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Your Friday Food Buffet

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Mar 23, 2007 4:34PM

2007_03_soul_food.JPEGThis week's theme: soul food, y'all. We ate enough of it last week to pine for the days of Ms. Biscuit on South Chicago Avenue (located next door to Mr. Biscuit's Hand Car Wash and Auto Detail). Here we go.

City Mouse: Chef Gilbert Langlois (Rushmore, SushiSamba Rio) describes his new North Center-based concept Chalkboard as "new American cuisine," drawing inspiration from French country, classic Southern, and the less spicy elements of Creole for his menu. The dining room, with a namesake chalkboard listing specials, wine lists, and regular menu items, is reminiscent of something from the antebellum South. Langlois has made a commitment to sustainability, rotating menu items dependent on season, free range, availability of ingredients, and added green touches like solar-powered address numbering.

The problem with Chalkboard (4343 N. Lincoln, 773-477-7144, open 5-10 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays through Saturdays, Sunday Brunch 11 a.m. - 3 p.m.) is that the entrees have no flavor balance. It works for a place like SushiSamba Rio (where people go to be seen more than anything else), but detracts from the chill atmosphere Langlois is cultivating here. Southern fried chicken - a boneless half-bird save for the pin wing - was overwhelmed by an overseasoned white sausage gravy that muted the earthy texture of prefectly cooked collard greens. Roast pork tenderloin was salty, served with an apple cider-marinated corn that completely masked the flavor of the maize. With an average price of $22 an entree, Chalkboard left a taste in our mouth as unsatisfying as the lavendar yogurt served with our organic berry dessert plate. It's a shame because Langlois is a sincere, likable chef who truly cares about his customers with a proven track record in Chicago. We hope our visit to Chalkboard was more a case of Langlois working out the kinks and not what should be expected.

Country Mouse: By contrast, our visit this week to Barbara's Soul Food in Bronzeville (353-1/2 E. 51st St., 773-624-0087, open 6 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 6 a.m. - 2 p.m. Sunday) was a revelation. Owner and restaurant namesake Barbara Manley has been in business for "six, seven years. Something like that." The comfort level here is similar to walking into the kitchen of a little old lady. The dining area is no-nonsense, painted in a farmhouse red, decorated with dollar store knick-knacks and Santa Claus placemats on the worn Formica counter, and we were confronted with an autographed picture of Steve Harvey and his Chiclet teeth taped to a mirror. The food is amazing; ribs here slide off the bone, and everything here comes with buttered corn muffins. Unsweetened corn muffins. Menu items are also posted on a wall, written in careful block print, and at one-tenth the cost of our Chalkboard bill the value of our meal stood out even further.

Barbara's is located a few blocks away from Dorothy Tillman's tribute to herself/den of nepotism and patronage, aka The Harold Washington Cultural Center, but that stretch of 51st Street, like everything else in Tillman's ward not within a half-block of the center, is still in need of some serious development. A place like Barbara's would normally be a lynchpin to neighborhood revitalization; if Manley's restaurant was on the north side the lines would be out the door and around the block. It's this lack of attention to the rest of the 3rd Ward that has Manley hanging posters for Pat Dowell, Tillman's opponent in next month's runoff election, in her front window. Located just steps from the Green Line "L" station, it's worth a trip out south.

Personal Accountability, or Appeasement: Chicagoist had the opportunity of chatting with Cyrano's Bistrot owner/chef Didier Durand the other night, where he was catering an event we attended. Sadly, he didn't bring any foie gras. We bring this up because anyone being fed by Wolfgang Puck in the near future won't have the option of dining on the contraband delicacy. The Associated Press (via the Tribune) reports today that Puck has decided to remove it from his restaurants and catering operations (including cafes in Evanston and the MCA), along with committing to using free range eggs, poultry, and veal, lobsters that have been removed from traps before being transported to holding tanks, and more vegetarian options. The change comes after years of protests by these folks; there are probably some chicken littles out there who'll say that Puck's new measures aren't enough.

This is the type of debate that a ban on foie gras does not encourage. It should always be a matter of personal accountability, although it's unsure how influential the gangs of leaflet-passing protestors outside Puck's restaurants also played a hand in the decision. Chefs can choose what they serve and where they get their ingredients; diners can choose where they eat. Distinguished food writers like Ruhlman and Bourdain have long written about the abhorrent conditions of mass-market farms where animals are packed tighter than salmon. The city's foie gras ban only removes the focus from the larger picture. That reminds us; you are attending the EXPO this weekend, right?

Face Down in Cabo!: Mötley Crüe frontman Vince Neil is getting into the premium tequila market. He'll be at Binny's Lakeview this evening from 6-7 p.m. signing bottles of his new premium tequila, Tres Rios. It's nice to see Neil investing that reunion tour money wisely.

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