Friday, October 10, 2008

Ruminations on Mac and Cheese, Calgary and Chicago

It’s possible that I may end my days by drowning in a bowl of mac and cheese.

Macaroni cheese wasn’t something my mum ever served when I was growing up. I would like you all to believe that my mum would only ever serve a perfect spaghetti carbonara, perhaps followed by a simple green salad and then a piece of reggiano she’d been maturing in the family cheese cave, but we were more likely to get an economy beef burger from Kwik Save. I don’t believe I even tried pasta until I was 13 years old. So really I have no right to laugh at the Canadian obsession with Kraft Dinner, because I am sure that this is the sort of thing mum would have loved. I’m just so anti food stuffs that come in packages and are jacked up with preservatives, sodium and e numbers, that I doubt I’ll ever try it.

Luckily, lots of places serve beautifully home made mac and cheese here, and I think I might have to try them all.

My mac and cheese of the year (so far) was at Table Fifty-Two in Chicago. I was somewhat suspicious at first, as it’s run by Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to get Fat Oprah or Thin Oprah food. Luckily it’s the former, and Art Smith is aiming to be “the home of Southern hospitality in Chicago”. It’s a cute little space, with a counter in front of the open wood burning oven, where singletons like me can go and try and chat up a chef. It’s great, they *have* to talk you and you don’t end up feeling all alone in a strange city. Of course one downside is that you also end up talking to the people sat next to you, who are also generally sad singletons and use words like “toothsome” to describe the cat-fish (yes, I nearly stabbed the man to my right) or keep telling you that you’re a food writer because you’re taking photos (no, I am not, as this blog attests).

The food at Table Fifty-Two is well worthy of investigation. The menu was full of things that I wanted to eat, most notable of which was a side dish of three cheese macaroni. However, I also really wanted to have crab cake with fennel and Georgia peanut remoulade and cat fish with bacon braised collard greens, hush puppy and cheese grits, and sadly I’d forgotten to pack my extra stomach for the trip, so I tried to score a half-serve of the mac. “Art doesn’t do half-serves” said the waiter. So I had to give it up and set to enjoying the wood fired biscuit they served me, along with a little devilled egg amuse.

Table Fifty-Two isn’t perfect, although the food and hospitality are pretty exceptional. They serve Fiji water instead of tap water and make a big deal out of serving Australian lamb. I get a little frustrated by this sort of ecological wastefulness. But these are minor points and this restaurant really wants you to have a good time, so I am going to forgive them.

And, of course, just after my cat fish was served, the chef came over with a cheeky grin and a bubbling cauldron of macaroni cheese. “I couldn’t let you not try it” he smiled. And I really wished I had packed that extra tummy. It was outstanding; amazing baked cheese lid, with lots of gooey cheese sauce beneath. I was counseled to stir the cheesy topping into the rest of the dish, but I always prefer to munch the topping first, especially the bits where the pasta has peeked out and you get these crispy, cheesy bits. Then you can enjoy the luscious, soft, creamy pasta and cheese sauce afterwards.

Another good mac and cheese, and much closer to me at the moment than Chicago, is at the Avenue Diner in Calgary. Their philosophy is about supporting local farmers and growers and serving really good, simple food to their customers. We couldn’t resist a side order of “Dad’s aged white cheddar mac and cheese” to go with breakfast, although we did forgo the optional truffle essence or marinated chicken. I really think I am going to have to start carrying that extra stomach with me at all times.

Avenue Diner
is at 105 - 8th Avenue S.W. Calgary. (403) 263 - 2673
Table Fifty-Two is at 52 W. Elm Street Chicago. +1 312.573.4000

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