Anya Von Bremzen recently wrote a piece in Food & Wine inquiring whether, with all the high end chefs slumming at the low end these days, we really need the pomp and circumstance of jacket-required, high-end fine dining anymore. She'd started thinking that we didn't, but then a meal at Laurent Gras' super sleek seafood boutique L20 threw her in a tailspin.
I can't say I haven't pondered the same thing many a time after a gross of cider glazed pork rinds and fish stew at Paul Kahan's Publican or a perfectly roast chicken at Rob and Allison Levitt's Mado here in Chicago. After all, after getting full on fabulous, though rustically prepared, tasty food, I didn't even have to loosen the belt on my otherwise comfortable jeans, a feat my dress pants have required after more than a few multi-course extravaganzas.
That being said, one of Von Bremzen's arguments for preserving fine dining is that the high end places, by virtue of their cost models, allow for experimentation and refinement at the highest level. The plates that come out at the high end inform the low end and lead to better dining experiences all around.
On initial review I started thinking about Hot Doug's, The Sausage Superstore, which I've always believed straddled both worlds with their duck fat fried fries and foie gras dogs, and wondered if that argument really held. Doug's has always been one of my favorite spots in Chicago and I've always found it supremely satisfying, almost as much as a meal at Alinea or something comparable. You got great taste, emotional impact, and an inspiring dining experience in the kitschy tchotchke-laden dining room, even if you do have to sorta serve yourself.
Then I ate the Chicago Style Lobster Dog by Phillip Foss of Lockwood. Foss's dog was a response to Menupages Chicago food blogger Helen Rosner's call to arms and query as to why no high-end chef had deconstructed the basic Windy City Salad dog. Foss unveiled a creamy casing-less dog made with diced lobster folded into a scallop mousse, seasoned with smoked paprika, cayenne, and tarragon, and topped with juicy teardrop-shaped pear tomato slices, a perfect brunoise of sweated leeks, green pepper curls, and saffron-ginger beurre blanc, all nestled in a super-toasty potato bun.
Not only was it a revelation in terms of taste, delicacy, and balance (or as I put it on Twitter: It was as if Hot Doug dressed up in a tuxedo and had sex with a Maine lobster roll), but it solved some of the problems with the original. Everyone knows it's almost impossible to eat a Chicago dog without having condiment overload and having to eventually deconstruct the thing and eat the pickle, tomato, etc., in separate bites. Foss's ratios, on the other hand, were perfect, and fine dining or not, you could easily pick the whole thing up and shove it in your mouth.
After eating the lobster dog, the truth was there's nothing at Hot Doug's this well balanced and elegant. They way I thought of it is Hot Doug's gourmet sausages and Foss's Lobster Dog are both Brad Pitt (which is odd because I'm a relatively straight dude), but whereas Foss' is the super clean cut Pitt in Meet Joe Black, Doug's sausages in comparison are a little like the skuzzier rough-edged, though still sexy Pitt in Kalifornia.
Bottom line though is that Foss has the kitchen chops, the time, and the ability to something that's truly different and inspiring because of the resources at Lockwood that Doug, as skilled as he is, doesn't when he's got a line beating down the door expecting to pay no more than $8 a sausage everyday at 10 a.m. That being said, both experiences are worthwhile and both have their place.