The Other Critics

Tamarkin vs. Sula on Au Cheval; Kramer vs. Campagna on RPM

The hamburger <i>au cheval</i> at Au Cheval.
The hamburger au cheval at Au Cheval. Photo: courtesy Au Cheval

It’s compare-and-contrast week at The Other Critics, so let’s start with our first contestant, Au Cheval, squaring off against Mr. Tamarkin and Mr. Sula. Mr. Tamarkin’s verdict on Brendan Sodikoff’s diner-meets-luxe-in-a-French-brothel joint is that it’s “not so much a diner as it is a pit stop. You can eat here, and you can eat well. You just can’t eat dinner.” He has high praise for some items: chopped chicken liver “goes on thick challah with soft salted butter, a combination that is (sorry, but I’ve got to be a drama queen here) so delicious it’s devastating.” But other dishes seem like indulgence without a foundation: “The omelette boasts a smooth, puffy, unblemished surface that looks like butter, but also literally tastes like butter, so much so that it’s hard to take more than one bite. A ham ‘sandwich’ with cheese fondue is not a sandwich at all, but rather a crock of melted cheese dotted with ham and served with toast points.” In the end, “Such excess doesn’t mean this food is bad. It’s just food you have to eat when you’re drunk.” [TOC]

While Mr. Sula acknowledges that this is, ultimately, food for soaking up alcohol (which makes him demand genuine late night hours), he’s more taken with the food and says the key to everything at Au Cheval is that the name, though it literally means “on horseback,” is French diner slang for “with an egg on top.” “There are, basically, eggs with everything: you can have your hen nuts scrambled with foie gras, poached in a midnight special of chilaquiles, nestled among bacon and escarole in a salad, laid atop a croque madame, or shaken in a cognac sidecar. And if that somehow leaves you feeling unfulfilled, for $2 a fried egg can accessorize your brat and smashed potatoes, your 38-ounce foie-and-apple-larded pork porterhouse, or your housemade bologna sandwich.”

His highest praise comes for the burger, which he calls by the old Chowhound term “30s-style”— “In these days of burger fatigue, they stand among the most unique and well played in recent memory. Even one of the few concessions to a body’s need for roughage—a Cheops of shaved fennel, carrot, red cabbage, and apple mined with gobs of blue cheese—looms precariously over the over the table, a provocation to your stomach space.” [Reader]

Our next contestant is RPM Italian. Back at Time Out, Julia Kramer says the scene achieves its goals: “The room has real glamour to it: It’s sophisticated and stylish, and as the army of servers in stark white blazers (dry-cleaning-bill hell, to be sure) moves through it, it’s hard not to feel the restaurant radiates a certain…star quality.” But it takes her a lot of work to find food she thinks is worthy of the chef, Doug Psaltis, saying the glitz “only heightened the disappointment I felt as I trudged through the exercise in mediocrity that is the menu. The textbook burrata is a safe choice and certainly a better one than the chewy, overcooked, ill-conceived ‘lobster caprese’… the whole grilled branzino was beautifully prepared, but the price is comical: $58 for the same size whole fish you can have at Avec for $28.” [TOC]

Joe Campagna at Chicago Food Snob has a similar take but as an Italian chef himself seems downright offended by the place: “Is this the beginning of the end for Lettuce Entertain You? Were any Italians, of any kind, involved in tasting the menu? Will the Melman sons just admit food is and never will be a priority when they open future restaurants?” He describes a restaurant failing at execution on every level: “Plates ranged from border line salty to not a grain in site. The fresh pasta while fresh was often times not cooked properly or created with any kind of care. Ravioli shouldn’t have a crunch and a farfalle should look like a bowtie! I know someone will say it’s hard to make them by hand - yes I know, I did it at Fortunato. But, if my chef or sous chef or anyone saw me make a “bowtie” look like that, I’d be made to start over. I’ve struggled to put in to words how the gnocchi special was last night and I can only say this - It makes you wonder if the people making, cooking and serving the gnocchi have ever had gnocchi.” [Chicago Food Snob]

A lot of money and some decent resumes went into Red Violet, but no one seemed that excited by the prospect of the River North upscale Chinese spot, and Michael Nagrant explains why: “Replace the contemporary black pendant lights with paper lanterns, round the corners of the red couches, and replace the backlit purple panels on the bar top with a little chrome trim and Red Violet could be a time machine back to the day War Su Gai (aka almond boneless chicken) was invented.” The menu seems to be aimed at status seekers with no taste buds: “Foie gras wonton soup at 10 bucks a bowl tastes like every wonton soup I’ve ever had… Red Violet also charges $40 for the pleasure of one past-its-prime King crab leg featuring a sauce of mandarin orange essence and onion-ginger.” In the end, he notes that Red Violet is supposed to represent harmony: “Boy is this place misnamed.” [Sun-Times]

We missed it till now, but Chicago Gluttons have made a rare return to their blog to review, of all things… Next El Bulli: “Sitting down, they brought around water bottled in Spain. I think the urinal cakes in the bathroom were also from Spain. They are taking this kind of seriously.” So does the Glutton writing this (Jaeger), as he goes course by course through the epic meal: “9. Smoked Foam with olive oil brioche. So this was an example of how Adrià straight fucks with people. They didn’t explain this dish to us, just set it out and told us to enjoy. It smelled like lox and tasted like…well…the smell of lox, which is weirdly not the same thing as tasting like lox. It was kind of good, kind of wtf, and the server came back when we finished and explained that Adria liked to introduce these confusing little amuses that aren’t supposed to make any sense. It was, in fact, smoked ice. First, I don’t know how to smoke ice, so that’s cool. Second, what? Seriously? I could almost sense Adria in the corner laughing at me. I would punch his fancy mouth if I wasn’t such a fanboy.” [Chicago Gluttons]

Finally, returning to compare and contrast, Kenny Z looks at the same dish at two different (bit not entirely dissimilar) restaurants. The dish is the Italian soup ribollita. Of the first restaurant he says, “Publican Quality Meats puts far more care into their ribollita than would your average Italian Grandma, and it shows. The broth is complex, with deep, porky flavor and tongue-tingling acidity.” But the second “would embarrass any cook who tasted what PQM is offering. The broth in Bar Toma’s ribollita tastes like nothing but vinegar and salt. 5-inch strips of tough greens that are impossible to eat in any reasonable way fill the bowl, along with big globs of cheese and bread.” [Fuckerberg on Food]

Tamarkin vs. Sula on Au Cheval; Kramer vs. Campagna on RPM