Sunday, November 12, 2006

Chefly Politics Chicago Copperblue

When chefs imagine themselves politicos, watch out. Bad enough that Arnold, Rosie, Mel, Barbra and Tom are on our case, but Grant and Charlie? Entering the new Streeterville restaurant, Copperblue, one finds - where mints are often stationed - a bowl of campaign buttons, advertising Chef Michael Tsonton's belief that Chicago's foie gras ban should be overturned, and Alderman Joe Moore, up there with Kim Jung Il on the axis of evil, should be routed in our municipal elections. Chef Tsonton serves "‘it isn't foie gras any Moore' duck liver terrine with pomegranate jelly, warm sweet pepper salad, cinnamon vinaigrette, and country bread," a concoction that reads as unappealing as Moore's resolution. We received an invitation to a fund-raiser sponsored Chicago Chefs for Choice to help defeat the bad guy Moore (November 17th: at Copperblue; $150 per). I had expected that chefs for choice were lobbying for fetuses on the menu, stem cells without the medical middleman.

Not to worry, chef. There still are kittens, tender when stomped as vigorously as if they were Cabernet. Societies (government, religions, ethnic associations) routinely decide collectively what foods are to served and which are to be avoided. That Chicago bans foie gras places liver in the same category as ortolans, absinthe, and the pancreas of supermodels. Food is morality on the plate.

Copperblue, recently opened near Chicago's Navy Pier, has received considerable buzz. The Tribune's Phil Vettel awarded the restaurant three stars, suggesting that foodies place the restaurant their culinary map. For those visiting Navy Pier or the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Copperblue, located in a nearby apartment building, should be on the map. Visitors to the pier were limited to Riva, a seafood house, which provides competently prepared food among the fast food and casual cuisine choices.

The claim that Copperblue is a three-star restaurant did not accord with my recent visit with some friends ($90/person, including cocktails, wine, three courses, tax, and tip). Copperblue is one of the least prepossessing luxe restaurants in town. One can spy the ductwork, not part of Eurostyle industrial decorating, but a result of the obdurate limits of its physical space. The paintings by Cleveland artist Paul Schuster, depicting the theme of "work and play," were pleasant enough in their heartland-friendly style.

Service was fully competent, although I was startled by how casually the waitstaff were outfitted. Stuffy they were not. For a mid-range restaurant one could not complain about shirts not fully tucked and outfits seemingly from the back of the closet, but if Copperblue wishes to compete with nearby Tru or Les Nomades, the staff must appear professional as well as be professional.

And the food. Chef Tsonton (and his chef de cuisine Victor Newgren) revere Mediterranean cuisine, the flavors of Iberia, the Midi, and the Casbah. Even when I enjoyed the creations, I felt that a bit more plagiarism might have sparked the plate. Tsonton and Newgren divide the appetizer and entree menus into "work" and "play." It is difficult to ascertain their division - or for the server to explain it. Dishes closer to a molecular, modernist cuisine seem to be considered play. But lamb kidneys in alfalfa with mustard cream is "work" while a "simple salad with a warm oven roasted fall vegetable ‘crepenette'" is play. The best predictor of whether a dish was work or play was whether an ingredient was in quotation marks (a nasty little habit I blame on Thomas Keller). No dish in the work category used quotation marks, but all but one in the play category did, including the unhappy "it isn't foie gras any Moore." Punctuation has replaced gustatory vision.

As appetizer, my wife selected the season's soup, cream of artichoke (work), I chose "Smoked Squid-Scallop mousse ravioli, walnut gelée, Tellicherry pepper cream" (play), and a friend opted for "‘ham & these' crispy saffron and Spanish ham rice croquettes with sofrito fondue" (play). [Sofrito is vegetable accompaniment, a Spanish cross between mirapoix and salsa]. The artichoke soup (with a soupcon of sofrito) was righteously smooth and intense. Creating silky cream soup is a skill that every fine chef must have, and Tsonton and Newgren do. While this was not the season that smoky artichokes are available at the farmer's market, it brought playful smiles all around. The ravioli was the highpoint of the meal. I loved how the squid mousse added a pungency to the mild scallop. Instead of sweet'n'sour, this was subtle'n'ardent. The plate was petite, more a tease in a ten course tasting menu than a main appetizer, but the artistry was evident. In contrast the croquettes, perched on thin rounds of apple, were pedestrian. Far more generous than the ravioli, my companion felt no desire to clean her plate, and I, the recipient of a croq, had no desire to help. The ham wasn't intense, and what the "heck" is "ham & these," a pun without flavor.

Entrees consisted of "ragout of lamb confit, artichokes, grilled fennel, fennel puree and sweet wine vinegar" (work) and "organic duck 2-ways: duck leg spice ‘ras el hanout,' roasted duck breast, candied cauliflower, kabocha squash, and vanilla-lemon balm vinegar foam" (play). Surprisingly Chef Tsonton had removed his signature "lobster poached in butter and rue with herb-filled whitefish roulade and warm caviar gelée." That a new restaurant would excise a dish that had been receiving glowing evaluations seemed a strange choice. The lamb was a study of browns and greys, lacking in eye-appeal. Might this be what Chef Tsonton means by work? But the taste was pleasing throughout. I admired the play of fennel "two-ways" with the rich lamb. Perhaps work referred to the beige food, but not the flavor.

The duck leg was another highpoint, crisp and redolent of the souk. Spices might have been more intense, but the duck made the plate alive. In contrast to the leg, the duck breast was unmemorable (as were several crescents of Kabocha squash), sweetened by the joyously candied cauliflower. Today the claim to serve foam has such cachet that chefs claim it, even when a light sauce lacks foamy bubbles. Vanilla-lemon balm vinegar foam falls beneath its own verbiage, more oddity than accomplishment.

The taste that I had of the "Mediterranean spearfish," poached with "popeye" olive oil [get control, chef] with piperade (Basque sofrito?), and warm spinach soup didn't impel me to try a second; it too was left unfinished.

Desserts proved disappointing, neither was finished. "Hazelnut Milk Chocolate Cream with Espresso Cake, Cappuccino Ice Cream, and Cinnamon Syrup" might have kept one up all night, but not because of delighted memories. It was bakery-average. "The Bosc" - a vanilla and Chardonnay poached pear with brown butter cream, puff pastry with amaretto ice cream was more successful, even if the puff pastry didn't measure up. Desserts seem an afterthought at Copperblue with the exception of the closing amuse, a nifty coconut tapioca pudding with chocolate crisp, more compelling than its sibs.

Copperblue has the virtue of location. When attending Shakespeare or an art fair at Navy Pier, Chef Tsonton's cuisine deserves consideration. Several dishes were compelling and delightful. The restaurant is worthy of two stars with its two-star prices. It is a notable new restaurant. But in its current incarnation, the restaurant seems unwilling or unable to be a premier restaurant (and here, of course, the price point matters). Perhaps Chef Tsonton is distracted by the politics of his larder, slighting the aesthetics of our plates.

580 East Illinois
Chicago (Streeterville)