Santorini – The Case for Local Food

July 7, 2009 at 9:12 am

Rob Gardner

Sunday found this Local Family assigned to deliver the “Project Sandwich” lunches put together monthly by Oak Park Temple members.  After drop-off, we sought lunch.  The Local Mom vetoed the nearby Billy Goat Tavern.  We drove slightly more east, ending at Greektown.  A sidewalk lunch seemed the way to celebrate the last of the holiday weekend.  We chose old favorite, Santorini.

I’ve been around the food block long enough to remember when Santorini was the hep kid on the block.  In fact they were so hep, they were not even on the block.  You had to turn the corner of Halsted to find this place that intended to upscale Greektown.  There was a charcoal grill (there still is) and whole fish for said grill.   And what else, well I cannot remember.  I just remember Santorini was the upscale place, the non-cliche place.  Over the years, I’ve had many good meals there, including a memorable late night post-Berghoff, when the Berghoff was the Berghoff, extravaganza with ur-chowhounds ReneG and El Panzone.  It has been a while though, and in that while, I’ve filled up on local foods.

Some of the Local Family enjoyed lunch.  To me, I enjoyed best how Santorini made the case for local food.  What I’m getting at, obviously, the raw materials used at Santorni just did hold up very well.  What could have been a very good meal was just a meal of mediocrity.  Moreover, it was nearly the exact meal that a few years ago would have satisfied me deeply.  Now, with Greek salads on my table often, I wonder when I will have the need to return to Santorini.  I mean even my kids noticed that the zucchini tasted watery and flat.  No one would touch the tomatoes.  The namesake salad, where a hidden cache of marinated potatoes and carrots used to so hit the spot, on this trip, came across as empty calories.  Eggplant salad, an odd shade of green, yes green, tasted of, well I guess, of green eggplants.  It was so clear that Santorini did not pick up any of the vegetables for their dishes at any place resembling a farmer’s market.  This is why we eat local.  Our food has vibrancy.  As I say a lot, it tastes alive.  Shop at the market and you will know what I mean.  It tastes nothing like Santorini.

Now, if you take any peek into the Chicago foodie scene, you will know that Santorini is old hat.  Just as much part of the old school as any other place on or off of Halsted.  They flame the cheese there too.  They serve no such thing at Taxim.  Taxim did not just turn the corner from its Greektown brethren, it ran way off to Wicker Park.  Taxim’s gryros are duck.  It has wowed.  I have yet to sample Taxim.  I do wonder, I really do, if it will help or hurt Santorini in the case for local food.  I look at at Taxim menu.  I see ramps now.  Ramps.  Now?  I see “roasted seasonal peppers” and I wonder who’s season.  This is not local food.  In fact one of the Taxim raves mentions that they reject local okra in favor of tinier okra that they import from Egypt.  And you know what, no one seems to be complaining.

Yet I wonder.  I wonder how can these Egyptian okra beat local okra when our okra is so far from harvest.  Everyone seems to like the eggplant at Taxim, but where did Taxim get eggplant different than Santorini.  Same with the zuchinni.  I know a careful hand and a good recipe can do a lot.  I’ve surely enjoyed meals at places like Semiramis, Khan BBQ, Tank, Mizrahi, La Quebrada, where the sourcing was not farmer’s market.  Yet, as much as I’ve liked those meals, I’ve been deeply in the mood for more.  I annoy my wife constantly with the “what if” game.  One trip around the menu at Santorini convinced me more than ever, that if someone could make this food with the same types of raw materials that show up weekly in my CSA box, they’d have something special on their hands.