/2 tsp Cumin
1/2 Smoked Paprika
1 Egg
Salt and pepper to taste

1 Medium Onion, Minced
3 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 Can Tomato Sauce
1 1/2 Tbsp Tomato Paste
1/4 Cup Chicken Stock
1 Cinnamon Stick
3 Thai Chilies
1 tsp Sugar
1/2 tsp cumin
1 tsp Smoked Paprika
Salt and Pepper to taste
2 Tbsp Greek Yogurt

Slivered Almonds for Garnish

1. Place bread and wine in small bowl and allow to soak for 5 minutes

2. Add all the meat ingredients and bread mixture to a bowl and mix together

3. Form meat mixture into 2 inch balls

4. Shallow fry the meatballs in 3 tablespoons of olive oil until cooked through

5. As the meatballs are cooking begin preparations on the tomato sauce, fry minced onions in 2 tablespoons of olive oil until translucent

6. Add minced garlic and saute for another 2 to 3 minutes

7. Add tomato sauce, tomato paste, Thai chilies, tomato paste, and cinnamon stick. Simmer for 10 minutes

8. Removed cooked meatballs and set aside

9. Add in Greek yogurt to the tomato sauce and mix thoroughly

10. Add meatballs into tomato sauce and heat for 3 to 4 minutes

11. Serve the meatballs with crusty bread or basmati rice

Just have a look at this beauty