Michael Nagrant / 05.17.19

You are reading this review for free on the internet. This is because, one, I’m stupid, and two, because of the perceived and real pressures of a system. While you would take great pleasure from me counting the ways of my idiocy in depth, let’s examine that system first.

Many years ago, Al Gore, he, of the robotic mien, fell in love with a server and impregnated it. The internet was born. Unless you liked digital facsimiles of scrolling marquees, the content on the internet wasn’t very good. When things aren’t very good, and everyone does them, they become a commodity without value, which means people aren’t willing to pay much, or at all, for them. As such, content on the internet was mostly free. 

Successful media companies, who did produce non-commodity journalism, didn’t realize their value, and they too provided their online content for free. Pretty soon, consumers got used to paying nothing for something online. They also stopped differentiating whether something was worth paying for and assumed because they’d always gotten it for free, that was what it was worth.

A few successful media companies, like the Wall Street Journal, got smart and started charging for their online content. They could do this because they produced something few people were, but also, because they had capital, and could absorb losses or lower profits while consumers adapted to a paid model.

Smaller producers had a harder time making the leap, and so relied on advertising models for revenue. As with many digital models, scale favored the owner of the digital delivery mechanism, i.e. Google, Uber, etc., not the individual producer. Blogs would die and new ones would replace them. For every person that quit driving Uber, five more would pop up to snarl traffic in your favorite metro area during rush hour.

It’s been a hard knock life for individual digital producers ever since. The fear of going to a pay model, has led to a de facto collusion by individual producers. If most people offer free content, irrespective of its quality, and people have gotten used to that model, you will often have a very difficult time charging more than zero or marginal. Free market people will fight me to death on this idea. And yet, on every corner, in every two-bit town, there is a person telling you how much meaning music has in their life as they consume it for the price of zero.

The same thing has happened in the restaurant industry. Irrespective of costs or value, but because of certain pressures, many restaurateurs have held their food prices to an artificial level. Sometimes, savory dishes are produced at a loss, or, at most, single digit margins. Restaurants have often tried to make up these profits on desserts or liquor, or, as has happened lately, additional separate line item fees to subsidize healthcare or general employee welfare, to stay profitable.

I know the restaurant economy is more complex than this. Restaurants are also a market with a very low barrier to entry. You don’t have to go to school or really have any qualifications, except the ability to pass a sanitation class and the guile to secure some business licenses to start one. A lot of bad business decisions are also being made and commodity food with terrible value is being served, which also impacts the ability to charge certain prices. There are thousands of tacos stands and noodle joints that all produce the same dried tortilla filled with steamed greyish beef, or soggy noodles with rubbery chicken. They deserve to charge less or to close. I am not talking about those spots.

As an individual content producer, I sympathize with the struggle of value-producing hardworking chefs and restaurateurs to charge more. I may seem like an idiot because I do not charge people to read what I believe to be quality unique content on my website (Where else can you get 1000 words on economics, before I review the actual food?). However, I have made the decision not to charge because I want as many people as possible to read my work, and I am lucky to have a separate non-writing job to support that goal. I do not have to make a living as a writer (as much as I would love to). Chefs, however, are often already working the equivalent of two jobs running their restaurants. They do not have the luxury to subsidize their desires with another profession. They also, like individual online content producers, have incredible outward pressures to contend with.

Even though they are clearly not the same thing, an independent restaurateur producing a sustainable farm-raised burger that tastes like heaven, still competes against a McDonald’s cheeseburger or a White Castle from the grocery freezer case. 

Few people go shopping for semiconductors or flash memory or electronic sensors, so they just pay $1200 for their iPhone and get on with their day. But, everyone (except sitting American Presidents) goes to the grocery store, so they know the cost of a potato. As such, they freak out about $10 order of tater tots even if the tots are hand-grated, topped with caviar, and fried in duck fat.

A lot of restaurants are not using factory-farmed commodity food sold at Walmart. They’re using organic, locally grown produce and responsibly raised meat from a small family farm. While people can often taste and appreciate the quality differences, rarely do they accept the pricing consequences.

People who routinely burn toast, spoon Smuckers out of the jar, and burn and under-season their meat every day, believe that when a chef produces a torchon of foie gras served with housemade jam on house-baked brioche, that’s the same thing.

And finally, like I said, a significant population of restaurants have held their food prices artificially low for so long that, diners have become conditioned to paying less than they should.

As a result, you see places like Mission Chinese in New York getting in to bed with Arizona Iced tea, or Giant in Chicago, partnering with corporate plastic wrap producers, so they can pay their employees more. Consumers and critics will drag these chefs and owners with the same fervor as a Democrat trolling a Republican trying to take away womens’ reproductive rights.

And, while I don’t love the trend, I am sympathetic to why it’s happening. Jason Vincent of Giant is one of Chicago’s best chefs. His food is truly differentiated and is in the delicious 1%.  He should be able to charge more. Instead of putting a separate line item for employee health care on the guest check or doing off-night promotions with corporations, he should be able to fold all his costs in to the price of dish. He earns this with his quality. No one makes a better deep fried uni shooter. I might even argue that if he tries, he can charge what he needs. But, I am likely wrong, because, if he could, he would do that instead of working with PR Firms who court influencers, to pay the bills. Jason is a very principled guy and one of the more conscious chefs in Chicago.

Vincent is not the only top chef facing these kinds of pressures. Galit, a new Middle Eastern restaurant, from Andres Clavero and the James Beard award-winning chef Zachary Engel, in Lincoln Park has come under scrutiny for its pricing. 14 of the 28 current Yelp reviews for the spot, including many positive ones, complain about price relative to portion size.

