Knife Skills, A Serial Novel – Part 22

Each Friday, the Heavy Table presents a new installment of Knife Skills, a culinary novel presented piece by piece as it’s written. If you’re uncomfortable with salty language, please be aware that characters regularly use words and phrases unacceptable in polite conversation. In the author’s imagination, some members of the food service industry have a tendency to swear. For previous and subsequent installments, visit the Heavy Table’s Fiction directory.

knifeskills_600x160On Finding Something New at the Bottom of the Cereal Bowl
by Arthur Cho

Novelty is one thing — pleasurable for a short time by itself, lacking in substance, and ultimately insubstantial, like a bad chocolate bar. Played-out novelty — novelty that has expired and turned green and fuzzy — is another, entirely pointless thing altogether.

When a food blog (the reliable if ill-named revealed that a shell company of The Gorenfeld Group was opening a breakfast cereal-themed restaurant in New Amsterdam, the rumor was widely regarded as some sort of cruel practical joke perpetuated by one of founder Dale Gorenfeld’s many enemies in the industry. In 1995, such a thing would be plausible, if silly. In 2010, it is, by contrast, merely absurd, if not offensive. The shock quality of a breakfast cereal restaurant is gone, and the only people that might frequent it are tourists from the Middle West, innocent and childlike, asleep equally to savage indifference of life and how completely played out this restaurant concept is.

The rumor is true. The restaurant opened on the Northwest Side last week.

Here’s the kicker: The Last Bit of Milk is an excellent restaurant. It is sophisticated, challenging, entertaining, and every bit the equal of other strong contenders (Driftless, Hank’s Conundrum, Kami) that have opened over the past 12 months.

Kami is mentioned here for a reason. Its opening chef, Robert T. Robertson, managed to turn yet another humdrum Japanese-influenced hipster festival into a minor revelation, awash with authentic flavors; here at The Last Bit of Milk, he works a major miracle, turning what should have been the year’s stupidest and most-lampooned opening into a bona fide success.

The Last Bit of Milk is not, as it turns out, a Costco-like assemblage of bins filled with metric tons of low-grade breakfast cereal. It’s a witty, well-executed prix fixe menu that changes on a weekly basis, incorporating a highbrow / lowbrow roundhouse punch of haute cuisine ingredients and General Mills and Kellogg’s products.

For sweets and desserts, bits of sweet cereal provide crunch, texture, and even complementary flavors, as in the Cocoa Krispie-studded Belgian dark chocolate truffle brownie ($8.50). The Cocoa Krispies give the brownie an airyness and satisfying crunch that is a welcome break from the awesome but truly intimidating heft of the other ingredients.

For mains and starters, the use of cereal is often as a breading or textural accent to sides such as risotto. Corn Flake-breaded fried chicken makes sense, so why not Honey Bunches of Oats-rolled turkey medallions with a lavender-dressed cranberry side salad ($19)? The truth is, this daft idea — this stupid, ridiculous idea — brings more gastronomic surprises to the plate than perhaps any other restaurant I’ve eaten at this year. (Jihad: The Struggle For Great Food may be the one real contender, but that’s mostly my sense of surprise that they haven’t yet been blown up at the suggestion of an irate mullah.)

What Robertson has managed to do with The Last Bit of Milk is nothing short of remarkable — he’s turned a ready-made flop into an offbeat, provocative chic eatery that even the trendiest of New Amsterdammers would be proud to be seen at. Is there novelty at The Last Bit of Milk? Absolutely — the novelty that such a hackneyed idea could be so successfully brought to fruition by the unchained creative mind of an executive chef.

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