People often focus on the downside of drinking, like how it makes some people crash their cars into buildings, or how you feel a kinship with death during the morning hangover. However, inebriation also has its delights. There’s the giddiness and belief in all possibility that grips your brain somewhere after the third libation. Drink is also responsible for the glory of the early morning fourth meal, which, as long as there is any decent measure of grease, sugar, and salt involved, tastes like the greatest thing you have ever eaten. There are whole institutions, the $2 slice joint, dirty water hot dogs, and here in Chicago, Flash Taco, that would not exist without liquor-induced palate goggles. Advertisements
Toons Bar & Grill owner Danny Beck has always been a huge fan of New Orleans. He launched his cooking career at the New Orleans’ House of Blues location as training for joining the opening crew for the Chicago location’s restaurant. He’s made many subsequent pilgrimages to New Orleans over the years and regularly transformed Toons into a ragin’ Cajun fest for the bar’s semi-annual crawfish boils. Beck wanted to celebrate his love for New Orleans, as well as the southern cooking inspiration of his grandmother, Pearl, so he partnered with one of his Toons managers, Rich Hagerty, to open Pearl’s Southern Comfort in Edgewater. I stopped in recently to see if Pearl’s was the place to, as they say in New Orleans, “Laissez les bons temps rouler” (let the good times roll).
You may stumble upon a decent version of gumbo at stalwart Heaven on Seven or some neo-Cajun spot downtown, but they’re no match for the bowl at Three Chefs ($5.99 for a small bowl, $9.99 for a large bowl). All the components that make this gumbo great—the dark and brackish roux (a cooked mix of fat and flour that thickens gumbo), chubby curls of pink shrimp, oval slivers of garlicky caramelized chicken sausage, sweet pepper and cayenne—combine to warm your body and soul.
As a regular visitor to Louisiana and a stalwart aficionado of all things Cajun and Creole, it is difficult for me not to compare Blue Island’s Maple Tree Inn, which bills itself as a “Louisiana Brasserie,” to the restaurants of New Orleans. Against that standard, the Maple Tree Inn doesn’t always stack up. That doesn’t really matter, for the Maple Tree Inn is its own very beautiful, unique thing.
Ever wonder how Utah, that bastion of alcohol-eschewing, modesty-pursuing, piety-peddling Mormons ended up naming their basketball team after the devil’s music, Jazz? Well, to quote Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei’s character in “My Cousin Vinny”) when questioned about the correct ignition timing on a 1955 Chevy Bel Air with a 327-cubic-inch engine and a four-barrel carburetor: That’s a bullshit question.
There are times I’m primed to make fun of a restaurant. I’m not indulging in some twisted unprofessionalism, just human nature. I know if I told you I was going to a place that serves Caribbean, Creole and Southern food in a tin-roofed faux-island-style shanty outfitted with a Pier One’s worth of wicker and kitschy wall-mounted bric-a-brac including taxidermied fish and vintage soda company advertising, you’d probably respond, “I didn’t know TGI Friday’s launched a Jamaican specialty menu.”
Normally, when I write a restaurant review, I try to avoid indulging in blow-by-blow course descriptions, poor adjectives and Architectural Digest-style décor treatises, a feat I like to call the “Pat Bruno.” Instead, I try to look for the story behind the restaurant, personal memoir spurred by dining at the establishment or a cultural context in which to put the food. But I was so appalled by the experience and the food at YATS Cajun-Creole Cuisine, a new Chicago location of a popular quick-service Indianapolis-based restaurant, I’m having a hard time avoiding a hyperbolic damning diatribe. Eating there last week was the worst dining experience—and that includes trips to the now-shuttered Bennigans—of my career as a food writer.
Most restaurants prepare food in advance, a dirty secret that involves quick reheating and a dash of garnish added to the plate before it’s served to the customer. At Lagniappe, chef Mary Madison’s Cajun Creole “joynt,” she works from scratch, searing off the onion and green pepper, making the roux and throwing the crawfish in the pot only after you place your order. “I’ve often found people who eat out often sacrifice quality for ambience,” Madison says. Her green tomatoes are toothsome wheels of deep-fried goodness, and her etouffee, a chocolate-brown swamp of plump crawfish beached on an island of white rice, conjures an afternoon in New Orleans. Only Madison’s ambition and vision rival her culinary chops. Prior to starting Lagniappe in 1999, she began serving home-cooked meals to a handful of people under Lower Wacker Drive, an endeavor that has grown into ministry that feeds more than a 150 homeless people every other Sunday. Inspired by high-end chefs like Charlie Trotter, she hopes to eventually open a fine-dining restaurant based on her Cajun Creole roots to provide residents of her South Side neighborhood Auburn Gresham with more culinary choices. Q. What do you wish you could change or pickle…