Democracy Soup

Making sense out of the world of politics

Barack Obama: Senator, President, restaurant critic

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Originally published on on Sun, 01/18/2009 – 12:19pm

This was the flyer passed out to customers who came to the Hyde Park location of Dixie Kitchen & Bait Shop. Was the place up to the expectations of Barack Obama? Keep reading to find out.

You know Barack Obama in his many roles: U.S. Senator, President-elect, change artist. Now we find out there was a secret role all along: restaurant critic.

As it turns out, then state Sen. Barack Obama was a guest on one of the very first episodes taped of “Check Please,” a show where three average people pick a restaurant, and then the others go to those restaurants, and they come back to a TV studio to discuss what they liked and didn’t like about those dining establishments.

The episode, originally taped on August 14, 2001, had never aired until Friday night when WTTW, Chicago’s primary PBS station, finally aired the program. The station made the previously unaired episode the 100th episode of the program.

And having seen the previous 99 episodes, I felt an obligation to delve further into this previously unknown role.

The producer and creator, David Manilow, has said the episode didn’t originally air because he felt Obama dominated the conversation. That was true, but Obama was trying to help the other guests feel more comfortable. The firefighter on the show seemed particularly nervous and unsure, but he did warm up a little throughout the episode.

At two points in the show, the original host Amanda Puck (yes, sister-in-law of Wolfgang Puck) turned to Obama and asked him questions, knowing she would get good answers. And she did.

The episode suffers a bit because it was one of the first to be taped. It didn’t have the flow that later episodes would have. So perhaps timing was a factor as to not originally air the episode. If Obama’s opponents were wondering if Obama himself was the problem with the episode, there were no signs of that at all. He was incredibly smooth.

Now if you think the show suffered from having a “celebrity” on the program, actually the show has featured quite a few local celebrities on the program. Journalists Rick Kogan, Ray Hanania, Dan Berstein, Terry Armour, and Lucio Guerrero have been featured on the program. If Guerrero’s name sounds familiar, yes, the one-time Sun-Times reporter’s current day job is spokesman for Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.

The show even had an episode featuring three Chicago morning radio personalities Eric Ferguson, Sam Sylk, and Melissa Forman. But perhaps the most nationally famous person on the show before Obama was Steve Wilkos. If you aren’t familiar with Wilkos’ work, he became famous as a bodyguard on the “Jerry Springer” show, and even got his own talk show, “The Steve Wilkos Show.” Wilkos recommended a North Side fondue place in 2005.

And Obama is not the first politician to grace the show. Chicago Aldermen Manny Flores and Walter Burnett, Jr. were on the program. Each recommended a restaurant in their ward (though Flores’ pick coincidentally closed shortly after the episode aired). Obama’s selection, Dixie Kitchen and Bait Shop, was in his Senate district in 2001.

And having seen all the previous episodes, I have been inspired to try out several restaurants based on the recommendations of the panelists. Most have turned out good or okay, but it was always fun to try something different, especially in a city where we have tremendous dining options. And sometimes, they pick a place that I love or at least have been to previously.

In the spirit of the program, I decided to try out Dixie Kitchen and Bait Shop in Hyde Park. Going the day after a restaurant is featured on the program isn’t always a true test of a place. But given the hype involved in this episode, I knew I would likely have a wait (reservations was a topic in the episode), but I didn’t care. I wanted to try out the place.

The restaurant has other locations, and it’s possible I ate at one of them years ago, but I couldn’t honestly remember anything from that time, so it felt brand new to me.

My instinct was to order what Obama ordered back in 2001: the Southern Sampler featuring gumbo, jambalaya, and red beans and rice. The apex would be the peach cobbler, as Obama told us to save room for the cobbler, and not to fill up on the johnnycakes they serve you.

The Hyde Park location is tucked away in a cul-de-sac off a busy stretch in the neighborhood. There are several tiny restaurants clustered together. You can’t stumble upon this place; you have to know it’s there. And that can be a good thing, since the diehards will always show up.

Well, the place was packed, and there was a long wait. The promised wait was 20-25 minutes, and it ended up being 30 minutes. Can’t complain, since well, the circumstances called for it, a Saturday night means extra busy, and seating capacity isn’t large.

During my wait, I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged black woman who said “this was the busiest I’d ever seen it.” I smiled and explained to her why it was so crowded. She did see the tail end of the episode, but hadn’t realized that Dixie Kitchen was part of the program. She ended up getting her food to go, blackened catfish, since her parking meter was running out of time.

Too bad, since she missed a great opportunity. The restaurant was offering a dine-in option: order the Southern Sampler AND a piece of peach cobbler for $9.95. Given that the sampler costs $10.95 normally, the offer was a dollar off AND a free piece of peach cobbler.

And I was getting hungry for that peach cobbler as I saw it being served on numerous tables. I almost could have had just the cobbler for dinner.

After my 30-minute wait, I was ready for the experience. The kitschy décor was a nice touch, and went well with the theme of the South, especially nice since we have had a cold winter.

My waiter came over, and I got right to the point: “I’ll take the Presidential Sampler.” Then I got the bad news. He explained that they were starting to pull that since they had just run out of peach cobbler. I asked him to go to the back and try to bring me a piece, saying I’ll take my dessert now. I would have gladly eaten it first.

He went back and returned dessert-free. “Nope, we’re out.” I was a little surprised, but he explained that they had sold 300 pieces of peach cobbler that day (this was just before 7 p.m.).

I wasn’t happy not so much that they had run out of peach cobbler (even though it was only 7), but that they were still promoting a deal in the front and not warning potential customers that this was going to disappear. But perhaps, they were really not prepared to run out or had no idea the response would be so huge.

The restaurant did try to take advantage of the extra publicity, hawking T-Shirts for $16.50 using Obama’s words on the T-shirt: “The price is right and the portions are good.” So they were ready for something.

But back to the food. The complimentary johnnycakes (corn pancakes) were warm and went nicely with the butter served alongside them. Since I wasn’t getting a peach cobbler, I did go a little nuts with them, despite Obama’s warning.

The sampler had a cup of gumbo, flanked by a small serving of jambalaya on the left and red beans and rice on the right. The gumbo and jambalaya were both served on white rice, and the meal came with a corn muffin.

The gumbo had the right amount of spice for my palette (I like it spicy). I could have eaten 3-4 bowls of the gumbo. The jambalaya was okay, a little bland for my tastes. The Andouille sausage seems tamer than I thought it would be. The red beans and rice were even tamer than the jambalaya.

Did I get value for the price as Obama promised? Obviously, the prices have gone up since 2001, but for $10.95, I thought it was an okay value. There was a lot of rice left unfinished by me, but there was a lot of rice to start, and if you ate all the rice, you would be even more full.

I did go to the front to ask about the missing peach cobbler. The first manager I dealt with said he couldn’t help me out. I said all I wanted was a certificate for a free piece since, well, that is what was promised. The second manager handed me a business card, saying we’ll take care of you. The business card, on the back, read “1 Free Peach Cobbler.” I said thank you, and pleasantly went on my way.

After I left, I realized that the deal was for $9.95, not $10.95, so I ended up paying a dollar more and still not getting the cobbler.

It’s difficult to judge a place the day after being on a TV show, especially one with this magnitude of having the next president of the United States on the program. I came away with an overall mixed impression. Overall, the Southern Sampler was a good way to try the place out, but if I came back, I could see myself ordering the gumbo and the blackened catfish on my next visit.

But I was still hankering for that peach cobbler.


Written by democracysoup

January 18, 2009 at 12:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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