At The Duck Inn in Bridgeport for brunch, we ordered fried cheese curds. This traditional low-end and usually not very good bar food is frequently previously frozen, shrouded in dense breading: the kind of thing you slam down with your beer and then hate yourself for eating.
There is no reason, however, why this standard bar snack should not be excellent, and the chances of them being excellent are much more favorable when curds are prepared in the kitchen of a chef like Kevin Hickey, formerly at Allium and now at Duck Inn and Bottlefork in Chicago.
In the hands of Hickey, the curds were wrapped in a very light tempura batter, fried perfectly, served with Bloody Mary Ketchup and Hoppy Mayo, draped with thinly sliced celery, gorgeous. Appearances aside, this was a wonderful preparation, with fresh curds and a light-hand in the fryer, they were eaten quickly (which is definitely the way to go, as tempura unlike breading loses heat fast).
I asked Hickey about the rational for including the Bloody Mary-influenced ketchup and the hoppy flavored mayo, and he explained, “In Wisconsin where I went to school, we lived across the street from a bar called The Buck: Silver Dollar Saloon. We’d go every Sunday morning and have cheese curds and a Bloody Mary. And in Wisconsin, you always get a beer back with your Bloody Mary. So we came up with the Bloody Mary Ketchup, which contains all the seasonings you’d find in the drink: horseradish, tabasco; we even put vodka in ours. The Hoppy Mayo complements the acidity in the sauce, and has the flavors of the beer back.”
Hickey has put a lot of thought toward the perfection of food that’s generally disrespected. It worked beautifully.
There’s a tendency among fancy chefs to gussy up humble foods. For instance, Bellissima, a Manhattan restaurant, has offered a $1,000 pizza with six different types of caviar; it’s hard to believe anyone has actually ordered this pie (seems like a huge waste of caviar). Some place in Vegas is offering a $5,000 hamburger, with an unappetizingly large slab of foie gras on top. To me, it all feels like a con, or an invitation to be an ostentatious and tasteless consumer.
Anyway, what I like about the cheese curds at The Duck Inn is that they’re basically just good cheese (from Nordic Creamery, which has a stand at the Oak Park Farmer’s Market), battered and fried with some well-prepared condiments, and not hugely expensive ($8 bucks for enough to please two diners). Most importantly, these fried cheese curds were done respectfully, in a way that didn’t fundamentally alter the bar-food personality of the food, but that definitely made them just about as good as is humanly possible.