By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
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Mickey Zeppelin appears to be sitting not two tables away, with a group of friends and his partner, Susan Wick, of City Spirit fame. (That legendary LoDo spot lives on in pieces of a mosaic mural at Fuel.) I hear she lives in an old brothel by the railroad tracks. Lucky, lucky, lucky. But enough petty jealousy. It's time to eat.
Our first small plate arrives: fried baby artichokes ($9) with harissa aioli. The concept is French, with a little Morocco thrown in; down-to-earth in a continental way. Then comes a pile of the Italian crepes known as crespelle ($10), fused with ricotta and aged provolone, drizzled with herbs and roasted tomato. Unaccountably, both Marina and I think of eating this dish while watching a really good football game on a very big TV, and every time I grab another crispy little artichoke, I think of diner food. At a five-star diner. In spring.
When I run this by Blair a few days later, he politely rejects it. "I do world cuisine," he says. "Solid, traditional Mediterranean classics. Not over-thought and over-complicated. Not reinventing, just revisiting. We did this appetizer of radicchio leaves sandwiched around smoked mozzarella and a slice of prosciutto, pan-roasted and fried; the filling oozes out the sides and gets crusty.... Everyone asked me how I thought of it, but it's just a simple family-style restaurant dish in Italy."
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Point taken, especially by Marina, who recently spent $500 on a twenty-course meal at Moto in Chicago. She and Ryan ate goat-cheese snow — "essentially goat cheese blown through a snow machine," she says — and a dessert consisting of orange peel smoked by a laser and dunked into pinot noir. "The whole thing was spectacular," she recalls, "and we picked every dish apart in awe. But we started feeling chemically weird by course seventeen or so."
In short, it was exhausting.
Sometimes foodies need a break from dissecting every gourmet meal, she writes. You get the feeling that Bob is just doing what he likes, making some good food for good friends.
Maybe, but my friends have yet to serve me anything as inventive as Blair's gnocchi with ramps ($14). Native Americans depended on ramps to cure such wintertime vitamin-deficiency ailments as scurvy. I can feel these particular ones entering my bloodstream and turning me carnivorous. I attack a New York strip ($26) served with bourbon-ramp butter, pecan potatoes and arugula. The steak is a perfect medium rare, though our server never asked if that's how we wanted it, and while I usually think a good steak is best left alone, the morel-booze flavors change my mind this time.
The main thing, though, is the side — the pecan potatoes.
The potato stuff, Marina scribbles, that's where the genius is. Every other bite is a little different — a little toast, a little peppery green, some warm, buttery love. Like wearing fuzzy-footed PJs.
Hmmm. Dr. Denton's. It could get to that point. After I lived here for a while, no one would care what I wore to Fuel. I'd be a regular. If I didn't live here, I could live in an antique office suite in the old Livestock Exchange Building only half a mile away. And what was that big pink warehouse by the railroad tracks? Decades ago, for about a month, it was an unofficial nightclub known as the Stockyards; I played under-the-table gigs there with an under-the-radar band. Whatever the actual logistics, my barely-suitable-for-human-habitation-building fantasy always involves regular meals at a restaurant designed by me — a dreamy combination of bar, oyster shack, taco trailer, Morton's of Chicago and WaterCourse Foods. In the boatyard, my dad bought lobsters off the boat, boiled them in a stainless steel pail and served them with no sides at all, unless you count vodka, and I was too young for that. The boatyard also introduced me to stacks of ripe tomatoes with basil and the cheese known to Long Island eye-talians as "mozz."
Simple, indigenous cuisine.
Blair stops by to ask about dinner, but also to bus the table. "I'm a cook, I'm a dishwasher, I'm a server," he shrugs. "Whatever has to be done."
Unpretentious, Marina writes. Unapologetic is another good word.
Dessert is a tarte tatin ($7) made not with apples, but with rhubarb — a tweak almost as original as the goat cheese ice cream, which is velvety, not too sweet and kind of inspiring.
I'm thinking there's a lot of open land around here. TAXI could run its own herd of goats. Fuel could make its own line of goat-derived products. I could use the goat-derived manure in a massive compost operation designed by some of the creative people I keep hearing about. It's probably a ridiculous idea, but when I live here, they'll have to humor me. The thing is, I'll bet they know how to do that, too.