Why is a professional critic paying attention to the psychological cesspool that is Yelp? While their numerical ratings are useless (the average Yelp rating is somewhere between four and five on a five star scale), the qualitative reviews can be useful. You will have to throw out about 20% of the angry screeds posted because the writer was not served a gluten-free-vegan meal with extra bacon on short notice, but you can often get a good aggregate understanding of a place by reading a certain number of reviews. And right now, what the Yelp mob is saying is that Engel’s food, even if it is extraordinary, is too expensive.

This is bullshit.

What Engel and Clavero are doing is charging the right number for a level of food that is almost peerless. Until now, outside of Lettuce Entertain You’s Aba, Chicago’s Middle Eastern offering has been a wasteland of pre-processed previously-frozen gyro cone schwarma and desiccated falafel dust. 

$16 for hummus you say?  Well, yeah, because you are sitting in a space that cost over a million dollars to build out, and the chickpea dip is not scooped out of a sad plastic Sabra container with a sketchy pretzel in your dinky Lakeview apartment. At Galit, your nostrils flare at the whiff of charcoal smoke used to roast the tenderest brisket, whose savory juices dribble in to a puree of chickpeas so silky, you could shave with it. That hummus is served with pita pillows billowing yeast and wheat, made to order in a wood-burning oven located just past an expanse of handsome teal-colored glass tile.

If you run out of that pita, because you have entered a carbohydrate catatonia due to the pita’s deliciousness, and house the whole thing mindlessly, they will bring you more.

$22 for pickles? Yes, and also, lustrous labneh flowing with hyssop and sumac, a yogurt so brawny, a tub of Chobani would shiver if it accidentally crossed paths with it in a dark alley. There are also charcoal-burnished brussels sprouts, suffused with orange blossoms, and flecked with spicy sunflower seeds. There is a rusty mound of ezme, a heady whip of tomatoes and peppers rife with buttery walnuts, chives, and hot garlic. You may spoon it directly in to your mouth if you run out of pita momentarily, as I did.

Heck at $17, the foie torchon slathered on pistachio challah licked with a slick of sour cherry jam is a relative deal (Bunny Bakery is charging $18 for a similar dish, although their foie IS molded in to the shape of a brain).

$12 falafel balls are fried until their deep mahogany-colored crusts are crackling. Split one open and coriander and cumin perfume bathe your soul. It’s like experiencing the poshest of ancient spa treatments, that you can also eat.

Ironically, the cheapest thing on the menu, the $9 bark of butternut squash swimming in what looks like runny peanut butter (walnut cream) strewn with pomegranate and marigold is overpriced.  It is pretty, looking a touch like remnants of an Indian wedding ceremony. But, texturally, it’s mush on mush, a warm and gloppy surprise lacking acidity. The pomegranates might have provided brightness, but they are suffocated by the walnut cream.

The chicken thigh at $18 has a crunchy carbonized skin that slips from the flesh and eats like a poultry chicharron. The whipped feta below is a cloud. The thigh’s meaty interior borders on dry and needs a dash of salt. The peas are a bit mushy and do not have that flavorful essence of soil and air that the very best spring produce exudes.

The Balkan stuffed cabbage, juicy lamb kebab swaddled in a thin crispy wrapper and painted with a slick of fiery sweet harissa is a lasagna killer, a bomb of comfort, a blast of flavor. Once you taste this, you will crave it forever like Friday night pizza.

There is also krembo for dessert, a chocolate-wrapped marshmallow with a cookie bottom, basically a gourmet Mallomars. I would have paid extra for it if I didn’t have to wait for my coffee to arrive ten minutes after the dessert, but this was a minor blip amidst a series of gracious service encounters.

If Galit suffers at all, it is not in its pricing. It is that Engel is launching a concept which is not entirely different from his previous places of employment, Zahav in Philadelphia or Alon Shaya’s spots in New Orleans and Denver. More germane is that Aba, from CJ Jacobson, in Chicago, is somewhat on par, though not completely, with what Engel is doing. I was not as delighted or surprised at Galit, as I was sitting on the patio at Shaya’s Saba, whose pickles were a touch brighter, and whose pita texture was a touch more in balance. It is much better to be Andy Warhol, than the next dude who silkscreened a four panel colorized series of portraits.

Still, Engel has contracted a farm to grow hyssop for the restaurant, so they can make a true za’atar blend instead of using cheaper oregano adulterated commercial blends. He’s baking pita to order, finishing plates with killer olive oil, running hummus through the finest of mesh sieves, and cooking over live fire. Real tahini and sumac don’t come cheap. His wine list descriptions offer a hefty dose of smart-assery (“when in doubt, pinky out”, “badass red juice”), which I may have to make fun of in a future installment of Food Critics Reading Menus.

Given all this, Engel’s $65 tasting menu represents one of the most comprehensive pre-fixe meal values in Chicago. I would pay $85 for it too.

You may suggest that I’m crazy to urge restaurateurs to involuntarily raise their prices to be in line with their value to sustain profitability, since diners are benefitting from lower prices. Remember that I am not advocating as a critic on a dining budget, but as an independent reviewer who pays with his own dollars and who would be directly impacted by the move. If restaurants don’t become more economically sensible, diners will suffer, either in having restaurants they love, close, or by being served poorly by overworked and under-compensated people suffering a low quality of life.

Then again, while everyone hates website pop-up ads, or that every surface of a sporting arena is emblazoned with corporate logos, as consumers we’ve shown we’re willing to endure these things. If you insist on paying the same price you paid for a shrimp cocktail in 2005 in the year 2019, then you probably won’t mind if the chef plates dessert directly on the table with a message that says, “this sweet ending brought to you by Hershey’s” in a hot fudge swirl.

Galit is located at 2429 N. Lincoln Ave. in Chicago, IL